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Politics & Poker: ACORN Aims for 1 Million Member Families’

Shortly after Michael Steele was elected chairman of the Republican National Committee in late January, a woman named Bertha Lewis phoned to congratulate him.

[IMGCAP(1)]It was an unlikely call: Lewis is the CEO of ACORN, the left-wing community organizing group that has been bashed by Republicans and conservative leaders for several years now.

In an interview Monday, Lewis said her call was met at first with stunned silence at RNC headquarters, followed by panic. And she never did get through to Steele. But she figured the gesture would be noted somehow.

“I could just imagine them running around saying, This crazy woman is on the phone,’— Lewis recalled. “I was just calling to congratulate him. What the hell. Life is short.—

Steele took note of ACORN, all right. A few weeks later, he sent out a fundraising appeal, accusing the group of trying to game the political system. From Lewis’ perspective, ACORN’s “great claim to infamy,— courtesy of the

GOP’s regular criticism, is a mixed blessing.

“We never expected the vehemence and the relentless attacks that we got,— she said. “We must have been doing something right.—

Lewis went on: “We didn’t think it would go on after the [2008] elections. But it’s given us 80 percent name recognition.—

The heightened attention has also, in a curious way, given the group the opportunity to take stock and hone the way it does business, and convinced its organizers to combine the shoe-leather street savvy they’re known for with more sophisticated political weapons. Their medium-term and fairly ambitious goal: to double their number of “member families— from 500,000 now to 1 million by the time ACORN celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2010.

That’s especially ambitious when you consider that the group was rocked last year by an embezzlement scandal involving the brother of ACORN founder Wade Rathke, who was sacked by the organization’s board.

[IMGCAP(2)]ACORN — its full name is the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now — occupies a unique place in the political galaxy. A grass-roots operation in the strictest sense of the word, it’s a bottom-up organization that goes into some of the nation’s poorest communities and has an almost exclusively minority membership. It has an unabashed progressive agenda on issues “from potholes to the presidency,— as Lewis likes to say — topping its list nowadays are the foreclosure crisis and affordable housing, health care reform and immigration reform — and lobbying operations at the federal, state, local and hyper-local levels.

ACORN leaders have historically called their group “a community union,— and about 30 percent of the group’s $20 million-$25 million annual budget comes from membership fees. The rest comes from foundations and individual donations. Voter registration has always been a major component of its agenda, and the group claims to have signed up 1.3 million new voters before the 2008 election.

For much of its history, ACORN has largely flown under the radar of the mainstream media and political insiders, known mostly to the alphabet soup of progressive groups it forms coalitions with. But when you develop powerful enemies, you get attention in a hurry.

The hubbub started in New Mexico in the 2006 election cycle, when Republicans accused ACORN of illegal activities with its voter registration drive. GOP leaders at the highest level pressured David Iglesias, the U.S. attorney for the Land of Enchantment at the time, to press charges against the group. But when Iglesias insisted that he could find no indictable wrongdoing, party bosses became disenchanted with him — and thus the scandal over the Justice Department and politicization of U.S. attorneys offices across the country was born.

ACORN has always had a political component to it — the group in fact has a political action committee that endorses candidates but does not contribute money because it can’t afford to. But since the initial eruption in New Mexico, the group has found itself politicized by its critics, and it is trying to respond in kind. After withstanding more criticism of its voter registration work in the 2008 cycle and the more recent pounding in the RNC fundraising solicitation, ACORN was targeted by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who tried to attach an amendment to the stimulus package saying the group could not receive federal stimulus funds.

According to Lewis, ACORN hasn’t received a dime. And she shrugs off the latest round of attacks.

“The Republican strategy is to demonize community organizing because it’s effective,— she said.

With a genuine community organizer now in the White House, Lewis admits that ACORN has friends in high places for the first time in a long time — though she’s quick to debunk the “Republican bugaboo— that somehow ACORN is pulling the strings for President Barack Obama.

“We don’t have our own special ACORN entrance at the White House or our own special hot line,— she said.

But Lewis does note that she has particularly good relationships with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan and with Patrick Gaspard, the White House political director.

What Donovan, Gaspard — and Lewis — have in common is that they’re all veterans of the New York political game. Lewis was an ACORN organizer and leader in New York City for 20 years before taking over the national organization last summer. And apart from her work for ACORN, she is best known as one of the founders of the Working Families Party, a third party that prides itself on pressuring Democrats from the left.

In New York, the Working Families Party, which is largely the creation of liberal labor unions and their allies like ACORN, has its own ballot line, and more often than not cross-endorses Democratic nominees. But it occasionally runs its own candidates — or endorses moderate Republicans. Its goal essentially is to play in Democratic nominating fights as often as possible.

The party is starting to gain some traction now in Connecticut and it has nascent operations in Delaware. Lewis, who is a registered member of the WFP in New York, said the party is hoping to expand slowly into South Carolina and Mississippi and the Midwest.

But that’s the ACORN credo in a nutshell: Constructing a movement block by block, district by district, state by state, until you’re a force to be reckoned with.

“We always console ourselves by saying life is long,— Lewis said. “This is hard work.—

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