This Trickle Down Is Now Starting To Trickle Back Up

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Call it the trickle down theory, part II.

Any reader of these pages from 1997 forward knows that credit unions, as a national community, have gone from the cheap seats where they watched politics from afar to becoming major players on the field itself. These days, representatives of the trade associations don't pack for Washington until they have PAC'd first, having learned it's nice to wear a white hat, but it's the green (sadly) that gets you listened to.

As the prominence of political action at the national level grew, the emphasis also began to trickle down to the state level, with many of the state leagues running sophisticated and aggressive lobbying operations. Eventually, that trickled down to the chapter level, where political fundraisers are common, and now we're seeing it at the credit union level itself, where a handful of CUs nationally have added someone to their staff specifically to oversee government-related affairs.

Altura Credit Union in Riverside, Calif. is one of them. In 2005, the credit union east of Los Angeles hired Bennie Tinson as its first Government Affairs Officer. His job, Tinson explained, is to ensure that first, politicians "are aware of how we are different from banks," and second, to make local politicians just as aware of all that Altura offers and does for Riverside and the other cities within its field of membership.

"I spend a lot of time educating legislators on the basics of what is a credit union and the basics of what we offer," he said.

Of course, none of that could happen until Tinson himself learned those same basics. A 2002 graduate of Pepperdine University with a master's in public policy, Tinson spent a couple of years working for various governments, including the city of Compton, Calif. Altura's CEO, Mark Hawkins, spent time with Tinson ensuring he knew a credit union is not a cross between a credit card and a labor union. "I just jumped in the fire and started to learn," he said.

"Many people assume that credit unions operate out of a basement and are tied to a local employer," observed Tinson. "They think of us as a savings institution, a place to get a car loan. They don't realize all that we offer, including commercial services.

"When we meet with an elected official," he continued, "we try to focus on what is different and what separates credit unions. We explain how credit unions are owned by their members and how we focus on serving the consumer, how we are not-for-profit. We explain that banks are just the opposite."

When asked the kinds of misconceptions he encounters among elected officials, Tinson said the bottom line, frankly, is the bottom line. "We have to clarify that we are not-for-profit, not non-profit," he noted. "We explain that a credit union returns its excess income to the members."

In his first year on the job, Tinson has set up two "meet and greets" with local elected officials and employees of Altura, one in Riverside and one in Hemet, Calif., which it also serves. In Hemet, the credit union's branch staff, for instance, met with City Councilman Jim Ayers who is running for the state Assembly. In Riverside, two of that city's councilmen and the assistant manager came to the credit union's headquarters to meet with staff.

And, of course, Altura has been putting its money where its mouth is. Tinson said the credit union's PAC this year will likely reach "major donor" status in California, meaning $10,000.

"At the local level we have tried to show that Altura has a lot to offer to the city of Riverside and how we can partner with the city on many of its development needs," he said. "We want to connect local officials with the products we have. Quite frankly, the first time we did a sit-down they did not realize all that we offer, including group health insurance."

With a staff that has an average age of 23, many have not been politically active, often opting instead of rocking the vote to simply not bothering to vote. Tinson is also working to change that mind-set among his peers. Internally, he has created a "Connect for the Cause" database of information that allows the credit union to mobilize forces quickly. He has also overseen the creation of an e-mail based "Legislative Digest" that currently goes to 2,000 subscribers. It contains articles about the credit union and credit unions in general, what Altura has been doing in the community, who it is meeting with, and guest op-eds from local politicians. Produced quarterly, Tinson said his goal within five years is to get the mailing list to 10,000.

In addition to the local officials and representatives of California's 65th and 66th districts in the General Assembly, Tinson said he has been in regular touch with the California league and also with his counterparts at the federal level. But as the old saw from former House Speaker Tip O'Neill observed, "All politics is local," and that's where Tinson's focus remains.

"This is a new avenue for credit unions and I think every credit union should do this," he said. "Credit unions are highly regulated, and those regulations touch employees and affect the bottom line.We also want (elected officials) to see all that we bring to the community."

It's also a great way to make sure you're not trickled upon.

Frank J. Diekmann is Publisher of The Credit Union Journal and can be reached at fdiekmann

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