ACORN's Presidential forum
The event itself was a funny mix of tones, with a large agenda of serious national issues (and, obviously, guests of national stature) bracketed by what I can best describe as a sort of highschool pep-rally feel, with various folks up on stage leading the crowd in chants (“Who are we? Acorn! What do we want? Justice! …” and “Everywhere we goooo / People want to know / who we are-re / So we tell them / We are Acorn / Mighty, mighty Acorn….”) for 10-15 minutes at a stretch, in both English and Spanish. The mics were pretty good at picking up the stage and not the crowd, so I couldn’t hear for sure, but it seemed like the crowd was pretty into all the chanting and self-celebration. To me, it served as a reminder that I was watching a webcast of a local event, rather than a televised national event, but it’s hard to begrudge anybody their enthusiasm.
First up among the politicians was Michael Nutter, Philadelphia’s presumptive next mayor. After thanks to the hosts (and a reminder that there’s still an election in November), he spoke a bit about the future of Philadelphia. He noted that cities have traditionally been places where people came for opportunity, but that over time we’ve evolved into two separate cities: one where the rich can do anything, and one where the poor are short of options. A variety of points on addressing that – the importance of education, fighting crime, and creating jobs (“the best anti-crime program is a job!”) and the need to fully fund the affordable housing trust fund. Then Acorn had some questions for him, one on predatory lending (I missed most of this, but he mentioned the housing trust fund again as well as federal mortgage assistance), one on support for home repair (he agreed that repair was better than letting properties fall apart, and we should improve the speed of response to repair logs and get rid of the backlog, and a third on gas bills and support for weatherization (he said we need to protect those who get a bill and can’t pay, while pursuing those who get a bill and won’t pay). Nutter wrapped up by noting that he had endorsed Acorn’s complete platform and supported efforts to make more people aware of available subsidies and to prevent cutoffs.
Next up was Rep. Chaka Fattah. He seemed a bit less on the wavelength of the event, referring to candidates who weren’t on the schedule, talking about Iraq and other national woes. It did work as a sort of rallying cry for the need for new national leadership (and thus an intro to the Presidential candidates to come). He didn’t get formal questions, but did talk about predatory lending and then applauded Acorn for its history and encouraged it not to “lower your voice.”
Then there were a series of Acorn representatives from around the country talking about their ongoing projects – one on paid sick days (which they note are not available to ¾ of low-wage workers), another about English as a second language and attempts to obtain citizenship, another about voting rights, another about predatory lending and the foreclosure crisis. [Each of these would subsequently be the topic of a formal question addressed to each of the Presidential candidates.] Then it was announced that Sen. Clinton was running behind schedule, and so they filled another half hour or so with a parade of Acorn folks giving personal testimony to their experiences with cruel immigration enforcement, forclosure, childcare woes, and other tribulation. Oh, and some more crowd chants.
At about 3pm, Sen. Hillary Clinton took the stage to great applause. She started with a series of religious invocations inspired by the setting, as well as a few hat-tips to Acorn for its work through the years. She then talked about the recent increase in the minimum wage and promised to be a partner with Acorn in years ahead. She reminded everybody that “elections matter,” citing the last six years as offering plenty of proof – calling Katrina a national embarrassment (“nobody should be in a FEMA trailer for two years”) and promising to make the rebuilding of New Orleans a priority, and arguing that the poor and uninsured are “invisible to Bush, but not to Acorn, not to me, and not to the next President.” Good speech, good crowd response. Then the questions (note that each involved a substantial speech of its own by the questioner, summarizing the issues and facets, which I’ve boiled down radically; the questions repeat for subsequent candidates, so I just tag them by keyword thereafter):
- Aid to low-income folk is currently a patchwork of programs (LIHEAP, EIC, foodstamps, etc.) . . . (a) will you work to make a program to help hook people up with the right services, and (b) other thoughts on better system/linking? Answer: the example of post-9/11 emergency medicaid – it was cheaper to sign up everybody in NYC than to set up a beauracracy to put everybody through strict hoops. We should definitely lower barriers to access. And universal healthcare! Yay!!
