WASHINGTON - To put it bluntly, and he does, Kermit R. Thomas has surprised a lot of white men in suits.
Mr. Thomas, the lead lobbyist on banking issues for the National Black Chamber of Commerce, has met with numerous industry officials to promote community lending and inner-city investment, and he chuckles when recounting how they are often caught off guard by the group's pro-business philosophy.
"They think we are coming with a hand out. We are not," he said. Instead, the group's message to bankers is: "We are coming armed with information to help you facilitate and do your job better - a whole lot better."
The organization, which represents about 64,000 black small-business owners, seeks to convince bankers that community lending can be profitable if done right, and it offers to provide guidance and an introduction to local financial institutions and other organizations who can serve as partners. The group contends that the only way to raise capital and increase savings in underserved areas is for the black business community and large financial institutions to work together.
"When banks loan money, they want to loan money where they have some reasonable assurance that they are going to make an adequate rate of return," Mr. Thomas said. "When you say you are in business, you are in business to make a profit, but you can do good and also be financially rewarded."
That appeal to mutual interests gets attention and can be an instant icebreaker, he said.
"A number of these organizations have never worked with an African-American organization that has truly been out there representing the economic interests of the African-American community as it relates to wealth building and asset accumulation," he said. "We've shocked many of them. Whenever I hear one of the corporate CEOs say, 'Boy, ain't he a work of art,' I know that I have reached him somehow."
One of his fans is Steve Bartlett, president of the Financial Services Roundtable.
"Kermit is one of the most extraordinary advocates for the power of the private enterprise system I've ever met," Mr. Bartlett said. "The message I received from Kermit is that, 'In the beginning, there are earnings.' He and the Mr. Thomas' group have a fundamental understanding of that."
Mr. Bartlett credits him with persuading the Roundtable to weigh in behind the new markets bill, which Congress could adopt before adjourning in the next few weeks. Propelled by President Clinton and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, the bill would provide billions of dollars of tax credits, matching funds, and loan guarantees for banks and other institutions for establishing or for buying into venture capital investment pools aimed at urban and rural redevelopment.
"You would think we would have picked it up from President Clinton and Denny Hastert. But we didn't," Mr. Bartlett said. "It was Kermit Thomas who brought it to my attention. I think many in the industry had dismissed it as another government grants program, which it was not."
Mr. Thomas, however, is not afraid to administer some tough love. For instance, he partly blamed the dearth of savings among many blacks on financial institutions, which he said have failed to offer them individual investment products that can grow in value.
"The African-American community, as I see it, we are never marketed appreciating assets. Everything we are marketed on TV, everything [is] 'Buy, buy, buy,' and it's a depreciating asset .Right now we can go buy a $40,000 car before they will give us a $40,000 mortgage on a house," he said.
Also, Harry C. Alford, president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, sent a letter to Fannie Mae this week saying that the government-sponsored enterprise may be failing to live up to its commitment to invest $438 billion in community projects through its 46 local "partnership" offices around the country.
Mr. Thomas said members of his organization have complained that Fannie has not delivered on its pledges; Mr. Alford has asked the company for proof that it has fulfilled its commitments. (A Fannie spokeswoman denied the accusation Thursday and said mayors and community activists around the country could vouch for the program's accomplishments.)
Mr. Thomas said banks often tout big Community Reinvestment Act commitments but fail to follow through. "We don't want to see a press release," he said. "We want to see tangible results."
Banking industry officials generally heed Mr. Thomas, not only because of his forceful advocacy but also because of his intricate knowledge of bank regulations, CRA and capital requirements, and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. That kind of self-preparation is important to him, he said. "A lot of times a lot of groups go to the table not knowing exactly what the rules and the regulations are."
Unlike many community development activists, Mr. Thomas said Gramm-Leach-Bliley is a good thing for inner cities and rural areas and their local financial institutions. He encourages black-owned banks to apply to become financial holding companies under that law and to take advantage of its powers to affiliate with other financial companies and cross-sell banking, insurance, and securities products.
"Every financial product or service I could think of I would be offering at that small institution," he said, adding that the group will hammer such messages home at a banking conference the chamber has scheduled for February in the Bahamas.
Since being hired by the chamber in April, the 39-year-old Mr. Thomas said he has lobbied almost exclusively for the new markets bill and for so-called individual development accounts, which would let banks get tax credits for matching deposits by low-income people into limited-purpose savings accounts. A founder of two community newspapers in Atlanta and New Orleans in the late 1980s, he served for years as a community-lending consultant based in Atlanta before moving here this year.
Mr. Thomas is considered an up-and-coming lobbyist, and the Chamber might expand its legislative priorities here next year. The group is closely studying deposit insurance reform and legislation sponsored by Rep. Richard Baker, R-La., to reform oversight of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Rep. Baker, whom the chamber calls a close ally, is a candidate for House Banking Committee chairman next year.
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