WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Seven years ago, if you asked a staffer of Truliant FCU – or AT&T Family FCU as it was called in 1996 – to describe the credit union's political involvement activities, they'd tell you about their annual one day visits to Capitol Hill during CUNA's Governmental Affairs Conference. "We were no different than most other CUs then – we had our perfunctory meeting with our congressmen and senators during CUNA's GAC, and then we went home to business-as-usual," Truliant's President/CEO Marc Shaefer recalled. Truliant got its first wake up call to the importance of political action in 1996 when the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals decided in favor of bankers in their challenge of NCUA's approval for then-AT&T Family FCU to expand its FOM to groups outside the telephone industry. The court's decision and the landmark AT&T case had national implications for the entire credit union movement, but CUs were optimistic when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case in 1997. "We knew the bankers weren't in love with us, but we thought there was no sense of urgency," Schaefer said. Truliant and all CUs got another wake-up call in early 1998 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the banks on standing and merit. The subsequent successful grassroots effort that culminated in the passage of H.R. 1151, The Credit Union Membership Access Act, was the opening chapter to Truliant's commitment to on-going political action. Schaefer promised to make sure Truliant's members were never again at risk because of the CU's lack of involvement in the political promise, and it has since formed a sophisticated, year-round political program to advance CUs' objectives. "We failed during the early years to educate Congress on how credit unions differ from other financial institutions. We just went through the motions of meeting with elected officials," said Schaefer. "Then we suddenly found ourselves on the firing line." He added that, "Truliant was very concerned that we would find ourselves in the same position some time in the future if we didn't make a concerted effort and have a dedicated plan to having a year-round political involvement, instead of just having lip service." To accomplish that, the credit union realized it would have to involve as many people on the credit union side to keep the initiative going and make it effective. "We took our plan of action very seriously," said Schaefer. One of the first steps Truliant took to avoid this situation was to create a Communications Coordinator position responsible for coordinating and managing legislative and governmental affairs-related communications for the credit union. The credit union is being assisted in that effort by working with Buddy Gill, president, Gill Consulting and Research, and Gretchen Fox, president, Gretchen Fox Consulting. The two recently jointly formed a consulting firm-Credit Union Movement Strategies-to assist credit unions with developing communications and political positioning strategies (CU Times, Jan. 15). Truliant also created a Political Involvemment Committee. The group of 12 senior managers, staff and volunteers from the credit union meet quarterly to discuss the current political environment and plan outreach activities. The credit union also created its Political Action Advocates, a network of local credit union advocates who interact directly with public officials and political candidates through personal visits, campaign volunteering and issue-specific emails. The advocates also propose specific events and functions to advance credit unions' objectives. In 2002, for example, Truliant hosted a luncheon for U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) in Charlotte, N.C. where she spoke before representatives of more than 50 select employee groups of the credit union. Another luncheon was held for Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), and Truliant's Virginia-based SEGs were invited to attend. The credit union was also very prominent in Sen. Elizabeth Dole's (R-N.C.) and Rep. Melvin Watt's (D-N.C.) campaigns. To assist the credit union in supporting credit union-friendly candidates, Truliant established its own Political Action Committee to raise and dispense funds. The credit union boasts having the largest individual credit union PAC in the country, with $20,000 receipts in the 2001-2002 election cycle, and a quarterly ending balance of $30,000. "PAC money allows you to be at the table with members of Congress. It gives you an opportunity to have a voice," says Schaefer. One of the biggest lessons Schaefer said he learned from the H.R. 1151 battle was you can't take things for granted. Information sharing and education has to be an on-going activity, he says. "It's important to lead by example and maintain vigilance. You never know what's being worked on," says Schaefer. That posture not only is applied to Trulient's legislative affairs involvement, but also to the regulatory side. The $880-million credit union does business in five states – North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, and Florida. It has more than 170,000 members. Truliant also makes sure the credit union message is conveyed on the local level. The credit union's chairman Clyde Padgett, who is also chairman of the credit union's Government Affairs Committee, is Truliant's representative with the Chamber of Commerce, where he has chaired the State and Federal Issues Committee for several years. Padgett currently chairs the Fiscal Policy and Regulatory Affairs Committee, and he is a member of the Chamber's Government Affairs Executive Committee. But Schaefer emphasizes that it's not the size of Truliant that gets the credit union's foot in legislators' doors. "The members of Congress are very interested in being fair to credit unions of all sizes," he says. "You can be sure the bankers are lobbying Congress and saying falsehoods about credit unions. We can't let down our guard," Schaefer adds. -

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