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McColl waves big stick for arts, liberal causes

Published Sep. 27, 2005

Hugh McColl Jr., chairman and chief executive of Bank of America, was on the warpath again. "I'll be damned if anyone calls me "gutless,' " he said as he stalked the newsroom of the local paper, looking for the writer who used that word to describe business leaders such as him in a column on downtown revitalization. "Pretty damn funny," he added.

With the same determination he has brought to building the nation's largest bank, McColl, in the home state of Sen. Jesse Helms, has braved the opposition of local politicians and some of his shareholders to pursue civic goals that he frankly describes as liberal.

Here he is a power broker both feared and admired, known to allies as Uncle Hugh and to foes as Little Caesar. His thumbs up or down on a big-ticket civic project reveals his philosophy while going a long way to determining its fate.

A children's library and theater complex?

"Very important to us," he said, and $27-million in county bonds he supported will set it in motion this year.

A publicly funded sports arena? "A $220-million giveaway," he said, and demanded that the Charlotte Hornets NBA team put up "serious money" before the project goes forward.

His willingness to pursue his civil rights and urban renewal goals nationally has helped earn him recognition as Bill Clinton's favorite banker. One minute, McColl is thundering about Wall Street undervaluing his bank's stock _ stalled at around $50 from a high above $74 as investors wait for the 1998 merger of McColl's NationsBank and Bank-America to pay off. The next, he is cooing about his company's widely admired record of seeking diversity.

McColl has had Clinton's ear since they met in 1992. The businessman was happy to find a politician who could discuss the minutiae of interstate banking rules. In McColl: The Man with America's Money, Ross Yockey says McColl helped persuade Clinton of the wisdom of loosening these rules, helping McColl to build a 21-state empire with assets of $656-billion.

The future president was happy to find a banker committed to financing inner-city and minority-owned businesses. Bank of America announced this month that it made $39-billion in such community reinvestment loans last year.

In no way, though, does McColl wear his politics more obviously than in his support of the arts. When a local production of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia, prompted conservative politicians to eliminate $2.5-million in county arts funding in 1997, McColl, a champion of gay rights whose bank extends health coverage to partners of the same gender, raised money in 1998 to defeat them and elect Democrats who restored the funding last year.

"I guess, by today's definition, I'm a liberal," he says, looking back on an ugly political fight that he felt blackened the city's eye. "The reason I am is, I believe that a chief guarantee of our country, of citizenship, is the right of freedom of speech, the right to be who we are."

But who elected McColl, his local adversaries ask. "I was aghast," Hoyle Martin, one of the defeated county commissioners, said of hearing that McColl was working against him. "We can't let big business run everything."

McColl's social crusading might seem at odds with his image as a hard-charging ex-Marine known for the hand grenade he kept on his desk. But McColl, who grew up in the small town of Bennettsville, S.C., was offended when he returned home after training with blacks in boot camp to hear friends using racial epithets. As a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he witnessed a cross-burning.

Watching his mother draw in charcoal and sculpt in clay stimulated his interest in the arts. McColl's 25-year friendship with the fresco painter Ben Long has inspired him to make Bank of America one of the top arts donors in the country.

Executives who do not share his enthusiasms grumble about the tacitly required donations to the United Way and the local arts council. But McColl is unapologetic: "I think of it as community development money and marketing money, but mainly community development."

From shareholders, McColl has run into resistance over both the company's political donations and his own pay, valued by experts at more than $70-million last year. At the bank's annual meeting last month, shareholders presented resolutions to end political contributions and restrict the board's executive pay committee to outside directors. Both proposals failed, but the pay resolution received 14.5 percent _ high for any measure opposed by a corporate board.

But those who do not like McColl or his politics had better not take too much comfort from his turning 65 next month. While some shareholders expected him to announce his retirement plans last month, McColl said nothing about leaving.