"To be honest with you, three years ago we couldn't get a meeting with the dogcatcher. And now we can meet with the governor anytime we want." The boast is from Arnie Graff, an organizer with BUILD, a citizens' group headquartered in Baltimore that is made up of 29 churches with mostly black congregations.
A look at this group--and how it is making its voice heard in Maryland--is illuminating in that its members historically have not been active politically. ("There aren't five liberals in the group," Graff notes.) But BUILD, which supports itself by assessing each church between $500 and $5,500 in yearly dues, is trying to do no less than change the way Maryland banks and insurance companies do business.
In an era when redlining battles are mere memories, the BUILD forces mustered 1,200 people to a February rally against auto insurance rates they say are discriminatory against city dwellers. Maryland Insurance Commissioner Edward Birrane attended the meeting, drew boos and hisses, and has been pressured by the group to reform industry practices. He proclaims, "For a Christian group, they're the most un-Christian group I've met."
At a rally last June, 100 BUILD members tied up the banking operations of the Provident Savings Bank in Baltimore for 20 minutes by cashing in dollar bills for pennies and other bothersome tactics. Their aim was to meet with the bank's president, who had resisted requests to discuss a survey among BUILD member-churches of lending practices, which found few of the city's banks lending money to inner-city residents. Following their action, Provident became one of four banks that agreed to make better use of the Maryland Housing Fund and its program of encouraging home loans for lower-income Marylanders.
BUILD--which Graff said is composed of "the best mothers and fathers in our community, the people who have only worked with the Boy Scouts and the choir"--has managed to alienate several state officials.
"I think they are antagonistic," said Ben Hackerman, director of the Maryland Housing Fund. "We think we're well-known and well-recognized. All the minority real estate brokers know which banks do (participate) and which banks don't."
Regardless of how it is viewed by officials, BUILD membership is growing. It began in 1979 with 40 members, has a paid membership of 1,800 today and is considering expanding to Prince George's County. Members speak from the pulpits of Baltimore-area churches and pass surveys in their collection plates. Baltimore Mayor William Schaefer sends a representative to each of BUILD's monthly meetings. Insurance and banking officials in the state say it's one of the few nonindustry groups they've dealt with in the past year on changing specific rules and practices.
"BUILD will be back in Annapolis next year having done more homework," predicted Byron Roberts, who is the Maryland Insurance Division's liaison with the group. "They infuriated the commissioner, making a big deal out of the discrepancy in (auto) insurance rates for county and city residents. We weren't trying to hide it. It's there and there's no denying it."
Birrane's initial response to BUILD was that he was powerless to handle its main complaint, the fact that insurance companies impose a percentage surcharge on each policy for administrative costs rather than charging a flat rate. City dwellers, who pay more for auto insurance, are paying more than other policyholders for their insurer's rent, office staff and other costs, BUILD complains. After failing to get legislative action on the issue this session, BUILD recently prompted Steven Sachs, the Maryland attorney general, to advise Birrane that he does have the ability to make such reforms.
"We're waiting for action right now," said BUILD's Graff, who came to Baltimore under the auspices of the New York-based Industrial Areas Foundation, an organization concerned with economic and political power of the country's inner-city residents.
The Rev. Nick King, vice president of BUILD and pastor of the Church of the Guardian Angel, notes, "When the insurance fight is over, BUILD will still be around because it represents people and dollars."
Added Marilyn Brooks, a member of the Heritage United Church of Christ and secretary of BUILD, "This is one of the few interracial citizen groups in the state. Through our church surveys, we discovered that we're a $12 million (banking) customer. That's a lot. Even though we may be called obnoxious, it's just unfair things we're trying to change."
BUILD Treasurer Gary Rodwell, assistant dean of faculty at the Community College of Baltimore, notes, "The organization has had quite a profound effect on individuals when they see their power can get the insurance commissioner in the State of Maryland to change his mind when he first told us his hands were tied."
Although the group's optimism on the insurance issue exceeds its results so far, it's clear that BUILD is a growing consumer voice in Maryland. The insurance commissioner's boss, John Corbley, secretary of licensing and regulation in Maryland, acknowledged, "There are many groups with petitions or ideas that don't go forward. I think they BUILD are very well-organized and effective. They know how to put forth their questions."