At the height of the Occupy movement in 2011, protesters swarmed a Financial District building with an archway of stone pillars, angry that “the banks got bailed out, we got sold out.”
Today, the battle continues. Activists are lobbying the people who work for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco — the largest district in the central bank system by population, and the second-largest by assets held — to pick a new president. Specifically, they want someone from a diverse background who will steer financial public policy away from corporate interests.
“The Federal Reserve is the Supreme Court of the economy — it’s just a few unelected people who can serve for more than a decade and make the decisions that matter to most of us the most,” says Victoria Ruiz, co-chair of the Justice Committee of the San Francisco Democratic Socialists of America.
John Williams had been the S.F. Fed’s president since 2011, but as of June he leads the New York bank. The Fed Up coalition, a group that pushes the Fed to adopt pro-worker policies, criticized this decision. A search committee has interviewed candidates this summer and will produce a nominee in the fall before the Board of Governors gives final approval, according to a San Francisco Fed spokesperson.
Terms last for five years, but they’re often renewed until the president chooses to retire — as with Robert Parry, who led the S.F. Fed from 1986 to 2004 — or until they leave for another opportunity, as when Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke left and Janet Yellen replaced him. (President Trump declined to renominate Yellen for another term, choosing Jerome Powell instead.)
“There’s no transparency whatsoever in terms of who’s considered,” says Jordan Haedtler, campaign manager for Fed Up. “Banks are technically private institutions, even though they’re really important public policy institutions.”
The Fed influences policies that cover a wide array of common anxieties for working people, like unemployment, interest rates, and inflation. To counteract business-first interests, the Fed Up coalition is calling for someone with a background in academia and who comes from outside the Federal Reserve System to advocate on behalf of these issues.
The group also requests a public nomination process, with a town hall at which three or four finalists make their case. Elected officials in the Bay Area — such as Oakland councilmembers Desley Brooks and Rebecca Kaplan — have signed onto a letter with similar requests, while Sen. Kamala Harris introduced legislation and sent a letter with fellow congressional Democrats calling for a selection of diverse candidates.
Fed Up activists sat down with the search committee in June but felt the meeting wouldn’t change the process. They have since launched a petition that has gathered nearly 8,000 signatures.
The San Francisco Fed has not disclosed the demographics of candidates considered by the search committee, but the New York Fed did so after Williams, who is white, was selected.
“The San Francisco Fed should provide a way to have our voices heard and have a seat at the table without the Trump administration being the sole proprietor,” Ruiz says.