Page One

Greenlining Institute Looks to Redraw Political Landscape By MATTHEW ARTZ

Friday February 04, 2005

In a town that would relish a role as the intellectual antidote to the current Washington establishment, one well-heeled group intent on battling conservative policy wonks has set up shop on University Avenue. 

“Right now there are a lot of radical right-wing nuts who want to kill the New Deal and undermine the civil rights gains of the ‘60s. We take that as a personal affront,” said Paul Turner, political director of the Greenlining Institute, an organization devoted to fighting for the economic interests of minorities. 

Last April, the 12-year-old nonprofit—looking, as Turner said, to “put the think in our tank”—bought a downtown Berkeley office building at 1918 University Avenue to be closer to the intellectual capital of UC Berkeley. The institute had previously been based in San Francisco. 

“We want to be closer to the university so we can provide an alternative to conservative think tanks and focus on helping minority communities in urban centers,” Turner said. 

But no sooner than it moved in did the institute embroil itself in city politics. When a Berkeley group pushed for publicly financed city elections in November—a top national priority for Greenlining—the institute stepped in, offering them discounted rent at their offices, access to donors and bundles of research to make their case to Berkeley voters. 

“They were a key ally,” said campaign co-chair Dan Newman. “They sat on our steering committee and helped put our ballot campaign together.” Berkeley voters rejected the proposal.  

Now Greenlining is lending its offices and organization skill to Latinos Unidos and United in Action. The two Berkeley groups have joined forces to lobby for the interests of minority students in Berkeley schools and elect its supporters to the School Board. 

“We’re hoping their experience can rub off on us,” said Santiago Casas, a member of Latinos Unidos. 

Turner said his organization wanted to work with as many Berkeley groups as possible, but cautioned that it had no intention of becoming a local political force. 

“If local groups seek our advice, we’ll be happy to give it,” he said. “But as far as taking the lead, I don’t see it.” 

With a $4 million annual endowment, Greenlining’s interests are larger than Berkeley, stretching from Sacramento to Washington, DC. Started in 1994 by John Gamboa, a co-founder of the consumer interest law firm Public Advocates, and backed by minority business associations, the institute has fought to extend the benefits of capitalism to inner-city neighborhoods that had been traditionally cut off from access to business and home loans. 

“Making the unbanked bankable has always been a top objective,” Turner said. 

To persuade banks to serve inner-city clients, the institute has opposed high-profile bank mergers, threatening to demand hearings before the Federal Reserve Board if the bank didn’t agree to invest more in inner cities. 

Under pressure from Greenlining, Wells Fargo committed $45 billion to community lending and $300 million to philanthropic causes as part of its 1996 acquisition of Los Angeles-based First Interstate Bank. Washington Mutual, also hounded by Greenlining, agreed to provide $120 million in community lending as part of its 2001 merger with Bank United. Similar concessions have been squeezed out of insurance and utility companies. Greenlining issues annual report cards tracking the institutions’ progress in hiring minorities and serving minority communities. 

The organization also retains two attorneys to initiate public interest lawsuits against organizations they feel discriminate against minorities. 

Although it fights in the name of the poor and disenfranchised, Greenlining’s close relations with corporate donors and its commitment to economic expansion have also drawn enemies on the left. 

“Our experience with Greenlining is that they often don’t tell the truth and they’re quick to hurl allegations rather than dealing with the facts,” said Bill Magavern, legislative analyst for the Sierra Club. The environmental group has battled Greenlining on several fronts, most recently legislation that would have weakened standards for the clean-up of contaminated industrial sites, called brownfields. 

“We see brownfields as an opportunity to build affordable housing,” Turner said. “Right now, there’s too much regulation in California to meet the housing needs of its residents.”  

The legislation in question, SB32, passed, but only after lawmakers stripped some of the provisions sought by Greenlining that would have given municipalities and developers greater authority to set clean-up standards. 

Magavern thinks Greenlining’s environmental policies are rooted in the interests of key donors. “Look at who they take money from,” he said. “Part of their modus operandi is to threaten people until they get paid. We’ve never given them money so that is one of the problems they have with us.” 

Tracking down Greenlining’s major contributors isn’t simple. The names of major donors are whited-out on the organization’s federal tax forms. The omission was news to Turner, he said. 

He said that corporations accounted for about one-third of the institute’s revenues. The rest, he said, comes from foundation grants and fees from intervening on behalf of the public before the state Public Utilities Commission. 

Greenlining faxed the Daily Planet its 2002 tax returns, which listed four contributions, including $250,000 from Washington Mutual, $300,000 from Wells Fargo, $450,000 from the California Endowment, and $1.67 million from the Frente Foundation, a Latino charitable organization. 

In 1998, Greenlining came under fire from the consumer rights organization Foundation for Tax Payers and Consumer Rights for taking “at least $300,000” from utility companies and then opposing FTCR’s Proposition 9 that would have derailed a proposed public utility bailout for bad investments. 

In a letter to Gamboa, the FTCR’s Harvey Rosenfield blasted the institute for exploiting the people they claimed to represent. “Your efforts are always devoid of more than a few crumbs at most for the poor, symbolic gestures that are a cheap price for the utilities, insurance companies and banks to pay to obtain a seal of approval from self-appointed representatives of the poor,” he wrote. 

“We get a lot of criticism from [anti-corporate] purists,” acknowledged Turner, who defended the institute’s stand on Proposition 9. 

“We are not anti-corporate,” he continued. “We are for community empowerment, investment and development. Corporations have a role to play in that.”  

One exception so far is the casino industry which is seeking to push itself into minority communities by holding out the promise of jobs and tax revenue. Turner called casino operators “another special interest” and said the institute hasn’t taken a position on Gov. Schwarzenegger’s proposal to establish a casino in San Pablo. 

At the moment, Greenlining is embarking on several initiatives. The institute is working with corporate partners to improve access to heath care in minority neighborhoods. Legislatively, it is pushing for universal health insurance, the preservation of Social Security and publicly financed elections, with an eye to a state ballot measure in 2008. 

To boost its policy credentials it is partnering with UC Berkeley’s School of Public Policy and Institute of Governmental Studies. And to train future leaders it runs an academy for college students and operates Casa Joaquin, a UC Berkeley dormitory remade as a politically-conscious multi-ethnic living space. 

Perhaps its most ambitious project, Turner said, is in Merced where, instead of its traditional role of facilitating financial opportunities for other groups, Greenlining is taking the lead to join lenders, insurers, utility companies and developers in building 50 units of affordable housing near the new UC Merced campus.  

The initiative came after Greenlining released a report in 2003 warning city leaders that poor residents would be forced out of Merced by a housing shortage unless they took bold action such as fostering “private-public partnerships, reducing regulatory and environmental barriers to housing, creating incentives for higher-density housing or multi-family housing, hiring UC staff locally and utilizing in-fill and vacant properties for housing.”  

While the project would catapult the institute into new territory, Turner instead said Greenlining’s future rested in using its brain trust to better wed minorities and capital.  

“We make the opportunities,” he said. “Others have to seize it.”?