`Big Bad John' Retires With New Title: Legendary Lobbyist
DENVER - He is regarded as the consummate lobbyist - well-versed, smart, a man committed to credit unions, witty and generous, sought out by lawmakers for his opinions on everything from pornography to gun control, and a guy who carries around a copy of the U.S. Constitution in his pocket....
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DENVER – He is regarded as the consummate lobbyist – well-versed, smart, a man committed to credit unions, witty and generous, sought out by lawmakers for his opinions on everything from pornography to gun control, and a guy who carries around a copy of the U.S. Constitution in his pocket. “I guess I like to remind legislators when discussing credit unions that there is a reason the framers of the Constitution wrote in the preamble, `we the people ‘ and that we need to look at the face of democracy and its tools,” declares the 59-year-old John P. Sheehy, Jr.-that long-time and now retired lobbyist for the Colorado Credit Union System. Because of health reasons – a defective heart valve – Sheehy, nicknamed by both peers and lawmakers as “Big Bad John” because of his size – 6’4 and tipping the scales at 260 – formally retired last September as senior vice president of government relations. But he continues to win accolades for his League work. “John is an `institution’ at the Colorado League and in the legislature and his name is synonymous with political success,” commented Carla Hedrick, chairman of the League who also is president/CEO of Denver Community FCU. She lamented that Sheehy’s “magical” skills are sorely missed now that he has finally quit the League though his advice remains in demand. Sheehy, who still tracks CU-related bills for the League and serves as chairman of Gov. Bill Owen’s Council of Advisors on Consumer Credit, looks back on his 30-year League career as extremely fulfilling “and very rewarding.” He began as a league representative at the League out of Emporia State College in Kansas in 1973 where his boss was Carroll Beach, also a revered – and now retired – president and CEO of the Colorado League. With his business degree and background in accounting, Sheehy’s first job was auditing CUs, but he soon migrated to the political side as Beach saw where his talents lay. Beach, who also wears the consummate mantle having been called “an industry icon” and the “most powerful missionary” for CUs, retired from the Colorado CEO post in June 2001, later taking a consulting job with CUSC Corp. in Atlanta. “My friend, John, is an individual who has never taken himself too seriously but possesses an uncanny knack of knowing what to say and how to act as he keeps vigilant over any law, bill or regulation that might impact credit unions,” said Beach. Because “so much of what he says comes from the heart, lawmakers always listen and he earns their respect,” according to another ex-co-worker, Duane Bruno, chief operating officer of DPS CU of Denver and a former executive vice president of the League. “He’s a class guy who has done so much for Colorado on so many levels when there was talk of taxation to any number of issues,” said Bruno. Those challenges over the years, recalls Sheehy, have ranged from allowing CUs to have community charters, a test of state law on interest rate ceilings, and the “once a member always a member” fight in 1975. “When I started, I really had no idea what a lobbyist was supposed to do, but Carroll presented me with a list of helpful hints and armed with that, I began to find out all I could about what it takes to do the job,” said Sheehy who first bought a legislative handbook which gave details about the personal life of every Colorado lawmaker. The handbook “gave details about each legislator’s business, personal interests, their background, upbringing, schools, church, memberships, business or cooperative interests etc,” said Sheehy. The handbook was really a primer “on why they wanted to be a legislator, and I simply stored this information in my mind to build an effective relationship with each legislator.” His basic technique, he said, was to “talk to a legislator about their own interests, issue or family before bringing up my credit union issue.” “Sometimes you found out that different legislators were basically anti-co-op in which case I referred to credit unions as `capitalists with a heart.’”a tie-in that sometimes had appeal, said Sheehy. Relying on one tool of the trade, he recalls using “decoy” legislation with bankers that would gain their attention as well as opponents “while we passed other legislation that we really wanted.” “In 1977 we introduced a bill that would have allowed credit unions to become depositories for public funds, but I think the bankers only reviewed Section 1,” remembers Sheehy. “Section 2 of the bill was what we really wanted and that included restoring credit unions’ ability to have community charters.” The bill was finally passed and also included access to ATM networks and allowing small groups of employees to join an existing CU. Over the years, said Sheehy, the lobbyists’ role has changed. “When I started in the mid to late 1980′s, each major company had its own lobbyist who was an employee of the company or association, but in 1988 at least in Colorado there was a transition to have hired lobbyists, `hired guns’ or `mercenaries,’” said Sheehy. Today at least 75% of the lobbying core is individually contracted lobbyists. Another bit of learning the lobbying trade, Sheehy says is in tracking the “Congressional ambitions” of state lawmakers since that “can make you a more effective lobbyist once these legislators reach Congress.” Among Colorado lawmakers he listed for that group are: Sen. Hank Brown, ex-Sen. Gary Hart, Reps. Roy Kococek, Pat Schroeder, Joel Hefly, Diana DeGette, Mark Udall and Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell. And then there are the “Credit Union Champions” – those who support or introduce CU legislation “knowing up front there will be heavy opposition from the banks and perhaps others but still does his or her best to get it passed.” In 30 years “only seven legislators fit into my definition” and among that group are Reps. Bob Ore, Paul Schaur, Shawn Mitchell and Sens. Dick Mutsebaugh, Ken Ester, Stephanie Takis and James Kadlecek. Sheehy, who over the years has had key roles in many of CUNA’s major campaigns including H.R. 1151 in 1998-99, says CUNA still “calls the shots and develops strategies” for the industry in Washington, but leagues “must determine their own strategies commensurate with state needs.” Sheehy, a native of Garden City, Kan., is a Viet Nam veteran. He served in the Army 33 months, of which 18 was spent in Viet Nam as a combat engineer. He extended his tour of duty there to obtain an `early out’ to return to the U.S. Once with the Colorado League, he was quickly promoted, becoming director of education in 1974 and staff legislative lobbyist in 1975. He also was assistant treasurer of Colorado Corporate CU during the organization’s first two years. He served on several national CU committees including the first chairman of the Dues-Supported Service Committee of the American Association of Credit Union League Executives. Sheehy was appointed by three Colorado governors -Richard Lamm, Roy Romer and Bill Owns – to serve on the Council of Advisors on Consumer Credit. First appointed in 1977 and now chairman, Sheehy says he will continue until his term runs out at yearend. “I told the governor last year I was retiring, but he wanted me to stay on,” says Sheehy, who also does volunteer work for the American Association of Retired People. Sheehy confides that his weight is something that he has always lived with “and for a lobbyist-it can be an advantage-particularly when you are bigger and taller than they are.” Because of his presence, “they know I’m there,” he laughed. But for sure, he has never acted the bully, say his peers.. A recent video presented to Sheehy at a farewell ceremony and “roast” presented was more of a “lovefeast” with testimonials from top Colorado CEOs. One video clip noted his reputation as an historian and his keeping the Constitution in his vest pocket. He picked up a copy during Colorado’s 1985 Bicentennial Commission celebration and decided it was handy to read to lawmakers. Another video clip from staffers and Colorado CEOs reminded Sheehy that while he might be retiring, “we have your home phone number and we intend to use it.” -
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