An Immigrant To U.S. Finds Way To 'Give Back'

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ROHNERT PARK, Calif. — A long and winding road that started in Africa and culminated in this Wine Country city north of San Francisco has led to long hours for little pay-and Amy Ahanotu could not be happier.

Ahanotu, who was born in Nigeria and immigrated to the United States in 1985, found his way to Rohnert Park the following year. Last year, the manager of a local branch of Redwood Credit Union was elected to the Rohnert Park City Council and is in his first four-year term. Previously, he served as an appointed member of the city planning commission of Rohnert Park for four years.

Credit Union Journal: Politics has become a more volatile; how do you answer, "What is life like in politics?"
Ahanotu: Life in politics is a mixed bag. It is a job that you are happy you are doing something for the community, but at the same time it can be frustrating because people do not understand everything about an issue. You have to make a position based on what is good for the community. It is hard work. You do things in the community and doing what you are elected to do, which for me means finding out what people want me to do.

CUJ: How did you come to be involved in politics?
Ahanotu: A few years ago there was an effort to bring a casino into the city. I was one of the people opposed to that, and I thought the city council was not listening to what the community was telling them. After that I became very involved in city politics and keeping up on issues that benefit the community.

CUJ: What issues you are championing?
Ahanotu: The casino issue-I am still opposed having a casino here. A Native American group is working with Station Casinos on the project, and the federal government is working on taking a parcel of land into trust. There are a lot of working parts and the issue has been going on for years.

Right now there are a few other issues, including our city budget. The city is running a budget deficit and there are a lot of issues we need to resolve to make sure the city is solvent. No. 2 is economic development. Right now the city does not have someone who is focused on economic development, which I made part of my campaign and am working very diligently on.

The third issue is being civil in the city council. The previous city council did not get along very well, which affected decisions. In my campaign I said we need to work together, even if we disagree. We can agree to disagree rather than calling each other names. Last but not least is cooperation among government and business. Sonoma State University is in Rohnert Park, and I want the Chamber of Commerce and the school district to work together and not think they are on their own.

I come from a business standpoint, so I am a champion of streamlining processes and limiting fees that kill jobs.

CUJ: Has politics become less civil? If so, why?
Ahanotu: I think things are less civil. As I mentioned before, there were problems with civility on our city council. Since I have been on the city council I have worked on how to come to compromises to get things done.

When I look at what is going on in Washington, D.C., I shake my head. And the same things happen in other places, including our state capitol in Sacramento. We need to remember the important thing is to move things forward. The way I look at it, politics is a game of compromise. You do not get everything you ask for, so Democrats and Republicans can compromise on their issues and meet in the middle.

CUJ: Many people say it is just not worth getting involved. Do you ever find yourself thinking that? Why should people get involved?
Ahanotu: I would like to see more people get involved. I live in Rohnert Park. I work in Rohnert Park. I deal with local issues. We need as many people in the credit union movement as possible to get involved in politics. If we don't get involved, then big financial institutions such as Wells Fargo, Chase and Bank of America will be dictating to credit unions. We need to be in city councils, county commissions and state capitols to make sure we have voices.

I work at a credit union, so I understand the impact of the policies that come down from Washington and Sacramento have on the credit union movement. In my area, I see credit union issues are important to our community. Whatever happens to us happens to our members. The credit union movement as a whole has to start looking at candidates in terms of how they understand the credit union movement.

CUJ: What is the most difficult part of holding office?
Ahanotu: When you are running for office you think you are going to do so many things. But when you get elected on the city level, there are five council members, meaning you have to get three votes to do anything. That makes things very difficult when everyone is looking at different platforms.

I am interested in balancing the budget, in infrastructure, in promoting business and in education. Not everyone sees things like I do. So trying to round up a majority of votes can be frustrating. You have to keep working at it to try to get the other city council members to see things your way. If something is better for the community, then I will listen.

Coming from a business side, decisions are made faster than in government. We have to consider many different solutions, which takes longer and can be frustrating.

CUJ: What is there about politics and holding office that you think many people don't know or understand?
Ahanotu: The amount of work that is involved. Sometimes a meeting goes until 10 p.m. or later. You have to meet with your constituents and there are many time commitments. There are packages you have to read and understand before you go to a meeting. People call to ask questions. It takes a lot of time and energy to do it, and many people do not understand that. Another problem is people who criticize what you are doing without looking at it from your point of view. It is a challenging time when you are trying to get people to understand.

CUJ: Are credit unions understood by politicians?
Ahanotu: I don't think credit unions are understood in politics. Many politicians in Sacramento and Washington have never had relationships with credit unions, but they do understand Bank of America. They understand banks need to meet Wall Street's expectations or they get hammered. Credit unions are not-for-profit organizations, but we pay taxes and we help our members with loans.

We need people within the movement to get involved in politics by educating the legislature. We have to ensure the financial well-being of our community.

CUJ: What is your general view of national politics?
Ahanotu: I think Congress has to start getting together and start solving common problems. We cannot demagogue everyone. The deficit is a mess, and everyone in Congress has participated in the decision-making process.

We need to understand each other and work toward a common goal. We as politicians need to understand we cannot make decisions based on our ideological beliefs. The Democrats need to give in on social issues and the Republicans need to give in on economic issues, and both sides need to let go of their ideology.

CUJ: How much of a time commitment does your office require? How often do you meet? What does it pay?
Ahanotu: We meet twice a month in the evenings. That is good for me because I work during the day. The meetings can go until 10, 11 or 12. There are special sessions that might be called. And there are several boards and community events you are expected to participate in. These events can be in the evenings or on the weekends. When I go to an event I always wear my credit union nametag so everyone in the community knows I work for Redwood Credit Union.

It is hard to put a number of hours on all this, but the credit union allows me to serve the community and I educate the community about the credit union. There is a stipend for being on the city council, $410 per month. By the time taxes are taken out you don't see much, and it doesn't really cover even the expenses for gasoline driving to all these events. You end up spending your own money. But I do it to serve my community. My kids grew up here and went to school here, so I look at it as a way to give back. As an immigrant you know how tough things can be. This community gave me many benefits and I am paying back.

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