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Veteran activist locked in 'David and Goliath' battle for financial reform

Heather Booth leads a coalition of consumer, labor and civil rights groups that is facing off against a banking lobby that is determined to protect its interests.

August 24, 2009|Brady Dennis

At a Capitol Hill news conference recently, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) had just promised a "national debate" this fall on the Obama administration's proposed financial reforms when a pending House vote demanded his presence.

After he departed, Heather Booth stepped to the podium. "I'm the director of Americans for Financial Reform," she said, speaking with a softness that belied her four-decade history of full-throated activism.

Soon her voice rose, brimming with indignation about how an out-of-control banking industry must never be allowed to inflict the kind of anguish on Americans that it has during the current crisis.

"This is a David and Goliath fight," said Booth, 63. "On the one side, you have the extraordinarily powerful financial industry and the Chamber of Commerce on their side. And on the other side, you have the people."

She added, "We know what true comprehensive financial reform is, and we aren't going to stop until we get it."

A month later, in a borrowed office on K Street, Booth and a handful of staff members are trying to figure out how to win that fight against the business lobbyists who line that strip of downtown Washington.

The coalition has signed on nearly 200 consumer, labor and civil rights groups across the country and has undertaken the first steps in what it hopes will become a nationwide grass-roots campaign to build support for aggressive reform.

It has held scores of meetings with lawmakers on the House Financial Services and Senate Banking committees. It has hired a communications firm and begun to discuss a possible advertising blitz later in the year. The group's advocates began working on the ground in 16 states, from Florida to California, last week.

Still, the fledgling coalition faces lawmakers and an American public that, at least for now, are preoccupied with the contentious debate about the future of the nation's healthcare system. It faces the difficulty of raising money -- the goal is $5 million -- during a recession. Perhaps most important, it faces a well-funded, well-organized banking lobby determined to safeguard the interests of the industry.

The group still lacks resources and visibility, but Booth insists that it has a firm hold on the moral high ground.

"What's really on our side is honesty, truth, decency, fairness, accountability and all the values that we prize in this country," she said.

As the national debate that Frank promised unfolds, Booth and others are hoping that their coalition can add a voice that has been absent -- or at least muted -- during previous debates.

"What we're really hoping to do is bang a big drum outside the Beltway," said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and a coalition member. "What we're trying to do is make as much noise as the banks."

Booth likens the current push for meaningful financial reform to her early days as a civil rights activist.

"I view this as a continuation of that struggle," she said. "This is about people's everyday life -- whether you can keep your home, whether you have credit, whether your kids have any promise of a future. That's similar to other fights for democracy and fairness."

The first clash will unfold next month when Frank and his committee move forward on legislation that would create a new agency to oversee consumer financial products such as credit cards and mortgages.

Business groups have swarmed Capitol Hill to warn that another layer of regulation could increase costs, stifle innovation and curtail choices for consumers. They say an agency responsible only for consumer financial products wouldn't necessarily look after the health of the firms providing them and would exacerbate the patchwork nature of current regulation.

Although most lobbyists doubt that they can actually prevent the creation of a new agency, many hope to curtail its proposed scope of powers. Booth and company are hoping to preserve and even strengthen its role.

Other battles lie ahead, such as mortgage and foreclosure relief, regulation of shadow markets and who will serve as a systemic risk regulator for the economic system. How much influence Americans for Financial Reform can exert in each issue remains unclear.

Booth and her allies see this as a historic opportunity. The crisis has touched nearly every American in palpable ways, they say, and led to sustained outrage against the nation's largest financial institutions. In addition, President Obama has made regulatory overhaul an important part of his agenda, and his party holds a majority in Congress.

"We don't get these chances very often. It's a moment in time," Mierzwinski said. "Congress very rarely talks about something as big as what they're talking about. It's a big fight."

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Dennis writes for the Washington Post.

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