Republicans continued the drumbeat of allegations against ACORN on Tuesday. Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign, the Republican National Committee and others accuse the grassroots group of widespread voter registration fraud. It's the latest, and most bitter, battle in a long conflict between conservatives and ACORN.
ACORN, which stands for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, makes no secret of its progressive tilt. Its top job isn't CEO, it's chief organizer.
"We're like a community union," says Bertha Lewis, the interim chief organizer. "Our folks are low and moderate income. And we've been doing the fight on bread-and-butter issues for 38 years."
Those bread-and-butter issues have recently included predatory lending and mortgages. Not long ago, ACORN forced Countrywide Financial into an agreement to help homeowners trapped in their subprime loans. In 1996, it led a campaign in Philadelphia to stop Pennsylvania from selling liquor stores to raise money for sports arenas.
"We have huge needs around education, around housing, around jobs programs, around social services," Bruce Dorpalen of ACORN Housing said at the time. "And to devote that kind of money to sports stadiums is just wrong."
At a 2006 rally in Miami, ACORN featured a friend who now seems surprising: McCain. As a senator, he was pushing an immigration reform bill supported by ACORN and other progressive groups. ACORN members waved "McCain '08" signs at the rally as McCain said, "What makes America special is what's in this room tonight. That's what makes America special."
Now, McCain's campaign has accused ACORN of flooding America's polling places with illegal voters. The campaign and the RNC also have played up Democratic Sen. Barack Obama's ties to ACORN.
Obama responded Tuesday, calling his relationship to the group "pretty straightforward."
In 1995, Obama said, he represented ACORN in a lawsuit against the state of Illinois. "My partner in that representation was the U.S. Justice Department, in having Illinois implement what was called the motor voter law, to make sure that people could go to DMVs and driver's license facilities to get registered. It wasn't being implemented," he said.
There are other connections that conservatives have highlighted. Obama ran a voter-registration project in Chicago in 1992 under the banner of Project Vote, and years later, the national Project Vote affiliated with ACORN. Earlier this year, his presidential campaign indirectly paid ACORN more than $800,000 for campaign work in the primaries. And ACORN's political action committee has endorsed Obama.
But conservatives have been after ACORN for years.
"It is an organization that has a very outsized role in the democratic process," says Tim Miller of the business-backed Employment Policies Institute, which produced a 2006 report titled "Rotten ACORN, America's Bad Seed."
Miller points to the ouster of ACORN's founder earlier this year after the controller, the founder's brother, had embezzled nearly a million dollars.
"When you think about a truly transparent organization, there would never be any way somebody could embezzle such a large amount," he says.
The Employment Policies Institute also criticizes ACORN's organizational structure. ACORN has dozens of subsidiaries. Some get federal funds. Some get money from charities such as the liberal Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the not-so-liberal Bank of America Charitable Foundation.
Miller says ACORN moves money around among the subsidiaries. He says it "essentially gives them a cloak that prevents people from seeing really how they're spending money that comes, in some cases, from the taxpayers, in other cases, comes from members of their organization who pay dues."
But right now, voter fraud is the GOP's top campaign message. The Republican National Committee produced an online ad called "ACORN Chicago" that reads: "Nationwide voter fraud. Barack Obama. Bad judgment. Blind ambition. Too risky for America."
Lewis, ACORN's chief organizer, says the group's profile has never been so high. "This election, this linking us to Obama in order to try to damage him, that's a great opportunity," she says.
Will Evans of the Center for Investigative Reporting contributed to this piece.