Democrats and ACORN meet in Memphis By Eric Hartman Memphis, Tennessee By the time Democratic national chairman John White called his party’s midterm “issues conference” to order on December 8, Democrats of a liberal or populist bent were expecting little good to come of it, and some who were delegates expressed their opinion of the whole affair by not even bothering to show up. They didn’t miss much. Chairman White set the tone at the outset by maneuvering for a quick standing vote, with no time for discussion, on a bid by progressives to open up the conference agenda for more floor debate of controversial issues \(“a cute move,” muttered Houston liberal leader Billie to eliminate opportunities for Carter’s critics to prevail at the meeting, duly announced that “obviously the sense of this house is to proceed.” And proceed the convention did, mostly downhill, through a round of deadly-dull welcoming speeches from Tennessee politicians \(typical was U.S. Sen. James Sasser’s paean to the “competence of a compeThis was followed in almost funerary succession by a filmed tribute to President Carter that cost the party $65,000 and made Carter’s voice sound for all the world like Dolph Briscoe’s; Carter’s coolly received in-person address at the close of the first session, in which he tried gamely but preposterously to establish a New Deal pedigree for his austere budget plans for social programs; muddled debate the next day at 24 “issues workshops” and finally, after many delegates had already headed for home, by the convention’s only roll-call vote, on an unsuccessful resolution demanding no cutbacks in social services. The result was variously interpreted as a 60 percent mandate for the President and a 40 percent no-confidence vote from the activists in his own party \(the tally was 822 to 521, with Texas delegates supporting the Carter position by about the same The only pleasant surprises for progressive Democrats came on procedural matters that will affect the party’s 1980 convention. The Democratic National Committee, meeting during the Memphis conference, finally approved rules requiringwith no ifs, ands or buts that half the delegates to the 1980 convention be women. Texas DNC member Carrin Patman, a longtime leader in the equal representation fight, also marshaled progressive forces on the committee to beat back a White House-inspired plan to allow 1980 delegate selection by winner-take-all elections from single member districts. And five American Agriculture Movement members, including Texans Doug Seal of Wellington and Jerome Friemel of Hereford, made a clean sweep in the agriculture workshop election of delegate-advisers to the party’s 1980 platform drafting committee. \(Seal, co-chairman of the Rural Agriculture Caucus. said his supporters back home had “promised to tar and feather me if I didn’t represent them and wear Apart from these procedural gains, however, the issues conference had to be disheartening for those who once hoped it would be the forum for a concerted challenge to the right-wing drift in a Democratic-dominated Washington. However, that challenge was sounded last month in Memphis, albeit from outside the conference hall, by 1,500 members of ACORN, the grassroots Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, who marched in freezing weather from their own national convention in an old theater six blocks away to shout a pointed message: “Jimmy who, Jimmy when, people won’t be fooled again.” Inside, at workshops on urban problems, welfare reform, and the like, delegates who are administrators of social programs angrily denounced proposed reductions in their share of federalkrevenues, but for all their passion, they could not profess to be hurting much themselves ‘because of the party’s breach of its 1976 “contract with the people.” From the ACORN contingent, some of whom had spent 26 hours on the road by bus or car so they could make their point in Memphis, the same arguments came with the force and authenticity of personal experience: these were the majority, the working poor and almost-poor, young and old, black, white and brown, who aren’t getting the help they need from a Democratic-controlled White House and Congress. \(Carter himself wasn’t there to hear them, having been borne away by limousine moments beBack at their own convention, ACORN members from the 15 states where the organization is active spelled out their message, adopting a “people’s platform” that calls for a familiar array of federal measures \(national health insurance. redoubled federal efforts to provide low-income housing, progressive difference: that lowand moderate. income citizens like them should be guaranteed a direct role in deciding \(in governing institutions like the Demokind of help they need. This emphasis on grassroots control of government policy has been characteristic of ACORN since it was founded in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1970 by Wade Rathke, a former National Welfare Rights Organization staff member who sensed that NWRO’s base among mostly black welfare recipients was too narrow to make it effective. Hence emerged the ACORN style of community organizing, grounded on a strategy of forging interracial coalitions of neighborhood groups that stand on the bottom or next-tobottom rungs of the economic ladder. The ACORN convention was in part a celebration of that strategy’s success at the local level in cities from South Dakota to Pennsylvania, from Michigan to Texas. But it was also a risky move away from local and state politics, where ACORN community groups such as those in Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin can reasonably expect to have some influence, to the national level, where ACORN’s 18,000 member families may be lost in the Washington special-interest shuffle. Nonetheless, they are an activist cadre, located mostly in the big cities of swing states that .Democrats have to win to hold onto the White House, so they cannot be ignored without risk. And with 1980 approaching and President Carter looking nervously over his shoulder at potential intraparty rivals like Sen: Edward Kennedy \(whose give-’em-hell speech drew fervent applause from a packed house at the conference workinfluence of ACORN and groups like it will naturally increase. C 0 as w
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