OGDEN, Utah -- In an environment like Utah, which is particularly hostile toward credit unions, political participation comes down to eat or be eaten.
And, $3.6 billion America First Federal Credit Union, being the largest in Utah, felt the need to sit up to the table to defend credit unions from attacks in its state. Rabid credit union enemy Harris Simmons, chairman/CEO of Zions Bank and former chairman of the American Bankers Association, has strong influence across the state legislature, including having one of his bank vice presidents as state house majority leader. "I believe the problem--and why we became the poster child for the nation--is Harris Simmons...does not like credit unions and has tried to make it as difficult as possible," America First Vice President of Governmental Affairs Sheryl Cox said.
In 1999, Utah credit unions were dealt a blow with very restrictive field of membership limitations placed upon them by the state legislature. America First set to work and in 2000 successfully got three of its staffers elected to the state legislature. One, Doug Aagard is still serving and another, Paul Ray, has left the credit union, but still serves in the state legislature. Peggy Wallace lost her re-election bid last fall.
While America First has a good relationship with all its representatives in Washington, Congressman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), former part-time credit union lobbyist and schoolteacher, is particularly close. Bishop faced Kevin Garn in the 2002 Republican primary, chairman of a local bank and sitting majority leader in the Utah House. Initial polling showed Garn with a 33-point lead over Bishop. America First was in the trenches fundraising for the campaign and creating and producing mailers in support of Bishop. Their pieces won a CUNA Diamond Award for Political Action. In the end, Bishop handily beat Garn by a 60-40 margin.
America First President/CEO Rick Craig stated, "That to me is the key to the future of credit unions...Where we really have to be effective is getting candidates elected." The CEO travels to various states talking with credit union groups about political involvement and serves on CUNA's Governmental Affairs Committee.
"I think we had an impact on that," Cox added regarding Bishop's election and acknowledging the work of other interest groups as well in the effort. "It's one of the most exciting things I've ever been involved in."
After that, in 2003, the Utah bankers pushed a credit union tax bill in the state house that resulted in the elimination of member business lending and restricted real estate lending as well as a study on the taxation of credit unions.
After two years of work by the task force made up of state legislators, they devised a nonbinding resolution to propose taxation on credit unions in the U.S. Congress. America First made the rounds to the state legislators with "pages and pages and pages" of educational materials; the resolution was ultimately approved in the state house by one vote.
America First then swung into action at the federal level to help with a petition drive collecting signatures from Utah consumers opposing credit union taxation. They obtained 155,000 signatures and delivered copies to each of their five members of Congress in Washington, D.C. The resolution died.
The Utah League of Credit Unions spent $700,000 on this campaign with $500,000 of that coming from America First. In the end, the larger credit unions that the banks were targeting, including America First, converted to federal charters. "In terms of political action," Craig explained, "we have to get the members involved."
So America First has set up a member advocates program. "Our advocacy group is very near and dear to me. It's 20,000-plus members I communicate with as regularly as I can," Cox explained.
She keeps in contact with them and then gets them fired up for particular campaigns or issues, encouraging them to contact their representatives. "Credit unions enjoy a very strong grassroots presence," she noted, adding that 50% of Utahans are credit union members.
America First also offers employee training in political involvement resulting in nearly 100% registered to vote and Craig and Cox are both very active politically. "Credit unions have to get involved and leadership has to lead by example," Craig stated. He serves as one of the local delegates that nominates candidates for party backing. Cox has worked numerous campaigns.
America First also runs a state level political action committee, the America First Development Fund, which it uses to make contributions to the league and directly to candidates.
Craig said he recalled reading a news report that politicians voted with the side that gave them the most money 96% of the time. "There's some reluctance because when you take a position you alienate part of your field of membership," Craig recognized.
However, he said, the future of credit unions depends on it or there could be nothing left to defend. He added that credit unions' grassroots power can also help trump the money spent by the banks. --firstname.lastname@example.org