Public Interest Network Filling Some of Old ACORN Space

New Orleans     Talking to old friend and comrade, Zach Polett, on Wade’s World was great fun, and, as always, a political education about the state of play around the country.  Sitting in the KABF broadcast studio, we began by noting that the station was celebrating completing its 34th year, having gone on-the-air at the end of August, 1984.  I asked Zach, if he wasn’t the head organizer for Arkansas ACORN at the time, and indeed he was there as Scott Holliday hit the buttons to begin this long playing “voice of the people” station that is now an institution in central Arkansas

Before the show went on the air, I joked with Zach that I was happy to have him on so that I could finally understand what his current job really entailed, and he laughed and said essentially “about the same as it was,” just not ACORN.  Over recent years since the shuttering of ACORN in the US, Zach has been campaign director for the Public Interest Network, the network directed by Doug Phelps that also includes the old Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), a legacy of Ralph Nadar, and Environmental America, a membership organization.  By the end of the show, it was clear that Zach was still as up to his elbows in progressive politics, initiatives, voter registration and engagement, as he was for all his years as ACORN’s political director.

Their voter registration program is focused on six states, and for the most part they are the ones that count mightily for the mid-terms, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, Colorado, Arizona, and California.  He expects their new registrations might hit 175,000, which he noted isn’t ACORN-scale, but still makes a big difference.  And, he’s right!  Talking later about North Carolina’s latest slap down by federal judges of their Republican legislature’s ham-fisted and discriminatory gerrymandering based on race and of course power, he commented that looking at the decision it was clear that the judges had just gotten ticked and lost patience with the gang, not caring what little time they had before the vote.

Looking at the political landscape from his position on the playing field, Zach was less optimistic than many of the Demo-strategists and pundits about the chances of control of the House of Representatives flipping in the mid-terms.  His verdict was basically, it’s possible, but let’s see if the Democrats can’t blow it.  Two ways that could hurt he underlined would be continuing to talk about disbanding ICE and impeaching Trump, both of which are playing into the President’s hands and are likely to energize their base.  Though complimenting California billionaire Tom Steyer on his contribution to making a relatively unknown African-American mayor the Democratic nominee for governor in Florida, Zach was plain-spoken about the damage Steyer’s impeachment drumbeating is doing.  When it comes to the Senate, Zach thought the Democrats would lose three or four seats this round short of a miracle, though he thought John Tester would survive in Montana.

The more we talked about the national scene, it was clear that Zach and the Public Interest Network have done a good job of filling some of the space left with ACORN’s departure from the national field, albeit with a different constituency and policy tilt, and that’s a blessing for the hopes of American democracy now and in the future.

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Fighting Back the Fear of Voter Registration

Santa Fe     After watching the “The Organizer” and hearing questions at the Santa Fe Film Festival, several of us were having lunch, and invariably as these things go, we were following up on the follow up questions, most interestingly about the need for a return to robust voter registration efforts along the line hallmarked by ACORN.  One of our friends underlined the point most dramatically when looking at the prospects of coming elections in New Mexico as one example, and New Mexico has sometimes been a battleground state.

The question after the documentary from one of the audience had focused on the relative vacuum that had emerged in the wake of the concerted attacks on ACORN, especially around voter registration.  Many community-based organizations, caught in the quandary, had found the ACORN experience chilling, and were afraid to run voter registration campaigns fearing they would be caught in the same crossfire.  It is simply impossible to run a perfect or error-free voter registration campaign, because those involved in registration are legally required to turn in signed forms, even when they know them to be false, but open records laws mean that any fake forms are open to attack in our polarized climate, regardless of the fact that forms do not equal votes, and, as I have often said, everyone knows Mickey Mouse can only vote in Orlando.

Our friend mentioned the recent registration efforts in New Mexico, where no organization was willing to have the work done under its own banner, so a separate organization was created to do voter registration, so that if attacked, it could simply be disclaimed and killed.  This was not a strategy unique to New Mexico, but how tragic for our democracy.  Voter registration efforts should be a proud banner hanging in any organizing office, not something to be feared.  Building cycle to cycle experience and trust in organizational registration efforts builds power and legitimacy in the campaign, as it did for ACORN.  One off efforts, opened and closed after elections, are inevitably ad hoc and don’t build capacity.

Our friend confirmed that fact, noting that the effort hardly yielded 10% of the results that had been common with ACORN’s more widely touted and aggressive registration campaigns.  He spoke wistfully on the need and potential to rebuild such efforts so that 150,000 people might be registered in New Mexico in the coming cycle, sufficient to turn the tables with the swarm of new, but fully qualified voters.

As organizers and stewards of organizational and social change, we have to fight the fear and embrace voter registration and GOTV efforts.  If we can’t defend democratic practice and voting, how can we pretend to build power?  If we can’t finally mobilize defense and advocacy for voting and voter registration, as one of the most fundamental of citizen rights, how can we hope to ever win on any progressive plank?

The old Roosevelt line that we only have to fear, fear itself is still true, and the more we confront it, the sooner we can eradicate it from registration, and, eventually, from voting itself.

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