Karl Rove v. ACORN

Now we know that Karl Rove spearheaded the firing of David Iglesias, the U.S. Attorney in New Mexico who refused to follow the Bush White House’s orders to intimidate low-income voters by making false charges of “voter fraud.” What The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and other major papers missed in their stories last week was that Rove was specifically targeting ACORN, the community organizing group that has waged some of the most effective voter registration drives in recent memory.

Rove viewed ACORN as a threat to the GOP because of its success in registering low-income voters and turning them out to vote on election day. I describe Rove’s campaign against ACORN — not only in New Mexico, but also in other “swing” states where more low-income voters could hurt GOP candidates — in my forthcoming book Seeds of Hope, a history of ACORN, published by Vanderbilt University Press.

Last week, the House Judiciary Committee released over 5,000 pages of White House and Republican National Committee e-mails, with transcripts of closed-door testimony by Karl Rove and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers. The documents reveal that Rove played a central role in sacking Iglesias, who was one of several federal prosecutors fired in a string of politically motivated dismissals in 2006.

Iglesias refused to cooperate with the White House’s political agenda of prosecuting ACORN for “voter fraud.” Under pressure from New Mexico Republicans and Rove, Iglesias, a Republican and former Navy lawyer appointed by President George W. Bush, did investigate whether ACORN was engaged in voter registration fraud. But once Iglesias realized ACORN was following the rules he refused to smear the group by filing a phony indictment.

Rove’s attempt to enlist Iglesias in the GOP political agenda was not an isolated incident. In many states, Republicans viewed ACORN as a threat and sought ways to demonize and undermine the organization. In 2004 and 2006, Republican politicians at the local, state and federal levels waged a systematic campaign to challenge ACORN’s voter registration efforts.

Republican operatives went after ACORN hard, with a media smear campaign, trumped-up lawsuits in Florida, New Mexico and Ohio, and pressure on state law-enforcement officials to file criminal charges against the group.

As the 2004 election approached, then-Attorney-General John Ashcroft launched a broad initiative to crack down on supposed voter fraud in battleground states, including Florida, Missouri, Ohio and New Mexico, where ACORN was making headway registering voters. In all of those states, Republicans filed suits against ACORN for voter fraud, and, in every case, ACORN was exonerated.

Nevertheless, conservative media continued to smear the group. In October 2004 right-wing news outlets pounced on a story about the organization mishandling voter forms and, according to Rush Limbaugh, “trying to register voters two and three times.” Two years later, after the 2006 election, the Wall Street Journal promoted claims that ACORN was under scrutiny for election irregularities with one headline blaring, “A union-backed outfit faces charges of election fraud.” An editorial included an allegation-that ACORN gave cocaine to a worker in exchange for fraudulent registrations-that was a complete fabrication.

By 2008, attacks on ACORN became a key part of John McCain’s presidential campaign playbook. In the third presidential debate, McCain tried to link ACORN and Obama, a one-time community organizer warning the nation that ACORN was “now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country.” ACORN, McCain said, maybe “destroying the fabric of democracy,” and he insisted that Obama reveal his ties to the community organizing group.

Since it was founded in the 1970s, ACORN has been in the thorn in the side of big business, banks, Democrats and Republicans. It has helped families obtain affordable housing, increased wages for working people, stopped mortgage companies from deceiving customers with predatory subprime loans, cleaned up vacant lots, and saved thousands of Hurricane Katrina survivor’s home from being demolished.

Rove no longer controls the White House, but the GOP and its conservative allies in Congress and the right-wing media echo chamber at Fox News and elsewhere are still using the Rove playbook. Their attacks on ACORN have persisted, part of their propaganda campaign to tarnish Obama and Democrats as “radicals.”

Editor’s Note: This piece, written by National Housing Institute president John Atlas, first appeared in The Huffington Post

John Atlas is a founder of Shelterforce and board chair emeritus. He is the producer of ACORN and the Firestorm, a film directed by Reuben Atlas and Sam Pollard and author of SEEDS OF CHANGE: The Story of ACORN, America's Most Controversial Anti-Poverty Community Group. He is also the former executive director of the Passaic County Legal Aid Society.


  1. Iglesias failed to do his job. ACORN registrants in the 2004 election used 1200 SS numbers that had already been used and belonged to someone else. ACORN is under investigation for such activities in several states and they need to account for their activities. Former members are sueing to get an audit and have been vilified for their efforts. Since Rathke embezeled $1 million it would seem they are justified in their pursuit. Since they receive public funds the public is entitled to know how the funds are handled.


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