Ward Scull's interest in payday loans started as an effort to help a single Virginian. But it grew into a statewide coalition that campaigns to protect all Virginians from predatory lending.
And it has earned him recognition as the Daily Press Citizen of the Year for 2008.
In its 20th year, the award is intended to honor local residents who exemplify the qualities of citizenship: commitment to a worthy cause, dedication and effectiveness in that cause, and personal effort to make the community better or improve the lives of others. From nominations submitted by readers, the Editorial Board chose to recognize Scull for his work with Virginians Against Payday Loans.
It began in January 2006, when a packer at Scull's Mayflower moving and storage business approached the boss to ask for a $300 loan. Scull delved into why, and it turned out that she didn't need just $300 to get out from under her payday loan: She had six loans, adding up to $1,700.
Scull quickly learned a lot about what was, to him, an unfamiliar corner of financial world. He jumped in to help untangle her affairs, writing checks to each of the lenders, trying to collect loan documents, going to the bank when lenders wouldn't accept anything but cashier's checks.
Scull says he was horrified - not just at the fix that his worker was in but at himself. It reflected on him as a businessman that he was out of touch with his employees' circumstances. Time was, he says, that wouldn't have happened. It used to be common practice to open up the petty-cash drawer three days a week so employees could get a small advance - called "the pluck" - to see them to payday. When that practice ended, so did his window onto their needs.
It took 10 months - and a chance event - before Scull took the big step from holding out a generous hand to an individual to reorganizing his life into a campaign to protect thousands of Virginians.
That event was an encounter with Del. Harvey Morgan, R-Gloucester, at the Guinea Seafood Festival. Morgan has his own reasons to be horrified about payday lending: He championed the legislation that invited it into Virginia in the first place. He and his fellow legislators didn't anticipate the misery that it brought to those borrowers for whom payday loans aren't a one-time solution to a short-term crisis, they're a one-way trip into a spiral of debt. The average borrower, according to the State Corporation Commission, gets many such loans. The high fees that they pay (which can exceed 500 percent, calculated as the equivalent of an annual percentage rate) can make tenuous financial situations worse.
But back to the Seafood Festival: The conversation between Morgan and Scull turned to payday lending, and soon the delegate was urging the citizen to come to Richmond to testify about his experience.
Morgan has been impressed with the result: Scull "saw an injustice, and he had to right it. I admire him so much."
What Morgan set in motion was the making of a citizen advocate.
It didn't get off to a pretty start. Scull did what many people who want to right a wrong do: He put more heart than strategy into it. He expected that if he voiced the moral outrage he felt, decision makers would see the light and act. As good people in pursuit of good goals can be, he was inexperienced, and he was intemperate.
And he was fortunate. Some experienced hands gave him a crash course in Advocacy 101. According to one of those hands - Del. G. Glenn Oder, R-Newport News - Scull went from a neophyte to a master's degree in advocacy in 18 months. His curriculum is instructive.
Scull's first tutor was Alan Diamonstein, a Democrat who represented Newport News for many years in the House of Delegates. Scull asked Diamonstein to look over what he planned to say to the General Assembly. The veteran of getting things done in Richmond counseled moderation, toning down what Scull now admits was "really awful rhetoric."
In December 2006, Scull went to Richmond and "laid it all out." When a payday reform bill came to a vote, it didn't go his way.
New tactics clearly were needed. Scull diagnosed the problem: "We had no mission, no vision, no money."
Diamonstein clarified: You are outspent, and you are outlobbied.
Convinced that the only way to win was to play the game, Scull figured out what his team needed to do: It needed to get organized, and it needed a ringer.
The organizing part involved working with other members of a growing, loosely knit coalition of payday-lending critics to make sure that they were all working on the same mission, all working from the same message.
They agreed on a goal: a 36 percent APR cap on payday loans. That's the rate the state imposes on other short-term consumer loans (with the exception - which would later turn out to be significant - of open-ended loans, the kind that credit card issuers and car-title lenders make).
And it's the cap that the military set for loans to service members when it learned some couldn't be deployed because their lives were so compromised by high-interest loans.
The coalition took on allies until, Morgan says, "I have never seen such diverse, disparate groups line up on any issue." They included "a lot of people who never agree on anything."
In the process, Scull met Gloucester resident Michael Lane, former deputy commissioner of Customs and deputy assistant secretary of the Treasury for tariff and trade affairs. Scull credits Lane as the strategist, the communicator, the "work horse." Together, they founded Virginians Against Payday Loans and organized what he calls a "community of friends" that brought together the ingredients of success - people who knew about finance, about lobbying, about financial alternatives.
They went where legislators were, they talked, they listened. Helen O'Beirne - who worked with Scull on payday lending and now works on fair-housing issues - calls him "the most perceptive male person I know. He really takes the time to listen and so quickly synthesizes and adapts. He seeks out diverse opinions, so he gets all the angles."
They raised money - a good chunk of it from Scull's own pocket. They hired well-credentialed Richmond lobbyists, realizing that if they were going up against a well-financed and aggressive industry, they needed someone who - as Scull explains - can help open doors, help get your message across, help you make change.
"You have got to have someone who can run the traps for you," he says.
According to May Fox, a member of the lobbying team, Scull was a quick learner. "He began to have some finesse. He learned when to back off and when to push."
And they worked hard. Diamonstein credits Scull's effectiveness to his tenacious dedication: "I have never seen a volunteer devote himself to an issue as deeply as Ward did. It became a cause and took up his entire time. He believed." Scull is quick to give credit to his wife, Suzanne, who "freed me up" to do battle, he says.
The showdown came in the 2008 legislative session. Virginians Against Payday Loans was ready, represented and part of a chorus all singing the same song: 36 percent. Payday lenders were ready, too, with lobbyists, friends in high places and campaign contributions to legislators.
The 36 percent interest rate cap wasn't possible, said payday lenders' well-placed lawmaking friends. The compromise was what Scull calls the best that the General Assembly was able to do: limit borrowers to one loan at a time, give them two pay cycles to repay and allow extra time under some circumstances.
"The battle clearly goes on," Morgan vows. In the current General Assembly session, it has moved to a new front: heading off a flank maneuver by payday lenders who started offering open-ended loans - which have no limit on loan sizes or interest rates - as a way around the restrictions put on them last year.
Scull says the General Assembly must come up with more effective controls to confront a "wily and agile" industry.
Lawmaking, Oder says, is incremental: "You get what you can and come back." Scull intends to come back. He's still handing out baseball caps with 36 percent embroidered on them (a "36 percent cap" - get it?).
Scull is clear what's propelling him: "I felt called. I felt sent." He does what he does "so that others may find a glimpse of Christ in the process."
O'Beirne says Scull "is driven from a very deep sense of faith. Even when he's blown off, he goes to that place, and it sustains him."
The call that tugs at Scull isn't confined to reining in the abuses of payday lenders. It draws him to a larger need: effective oversight of all the players on what he calls the fringe economy, including car-title and open-ended lenders and check-cashing outfits. And beyond: the need to develop alternatives for low-income people who need small short-term loans and help becoming financially literate.
The award will be presented publicly Thursday at the Peninsula Humanitarian Awards Dinner, hosted by the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times