The major candidates for mayor and D.C. Council chairman promised Monday night that they would push to remove city money from any bank that charges more than 10 percent interest on consumer loans.
Democratic mayoral candidates Adrian M. Fenty and Vincent Gray and chairman candidates Kwame Brown and Vincent Orange made the pledge to the Washington Interfaith Network as part of the group's 2010 election agenda.
Facing more than 800 WIN members representing more than three dozen local congregations, the candidates also agreed to spend more to weatherize houses to spur job creation, create more affordable housing, launch a citywide youth basketball league and stop diverting the city's $100 million Neighborhood Investment Fund to other uses.
But the pledge to join the national battle over high interest rates, billed by advocates as "usury," represents the newest issue in WIN's agenda. Noting that some banks charge a 30 percent interest rate on credit cards while the interest on so-called payday loans can top 100 percent, WIN wants the council to no longer invest or deposit tax dollars in banks that do not cap rates at 10 percent.
In April, Massachusetts's officials announced plans to divest $243 million from Bank of America, Citigroup and Wells Fargo until they abide by state law that caps interest rates at 18 percent.
The Rev. Roger Gench of the N.Y. Avenue Presbyterian Church told WIN members that banks are engaging in "modern-day debt slavery."
"If the D.C. government is doing business with predatory banks, we want the money moved," Gench said.
Claiming to represent 25,000 families in the District, WIN has long drawn the attention of candidates running for office. Although WIN doesn't endorse candidates, it publishes candidate's guides and works to drive up turnout on Election Day.
In 2006, WIN was widely believed to have helped Fenty because his platform closely matched the organization's heavy focus that year on boosting investment in city neighborhoods. This year, however, WIN's primary focus is reducing the city's high unemployment rate.
"Tonight, we place firmly on the front burner the need for jobs," the Rev. Joseph Daniels of Emory United Church told the crowd in a fiery sermon from the pulpit of Ashbury United Methodist Church on K Street. "And as we determine who our next elected officials will be in the mayor's office and city council chair seat, we want to know tonight what are you going to do tonight about jobs because somebody who is poor, or someone who has fallen from the ranks of elitism, is saying, 'I need a job.' "
After Gray and Fenty both pledged to do everything on WIN's legislative agenda - including spending $10 to $20 million annually to weatherize as many as 4,000 homes and create up to 700 jobs for District residents - both candidates had seven minutes to make their case for why they are the better candidate.
Gray vowed to spend more on adult training, expand vocational training at high schools and step up efforts to require District-based companies to hire city residents.
"I think it is unconscionable that we have 70 percent of the jobs in the District of Columbia filled by people who do not live in the District of Columbia," Gray said. "If people walk into here and get business from the District of Columbia and they don't hire our residents, they should get the boot right out the door."
Part of Gray's message, however, was muddled by his delivery. Speaking from a pulpit, Gray started shouting and rushing through his prepared remarks, making it difficult for some (including D.C. Wire) to understand him.
Fenty was far more composed, telling the audience that he kept the commitments he made to WIN during his 2006 campaign.
In his continued efforts to do a better job connecting with voters by promoting his accomplishments, Fenty named dozens of schools, recreational centers and affordable housing projects that have been completed since he took office.
"These are the kinds of thing people used to talk nice things about and make promises about," Fenty said. "Our administration made these commitments to WIN 4 years ago and we have delivered on them."
But Fenty said he needs another four-year term to "continue the fight."