Volume 79, Number 20 | Oct 21 - 27, 2009
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Villager photo by Lincoln Anderson

ACORN general counsel Arthur Schwartz in his office, next to one of his collection of political and civil-rights posters, this one by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Right has ACORN on ropes, but fight isn’t over: Attorney

By Lincoln Anderson

It’s like being in the middle of a “tsunami” or an “avalanche” — or maybe both at the same time. That’s how Arthur Schwartz described his experience as general counsel of ACORN amid the recent right-wing attacks and congressional caving that are bringing the national community-organizing network to its knees.

In an interview with The Villager last week, Schwartz, a prominent New York City labor attorney and longtime member of Community Board 2 in Greenwich Village, where he lives with his family, painted a dire picture of ACORN.

Speaking in his office in the Unite Here! headquarters building at 26th St. and Seventh Ave., Schwartz said, basically, ACORN as it’s known today, will be going through major changes.

“It’s going to be much more decentralized,” he explained. “It’s going to be a harder target to hit at.”

He handed The Villager a copy of an Oct. 12 letter he wrote addressed to “ACORN’s Friends in the Legal Community,” outlining the legal assistance the group needs, and spelling out the crippling problems it faces.

“The recent attacks on ACORN,” the letter begins, “though purportedly based on unseemly conversations captured on various videotapes, are largely based on the content of ACORN’s politics and reflective of a lynch-mob-like mentality among Republican lawmakers and executives, who are looking to finish ACORN off as fast as possible. The attacks are both on the federal level and state level, stretching ACORN’s resources further than it can handle.”

The letter goes on to discuss ACORN’s ongoing reorganization, noting the right-wing attacks have “brought every person who has a claim against ACORN out of the woodwork,” on everything from “copier leases” to “unpaid insurance bills.”

“We need some top-notch bankruptcy advice and maybe representation,” the letter states. “[The reorganization may involve] the creation of new nonprofit entities in each state where ACORN functions, as ACORN considers moving from a centralized corporate structure, to a decentralized federated structure. ACORN will need help from people who have handled rebranding… .”

Schwartz was retained in March by ACORN as its general counsel. Initially, he focused on creating what he called “clean divisions” between the group’s nonprofit divisions and its political campaign work.

“When I was first brought on, I was taking on all the mess,” he said.

But then ongoing right-wing attacks finally drew blood in September in the form of videos by a pair of young conservatives posing as a pimp and prostitute seeking tax advice.

“He decided he was going to get ACORN,” Schwartz said of the filmmaker. “They probably went to a dozen places. They got bites in about five,” including ACORN offices in Baltimore, Washington and Brooklyn. In the Philadelphia ACORN office, staffers called the police on the pair, and a lawsuit is being considered.

“The thing about ACORN staffers is, they don’t care,” Schwartz noted. “You’re a prostitute — you can get a home.”

Schwartz later clarified that ACORN staffers “don’t judge people — even if you’re a prostitute, if you qualify, you can get a home.”

But, he said, in Republicans’ view, “They saw this as an opening: ‘This is a lawless group. See this video. How can we fund a group that tells prostitutes to cheat on their taxes?’”

Those staffers — actually mortgage-modification counselors — who gave the “pimp and prostitute” dubious advice were fired, Schwartz noted. But the damage was done. The New York Post and Fox News picked up on the story, and soon the Defund ACORN Act had been passed by Congress, effectively cutting off federal funds to the organization. In turn, state governments started halting funding. Probes and subpoenas at the federal and state levels followed. Schwartz was bombarded with requests for information and busy doing damage control.

“As soon as they see the Democrats are going to roll over on this, all hell breaks lose,” Schwartz said of the feeding frenzy on ACORN.

“It’s like all of a sudden, I’m in the middle of a war. I wouldn’t say it’s a war,” he corrected himself, noting, “because that’s where both sides are shooting at each other. It’s more like a tsunami — and one side keeps firing shots.”

Media smells blood
Schwartz has been dealing with the media, fielding pressurized calls from the Washington Post and New York Times, among others. The reporters ask him for comment on breaking-news questions, such as claiming they’ve discovered the brother of ACORN’s founder actually embezzled significantly more than the $1 million from the group that was previously reported.

It was that initial embezzlement that has led to a snowballing Whitewater-like probe into all things ACORN.

“They say they have a deadline in five minutes,” he said of the reporters. “A lot of these calls have come in at 9:30 at night.”

Since his name appears in the articles, Schwartz is, in turn, targeted with nasty e-mails by right-wingers, such as, “How could you do this?” “You’re a dupe,” or simply, “A--hole.”

Midway through the interview with The Villager last Thursday, Schwartz got a phone call from Congressmember Jerrold Nadler. The West Side congressmember — one of only about a dozen Democrats to oppose the Defund ACORN Act — was calling Schwartz’s attention to an e-mail that had been forwarded to him, detailing a directive from two weeks earlier to federal agencies, implementing the act. The directive not only ordered agencies to cease funding ACORN and all its subcontractors, but cancel all funding allocated in previous years. The memo had been found — where else? — on a right-wing blog.

