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The Nose

Planting Seeds

Posted 8/29/2001

If at first blush it seemed an unlikely alliance, the growing kinship between city Comptroller Joan Pratt and Baltimore's scrappiest community group is making more and more sense, at least in political terms. In recent weeks it's started to look like a primer for the mayoral wannabe's 2004 campaign platform.

On its face, Pratt's emerging relationship with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) seems an obvious strategy for opposing Mayor Martin O'Malley. Since he took office in late 1999, the group has visibly and vocally criticized Hizzoner, who in turn, ACORN leaders say, has consistently blown the activists off. Political Maneuvering 101: Your enemy's enemy is your friend.

At the Aug. 22 Board of Estimates meeting, Pratt cast the sole vote against a $1 million city loan for CitiFinancial to spruce up its St. Paul Street digs. While Pratt is wont to use her slot on the five-member, mayor-controlled board (which has to approve all major city expenditures) to counter O'Malley--sometimes, it seems, just for the sake of countering him--this vote fits a larger pattern, within which may lie the kernel for her 2004 run.

For months now, CitiFinancial and its subsidiary, the Associates First Capital Corp., have taken heat from activist groups, which accuse them of engaging in "predatory lending"--hooking mostly low-income homeowners into spiraling debt with high-cost, high-interest loans (The Nose, March 14). So when the city's planned $1 million loan to CitiFinancial (which the New York-based firm will not have to pay back if it employs 900 people at the downtown site for 10 years) came before the Board of Estimates, ACORN, the city's loudest foe of predatory lending, showed up to protest.

Among others witnesses, ACORN trotted out William Scott, who testified about buying an East Baltimore house from a renowned property flipper with a CitiFinancial loan--the high fees on which left him unable to make his mortgage payments, forcing him to give up the house. "The person who sold him the house is in federal prison," ACORN organizer Glenn Scott (no relation to William Scott) told the board. "The person who brokered the loan [for the house] is in federal prison. And the people who financed that loan are asking you for $1 million."

For every ACORN claim, CitiFinancial officials countered that any wrongdoing was the work of the Associates before CitiFinancial acquired that firm last fall. And Ruth Louie, the mayor's director of community investment, sang CitiFinancial's praises, saying the parent company is committed to reforming its wayward adoptee. Board members joined the chorus--save for Pratt, who dwelt on the disconnect between CitiFinancial's defense and ACORN's allegations about its actions. "After hearing that, I had to vote against [the loan]," she told the Nose. "I wasn't convinced that they had not engaged in predatory practices."

The vote follows Pratt's pledge last month to look into investments Baltimore's pension boards have with Household International, a mammoth Illinois-based consumer-finance company under fire for alleged predatory lending locally and around the country (Mobtown Beat, Aug. 1). When it was brought to her attention that two city retirement funds own a collective $6.2 million worth of Household bonds, Pratt promised to bring the issue before the two boards at their August meetings. (The comptroller sits on all three of the city's pension-fund boards.) She did just that but says the boards are undecided about what to do.

"The game plan is, the pension board wants to wait and see what the City Council is doing," she says, noting that a bill introduced last September by council member Keiffer Mitchell Jr. (D-4th District) would bar the city from "depositing or investing funds in, with, or through predatory lenders" is languishing in a council committee.

Pratt says her newfound fervor on the predatory-lending issue is rooted in principle, and ACORN believes her. "She's taking it on a spiritual and moral basis, which I think is really good, because it isn't just lip service," says Mitch Klein, a lead organizer for the group's city chapter.

Maybe so. And certainly Pratt gives those who have spent years fighting the ruinous effects of predatory lending in the city their highest-profile partisan. But it's clear she's also mining support where O'Malley--who's widely perceived as snug with the city's business interests--is losing some political ground, in the neighborhoods and the activist community. And with ACORN, Pratt has found a fitting match. The group is known for its in-your-face tactics, like taking busloads of members to posh neighborhoods to picket the front lawns of landlords and lending-company execs. (In the minutes before the Aug. 22 Board of Estimates meeting, a City Hall security guard and a couple of cops were busy working out their plan of action should a typically disruptive ACORN contingent show up.) And Pratt's No. 1 political adviser, Julius Henson, knows from getting in the opposition's face. It was Henson, after all, who during the 1999 mayoral race showed up at an O'Malley endorsement rally with dozens of screaming Lawrence Bell III backers to drown out the happy moment.

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