During his years here, former Madison Ald. Austin King had a reputation around town as a bit of a troublemaker. Raise the minimum wage? Yup, that was him, although the state later rescinded it. Mandatory sick days? Guilty again, though he didn't win that battle.
King, 27, left Madison for New Orleans last year, where he's been working for ACORN, a community organization supporting low-income families. And his job -- as national director of ACORN's financial justice center -- has landed him in the thick of things again.
Conservatives, egged on by John McCain's presidential campaign, are blaming ACORN for the subprime housing mess, and accusing it of perpetrating voter fraud and communing with the devil -- er, doing community organizing.
King has appeared on numerous television and radio shows, including CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight and NPR, to defend ACORN. He recently answered questions about the dustup in an email exchange with The Daily Page.
The Daily Page: So you're in trouble again. What's up with that?
King: Ha! I wish I could take credit for the enormous and successful voter registration drive that has put the national spotlight on ACORN, but I can't.
In a nutshell (pun intended), can you explain what ACORN is and what it does?
ACORN is the nation's largest community organization of low-income families, with 400,000 members in 40 states. ACORN does a lot of different things, but it's all about building better neighborhoods and a better economy for the least among us, and that means organizing poor people for political power. You can learn about us at www.acorn.org.
ACORN is accused of pressuring banks to make subprime loans to low-income individuals who couldn't afford to pay them back. What responsibility does ACORN bear for the country's current financial mess?
Nil. ACORN spent the last decade pressuring banks to STOP making predatory loans. Suggestions to the contrary are not reality-based, and usually fail to distinguish between predatory loans and subprime loans. Yes, we want banks to loan to low- and moderate-income folks, but we want safe loans where the borrower's ability to repay is verified over the full term. That is a key provision in the anti-predatory lending legislation we have pushed in dozens of states and with the federal government.
Subprime loans with slightly higher interest rates for borrowers with lower credit scores are fine, as long as those loans are not designed to fail with exploding interest rates, balloon payments, prepayment penalties, negative amortization, and a complete lack of underwriting standards to verify the borrower's ability to repay. ACORN has helped to broker more than $6 billion in safe, affordable CRA loans for those with subprime credit, with a default rate less than 0.05%.
Why does ACORN support making loans to individuals who are low-income?
ACORN believes in creating home-ownership opportunities for poor families. We believe that building home equity wealth is a stepping stone to the middle class, but we oppose predatory loans because they are likely to result in foreclosures and a loss of wealth.
Recently, Sen. McCain released an ad that claimed, "ACORN forced banks to make risky home loans, the same types of loans that caused the financial crisis." I took this as an invitation to look at what ACORN has done over the last decade and what McCain has done over the last decade, so I authored a report we released last week that compares our respective records in depth, available here (PDF). Teaser: ACORN presciently warned over and over again of an impending crisis and fought tooth and nail against risky loans, while McCain was a deregulator.
Critics have also said ACORN will profit from the $700 billion bailout recently passed by Congress. Will ACORN get any of the money?
This was an especially funny GOP lie, and it became their No. 1 talking point against the bailout. No, ACORN will not get any part of the bailout -- and actually we fought against the bailout because it did not do enough to help struggling homeowners. The supposed "ACORN slush fund" provision (which was removed) would have sent money to state governments for affordable housing development, not to ACORN. See a great Media Matters takedown of this lie here.
Last week, a trio of Republican congressmen in Wisconsin called for the state to investigate allegations of voter fraud against ACORN, because its workers allegedly turned in false voter registrations. Other state are considering similar investigations. What happened?
ACORN successfully registered 1.3 million new voters in the 2008 election cycle, 70% of whom are people of color and half of whom are under 30. That's a potential electoral earthquake, and that's why we are being targeted. Obviously, in an undertaking of that scale, there will be a small percentage of problem cards.
A couple of salient facts to consider: ACORN hired more than 13,000 part-time workers to help make this drive a success. The workers are paid by the hour, not by the card. ACORN required them all to sign affidavits that they would not engage in registration fraud and required them to initial every card they produced.
