Time For A New CU PAC: People Against Conversions

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Members of Congress got $211,000 in donations from credit unions just last month. You wonder if any of them even noticed. A small band of credit unionists working on their own time and own dime and striving to stop a billion-dollar credit union from converting into a bank, meanwhile, got a thousand bucks. And they were thankful. There's something backward in that equation.

That credit unions have become power-brokers inside the beltway in the seven short years since the passage of the Credit Union Membership Access Act is impressive and deserving of the plaudits such status collects. Credit unions now routinely make the top 10 lists of "Most Influential Lobbies" published by The Hill and Roll Call. Before 1998, credit unions didn't budget for a subscription to the two papers. CUNA President Dan Mica now is listed among the most influential in Washington. Before Mica, CUNA's presidents were most likely to be influential within the Madison, Wis. Chamber of Commerce. Today credit unions have a powerful Washington PAC. Not long ago few CU folks ever even packed for Washington.

But just as any well-managed, individual credit union must step outside its own doors and take a good look at itself, especially after a name or charter change (or both), the credit union community itself should take a walk across the street and do the same. Credit Union Land is a changed place since the passage of HR 1151, and that change has nothing to do with the law itself or even field of membership. Rather, the 99-pound weakling has learned to flex its muscles and shown that it, too, can kick a little sand at the beach. And credit unions have learned to like the feeling. It feels good to make those "power" lists. It's heady stuff to be invited to the White House for bill signings. It's intoxicating to know a congressman will take your call and not return others, even when you know the only reason is your checkbook.

So many credit unions have now taken to driving the Washington Beltway that I wonder if any of them can still see in their rear-view mirrors where it is they've come from. If all they see is another PAC gaining on them, they need to take the next exit, and start driving toward Dallas. Use some of those PAC dollars for the gas-it will be the best investment they can make. Once they get to Dallas they will find a handful of people calling themselves the "Coalition for Member Trust" who are attempting to tell another side of the story as the $1.4-billion Community Credit Union seeks to convert to a bank (whoops, CCU is calling it a "savings institution").

In politics, the best attacks are those that are completely true but somehow ring negative. I suppose that's why one critic of the Texas group has already referred to them as folks who have an "agenda." Duh! Of course they have an agenda-it's to "communicate the full story (of the conversion) to the members, and we're taking that on," says Mark Arnold, a member of Community CU and VP with Neighborhood CU in Dallas who is heading up the group. (It's well worth noting, by the way, that Neighborhood CU, which stands to benefit as an individual institution if Community CU becomes a bank, has had the foresight to see the bigger picture that credit unions, CCU's members, and consumers in general stand to lose if the conversion is approved.)

It takes guts to do what the coalition members are doing. In fact, they, along with those who helped stop the conversion at Columbia Credit Union, and the Michigan league, which did mass media advertising aimed at members of Lake Michigan CU (which failed in its conversion attempt), all ought to be nominated for a Herb Wegner Award from the National Credit Union Foundation. It takes courage to stand up and be criticized, even when you're doing the right thing. No one likes being physically escorted from a meeting by security as Elaine Loroa was when she tried to distribute flyers at Community CU's annual meeting. It's time for more folks to stand up, especially in Texas, which I've always heard you're not supposed to "mess with." If that's true, how come the only credit union CEO who showed up at CCU's annual was from North Carolina (Jim Blaine)? Has someone moved the Alamo?

If you can't make it to Texas you can do the next best thing by making a donation to the Coalition (www.membertrust.org). Craig Rhoden, CEO at Space City Credit Union, has already donated $1,000. Take just 10% of that PAC money you've raised in the name of the grasssroots and instead give it to the real grassroots who need it. They're up against a giant CU that is estimating it will spend as much as $1.4 million on the conversion, and which is dangling $20,000 in prizes to get members to vote in favor. In fact, a portion of all PAC money being raised by credit unions ought to instead go to a fund that will help other groups to respond when their credit union's board and management decide it's time for them to "pac" (and cash) it in.

Reducing PAC donations won't be easy, of course, or popular with the trade groups. As 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi observed, "The fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it...." But as Albert Einstein also noted, "The world is a dangerous place to live-not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anyth ing about it."

Be an Einstein-do something about it.

Frank J. Diekmann is editor of The Credit Union Journal.

I never been in no situation where havin' money made it any worse. - Clinton Jones

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