- Predatory lending – we need more governors on the Board at the Fed, better counseling support, etc. Answer: yes, all of those!
- Helping immigrants become citizens – (a) what can you do for undocumented workers already here? (b) What to do now that the Senate didn’t pass the bill? Answer: Very dismayed at bill’s defeat and at general level of demagogery that this issue is attracting around the country. Part of problem is that working people feel there’s not enough for them – more support would ease their concerns…
- Rebuilding America’s cities – programs, schools, other issues… Answer: we need an urban agenda, housing programs, and community development (including supermarkets in cities, diversity), and universal pre-kindergarten…
- Poverty prevention… Answer: We need to raise incomes and “get back to shared prosperity for everyone!”
- Katrina… Answer: we need to take FEMA seriously, as well as rebuilding New Orleans with a plan (including stores, etc.)
- Protecting the right to vote – (a) Will the Justice Department enforce the National Voter Registration Act, (b) Do you support the Feinstein-Dodd ballot integrity act (to keep voter registration drives open), (c) What to do about games played to restrict minority votes? Answer: I support the Count Every Vote Act – a reliable vote is critical to democracy!
Next up was Rep. Dennis Kucinich. He was right down with the chanting motif, spending his first few minutes getting everybody saying “The people united will never be defeated” again and again. He started out talking about universal healthcare and how it shouldn’t be provided through insurance companies (“they profit by not providing care”). We need to reclaim control. He also said we need to teach children, not to take tests, but many things, including a love of learning – we need pre-K for everybody, and college available tuition-free (get the money from the Pentagon budget!). We need to learn to work with other nations. [The crowd is quite worked up and in his pocket as he makes these points.] We need to stop with silliness like cutting down of big trees after 9/11 – “I know what weapons of mass destruction look like. Poverty is a weapon of mass destruction!” etc. His building refrain brought the crowd to its feet… Questions:
- Patchwork poverty programs. Answer: Personal story to show his awareness of the importance of “maximal eligible participation.”
- Predatory lending. Ans: He has plenty of experience with the problem. He would sign an executive order to put a moratorium on foreclosures. He expressed concern about the Federal Reserve as a private entity with its own interests (and those of banks but not people) and advocated unraveling it. He told the Biblical story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednigo here – I’m not clear why – something about having faith in a solution coming through… Also suggested a new WPA.
- Immigrants. Ans: He gave an answer partially in Latin and then in Spanish, so I think I missed something. There are no illegal human beings. Exploitation is a the core of the debate. NAFTA was a lie sold to the American people – he would cancel it early on in his Presidency (and tell Mexico to improve its worker conditions – unionization, safety, etc.).
- Cities. Ans: He had a variety of experiences as Cleveland’s mayor. He understands the city, lives in the city, etc.
Last was Sen. John Edwards. He didn’t come up until 4:30p, so I heard only his opening speech and not any of the questions that followed. He started by noting the recent passage of a new federal minimum wage, but promising that when he became President, he’d do much more – take the MW to $9.50 and index it to inflation. He said “your agenda is basically my agenda.” He said that the cause of his life is poverty, and strategies for ending it: (a) expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, (b) strengthen laws protecting unionization efforts, (c) educate people about finances (e.g., saving) to fend off predatory and payday lending effects, (d) establish real universal healthcare, (e) make available a million new Section-8 housing vouchers, (f) give free tuition from students with a promise to work… Edwards also had the crowd’s sympathy, and his sincerity about this issue was convincing. I wish I could have stayed to hear him answer the group’s questions, but I had family in town and needing my attention.
Overall, an interesting event, and I’m glad to see the candidates pushed for specifics (and able to provide them) on a range of issues facing working-class people. The organizers did a pretty good job working with the ever-shifting schedules of national political figures, but the fact of the matter is that a 5-hour event on a weekday is unwieldy for working folks, bloggers, and most other people who might have genuine interest in the issues. I hope that future events can have tighter schedules and/or be at times of day/week that make them more accessible. Meantime, thanks to Acorn for putting this forum together, to the Bright Hope Baptist Church for hosting it, and to the organizers for inviting me along!