WASHINGTON - Most bankers probably have not heard of Shelby County in Alabama or Forsyth County in North Carolina. But next Tuesday, voters there could determine the balance of power on the House Banking Committee for years to come.
North Carolina's Stephen L. Neal and Alabama's Benjamin Erdreich are among the last members of a bloc of Democrats on the committee whom banks and thrifts have looked to over the years to safeguard their interests. Both are in tight races.
Working with the banking panel's Republican minority, the moderate Democrats have blocked efforts to increase regulations deemed burdensome by banks. They voted to repeal Glass-Steagall 1988 and for broad deregulation in 1991.
While neither measure was enacted, the Democratic bloc demonstrated its influence. "That group of middle-of-the-road Democrats has been critical to us," said Edward L. Yingling, executive director of government relations for the American Bankers Association.
The industry suffered a body blow earlier in the year with the retirements of Doug Barnard of Georgia and Thomas R. Carper of Delaware. Both were senior committee Democrats who supported new powers and opposed increased regulation.
Further damage came with the primary election defeat of Rep. Carroll Hubbard, D-Ky., who led the fight last year to maintain existing levels of deposit insurance coverage. Rep. Hubbard ranked just behind Rep. Neal in seniority.
Kenneth Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers Association of America, said the industry is losing "the key Democrats who play a bridging role with Republicans on key issues of regulatory burden."
"Steve Neal is absolutely critical," said Karen Shaw, president of the Institute for Strategy Development. "As the probable chairman of the financial institutions subcommittee and the prospective chairman, in time, of the full committee, the fact. that he is sympathetic to the industry is critical."
Also in danger are Reps. Mary Rose Oakar, D-Ohio, and Richard Baker, R-La.
Ten Points Behind
Though a traditional liberal, Ms. Oakar has been increasingly sympathetic to deregulation-minded regional and money-center institutions. A recent poll by the Cleveland Plain Dealer put her 10 points behind.
"Bankers should be most concerned about Baker's race," said Barbara Munson, a lobbyist for the Consumer Bankers Association. "He's bright, he's gotten to know the issues well, and he wants to stay" on the House Banking Committee.
The ABA's Mr. Yingling added that Rep. Baker is filling a void left on the Republican side with the departures in recent years of Reps. Steve Bartlett of Texas and John Hiler of Indiana.
"Baker is a real leader on banking issues," said Mr. Yingling. "Losing him would be the loss of one more articulate, pro-competitive voice."
Congressmen Baker and Erdreich are the victims of redistricting. Rep. Baker is running against another Republican incumbent, Rep. Clyde Holloway, in what is seen as a close race.
Rep. Erdreich was placed in a heavily Republican district that President Bush is expected to carry by a wide margin, but the congressman's fate is up in the air. ranks, Reps. Jim Bacchus, D-Fla., Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, and Frank Riggs, R-Calif., are in reelection trouble.
D'Amato vs. Abrams
The Senate Banking Committee will be affected by at least two key races.
Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, R-N.Y., is locked in a tight battle with state Attorney General Robert Abrams.
Sen. D'Amato is in line to succeed retiring Sen. Jake Garn of Utah as the Senate panel's ranking Republican. Mr. Garn had been considered a banking ally, while Sen. D'Amato is looked upon as a champion of the securities industry.
Should the New Yorker lose, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, a free market conservative with presidential ambitions, would be in line for the position of ranking Republican.
Also in danger is Sen. Terry Sanford, D-N.C., the panel's leading advocate of interstate branching. Sen. Sanford underwent heart surgery on Oct. 9. The 75-year-old lawmaker resumed campaigning last week, but questions about his health are expected to influence the balloting.
Other races to watch include those in Ohio and Arizona, where two senators implicated in the "Keating Five" scandal are up for reelection. In Ohio, Democratic Sen. John Glenn is in a horse race that most observers say is too close to call. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., appears ahead in a three-candidate race.