Defenders of high payday loan rates resort to intimidation
The Kansas City Star
Someone broke into a car in Springfield last week and stole 5,500 signatures that volunteers had gathered for initiative petitions to cap payday loan rates and raise Missouri’s minimum wage. The organizer whose car was broken into told others on his team he had thought he was being tailed.
Besides constituting a pretty serious crime, the theft left the grass-roots organizers backing the two initiatives short of time and short of the number of signatures they needed to gather in the Springfield area to have a shot at getting the issues on the ballot. The Springfield region has been the toughest area for petition gatherers.
“Opposition blockers down there have been screaming in the faces of our canvassers and voters to intimidate people from signing,” said Molly Fleming-Pierre, an organizer with Communities Creating Opportunities in Kansas City.
Volunteers from around the state, including pastors and church staffers, traveled to Springfield to try to make up the difference.
“I have about six inches of southern Missouri sweat on me right now from wearing out my shoe leather going door to door,” Fleming-Pierre said in an e-mail. “Our people were taunted, mocked, bullied, and verbally assaulted down there. Sometimes it was nine big burly guys to one young female canvasser — trying to kick her off a site. She stayed. One of our pastors had the opposition blockers screaming in her face for nearly 30 minutes that she was a liar. Tails would follow our people, texting their blockers when our people would set up to canvass so that the intimidation was always mobile.”
Who was doing this? Hard to tell. A shadowy though well-funded group called Missourians for Equal Credit Opportunity is opposing the payday loan initiative, but there is no way to show at this point if that group paid someone to coordinate the strong-arm tactics used in Springfield. Missourians for Equal Credit Opportunity previously paid a Texas law firm to send letters to churches in Kansas City and elsewhere, falsely implying they could lose their tax-exempt status by collecting signatures for the payday loan reform initiative.
Hoping to confuse voters, opponents of the payday loan reforms have also been circulating competing petitions that relate to payday loan practices but don’t cap interest rates. They also are in court hoping to stop the legitimate initiative from getting on the ballot.
Deceptive and strong-armed tactics are all the more reason Missourians should support efforts to cap annual interest rates on payday loans at 36 percent.
Volunteers in Springfield recouped their needed signatures, Fleming-Pierre said.
“They went door to door in public housing, door to door on the FEMA trailers, went to the streets and talked to people.” Among those people, she said, were tornado victims who fell into a payday loan trap.
“When the blockers stopped shouting long enough to get close, the people almost always signed our petitions,” Fleming-Pierre said.
The deadline for turning in petitions to the Missouri secretary of state is Monday. Organizers for both the payday loan and minimum wage initiatives say they expect to have more than enough signatures to clear the bar, although the payday loan effort still faces legal challenges.