South Dakota Senator Jim Abourezk was Special

ACORN Politicians

Little Rock       Former US Senator James Abourezk from South Dakota was a different kind of politician on a score of counts.  Being the first Arab-American to be elected to that body certainly would be on the list. Being the first person elected who was raised on an Indian reservation, the Rosebud, should be noted. Deciding to be “one and done” and not run for reelection also puts in a small circle as well, beginning his first term in 1973 and checking out in early 1979.

But, for a one-seater from a small western state, he got things done, as the Times notes in his passing at 92 years old in Sioux Falls:

His biggest achievements as a senator concerned support for Native Americans. He proposed the establishment of the American Indian Policy Review Commission, which studied legislative possibilities to address problems in that community. The laws that resulted included the 1975 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, which granted tribes more autonomy in administering government programs, and the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, which established controls on the adoption of Indigenous children by white families.

He was very different – and special – in other ways, too, that are less well-known and won’t show up in the news of the world.  He knew well what few in high office would ever admit:  that there were limits to his power and what he could get done.  He learned it early and acted on it quickly and unusually by contacting ACORN.

There was a strange call that came to me in our Little Rock office in 1974 from his Senate office.  Our policy has always been to not screen calls, so I picked it up.  His aide wanted me to come to Washington to meet the Senator.  He’d read an article about ACORN somewhere.  I don’t remember if it was the Roy Reed piece in the Times or something in Mother Jones, but the bottom line seemed to be that he wanted to see if ACORN would be willing to organize in South Dakota like we had been doing in Arkansas.  Whatever had given him this wild and unusual idea, he knew we would stir things up by organizing families in Sioux Falls and go after the powers that were, whether public or private, so I wondered what he could be thinking, though I agreed to the meeting.

ACORN was still young at only four years since I had founded the organization in Little Rock.  We had taken some tentative and ultimately unsuccessful shot at expanding in the boot heel of Missouri in late 1973 without much to show for it there, but it had taught me and everyone else lessons for any future expansion.  I met with the Senator in his office in DC with his chief of staff, Tom Daschle, and the director of his Sioux Falls office who had originally placed the call.  Abourezk was straight to the point.  In the few years he had been in the Senate, he had realized the limits, but he wanted to play a part in really changing the lives of lower income families in the state, and thought, given ACORN’s experience in Arkansas, also a smaller state where we had worked in both urban and rural areas, we could do the same in South Dakota.  He wanted to know what it would take?  I told him we would have to recruit staff and assign one of our best organizers to make it work, a lesson learned from Missouri, and it would take real money, which I needed him to commit to helping us raise.  He said he would, and I said I would take it to the board, and we would do our part to raise what he couldn’t.

Maybe we could have raised the money to expand then, as we later did in Texas, Missouri, Louisiana, and Tennessee, but being invited to organize in South Dakota by a US Senator gave our ambition a certain cachet and legitimacy.  Getting David Hunter of the Stern and Ottinger Foundation a meeting with Jim in DC sealed their support for the work and ended up making ACORN the largest recipient of Stern funds in the history of the foundation when they closed their books, as well as leveraging other foundations to help us grow.  Jim did his part by letting us work out of his Sioux Falls office for a number of early months, use the WATs line, and the telex machine in the days before fax machines had their day.  He found it harder to raise his share of the money past the in-kind help.  Daschle, later a US Senator for three terms from the state himself, was always graceful about it and never rude, but also was clearly ever more anxious for us to move out of the Sioux Falls district office and to a place of our own.

Jim wanted to live up to his commitment to help raise the money, since we had lived up to ours and were on the ground by the middle of January 1975.  I can’t remember whether he called me directly or had one of the top staff call me after they had met with him in DC on this issue.  There was unlimited money that he could raise for ACORN, but he needed to know how I felt about getting government money, and in this case the money would be from countries in the Middle East.  We didn’t want any government’s money, period, so my answer was easy, but I also told them that I didn’t think we could survive or explain getting money from Iran, Saudi Arabia or the like.  He understood that, of course, which is why he asked directly.  I was 27 years old, so my convictions were crisp and clear, and my imagination limited and rigid in the work.  I’m sure it was the right decision at the time, and I don’t regret it.  At the same time, I have sometimes wondered what ACORN could have been and done, if we had tapped the gushers of unlimited funds from other countries, then or later, rather than being such a Boy Scout and so sure about the backlash that would have hit us in Arkansas, where legislators were already calling us Communists and, if it ever got out, which it always does, would have claimed we were foreign agents or something.

We’ll never know, but I do know that ACORN’s history, what it has accomplished, and continues to accomplish, might never have happened without that call in 1974 from a very unique US Senator, Jim Abourezk, and his total commitment to serving all of his people in every way possible.  I’m eternally grateful.  Jim Abourezk will always be my Senator, wherever I might call home.