Economic Progress?

President Obama is sounding cautiously optimistic about the economic recovery, especially as it relates to job creation. But are his words and initiatives making a difference outside Washington and Wall Street? Michel Martin talks with Anthony Foxx, the newly elected Democratic mayor of Charlotte, N.C., a city hard-hit by the financial crisis; and U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, which is pressuring Obama to do more to create jobs and curb foreclosures.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're going to spend some time today on the economy and the effect it's having on people and institutions around the country. In a few minutes, we'll hear more about President Obama's meeting with the men he called fat cats, the heads of the country's largest banks. Now the president does seem to be cautiously optimistic about the direction the economy is taking, particularly when it comes to job creation. In a speech last week, he told the nation that he saw, quote, "the storms of the past receding" unquote, and the sky as brightening.

Today, though, we want to talk with two elected leaders about whether they're seeing the same thing, especially for African-Americans and Latinos, two groups that have been particularly hard hit during this recession. We're joined by Mayor Anthony Fox of Charlotte, North Carolina. Mayor Fox, a Democrat, began his first term in office last week, ending more than two decades of Republican leadership in Charlotte. He is the city's second African-American mayor, and at the age of 38 he is the youngest that we can think of. He tells us what's happening on the ground in Charlotte.

And Congressman Barbara Lee from California's 9th district, also a Democrat. She is the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, and she gives us a national perspective. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Representative BARBARA LEE (Democrat, California): Glad to be with you.

Mayor ANTHONY FOX (Charlotte, North Carolina): Yes, thank you.

MARTIN: Mr. Mayor, as of October, the unemployment rate in Charlotte stood at 12 percent. That's higher than the national average which is a little more than 10 percent. Now, you ran for office against the backdrop of this recession. What are people telling you? What's driving the economy in Charlotte right now?

Mayor FOX: Well, Charlotte is an interesting mix. We have a lot of actually large banks in Charlotte, but we also have a strong manufacturing and distribution area here as well. And part of where our unemployment figures have come from has been large scale lay offs in the financial services industry.

MARTIN: And, Congressman Lee, you represent California's 9th district that includes Oakland, Berkley, Castro Valley. It's one of the most diverse districts in the country. What about you? What about in your district? What's driving the picture there?

Rep. LEE: Sure, the overall national economic issue in terms of lay-offs. You know, we had a plant with auto workers down south of my district getting ready to close. And we have, you know, some financial services which, of course, in San Francisco has been hit hard. Also many service workers who have, because of the state budget crisis, have been laid off of their jobs, shortage of nurses, of course, home workers. We have the university system which has taken a hit. And so, part of the problem we have in California is the state budget crisis, which you add on top of that the national economy and you have just havoc that has been reeked in the lives of millions of people in California.

MARTIN: To that end, Congresswoman, the Black Caucus made news in recent weeks when it started pressing the president more aggressively to focus more on job creation than he has been doing. What drove that concern? What specifically would you like him to do?

Rep. LEE: Well, of course, we continue to work with the president to try to figure out how to turn this economy around, and I do think that we see some glimmers of hope. As members of Congress, we're doing our job. It's our responsibility to make sure that we offer legislative solutions to the economy and to the crisis we see in our districts.

For example, last week, we wrote to the president and to our leadership and laid out what we thought a targeted job creation initiative should look like. And we said it should be robust, it should be strong, we should invest the money now and create jobs that are going to exist in the future and that are sustainable. But also, so many of our constituents are chronically unemployed, and primarily African-American and Latino. And when you have chronic unemployment, millions of people have been out of work for many years, and so we have to add to what has been proposed. And so we're working right now with the White House and with our leadership to try to put some of these elements into the new jobs bill.

MARTIN: In the speech last week, the president identified three ways that the government can lay the ground work. One by aiding small business owners, by supporting the nation's emerging green industries, and then by funding infrastructure projects. So, what do you think, is that the right direction, in your opinion?

Rep. LEE: I think it is. I think we have to add to that but also we have to remember with funding and helping our small businesses, we have many small businesses that don't have access to any credit now. Many minority and woman-owned businesses have no access to credit. They create jobs in our community. And so we absolutely have to have a targeted approach to help small businesses. And let me just mention one thing, and I'm really pleased with the Financial Services Bill, the Regulatory Reform Bill that passed last week with Congressman Mel Watt's bold and brilliant leadership because in that bill we put $4 billion plus to help with the foreclosure crisis, which is part of the problem that we're having in communities of color.

You know, many of the financial institutions actually targeted African-American and Latino communities for subprime loans. And so when we're targeted for these types of terrible loans and policies then we have to really find some redress, and Congressman Watts and the Financial Services Committee members did a magnificent job in trying to address this in a big way.

MARTIN: It does need to be mentioned, though, that that was the bill that the Black Caucus boycotted the vote. The initial vote was boycotted by the Caucus, in part to express displeasure with what they viewed as insufficient action on job creation. But if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Congressman Barbara Lee. She is the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and, of course, represents California's 9th district, and Charlotte Mayor Anthony Fox. We're talking about the -unemployment picture in their respective districts and nationally.

