One of the credit union movement's best friends in Congress was on the ropes politically. So who are you going to call?
Not Ghostbusters, but Choice One Community Federal Credit Union in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., in the northeast corner of the Keystone State. Its efforts in that race are the reason it is being given Credit Union Times Trailblazer Award for Outstanding Political Action.
Even though Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa.) was running in a solidly Democratic district in a year where his party was doing extremely well, the veteran credit union backer was in trouble. Some polls showed he had lost touch with the district, and his opponent was a popular local mayor who had received national attention for his stance against illegal immigration.
It's hard to underestimate Kanjorski's importance to credit unions. He was a key sponsor of H.R. 1151, which reversed a U.S. Supreme Court decision and gave credit unions broad authority to expand their memberships.
The bill, which was strongly opposed by the banking community, limited the new community charters for credit unions to well-defined, "local" communities. He has also backed numerous other measures to advance the cause of credit unions.
When faced with the possibility of losing one of their best friends in Congress, Choice One's members took to the streets. They canvassed and telephoned on behalf of Kanjorski, held fundraisers for him and worked with other area credit unions, CUNA and the Pennsylvania Credit Union Association.
"During its tireless efforts during my reelection campaign, Choice One Community FCU helped to ensure the support and active involvement in the campaign from other credit unions and their members through an extensive grassroots operation," Kanjorski wrote in a letter endorsing Choice One for this award.
In addition, Choice One also sent out a series of postcards to its members throughout the campaign reminding them of Kanjorski's record on credit union issues.
"We also allowed Kanjorski's campaign to access the list of registered Democrats among our membership and made sure that no potential voter was not contacted," said John Kebles, who recently retired as Choice One Community FCU's president/CEO. "Our work in the race proved that if you get on the side of the credit unions, they'll be with you always."
CUNA, which has one of the largest and most far-reaching political operations in Washington, contributed its resources as well. It worked with the Pennsylvania Credit Union Association on partisan communications, mailings that reached 18,000 households of members of Choice One and four other area credit unions on behalf of Kanjorski. In the end, the sitting congressman defeated Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta 51.7%-47.3%.
CUNA Senior Vice President for Political Affairs Richard Gose said, "The enthusiasm and knowledge with which Kebles and others approached the effort really helped us on the ground. There were a lot of factors, including the fact that the Realtors helped him a lot as well, but the credit union effort was really important."
In addition, then-vice presidential nominee Joseph Biden, who grew up in nearby Scranton, was a frequent visitor to the area, and he drummed up a lot of support for the Democratic ticket. Former President Clinton made an election eve appearance on behalf of Kanjorski and made a commercial for him.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose father grew up in the district, also campaigned for Kanjorski and made an advertisement for Kanjorski. Caroline Kennedy also appeared on the lawmaker's behalf.
While Choice One's political involvement ramps up during elections, it is constantly reminding its members of the importance of being active in politics.
Whenever it has an open house, branch opening or other event they check with Kanjorski's staff before scheduling the date so Kanjorski, a member of the credit union, can make an appearance. Also, there is a "Kanjorski Corner" in their office to remind people of the benefits of getting active in government and politics.
Other credit unions praised Choice One's efforts.
"The accomplishments that Pennsylvania credit unions have gained in the legislative arena stems from the hard work and dedication of this credit union," wrote Gayle Maisano, president/CEO of Wilkes-Barre Postal Federal Credit Union, in a letter backing Choice One.
Kanjorski, the No. 2 member of the House Financial Services Committee and chairman of a key subcommittee, had not previously had many tough re-election races except for 2004 when he also defeated Barletta.
Throughout this year's campaign, Kebles was quite nervous. "I am an eternal optimist, but the poll numbers and some of the high negatives were really something," he recalled.
A poll released in mid-September showed Kanjorski trailing Barletta 44%-35%, and only 35% of all voters thought the congressman should be re-elected. A mid-October poll showed Kanjorski had narrowed the gap. Even as late as the weekend before the election, many analysts were saying the race was a tossup or leaning for Barletta.
But Kebles said Kanjorski's troubles made Choice One redouble their efforts.
"We knew how important this race was. And we pulled out all the stops,'' he said.