Credit Union Lessons from '06 Elections
The Democrats took commanding control of the House and a narrow advantage in the Senate.
Can President Bush get anything done for the remainder of his term with the new makeup of Congress?
What effects will Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's post-election resignation have?
Very important questions, but they take a back seat to the hallmark of these elections--ugly, negative campaigning.
Estimates are that $2 billion was spent on campaign ads this time around, with probably more than half of that spent on negative ads. It can wear on voters. How much dragging through the mud of candidates can voters take? It becomes a game of vituperative sound bites and snippets, instead of about dealing with the issues and setting an agenda.
Sound familiar? It's exactly what is going on in the credit union vs. bank battle. The rhetoric has become humorous and hard to take seriously, much like this campaign. But instead of consumers getting worn out, in this case lawmakers are. Lobbyist after lobbyist tells me that most lawmakers have had enough of the bickering and even ask lobbyists to refrain from discussing the CU vs. bank battle on visits.
This comes back to the CU strategy. Are credit unions well served taking the high road with the banks and ignoring the often outlandish rhetoric? Or should they fight fire with fire? Should the credit union trades play defense or take an offensive stance against bankers instead of just responding to their attacks?
Tough questions. In my view credit unions need to play offense, but play where it counts the most. That means grassroots lobbying. Small, mid-sized and large credit unions alike have to make sure they are on the radar screens of their local lawmakers. Awareness of the credit union difference is the best offense.
Many credit unions are doing it. One truly terrific thing about this job is I hear from so many credit unions on what they are doing operationally, financially and of course politically. And I can tell you the industry is lucky to have so many politically savvy credit unions and credit union organizations.
Like anything, some stand out more than others. Take the leagues for example. All are active on some level, but some excel. I continue to be impressed with the Minnesota Credit Union Network. It seems like every month I am seeing them coordinate with their credit unions to meet with lawmakers, host events, and just be part of the political game. Kudos to them. Minnesota is just one of many examples
Back to strategy. Of course CUNA and NAFCU have to respond to banker rhetoric, and get aggressive on offense at times, but they know that if credit unions are in tune with lawmakers in every district in this country, banker rhetoric is just that--rhetoric.
Why are grassroots politics so important? They put teeth on credit unions' membership power. If a lobbyist tells Congress that there are over 80 million credit union members, potential voters that will vote to protect credit unions, it means nothing if those lawmakers aren't seeing credit unions in their district. That's like saying there are 100 million left-handed people. If they can't be mobilized for a common goal at the polls, it's just big numbers. Once lawmakers understand that members will defend their credit union and thus hurt them in the polls then they're more apt to be wary of taking the side of bankers in this fight. I've always wondered whether lawmakers do indeed feel credit union members can be united politically. I was given some very interesting examples of just that recently, and I now see it can be done, but sadly in many states the lobbying isn't strong enough.
The election season also has me thinking of credit union boards. These unpaid, volunteer-run entities need a lot of help. They are the industry's greatest strength, but also a great weakness. Too many boards are comprised of folks who hang on to the seat for 20-plus years because they love it. They like serving the credit union, they like the prestige, or for some it's the ability to travel to credit union conferences. Nothing wrong with their passion and zeal, but longtime board members have to understand the importance of bringing in new blood. A board that has no turnover for 20 years isn't getting the benefit of new ideas that new people bring. It's not adjusting to the times. I believe it's hurting many credit unions.
This isn't an easy problem to solve. Aside from term limits, which most boards cringe at, there's no way to ensure a healthy turnover because there aren't enough new board candidates to make for competitive board elections. Of course, credit unions that truly wanted a full slate of candidates could get them. They could put out calls for candidates on their Web sites, in their newsletters, in branches with signage, but few do it. So for those credit unions that like to complain about lack of candidates, are you really doing enough to attract them? --Comments? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org