Gaining Ground by Holding Back

Late last year, St. Louis ACORN members learned that Regional Hospital – the city’s only “safety net” hospital that guaranteed care regardless of ability to pay – was going to close. ACORN’s local leaders decided to mount a fight to keep the hospital open, and to use the hotly contested mayoral campaign as leverage.

Former police chief Clarence Harmon was challenging incumbent Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. Both were African-American, and, although Harmon was far to the right of Bosley (who had been elected with ACORN’s support), both sought support from ACORN’s low-income black constituency. ACORN members declared that the litmus test for their support was a commitment to keep Regional open.

ACORN’s first step was to publicize the issue, which had only just begun to leak out. Unless we could make the issue “hot,” it was unlikely to have much weight in the election. So, ACORN members hit the street. In mid-January we crashed a closed Regional Hospital Board session, took it over with songs and chants, captured the podium, and won a commitment for a public meeting with the Board. The following week ACORN leaders met with the Board in its first public meeting in a year, which focused press attention on the issue.

Then, in early February, 250 ACORN members joined Regional Hospital employees in a candlelight march to the hospital, demanding that the hospital stay open. By then the issue had become front-page news.

But ACORN still needed needed to get the mayoral candidates’ attention. In late January the ACORN Political Action Committee (APAC) held a mayoral candidates forum, attended by 100 ACORN members. Bosley showed up, but was noncommittal about the hospital. Harmon didn’t appear. APAC withheld any endorsement of either candidate.

Over the next month we continued taking the issue to the candidates. ACORN members attended eight candidate forums around the city, with a costumed “Grim Reaper” and flyers, demanding that the candidates keep the hospital open. On Valentine’s Day, 45 ACORN members delivered “You’re Breaking our Hearts” Valentines to City Hall and caught Mayor Bosley fleeing out a side door. The Mayor agreed to come to ACORN’s office to discuss his plans.

Thinking that ACORN had nowhere to go but to support him, Bosley made a few minor concessions but still would not commit to keeping the hospital open. So we reiterated that we were not ready to make an endorsement, and in fact were planning to continue hitting the Mayor until we got a commitment.

With the March 4 primary date fast approaching, ACORN leaders were on TV, radio, and in the newspapers daily demanding that the candidates come up with the money to save Regional. The hospital issue was too hot; Bosley realized he had to take action. Harmon’s campaign also began courting ACORN in earnest, formulating a program to keep the hospital open. Bosley was quick to respond. In the last 10 days of the campaign, he and his top staffers met twice at length with ACORN leaders, and he finally agreed to provide four months’ worth of funding for the hospital, and to set up a task force to devise a long-term plan.

Bosley held a press conference with ACORN leaders the week before the election to announce his plan. And he appointed 3 ACORN leaders to his 11-member task force. Then Harmon called, and two days later held his own press conference, also with ACORN leaders, to announce his own plan to provide funding for the hospital.

“I’d take ACORN.”

We had clearly succeeded in injecting the hospital issue into the center of the mayoral race, and in making ACORN’s role in the campaign evident. One caller to a local talk show made the point: “I’m probably going to vote Bosley,” he said, “but it if were Bosley or ACORN, I’d take ACORN.”

As it turned out, Harmon won the primary, and now faces a strong independent challenger in the April 1 election. ACORN’s campaign is continuing. We extracted a commitment from the independent candidate to match Harmon’s plan for hospital funding. We traveled to the state capital in Jefferson City and won a commitment from the Governor to help convene a meeting with both mayoral candidates, the Governor’s representative, and key state legislators, to devise a long-term plan to save the hospital.

To dissuade the candidates from reneging, we have been keeping the issue in front of the press. Last week we hit the office of former U.S. Senator Thomas Eagleton, a Regional Hospital Board member who advocated closing the hospital. ACORN members, joined by St. Louis Clergy Coalition representatives and several state representatives and aldermen, confronted Eagleton as he tried to drive away in his car. Eagleton drove onto the sidewalk and knocked down an ACORN member. We captured it on TV, and two days later Eagleton resigned from the board.

“the straw that stirs the drink”

The campaign isn’t over; we still have to win a long-term plan for the hospital. But the lesson is clear: we succeeded in using the confluence of a hot-issue campaign and a mayoral election to make ACORN’s organizing “the straw that stirs the drink” in city politics.

In high-visibility elections like a mayor’s race, sometimes we’ll want to endorse a candidate early, sometimes we’ll want to run our own person, but sometimes we purposefully withhold an endorsement while building a large enough campaign to capture the public’s attention and push our issue to the center of the political race. Political organizing more effectively builds our organization when it is defined by issue campaigns. And an election can give us the leverage to force politicians to respond, giving us an opportunity for victory we wouldn’t have otherwise.



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