By Bill Boyarsky
The Bush administration’s hit job didn’t work. Despite all the Republican efforts to stop the liberal grass-roots organization ACORN, its workers continue to trudge the streets of urban America, signing up voters in places where the Bush people never venture.
The Republicans were never interested in ACORN’s goal of expanding the vote among the economically disadvantaged. Instead, the GOP wants to prevent the poor, especially African-Americans and Latinos, from registering or voting. That’s the Republican way. They know how unlikely it would be for these people to vote Republican.
That is why Republican officials demanded voter fraud prosecutions from U.S. attorneys in states where ACORN registered enough voters to worry the Republicans. Two of the U.S. attorneys found no grounds for prosecution and became part of the eight fired by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
I wondered what impact all this would have on ACORN.
Did Gonzales slow you down? I asked. “No,” said Alvivon “Bon Bon” Hurd, an ACORN volunteer. “It just makes us stronger.”
Hurd is an African-American woman who lives in the Pico Gardens housing project in Boyle Heights, a working-class, largely Latino section of Los Angeles east of the corporate high-rises and the new lofts of downtown.
I talked to her and Peter Kuhns, a staff organizer who was recruited by ACORN when he was a student at Pomona College.
Each day, from about 2 p.m. to 7 p.m., Hurd, Kuhns and other ACORN members go door to door in working-class neighborhoods from Watts in South Los Angeles to Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley, many miles to the north. The ACORN crews work in some of Los Angeles’ toughest neighborhoods, where gang members are shooting it out almost every day. The gangs aren’t hostile to ACORN volunteers, but their members are notoriously bad shots. The danger is being hit by mistake.
The ACORN efforts are replicated in the more than 100 cities across the country where the organization has chapters.
All of them are confronted with the same problems: the apathy of residents who are sick of bad schools, trash-littered streets and increasingly expensive slum housing. If the government can’t provide basic services, why worry about who is going to be president?
“There are so many people who are disillusioned,” said Hurd.
So the organizers start with the basics: What are your problems? They listen to a bewildering list of troubles—especially bewildering in Los Angeles, where a confusing multitude of government bodies independently administer the schools, the police, welfare, the public hospitals and many other services.
But the organizers have no time for a civics lesson. And who could explain all the complexities of Los Angeles government? I used to write about local government for the Los Angeles Times and usually found it all but impossible to explain.
Instead, the ACORN organizers have a simple message: You’ve got to vote. Vote for city council, for school board, and especially next year for president and for Congress. The defeat of the immigration bill gave the latter part of the message a special resonance for Latinos. As imperfect as the bill was, it offered a path to citizenship. This is tremendously important to families in which the parents immigrated illegally and their children, born in America, are citizens. The fear of family separation weighs heavily on them.
Kuhns told me that ACORN hopes to register about 1.4 million nationally this year.
The drive is especially important in the Southwest and the Far West. Increasing Latino voting is threatening Republicans. In New Mexico, for example, President Bush beat Sen. John Kerry in the last presidential election by just a single point, 50 percent to 49 percent.
As I talked to Hurd and Kuhns I again thought about the irrelevancy of much of the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination—a thought I have every four years. Listening to the ACORN organizers, I wondered who cared about the dispute between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton about meeting with tyrannical dictators abroad. What American president in the last 75 years has not met with a tyrannical dictator?
As John Edwards said, “We’ve had two good people, Democratic candidates for president, who’ve spent their time attacking each other, instead of attacking the problems that this country faces. We need to be staying focused on the things that all of us want to do together for America.”
That’s at the heart of Hurd and Kuhns’ mission of enlisting poor and working-class people to organize themselves for better housing, healthcare, a living wage and child care. Certainly the Iraq war is our most important issue, and it is sucking up the energy of the Democratic campaign. But in the world of ACORN, it is one of many afflictions, not as immediate as access to a doctor or food stamps or protection from gangbangers’ stray bullets.
AP Photo / George Widman
Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton takes the podium at an ACORN-sponsored candidates’ forum in Philadelphia July 2.