The art of listening

One of the pleasures of holding a statewide office is having the opportunity to travel throughout the state to hear the concerns of people from all walks of life, and to receive their letters and emails. At the Attorney General’s Office, our Consumer Protection Division receives additional input in the form of 40,000 calls, 23,000 written consumer complaints and 450 personal visits from consumers every year. We take all of these contacts seriously, listening for how we can have a positive impact on peoples’ lives.

Consumer input is one of the ways we understood the human impact of the mortgage crisis. We heard from those who were sold loans that required little or nothing down but contained a kind of poison pill that ratcheted up interest rates down the road. These loans were called “subprime” because the borrowers involved weren’t considered prime candidates for lower-interest mortgages. But to us, their fate was a prime concern.

When the economy crashed, thousands of these borrowers had their hours cut back, or lost their jobs entirely, just as their mortgage interest rates skyrocketed. We responded early in the crisis because we were listening to consumers.

In 2006, I co-chaired the national investigation and settlement negotiations with the subprime lender Ameriquest, resulting in a $325 million settlement. A $6.2 billion settlement with Countrywide and a $29 million deal with Wells Fargo would follow in the coming years. Finally, earlier this year, all 50 states and the federal government announced an historic $25 billion settlement with the nation’s five largest banks. The settlement resolved our concerns about these lenders’ foreclosure practices. We were one of only eight states on the executive team negotiating the settlement. All of these settlements provide relief in the form of loan modifications for struggling borrowers. We made this work a priority because we heard what the public was telling us — that they were struggling under the weight of the mortgage crisis — and we responded with everything we had.

Bipartisanship

The national mortgage settlement would not have happened without a dramatic show of cross-party collaboration. The executive team negotiating the deal was made up of representatives of the Obama administration and state attorneys general of both political parties. At one phase, several Republican attorneys general nearly dropped out of the deal. At others, Democrats had to be brought back into the fold. The job was completed because, regardless of political persuasion, we understood that because of the mortgage crisis, the people we represent struggle to keep roofs over their heads. The settlement proved that political parties can work together if they keep the goal — helping you — at the forefront.

Over the last eight years, we also saw amazing progress on other issues addressed by the State Legislature. Our office passed 45 bills addressing consumer protection, government accountability and public safety, garnering often unanimous support from a Legislature and governor’s office controlled by Democrats. How did a Republican attorney general manage to navigate this challenge? The hours were long, especially for my policy team, but the strategy was simple: we asked for the support of both Republicans and Democrats. We listened to their concerns about our proposals and implemented changes based on those concerns. That strategy helped produce longer penalties for sex offenders, protections for victims of domestic violence, new restrictions on child pornography, and a bill that slashed the number of meth labs in the state, among many other new laws. The lesson is that bipartisanship is possible.

As I watch the debate over the fiscal cliff, I see two problems. First, the White House, emboldened by a decisive victory, seems determined to impose its will on Congress. This strategy will further divide the country. On the other hand, while some Republicans in Congress have signaled a willingness to negotiate and compromise, others refuse to give ground. Regardless of the details, both sides are charged with solving this problem. Both sides need to listen and take seriously each other’s concerns. They will both be rewarded for averting the crisis. They both will be punished if they fail.

Winston Churchill once said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” At the Attorney General’s Office, that’s how we negotiated the mortgage settlement and how we passed dozens of new laws, among other accomplishments. We hope leaders in DC do the same.

Rob McKenna has served as Washington’s Attorney General since 2005. He was the Republican nominee for governor in 2012.

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