There's been a lot of hoopla about secret hidden-camera videos of low-level employees of the anti-poverty group ACORN lately -- some of them quite embarrassing. I haven't seen any video yet from "real reporters" James O'Keefe or Hannah Giles of an ACORN employee who works in the agency's Charlotte, N.C., office by the name of Hector Vaca. And don't hold your breath waiting for Vaca to appear on the Fox News Channel anytime soon, because he doesn't fit the story line.
Vaca was one of eight ACORN employees in North Carolina who was just laid off because of funding problems -- problems closely related to the recent exposes by the right-wing media. His work had nothing to do with what millions of folks with the time and the money to be sitting on a couch watching TV at 5 p.m. when Glenn Beck comes around think ACORN mainly does, i.e., advising garishly dressed prostitutes and pimps.
Vaca was actually helping folks in Charlotte who are battling the worst economic crisis in our lifetime and fighting for them to stay in their houses, a project so "radical" that Citigroup and Bank of America (just the kind of folks you'd expect to partner with ACORN in its vast "socialist" conspiracy) are backing it. It is work that is so important that Vaca is continuing to do it now, even without a paycheck:
In Charlotte, head organizer Hector Vaca spent time this week driving through neighborhoods, visiting homeowners who are struggling with their mortgage payments. The program, in partnership with Citi, aims to offer free advice to residents who could be facing foreclosure. Vaca, 35, said he hands out fliers and will offer his cell phone, too, to homeowners who want to call for free assistance right away.
Vaca, who said he grew up poor as the child of an immigrant, has been an ACORN organizer for three years."I love my job," he said. "I get to help people who have never been able to get the help they need."
This, in a (pardon the awful pun), nutshell, is what the ACORN scandal is really all about. Forget the videos, forget the "pimp." The reason that Hector Vaca loves what he does is the reason that Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and their dittoheads hate what Hector Vaca does. He is helping people who have never been able to get the help they need -- before he pulled up to their driveway.
Even in a media world where 24 hours of daily cable blather is so rarely tethered to the real-world concerns of Americans, the ACORN saga stands out as a story that everyone is talking about but no one is stepping back to even try and comprehend or place into any kind of rational perspective. The conservative dwellers of Glennbeckistan who've been flooding newsrooms across America -- including here at the Philadelphia Daily News where I work -- with calls complaining that we're not covering the ACORN story know next to nothing about the anti-poverty group other than their belief that it single-handedly elected Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States (it didn't) and that it receives billions of dollars in taxpayer money (it doesn't).
At the same time, I would encourage the handful of fellow progressives who see the story solely as a Fox News witch hunt to acknowledge this part of the bigger picture: That ACORN is a large non-profit that is very poorly run, and in need of some major reform. It would be good, in a way, if that's what this story were really about -- making things work better. But conservatives don't want to reform ACORN, nor do they want another, better-run outfit to come along and do some of the things it does -- helping the urban poor find better housing or increasing voter registration. They want to destroy ACORN and the things it does. Period.
I'm not not going to bog this down with a long history of ACORN, which grew out of 1960s' activism working with welfare recipients in the nation's battered cities -- you can learn a little more about it here. The group has had a number of successes in areas that matter in American life, including fair-housing issues, voter registration (it was a key backer of the Motor Voter law), helping Hurricane Katrina victims and even fighting for Vietnam veterans during a time when that was not a popular issue. So why is it poorly run? Well, the videos now in heavy rotation on Fox show that some of its lower level workers are either under-trained or unethical or both, while ACORN has also been rocked by wrongdoing at the top of the organization. So have a number of well-known non-profits that aren't under regular assault from the right-wing media -- but that still doesn't make it right.
Beyond that, there is evidence of major structural flaws within ACORN -- generally, a group that has both an advocacy side and a political side that supports candidates is a recipe for trouble. Then there is the serial wrongdoing by workers that ACORN hired to do voter registration, the episodes that are regularly described as a "voter fraud scandal." But no actual voter fraud -- that is, people who were unlawfully registered casting real ballots and influencing the outcome of election (as happened in this case, for example) -- took place. In fact, it was ACORN itself that was defrauded by hiring workers who tried to get paid extra money by signing fake names like "Mickey Mouse," which may explain why it was ACORN officials who reported these crimes to the authorities. The significance of this scandal -- which is really more like embezzlement than voter fraud -- points back to the notion that ACORN needs to be better run -- a lot better.
Yet this reality -- that ACORN is an established group with worthy goals and some success but also poor management -- is not what's driving the story. The folks who are spearheading this investigation of ACORN -- O'Keefe, Giles, Beck, and all the others -- aren't reporting this story because they want corrupt employees and bad managers weeded out, so that the taxpayers are getting the best return on the relatively minuscule amount of money -- just $53 million over the last 15 years -- that it's received from the feds. Nor will the "fair and balanced" network ever tell you that other ACORN employees turned away the bogus pimp and prostitute -- most notably right here in Philadelphia, where employees called the cops on O'Keefe -- or bother to explain the real work of ACORN, as done by decent people like Hector Vaca.
The real reason they are after ACORN is that they don't like its core mission -- siding with beleaguered homeowners over banks, and trying to register inner-city residents to vote at the same rates as the suburbanites who've dominated American politics since the 1980s. Taking down the group's mission of urban empowerment won't strengthen America, just the Republican Party. And you don't need a Ph.D. in social work or journalism to figure this out, since O'Keefe has made it clear that ACORN's success -- and not its corruption -- is what prompted him to launch his investigation. Here's what he told the Washington Post:
Though O'Keefe described himself as a progressive radical, not a conservative, he said he targeted ACORN for the same reasons that the political right does: its massive voter registration drives that turn out poor African Americans and Latinos against Republicans.
"Politicians are getting elected single-handedly due to this organization," he said. "No one was holding this organization accountable. No one in the media is putting pressure on them. We wanted to do a stunt and see what we could find."
But O'Keefe didn't go after the voter registration unit of ACORN. Maybe that's because real investigative journalism is hard work, but more likely it's because powerful people like U.S. Attorneys, who didn't even have to dress up like pimps because they have subpoena power, already tried that angle and didn't find one single bogus vote cast. Instead, the two young filmmakers and the deep-pocketed FNC are taking down ACORN through the back door, and if what has already happened in North Carolina is any indication, they will succeed.
You know, this is all so much like the "debate" over health care. No one disagrees that the medical system here is a mess, but one party, the Republicans, offers no serious plan whatsoever -- gambling for the raw political edge they might gain by a liberal-centrist failure to pass any bill. Likewise, there is no interest here whatsoever in ending housing discrimination, stopping predatory lending, or coming as close as possible to 100 percent participation on Election Day -- the kind of things that all Americans should be inclined to support, regardless of party or ideology.
James O'Keefe's America is one where powerful banks can continue to walk all over the working poor, and where demoralized urbanites don't bother to vote. The right-wing's attitude toward fighting poverty is exactly the same as Rush Limbaugh's attitude toward Barack Obama before he had yet served one day in the White House.
They want them to fail.