Inside Obama's Acorn
By their fruits ye shall know them.
By Stanley Kurtz
May 29, 2008
What if Barack Obama's most important radical connection has been hiding in plain sight all along? Obama has had an intimate and long-term association with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (Acorn), the largest radical group in America. If I told you Obama had close ties with MoveOn.org or Code Pink, you'd know what I was talking about. Acorn is at least as radical as these better-known groups, arguably more so. Yet because Acorn works locally, in carefully selected urban areas, its national profile is lower. Acorn likes it that way. And so, I'd wager, does Barack Obama.
This is a story we've largely missed. While Obama's Acorn connection has not gone entirely unreported, its depth, extent, and significance have been poorly understood. Typically, media background pieces note that, on behalf of Acorn, Obama and a team of Chicago attorneys won a 1995 suit forcing the state of Illinois to implement the federal "motor-voter" bill. In fact, Obama's Acorn connection is far more extensive. In the few stories where Obama's role as an Acorn "leadership trainer" is noted, or his seats on the boards of foundations that may have supported Acorn are discussed, there is little follow-up. Even these more extensive reports miss many aspects of Obama's ties to Acorn.
An Anti-Capitalism Agenda
To understand the nature and extent of Acorn's radicalism, an excellent place to begin is Sol Stern's 2003 City Journal article, "ACORN's Nutty Regime for Cities." (For a shorter but helpful piece, try Steven Malanga's "Acorn Squash.")
Sol Stern explains that Acorn is the key modern successor of the radical 1960's "New Left," with a "1960's-bred agenda of anti-capitalism" to match. Acorn, says Stern, grew out of "one of the New Left's silliest and most destructive groups, the National Welfare Rights Organization." In the 1960's, NWRO launched a campaign of sit-ins and disruptions at welfare offices. The goal was to remove eligibility restrictions, and thus effectively flood welfare rolls with so many clients that the system would burst. The theory, explains Stern, was that an impossibly overburdened welfare system would force "a radical reconstruction of America's unjust capitalist economy." Instead of a socialist utopia, however, we got the culture of dependency and family breakdown that ate away at America's inner cities - until welfare reform began to turn the tide.
While Acorn holds to NWRO's radical economic framework and its confrontational 1960's-style tactics, the targets and strategy have changed. Acorn prefers to fly under the national radar, organizing locally in liberal urban areas - where, Stern observes, local legislators and reporters are often "slow to grasp how radical Acorn's positions really are." Acorn's new goals are municipal "living wage" laws targeting "big-box" stores like Wal-Mart, rolling back welfare reform, and regulating banks - efforts styled as combating "predatory lending." Unfortunately, instead of helping workers, Acorn's living-wage campaigns drive businesses out of the very neighborhoods where jobs are needed most. Acorn's opposition to welfare reform only threatens to worsen the self-reinforcing cycle of urban poverty and family breakdown. Perhaps most mischievously, says Stern, Acorn uses banking regulations to pressure financial institutions into massive "donations" that it uses to finance supposedly non-partisan voter turn-out drives.
According to Stern, Acorn's radical agenda sometimes shifts toward "undisguised authoritarian socialism." Fully aware of its living-wage campaign's tendency to drive businesses out of cities, Acorn hopes to force companies that want to move to obtain "exit visas." "How much longer before Acorn calls for exit visas for wealthy or middle-class individuals before they can leave a city?" asks Stern, adding, "This is the road to serfdom indeed."
In Your Face
Acorn's tactics are famously "in your face." Just think of Code Pink's well-known operations (threatening to occupy congressional offices, interrupting the testimony of General David Petraeus) and you'll get the idea. Acorn protesters have disrupted Federal Reserve hearings, but mostly deploy their aggressive tactics locally. Chicago is home to one of its strongest chapters, and Acorn has burst into a closed city council meeting there. Acorn protestors in Baltimore disrupted a bankers' dinner and sent four busloads of profanity-screaming protestors against the mayor's home, terrifying his wife and kids. Even a Baltimore city council member who generally supports Acorn said their intimidation tactics had crossed the line.
