Leader Blues

Monday, October 27, 2008

EDITORIAL > > A good word for Acorn

When Wade Rathke, a lanky redheaded youngster from New Orleans, organized poor dwellers of east Little Rock to fight for better services from the city 35 years ago, none of us imagined that this latter-day Sampson would one day bring down the pillars of the world financial establishment and destroy American democracy.
But if you can believe John McCain and a coterie of right-wing publicists, that is what Rathke and his band of poor-people’s champions have been up to and with great success. They insinuated or outright charged that Rathke’s Acorn was the culprit in the collapse of the global banking system and that they were about to subvert the democracy by stealing millions of votes on election day, most likely for Barack Obama.
They wiped out the commercial and investment banks along with hedge funds and global insurance companies by pestering banks and the government mortgage companies to give more loans to undeserving black families and other denizens of low-income neighborhoods, and they are about to thwart the democratic process by infiltrating the polls with millions of faux voters with names like Mickey Mouse and Tony Romo.
It is a measure of the fantastic weirdness of the political season that such baloney gets any currency outside the paranoid journals of the demented right. But the Acorn banking and voting fraud stories consume Fox News and they have made their way into respectable prints like the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. You can catch the drift by reading Mike Masterson’s persistently perverse column in the Democrat Gazette.
Still it was a shock to see McCain, a normally level-headed but increasingly desperate candidate, claim in his final debate with Obama that Acorn was conspiring to destroy government by the people. Acorn, McCain said, was “on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history” and it “maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.”
The next day the Associated Press carried a story quoting unidentified sources as saying the FBI was investigating possible vote fraud by Acorn in several states. If that is so, the Justice Department is still using the justice system for political ends, which the current attorney general has sworn that he has ended. He probably has. There will be no prosecutions or convictions of vote fraud against Acorn.
Let’s take the two accusations separately.
After Rathke started Arkansas Community Organizations for Reform Now in Pulaski County, he branched out and started groups in other cities. Acorn has organizations in many large cities now. One of its objectives — maybe its central one — was to get banks to invest in poor neighborhoods like they do in affluent ones.
Congress provided a great tool in 1977 with the enactment of the Community Reinvestment Act, which encouraged commercial banks and thrifts to try to meet the needs of borrowers like potential homeowners in downtrodden parts of their cities. It was supposed to stop discriminatory lending practices in minority neighborhoods like redlining. The law was Acorn’s leverage in Little Rock, Chicago and many other cities and it is fair to say that over three decades it got home loans for tens of thousands of minority and low-income families who otherwise wouldn’t have got them.
Until 2001, the government aggressively enforced the act. A Federal Reserve report in 2000 concluded that lending under the act had been profitable for the banks and not overly risky. But the Bush administration stopped enforcing the act, and in 2003 his chief thrift regulator bragged that he was sharply scaling back the scope of the reinvestment act.
But now Acorn is somehow supposed to have bludgeoned the banks, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac under the Bush regime into tossing billions of loans to Acorn clients, who promptly defaulted. The real estate agents, the bankers and all the others who profited from the housing bubble and suddenly lax regulation were not to blame at all — it was Acorn. And, of course, President Bill Clinton, who wanted the government-sponsored mortgage companies to buy all these subprime loans. For that account, see the Democrat Gazette full-dress editorial last week. The banking crisis, it said, was Clinton’s fault, though it occurred eight years after he left office.
That is baloney, too, like Acorn’s villainy. The bad subprime loans that caused the banking crisis were made almost altogether by independent mortgage firms and bank affiliates that were not covered by the reinvestment law and had no reckoning whatever with Acorn or any of the people it fought for.
The voter fraud scandal is still more absurd. Acorn has been doing voter-registration drives for years, like both parties and many other interest groups. They hire people to go out and sign up people who are not registered to vote. They are required by law to turn in every registration form even if it looks phony on its face, like the famous Mickey Mouse application turned in — flagged as phony — by an Acorn affiliate. Registration groups are not allowed to pick and choose which forms they will submit, no matter the reason. It is up to voter registrars to determine which forms comply with the law.
Acorn’s procedure is to review all of the forms brought in by its solicitors and flag those that are suspicious in some way — a fictitious-looking name or address or the frequent omission of information. A few registrars have made an issue of some of the Acorn forms, even though Acorn had alerted them to the suspicion.
The Republican Party, the Democratic Party, church groups and others run into the same problems with registration affidavits. Thousands get thrown out. Bad ones sometimes get registered.
Even at that, it is not voter fraud unless someone actually shows up to vote under the fictitious name. There has never been a single prosecution of fraud for a person voting illegally with an Acorn-gathered registration, and the Republicans have been pushing federal prosecutors for years in Arkansas and elsewhere to go after Acorn, mainly for the publicity before elections.
No, our economy and our democracy are still safe from Wade Rathke and the other few shepherds of the poor. From the paladins of the rich, it is not so certain.