NAFCU Is Emerging As A Political Force

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After falling behind in recent elections, NAFCU has slowly begun to rebuild its political fundraising to the point where players on Capitol Hill are starting to take notice.

Though still not in the same league as CUNA, which will make more than $2 million in political contributions through its political action committee this election season, the NAFCUPAC is slowly making headway.

In the first year of the current two-year election cycle, NAFCUPAC raised $206,000 and made $159,000 in campaign contributions, both figures being more than any two-year totals recorded by the PAC before.

With $160,000 of cash on hand headed into its biggest fundraising week-the group's annual convention-officials expect to be able to make as much as $400,000 in campaign contributions for the 2003-2004 congressional campaigns. Though still far below the $2 million or so CUNA is expected to contribute to individual candidates these elections, it clearly puts NAFCU in the top 100 of campaign fundraisers.

"The growth of the PAC is a recognition by NAFCU leadership, by the board, and by Fred (Becker), and by our members, of the need to get more involved politically," said NAFCU lobbyist Brad Thaler, who took over leadership of the PAC three years ago and helped build it to is current strength. "A strong PAC makes us able to give support to our friends throughout Congress and it helps expand our involvement at the local level, through fundraisers, and the like."

Attending these local fundraisers has more purposes than just providing financial support to credit union supporters, he pointed out. It also provides "face" time with both the candidates and their top staffers. The connection with the staffers, who make the key decisions on legislation and are usually more knowledgeable about the details of issues, is often more important than the time spent with their bosses, he added.

NAFCU has also taken several pages from CUNA in ways to stretch its resources. One is helping to organize fundraisers for candidates, rather than simply showing up with a check. That way NAFCU may help a candidate raise $10,000 to $15,000 in a night, making a bigger impression then the $500 or $1,000 contribution NAFCU may make on its own.

NAFCU has also started its own automatic contribution program, similar to CUNA's "Deduct-A-'Buck," which allows individuals to authorize automatic deductions from their credit union accounts to the PAC on a quarterly basis. So far, five credit unions have signed on to the NAFCU program, "Make Change for a Dollar."

Another big fundraising tool has been the sale of stuffed bears, "PAC Pals," through credit unions, which has raised more than $100,000 so far for the PAC. "It's really helped us get a lot more people contributing to the PAC," said Erica Anderson, assistant director of the PAC.

This week's annual convention in Vancouver will help supplement the PAC's warchest. Events including a silent auction, casino night and golf tournament are expected to raise as much as $50,000 for the PAC, according to Anderson. This could give NAFCU as much as $200,000 on hand to make campaign contributions going into the final months of the congressional elections.

"As things heat up on Capitol Hill it's important that we have a warchest that gives us flexibility to do a few things," said Thaler.

Among those things is the ability to make the maximum allowable $10,000 contribution to favored candidates, something limited resources have prevented NAFCU from doing in past elections.

"Ten-thousand dollars is a lot of money," said Murray Chanow, another NAFCU lobbyist. "Only a handful of groups can give the maximum. We expect to be able to max-out on some of the (congressional) leadership, some of the best credit union friends."

For many years, financial contributions from NAFCU, like CUNA, were heavily weighted towards Democrats. But more recently, both organizations have tilted more towards Republicans, who now control both the House and Senate.

Through the first 18 months of the current 24-month election cycle, for example, just over 54% of NAFCU's contributions went to Republican candidates. Thaler emphasizes that NAFCU contributions are not based on party affiliation, but purely on a candidate's support for the credit union cause. "Party affiliation is really not a factor we look at. We look at where the candidate stands on the legislation important to us," he said. Another major factor is which committees the candidate sits on. The banking and finance committees in the Senate, and financial services and judiciary, as well as the tax-writing Ways and Means committees, in the House, are important ones, with respect to credit union legislation.

But probably most important determinant for supporting a candidate is the input provided from NAFCU members in the home districts. "We rely a lot on our members and what their take on the race is," said Thaler.

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