John J. McKechnie 3d has surfaced as a winner from the wreckage of the Credit Union National Association.

Mr. McKechnie, who was director of its political action committee, was promoted to lead lobbyist in November after the trade group purged its top executives.

In a recent interview, he stressed that he would listen to credit unions and state-level trade groups. Industry sources say his predecessor, Jeanne- Marie Murphy, failed to do that, and it cost her her job.

"We can never forget who we're representing," said the 34-year-old Mr. McKechnie, an eight-year veteran of the trade group's Washington office and a lifelong politics junkie. "We have to listen to our league members and the credit unions they represent."

He declined to say if tensions had developed between the Washington office and its constituents before his promotion.

In addition firing Ms. Murphy, since October the trade group has ousted its president, Ralph Swoboda, and its vice president of fee-based services, Bradford L. Murphy.

One longtime Washington financial lobbyist praised the job Mr. McKechnie has done in adapting to his new job and in negotiating the turmoil at the industry's largest trade group.

"He's doing an excellent job," the lobbyist said. "He had to start under difficult circumstances. He's coming into a situation at CUNA where everything from top to bottom is up in the air."

This week is Mr. McKechnie will spend a good deal of time talking to the trade group membership. Credit union officials convened Sunday in Washington for the group's annual governmental affairs conference, which will end Wednesday.

Mr. McKechnie has been a registered lobbyist since 1987. But most of his 13 years of political experience has come on the front lines of political campaigns, in Maryland and Virginia congressional races and working for CUNA.

He will face a number of challenges in his first full year as vice president of congressional affairs.

Since the high-profile failure last year of Capital Corporate Federal Credit Union, Lanham, Md., several lawmakers have targeted the industry as an area of concern.

For instance, last year Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse D'Amato introduced a bill that would increase the federal government's oversight of federally insured, state-chartered credit unions.

Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, got into the act by amending the Senate regulatory relief bill to require a Treasury Department study of the National Credit Union Administration and corporate credit unions.

But Mr. McKechnie doesn't seem worried, maybe partly because lawmakers could be hard-pressed to move the bills in the shorter campaign-season legislative calendar.

Regarding the bill introduced by Sen. D'Amato, Mr. McKechnie said, "We're hoping the passage of time will help that issue simmer down."

He also expressed optimism that the trade group can repair relations with the New York Republican. Last year it incurred the senator's wrath by withdrawing its support for the bill in midstream.

"Credit unions continually have had a positive relationship with Senator D'Amato, and hopefully we'll continue to do that," Mr. McKechnie said.

Another challenge for the trade group is educating new lawmakers about what makes credit unions different from banks, he said. He pointed out that about 50% of the politicians on the Hill have been elected in the past two election cycles.

Mr. McKechnie could be the right person to deal with the fresh crop of lawmakers.

Like the majority of Congress - and unlike most of his co-workers in the trade group's Washington office - Mr. McKechnie is a Republican and has been one virtually since the cradle.

With his boyish, clean-cut appearance and tortoise-shell glasses, he looks like a stereotypical young Republican. Indeed, in 1983 he was nominated as Maryland's Young Republican of the Year.

At the same time, ironically enough, he was listening to punk and new wave groups like the Clash and Elvis Costello.

One lobbyist said Mr. McKechnie's age and party affiliation are an asset for the trade group. "With his good Republican credentials and his relative youth, he presents a fresh face for CUNA to the Congress," he said.

Sources said Mr. McKechnie was picked for the job because he was a Republican and had close contacts with the powerful state leagues, thanks to his fund-raising work. Ms. Murphy was a Democrat who had butted heads with league officials.

But virtually all observers said that Mr. McKechnie can't compete with Ms. Murphy's experience lobbying for financial institutions, which dates to 1979.

"He hasn't had a lot of this type of experience," said one Republican congressional aide. "As a result he isn't as up on the issues and doesn't have the depth of contacts that some of the other CUNA people do."

However, the aide added that he was confident Mr. McKechnie would excel once he survives some battle-testing.

Charles O. Zuver, director of governmental affairs for the association, also expressed confidence in Mr. McKechnie.

"John's got a great deal of interest in the political process, and he knows more about it than most," Mr. Zuver said. "I'm glad to have him around."

Mr. McKechnie said that there's nothing mysterious about being a good lobbyist, and that he's up to the job. "You have to be honest with people and not surprise them," he said. "These rules apply whether you're working as a lobbyist or selling cars.

"We have to stay focused on the fact that credit unions have a great story to tell, and we have to keep that on our minds every minute of every day we work here."

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