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Acorn Planted In Charlotte

Activist group means to have ongoing influence

Last summer when Creative Loafing asked County Board of Elections Deputy Director Jo Winkler if anything stuck out to her as unusual about voter registration efforts for the coming election, she wrote the word "ACORN" on a piece of paper. The group, which had never been active in

Charlotte before, seemed to be registering a lot of people to vote.

Although the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now didn't open an office here until January of last year, its largely under-the-radar effort in local elections had a huge impact that no one saw coming. Between April and November the group registered 22,791 low-to-moderate income voters in Mecklenburg County, most of whom were Democrats. Thanks to their efforts and those of other groups, John Kerry got the highest percentage of the vote of any Democratic presidential candidate in Mecklenburg County since 1944.

After the election, most people who follow politics assumed that ACORN faded into the sunset, along with the rest of the national liberal activist army that descended upon Mecklenburg after North Carolina Senator John Edwards was picked as the vice presidential nominee.

As it turns out, ACORN was just getting started here.

Until last year, when ACORN rose to national political prominence in the November elections by registering 1.1 million new voters, the organization was better known for the work of its local chapters in major urban centers in the North and Midwest, where it has organized low income people to fight for higher wages and affordable housing, among other issues.

Now its national leaders say they want to build a significant presence in North Carolina and South Carolina, where they previously had no chapters. The Charlotte office will be a key part of that, they say, as will another office they plan to open in Raleigh this summer.

ACORN's national office became interested in Charlotte in part because of the rapid population changes taking place here.

"When they looked at the demographics of how fast Charlotte was growing they were saying that this is a place where there are plenty of low-to-moderate income people and we want to make sure that their voice is being heard on issues," said ACORN Head Organizer Robert Dawkins. The group hopes to become a powerful political force in Charlotte over the next two years.

"When will we be a force?" said Dawkins. "When we can speak for 10 percent of the people in low to moderate income neighborhoods, that's when we will be a force."

As of last week, the Charlotte group had built its membership to 448 members by going door to door in low-income neighborhoods like Tryon Hills, Grier Heights and Villa Heights.

"We ask people what issues they have, what can we help you with," said Yvonne Stafford, President of the Villa Heights ACORN chapter. "What do you think could be improved and what have they not elected to even give you any answers on?"

Most of the time, people complain about overgrown lots, drug and prostitution problems or bad lighting that they say has long gone unaddressed by the City of Charlotte.

So far, it appears ACORN is accumulating a winning record in its skirmishes with the city. In Druid Hills, residents had had little success getting the city to tend to an overgrown vacant lot that was attracting drug addicts and prostitutes until ACORN stepped in.

ACORN hopes to become a key player on issues like affordable housing, gentrification and pupil assignment, as well as playing a role in local elections this fall.

"We tried to get the city to come out and we couldn't, so we had 14 people go out and protest, and after that happened they came out and cut the lot," said Dawkins, "Direct action still does work."

ACORN recently helped members of the Tryon Hills community protest dim lighting on a neighborhood street by inviting a city streetlight coordinator Sandy Wise to a protest march through the neighborhood. As part of the protest, they erected their own streetlight, a mop with a fluorescent light attached.

"Those lights should have been there before we got there," said Stafford. "Let's just say it was an oversight."

The group's goal is to build a membership of 3,500 to 4,500 dues-paying members here and to create an organizational structure that includes chapters with board members in the county's low-income neighborhoods. Members typically pay between $10 and $20 a month in membership fees.

So far, ACORN has neighborhood chapters up and running in Villa Heights, Druid Hills and Tryon Hills and is working on chapters in Grier Heights and Boulevard Homes, where they've just begun knocking on doors.

The group eventually hopes to become a key player on issues like affordable housing, gentrification and pupil assignment. They say they plan to play a role in local elections this fall, which will include a competitive mayor's race, by again focusing their attention on voter registration and voter turnout.

At the height of their voter-registration drive last year, when national money was flowing heavily in their direction, ACORN's office on Woodland Drive boasted a staff of 35.

After the election, the money dried up, leaving them with a staff about 10 percent the size of the old one. That's not unusual for local ACORN startups. The national headquarters gives a local chapter an initial $20,000 to get on its feet, and then it must raise its own money.

That has been a struggle, says Dawkins, but membership dues and the grants and foundation donations the group has gotten have so far added up to a $156,000 annual budget.

While many of the group's members and those they have registered tend to lean Democratic in party affiliation, the group's leaders say they have no plans to stump for the party.

"We're not trying to be friends with the Democrats or with the Republicans," said Dawkins. "We want people to know that ACORN is going to attack either side if we don't think they are doing what low to moderate income people want them to do."

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