Acorn, however, defiantly touts its confrontational tactics. While Stern himself notes this, the point is driven home sharper still in an Acorn-friendly reply to Stern entitled "Enraging the Right." Written by academic/activists John Atlas and Peter Dreier, the reply's avowed intent is to convince Acorn-friendly politicians, journalists, and funders not to desert the organization in the wake of Stern's powerful critique. The stunning thing about this supposed rebuttal is that it confirms nearly everything Stern says. Do Atlas and Dreier object to Stern's characterizations of Acorn's radical plans - even his slippery-slope warnings about Acorn's designs on basic freedom of movement? Nope. "Stern accurately outlines Acorn's agenda," they say.
Do Atlas and Dreier dismiss Stern's catalogue of Acorn's disruptive and intentionally intimidating tactics as a set of regrettable exceptions to Acorn's rule of civility? Not a chance. Atlas and Dreier are at pains to point out that intimidation works. They proudly reel off the increased memberships that follow in the wake of high-profile disruptions, and clearly imply that the same public officials who object most vociferously to intimidation are the ones most likely to cave as a result. What really upsets Atlas and Dreier is that Stern misses the subtle national hand directing Acorn's various local campaigns. This is radicalism unashamed.
But don't let the disruptive tactics fool you. Acorn is a savvy and exceedingly effective political player. Stern says that Acorn's key post-New Left innovation is its determination to take over the system from within, rather than futilely try to overthrow it from without. Stern calls this strategy a political version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Take Atlas and Dreier at their word: Acorn has an openly aggressive and intimidating side, but a sophisticated inside game, as well. Chicago's Acorn leader, for example, won a seat on the Board of Aldermen as the candidate of a leftist "New Party."
Obama Meets Acorn
What has Barack Obama got to do with all this? Plenty. Let's begin with Obama's pre-law school days as a community organizer in Chicago. Few people have a clear idea of just what a "community organizer" does. A Los Angeles Times piece on Obama's early Chicago days opens with the touching story of his efforts to build a partnership with Chicago's "Friends of the Parks," so that parents in a blighted neighborhood could have an inviting spot for their kids to play. This is the image of Obama's organizing we're supposed to hold. It's far from the whole story, however. As the L. A. Times puts it, "Obama's task was to help far South Side residents press for improvement" in their communities. Part of Obama's work, it would appear, was to organize demonstrations, much in the mold of radical groups like Acorn.
Although the L. A. Times piece is generally positive, it does press Obama's organizing tales on certain points. Some claim that Obama's book, Dreams from My Father, exaggerates his accomplishments in spearheading an asbestos cleanup at a low-income housing project. Obama, these critics say, denies due credit to Hazel Johnson, an activist who claims she was the one who actually discovered the asbestos problem and led the efforts to resolve it. Read carefully, the L. A. Times story leans toward confirming this complaint against Obama, yet the story's emphasis is to affirm Obama's important role in the battle. Speaking up in defense of Obama on the asbestos issue is Madeleine Talbot, who at the time was a leader at Chicago Acorn. Talbot, we learn, was so impressed by Obama's organizing skills that she invited him to help train her own staff.
And what exactly was Talbot's work with Acorn? Talbot turns out to have been a key leader of that attempt by Acorn to storm the Chicago City Council (during a living-wage debate). While Sol Stern mentions this story in passing, the details are worth a look: On July 31, 1997, six people were arrested as 200 Acorn protesters tried to storm the Chicago City Council session. According to the Chicago Daily Herald, Acorn demonstrators pushed over the metal detector and table used to screen visitors, backed police against the doors to the council chamber, and blocked late-arriving aldermen and city staff from entering the session.
