By Frank James
This "ACORN versus conservatives" contest of wills is beginning to look like some new version of the Cold War with either side claiming the other is evil and vowing to never give in until it prevails.
The latest salvo came Monday when the Senate voted 83 to 7 in favor of a bill to stop the Housing and Development Department from awarding grants to the ACORN. The bill, sponsored by Nebraska Republican senator Mike Johanns would prevent ACORN from getting grant money to counsel low income people on qualifying for mortgage loans, among other things.
ACORN has drawn renewed conservative scrutiny following a right-of-center film maker's undercover sting stunt in which he and a beautiful female conservative dressed as a pimp and prostitute, respectively, walked into ACORN offices in Baltimore, Washington and New York and received advice from workers there on a number of ways to advance illegal schemes. ACORN says it has fired the workers.
Last year, ACORN came under conservative fire for allegations that it was not only behind voter-registration fraud but also the recession, with conservatives charging that the organization forced banks to give the subprime mortgage loans to unqualified low-income borrowers. That, in turn, led to the housing crisis and the credit crunch that triggered the economy's decline, the argument went.
That Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke doesn't count ACORN among his causes for the present economic difficulties didn't seem to matter.
ACORN has rhetorically struck back at its tormentors by saying it was being scapegoated and used by conservatives last year to tarnish a presidential candidate who was a former community activist.
Earlier this year, some conservatives accused the Obama Administration and other Democrats of attempting to funnel $5.2 billion to ACORN and other community groups. (As the Baltimore Sun reports, one of Congress' top conservatives, Rep. John Boehner was only able to find the group getting $53.6 million in federal money from 1994 to 2008.)
The pimp and prostitute controversy was too much for the Census Bureau which on Friday told ACORN it was dropping plans to have the organization as one of its 30,000 partners whose job it is to publicize the 2010 Census.
Where this will end, who knows? ACORN is making noises like it may sue Fox News for violating laws in Maryland and Washington, DC that protect the participants in conversations from having their comments recorded without their permission.
ACORN appears to be believe Fox is behind the whole thing although the film maker, James O'Keefe, doesn't work for Fox and it was the Andrew Breitbart site BigGovernment.com that first posted the video.
Meanwhile, conservatives show no signs of letting up.
Instead of wasting its funds on lawsuits, ACORN might want to consider doing more intensive training of its workers and testing them with its own undercover testers.
As a Sunday editorial in the Baltimore Sun put it,
... Even the most charitable appraisal of ACORN would have to conclude that the organization has some major problems. ACORN was the subject of widespread complaints during the 2008 election that its workers were turning in duplicate, incomplete or fraudulent voter registration forms, and just last week ACORN turned in 11 of its own workers who are accused of falsifying hundreds of such applications in Florida. In Baltimore, an ACORN protester was arrested this year when he broke the padlock on a foreclosed home. And now this.
If the organization is serious about fulfilling its mission of helping the disadvantaged, it needs to straighten up and fly right. ACORN may claim it's being unfairly singled out, but somehow, other grass-roots advocacy groups don't have these problems. The longer ACORN treats them as isolated incidents or the work of rogue employees, the more it hurts its own cause.
It's also important to keep in mind that ACORN's workers are coming from the same low-income neighborhoods the organization serves, with all that entails -- poor schools, high crime and the sorts of social problems that have been documented for decades.
So the flaws conservatives are pointing out about ACORN are not so much problems associated with that organization per se but more about the problems of being poor and minority in urban America.