BOSTON - Make no mistake about it: The banking industry is still Bush territory.
For all the complaints about their mounting regulatory burden, bankers who attended the American Bankers Association convention this week tended to blame Congress rather than President Bush. And many believe their problems will be worse if Gov. Bill Clinton wins the presidency.
For example, Pat Gerald, chairman of First National Bank of Sweetwater in the President's adopted home state of Texas, said Mr. Bush had done all he could to help ease regulations.
"Good Lord, he tries, but Congress has tied his hands every which Way," the banker said.
A Clinton administration, he believes, "would mean more taxes and more regulation."
C.G. "Kelley" Holthus, president of First National bank of York, Neb, agreed: "The over-regulation is a result of Congress, not Bush. He fought the regulations but has not been successful."
Mr. Holthus, a former ABA president, plans to vote for Mr. Bush and said he expects most of his fellow bankers to do the same.
Charles T. Manatt, the Washington lawyer, onetime banker, and former Democratic National Committee chairman, worked the ABA convention halls and reception rooms tirelessly to drum up support for Gov. Clinton.
Talking Up the Candidate
Mr. Manatt, national cochairman of the Clinton campaign, was at a breakfast with Iowa bankers early Sunday morning and spent the rest of the day talking up the candidate to small groups of bankers.
"It's like trying to kick in a rotten old door," he said.
But at least one prominent chief executive officer is in the Bush camp.
Terrence Murray, chairman of Fleet Financial Group Inc., Providence, R.I., has been working hard on behalf of Gov. Clinton.
"I have no idea what Clinton's views are on banking issues," Mr. Murray conceded. He supports the Arkansas governor "not as a banker, but as an individual."
Mr. Murray believes the Bush administration "has not addressed the needs of the economy. The Clinton-Gore program, as published, is more proactive and has a better chance of stimulating the economy."
|A Personal Matter'
Mr. Murray may not be the only Clinton supporter in the banking industry, but he is alone among the CEOs of the top 25 bank companies willing to take a public pro-Clinton stand, according to a survey of those institutions by American Banker.
Spokesmen for most of the other 24 said their chairmen considered it "a personal matter." Some said their bank prohibits senior executives from going public with a presidential preference.
A Chase Manhattan Corp. spokesman said chairman Thomas Labrecque's membership on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York precluded him from commenting.
Fear of Retaliation Seen
Earlier this year, NationsBank Corp. chairman Hugh McColl said he expected to vote for Ross Perot, an old friend. But a spokesman for the Charlotte, N.C.-based bank refused to say whether Mr. McColl had changed his position after Mr.Perot's withdrawal and reentry into the race.
Many observers believe the big-bank CEOs keep mum for fear of regulatory retaliation in the event their candidate loses.
"That's just nonsense, but that's what they believe," said one politically active former regulator.
"I've made up my mind," said an unbowed Mr. Murray. "I support [Clinton] and I'm pleased to publicly state it. It's a free country. It's not like I'm supporting the Communist party."
Community bankers seem to have less fear of speaking their minds.
"Bush!" said an emphatic John Fredericks, president of Lakeland State Bank, Newfoundland, N.J. "The country would be in big trouble without him." Mr. Fredericks sees Democratic control of both the White House and Congress leading to "an increase in entitlements and taxes."
Barnard J. Ruysser, chairman of CNB Financial Corp., Kansas City, Kan., supports Mr. Bush as "the candidate of "free enterprise and less taxes."
Still, many bankers concede their preference for Bush is a reluctant one.
"I'm not happy with George Bush," said J. Bob Drake, a director of First National Bank of Ardmore, Okla. "He should have vetoed that tax bill and he hasn't taken care of the economy."
But Mr. Drake fears Gov. Clinton's running mate, Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, whom he considers an "environmental extremist."
The bankers' generally Republican leanings are in line with the rest of the corporate world. In a survey of 173 corporate chief executives taken by the 2,400-member Executive Committee, based in San Diego, 59% said Congress has a bigger impact on the economy than the President, and therefore is more to blame for current problems. Only 10% blamed President Bush.
About six of 10 CEOs said they will vote for the Bush-Quayle ticket, but 64% predicted a Clinton-Gore win.
The Financial Executives Institute of Morristown, N.J., which represents corporate financial officers and controllers, found in a survey of 700 members that 65% would vote for Mr. Bush, 13% for Mr. Clinton, and 7% for Mr. Perot.
Asked under whom the economy would grow faster over the next four years, 49% said Bush, 20% Clinton, 8% Perot, and 20% had no opinion or gave no response.
Bill Atkinson in Washington and Jeffrey Kutler in New York contributed to this article.