Reading the Herald article, you might think Acorn's demonstrators had simply lost patience after being denied entry to the gallery at a packed meeting. Yet the full story points in a different direction. This was not an overreaction by frustrated followers who couldn't get into a meeting (there were plenty of protestors already in the gallery), but almost certainly a deliberate bit of what radicals call "direct action," orchestrated by Acorn's Madeleine Talbot. As Talbot was led away handcuffed, charged with mob action and disorderly conduct, she explicitly justified her actions in storming the meeting. This was the woman who first drew Obama into his alliance with Acorn, and whose staff Obama helped train.
Does that mean Obama himself schooled Acorn volunteers in disruptive "direct action?" Not necessarily. The City Council storming took place in 1997, years after Obama's early organizing days. And in general, Obama seems to have been part of Acorn's "inside baseball" strategy. As a national star from his law school days, Obama knew he had a political future, and would surely have been reluctant to violate the law. In his early organizing days, Obama used to tell the residents he organized that they'd be more effective in their protests if they controlled their anger. On the other hand, as he established and deepened his association with Acorn through the years, Obama had to know what the organization was all about. Moreover, in his early days, Obama was not exactly a stranger to the "direct action" side of community organizing.
Consider the second charge against Obama raised by the L.A. Times backgrounder. On the stump today, Obama often says he helped prevent South Side Chicago blacks, Latinos, and whites from turning on each other after losing their jobs, but many of the community organizers interviewed by the L. A. Times say that Obama worked overwhelmingly with blacks.
To rebut this charge, Obama's organizer friends tell the story of how he helped plan "actions" that included mixed white, black, and Latino groups. For example, following Obama's plan, one such group paid a "surprise visit" to a meeting between local officials considering a landfill expansion. The protestors surrounded the meeting table while one activist made a statement chiding the officials, after which the protestors filed out. Presto! Obama is immunized from charges of having worked exclusively with blacks - but at the cost of granting us a peek at the not-so-warm-and-fuzzy side of his community organizing. Intimidation tactics are revealed, and Obama's alliance with radical Acorn activists like Madeleine Talbot begins to make sense.
The extent of Obama's ties to Acorn has not been recognized. We find some important details in an article in the journal Social Policy entitled, "Case Study: Chicago - The Barack Obama Campaign," by Toni Foulkes, a Chicago Acorn leader and a member of Acorn's National Association Board. The odd thing about this article is that Foulkes is forced to protect the technically "non-partisan" status of Acorn's get-out-the-vote campaigns, even as he does everything in his power to give Acorn credit for helping its favorite son win the critical 2004 primary that secured Obama the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate.
Before giving us a tour of Acorn's pro-Obama but somehow "non-partisan" election activities, Foulks treats us to a brief history of Obama's ties to Acorn. While most press accounts imply that Obama just happened to be at the sort of public-interest law firm that would take Acorn's "motor voter" case, Foulkes claims that Acorn specifically sought out Obama's representation in the motor voter case, remembering Obama from the days when he worked with Talbot. And while many reports speak of Obama's post-law school role organizing "Project VOTE" in 1992, Foulkes makes it clear that this project was undertaken in direct partnership with Acorn. Foulkes then stresses Obama's yearly service as a key figure in Acorn's leadership-training seminars.
At least a few news reports have briefly mentioned Obama's role in training Acorn's leaders, but none that I know of have said what Foulkes reports next: that Obama's long service with Acorn led many members to serve as the volunteer shock troops of Obama's early political campaigns - his initial 1996 State Senate campaign, and his failed bid for Congress in 2000 (Foulkes confuses the dates of these two campaigns.) With Obama having personally helped train a new cadre of Chicago Acorn leaders, by the time of Obama's 2004 U.S. Senate campaign, Obama and Acorn were "old friends," says Foulkes.
