Columns » Max Brantley

Tiny ACORNs

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ACORN, the community organization founded more than three decades ago in Little Rock, took formal steps last week toward the dissolution of the national organization.

Already rocked by its own internal problems, the national organization was done in with stunning speed by right-wing dirty tricksters who posed as pimp and prostitute to receive assistance from ACORN in a government-funded counseling program.

The tricksters' videos were doctored to maximum effect and exculpatory footage was excluded. No review has yet found criminal violations by ACORN. But the damage was done. A timid Congress ended small but crucial federal financial support and, with it, a worthy organization.

The good news is that ACORN chapters grew resilient, if lean, in many locations, including Little Rock. Its work will continue under similar organizations with new names. It won't be easy, but ACORN was never a lavishly funded organization. It worked at the grassroots and empowered poor and minority people who found loud voices in corporate boardrooms and government halls.

Arkansas Community Organizations will be the successor to ACORN here. It leases space in the old ACORN headquarters building, a house near downtown. The ACORN-established KABF community radio station still operates as an independent entity. I suspect other ACORN remnants will be similarly reborn elsewhere.

Neil Sealy, formerly of ACORN, is now executive director of ACO. He has one other full-time employee and three part-timers. An advisory committee of substantive local people continues — PR man Bob Sells, eternal activist and academic Jim Lynch, lawyer John Burnett, peace activist Jean Gordon, AFL-CIO leader Alan Hughes, former Judge Wendell Griffen, Quorum Court member Wilandra Dean. I suspect ACO will find continued support in the charitable community in the months ahead.

Top priority for the little group lately has been working in the health care reform campaign. Education efforts also continue on the need for clean air legislation to respond to climate change. Predatory lending also is a priority.

Sealy hopes the group can eventually resume its program of helping low-income people file tax returns and claim tax credits, critical money for the working poor. ACORN helped almost 1,000 people get refunds last year.

I presume voter registration will be on the to-do list, too. This, more than anything, earned the anger of Republicans. ACORN was known and welcomed in poor and minority communities. It registered tens of thousands of voters. They did NOT tend to vote Republican. ACORN was so successful that Republicans launched smear campaigns against the registration efforts, virtually all unfounded. Paid canvassers inevitably will include some cheats, but the cheating was invariably detected and reported by ACORN itself. No vote fraud was ever found.

ACORN shocked the establishment in its infancy, with noisy demonstrations in somber bank lobbies and utility offices. The group had a way of getting the attention — and under the skin — of the aging, suited white men at such places. ACORN famously came close, through a stealth campaign for lightly contested offices, to taking over the Pulaski County governing body, which, before constitutional reform, numbered more than 450 members.

ACORN of yore afflicted not only comfortable people, but also comfortable (and tired) conventional thinking. It's still at it.

A message from successor ACO's Facebook page this week said: "Buyer Beware! The US Chamber of Commerce is running slick ads against finanial reform. They're all for bailing out Wall Street, but are dead set against passing reforms that protect Main Street from loan sharks."

So true. So needed. May a thousand new acorns take root.

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