ACORN inspected each card for forgery, called up to three times to determine the veracity of the registrant, and immediately fired and turned over to authorities any employee caught trying to cut corners with fake cards. Some employees nevertheless still tried to take our paychecks without doing the work, and that is a fraud against ACORN, not the public.
Under most state laws, even when we find a bad "Mickey Mouse" card we are still required to turn it in and not destroy it, but we do so in a separate pile under a cover sheet flagging those cards as problematic and likely false. The vast majority of the Fox News hissy fit about ACORN in recent weeks is actually about cards we discovered through our own quality-control processes and flagged as fraudulent to election authorities.
The hyping of allegations about "voter fraud" (which is of course a complete misnomer -- we are talking about registration applications, not votes) is an election-eve trick to distract voters from the real issues at stake in the election.
It is a page out of the Karl Rove playbook, and actually was the cause of the U.S. Attorney scandal, when Republican appointee David Iglesias in New Mexico was fired by [former U.S. Attorney General] Alberto Gonzales for refusing to file trumped-up charges against ACORN on the eve of the 2006 election. See a more complete explanation of this at Talking Points Memo starting here and ACORN's full response to the allegations here.
In last week's presidential debate, Sen. John McCain tried to implicate Barack Obama, saying he'd given ACORN tens of thousands of dollars in funding. What is ACORN's relationship with Obama?
ACORN has a political action committee that endorsed Obama in the primaries; ACORN hired [law firm] Miner Barnhill to represent us in a suit against Illinois for failing to enforce the Motor Voter Act and a young Obama was one of the lawyers who helped us win (and he won an award for his brilliant work); and as a state senator, Obama did two one-hour trainings for our Chicago members about the political process a decade ago (heaven forbid!).
During the primary, Obama's campaign funded a separate organization, Citizen's Services, Inc., for work in a few states for $800,000. CSI subcontracted with several ACORN chapters for Get-Out-the-Vote work, phone calls, door knocking, and the like for about $80,000 total. The non-partisan voter registration work has been completely separate, with no funds from the Obama campaign or the federal government.
As the hysterical attacks have accelerated, we have enjoyed noting that Sen. McCain as recently as 2006 was a keynote speaker at an ACORN-sponsored rally for comprehensive immigration reform in Miami. He eloquently and accurately said to the crowd of immigrants and ACORN members, "The people in this room are what make America special." You can see the video of that here.
McCain was with us before he was against us. With how erratic he has been, I would not be surprised at all if he's paling around with us again after the election, which we would of course welcome.
Even after everything negative he's said about ACORN, you still want to work with him?
McCain will either be the president or a United States senator, and where we have areas of agreement it would behoove our members' interests to work with him to advance our goals. No permanent enemies, to forgive is divine, etc.
McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, keep bringing up ACORN at their rallies. Are you surprised that they're trying to make ACORN a campaign issue?
Unfortunately, no. They're losing so badly that even this level of desperation is unsurprising, and the Rove disciples running the campaign are throwing red meat to the base to fire them up as though this were 2004.
Tragically, this is poisoning the political climate and inciting hatred and fear. Our offices have been inundated with racist hate mail, emails, vandalism, threatening phone calls, and even a death threat against one of the other senior staff. On the receiving end of this vitriol, it is hard to disagree with Congressman John Lewis in his recalling the climate created by George Wallace, which fostered hatred and violence a generation ago.
And completely off topic, how's New Orleans?
Life in New Orleans is wonderful, although the lethargic pace of recovery is maddening and this city government is completely incompetent. My wonderful girlfriend, Lindsay Enters, teaches 25 beautiful second-graders in the Recovery School District and was recently featured on a PBS podcast discussing life and work as an alternatively certified teacher. I particularly miss Wisconsin on the weekends when I am usually alone at the one bar that shows the Badgers and Packers games, drowning in a sea of LSU and Saints fans. And if I may, Aaron Rodgers for President.