Since Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ inept stonewalling before the Senate Judiciary Committee shed no light on the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, let’s dig into one of the real reasons — the Republican effort to stop voter registration campaigns in poor neighborhoods.

The assault is an early battle of the 2008 presidential campaign. Republicans are trying to limit registration of African-Americans and Latinos in a number of states that Democrats have a chance of carrying. It’s not the only reason that attorneys were fired, but it is the most reprehensible.

U.S. attorneys are political appointees. When a new president and his party take power, the old are swept out for the new. But once in office, the attorneys usually work with local law enforcement and lawyers and are not often micro-managed from Washington. There have been exceptions to this. The power of local segregationists sent Kennedy administration lawyers into action to take over some law enforcement in the South during the civil rights movement.

This operation is different. The Kennedys wanted to give African-Americans rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The Bush crowd is trying to exclude African-Americans and Latinos.

One of the fired attorneys is David Iglesias of New Mexico, who was dismissed after state Republican officials complained that he wouldn’t prosecute registration fraud allegations.

(The state produced another, unrelated, example of Republicans using the Justice Department to win elections. Republican Sen. Peter Domenici complained that Iglesias was too slow in prosecuting a political corruption case that would have helped the campaign of Rep. Heather Wilson, a Republican who eventually won a tight race.)

In 2004, President Bush beat Sen. John Kerry in New Mexico by just a single percentage point, 50 percent to 49 percent. In 2008, the state’s five electoral votes are within Democratic grasp. Although that’s not a lot of votes, the Democrats’ near success in 2004 reflects the party’s hopes of big gains throughout the Southwest and Rockies next year.

Another U.S. attorney firing was linked to efforts to stop a Democratic registration drive in Washington state. Kerry carried it in 2004, but a Republican came within 129 votes of the Democratic winner in last year’s election for governor. U.S. Attorney John McKay, who was appointed by Bush, was dumped by Gonzales after Republican officials complained he would not investigate supposed registration fraud.

The Republicans’ main target in New Mexico, Washington and other states is a progressive grass-roots group, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, ACORN. It has chapters in more than 100 cities engaged in organizing the poor for a living wage, improved housing, jobs, healthcare, better schools and child care.

What angers the Republicans are ACORN’s voter registration efforts, mostly in poor African-American and Latino neighborhoods. In the last few years, it has registered about 500,000 voters in poor communities.

ACORN members tend to be tough and focused. They organize poor families ignored by the politicians, the big contributors and the reporters and pundits who dominate today’s political dialogue. While political writers report on the so-called money primary — the contribution competition among the top contenders — ACORN is signing up voters in neighborhoods where the major candidates and journalists seldom venture.

It’s the hardest kind of political organizing. The organizers — invariably low paid — must convince the overworked and poor to give up a portion of their limited time to activities such as staging marches, visiting city halls and state capitols and organizing registration drives.

Professor Peter Dreier, director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Program at Occidental College in Los Angeles, told me that “of all the organizations in the country that represent the poor, except for the labor unions, ACORN is the most effective.” With a good political research operation and a grasp of local, state and national politics, ACORN targets its work in swing districts, “registering voters who are likely to be Democrats,” Dreier said.

ACORN’s success woke up New Mexico State Republican Chairman Allen Weh and other state party officials. They accused ACORN of fraud in the 2004 drive that registered 35,000 potential voters, according to The Albuquerque Tribune.

U.S. Attorney Iglesias investigated the complaints. He formed a task force that took a close look at more than 300 of them. In fact, some ACORN workers, who were paid for each person they registered, weren’t too fussy about whom they signed up. ACORN fired a worker for registering a 13-year-old boy.

But in January 2005, The Albuquerque Tribune reported that the U.S. attorney’s office had said most of the complaints were “not criminally prosecutable.”

Unhappy about this, Weh met with Iglesias over coffee. “I told him there were well-known instances of voter fraud and people expect them to be prosecuted,” Weh told the Tribune. Weh said he then took his complaint to an aide to Karl Rove, President Bush’s political brain. “The next time I saw that [Rove] staffer, I said, ‘Man, you guys need to get a new U.S. attorney. This guy is hopeless,’ ” Weh said.

When he saw Rove at a White House function a few months later, Weh asked him about Iglesias. Rove replied that Iglesias was “gone,” Weh told the Tribune.

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearings revealed what had happened. A firing list was assembled in the White House and the Justice Department, and Iglesias and McKay were on it.

The accusations were phony. On April 12, The New York Times reported that the Bush administration campaign had turned up virtually no evidence of an organized operation to fix elections. In the last five years, only 120 people, most of them Democrats, have been charged. Only 86 were convicted. Most of the offenses involved mistakes in filling out registration forms or misunderstood eligibility rules.

Iglesias and McKay refused to use the tremendous power at their disposal to bring indictments on the basis of flimsy evidence. Unlike the attorney general, and the president, they would not abuse their authority. Of course they had to be fired.

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