MILWAUKEE – Like many of her neighbors, Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) had grown frustrated with the blatant redlining of homeowner’s insurance, mortgages and other products local banks were peddling during the late 1970s and early 1980s. That frustration led Moore, a single mother and freshman college student on welfare at the time, to form the Cream City Community Development Credit Union (CCCDCU) to offset the rates “predatory lenders” were charging then. The tiny credit union, which operated out of a church, offered only personal loans for necessities like washers and dryers and savings accounts for children, Moore recalled. “It was born out of passion,” Moore told Credit Union Times. “It was a life changing event for me. Just the notion that I could have some power over my economic future was important.” Perhaps wider context and more history may help credit unions, particularly here in Wisconsin, understand why Moore pulled back her support of the Credit Union Regulatory Improvements Act (CURIA-HR 2317) after formally endorsing the legislation. According to the Wisconsin Credit Union League, Moore had signed a commitment with the state league prior to her election saying she would defend CURIA. Moore has remained consistent on her reasons for withdrawing. Among them, her concerns with larger credit unions that have, as she put it, strayed from their original mission specifically in the areas of business lending. “Credit unions have a niche, they’re close to the ground,” Moore said. “They’re a membership organization – that’s what makes them different from banks. What I am saying is that I’m willing to protect the tax-exempt status as long as (credit unions) are meeting their mission. When the lines get blurred, that’s where I have a problem.” Products at CCCDCU were as plain vanilla as a credit union can get. Moore said 500 “pledges” were needed to get a charter but no real count is available on how many members it served. Her office was one small, borrowed desk. Prior to then, she was a member of the Midtown Board Association at the time and very active in neighborhood movements to ensure that local banks were living up to their Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) obligations. To really bring substantive change, she was encouraged to resign from the board to become a VISTA volunteer with the intent of bringing a bank-alternative to the area. Founded in 1965, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), is a collaborative effort between persons and community-based agencies to help find long-term solutions to the problems caused by urban and rural poverty. More than 120,000 Americans have volunteered through VISTA, according to the organization. For the founding of CCCDCU, Moore would go on to be named VISTA Volunteer of the Decade for 1975-1985, an honor presented to her by former VISTA leader and founder of the National Center of Poverty Law, Sargent Shriver and U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.), a former VISTA volunteer. Working with VISTA allowed her to secure a $100,000 grant to start the credit union. She recalls sitting at her table during Thanksgiving dinner completing the application, which came to her on Nov. 10. With the help from others, she was able to beat the Nov. 30 grant deadline. She acknowledges the support she received from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and local children’s hospital. After a few years of operating, CCCDCU fell on hard times when interest rates increased, Moore recalled. The credit union was “forced to merge” with $24 million First Service Credit Union in 1987. “It wasn’t a failure but a fall forward,” Moore said. “People were receiving loans” on fair terms. Her hands-on credit union experience “expanded (her) notion of civil rights,” which largely centered mostly on pressing social issues. “I had been very active as a child in the 1960s with voting rights, educational opportunities and integrating schools and neighborhoods,” Moore said. “This put economics on the radar screen. It was the beginning of financial literacy for folks in the neighborhood.” It was certain scenarios that helped her community to ask hard questions about disparities. Case in point: prior to Moore moving into a house years ago, she learned later that the white couple who previously lived there had “great” homeowner’s insurance. “When I moved in, I couldn’t get decent insurance, it was very basic and minimal,” Moore said. Moore would go on to graduate from Marquette University in 1978 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science. She served in the Wisconsin State Senate 1993-2003 and prior to that, served two consecutive terms in the Wisconsin State Assembly from 1989-92. She was elected to her current post November 2004, becoming the first African-American to do so. In addition to serving on the House Committee on Financial Services, she also effects change on three of its subcommittees including the Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit. Moore also serves on the House Committee on Small Business. Knowing first-hand the impact a credit union can have on an “underserved” community, Moore is steadfast in her belief that there will always be a need for them. “When I look at the number of unbanked people in my community, I can see that credit unions will never, ever not have a base. There will continue to be millions of people who will have nowhere else to turn. Look at the trillions of dollars being cut from student loans – where are (those students) going to go?” Indeed, Moore was proud to announce that Legacy Bank, an institution in her district, received a $1.3 million award from the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) Fund in September. The six-year old bank is the first bank in the country founded by African-American women and also the first certified CDFI in Wisconsin. She “feels fondly” for those credit unions that have come up with a model that has been replicated in third world countries especially in the area of small business lending. “The average business loan is about $78,000, which is small. Ninety-five percent of jobs are created by small business. If it’s a situation where a woman wants to start a business out of her home and she needs a fax machine and a printer and she belongs to a credit union, that’s a perfect niche. Mom and pop operations are different from commercial loans.” The main distinction here, she says is “credit unions are serving a small universe of needs.” “Once you’re a real estate developer, that’s different,” Moore said, adding CCCDCU dealt with a “tiny universe of people. “The issue wasn’t whether it wanted to expand and have powers that banks have.” As for how the credit union tax-exemption debate will play out, Moore is optimistic. “I have the belief that the financial industry can come to an agreement and focus on the regulations that will be there and not be there. I’m confident that (the issues) will be sorted out.” -

msamaad@cutimes.com