GOP Officials Assail Community Group

Freddie Johnson, who said he signed 73 voter-registration forms over five months for ACORN, speaks in Cleveland.
Freddie Johnson, who said he signed 73 voter-registration forms over five months for ACORN, speaks in Cleveland. (By Marvin Fong -- Cleveland Plain Dealer Via Associated Press)
By Steven A. Holmes and Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 14, 2008

ACORN, a community organizing group that has operated for nearly 40 years outside the national spotlight, suddenly finds itself a central issue in the presidential campaign.

Republican officials and advisers to Sen. John McCain have sought to paint the group -- which focuses on low-income housing, voter registration, the minimum wage and other issues -- as radical and have accused it of playing a role in the economic crisis and fomenting voter fraud. At the same time, the McCain campaign has sought to tie the group closely to Sen. Barack Obama.

The charges have come repeatedly, in news releases, conference calls to reporters and remarks on the campaign trail.

Republican National Committee spokesman Danny Diaz called ACORN a "quasi-criminal group" last week during one of a series of news conferences, charging that the group was committing fraud during its voter-registration drives. "We don't do that lightly," RNC chief counsel Sean Cairncross said.

All this leaves leaders of ACORN -- formally known as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now -- agape.

"It's pretty shocking that anyone would say such a thing," Bertha Lewis, interim chief organizer for National ACORN, said of Diaz's assertion. "It's a lie, it's irresponsible, and I'm really disappointed that they would say such a thing. What's the meaning of 'quasi-criminal' anyway?"

Cairncross accused ACORN of engaging in a "systematic effort to undermine the election process" through its voter-registration drives. Media reports have cited problems in 12 states, in which registration cards submitted by ACORN were incomplete or had false or duplicate names or were turned in without a person's knowledge.

Much of the political attention has stemmed from a program in Nevada, where ACORN hired 59 inmates in a work program to help register voters. The state attorney general halted the program. Nevada authorities last week seized records from ACORN's Las Vegas office after accusing the group of submitting fraudulent registration forms, which included names of players for the Dallas Cowboys.

State officials in North Carolina and county officials in Missouri are also investigating registrations submitted by ACORN.

ACORN has helped register 1.3 million voters in 21 states and routinely notifies local officials of incomplete or suspicious registration cards, Lewis said in a recent interview. She said local election officials sometimes use those cards to "come back weeks or months later and accuse us of deliberately turning in phony cards."

In a statement, Lewis said that "groups threatened by our historic success" have gone after ACORN because of whom the group registers: As many as 70 percent of the new voters are minorities, and half are younger than 30.

The McCain campaign also has sought to link ACORN to the financial crisis. One of the campaign's online ads says the Chicago chapter of the group was engaged in "bullying banks" to issue "risky" mortgages -- "the same type of loans that caused the financial crisis we're in today," the ad's narrator says.

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