The Oval Office has the direct line to the Kremlin. Commissioner Gordon had a direct line to the Batcave. And for a few years in the 1990s, it seemed like The Credit Union Journal had a direct line to the desk of Marcus Schaefer, president of what was then called AT&T Family Federal Credit Union in North Carolina.
AT&T Family was the credit union bankers in the Tar Heel State believed had reached out and touched too many people. The bankers filed a lawsuit against NCUA for having approved the FOM expansion beyond the core sponsor, but it was AT&T Family that was very much the subject of the litigation that was often referred to as the "AT&T case," as if it were about long-distance rates. As you most likely know (and if you don't we can only say how pleased your family must be now that you're out of the coma), that lawsuit would wind in, out and around the courts for the next seven years, culminating in arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court that credit unions would lose. Few realize it, but that loss was far better than any victory. It frightened the CU community into pushing hard for what would become a landmark victory on HR 1151.
It's a victory credit unions would be mistaken to assume means their work is done, according to Schaefer, whose credit union has since changed its name to Truliant. Schaefer spent much of the mid-1990s speaking to the media about the case and articulately arguing his credit union's-and the credit union community's-position. He hasn't stopped. Schaefer noted that two weeks ago he was busy responding to a piece in a local business journal in which credit unions were again referred to as banks in tax-free disguise.
"We've certainly had to retell the story and remind people of the differences between credit unions and banks," said Shaefer. "There is a value proposition in what we do as a movement that must be told."
Shaefer estimated there is a "very small percentage" of folks currently on Capitol Hill who were there in 1997-1998; not just members of Congress, but staffers, the media and others. "We are always going back and re-educating people on what the differences are. The fact we build a new headquarters or a new branch should not automatically trigger the view that credit unions are just like banks. We are uniquely organized and governed. We're not looking for profit behind every tree. It takes never-ending education and dialogue with all constituencies, including our own members and staff."
With the latter, Sheafer reported Truliant is rolling out a new brand campaign that goes deeper than just brand. The effort will use a theme along the lines of "I am a member, I am a voice." When a member calls to compliment the credit union on a great auto loan rate, for instance, employees are to remind that member that it is the concept of member- ownership that makes that rate possible.
"We must remind ourselves why we're in business," said Shaefer, whose father was a banker and who trained in banking himself. "Most people just don't understand. We will probably never in our careers have the luxury of not spending time talking about that difference. The bankers are just like the cicadas-they seem to come back every five to seven years."
It's been five years since HR 1151 was enacted and AT&T Family/Truliant finally found itself out of the limelight. So what did the credit union do? It has endeavored to stay in the limelight.
"Right after HR 1151 was passed, one thing we did was vow that we would never put ourselves in this position again," said Schaefer. "We have a fairly developed political campaign. We are in constant contact with members of Congress, we were very active in Elizabeth Dole's (Senate) campaign. We are in touch with state legislators, who are becoming much more important. We have a federal PAC. We sponsored a media luncheon. We don't ever want to have to go back and learn this lesson again. (Politics) is never far-removed from our minds. Banker attacks have gone on since the 1940s, and will probably go on forever."
My memories of those years leading up to the bill are a hodge-podge. I recall the feeling the air had been sucked out of a silent room at CUNA's GAC when the Supreme Court decision was announced. I recall a member of Congress who was sick of, fed up with and exhausted from the incessant barrage of credit union lobbying who had a flat tire on his way to Reagan National Airport. After a passing driver helped him change it, the congressman offered a thanks and a "let me know if there's ever anything I can do." "In fact there is," replied the Good Samaritan, who turned out to be CUNA's Chuck Zuver. I recall that the fight brought out some of the best and most creative advertising ever produced by credit unions, especially in Texas. I recall how easy it was in those pre- Sept. 11 days for a member of the media to get into the White House. A letter faxed to the press office on Credit Union Journal letterhead, a quickie-background check, and two minutes later Journal reporters are in the Rose Garden and Oval Office.
But I also didn't realize how much I had forgotten until I read the timeline of HR 1151-related events The Journal has assembled on pages eight and nine in this issue. Readers would be wise to remove it and perhaps read it every Aug. 7, the day HR 1151 was signed into law. As Mark Schaefer reminded, the cicadas always return.
Frank J. Diekmann is editor of The Credit Union Journal. He can be reached at fdiekmann cujournal.com.