Banking for a Baltimore Undivided
Joshua Harris, Baltimore mayoral hopeful, explains that he is running on the Green Party ticket because Baltimore is ready for fresh ideas, like his public banking proposal
PAUL JAY, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And one of the races, as we cover the U.S. elections, that we’re particularly interested in is, of course, the election in Baltimore, because that’s where we are. And now joining us to discuss the campaign for mayor is Joshua Harris. Thanks very much for joining us, Joshua.
JOSHUA HARRIS: Thanks very much for having me.
JAY: So, Joshua’s running, as I said, for mayor of Baltimore in the 2016 election on the Green Party ticket. He’s the co-founder of the Hollins Creative Placemaking, an NGO which leads initiatives for urban revitalization. He’s been involved in all kinds of other community organizations, which are too long to mention right now.
So let’s talk about the race for mayor. First of all, why’d you get into it?
HARRIS: Well, you know, as my bio says, I’ve been involved in several different community organizations. I’ve been on the ground, in the background, doing work. I’m a former legislative aid for a delegate in Annapolis. And being so involved has presented me opportunities to have interactions with elected officials, many of which who ran on the Democratic ticket for mayor, many who weren’t. And I used those opportunities to ask them questions about solutions that I have just been studying because I’m kind of a geek. I like to learn about what we were doing, what we could do to provide access to food in food deserts. What they’re doing in [Louisville] for that, what they’re doing in Memphis for that, or–.
JAY: But before we get into the policy stuff, why’d you do this through the Green Party and not during the Democratic Party primaries? For people that don’t know in Baltimore, don’t know Baltimore, this is a one-party town, at least so far. I guess now Joshua, we’ll see if he can change that. But you can’t elect a Republican dogcatcher in Baltimore, and if you’re going to fight it out in Baltimore, you fight it out at the level of the primaries, in theory. Why didn’t you go that route?
HARRIS: Well, I’m a student of history. I pay very close attention. And though Baltimore is a Democratic town in title, when you look at the history of the policies that have been implemented in the city, it’s largely the Republican type of policies. The way that we favor major corporations at the expense of our schools, at the expense of our children, at the expense of our neighborhoods. We quickly shovel millions of our tax dollars into the pockets of wealthy developers without a second thought. So understanding what that’s done to the neighborhood and to Baltimore as a whole when it comes to perpetuating poverty, the racial segregation and disparity in the city that, where redlining was invented, and knowing that it still exists today, I was always wary of a party that would be in control for 60-plus years and allow that to continue to happen. So knowing that, I found that the Green Party was more in line with my values, particularly social justice, racial justice, environmental justice, and economic justice, justice are all near and dear to my heart.
And in particular grassroots democracy, knowing that they want and the party wants to bring people into the conversation and understand what’s happening and how government works, when traditionally you don’t see that with Democrats or Republicans, there’s a small group of people who understand what’s happening, and the rest of you only do what we need you to do when we tell you to do it. So really changing that narrative and shifting power to people is something that really excited me.
JAY: The media is not going to take–other than us, perhaps–are not going to give you a heck of a lot of coverage. If you’d run within the Democratic Party, you would have been part of the all candidates’ meetings, there was a certain amount of media coverage of those. And I have to say, after having been at a couple of those all candidates’ meetings, the level of conversation coming from almost all the candidates was completely banal. I mean, I’ve seen you have actual policy proposals that have a certain fresh and originalness to them, and we’re going to get into that. I think it would have completely stood out in that forum, but you chose to go this route, again.
HARRIS: I did originally announce as a Democrat, because I was aware that this is a Democratic town. If you wanted any attention, you have to be a Democrat. And so that actually got me lots of traction and momentum. People heard me at the initial candidates’ forums where I was included, they heard me speak on issues, and a lot of people went, who’s that guy? And that has really helped to get some of the traction that we’re seeing now.
We’re seeing a swell of people that are experiencing what we’re seeing nationally here in Baltimore City, where they’re looking for something different. They’re looking for someone who’s going to break the status quo and really change the narrative of the city. And so there is clearly a pathway and a lane for a third party and for Joshua Harris.
JAY: Well, I think in Baltimore it’s the second party. And in a city this–there is no Republican Party. So it’s actually, the Green Party is the duopoly here.
HARRIS: Absolutely. And I think there’s a clear lane, as well, to victory for Joshua Harris to become the next mayor of Baltimore City, because there’s so many people frustrated, and because of what we saw last spring. There are more people paying attention right now, particularly in Baltimore, than ever before. People know that something hasn’t been working. They know that something hasn’t been working. They know that something isn’t right, and they know that we cannot continue to get the same-old same-old politicians who’ve been in office for year after year.
