Understanding a lawmaker's stance on various issues is important. But you also need to know personal details, such as the fact his or her daughter just got admitted to a first-rank college.
It also helps if you take a long-term view and built trust and credibility over a number of years.
That advice comes from two CEOs who have been politically active for years and learned how to carry the credit union message to Washington as well as their state capitals.
Marc Schaeffer, president/CEO of Truliant Federal Credit Union in Winston-Salem, N.C., recalled the credit union was ground zero in the 1990s when credit unions sought to open their doors to more people. Truliant's effort to add a furniture factory to its field of membership worked its way through the courts and finally lost in the U.S. Supreme Court. But credit unions ultimately won a resounding victory against the bankers' lobby with the passage of H.R. 1151.
That struggle, Schaeffer said, resulted in an on-going commitment to political involvement.
"It was like Scarlet O'Hara in Gone with the Wind-'I'll never be hungry again,'" he cracked.
"We wanted to be sure we maintained a strong political profile. We coordinate closely with CUNA and NAFCU. We have our own PAC. We have an ongoing dialog about issues such as interchange fees and small business lending."
Sometimes, he indicated, you have to face down a congressman. He recalls the time the credit union sent a letter to members asking them, if the credit union was important to them, to write a certain North Carolina representative.
The congressman was not happy. He asked to meet with Schaeffer and requested that he bring his board chairman. He threw a copy of the letter at Schaeffer. Schaeffer asked what was wrong with the letter. Since the somewhat rocky incident, credit unions have enjoyed a strong relationship with that representative. In fact, Schaeffer was later invited to a fundraiser attended by a number of high-powered lobbyists.
In many areas, the recent election brought into office a large number of fresh faces, meaning credit unions will need to start building new relationships. But there weren't many changes in North Carolina, so Truliant and others there will benefit from an established base.
"We've had to earn our stripes," Schaeffer said. "It's important to lawmakers that we represent 19,000 of their constituents."
If you have seen a lot of turnover in your districts, he figures you're in the same position as other lobbyists. You must start making inroads.
"Get to know their families, their dogs, what their favorite charities are, what interests they have," Schaeffer advised. "Remember they do have lives and interests. Find those human linkages, because that's going to help them better understand what credit unions are and how they serve their constituents. At some point that's going to be crucial," he emphasized.
"As [long-time Speaker of the House] Tip O'Neill said, all politics is local. Our credit unions are the community. That's a huge advantage over the American Bankers Association. We do have to scrap it out with community banks, because they are in our communities with us."
Also get to know each lawmaker's staff, he added. Elected officials can face an overwhelming number of bills and seemingly endless testimony. They rely heavily on their staffs to analyze the issues behind proposed legislation and recommend what position the boss should take.
It's easier today for credit unions to work with elected officials than it was back in the early 1990s, he continued. He credited Dan Mica, who recently retired as CUNA president/CEO, with making inroads.
"I think it was a stroke of genius on the part of the CUNA board to hire Mica. He knew how things worked on the Hill. He knew how to put together a grassroots political organization. So I think we're better off. If anything, we run the risk of becoming complacent."
It's tempting to think of credit unions united behind a specific issue. However, Schaeffer cautions hot buttons can vary and what is important to one credit union may not be to another. One example is the current effort to raise the cap on small business loans. It's important to Truliant. In fact, the credit union once brought more than 50 business partners to a luncheon to demonstrate what the credit union means to small businesses.
But a number of credit unions, especially small ones, may not offer business loans. So those credit unions must be persuaded the issue is important to put them in a strong position when the time comes to offer such loans.
Pete Matthews, president/CEO of Merrimack Valley Federal Credit Union in Lawrence, Mass., agrees.
"Various issues may not apply to every individual credit union," he said. "For example, we're not at the [business lending] cap right now."
Matthews has been active politically, including serving on the league's legislative council. In addition, for almost 20 years MVFCU has held its own version of a legislative day to which all legislators are invited. It has evolved into an event that involves some 20 local credit unions.
"I realized some of the smaller credit unions here weren't attending the Massachusetts legislative day in Boston or the Governmental Affairs Conference in Washington. So we figured, why not have something locally?" he recalled.
Turnout by lawmakers varies. But over time, virtually every legislator has taken advantage of the opportunity to attend.
"If we don't get them one year, we get them the next. Some attend every year," Matthews explained.
"Back in the early or mid-1990s we were simply trying to get legislators to understand what a credit union is. Now the local legislators know what a credit union is and have met with many of us. We're getting into more specific issues that may be pending at the state or national level. Beyond that, we can talk about the economy and how we can help each other. It has to be done over a lengthy period of time."
Matthews joins other credit unions in citing the percentage of assets credit unions can make in business loans as a key issue at the federal level. On the local stage, credit unions have been working on financial literacy. There are now two co-sponsors in the Massachusetts legislature backing a bill that would require high schools to provide a financial literacy course to all students before they can graduate.
A major challenge, he added, has been the tendency of big banks to oppose legislation credit unions want, even though it may not affect banks. So credit unions have to persuade lawmakers the credit union view is correct and will help their constituents.
"It's okay once in a while to do the right thing for their constituents," he quipped. "The most important thing is for credit unions to build a long-term relationship with lawmakers. To gain trust and credibility, you need to do it over a long time. Often these people serve many, many years. You have to maintain consistent contact with them over those years and build a relationship."