Josh Dulaney, Staff Writer
Posted: 12/20/2009 07:31:43 PM PST

FONTANA – Bobbi Jo Chavarria got her first taste of political involvement more than 30 years ago in Santa Ana, where her grandmother volunteered as a poll worker during the 1976 elections.

Three decades and a Rage Against the Machine concert later, the 38-year-old ACORN activist has drawn the ire of city officials, conservative residents and right-wing activists in the wake of her public calls for local leaders to condemn the federal 287(g) Program, which allows designated law enforcement authorities to enforce federal immigration laws.

She’s been called a race baiter and a Marxist.

The Fontana High School graduate sat in her southside home last week, reflecting on the swift and increasingly nasty attacks on her character and much-maligned organization after her recent speeches during public comment time at City Council meetings.

“I could’ve backed down and not brought all the controversy … but that would just give credibility to what (the attackers) were saying, and it’s just not true,” she said. “I know how the organization is.”

Chavarria sees ACORN as a justice-seeking group committed to good works in poor and politically disengaged communities.

It’s the organization she joined in 2007 after a cousin and veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq issued a challenge during a late-night conversation.

Her cousin said the military gave him the opportunity to provide for his family while defending his country.

Learn the trick “He said, `I don’t see you making a living doing peace work,”‘ Chavarria said. “I said OK, I will get a job that will pay me to do what I believe we need to be doing.”

It was not her first foray into political activism, which she said was sparked in part by a riot that erupted after a Rage Against the Machine concert outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles during the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

Chavarria said she watched as protesters clashed with police by hurling bottles and rocks at police officers who fired rubber bullets and pepper spray in return.

At least four people were hurt and 10 arrested, according to reports at the time.

“It was just really disconcerting that this was America,” Chavarria said.

Motivated to make a difference, she would join the Peace Alliance, a national nonprofit campaign seeking the establishment of a U.S. Department of Peace.

But it was her cousin’s challenge that would land her in ACORN’s San Bernardino chapter as a community organizer.

Within a year, the organization was embroiled in a national scandal involving alleged acts of voter fraud. Threats to workers in the local ACORN office followed, she said.

“We were getting death threats, weird e-mails and phone calls from people telling us to leave,” Chavarria said. “It was a little rough.”

Chavarria took maternity leave on Dec. 1, 2008.

When she attempted to go back to work earlier this year, the organization was in the throes of another scandal, this one involving a local employee and others in a handful of chapters apparently assisting an undercover couple, posing as a pimp and prostitute, to open brothels.

Still believing in the group’s work, Chavarria hopes to start a chapter here. That will be tough going, according to one observer.

“The symbolic dimension (of ACORN) outweighs its actual mission at this point,” said Renee Van Vechten, a political scientist at the University of Redlands. “When people hear the word, they look beyond (its efforts). For most people, it’s a bad word … it’s a bogeyman.”

Perhaps that’s why Chavarria has considered moving beyond community organizing and instead making a run at governing the city. Last week, she filed papers announcing her intention to run for mayor.

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