Luna Azul

George Griffin strode into the festively decorated First Hill branch of MoneyTree, a local payday lender, dressed in blue jeans and a black blazer, still talking into his ear bud. A few minutes later the company's owner and founder, Dennis Bassford, appeared, sporting a brown-gray suit with no tie. Bassford hired Griffin last summer, ostensibly to do general media relations. But his assignments quickly became very specific. Griffin, who is black, spends much of his time addressing accusations that MoneyTree, a Renton-based chain, and other payday lenders have targeted minorities and the poor.

Local activists have launched a legislative campaign to push for a 36 percent cap on payday-loan interest rates, which reach a nearly 400 percent annualized average in this state. Like similar efforts nationwide, the drive has honed in on the impact of the loans on minority communities. Communities Against Payday Predators, a local coalition supporting the cap, has aggressively pursued endorsements from minority leaders, and portrays lenders like MoneyTree—with bilingual tellers and TV ads featuring African Americans—as preying upon the financial vulnerability of their customers.

The industry has responded to the attacks. In addition to Griffin, MoneyTree has hired two other spokesmen with links to minority communities: David Gandara, who is Latino, and Michael Shannon, who is black. Long a contributor to sympathetic state legislators (including Margarita Prentice, a Renton Dem who's gotten nearly $1,000 in donations from MoneyTree), the company has also begun contributing cash to local minority nonprofits. Bassford said he is working on deals to give to both the Urban League and El Centro de la Raza.

Griffin, 44, doesn't deny that his cachet in the black community has something to do with why he got the job. After graduating from Cal State Northridge, the Seattle native worked on Jesse Jackson's 1980s presidential campaigns in California. Back home, he served as Mayor Norm Rice's chief of staff in the 1990s and now runs his own political consulting firm, G3 & Associates. Of himself and his colleagues, Gandara and Shannon, he says, "We are very good at what we do." Their community connections, he says, are "icing on the cake."

Griffin's resumé can be viewed as a linear diagram of how political friendships splinter over the years. In the late 1980s, he worked at the Central Area Motivation Program under Larry Gossett, a black King County councilman who has recently taken up the charge against payday loans.

Gossett, a former Black Panther, sees the decision to hire spokespeople like Griffin, and more importantly, to dole out money to minority nonprofits, as a clear effort to "curry favor" and "improve the [company's] image and influence." Gossett says it's tempting for nonprofits to accept cash from businesses that may not have their best interests in mind. In the end, he worries that they "will be beholden to those corporate entities that are making the contributions."

In a small, empty office in the back of the First Hill store, which resembles a bank lobby but with more bulletproof glass, I asked Griffin whether MoneyTree targets minorities. Bassford answered instead. "Is that why I'm here?" he snapped, his blue eyes fixed in an unmistakably fearsome stare. Bassford lurched out of his chair and hunkered down on his elbows over the desk in front of me. He yelled loudly about ideas that had been placed in my head. "There's been no documentation that we're targeting minority communities," he said, still projecting.

To the rescue came Griffin, who interrupted his boss with chuckles and asked for permission to answer the question.

Griffin reiterated the point. There's no documentation that MoneyTree targets minorities, he said. He described the lender's clientele as working-class people struggling with financial emergencies.

Last year, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer worked with the University of Washington to produce a demographic analysis that showed payday-loan stores clustered in neighborhoods with higher concentrations of blacks and the poor.

King County Executive Ron Sims, likely the most powerful black politician in the state, says he doesn't begrudge Griffin choosing an unpopular side. "He made an economic decision," Sims says. "I simply disagree with him on this issue." Sims says he finds it distasteful that people expect minorities to think as one on divisive issues.

Sims, who supports the campaign for an interest-rate cap, compares the debate over payday loans to the debate over the concentration of cheap liquor in poor and minority neighborhoods. He thinks we finally made the right decision—to limit sales of low-priced booze—in the one case, and now, we'll hopefully make the same decision to limit sales of high-priced instant cash. (Sims says payday loans make it seem like there's such a thing as a free lunch.)

Griffin makes the same comparison. But instead of coming down on the side of social control, he invokes the mantra of personal responsibility.

He says the other side of the debate belittles the customers by underestimating their financial literacy. Critics, many of them not minorities themselves, he says, talk about MoneyTree's customers "as if they don't know what the heck they're doing. Those poor, misguided minorities."

"To me, the whole issue of speaking out for people who you think don't know what the heck is going on is insidious." Griffin says. "I don't think that way, especially about my own people."

Bassford says his company's services are transparent. "These are people who understand completely what they are doing," he says. Customers borrow against their paychecks by signing over a post-dated check for the amount of the loan plus a fee. If they don't come in by the due date, their checks get deposited and they get stuck with fees for insufficient funds. Anti-payday-loan activists say a crushing cycle of debt is often set into motion when customers pay off one loan and immediately take out another to cover living expenses.

MoneyTree touts its efforts to promote financial literacy. Bassford says he sponsors a group of "students at the University of Washington who deliver financial literacy in schools." He could not recall any other specific programs. "I'm not the right person to talk to about that," he said.

Asked whether he works to improve financial education among potential clients, he said, "We're not conducting programs with our customers."

avaldez@thestranger.com