Bertha Lewis on Life After ACORN

The former president of the defunct community-organizing group is back with a new venture. She talks about the video scandal, lambastes Democrats with "no spine and no courage" and explains how the conservative right actually helped her move forward.

Karen Bleier/AFP
Karen Bleier/AFP

One year after the community-organizing group ACORN disbanded — after an undercover video scandal and a denial of federal funds by Congress — the organization’s former president is back. Today Bertha Lewis is at the helm of the Black Institute, her newly created “action tank” dedicated to immigration reform, environmental justice, education and economic fairness.

While Lewis is optimistic about her latest endeavor, she still can’t escape the controversy surrounding ACORN. Once the nation’s largest grassroots network for the poor, it provided employment services and advocated for affordable housing. But the organization acquired notoriety during the 2008 campaign when it registered more than 1 million low-income voters but submitted thousands of registration cards with phony names and addresses.

Although ACORN workers had themselves flagged and reported the suspicious cards, the organization was peppered with accusations of voter-registration fraud, and became a target for Republicans convinced that it was a criminal enterprise.

ACORN shut its doors last year, following broad condemnation over videos posted on Andrew Breitbart’s website. The undercover videos, made by conservative activists James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles, showed the pair dressed as a pimp and prostitute and appearing to get help from ACORN workers for child trafficking and other illegal activities.

Several investigations, including probes by the California attorney general and Brooklyn, N.Y., district attorney, proved that the tapes were heavily edited to be completely misleading, and found that ACORN employees had not facilitated prostitution or otherwise violated the law. The exonerations, however, didn’t come until after the U.S. Congress had already stripped the group’s funding. (Later still, Congress’ own investigation further cleared ACORN of any wrongdoing.)

For her part, Lewis is looking ahead. She talked to The Root about how her former colleagues are doing their old work under new names, her current efforts to get more African Americans behind immigration reform and why she’s annoyed by many progressives — and surprisingly grateful to the conservative right. 

The Root: After ACORN disbanded, many chapters reorganized under new names. How are they faring a year later?

Bertha Lewis: There are 18 independent organizations around the country. Some of the old ACORN chapters were combined, with several states becoming one entity. We learned great lessons from our tribulations, and we decided that organizing by any other name is still organizing. The former chapters and their boards incorporated themselves, renamed themselves and made sure that the reforms I had been putting in place around structure, financial management and operations were carried on. I’m happy to say that they’re very strong, and we’re in about 25 states.

Glenn Beck and the conservative right actually helped us create 18 bulletproof community-organizing Frankensteins that they’re going to have a very hard time attacking. We owned up to what our weaknesses were, we were realistic about our strengths, and so these new entities are carrying on ACORN’s work of organizing low- and moderate-income folks. Thank you very much, Rush Limbaugh.

TR: ACORN seemed to shut down so quickly, without putting up much of a fight. Why?