The original version of this article is available from: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1110/44840.html
Had President Barack Obama stopped to survey the crowd of Indian leftists protesting in the heart of New Delhi on Monday, he might have seen a familiar name on some placards: ACORN.
The group, a pioneering organizing force on the left and leading boogeyman on the right, remains alive in the American political imagination, with Republicans darkly warning last week of its role in various local elections. In reality, ACORN entered Chapter 7 liquidation last week, leaving behind a handful of big-city chapters under new names but no national political organization.
So what’s it doing in India, where it joined a protest against proposed liberalization of the retail industry, which could bring chains such as Wal-Mart to the country at the expense of its millions of small vendors?
As befits an organization torn apart in the end by internal chaos, ACORN International has grown out of a schism between ACORN founder Wade Rathke and a group of leaders who ousted him in 2008 amid criticism of his governance. Even before his ouster, Rathke had quietly shifted his focus to setting up groups along the ACORN model in nine countries, largely focused on organizing to demand government help in giant slums in the developing world.
“We run a much more self-sufficient organization — much closer to the ground and much more indigenous” than the U.S. Acorn, Rathke said Monday of the new group, which he said has between 50,000 and 60,000 members. “That’s one of the lessons I’ve learned since the demise of ACORN.”
Rathke created ACORN — short for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now — in 1970 as a membership organization of poor people who paid modest dues to a professional staff to help press governments and corporations for tangible concessions. As the group grew, however, it became increasingly dependent on liberal donors and foundations and on government work — most of which vanished after the conservative videographer James O’Keefe produced videos of employees of ACORN’s housing unit appearing to offer him tax advice in setting up a prostitution business. The group was never charged, but the damage to its fundraising was devastating.
And Rathke said he’s determined not to build an organization that vulnerable again.
“You can imagine what it’s like to run a membership organization in India on 15 rupees a month,” he said.
He’s proudest, he said, of the work the group has done in San Juan de Lurigancho, a megaslum in Lima, Peru.
“It’s just amazing — there’s potable water there now, roads are being paved, there’s stairways being built, two parks are built and one school. We feel great about that,” he said. “But once again these are extremely poor places — stairs and roads going to shacks.”
In India, the group has set up shop in three cities and has been a member of a coalition called FDI Watch, which favors strict regulation on foreign direct investment.
ACORN “definitely has a future” in India, said Dhamendra Kumar, who heads up ACORN’s India office. “The rate of growth is really amazing.”
Obama, who as a lawyer represented ACORN in a 1993 voting rights case, had Republican operatives dressed as squirrels following him on the campaign trail in 2008. But now he’s firmly on the other side of the barricades from the radical group, trying to open Indian markets to American corporations.
“He’s in sales and promotion right now,” Rathke said dismissively of Obama’s focus on American jobs while in India. “I just wish the president had been a little more on message about what’s happening in India and a little less a corporate huckster. I really think the guy has a lot to give, and it would have been a message well-received if he’s going to speak to equity and injustice around the world.”
Rathke’s old internal critics weren’t thrilled to see ACORN resurface. Rathke had agreed to stop using the group’s name domestically when he left — he called it “Community Organizations International” for domestic fundraising purposes — but had irritated his old colleague by using the brand abroad. He’s now free to use it in the U.S. again as well.
“We had an agreement about him not using it here in the states, and the next thing we know the bastard goes and now he’s international,” said Bertha Lewis, ACORN’s final president. “He just stretches stuff.”
“I’m quite proud of the name and history of ACORN and ACORN International, so we have never considered changing the name in any country where we are working,” Rathke said.
And those who have followed Rathke’s career expect ACORN International to make its mark.
“He is the most important organizing strategist and tactician, since the father of community organizing, Saul Alinsky,” said John Atlas, author of a recent history of ACORN, Seeds of Change. “He has succeeded in building effective groups in India and Peru. I believe he will succeed in building others, and they will get stronger over time.”