The (not so) bad seed

The night before Barack Obama’s final presidential debate with John McCain, one of Michelle McClelen’s friends called to suggest a debate drinking game.

The idea was that every time a candidate uttered the word “ACORN,” you’d down a shot. McClelen, 33, is the legislative director for the Texas branch of ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, and she begged off the game because she doubted that the presidential hopefuls would devote valuable air time to a discussion of problems at her organization, at a time when the United States was wrestling with a financial meltdown, deepening recession, and two wars.

The following night, McClelen sat dumbfounded in front of her TV while McCain ripped into Obama for past voter-drive associations with ACORN, an organization that McCain accused of being “on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.”

By the end of the night, McClelen determined that had she joined her friend’s drinking game, she would have wound up so plastered she “wouldn’t have made it to work the next day.”

Although ACORN has spent the last 38 years helping low- and middle-income families with problems as big as home foreclosures and as small as neighborhood speed bumps, for many Americans the 2008 campaign marked the first time they’d ever heard of it. And while ACORN members would like to think that their organization commands some political pull, they’d never claim that its power is awesome enough to shred “the fabric of democracy.”

Seizing on investigations in 12 states over dubious voter-registration forms submitted by ACORN, Republicans depicted the group as a partisan, liberal machine hiding behind the banner of a non-profit community organization. Conservative media pundits delighted in mocking brazenly fraudulent ACORN registrations, which ranged from the names of the Dallas Cowboys’ starting lineup to Walt Disney cartoon characters. By election day, “ACORN” had practically become a synonym for “corruption.”

San Antonio’s ACORN office only has three staff members, and they devote most of their limited manpower to issues such as foreclosure prevention and neighborhood outreach. In fact, the office only registered 15 voters this year. But that didn’t stop the attacks from coming in.

McClelen says the South Zarzamora office periodically received phone calls loaded with racial slurs, and Jacob Castrejana, 24, took a call from a male prankster who sarcastically asked if they could register him 27 times, because that’s how often he wanted to vote. A middle-aged woman came into the office one day and started venting at the staff, saying she wanted to make sure no illegal activity was occurring there. “She eventually identified herself as a local member of the Republican Party,” Castrejana says. “And she started saying that she worked herself and she didn’t ask anybody for a handout.’’ Even their mailman got in a few lighthearted jabs.

To be sure, ACORN the national entity has brought some of this scorn upon itself. Complaints had gradually built over the last few election cycles that ACORN volunteers (who contrary to rumor, are paid a wage that is not based on the number of registered names they submit) padded their voter-registration lists with duplications and false registrations obviously pulled from phone books. And ACORN opened itself up to allegations of a coverup with the June announcement that Dale Rathke, brother of ACORN founder Wade Rathke, embezzled nearly $1 million in organization funds in 1999 and 2000. Even some ACORN board members asked why it took so many years for this scandal to reach the public.

In response to the Rathke embarrassment, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, a key ACORN donor over the last decade, suspended more than $1 million in promised grants to ACORN affiliates.

“`ACORN has` well over 50 organizations — some for-profit, some non-profit, some partisan, some non-partisan — and they pass money, often taxpayer money, between these organizations,” says Tim Miller, spokesman for the conservative Employment Policies Institute. “It allows them to cloak their activities and use government money improperly.”

ACORN has been tarred and feathered with such relentless precision this year, they’ve become a sleazy media abstraction that has little to do with the demanding grassroots work put in by staffers such as McClelen and Castrejana. As a result, few people outside the ACORN umbrella know that the organization helps the IRS every year by providing centers where people can get their tax forms done for free; that they partnered with contractors to rebuild New Orleans homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina; that they mediate with lenders to help families save their homes from foreclosure; that they knock on doors to inform people about GED and job-training programs; that they prod local officials to bring street lights, improved drainage, and police patrols to low-income neighborhoods that otherwise have no political clout.

For that matter, John McCain seemed to forget that he’d been the keynote speaker at a 2006 immigration rally hosted by ACORN, a fact that motivated ACORN’s chief national organizer Bertha Lewis to suggest that the Arizona senator “was for ACORN before he was against ACORN.”

ACORN’s emergence as a political piñata this year also obscured the deeper issues behind the voter-registration imbroglio. As ACORN officials took pains to point out, this was not “voter fraud” but “voter-registration fraud,” the difference being that no one was stuffing the ballot box, they were merely stuffing election rolls with names of people who would not actually vote. That doesn’t make it defensible, but it hardly amounts to a constitutional crisis. Secondly, a fraud was perpetrated on ACORN, not by them, in the sense that ACORN paid workers to register voters, and many of those workers didn’t get the job done. ACORN was legally obligated to submit all of its registrations, no matter how suspicious, to election officials, and in doing so, they made a point to flag any that they considered questionable.

