If there was any doubt that credit unions have once and for all shed their cautious approach to bare knuckle politics, and seemingly overnight become a major player in the rock `em, sock `em political action process, there should be none after analyzing the outcome of the state and national November 5th elections. It is amazing what credit unions can and have accomplished when the state and national CU trade associations representing them stay focused on their number one priority, namely, legislative and regulatory representation. They especially should be commended for what was accomplished in an industry-wide effort. Although a few credit union friends, despite a full court press by credit unions, were defeated, credit unions ended up in an unprecedented number of winner circles with the dozens and dozens of candidates they backed. There was a significant credit union presence in virtually every race in the House of Representatives, the Senate, and in state races from the Governor on down. The credit union industry was front and center from coast to coast. Not all that long ago the miniscule number of credit union lobbyists employed at the time prided themselves on the fact that they would only occasionally call on lawmakers. And then only to tell them they really didn’t want anything except maybe a cup of coffee. Maybe, if they could muster the courage, they would ask them to please let credit unions alone which was polite political speak for get the bankers off our back. The credit union industry found out the hard way that a laize faire strategy didn’t work. Also, credit unions did not have in their corner either the elected or staff leadership that knew how the game was really played, or the big bucks it would take to get noticed in the offices of important and not-so-important politicians. Gradually that all changed. Credit union trade groups started to put more emphasis on doing what trade associations were created to do and less on finding ways to sell widgets to make a buck. Annual budgets were reallocated in ways that made more sense for the mission at hand. The right staffers, like veteran Congressman Dan Mica, were put in place. He in turned beefed up the lobbying ranks of CUNA and he engineered a long overdue move. He relocated the heart and soul of the organization to Washington where it belonged. A strategic plan for political action was developed and put in place. PACs were formed and staffed up. They immediately became super aggressive. It seems like everything really came together this year. Powerful grassroots programs were in place and working effectively. Political action funds were raising record amounts of cash that almost immediately went to credit union friendly politicos. No more were credit unions equated with 10 bucks, a cup of coffee, and a handshake. When the time to get involved in the 2002 elections rolled around, credit unions were ready. Data bases were in place. Cooperation between credit union movers and shakers at the state and national levels was unprecedented. It seemed like everyone had hiked the hill or was about to. The Credit Union House in Washington, D.C. boosted the credit union image among influentials. Back home individual credit unions were getting thousands of members involved. They also paid for and ran newspaper advertisements for credit union supporters. They made no-nonsense mailings to boost candidate images and electibility. They gave them prominence in credit union newsletters. They even traveled with them to promote their candidacies. They did much more. They helped stuff the candidates’ envelopes for his or her own campaign literature. They manned phone centers until their ears were ready to fall off. They pitched in with enthusiasm to assist the candidates’ staffs with whatever back-office work needed to be done. They held countless meetings with only one purpose, to get their person elected. And they gave money, lots of money, every way that was allowed. Speaking of giving money, that continues to be a part of the political process that bothers me. A couple of years back, I devoted an entire column to my concern that PACs were thinly disguised methods of trying to buy influence. I still feel that way even though political action funds, no matter how large they have become, are perfectly legal. I found it hard back then and still find it hard today to believe that politicians aren’t influenced by who gives and how much they give. Of course they are. In some circles that system would be called bribery. Nevertheless, despite this one man’s opinion, PACs obviously work and worked very well in 2002 to the benefit of credit union interests. That’s just the way the system works. This became the year when winners, losers, the competition, and yes credit unions large and small, became aware that credit unions today can definitely have an influence over who wins and who loses. It also became obvious that any candidate who doesn’t support credit unions will feel their wrath in many different ways, And vice versa. Anyone needing proof of the new reality that credit unions have joined the big leagues in the political process league has only to take a close look at the lineup of congressman and senators at the national level, and who’s sitting in the governors’ mansions at the state level. Credit unions will never be able to look back. A program is now in place that works and works well. From this point forward credit union leaders and the organizations they lead can only continue to become more effective and influential. It is now well known that the credit union industry has become a force to be reckoned with and paid attention to; the we-don’t-want-anything style of lobbying is dead. Credit unions know exactly what they want and what’s more, they know what it takes to get it. And they will. Comments? Call 1-800-345-9936, Ext. 15, or Fax 561-683-8514, or E-mail [email protected]

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Peter Westerman

 

Credit Union Times

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