President Obama recently nominated Melvin (Mel) Watt, a long-time North Carolina Congressman, to direct the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA). While major news media reported on the development, few mentioned exactly what the new job would entail or the significance of an African-American potentially leading a key financial office.
At a news conference announcing the nomination, President Obama said, “Mel understands as well as anybody what caused the housing crisis. He knows what it’s going to take to help responsible homeowners fully recover. And he’s committed to helping folks just like his mom – Americans who work really hard, play by the rules day in and day out to provide for their families.”
When our nation faced the worst financial crisis since that of the Great Depression, the House Financial Services Committee faced dealing with the nation’s financial solvency on one hand and millions of homeowners who were in or approaching foreclosure on the other. Through a lengthy series of discussions and hearings, Rep. Watt emerged as a voice of reason, consistently fair and balanced in crafting solutions to complex problems.
Following the Watt nomination, the Center for Responsible Lending said of the nominee, “He was one of the first elected officials to recognize and warn about the dangers of subprime lending, offering legislation to nip predatory lending in the bud and tirelessly advocating for ways to prevent needless home foreclosures…The Senate should move quickly to confirm him.”
Created by the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, the FHFA oversees the nation’s secondary mortgage markets: 12 Federal Home Loan Banks, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. FHFA is also empowered to make policy, implement rules, and regularly report to Congress. In 2010, the combined debt and obligations of these 14 government-sponsored enterprises totaled $6.7 trillion.
Watt’s nomination is reminiscent of an earlier one in 1966. The late Andrew Brimmer, nominated by President Lyndon Johnson, became the first African-American member of the Federal Reserve Board. A Louisiana native, Brimmer attended segregated elementary and high schools but went on to earn in a Ph.D. in economics in 1957 from Harvard.
Watt, another son of the South raised from modest beginnings, became a 1967 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As a result of having the highest academic average in its business school, he also became president of the business honors fraternity. Three years later, he earned a JD degree from Yale University Law School and was a published member of the Yale Law Journal.
Both men’s lives are proof that difficulty need not defeat a person’s dreams or goals. And further, what may appear improbable is not the same thing as being impossible.
On learning of Rep. Watt’s nomination, North Carolina U.S. Senator Richard Burr reached across the chamber’s partisan divide to offer his hopes for confirmation saying, “Having served with Mel, I know of his commitment to sustainable federal housing programs and am confident he will work hard to protect taxpayers from future exposure to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. I look forward to working with Rep. Watt in his new role to find new ways to facilitate more private sector involvement in the housing and mortgage markets.”
Another U.S. Senator and chair of the chamber’s banking committee, South Dakota’s Sen. Tim Johnson, said, “Mel possesses the intelligence, temperament and depth of knowledge on housing finance policy necessary to succeed as Director.”
For communities of color that lost a trillion dollars in wealth during the housing crisis, we share an important stake in Rep. Watt’s nomination. It is an opportunity for an accomplished African-American to develop consumer-focused policy and implement rules to better serve all of America’s people.
Charlene Crowell is a communications manager with the Center for Responsible Lending. She can be reached at: Charlene.firstname.lastname@example.org.