Observing from beyond the solar system, a cultural outsider looks in.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

John Edwards and ACORN

On Monday, I was in Philadelphia to see John Edwards speak at both the NEA annual meeting and the ACORN presidential forum. Yesterday, I posted a diary on his speech about education to the NEA. Today's diary covers his speech at the ACORN presidential forum. I can't think of anything more patriotic I could do for the fourth of July than publish a diary about John Edwards's and ACORN's efforts to help working Americans.

ACORN is a community organization that works to support the needs of low and moderate income families and promote social justice. They are well acquainted with John Edwards, who traveled around the country with ACORN President Maude Hurd, long before he announced his campaign for the presidency, trying to get the minimum wage raised in various states. They were successful in six states. When the New York Times recently smeared John Edwards with nasty innuendo about his poverty work, in an article where they refused to talk to any of the beneficiaries of that work, ACORN president Maude Hurd stood up strongly for John Edwards. This is her statement:

Press stories that question Senator John Edwards’ commitment to ending poverty require a strong response from those of us who spend our lives in that fight. ACORN is the nation’s largest grassroots community organization working to eliminate poverty in America.

As ACORN’s president, I can personally attest that Senator Edwards has been a steadfast ally in this struggle – from raising wages to rebuilding the Gulf Coast.

One of the best ways to end poverty is to pay workers fair wages. In the summer of 2005, I traveled with Senator Edwards to cities and states across the country, launching ballot initiative campaigns to raise the minimum wage above the shamefully low $5.15 an hour.

While Senator Edwards could have chosen to do anything else with his time, he chose to spend it on the road with low-wage workers and their allies who were fighting to lift workers out of poverty. Edwards worked directly with grassroots community-faith-labor coalitions on the ground, leading rallies and press conferences to galvanize public support and working outside the spotlight to help organize support and raise funds to bring wage increase proposals to the ballot.

Last November, voters rewarded the efforts of Edwards, ACORN and our allies by resoundingly approving six state ballot measures to raise the minimum wage. As a result, more than 1.5 million of the country’s lowest-paid workers will get a raise. The ballot measures were just the most high-profile victories in a year that saw an unprecedented 17 states raise their minimum wage – many for the first time – including Edwards’ home state of North Carolina.

This movement in the states helped create the public pressure for a long-overdue increase in the federal minimum wage, which was passed last month and will help another 12.5 million low-income workers make ends meet. In addition to his work to raise wages, Senator Edwards has made an ongoing commitment to work with ACORN and others in the struggle to rebuild the

Gulf Coast and help Katrina Survivors return home.
In making poverty the defining theme of his campaign, Senator Edwards has shown his true colors. It is a sad statement that someone working not only to raise the issue of poverty, but to offer ambitious solutions and his put his feet on the ground to end it -- is attacked rather than applauded.

Alicia Russell, the chairperson of Arizona ACORN, also lauded Edwards for his work with ACORN when she introduced him. Her state, Arizona, is one of the states where Edwards helped ACORN to get the minimum wage raised. It should be no surprise then that Edwards got an enthusiastic reception from ACORN members, who know his work well.

I want to thank Machka, who recorded the webcast and made the videos available on YouTube.

Edwards praised the Congress for recently raising the minimum wage nationwide, but said we have a lot more work to do. He announced that when he is president, he will raise the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour, and index it for inflation.

"I have a very simple view about this. I think that anybody working full time in the United States of America should not live in poverty. Period."

Just as ACORN has praised John Edwards, John Edwards praised them during his speech:

I have to be honest with you about something. I met with your board a few weeks ago. I was on the way over here looking for your agenda seeing if there's anything I -- there's nothing I need to study because your agenda is basically my agenda, and the things that I care about are the things that you care about. But I want to say one thing to all of you who are out there active, organizing, working. Sometimes people say to me, they say "ACORN: they get in your face, man!" And I say "GOOD! I hope they keep getting in your face. I hope they keep speaking out. I hope they keep standing up with backbone and courage for people in need someone to speak for them."

Edwards then went quickly through some of his proposals for ending poverty, including College for Everyone, supporting the right to organize and allowing workers to join unions by signing their name to a card, helping families to save, passing a national predatory lending law, true universal health care, and expanding the section 8 housing voucher program to provide more affordable housing. These are just some of his many excellent proposals, which he has laid out in detail on his website.

Edwards explains his College for Everyone program as follows:

"We say to every young person in America, graduate from high school, qualify to go to college, commit to work at least 10 hours a week your first year, we pay for your tuition and books. Very simple."

I find it disgusting that the mainstream media continues to smear John Edwards's dedication to fighting poverty. I have heard him speak on it many times, and I have seen what he has done on it, and I know he walks the walk. You can feel the depth of his passion for this issue when he says:

"This is the cause of my life. It always will be. You know, when we talk about these various policy ideas that all of us care so much about, and that you all have worked so hard on, and in some cases I've been able to work with you on, you know, it's a great thing to have policy ideas -- it is. But we need a President of the United States who wakes up every single morning and in their gut cares deeply about this cause. There are lots of issues facing the president. For example, ending this war in Iraq, which desperately needs to be done. But we need a president who wakes up every morning gnawing inside about ending poverty in America. You are looking at the candidate who has laid out a specific set of ideas and agenda to end poverty in America -- not to reduce it, to end it in the next 30 years, which I completely am convinced is achievable. We need a president who will go out on the White House lawn and say to America, to the entire country, that this is a huge moral cause for our country. It says something about the character of America what we're willing to do about the issue of poverty. It says something about America what we're willing to do about 37 million of our own people who wake up every single day worried about feeding and clothing their children. And I have to say to all of you, and I mean this, you know, Elizabeth and I had to make a decision a few months ago about what we're going to spend our lives doing. And we, like all of you, we've all faced these kind of challenges, we're faced with some serious challenges in our own family, but these causes, the plight of the poor, the disabled, the disenfranchised, all those who desperately need a voice in this country -- this is the cause of my life. It's the cause of Elizabeth's life. And I'm here to tell you, as long as I'm alive and breathing, I will stand up for that cause."

