Inside Obama’s Acorn



Inside Obama’s Acorn
By their fruits ye shall know them.

By Stanley Kurtz


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.


Surprise Visit
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.

“Non-Partisan”
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.”


Foundation Money

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.

Radical Obama
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.

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