In an exclusive interview with The Daily Caller, Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) founder and Service Employees International Union organizer Wade Rathke acknowledged that the tea party movement has been more effective than Occupy Wall Street in influencing American politics.
Rathke was unequivocal about the Occupy movement, telling TheDC that “in no way has it had the political impact that the tea party movement has.” Yet because Occupy organizing is “still in its embryonic stages” while tea partiers have been organizing for more than two years, he cautions that “comparing the tea party movement to OWS is apples and oranges.”
While watching ACORN implode in the United States, Rathke has thrived in his new role as community organizer to the world by remaking ACORN International, known as Community Organization International in the U.S., into a worldwide community organization with near-global reach and power. And former ACORN board members say Rathke’s remarkable global turnaround is proof that most observers completely missed ACORN’s bigger picture and its broader goals.
Rathke generally had positive things to say about both the tea party and Occupy movements. “They are substantially mobilizing individuals around a set of principles,” he added. “It’s fascinating that they’re both appealing to many of the same people.”
That’s a point on which Matthew Vadum, a conservative investigative reporter whose book-length deconstruction of ACORN hit stores in May, disagrees. His book, Subversion Inc.: How Obama’s ACORN Red Shirts are Still Terrorizing and Ripping Off American Taxpayers, opens with the provocative question, “How many dead Republicans does it take to satisfy the bloodlust of ACORN founder Wade Rathke?” referring to his contention that Rathke’s “progressive comrades-in arms” planned “to kill delegates and police” at the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minnesota, before a turncoat helped law-enforcement dismantle the plot.*
Vadum sees a world of difference between right-wing tea partiers and left-wing occupiers. “The only point upon which both agree is their hate of bailouts,” he told TheDC. “But that’s it. Zuccotti Park is a small park … The tea party attracted thousands and tens of thousands to their rallies; OWS attracts tens and maybe hundreds. When the tea party rally was over, the tea party left. OWS refuses to leave.”
Rathke said scenes of tea party activists shouting down politicians at town hall events reflected poorly on their movement. But he also acknowledged that scenes of public defecation, drug use, fighting and other violence also left an indelible impression.
“You never let anger get in the way of your tactical position. Anger is a tactic. When you don’t control the anger, you don’t control the tactic … Out of control anger leads to some of the things you mentioned.”
Rathke offered this piece of advice to occupiers and tea partiers alike: “Make sure that the issues you represent are laid out clearly to the public.”
That’s advice the Occupy powers-that-be may want to take to heart. A Gallup poll released Tuesday morning showed that 56 percent of Americans are generally indifferent to OWS protesters and their activities.
T.V. Reed, a Washington State University professor and author of a book on the culture of progressive social movements, told USA Today that Americans find it difficult to understand the Occupy movement since it lacks a cadre of leaders who can consistently articulate their objectives.
Rathke said he was closely following the Occupy movement, and is sympathetic to many of its ideals, but dismissed the idea that he had a hand in making it go.
“Some people think I’m organizing the OWS movement,” he told The DC, “but we know better than that.”
While Rathke hasn’t been tied directly to the occupiers, his former organization has. A Fox News investigation in October found that New York Communities for Change, basically New York’s ACORN contingent operating under a new name, hired around 100 ACORN workers from other cities and paid some as much as $100 per day to attend and support Occupy Wall Street protests.
New York Communities for Change is run by John and Steve Kest, brothers who served as two of Rathke’s chief ACORN deputies. Rathke says he has nothing to do with any ACORN campaigns or day-to-day operations now.
Name changes in the ACORN universe are common now, since its brand is now so toxic. Rathke himself conveniently changed ACORN International — domestically, at least — to Community Organizations International.
ACORN isn’t nearly as well known internationally, and certainly not in the countries where Rathke is gaining a foothold. It’s not very likely the average poor person living in a Nairobi slum has any idea that ACORN has been implicated in criminal activity in the United States.
ACORN’s board ousted Rathke in May of 2008, shortly after learning that his brother had embezzled almost $1 million from ACORN’s financial consulting arm nearly a decade earlier. The money was paid back, but Rathke’s goose was cooked.
Rather than retreating quietly into the world of left-wing philanthropy and union organizing that forms the rest of his professional identity — the Tides Foundation and SEIU’s New Orleans local, both of which he founded — he has quietly built a growing worldwide community organization. Its potential seems nearly limitless.
