Ky. Board Member Knows Politics From Both Sides

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It is often said that who you know is just as important as what you know.

Johnny Abbot knows countless politicians, and that's what he brought to the table when he was elected to the board at the $98-million Members Choice Credit Union here four years ago. Since then, the credit union's political action committee, chaired by Abbott, has been invited to and attended several high-profile political events, including the swearing-in ceremony of a Kentucky Supreme Court justice and the inauguration event for a personal friend of Abbott who was elected to represent Kentucky in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"Mr. Abbott knows the politicians, and he has been a good point of contact for our credit union," said Patrick Ferry, CEO of Members Choice Credit Union. "He has brought expertise that we didn't have before, and because of that, we have become more and more involved with our politicians."

Like many credit unions, Members Choice has always supported its credit union league's efforts in the political arena. But when Abbott was elected to the board, the credit union started making a name for itself. It's four-member political action committee calls on politicians, attends local party functions, and even works with the local credit union chapter to host functions involving both state and federal representatives. In addition, the credit union has a travel budget that enables its board members to attend the Governmental Affairs Conference in Washington, D.C. every year and meet with their state legislators as often as possible.

"We meet with our state legislators every time they are in session, just to let them know who we are," said Abbott. "When you need the politicians, you can't call on them successfully if they don't know who you are. It's our job to put the welfare of the credit union in front of them, and they have to know who we are."

Member Of Democratic Exec Board

That's not a problem for Abbott, whose personal involvement in countless political campaigns over the years has earned him a seat on his county's Democratic executive board. Abbot has successfully campaigned for several Kentucky governors, President Jimmy Carter and President Bill Clinton. Yet, he's quick to say that he's non-partisan when it comes to representing his credit union.

"We're there representing our members. They are the bosses when you come right down to it. If our 15,700 members don't like the job we're doing, we won't be around much longer," he said.

Abbott knows the power of the vote all too well. He had to run several times before being elected to his credit union board, and many years earlier he was elected financial officer of his local steelworkers union. As a union official, Abbot was always being approached by politicians seeking endorsements at the local level. He has used all of these experiences as opportunities for learning the most effective ways to get his message heard by the legislators that his credit union is calling on.

"We tell them the bankers have the money and their lobbyists are paid. We're not paid. This is all volunteer. And one thing we have that the bankers don't have is the votes," Abbot said. "If you take our 15,000 members and multiply that by three, which is our average size family, that's 45,000 votes."

Ironically, this is not the message that Abbott, a retired worker from AK Steele, thought he'd be spreading when he originally ran for election to the Members Choice board of directors. "Our board had been made up of salaried people. Hourly people had no representation. I thought I had something to offer," he said.

CEO Ferry said what Abbott offered was much more than his credit union anticipated. "I think Mr. Abbot has been a big help in our political action arena with his contacts and his enthusiasm. He's done a lot for us."

Volunteer Lobbyist: Johnny Abbot

CU: Members Choice Credit Union, Ashland, Ky.

Worth Noting: A long-time lobbyist in Kentucky, Mr. Abbot has had a strong influence in building the credit union's efforts in the political arena.

Strategy For Ensuring The Credit Union Is Heard: Abbot said it simply isn't effective to lobby a legislator once a year; Abbot is in constant contact with members of both political parties.

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