Affiliates of the once mighty liberal activist group ACORN are remaking themselves in a desperate bid to ditch the tarnished name of their parent organization and restore federal grants and other revenue streams that ran dry in the wake of a video scandal.
The letters A, C, O, R and N are coming off office doors from New York to California. Business cards are being reprinted. New signs with new names are popping up in front of offices.
The breakaways are trying to shed the scandal that emerged six months ago when videos showed some ACORN workers giving tax tips to conservative activists posing as a pimp and prostitute. But while their names are different, most groups have kept the same offices and staff.
That, critics say, means the groups really haven't started anew and severed all ties to ACORN, which faced accusations of mismanagement and rampant voter registration fraud well before the video brouhaha sent even longtime Democratic backers scattering.
Even the national office of ACORN, or the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, doesn't blame affiliates for bolting from under its umbrella — conceding its entire 40-state network has been devastated by what backers characterize as right-wing attacks.
"It is true that these range of attacks do damage to your brand and your good name," said Kevin Whelan, ACORN's communication's director. "The other reality is that we are starting to win some vindication on the facts. But vindication doesn't necessarily pay the rent."
ACORN's financial situation and reputation went into free fall within days of the videos' release in September. Congress reacted by yanking ACORN's federal funding, private donors held back cash and scores of ACORN offices closed.
On Wednesday, a U.S. judge reiterated an earlier ruling that the federal law blacklisting ACORN and groups allied with it was unconstitutional because it singled them out. That doesn't mean any money will automatically be restored, however.
For years, ACORN could draw on 400,000 members to lobby for liberal causes, such as raising the minimum wage or adopting universal health care. Locally, its activists pushed city officials to fix broken street lights and it pressured banks to offer more favorable loans to low-income Americans. ACORN was arguably most successful at registering hundreds of thousands of low-income voters, though that mission was dogged by fraud allegations, including that some workers submitted forms signed by 'Mickey Mouse' or other cartoon characters.
There's a chance the national group could disband, and it, too, may consider changing its name.
"The sorts of attacks ACORN has faced as an organization are unprecedented since the McCarthyism in the '50s, and it remains an open question whether an organization can survive that," Whelan said. "Time will tell."
One of the latest groups to adopt a new name is ACORN Housing, long one of the best-funded affiliates. Now, the group is calling itself the Affordable Housing Centers of America.
Others changing their names include what were among the largest affiliates: California ACORN is now Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, and New York ACORN has become New York Communities for Change. More are expected to follow suit.
The housing affiliate has lost more than most. The federal cutoff slashed its budget 75 percent, from $24 million in 2009 to $6 million in 2010. It's closed half of its 33 offices, cut half its 250 staff and reduced numbers of low-income families it gives financial advice to from 20,000 to 10,000.
An unadorned paper sign with the new name was taped at the entrance of the group's Chicago headquarters on a recent afternoon. But much else is unchanged: The new group is in the same offices; and the head of the old group, Mike Shea, is the head of the new one.
Still, insisted Shea, "We really have no relationship with ACORN whatsoever."
Many opponents don't buy it. A distinguishing feature of ACORN for years has been its complex web of affiliates, some of which shared money and manpower without ever assuming ACORN's name, said Frederick Hill, spokesman for Republicans on the U.S. House oversight and government reform committee.
"The idea that some ACORN organizations are trying to obscure who they really are should be troubling to Americans," he said.
A recent report on ACORN compiled by the House Republicans whom Hill represents describes ACORN as a "shell game" with a structure "designed to conceal illegal activities, to use taxpayer and tax-exempt dollars for partisan political purposes, and to distract investigators."
To credibly claim a clean break, argued Hill, the new groups should at least have hired directors from outside ACORN.
"But I can't tell you of a single example our committee has seen where we say, 'Geez, it really looks like they're purging all the individuals who are with national ACORN,'" he said.
The breakaways insist they have changed in more than just name, pointing to tougher ethics rules and better management. Shea said his Chicago-based housing group brought in independent auditors to pour through its books; all, he says, gave them high marks.
"We can prove to our stakeholders that we've put reforms in place and what you saw on the video can never happen again," he said.
In the end, all the confidence-building measures may do little good when it comes to divisive, politically active groups like ACORN. Foes like Hill and a vast range of longtime detractors are sure to harken back to the old ACORN names at every opportunity.
"If a company changes its name, the hubbub eventually dies down," said Bill Lozito, head of Minneapolis-based branding firm, Strategic Name Development. "Changing a name associated with politics is a lot tougher. People won't let go of the original name and won't forget."
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