For a moment Tuesday, it seemed Occupy Santa Rosa might extend its reach into the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts, which was hosting a titan of capitalism — the CEO of Wells Fargo Bank.
But after a lone protestor was escorted out for shouting that banks needed to be held accountable, order quickly returned, leaving John Stumpf, the leader of the nation's fourth-largest bank, to proceed unmolested.
"It's wonderful to be here. Bankers don't get invited out a lot these days," he quipped to laughs from the crowd of nearly 300 gathered to honor Henry Trione, founder of Empire College and a former Wells Fargo director.
Speaking without notes, the head of the San Francisco-based bank traced the beginning of the ongoing economic crisis to a series of financial meltdowns that culminated in the Sept. 15, 2008, bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the largest such filing in U.S. history.
The slow crawl to recovery ever since is the consequence of several factors, he said, including the eroded manufacturing base, anti-competitive regulations and the vast damage caused by the bursting real estate bubble.
In previous downturns, assets like tech stocks, oil or commercial real estate were hit hardest. In this recession, it was homes, which affected 70 percent of all American families.
"This hurt all families that had housing," he said. "Almost no place didn't have maybe 25 or 30 percent of the value come off from the top."
The road back to economic health requires a renaissance in education, manufacturing and politics, he said, adding that gridlock in Washington between Democrats and Republicans over issues like the debt ceiling does not help confidence.
"When I got to Washington I like upper case A's and lower cases D's and R's. You're an American first, you're a member of your party second," he said. "We need to work together.
Stumpf said real estate markets face continued challenges from the nation's 5 million past-due mortgages, which threaten to add to foreclosure problems that depresses all property values.
He applauded recent regulatory changes that make it easier for homeowners with little or no equity to refinance to historically lower mortgage rates.
He also said he'd like to see foreclosed homes put into a rental pool, allowing beleaguered residents to remain in rental or rent-to-own arrangements.
Still, the vast number of homes built in the boom years presents problems for a quick rebound in the sector, he said.
"I think housing will take awhile," he said.
Stumpf also addressed the sovereign debt crisis in Greece, saying he expects the European Union to find a solution while warning it would have a devastating impact on the world economy if it doesn't.
And he also talked about the Occupy Wall Street movement, whose protests have reached Wells Fargo's corporate front door in San Francisco.
"People have a right to make their feelings known," he said. "People are hurting. This is a tough economy. As long as it stays peaceful ... they have a right to make their voice known."