WASHINGTON - As top lobbyist for the Credit Union National Association, Chuck Zuver wore the industry's white hat on Capitol Hill.
Legislators by and large looked upon credit unions as good guys - mom- and-pop institutions that helped working people and took care of their own insurance fund without asking for a federal bailout.
But that was before the collapse in February of the $1.6 billion-asset Capital Corporate Federal Credit Union, which raised the specter of the savings and loan bailout.
"People on the Hill thought, Oh my God, are we going to have another crisis?" Mr. Zuver said.
After CapCorp's failure, usually friendly lawmakers began asking pointed questions of the industry and some called for tough new regulation.
And Mr. Zuver now finds himself dodging bullets, rather than accepting accolades from members of Congress. His white hat is being shot full of holes.
CUNA's top gun is concerned that the heat won't let up.
"The more visibility you have, the more likely you are to have people take a look at you," he said in a recent interview.
"As far as I know, the banking committees don't have any evidence that they have a crisis on their hands," Mr. Zuver said. "But perception becomes reality in this city."
Mr. Zuver should know. An old Washington hand, he worked at the center of the city's power structure while an aide for Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Carl Hayden in the 1960s and later as a staffer for vice president Lyndon B. Johnson.
He spent 17 years at the American Bankers Association before jumping to CUNA in 1987. While on Capitol Hill and at the ABA, he worked on a host of seminal banking laws, such as the Bank Holding Company Act and the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act of 1980. When he speaks at credit union conventions, he rattles off anecdotes about former House Speaker Tip O'Neill and President Lyndon Johnson.
"He's a very skilled lobbyist, and it is difficult to match his experience," said Bob Loftus, director of public and congressional affairs for the National Credit Union Administration.
Even Kenneth Guenther, who has battled Mr. Zuver on the issue of credit union taxation for years, has praise for the lobbyist.
"He runs a very effective Washington lobbying office," said Mr. Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers Association of America. "CUNA is a power, and Mr. Zuver is the spear carrier for the credit union industry in Washington."
But "the biggest bone I have to pick with Chuck is that he keeps raiding my staff," Mr. Guenther added. Two years ago, CUNA hired Gary Kohn, the IBAA's Senate lobbyist. Ten years earlier, CUNA lured away Jeanne-Marie Murphy, now one of Mr. Zuver's top lieutenants.
For all his experience, however, Mr. Zuver has suffered a series of setbacks and missteps recently that have tarnished the reputation of both the industry and CUNA's Washington shop.
Perhaps most damaging, Mr. Zuver recommended that CUNA support a bill that Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato introduced in June to give the federal government more oversight over federally insured state-chartered credit unions.
Though the credit union lobbyist wasn't happy about the measure, which was inspired by the hearing on the CapCorp failure, he hoped that by signing on, CUNA could try to water down the bill.
Also, the association could avoid offending Sen. D'Amato, a lawmaker known for rewarding his friends and punishing his enemies. And in addition to his position on the banking committee, Sen. D'Amato also holds a seat on Senate Finance, an ideal position from which to move legislation taxing credit unions.
Moreover, Mr. Zuver claimed that the federal regulator could already do much of what was in the bill.
So on May 19, Mr. Zuver sent the New York Republican a letter saying the trade group supported the legislation and hoped "there will be an additional opportunity to further refine its provisions after it is introduced."
That opportunity never came. The association's affiliated state leagues rebelled, claiming the bill was the death knell of dual chartering. The Madison, Wis., trade group withdrew its support in August. By that time the bill had cleared the Senate Banking Committee. It is still awaiting floor action.
The damage was done. Not only had Mr. Zuver angered the credit union leagues, but the trade group's flip-flop damaged the credibility of the association's lobbyists with incensed Senate aides, who complained about a lack of leadership within the industry.
"It certainly hasn't made the job any easier, I'll tell you that," Mr. Zuver said of the turnabout. "I detect an attitude on the part of some of our friends on Capitol Hill that maybe they'll be a little less candid in dealing with us. The test will come when we need some things."
Critics have likened this flip-flop to the trade group's initial support of a 1991 Treasury Department proposal that would have forced credit unions to write off the contribution of 1% of deposits used to bolster the federal insurance fund. CUNA then reversed itself under heavy industry protest.
Mr. Zuver denied that the trade group is out of touch, but supports a current effort reviewing CUNA's structure and decision-making process.
"When we make a decision, does it always reflect the desire of credit unions? I think we come pretty damn close," he said. "But I look at CUNA as evolving. Would it have helped us on a couple issues to have different governance? Maybe."
Some see the size of the industry's largest trade group as both an asset and a liability. Through its affiliated leagues, CUNA represents more than 90% of all credit unions, large and small, with federal and state charters.
That makes reaching unanimity impossible and consensus difficult, according to Mr. Zuver and others.
"CUNA is very big and very powerful, and it delivers a tremendous wallop, but it is cumbersome," said Douglas Duerr, president of the National Association of State Credit Union Supervisors.
Because speaking for everyone is growing more difficult - state charters hated the D'Amato bill, some federals have vigorously supported it - credit union lobbying efforts are becoming more specialized, industry observers said.
For example, Mr. Duerr has been working to establish the trade association as the voice of state-chartered credit unions, just as the National Association of Federal Credit Unions emphasizes that it represents the interests of only one charter.
This year the California Credit Union League has stepped up efforts to lobby the Golden State's congressional delegation. League representatives have visited Washington several times to meet with lawmakers, their staffs, and White House officials.
"There was a realization of a need for us to be more involved with our large delegation," said David L. Chatfield, chief executive of the league.
Mr. Zuver believes such splintering can be positive, as long as each group informs the others of its positions. He expects the trend to continue.
"As credit unions get larger and larger, I'm sure that some will get their own lobbyists," he said.
Further, he believes the need is increasing for state-level groups to play a larger role in carrying their message to lawmakers.
"I like to think of us as an intelligence agency that gathers information for credit unions," he said. "Credit unions really have to zero in and work with members back home."
But Mr. Zuver hopes to have a role to play for several more years.
"I think the turn of the century would be an appropriate time to pack it in," Mr. Zuver said.