JAY: Okay, let’s cut to the chase about some stuff. You have a fairly extensive policy proposal on lots of different issues. Over the next course of the summer, we’re going to interview you a few times. And we’re going to do the same thing with Catherine Pugh, who is essentially who you’re running against, who is the Democratic Party nominee, and try to go through some of the same policy issues with her. And hopefully we’ll be able to get a debate going, we’ll see if that’s possible.
But one of the policy proposals you’ve proposed, which I think is one of the most interesting ones, this is about public banking. Because the issue with a lot of, you know, let’s–a lot of kind of progressive proposals are let’s reform this, let’s reform that, and all of that takes money. But there’s never obvious answers to where’s the money going to come from. And your banking proposal’s interesting, so explain what it is.
HARRIS: Well, the entire platform is called Banking for Baltimore Undivided. And so–and it’s meant to address issues of race, class, and to build equity and opportunity for people and neighborhoods, and shift the power dynamic. So the banking is really the staple, the Banking for Baltimore Undivided.
And so public banking, essentially, takes the concept of traditional banks and brings it into the government sector. We want to, of course, keep the efficiency and the customer service base and have it run by professionals. But knowing that banks get wealthy off of your money and my money from being there, they take it and they make investments. Our city has a $3 billion operating budget. We currently have $90 million sitting in our rainy day fund that’s in a bank that is using it to make investments. Imagine if Baltimore City owned and controlled that bank, and was reaping the benefits of those investments, the type of wealth you would be able to [improve].
JAY: Now, in theory that bank is paying some kind of interest on that.
HARRIS: Yes, in theory. But in Baltimore City you never know, right. It’s a possibility that we may not be getting interest on it.
HARRIS: You never know. We have muni bonds we’re paying [19 percent] interest, far beyond the normal rates, because we have–elected officials don’t understand what I call the business of policy, making those appropriate business decisions that are fiscally responsible.
JAY: So a $3 billion budget, $90 million in a rainy day fund. So that’s a lot of money.
HARRIS: Yes. And if we had it all in a bank that was only controlled by Baltimore City, we could leverage that to generate more wealth, which in turn would provide opportunities for us to do what traditional banks can’t do.
JAY: So what’s that leveraging look like?
HARRIS: It looks like the ability to give home loans to people which can’t get them from a traditional bank, at even lower interest rates, knowing that you could purchase a vacant home in Baltimore City for anywhere between $2,000-5,000, and you can renovate it for between $60,000-80,000, but a traditional bank more than likely doesn’t want to give out a loan that small.
But a Baltimore City bank would be able to do that, and possibly do it at even–not possibly, would be able to do it at a lesser interest rate than your traditional bank because we’re not driven by profit. So any money that we make is a benefit. It’s coming back to the city, going back into the taxpayers’ dollars.
JAY: I guess the couterargument would be, if I try to put on a banker’s head, is they’re not doing it because they don’t want to take the risk of the loan, and if the city were–if there were defaults on those loans then you wouldn’t have money to pay people to clean the streets, or–.
HARRIS: Absolutely. That is a risk, and that’s something that can be assessed. But banks do it all the time. And so we’d have it–we would work in conjunction with traditional banks, or community banks. Traditional community banks. So there would be phases of evaluations to assess the risk that we would be taking. It’s not just like we’re going to give loans out to any and everyone that comes. But there will be a partnership and working in conjunction [to where] they can’t get now at this bank or at this bank–now they can come to the Baltimore City bank, and there will be qualifications to be met in order for someone to get the loan, which would be [inaud.].
JAY: But what are other examples of ways of leveraging the money?
HARRIS: Small businesses. Understanding that small business growth is vital, and that small businesses and local businesses are what drives our economy and really provides job opportunities in our city, a city where we’ve had a lot of blue-collar work–a blue-collar town where we’ve been without blue collar work. The ability to give entrepreneurs the opportunity to get that step up, and that foot up to start their business.
We could give micro business loans at a small interest rate, at a lesser interest rate, as well, which would do amazing things for boosting our economy, and who’s more likely to hire an individual who may have a criminal background than someone who’s from the community, knowing that Baltimore City is a place where we had previous administrations that locked up more than 100,000 African-American men in four years who are now looking for work and looking for someone to give them an opportunity. It’s more than likely to come from someone who’s from the community who’s an entrepreneur and understands that dynamic, and understands the community, and will give them a chance.
