Group Has Financial Industry in Its Sights

By Brady Dennis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 22, 2009

At a crowded 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, a mild-mannered woman named Heather Booth stepped to the podium.

"I'm the director of Americans for Financial Reform," she said, speaking at first with a softness that belied her four-decade history of full-throated activism. Soon her voice rose in the stuffy room, 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 second-floor 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.

The coalition has signed on nearly 200 consumer, labor and civil rights organizations 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. This week, the group's advocates began working on the ground in 16 states, from Florida to California.

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 health-care system. It faces the difficulty of raising money -- the goal is $5 million -- during a recession. Perhaps most important, it faces a banking lobby that is well funded, well organized and determined to safeguard the interests of the industry.

The group still lacks resources and visibility, but Booth insists 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 in the coming weeks, Booth and others are hoping their coalition can add a voice that has been absent -- or at least muted -- during previous debates.

"What we're really hoping to do with 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."

If there's one thing Booth knows, it's how to make noise.

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