Although the location, hotel, and program format is the same every year, even regular participants at the annual CUNA Governmental Affairs Conference in Washington, D.C. come away with different impressions each year they attend. I know I do! This year’s record 4,000 plus turn out (over 300 first-timers), was exposed to the usual extensive line-up of important speakers from Congress, the Bush Administration, and regulatory agencies, mixed in with “Big Name” types, CUNA leadership and staff, and assorted Washingtonians. Also, various well-orchestrated special events, social activities, and recognition and award presentations, all combined to give probably the best yet overall impression of the GAC. But this year, not that I had any doubts, it really hit me just how patriotic credit union people are and how proud they are to be Americans. The traditional Marine band walk-in music followed by the presentation of the colors drew the most enthusiastic standing ovation I have ever witnessed in dozens of years of attending the GAC. The pledge of allegiance and the singing of our national anthem seemed to touch a nerve like never before, as did the introduction of veterans in the jam-packed Washington Hilton Hotel’s cavernous main ballroom and, the next day’s patriotic opening featuring the National Men’s Chorus. The visuals at the CU Foundation’s Herb Wagner Awards presentation of credit union folks serving in the military shown in uniform was especially touching. And then there was the epitome of American patriotism in the form of retired U.S. Army General Tommy Franks, a much decorated and much in the headlines general session speaker who got a lengthy standing ovation even before he said one word. Any speaker is guaranteed to get applause simply by weaving into their remarks the fact that they belong to a credit union. To get the crowd to really erupt, they need only relate a story about how it was a credit union that helped them get a car when they were just starting out. In the case of Franks, all he needed to do was describe his values as an American. He generated so much applause I thought for a moment I was attending a State of the Union Address. Without a note in hand, he amused the audience with tales of his own humble beginnings and his observations on politicians, the Inside-the-Beltway mentality, the national media, and past and present terrorist threats. Not lost in all the laughter, however, was a powerful and serious message detailing how America has been under serious attack since 1983 and only in the last couple of years took decisive action to fight back. In one breath he said, “My wife and I moved to Tampa because we like New Yorkers,” and in the next said “My daddy taught me that what matters most in life is faith, family, and flag.” When the audience wasn’t laughing, it was cheering! “We live in the best country on the planet; did you ever notice that far more people are trying to get in than get out?” Followed by, “If I knew where Osama bin Laden was, he’d be dead.” Naturally, like all good GAC speakers, General Franks also related his first credit union experience at Fort Sill CU in Oklahoma, which gave the assembled masses one more reason to applaud. Some among many other impressions I came away with: No one does a better job of engaging the audience in what they are there for than CUNA CEO Dan Mica. Among other things, he made it clear that credit unions don’t hate banks and bankers until they become pawns of the banking trade group lobbyists, the real enemy. The Main Event theme of the GAC was masterfully put in perspective by having former world heavyweight boxing champion Larry Holmes show up as a surprise speaker to relate what motivated him to boxing greatness (over 40 KOs) to what should motivate credit union leadership (teamwork and determination). Of course, it also didn’t hurt the theme setting effort that the night before the movie: “Million Dollar Baby” swept five of the top six Oscars at the Academy Awards. Maybe I never noticed before but should have that the GAC is one conference where all the educational sessions are right on point with what this conference is all about. I could find no session that was not in some way about governmental affairs. No wonder the current Credit Union Times online poll ( is showing high ratings for the GAC as a “must attend” CU meeting. Although they are not new, for some reason this year it also hit me while looking around the CUNA displays just how much valuable educational material the group produces to help credit unions. Although the quality and quantity are more impressive than ever, this part of CUNA remains a well-kept secret. For a number of years I have been impressed by the daily conference newsletter produced on site by CUNA staffers and have said so in this space. To go a step further, I think CUNA should bundle up sets of them and make a distribution to all credit unions not represented at the GAC so they can see what important information they missed. Ditto the very useful pocket directory of Congressional contacts and some of the timely fact sheets included in conferees GAC bags. I was also impressed that the GAC expo program found a way to accommodate those vendors on a waiting list by constructing an outside pavilion (a.k.a. a tent) over the hotel pool deck for their booths at a discounted price. It was a tad difficult to find the entrance, but worth the effort. Maybe now CUNA won’t need to continue its unpopular policy of blackmailing vendors to advertise in its monthly magazine to get a booth spot? In the life goes on department, this GAC was the place to meet new CUNA Mutual Group CEO Jeff Post and new Navy Federal CU CEO Cutler Dawson. Both impressive! Final impression? The 2005 GAC will be a tough act to follow. 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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