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Based on the thunderous applause at the conclusion of the much-anticipated “debate” between the CEO of the second largest credit union in the country, Jim Blaine, and the chairman of the ABA, Ken Fergeson, at the just-concluded CUNA GAC in Washington, I must have been the only person among the 3,000-plus in the audience who felt credit unions came off an embarrassing second best. The session got off to a shaky start because of a weak moderator who never seemed conversant with the issues between the two adversaries. He set no clear direction for the debate. Nor was he ever in control of the proceedings. Actually it was Blaine who set the agenda and thus established the uneasy tone for the entire session. There were some initial polite exchanges with both sides predictably but not effectively trying to make the case for and against the long-standing credit union tax-exemption. Then they did some sparring about Sub-Chapter S banks and engaged in some jostling over what a level playing field really means. This was followed by Blaine boasting over who gets the highest consumer ratings in surveys and why. As the tempo gradually increased, Blaine began unleashing a series of nasty barbs, flippant one-liners, and embarrassing attacks on Fergeson and the entire banking industry. Throughout it all, Fergeson maintained his cool and professional demeanor. He came across as a nice guy. To his credit, he refused to even respond to Blaine’s comparisons of banks to dairy farms, telephone booths, and brothels. The crowed roared with laughter as each explanatory punch line was delivered by Blaine. I just winced, especially at the brothel comparison. I have long preached that credit unions need to play offense not just defense. However, I never suggested that credit unions become offensive and wallow in the same mud that banking industry lobbyists love to sling. As the session spiraled out of control, few important questions were asked let alone answered in a serious manner. Till the end I held out hope that someone would at least ask, “What is the purpose of a bank?” Answer: “To make a profit.” No one did! In hindsight, maybe it was just as well that not enough time was allotted for the session. It began late and was cut off just as audience members were finally allowed to ask intelligent questions. Which they did. It is probably time to give up on staging so-called banks versus credit union debates at credit union meetings. Immediately following the great debate, CUNA chairman and Texas League CEO Dick Ensweiler did what was one of the best jobs ever by a CUNA chairman in addressing the GAC. His ad lib style, obvious strong convictions, his ability to spontaneously tie together what he had just heard in the debate with his own strong credit union beliefs deserves major kudos. But! Was it really fair to give the top elected leader of the banking industry a knock out punch after he had left the stage bloody from the Blaine barrage of insults? I think not! As for the 2004 GAC in general, my hat goes off to CUNA for putting on its biggest and best yet. The ebb and flow of the program was near perfect with awards and recognitions neatly interspersed between outstanding audio visuals and speakers including an impressive “Who’s Who” line up of influential political leaders who said all the right things to a credit union audience. One example of many, a comment by Treasury Secretary John Snow: “I understand not-for-profit and what you do which is why all this talk about taxation of your industry is something we oppose.” Also worthy of note: excellent background handout materials, a first class in-room video presentation, a repeat performance by last year’s talented Paul “The Voice” Berry as MC, and the personalized registration procedure which was tried (and praised) for the first time at CUNA’s last Open Forum but expanded to various GAC hotels. In their obligatory appearances, both CUNA CEO Dan Mica and still NCUA Chairman Dennis Dollar both scored high with on-the-money presentations delivered with flair and style. Two other general session speakers, Nebraska State Senator David Landis (doing a repeat performance of tracing the life and times of U.S. Senator George Norris who was instrumental in getting the 1934 Federal Credit Union Act signed), and brash and popular TV news personality (“MSNBC’s Hardball”) Chris Matthews, were so good that they held the entire crowd in place even though both of their sessions went more than 20 minutes over and lunch was being served in the expo hall. A big problem, mass crowd defections, from previous GAC’s was fixed by scheduling top-flight anchor speakers and by eliminating the open Tuesday afternoon. Breakout sessions were above average and provided a good choice for participants. Interesting aside: The breakout dealing with bank conversions was well attended but several CEOs confided in me that they stayed away lest they give their board and others the impression they were thinking about converting. Not to worry; it was a completely one-sided (don’t do it) session. Any down sides? Banker “Ken” Fergeson was introduced as “Keith,” NCUA and a billion dollar CU were both referred to by a general session speaker as “associations,” speakers calling CUNA “Koona” and members “customers.” Also, CUNA staff continued to irritate veteran vendors by shutting them out from the GAC expo for not advertising enough and anteing up sponsorship money to qualify for a spot. Finally in case those at the GAC missed it, popular Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-PA) as a 16 year old page was mentioned prominently in a Sunday Washington Post Magazine recap of a Puerto Rican’s attack on Congress 50 years ago, Chris Matthews was featured prominently in USA Today on Monday, Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan’s GAC speech made the front page of the Business section of USA Today on Tuesday and page one of Wednesday’s Personal Journal section of the Wall Street Journal, and PSCU Financial Services ran an impressive full page ad in the Monday edition spotlighting its board. 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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