So along with the reservoir of political support that came to Obama through his close ties with Jeremiah Wright, Father Michael Pfleger, and other Chicago black churches, Chicago Acorn appears to have played a major role in Obama's political advance. Sure enough, a bit of digging into Obama's years in the Illinois State Senate indicates strong concern with Acorn's signature issues, as well as meetings with Acorn and the introduction by Obama of Acorn-friendly legislation on the living wage and banking practices. You begin to wonder whether, in his Springfield days, Obama might have best been characterized as "the Senator from Acorn."
Although it's been noted in an important story by John Fund, and in a long Obama background piece in the New York Times, more attention needs to be paid to possible links between Obama and Acorn during the period of Obama's service on the boards of two charitable foundations, the Woods Fund and the Joyce Foundation.
According to the New York Times, Obama's memberships on those foundation boards, "allowed him to help direct tens of millions of dollars in grants" to various liberal organizations, including Chicago Acorn, "whose endorsement Obama sought and won in his State Senate race." As best as I can tell (and this needs to be checked out more fully), Acorn maintains both political and "non-partisan" arms. Obama not only sought and received the endorsement of Acorn's political arm in his local campaigns, he recently accepted Acorn's endorsement for the presidency, in pursuit of which he reminded Acorn officials of his long-standing ties to the group.
Supposedly, Acorn's political arm is segregated from its "non-partisan" registration and get-out-the-vote efforts, but after reading Foulkes' case study, this non-partisanship is exceedingly difficult to discern. As I understand, it would be illegal for Obama to sit on a foundation board and direct money to an organization that openly served as his key get-out-the-vote volunteers on Election Day. I'm not saying Obama crossed a legal line here: Based on Foulkes' account, Acorn's get-out-the-vote drive most likely observed the technicalities of "non-partisanship."
Nevertheless, the possibilities suggested by a combined reading of the New York Times piece and the Foulkes article are disturbing. While keeping within the technicalities of the law, Obama may have been able to direct substantial foundation money to his organized political supporters. I offer no settled conclusion, but the matter certainly warrants further investigation and discussion. Obama is supposed to be the man who transcends partisanship. Has he instead used his post at an allegedly non-partisan foundation to direct money to a supposedly non-partisan group, in pursuit of what are in fact nakedly partisan and personal ends? I have no final answer, but the question needs to be pursued further.
In fact, the broader set of practices by which activist groups pursue intensely partisan ends under the guise of non-partisanship merits further scrutiny. Consider the 2006 report by Jonathan Bechtle, "Voter Turnout or Voter Fraud?" which includes a discussion of the nexus between Project Vote and Acorn, a nexus where Obama himself once resided. According to Bechtle, "It's clear that groups that claimed to be nonpartisan wanted a partisan outcome," and reading Foulkes's case study of Acorn's role in Obama's U.S. Senate campaign, one can't help but agree.
Important as these questions of funding and partisanship are, the larger point is that Obama's ties to Acorn - arguably the most politically radical large-scale activist group in the country - are wide, deep, and longstanding. If Acorn is adept at creating a non-partisan, inside-game veneer for what is in fact an intensely radical, leftist, and politically partisan reality, so is Obama himself. This is hardly a coincidence: Obama helped train Acorn's leaders in how to play this game. For the most part, Obama seems to have favored the political-insider strategy, yet it's clear that he knew how to play the in-your-face "direct action" game as well. And surely during his many years of close association with Acorn, Obama had to know what the group was all about.
The shame of it is that when the L. A. Times returned to Obama's stomping grounds, it found the park he'd helped renovate reclaimed by drug dealers and thugs. The community organizer strategy may generate feel-good moments and best-selling books, but I suspect a Wal-Mart as the seed-bed of a larger shopping complex would have done far more to save the neighborhood where Obama worked to organize in the "progressive" fashion. Unfortunately, Obama's Acorn cronies have blocked that solution.
In any case, if you're looking for the piece of the puzzle that confirms and explains Obama's network of radical ties, gather your Acorns this spring. Or next winter, you may just be left watching the "President from Acorn" at his feast.
- Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and an NRO contributing editor.