“ ‘Do you want a campaigner job taking on multinational corporations?’ ” Katchpole recited one afternoon last week. She turned away from her laptop. “People keep asking me what I am going to do next. I don’t know,” she said. “I’m not much of a policy wonk. But I am absolutely an activist at heart.”
Ever since Katchpole launched an online petition railing against Bank of America’s proposed debit card fees, the bushy-haired, tattooed member of the millennial generation has become a favorite among TV news show bookers and a hero among netizens. After Bank of America aborted its plan Tuesday to charge customers $5 a month to use their debit cards, Katchpole is now coping with the come-down. She finds herself ambivalent about all the attention and the David vs. Goliath story line. She also has more urgent worries emblematic of her generation: Starting in December, the art and architectural history major has to figure out a way to start paying off her student loans, which she says will require payments of at least $200 a month.
“I don’t know what I am going to do!” said Katchpole, a freelance account manager at a political consulting firm called Winning Over Washington. (Its main client is the progressive group MoveOn.org.) “I am going to have to defer my loans. I have no idea. Why should I be expected to pay them off now? Why are colleges charging interest on that stuff? Give us a break. Really.”
Katchpole’s sudden transformation into a guest on ABC’s “World News with Diane Sawyer” reveals how the Internet’s fame-making power works in unpredictable ways.
Katchpole hails from Cumberland, R.I., where her dad, Jim Katchpole, is a machinist and her mother, Kathy Katchpole, is a physical therapist’s assistant. (Kathy said the last name has British roots and has something to do with catching people who evade taxes.)
Molly Katchpole was on the high school debate team and wrote frequent letters to her local newspaper, the Valley Breeze. She slammed a state senator who proposed a bill mandating driver’s license tests to be in English only. She went off on a local father complaining about children being cut from middle school teams.
“I wrote the paper saying we had bigger things to worry about,” she says.
She enrolled at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I., and spent summers interning at art museums in Providence, Boston and Washington — at the National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of Natural History.
By November 2010, her senior year, she began scouring USAJobs.gov, but found nothing. Finally, her older sister’s friend referred her to Ramona Oliver, a former communications director for the Service Employees International Union, who now runs Winning Over Washington. Katchpole got hired there and until recently also worked as a nanny.
One day in early October, she stumbled across some progressive blogs angry about Bank of America’s proposed debit card fees. She had a Bank of America account, and the news began gnawing at her. Katchpole visited the petition-generating site Change.org, where she had earlier signed a petition calling on J.P. Morgan Chase not to foreclose on a soldier’s father.
Now, it was her turn to launch a petition. She typed the headline: “Tell Bank of America: No $5 Debit Card Fees.” Then, she typed the grievance: “When the recession first hit, we gave Bank of America billions of dollars in bailout money. Our reward is higher fees for the same services. At some point, we’ve got to say enough is enough.”
After about a week, more than 100,000 people had signed the petition. The Washington office of Change.org took notice and blasted it out on its e-mail lists. Then, in a publicity stunt, Katchpole went to a local Bank of America branch, withdrew her money (10 $50 bills) and ceremoniously cut up her debit card for the camera crews. She stuffed her money in a kitchen drawer, waited a week or two, then set up an account with City First Bank of D.C. on U Street NW.
Then TV bookers came calling. And there she was on ABC News, CNN and CBS — a person without a full-time job but armed instead with media handlers from Change.org. Soon enough, her cellphone rang. It was an executive in charge of Bank of America’s “global corporate social responsibility” office.
“I told him, ‘Okay I am a little bit busy now. Can I call you back in an hour?’ ” Katchpole recalled. She scrambled to Change.org’s offices in the District so she could return the executive’s call with a Change.org official listening in on a speakerphone. “I got the feeling his call was damage control. He didn’t say anything about needing to make more profits. He just said they wanted to be more transparent about their fees.”
Her petition got more than 300,000 signatures. And, whether it had a direct impact or not, Bank of America caved.
Anne Pace, a Bank of America spokeswoman, told The Washington Post in an e-mail: “We likely won’t comment on the petition itself. We listened to all our customers’ feedback over the last few weeks and decided not to move forward with the debit fee as a result.”
Katchpole doesn’t presume to think that she was the singular force that nudged the bank to change its mind.
“I think part of the reason why I got a lot of media attention is because I was doing a fairly decent job of handling the media,” she said. To her surprise, she said, TV producers thought she carried herself with poise.
But that doesn’t mean she is comfortable with big media: “I was on CNN and the anchor was like, ‘What do you think of these Occupy Wall Street protesters? . . . What advice would you give them?’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t give them any advice because they know exactly what they’re doing.’ ”
Now, in the waning days of her burst of stardom, she is back to her normal routine. She and her boyfriend — a law firm paralegal working against the proposed AT&T and T-Mobile merger — spend their days living frugally. They have no television or car. They rarely eat out. They just bought a tub of 48 random beers for $15 at a grocery store.
She has sent job applications to Planned Parenthood, the Center for American Progress and SEIU but has heard nothing. She is fretting that a grace period for her student loans ends in December.
“I’ll owe about $200 to $250 a month,” she said.
“Oh, she’s got more than close to $400-$500 a month,” her mother said. “She has well over $40,000 in student loans.”
(Katchpole, ever the willful child, said her mother is misinformed.)
There is one last bit of unfinished business for Molly Katchpole. Her parents, it turns out, still have a Bank of America account.