Chris Lewis paid his way through graduate school at the University of Michigan by helping to build upscale homes. Eventually, he found himself worrying about "households in need of shelter, not three-car garages."
These thoughts led to him into an activist role that often pits him against banking interests in Washington.
Since 1988, the former anthropology student has been chief lobbyist for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (Acorn), an antipoverty group that has elevated criticism of bank lending practices to an art form.
Will Join Nader Group
Mr. Lewis is preparing to move to the Center for Responsive Law, a Ralph Nader-sponsored organization. There he will analyze what he describes as "corporate welfare" policies that benefit banks and other industries.
Mr. Lewis grew up breathing Washington politics. The son of Joseph H. "Jake" Lewis, longtime press aide to the House Banking Committee, he recalls that dinner conversation at his household was short on idle gossip and long on issues.
Chris Lewis, 31, apparently learned a good deal from his father, whom he describes as an expert in expressing himself with colorful and potent words.
The younger Mr. Lewis doesn't mince words in talking about the banking industry.
Banks are the "biggest welfare queens that taxpayers have ever known," he says.
He characterizes low-interest loans from the Federal Reserve, underpriced deposit insurance, and a handy federal bailout for the savings and loan industry as handouts.
In his new position, Mr. Lewis will also look into the mining, drug, and information services industries, which he says have received tax dollars for research and development, patents, and on-line database systems.
At Acorn, Mr. Lewis says, he learned to appreciate incremental change.
"We take anything we can get" he says. And because Acorn is accountable to dues-paying members, he adds, it cannot reject the "opportunity to deliver something."
Planning Ahead on Legislation
Mr. Lewis played the role of compromiser as the House worked on proposed legislation regarding Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Despite Acorn's demands for stronger language spelling out the public obligations of these government-sponsored enterprises, the House agreed to "far less than what we suggested," he says.
But by supporting the House bill last year, Acorn "got the ball rolling" for the Senate, which has since proposed a bill that is much closer to what Acorn desires.
Albert Jacquez, staff director for the House subcommittee on consumer affairs and coinage, said Mr. Lewis' decision to accept the House bank bill was "an example of the forethought" that Mr. Lewis puts into his work.
Skillful at Compromise
His ability to compromise, Mr. Jacquez said, "is in itself an art." Mr. Lewis drew similar reviews from Steve Verdier, who as lobbyist for the Independent Bankers Association of America is often at odds with Acorn.
"For the views he takes, he is willing to approach nontraditional allies and find common ground," Mr. Verdier said. He noted that Acorn and the IBAA have coordinated their opposition to interstate banking.
Though he can be diplomatic, Mr. Lewis is also known for guerrilla tactics. Last year, he helped stage what he called a "two-day occupation with common folk" during a week when the House Banking Committee was set to consider legislation the group feared would gut the Community Reinvestment Act.
Packing the House
At a House markup session, busloads of Acorn members from inner-city Chicago and St. Louis displaced the highly paid lobbyists who ordinarily lay claim to the hearing room's limited seating.
Mr. Lewis says Acorn's effort helped inject a human element into the halls of Congress by putting a face on the people affected by legislation.
Mr. Lewis, who continues to supplement his income from Acorn by painting houses, believes what Capitol Hill needs now is more simple truth and less "lawyer-speak." Yet, he adds, "there are a lot of people trying to do the right thing."