The future of ACORN: interview with an apostate
No one was more delighted by the recent ACORN pimp 'n' prostitute, hidden-camera sting than Marcel Reid, the former ACORN board member who was booted in summer 2008 when she tried to examine the organization's books.
"If we'd known all it took was a half-naked 20-year-old, we'd have done this a year and a half ago," said Reid from the rented desk in a church that she calls her office.
By now most Americans are familiar with the acronym, ACORN — the un-pithily named Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now — and all its attendant problems: charges of voter registration fraud, embezzlement, tax arrears, corruption and, now, accusations of aiding and abetting illegal immigration, prostitution, tax evasion and child abuse.
Quite a dirty laundry list for an organization that once engaged the purest of ideals — to help the poor and disenfranchised through education and employment. The viral videos of ACORN employees advising two young conservative activists ridiculously dressed up like a pimp and a prostitute about how to house and exploit underage girls from El Salvador are a long way from the Arkansas kitchen table where, in 1970, a group of impoverished mothers sat trying to figure out how to buy school supplies for their children.
That kitchen klatch was the seed that became ACORN with the help of the now-infamous Wade Rathke, better known recently for resigning from the group's board after he covered for his brother Dale, who embezzled almost $1 million in ACORN funds in 1999 and 2000.
Despite ACORN's history of corruption, it took sex to seize the attention of the nation's leadership. In the past couple of weeks, ACORN has been stripped of $1.6 million in federal funding and been dropped by the U.S. Census Bureau as a partner in conducting the nation's headcount.
Reid, who has been reviled by the left as an apostate, can only shake her head at the sudden interest. A gallows sense of humor helps her get through her days now as head of ACORN 8, a group of former ACORN leaders and board members in 15 states trying to reform the community group. Their mission is the same one that first attracted Reid to ACORN 10 years ago — to help the poor.
What pains her is that the videos that have conservatives in stitches have helped bolster negative attitudes toward those she aims to help.
"Look at those poor ladies. I was so embarrassed. You cannot be operating on any cylinder and do what they did. Unfortunately, they reinforced the idea that poverty is your fault because you're not smart." Also problematic for this former military-wife turned champion of the downtrodden is the odd tension between her new Republican fan base and her own affection for President Obama. Reid embraces the irony with a sharp wit and a seen-everything attitude. It's a wacky world out there when a former ACORN activist becomes a darling of the right-wing media.
Then again, Reid says that mainstream media outlets, with the exception of The Wall Street Journal's John Fund, weren't interested in her story when she tried to tell it more than a year ago. As political wisdom goes, you have to hunt where the ducks are.
Politics and salacious stories aside, the bottom line for Reid really is the bottom line. She still wants to help the poor and believes that all Americans share that vision. But ACORN's name has become toxic.
"We need a swift end," she says. "The only thing to do is decapitate." Reid would like to see all board members and all senior staff gone.
She thinks the Justice Department should investigate the charges of civil rights RICO violations that ACORN 8 previously filed in January. And, though grateful that the president stepped up to the plate on ACORN, she wishes he would go further than he did during Sunday's talk-show round robin.
When asked about ACORN, Obama feigned slight knowledge of the group's federal funding, though did concede that an investigation of the pimp 'n' prostitute revelations was appropriate.
Although the president is inarguably focused on more pressing concerns, his long history with ACORN is familiar. Just as Republican leaders should renounce those who race-bait and peddle anger, the Democratic Party's leader should recognize that ACORN has become an obstacle to its own mission.
Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post Writer's Group. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.