Mayor Fox, to that end, Congressman Lee talked about the fact that small businesses are still having - and individuals still having trouble getting access to credit. You have an interesting perspective because Charlotte is a banking center and also has, you know, some of these alleged fat cats that the president was presumably speaking about are your constituents, along with the small business people and people who feel that they're not being treated fairly when it comes to credit. What's your perspective on what the president had to say in his efforts to jawbone the leaders of these banks into lending more?

Mayor FOX: Well, yeah, I've had conversations with some of our CEOs that are headquartered here in Charlotte. And what I do know is that our banks have a lot of capital they've been holding on to. I think this crisis has been interesting in the sense that for banks, I think there is a willingness and an interest in lending more money but at the same time, I think they're a little afraid.

The underwriting standards have tightened up, which have impacted a lot of small businesses. And the president's encouragement yesterday I think was very good because I really do hope we start to see more lending activity. In Charlotte, 96 percent of the jobs we have down in Charlotte are small business shops, and it's just a testament to how important small businesses are. I think the president is square on point to focus on trying to get some of that credit opened up, so that our businesses can keep hiring and keep growing.

Rep. LEE: One of the issues that the Financial Services Committee members led on last week, you know, Congressman Waters chairs the House and Community Development Subcommittee, and she did a phenomenal job in leading the House to really focus on the fact that we bailed out Wall Street, we provided resources when they were in trouble. And so, it is incumbent upon us now to make sure that the focus is on Main Street and someone else has Back Street. Because this is the only way we're going to dig ourselves out of this. And everyone has to come to the table and there's got to be some equity and justice in our financial services and economic policies.

MARTIN: Can I get your perspective, Congresswoman Lee, on what Mayor Fox just said about some of the banking industry leaders whom he knows say that the reason that they're not lending is they're afraid to lend, in the sense that they feel that the kind of the standard seems to be in flux, in their view, and the economy seems to be in flux. And that they're afraid to kind of let more capital out.

Obviously, other people have a different perspective. They think that they're just profit-taking and with the benefit of taxpayer money. So what's your perspective on this? Do you buy that? Do you think that they're not lending because they're afraid to?

Rep. LEE: Yeah, we could have been afraid to bail them out and we weren't. We took a risk. It's incumbent upon them to do the right thing now. And when you look at the CEO compensation packages and when you look at what they have done just since we bailed them out, I absolutely reject that. And say to them when you needed our help, we were there.

They need to recognize the fact that when they lend to small businesses, they make money and help the economy. Consumer spending rises, small businesses expand and create jobs. And so I don't believe that they're correct in that and they need to stop using that as an excuse to reap greater profits for the CEO compensation.

MARTIN: And Mr. Mayor, what would be most helpful to you right now as you embark on this adventure for which you've signed up...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mayor FOX: Well...

MARTIN: ...as governing a small city in a recession? What would be most helpful to you, particularly from the standpoint of what the Federal Government can do? Obviously there are things that you're going to do and there are things that you expect from the state government and things that you're going to do on your own. But what about, you know, now that you've got the Congresswoman's attention and ours, what do you think would be most helpful to you?

Mayor FOX: Three things. I think continuing to focus on growing small businesses is absolutely the right way to go. The second thing that the president is doing and Congress is doing is really encouraging the growth of a new manufacturing sector with the green industry and with infrastructure development, which I think is incredibly important. It allows us to get workers at blue collar level as well as white collar level back to work. And that's very important to us.

And the third area is tax relief. That's going to also play a role here. I know the deficits have been going north. The president talked a lot about moving on a pathway to reduce deficits over the long term and that's going to matter a lot to us at the local level.

MARTIN: Congresswoman, finally from you, and it's on a different topic and I apologize. We have previously talked on this program about the fact that of the nine Ethics Committee investigations that have been opened up at the beginning of this term, all of the formal investigations have been directed at members of the Black Caucus. And this information was leaked, but the fact that it is now public, what is your perspective on that? Why do you think this is happening?

Rep. LEE: I, as I said before, am not commenting on any of this. These are ongoing investigations and it really wouldn't be appropriate, at this point, to really discuss that at all.

MARTIN: Are you disappointed?

Rep. LEE: It does seem quite odd that members of the Congressional Black Caucus are disproportionately in this investigative pool. But, again, these investigations are going on. And I don't have any information and it's not appropriate to comment.

MARTIN: Well, whenever you feel it is appropriate, we'd love to hear what you have to say.

Rep. LEE: Sure.

MARTIN: And we appreciate your time. Congresswoman Barbara Lee represents California's 9th District. She is the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. She was kind enough to join us by phone from her office. We were also joined by Mayor Anthony Fox. He joined us by phone from his office in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he has just begun his first term in office there. And we wish him good luck. And thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mayor FOX: Thank you, Michel.

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