Pearl River As part of the 50th anniversary of ACORN, we’ve talked to various leaders and organizers of ACORN over the years about their reflections on the organization and their time. In that vein we talked to Steuart Pittman on Wade’s World.
Steuart recounted his path with ACORN. He had hired on in Chicago after finishing at the University of Chicago around 1984 and after eighteen months or so was transferred to Des Moines, as head organizer of Iowa ACORN. After four or five years there, getting married, having a child, he and his family moved back towards Maryland for a bit. He worked with the National Low Income Housing Coalition briefly, and then did another stint with ACORN for a couple of years out of the Washington, DC, office as national campaigns director. From there he went back to farming and horses training and raising, including setting up a nonprofit that picked up retired racehorses and rehabilitated them. In 2018, he was elected county executive, which is kind of a cross between a county judge in the South and a mayor of the county in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, unseating a Republican incumbent. Steuart said on the campaign trail and in general, he credits what he learned as an ACORN organizer in the field and what horses taught him in barn, pasture, and track.
We revisited some of the old Iowa campaigns around environmental problems with meatpacking and his work in organizing to force an agreement with what was Norwest Bank at the time under the Community Reinvestment Act that meant loans coming into the more than a half-dozen neighborhood organized in Des Moines. He remembered buying a house for $35,000 back then as well as buying our ACORN office for about the same price at that time. The biggest campaign had been to force accountability on a development being promoted by John Ruan, whose main claim to fame then – and later – was building a giant Iowa-based trucking company. In 1985, he was promoting development of a convention center and various parking lots, and we took the operation on, pretty successfully.
Anne Arundel County, Steuart describes, as having the same population as Wyoming and a microcosm of America in terms of rural-urban-suburban splits as well as being the county that includes the city of Annapolis, the capitol of Maryland. In the polarity of these times, when I asked Steuart how he built his coalition and holds it together, one of the answers circled back to his own experience in forcing accountable development. He’s found that making sure development serves the community, rather than just the bottom line for the developers, their cronies, and promoters is not only good public policy, but good politics. He didn’t run from his experience with ACORN, but wore it like a badge in dealing with that issue as well as the issues of equity and fairness for all the citizens of Anne Arundel.
Steuart Pittman is kind to credit some of the lessons he learned as an organizer to ACORN, but it is also clear that as the county executive in Anne Arundel, he’s teaching those lessons and more to a whole county and state, and that might be a program that could bring some of our divisions back together again nationally as well.