And so helping them to start their business and invest in their vision helps the city. It helps with employment, it helps with recidivism, it helps with crime, it touches so many different areas, if we are really able to generate wealth and equity in our city.
JAY: Again, instead of putting on the banker’s hat I’ll put on a bunch of previous mayors’ hats, and they’ll say, well, they are leveraging the budget in the way that they invest money in places like the Inner Harbor. What’s wrong with that?
HARRIS: Well, so what we see with places like the Inner Harbor–and the Inner Harbor is beautiful, and they’ve made a lot of investment. But what that’s done to the rest of the city has perpetuated poverty and disparity. Knowing that we’ve had neighborhoods that have gone neglected, forgotten, for more than 60 years now, 50-60 years, or neighborhoods that have been struggling to survive and to scrape for every grant dollar that they can to plant trees, or to fix sidewalks, or to gate their alleyways so that there’s not so much traffic. It’s time for the neighborhoods to be invested in and for the citizens who live here in Baltimore to really be invested in, not just for tourists.
We need tourist attractions, absolutely. But we also have an entire city outside of the harbor that has gone far too long without investment. And people talk about Baltimore fire, what we saw last spring. I believe that the cause of that was the juxtaposition of massive amounts of wealth up against massive amounts of poverty. So when you look at the Inner Harbor you see directly massive amounts of wealth have been not only poured into the Inner Harbor, but everything else that touches the water. We see it right now with this Port Covington discussion and the TIFF. We’re going to pour more–the city looks like it’s already going to push–.
JAY: This is the owner of Under Armour. Under Armour’s real estate company, it has this big development in Port Covington.
HARRIS: We’re considering giving a billionaire half a billion of our dollars, or our tax dollars, to basically build another downtown on the other side of the water while we have an East Baltimore, West Baltimore that has no access to a mainstream public transit system or commuter rail to get east and west across the city. We have West Baltimore that was on CNN for weeks last year because of what happened. Where there were buildings that, when you go into that community, you couldn’t tell whether or not they were burned in 2015 or if it was from 1968. And that’s a problem. That’s how long outside of the Harbor–.
JAY: Port Covington, that kind of development, they’re saying there are spinoff jobs and it creates new employment, and so on. Is that not the case?
HARRIS: So, it does create jobs. It creates more part-time, minimum wage jobs, or less than minimum wage jobs, not living wage jobs.
JAY: Now, usually, we’ve seen in the Inner Harbor and other kinds of places, the better jobs, people are usually living in the county and the low-wage jobs are people living in the city.
HARRIS: Yes. And that’s if they meet local hiring goals, and that’s if they hire from the city. But also, knowing that we have to understand track record and [something] evaluation and holding developers and investors to a standard of accountability. Are you going to hire locally, are you going to be diverse in your hiring practices?
Under Armour is a company that currently, on its board of directors, there’s not a single person of color on it, and there’s only one person of color in their executive leadership team. So understanding that these are things and conversations that will have to be had in a city that is 70 percent black and brown. What are we doing for equity?
JAY: We don’t have too much time, so I want to go back to the banking thing. One of your critiques, and most people’s critiques of the city, is the lack of transparency. And you know, do you actually trust to have a budget in a bank that’s making loans to the municipal government?
HARRIS: Do I trust it? Yes, I do trust it, because this isn’t going to be managed by the City Council, or by the mayor. I wouldn’t be managing this. We would have trained professional community bankers who will be running the daily operations of the bank and managing it. And we will provide the City Council and the mayor’s office and the citizens, for all intents and purposes, will provide the mission and the vision of the bank. So if it’s that we want to use this bank, and all of the interest that we are able to collect and revenue we are able to generate we want to put towards housing development, restoring the 40,000-plus vacants that we have in our city, then that’s what the citizens decide and that’s what we’ll put that money to use for.
JAY: Are there any examples anywhere of banks like this that are working?
HARRIS: The oldest-standing one is actually in North Dakota. The entire state has a North Dakota public bank. And they were actually able to avoid the stock market crash of 2008 because they had all of their funds, and it was all in-house. So they weren’t dependent on Wall Street.
So also, when you look at that, that’s a tremendous benefit, as well. We won’t have to worry about pensions being lost, and things of that sort. We can begin to do all those things in-house, and really revitalize our local economy, which is the greatest benefit that I see when it comes to creating jobs and generating wealth and stability in the city.
JAY: Okay, I know you’ve got many other policy proposals, and we’ll work through them over the next couple of, couple of months. Thanks for joining us.
HARRIS: Thank you.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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