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Attendees say Obama's talk on credit cards resonated with them

By Sean Olson
Journal Staff Writer
       Leave it to the credit card companies to get people on the same page.
    Skyrocketing interest rates had at least one New Mexico Republican stepping across the aisle Thursday to support President Barack Obama's push for consumer protections against credit card industry practices.
    The president visited Rio Rancho High School on Thursday morning to outline the "Credit Card Bill of Rights." The legislation would "ban abusive fees and penalties," force companies to use plain language in customer statements and strengthen enforcement of violations against consumers, he told a crowd of about 2,500.
    The reviews seemed good.
    "I think that's fair," said Rio Rancho resident Craig Brandt, a Republican. "I think that's the right answer."
    Brandt had a $6,000 balance on a credit card with a low interest rate just over a year ago. Then his card company raised his interest rate twice, forcing him to pay a 29 percent rate and doubling his interest charges per month. Brandt, a disabled veteran, said he had to throw every extra cent his family had to pay down the debt before it spiraled out of control.
    With normal monthly payments, "It would have probably taken us 20 years to pay it off," he said.
    The crowd, packed inside the high school gym, erupted with cheers and applause when Obama arrived and responded enthusiastically throughout the event. Many people stuck around after the speech, trying to get a handshake from the president.
    A White House spokesman said 50 families with credit card problems had been invited to the event.
    Although Obama has been getting some Republican support in Congress on the credit card issue, the chairman of the New Mexico party tried to draw attention to what he said are other aspects of the Obama administration.
    "What we are seeing President Obama bestow upon our nation is a tremendous burden of debt, increased spending and an unprecedented expansion of government," Chairman Harvey E. Yates Jr. said in a news release.
    The president's town hall meeting Thursday also was a reunion of sorts — although a brief one — for Obama and Gov. Bill Richardson. The two had not met in public since Richardson's nomination as commerce secretary was derailed by a federal investigation into a possible pay-to-play scheme involving state bond financing.
    Obama had kind words for Richardson during his opening speech, calling him "a great friend" and "one of the finest governors in the country."
    Later, when discussing the economy, Obama said New Mexico "has been fortunate, partly because of some good administration from the New Mexican government."
    "I was very, very touched by his kind remarks," Richardson said later in a phone interview.
    Richardson, along with Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chávez and House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe,, had a 10-minute meeting with Obama before the event. Richardson met White House officials at the president's hotel in Albuquerque and rode over to Rio Rancho in the motorcade, but the meeting took place at the event, Richardson spokesman Pahl Shipley said.
    Richardson said he discussed North Korea, the U.S. border with Mexico, the state's economy and the stimulus money — adding that he registered some complaints with the president about aspects of the stimulus package.
    He said green grid stimulus commitments from the federal government are too small and have hindered some large New Mexico projects.
    Christine Lardner, an Albuquerque resident, introduced Obama with her own credit card horror story.
    Lardner, whose family owns a business, was already struggling in a troubled economy when her credit card company raised her interest rates to nearly 30 percent in just three months.
    "Rights like these might be legal, but they are ethically wrong," Lardner said.
    Obama told the crowd he is calling on Congress to send him the credit card legislation before Memorial Day.
    "You should not have to worry that when you sign up for a credit card, you're signing away all your rights," Obama said. "You shouldn't need a magnifying glass or a law degree to read the fine print that sometimes doesn't even appear to be written in English — or Spanish."
    But Obama asked for people to be responsible with their debt. He said nearly half the nation has credit card debt. For those who do, the average balance is about $7,000, he said.
    "So we have been complicit in these problems. We've contributed to our own problems. We've got to change how we operate," Obama said.
    Obama also answered several questions from the audience, covering the national deficit, health care reform, unions, bipartisanship, the $787 billion stimulus package and even through threw in a gripe about the media.
    He said the media had a week full of stories about earmarked projects in the last federal budget that represented less than 1 percent of overall spending.
    "When we find $17 billion worth of cuts in programs, what do the same folks say? They say, 'Oh, that's nothing.' "
    Craig Brandt, Rio Rancho veteran
    "I really resonated with what he said about personal responsibility. I'm the one who ran those (credit cards) up. I'm the one who used them. ... I'm a Republican and on a lot of issues I was very impressed. ... If he can stay moderate, he could be a great president."
    Christine Lardner, Albuquerque business owner
    "We were shocked that the credit card company raised our rate to almost 30 percent in three months. ... Rights like these might be legal, but they are ethically wrong."
    Rainy Upton, Santa Fe, retired teacher
    "My (credit card) is up 30 percent, you better believe it. ... It's filthy, it's dirty and (Obama's) addressing something that's huge."

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