As Obama prepares for his inauguration and the flamethrower rhetoric of the 2008 election recedes into memory, the question is how lasting the damage will be to ACORN. Will the organization be a quickly forgotten electoral footnote or a permanently scarred, non-profit pariah?

McClelen spends much of her time networking with state legislators, trying to push legislation that will protect the rights of owners in danger of losing their homes. Her office wall contains a board on which she’s written the names of key legislators she needs to contact. Thus far, she hasn’t noticed a move by state officials to distance themselves from ACORN.

“Our name recognition is up,” she jokes. “The response has been positive. They may ask some clarifying questions, but a clarifying answer relaxes a lot of those concerns.”

McClelen’s clarifying answers tend to emphasize that ACORN is solid and well-intentioned at the core, and that its problems are consistent with those experienced by all entities with a large payroll.

“Some people are dishonest,” McClelen says. “You hire someone to work at a department store, and some people will shoplift. They just will. In any work place, you can’t prevent that 100-percent. But I think that we have a very sophisticated quality-control process. Nine times out of 10, any card the media showed you was something we said was not a valid card when we turned it in. Why it becomes the only thing that people can talk about on Fox News, I don’t understand that.”

When McClelen talked with her classmates at Stanford University, she never doubted her own smarts. But she always recognized that they’d benefitted from some educational advantages not available to her.

“The exposure to other things; they played other sports that I didn’t even know were sports — like fencing — and they had passports at the age of 18,” she recalls with a laugh. “It really sealed for me how important it was that I do something to make it easier for other people who come from a poor background to expand their opportunities.”

Humble and self-deprecating, McClelen rarely misses an opportunity to poke fun at herself. She speaks slowly and carefully in a high, soft voice, often pausing to reevaluate her own thoughts. Inevitably, she becomes emotional whenever she ponders the needs of lower-income families in San Antonio.

McClelen grew up on the West Side and graduated from Jefferson High School. She was one of six children raised in HUD-subsidized housing by a mother with an eighth-grade education who spoke no English. With help from her siblings and study groups formed by her friends, she excelled in her classes, and qualified for a generous financial-aid package at Stanford. But she knew that many people like her weren’t making it through the school system.

After graduating with a degree in an Environmental Studies concentration called Earth Systems (“I did a pretty big research project on environmental-justice issues and environmental racism”), she decided to stay in the Bay Area and help tutor underprivileged, Spanish-speaking kids living in East Palo Alto, California, a Latino-dominated, blue-collar community right next to the impossibly affluent Palo Alto.

In 2001, with her younger sister pregnant, for the first time in seven years she felt the tug of her hometown. “I already had five nieces and nephews who didn’t know me so well because I had gone away to school,” she says. “My family was important to me and I really wasn’t a part of it anymore.”

As she packed up all of her belongings in her car and drove back to SA with her mother, she had no plan other than a desire to work for a non-profit. After a short temp stint with an insurance company, McClelen noticed a newspaper ad for ACORN, which had opened its local office only four months before.

“The office was brand-new, so I did very basic membership building and chapter building,” she says. “I would go down in the street in the neighborhoods that we had targeted, knock on people’s doors, ask to sit down in their living rooms, find out what kind of issues they were concerned about, and ask them to join an organization that wants to address those issues.”

ACORN is valuable to other organizations (such as the locally run job program Project Quest, with which it often partners) primarily because it has the capacity to connect people living in housing complexes and working-class neighborhoods — many of whom don’t have phones or computers — with programs that those residents would never find out about otherwise.

Making the necessary neighborhood connections is endless, often thankless grunt work. Castrejana currently does most of the door-knocking for the local office, and he recently spent several days at the 500-unit Cassiano Homes project, trying to sign up unemployed residents for a job-info session run by Project Quest.

Tall and thin, with the back of his frizzy, long black hair wrapped up in a bun, and his arms sporting large tattoos, Castrejana moved to SA from Houston to attend Our Lady of the Lake University, but financial-aid obstacles temporarily have him at San Antonio

The Cassiano Homes project has been an SA institution for 50 years and it’s oddly divorced from most measures of time. The ice-cream truck faithfully circles around its streets, clothes lines and barbecue pits litter the yards, and air-conditioning units stick out of the front windows. The murals that bookend each of its buildings focus on classic Chicano spiritual iconography, and its spartan, uniform décor hasn’t changed in decades.

