Media attention taking toll on local ACORN chaptersby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — The Minnesota chapter of ACORN is feeling the heat brought on by the parent organization's problems.
Minnesota is not among the places where ACORN staffers were caught on video advising a couple posing as a pimp and prostitute on how to disguise income, but there are signs the local organization's role of advocating for poor Minnesotans has been diminished due in part to the media furor over the video.
ACORN's national problems have brought out both its critics and defenders in Minnesota. The governor banned state money from going to the group even though ACORN hasn't received state funds for years and several Republican lawmakers have asked for an investigation into voter fraud.
Similar calls last year turned up a single case of an ACORN worker holding on to registration cards too long.
ACORN said it has about 30,000 dues-paying members in Minnesota. However, signs of activity at the local chapter's St. Paul offices have diminished.
On one recent day, only two people were present in what in years past was a scene bustling with organizers and members.
Kevin Whelan, deputy national political director for ACORN, said the neighborhood organizing work continues as volunteers and paid staff attempt to sign up supporters.
Whelan said membership and revenue are down slightly and the number of staff is down to two full-time and three part-time workers.
"Obviously, we've had to spend time dealing with the whole range of political attacks," Whelan said. "But the organizers and board are calling through lists of members to encourage people to step forward and donate to become active and support their organization in this time."
ACORN's Minnesota chapter is not a charity, a 501(c)(3) in IRS parlance, and thus is not required to publicly reveal financial details.
Jeff Skrenes, who worked on the ACORN Minnesota staff a decade ago, has dropped his ACORN membership, but not because of the infamous video. He said he stopped contributing money this year when he thought ACORN's advocacy for poor people in north Minneapolis declined.
Skrenes now works in north Minneapolis for the Hawthorne Neighborhood Council. He credits ACORN for past achievements.
"In 2007, when Minnesota passed some landmark anti-predatory lending legislation, frankly it wouldn't have happened without the organizing the work ACORN was doing at the Capitol and in the neighborhoods finding people and bringing them to the legislature to tell their stories," Skrenes said.
ACORN is one of about a dozen advocacy groups that lobby Minnesota lawmakers on issues affecting poor people during the legislative session.
State Rep. Jim Davnie, a south Minneapolis Democrat, said the ACORN staff he has encountered have been smart and helpful in advancing consumer protection laws.
Davnie recalls 15 years ago he attended a workshop for first-time homeowners put on by ACORN Housing that he said helped him become a homeowner. Davnie said there are no other groups with ACORN's membership base that lobby on behalf of the state's low income residents.
"I would be concerned that if ACORN goes away," Davnie said. "Because from anything you can see in the reports, stupid behavior by folks in other states there is a void that would need filling to make sure that all Minnesotans are represented in the political process."
Chip Halbach, executive director of another advocacy group for low-income people, the Minnesota Housing Partnership, said ACORN is inherently controversial because of the tone the group adopts and the population it serves.
"ACORN is one of those groups that has taken on the toughest work in advocacy," Halbach said. "They've chosen and are committed to helping people really on the margins of our society and economy to be engaged, and that's where they are. They're helping people find their voice, they're helping people to figure out a reason to vote or otherwise engage in the pressing issues we're all facing."
ACORN's sister organization, ACORN Housing, a separate entity, continues to help first-time home buyers and people working out foreclosure problems with lenders.
- Morning Edition, 10/21/2009, 7:20 a.m.