After a relatively brief speech, Edwards was asked a number of specific questions by ACORN leaders. The question-and-answer period was at least as important as the speech itself, and was a part of the program where people already familiar with Edwards's many proposals might gain new information.

The first question asked about the patchwork quality of government services, and the problem of people who are eligible for those services often not knowing about them. Edwards was asked if he would work with community groups like ACORN to reach out to and enroll everyone in the services that they are entitled to.

To paraphrase his answer, it doesn't do any good to have programs that people don't know about them. The responsibility for educating people about these programs should not just be left up to community groups like ACORN, but is the responsibility of the president of the United States.

The second question asked about protecting people's assets and stopping predatory lending practices.

Edwards said he would support federal predatory lending laws and would create a new consumer commission responsible for regulating and monitoring lenders. He said that beyond counseling for families in debt, we need a national home fund for families in danger of losing their homes.

Next, Maria Blanco from New York ACORN asked him about what provisions he would support for immigrants to become citizens.

He said he would consider it his responsibility as president to move the immigration reform issue forward. He considers it a moral issue, because we can't have a first-class group of citizens and a second-class group of laborers. He spoke of America as a nation of immigrants and proposed creating a realistic path to citizenship. He said it's not doable for prospective citizens to have to pay $10,000. He said there should not be a touchback provision, where immigrants have to return to their country of origin in the process of applying for citizenship, because this is not realistic for many. He would support having illegal immigrants pay a fine for having broken the law and require that immigrants who want to become citizens learn to speak English. He also would require better policing of our southern border.

Sonia Mercer Jones from Baltimore city asked him about rebuilding American cities. There were three parts to her question:

1. Would he support a requirement for community impact statements?

2. What would he do to expand affordable housing?

3. What would he do to expand public school programs?

Edwards said he would absolutely support community impact statements and that programs for cities need help everyone in the cities. He pointed out that, just like we have two Americas, most American cities also have two cities, where some residents are neglected.

He repeated his call for a million new section 8 housing vouchers and for rebuilding and restocking our affordable housing supply.

He also talked about making sure that all schools in America provide quality education, no matter where they are located, and about providing incentive pay for inner-city teachers.

Bertha Brown from Pennsylvania ACORN asked about improving income, wages, and working conditions. There were three parts to her question as well, but she noted that Senator Edwards had already answered one of them and thanked him for it.

1. She was going to ask about an increase in the minimum wage, but instead just thanked him for the promise he had already made.

2. Would he support the healthy family act, which would provide sick leave for people to take care of their family members ?

3. Would he support an increase in the earned income credit?

Edwards pointed out that he had also addressed number three already, but expanded his answer, saying that he would expand the earned income credit, get rid of the marriage penalty in it, and also expanded to single people.

He said that a healthy family act, which provides a minimum of seven days for workers to take care of sick family members was only asking for very low amount of time, and is the least that we can do.

Next, Tony from Texas ACORN asked about what he would do to rebuild New Orleans. While asking her question, she acknowledged that Edwards had already talked about this a little bit, and said they know about his commitment to this issue. In fact, several of the people asking questions indicated in one way or another that they already knew that Edwards was committed to their issues.

She asked him whether he would support the Gulf Coast housing act introduced by Senators Dodd and Landrieu, and also what he would do as president to help rebuild New Orleans?

Edwards talked about going to New Orleans with several hundred college kids, an effort in which ACORN was also involved, to work in New Orleans over spring break.

He said that nothing has changed in New Orleans except with the efforts of community groups like ACORN. He said that yes, he would support the Gulf Coast housing legislation, but he would go far beyond that.

As president, he would appoint someone to be responsible for making sure progress was made in New Orleans, and he would ask that person for their progress report every day, making sure that whatever needs to be done gets done.

He spoke of the need to make sure people's lives are restored, and said that he would put the people of New Orleans to work rebuilding it, so that residents could have jobs. He also said he would rebuild the levees.

The final question was about protecting the right to vote. Maxine Nelson from Arkansas asked the question and pointed out that there has been an organized campaign to keep people from voting, especially in minority areas. Her question also had three parts:

1. Will an Edwards Department of Justice to enforce the voter registration act?

2. Does he support the ballot integrity act introduced by Senators Feinstein and Dodd?

3. There have been false claims of voter fraud that were made in the past couple of elections as a way to suppress voting. Will John Edwards work with groups like ACORN to speak out on this?

Edwards gave a very strong answer on these questions, and it was particularly satisfying to me, because this is an issue I have been very concerned about.

He said he will work with ACORN to speak out against false claims of voter fraud. He noted that those false claims are nothing more than an excuse to keep legally registered voters from voting. He spoke of the need to make sure voter registration organizations are able to do their job, and said he would support the ballot integrity act. He spoke of the need to stop voter suppression, and added that we need to get rid of black box voting and vote on paper ballots, so that were sure that votes are getting counted. (Edwards is the first presidential candidate to call for open source voting on paper ballots, although he did not specifically mention open source in this speech.)

Hearing John Edwards speak is always delightful and refreshing, and the ACORN forum was another such experience.

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