Castrejana carries a clipboard with a list of everyone who said they would attend the last Project Quest job session, but didn’t make it. He patiently knocks on each of their doors, calmly giving each person the same information and handing them a flier.

After three years of this kind of shoe-leather outreach, he’s learned to scope out neighborhoods. He immediately recognizes what basic services they’re lacking. He recalls a membership-organizing drive on the West Side, in which he immediately observed that one street didn’t have sidewalks or streetlights. “But in talking to people, we realized that they didn’t even want that,” he says. “What they really wanted more than anything else was just more police patrol in the area.”

ACORN contacted Police Chief William McManus, who agreed to come out for a Saturday-morning neighborhood meeting. After talking with neighbors, McManus met their demands for enhanced police protection. ACORN didn’t solve the problem itself, but it was the facilitator between the solution and the people in need of that solution. At their best, ACORN organizers function like lobbyists for the working class.

Castrejana’s first experiences with ACORN came in early 2006, when he went to New Orleans for a canvassing campaign in the well-heeled Garden District — which had emerged from Hurricane Katrina relatively unscathed. Castrejana asked for money to help rebuild homes in the city’s impoverished neighborhoods. He quickly learned how unpredictable door-to-door fundraising can be. In one case, he’d barely blurted out five words when a woman sat down and wrote him a $200 check. In another case, he visited a home with a “Rebuild New Orleans” flag outside, and had a door slammed in his face.

Over the next six months, he made six trips to the Crescent City, often taking part in the gutting-and-rebuilding process himself. He’s learned to handle a wide range of emotionally taxing experiences: A woman answering the door in tears because she’d just received her eviction notice; a man greeting him with a shotgun in hand; and the Murphy’s Law of community outreach, which states that no one warns you where the neighborhood drug dealer lives until after you’ve already knocked on his door.

While conducting a local campaign to collect information from anyone who’d received a deceptive, predatory loan from New Century Financial Corp., he met Teresa and Edward Molina, a couple who’d raised nearly 20 foster children and now faced the threat of home foreclosure.

When ACORN received word from the Obama campaign that the presidential candidate wanted to host a San Antonio roundtable discussion on America’s mortgage crisis, the organiation helped provide them with names of local people who’d been affected by the issue. On February 19, when Obama came to the Guadalupe Theater, he was joined at the table by the Molinas, as well as ACORN’s McClelen.

McClelan had just returned to the ACORN staff after spending a year taking care of a sick family member. When told that she’d be meeting Obama, she could only respond: “OK, if you say so.”

While she says the half-hour roundtable remains a blur to her, she was impressed with the way Obama’s training as a Chicago community organizer revealed itself in the moments leading up to the event.

“Community organizers prep people for events, and like a true community organizer, he brought us back and set the stage for us: ‘This is what’s going to happen, and if there’s anything else you’d like to talk to me about, feel free to bring it up when I ask if there’s anything else you’d like to talk about while we’re here.’ I felt so honored to have been prepped by the community organizer that made all community organizers famous.

“He was exactly the same backstage as he was onstage. I wouldn’t say that’s true about the majority `of politicians` that I have met. We got to observe him, even while we were waiting to meet, and he seemed like exactly the same person the whole time.”

While the Obama campaign ultimately downplayed his history with ACORN (which included participating with the organization in a 1992 Project Vote drive), their true connection is a shared strategic approach. ACORN works from the bottom up, with staffers signing up members (who pay monthly dues of $10) by finding out about their neighborhood’s big concerns. Each of ACORN’s 100 city chapters features a board composed of chairpeople from the member neighborhoods. The city board members sit on the state board, and two members of the Texas state board are delegates to the national board, which shapes policy for the local offices.

Similarly, Obama built his organization with strong local, grassroots control. Its campaign workers received training from national reps and then were allowed to create their own strategy and plan their own events. And he used his email database to consistently engage his constituents and ask them for money. It was the kind of campaign that could only be run by someone with appreciation for community organizing, and it will probably redefine the way presidential campaigns are organized in the future.

ACORN registered 1.3 million new voters in 2008, and, given ACORN’s progressive social agenda, those voters almost certainly broke overwhelmingly for Obama. Despite the controversial baggage ACORN carries, that translates into considerable political influence with the new administration, even if Obama shies away from public demonstrations of his support for ACORN.

“It’s about honing in on a person’s self-interest,” McClelen says of the ACORN approach. “At ACORN, we work on issues that are important to the membership.

 “Getting vacant lots cleaned up and speed bumps put in may be important to a neighborhood in San Antonio, but in a city like New York, it’s more about affordable housing. They’re not looking for speed bumps. So we let our members tell us what they need.” •

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