- Socialist community organizer
longtime leader of ACORN
Born in 1951, Bertha Lewis grew up in Philadelphia. In 1968-69 she attended Hanover College, and then returned to Philadelphia to work for a telephone company. In the early 1970s Lewis moved to New York to work for Theater Off Park, a Manhattan company whose operations she soon oversaw. In the early 1980s she became involved with a tenants’ group of “urban homesteaders” living in a rundown apartment building in the South Bronx and paying low rent in exchange for the work they did to repair and refurbish the dwellings.
In 1986, after leading a community campaign against housing developers who unsuccessfully attempted to evict the tenants’ group, Lewis took a job as a community organizer for Banana Kelly, a South Bronx activist group. Soon thereafter she relocated to Greensboro, North Carolina, where she returned to college.
In 1992 Lewis went to work for ACORN, first as a counselor to first-time home buyers, and then, in 1995, as head of its housing-development unit. In 1996 Lewis became the head of ACORN in Brooklyn, and by the end of 1997 she was Executive Director of New York ACORN.
In her new position, Lewis also had command of ACORN’s various front groups, serving, for instance, as co-chair of the Working Families Party (WFP), a 30,000-member-strong outgrowth of the socialist New Party and connected with Andrew Stern and his SEIU labor organization. Speaking just a few days before Hillary Clinton won her U.S. Senate seat in 2000, Lewis explained the high expectations that WFP placed on politicians whom it endorsed: “Candidates know that when they’re on our line, they’re committed to certain things […] Hillary knows that if she wins, we’re going to be knockin’ on her door. She won’t be able to hide.”
In the following eight years, Lewis’s career thrived at ACORN. In 2004 she was one of ten national recipients of the Citizen Activist Award of the Gleitsman Foundation. A year later, she was given the 2005 New York State Black and Puerto Rican Legislators' "Leon Bogues Award." In May 2008 Lewis was appointed CEO and Chief Organizer of ACORN, succeeding CEO founder Wade Rathke. She started her tenure just as an embezzlement scandal began to break, with Rathke informing his national staff that his brother, Dale, had embezzled nearly $1 million from ACORN. Lewis, meanwhile, focused her attention on organizing ACORN’s national get-out-the-vote campaign for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. By October of 2008, Lewis and ACORN were facing widespread charges of voter fraud.
Despite media scrutiny over embezzlement and voter fraud, Lewis and ACORN were poised for a financial windfall with Obama’s presidential victory later that year. Not only had the group vigorously organized for Obama, who was a former ACORN employee, but Obama had appointed Lewis’ former assistant and friend, Patrick Gaspard, as his political director. ACORN had previously (betwen 1994 and 2008) received $53 million in taxpayer funds, and now it was poised to receive even more money: the group was slated to help organize the upcoming 2010 census, which would provide it with additional funds and key statistical information for future elections.
However, when James O’Keefe’s videotapes exposing the unethical practices of ACORN were made public in the summer of 2009, Lewis and her organization came under a firestorm of criticism. Lewis initially sought to contain the controversy by firing all the employees who appeared in O’Keefe’s videos and characterizing them as nothing more than a handful of individuals whose actions were not consistent with ACORN's normal standards. Lewis also threatened to sue Fox News for airing the videotapes, and she lashed out at O’Keefe, asserting that his “disturbing” actions underscored a history of racism.
But Lewis could not halt the political repercussions. In July 2009, Congressman Darrell Issa (R - California) filed a House report investigating ACORN as a criminal enterprise. By September 2009, the Census Bureau severed all ties with ACORN, quickly followed by Congress which voted to defund the organization. On October 6, at a Speakers Committee news conference, Lewis affirmed her intention to fight on: “Nothing will be able to wipe away these 40 years of work, and nothing will be able to stop us from 40 more.” She championed previous “ACORN victories,” including $15 billion for its low-income constituency over the last decade, and she lauded her organization as a “whistleblower” that had attempted to prevent the subprime mortgage crisis -- although evidence shows that ACORN’s work negotiating with major banks under the Community Reinvestment Act was partly responsible for the crisis.
Just five months later, in March of 2010, ACORN’s $25 million budget had fallen to $4 million, further diminished by massive legal fees. Lewis continued to spin the scandal as a “series of well-orchestrated, relentless, well-funded right wing attacks that are unprecedented since the McCarthy era.” But with various ACORN chapters splintering away -- most prominent among these the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and the New York Communities for Change -- Lewis announced that ACORN was folding, effective April 1.
ACORN nonetheless continued to operate, with Lewis overseeing a legal battle to reinstate federal funding. During a March 25, 2010 speech to the Young Democratic Socialists, an arm of the Democratic Socialists of America, Lewis publicly embraced her socialist ideology, declaring: “First of all let me just say any group that says, ‘I’m young, I’m democratic, and I’m a socialist,’ is alright with me.” She also suggested that conservatives planned to reinstitute segregation and set up internment camps in the United States:
“Right now we are living in a time which is going to dwarf the McCarthy era … It is going to dwarf the internments during World War II. We are right now in a time that is going to dwarf the era of Jim Crow and segregation.”
In the same address, Lewis identified immigration as America's "next big battle":
"And the reason this is so important is, you know, here’s the secret [whispers]: We’re getting ready to me a majority, minority country. Shhhh. [applause] We’ll be like South Africa. More black people than white people. [laughter] Don’t tell anybody....
"The future of our country is people of color. And how that’s going to change our psyche and our economics, this is why folks are grabbing so hard to change the economic paradigm, because we gettin’ ready to have a majority country of people of color. And the fear of a black planet is real."
Lewis especially condemned the Tea Party Movement, calling it a “bowel movement” filled with “racism.” Two weeks after ACORN’s faked dissolution on April Fool’s Day, Lewis sent out a mass email declaring that “ACORN is not dead!” -- asking for support and asserting that private donations had actually increased since the scandal erupted.