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.Life of Activism
Booth grew up in Brooklyn and Long Island in a family "that really believed in the golden rule," she said, "that you treat others with dignity, decency and respect, that you should have some basic fairness in society."
She enrolled in the University of Chicago in the early 1960s and soon became active in the civil rights and antiwar movements. She joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and volunteered in Mississippi. In 1965, Booth organized "Jane," a group of Chicagoans who helped other women find illegal abortion providers until the Supreme Court legalized the practice in 1973. She met her husband, Paul Booth, a founder of Students for a Democratic Society, at a sit-in protesting the selective service. They have two children and three grandchildren.
In the early 1970s, Booth founded Chicago's Midwest Academy, which has trained thousands of citizen activists to organize powerfully and effectively for progressive causes. She has headed up numerous efforts for labor and consumer advocacy groups along the way and worked for many Democratic organizations.
She has received praise for her work, but also scorn from conservatives.
In June, for example, Booth was referred to on commentator Glenn Beck's television show as "a true believer, Kool-Aid drinker," whose beliefs amount to "socialist nonsense."
Booth remains unapologetic. She 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."First Things First
The first clash will unfold next month, when Frank and his committee move forward on legislation that would create a controversial new agency to oversee consumer financial products such as credit cards and mortgages.
"It's become the tip of the spear," Booth said. "The largest institutions have lined up against it. There's a juggernaut against this."
Business groups have swarmed Capitol Hill to warn that another layer of government 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 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.
Whatever the outcome, other battles lie ahead, such as mortgage and foreclosure relief, the 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.
"Activists generally rely more on emotional arguments, whereas lobbyists rely more on logic and economic arguments," said Scott Talbott, chief lobbyist at the Financial Services Roundtable, which represents the nation's largest financial firms. "The logic usually prevails."
Others, like House Financial Services Committee spokesman Steve Adamske, welcome the new coalition's efforts.
"Their role is extremely helpful," Adamske said. "Our members need to hear from all sides. If they're just hearing from one side, the consumer issues get lost a lot of times."
Booth and her allies see this fall as a historic opportunity. The current crisis has touched nearly every American in palpable ways, they say, and led to sustained outrage against the country's largest financial institutions. In addition, the new president 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."
A fight Booth plans to boil down to one essential question:
"The people or the biggest banks," she said. "Which side are you on?"