Anti-ACORN Crusade Catches Fire
WASHINGTON - For much of the year, Democratic leaders scoffed at accusations of improprieties by ACORN, dismissing voter-fraud allegations as a right-wing conspiracy against the community organizing group.
But in the aftermath of the latest controversy - in which ACORN employees were videotaped advising a couple posing as a pimp and a prostitute on how to disguise the woman's income while seeking to buy a house - Democrats are on the defensive.
On Thursday, 172 House Democrats joined 173 Republicans - nearly all of the chamber's GOP members - to cut off all federal funding for ACORN, which was set up to provide housing and other assistance for low- and moderate-income families. The final House vote was 345-75.
"This united Republican effort to defund ACORN is a victory for the rule of law and taxpayers across the country," said Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the No. 2 House Republican.
That action followed an 83-7 Senate vote on Monday to prohibit the Department of Housing and Urban Development from giving grants to ACORN.
"For several months now, I have been calling for the House to strip taxpayer funding to ACORN, and finally the Democrat majority has come to their senses and done just that," said Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who since the start of the year has been at the forefront of the movement to strip ACORN of its federal funding.
ACORN - the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now - has received $53 million in federal money since 1994, according to House Republicans.
The group is being investigated over allegations that it registered non-existent voters.
The U.S. Census Bureau severed its ties with ACORN last week, citing concerns raised by the spate of negative news.
On Wednesday, ACORN announced that it had initiated an internal investigation and would retrain its primary staff at its offices nationwide, and it has suspended all intake operations for its services.
"We have all been deeply disturbed by what we've seen in some of these videos," said ACORN chief executive Bertha Lewis. "We will go to whatever lengths necessary to re-establish the public trust."
Among the senators voting to block HUD funding from ACORN was the Democrats' newest member, Al Franken of Minnesota, whose 2008 campaign was endorsed by the group.
"The senator felt it was important to let ACORN know that the behavior of their employees was unacceptable," said Franken spokeswoman Jess McIntosh. "Overall, they're a good organization with the best intentions, especially in Minnesota, but obviously some serious housekeeping needs to be done."
The ACORN controversy has put Democrats like Franken in a thorny predicament. They risk political embarrassment by continuing to support the organization. On the other hand, ACORN advocates on behalf of poor and minority voters, a core Democrat constituency.
"It's a big headache for Democrats," said Norman Ornstein, a political scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "Part of it is that they've defended ACORN heavily in the past on voter registration, and they had a case to make.
"This is a little different. The fact that it happened more than once, and it's on tape, you look at the outlandish garb (worn by the duo posing as a pimp and prostitute) and you wonder what could possible be in the heads of the people giving the information."
Ronald Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, said Democrats have shown little spine by abandoning ACORN, and he said it could come back to haunt them in future elections.
"It's another weak-kneed gesture by the Democrats," Walters said. "I couldn't conceive of Republicans jettisoning one of their core constituencies. ACORN has been very effective in registering Hispanics and blacks."
Walters said Democrats voting to defund ACORN may be jeopardizing President Barack Obama's re-election chances because many of the new voters registered by ACORN went to the polls because of Obama.
ACORN's Lewis said in a separate statement that while the actions of its employees were "completely indefensible ... the resulting sideshow is being fueled by the right" to detract from the group's efforts to "make sure the have-nots and have-lesses get some say and some political power in this country."
Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist who managed former Vice President Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign, agreed.
"Over the past 20 years, ACORN has been an incredible voice for poor and low-income people," Brazile said. "But they have become an increasing target for right-wing activists who dislike their politics and their success in mobilizing grassroots support for liberal or progressive causes."
Brazile added that the organization needs to rebuild trust.
"They can do a better job of training their employees and volunteers on the law," she said. "Like most institutions in our society, ACORN needs to measure up and to put strict financial guidelines in place to avoid the appearance of fraud and abuse."