ACORN International already has a presence in twelve countries across five continents. Rathke is just as likely to be tooling around his native New Orleans as camped out in the slums of Nairobi, roaming the streets of Mumbai, or making the rounds in Dominican villages.
Rathke’s resurgence, say multiple critics, is proof American conservatives won the domestic ACORN battle but lost the global war.
“We tried valiantly to tell people three years ago,” former ACORN board member Marcel Reid told The DC about Rathke. “People should have focused on his organizing efforts inside and outside the U.S.” Instead, says Reid, most observers limited themselves to dissecting a host of voter-fraud allegations.
“People let him get away,” Reid said, “and now that man has taken over the world.”
In the fall of 2008, Reid and seven other ACORN directors became whistleblowers against corruption by obtaining a court order forcing their organization to open its financial books to its board members. The rest of the board pushed back with delays and postponements, and eventually removed all eight from their positions.
They formed a counter-insurgency of sorts, the “ACORN 8,” to caution politicians, labor organizers, and members of the media that ACORN’s size, the scope of its activities, its chameleon-like nature, and its almost certain involvement in criminal activity made working with the organization a risky proposition.
That caution extends to ACORN’s global expansion.
“We see all of this as extension of what ACORN and Wade Rathke always intended,” ACORN 8 spokesman Michael McCray told TheDC. “ACORN International was created long before Wade was removed from the [ACORN] board.”
When ACORN fired Rathke, he retained control of ACORN International, at the time just a rag tag bunch of disparate organizing groups sprinkled throughout the world. But three years later, with Rathke’s organizing focus directed toward his global federation, that group’s growth is no less than astonishing.
Rathke is no longer focused on organizing low-income urban Americans and registering them to vote. Instead, he’s pressuring foreign governments to better fund education in Africa’s slums, pressing for microfinance reforms in the Third World, and organizing Indians to respond when big retailers set up shop in neighborhoods accustomed to conducting commerce with street merchants.
He’s deeply involved in international remittance, the process by which expatriates send money back to their home countries. Community Organizations International operates in many countries with weak banking laws, crooked governments, and little oversight. This, say his critics, is a recipe for graft and corruption.
“Of course we should worry about that,” said Reid. She was part of the original three-person investigative committee that unearthed what she called widespread commingling of funds among now-famous ACORN affiliates like Project Vote and ACORN Housing Corporation. It’s those financial crimes that she says Rathke and those around him are likely to repeat.
With its global reach and in-your-face tactics, the Occupy movement has grown largely by using the same tactics that made Rathke successful, Reid told The DC. Comparing the ACORN founder to Saul Alinsky and his “Rules for Radicals” tactics, she added that “the tea party practiced Alinskyism of organizing while OWS is practicing Wadeism.”
Both McCray and Reid said they participated in campaigns where hundreds of volunteers camped out front of the homes of corporate CEOs who were unwilling to play ball with ACORN. Hundreds of ACORN activists, they recalled, were sent to home addresses to intimidate ACORN targets.
During their time with ACORN, they said, the community-organizing giant redefined and perfected many of Alinsky’s tactics — with a far more aggressive edge.
ACORN’s downfall coincided roughly with Rathke’s reinvention, and it began with guerilla tactics of a different sort, practiced by conservative filmmaker James O’Keefe. His series of 2009 videos showing ACORN employees and volunteers attempting to facilitate prostitution and human-smuggling proposals from walk-in members of urban communities — in fact, O’Keefe himself and his cohort Hannah Giles. Shortly thereafter, Congress froze ACORN’s federal funding. The IRS and the U.S. Census Bureau later terminated their ACORN contracts.
McCray, who was booted from ACORN’s board months earlier, tipped his hat to the young agitator. “There’s no better practicer of Alinsky tactics than James O’Keefe,” he told The DC.
*An earlier version of this report incorrectly cited Matthew Vadum as having contended that “ACORN leaders” sought to “kill delegates and police” at the 2008 Republican National Convention. “[ACORN founder Wade] Rathke had nothing to do with the bomb plot. He did, however, express disgust that a fellow community organizer had foiled the plot by alerting the FBI,” notes Mr. Vadum in a blog post citing the mistake. We regret the error.