Nadler has branded the Defund ACORN Act a “bill of attainder,” or an unfair, punitive act by Congress; Schwartz said the congressmember, during the phone call, asked him why ACORN hasn’t sued over this yet.

“One of the things I’ve come to appreciate in this is how great Jerry Nadler is,” Schwartz reflected after he hung up the phone. He also praised Congressmember Charles Rangel and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand for not giving in to the Republican pressure.

Fair-weather friends
On the other hand, he’s deeply disappointed that other local representatives voted for the Defund ACORN Act — singling out Carolyn Maloney and Anthony Weiner for special criticism. Schwartz noted Maloney had sought the backing of ACORN — the driving force behind creating New York’s Working Families Party — when she was planning a run for Senate earlier this year.

“Before she wants their support, and then she votes for the Defund ACORN Act — over a ‘candid camera’ videotape,” Schwartz said. “I’m disappointed in Weiner, who explained it as he didn’t want to rock the boat. Well, he could have just voted no.”

Other signs from Washington don’t bode well, either. ACORN has been dismissed as one of 80 partners slated to help conduct the Census, after Republicans cried ACORN would run the process. In addition, on Sept. 17, the I.R.S. disqualified the group from conducting taxpayer-assistance programs; ACORN had helped thousands of poor Americans get their earned-income tax credits.

“That was a sign [to the Republicans and to Congress that] the Obama administration is caving in,” Schwartz noted of the I.R.S. snub. He called both federal rebuffs “stigmatizing.”

Ironically, ACORN is run by quintessential, door-knocking community organizers — “There’s that word,” Schwartz noted — just like how Obama got his start, which Republicans belittled him for during last year’s race.

Of course, the real reason the conservatives were bent on bringing down ACORN is because it was a threat to them — and a highly effective one at that — Schwartz said. The Defund ACORN Act had been introduced “50 times going back to 2006,” but never passed, he noted.

Changed the game
Created in 1970, the grassroots group had been largely “under the radar,” organizing people in poor communities, as Schwartz explained it. The Republicans started to go after them during the 2004 presidential election, but Bush won, and things cooled off a bit. But for the 2008 presidential election, ACORN did a massive voter-registration effort, which impacted decisions in key swing states like Pennsylvania.

“They signed up 1.3 million people, and they were just about all black and Hispanic people,” Schwartz noted. “You’re introducing a huge amount of black and Hispanic voters that can change a race.”

ACORN employed 13,000 people for the voter-registration push, and received $20 million in grants for the effort. Although Republicans cried fraud, Schwartz said it was unjustified. Out of 1.3 million voter-registration cards, only a few hundred were invalid, he maintained, adding that ACORN checks the cards very carefully.

“They were in the crosshairs of the new right — the Becks, the O’Reillys, the Limbaughs — Limbaugh has survived from the old right,” Schwartz said. The embarrassing videos were all the ammunition the conservatives needed.

“They went after Van Jones,” he noted, of Obama’s green-jobs czar, who was forced from office in early September for signing a 9/11 Truth petition. “I think they think they’ve got another notch on their belt — ‘We got ACORN.’

“They went for the tea parties in July,” he said. “In August, the right were controlling the town halls. And then it was ACORN and S.E.I.U. who organized to say, ‘Let’s not let these people take over.’

But while ACORN has been weakened, the battle isn’t over, Schwartz assured.

“Maybe they’ve taken ACORN and they’ve got a noose around its neck — but the work is going on,” he said, though adding exactly how that will happen is being worked out.

ACORN has 400,000 members nationwide, who each pay $10 in dues per month — a serious amount of money, he noted.

“Where does it go? What do you do with that?” he asked. “It’s a major asset.”

Schwartz, who is the Village’s Democratic state committeeman and formerly district leader, has been embroiled in many tough local issues. As chairperson of C.B. 2’s Waterfront Committee, for example, he’s had to mediate the sometimes-tense relationship between residents and gay and lesbian youth — with some residents demanding an earlier curfew on the Christopher St. Pier, and the youth calling for a later curfew. Being ACORN’s top attorney has brought him challenges on a whole new level.

“To sort of move from Greenwich Village and New York City politics to being in the middle of the venom of the right,” Schwartz put it. “It’s invigorating, it’s exhausting. It takes away time from my kids and my wife. But it’s been an amazing experience.”

Schwartz said ACORN’s fate is a lesson to be learned about the power of the Becks and the Limbaughs — whom he called “dangerous entertainers” — and the hard right.

“They’re demagogues,” he said. “People should stand up to them, or we’ll lose everything that we won last year with Obama — or they’ll at least paralyze the Obama administration the way they did for Clinton for most of his presidency.

“All it takes is to say to them, ‘Go shove it. You’re wrong.’”

 

 

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