No political movement in America can be considered complete unless it is capable of mounting a significant election campaign. In 1972, ACORN made its first entry into electoral politics. ACORN's first effort was a "Save the City Rally," which all the candidates for Little Rock City Board of Directors were invited to attend.
Next, ACORN's Political Action Committee decided to back two candidates for Little Rock School Board, Doug Stevens and Bill Hamilton. Stevens then did something no citywide candidate had ever done: he lost the wealthy 5th Ward but still won election to the Board. Buoyed by their success, ACORN members decided to go one step further and run for office themselves.
In 1974, ACORN members, joined by a group of International Ladies' Garment Workers Union members, ran for seats on the Pulaski County Quorum Court. The Quorum Court, a legislature for the county that had 467 members and a few budget responsibilities, was not a well-known institution. Partially because few people were aware of its potential for promoting the interest and needs of low- and moderate-income citizens of Pulaski County, ACORN leaders seized the opportunity and ran a slate of candidates for the court. 250 candidates ran and 195 won. It was a clear victory, but, as often happens, political power holders resisted mightily.
Judge Mackey, County Judge and chair of the Quorum Court, fought ACORN's efforts to exert citizen control of Pulaski County's budget. First, he ruled that a dozen or so of the ACORN members were not qualified to serve. Then, when ACORN members tried to postpone full approval of the budget for two months, he miscounted votes, manipulated the meeting and short circuited the democratic process. ACORN members responded by walking out in protest to deprive the body of a quorum. Nevertheless, Judge Mackey ignored the loss of a quorum and passed the budget. The budget skirmish was lost, but a valuable battle was won. For several years thereafter, the budget became a real working document and the Quorum Court was a genuine democratic body. Issues important to low- and moderate-income people could be heard in Pulaski County politics. ACORN had earned its wings in democratic electoral politics.
The Growth of the Movement (1975-1980)
In 1975, ACORN became a multi-state organization with new branches in Texas and South Dakota. On December 13, sixty leaders from the three ACORN states elected the first associate Executive Board and the first ACORN president, Steve McDonald, to deal with matters beyond the scope of the individual city and state boards. Each year thereafter saw three or more states join ACORN with a total in 1980 of twenty states. The great expansion of the organization led to multi-state campaigns beginning with a mass meeting of 1,000 members in Memphis in 1978.
ACORN national conventions and actions in 1978, 1979 and 1980 led to an entry into national politics through participation in the 1980 Presidential campaign. ACORN used the campaign to apply pressure to presidential candidates during the nomination campaign when they were in most need of grassroots support - a specialty of ACORN's. They also created the opportunity for the members and leaders to develop their ideas on a national agenda for the organization.
In December, 1978, ACORN held its first national convention in Memphis, Tennessee to discuss and initiate a national platform for low- and moderate- income people. The convention was planned to coincide with the National Democratic Party conference or "miniconvention", which was conducting hearings to develop issues for the upcoming Democratic National Convention. At the end of the platform-drafting conference, ACORN convention delegates marched on the Democratic Party conference with the basics of a nine-point "People's Platform." They demanded a meeting with President Carter but were only allowed to demonstrate in the street. ACORN, however, had created a permanent presence in national politics, that reached the highest levels of power.
The following summer, July 1, 1979, ACORN's second National Convention and Platform Conference was held in St. Louis. The purpose of the action was to refine the People's Platform and to complete six-months of discussions in ACORN organizations around the country about their visions for the future of the nation. The planks included positions on energy, health care, taxes, housing, community development, banking, jobs and income, rural issues, and representation. The issues addressed in the planks were all issues that local and state chapters of ACORN had addressed at one time or another in their communities.
After the convention passed the People's Platform two hundred of the 1,500 ACORN delegates marched to the suburban home of S. Lee Kling, the chair of President Carter's campaign finance committee. They planted nine boards in Kling's lawn labeled with the categories of the planks in the platform. This was followed by repeated and often successful attempts to present the People's Platform to campaign aides and candidates from both parties, including Rosalynn Carter, Hamilton Jordan and Ted Kennedy. ACORN also presented their positions to the Republican Platform Committee in Detroit and to delegates individually and assembled in the state party conventions in ACORN states.
The outcome of the 20/80 campaign was rather mixed. The ACORN Commission was chaired by Mickey Leland, Congressional Representative of Houston, and included ACORN members Elizabeth Martinez of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Charles Crews of Jacksonville, Florida. The commission held hearings on the proposals for increased participation and representation for low- and moderate-income people in Detroit, Philadelphia, Chattanooga, Houston, Los Angeles, and Little Rock. These meetings gave ACORN members opportunities to be a part of the decision making process and to express their views on the Democratic Party's inclusion of low- and moderate-income people in its organization.
However, the outcome of the commission's recommendations was disappointing. When the commission presented its recommendations to the Democratic National Committee in Philadelphia in 1982, they were merely recommendations for greater inclusion of low- and moderate-income people. This was a far cry from ACORN's recommended quotas on low- and moderate-income representation, Party Organizing Councils to directly represent organized groups of low- and moderate-income people, and removal of all barriers to low- and moderate-income representation in Democratic Party activities.
Nevertheless, the campaign had won some valuable victories for ACORN and its members. First, it made ACORN a truly national organization of some 30,000 ACORN families in every section of the country. The 20/80 Campaign provided a specific and meaningful goal for expansion and helped to unify an organization that had grown from three states to twenty in only five years. Most importantly, it brought together different groups of people from a far-flung constituency of Westerners, rural Southerners, big-city Northerners and so on, into a unified group with a shared set of goals. Their ability to work together and have an impact on an institution as large as the National Democratic Party demonstrated the value of a tightly knit national organization.