The community banker at the center of the mail-in voting fracas
Mike Duncan is a veteran community banker with a long history of political activism — and he has become a key figure in one of the biggest controversies of the 2020 presidential election.
Duncan, chairman and CEO of the $149 million-asset Inez Deposit Bank in Inez, Ky., had kept a relatively low profile despite close ties to Sen. Mitch McConnell and a two-year tenure as chairman of the Republican National Committee.
That is no longer the case.
Duncan, chairman of the U.S. Postal Service board of governors, is facing scrutiny on multiple fronts because of changes Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has made to the organization. The moves have stoked fears that the Postal Service could struggle to handle a surge of mail-in ballots tied to coronavirus fears.
Duncan spent Monday fielding hostile inquiries from Democratic lawmakers about the board’s decision in May to hire DeJoy. The next day, a group that included members of the Kentucky Postal Workers Union staged a drive-by protest of Duncan’s home and the bank’s headquarters.
Numerous attempts to reach Duncan were unsuccessful.
Duncan’s recent notoriety highlights the balancing act for those who try to pursue careers in both banking and politics, industry experts said.
"There’s nothing wrong with political participation," Tony Plath, a finance professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said Wednesday in an interview, noting that many bankers are involved in politics.
"But where do you draw the line between business and politics when you have to represent the community, shareholders and employees?" Plath added. "It is very hard to do. And remember that the banking industry itself is already highly politicized."
Duncan was born in Oneida, Tenn. His father, Bobby Duncan, owned a general store in nearby Strunk, Ky., from 1946 until his death in 2016.
Described by friends as soft-spoken and civic-minded, Duncan got his first taste of politics as an 8-year-old helping an uncle run for superintendent of schools, McConnell said during a speech on the Senate floor honoring his friend’s 65th birthday.
After graduating from the University of Kentucky’s College of Law in 1974, Duncan seemed set to pursue a career in politics until his father-in-law, who owned Inez Deposit Bank, became ill.
Duncan joined the bank in January 1977 in what was intended to be a yearlong assignment. One year stretched into two. Eventually, Duncan and wife Joanne, Inez Deposit Bank’s vice chairman, bought the company.
Inez Deposit Bank is based in a town in coal-rich Eastern Kentucky just 10 miles from the West Virginia line. It serves Martin and Lawrence counties, where it controls 51% of the $241 million deposit market, according to June 2019 data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
Duncan “has been a force in the industry in Kentucky for as long as I can remember,” Ballard Cassady, president and CEO of the Kentucky Bankers Association, said Wednesday in an interview. “He’s done a great job.”
Inez “is about as rural as it gets,” Cassaday added.
Political activism has been Duncan’s passion for nearly five decades. He has been so heavily engaged for so long he was once known as “Mr. Politics” by other Kentucky Republicans.
Duncan made a big political leap in 1972 when he volunteered for Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign and was tapped to drive the president during a stop in the Bluegrass State. He has been a delegate to Republican presidential conventions on at least six occasions since then.
Though he never ran for office, Duncan built a reputation as political manager, serving in the George W. Bush White House and chairing the RNC from 2007 to 2009. (He lost a bid for a second term to Michael Steele shortly after Barack Obama was sworn in as president.)
Duncan, for his part, views himself as a dedicated Republican and a team player.
"I won't apologize for having been involved in Republican politics since I was old enough to vote," Duncan told the Lexington Herald Leader in early 2009.
"In the beginning people were looking for superman," Duncan said of his RNC role. "Some people who were looking for one person to come in and be the face of the party were disappointed. We need many faces and many voices.”
Over the past decade, Duncan has held several lower-profile roles. He helped found American Crossroads, a political action committee that backs Republican candidates, and he has chaired the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships since April 2017.
In the spotlight
Duncan’s role as chairman of the USPS board of governors, which began in late 2017, had been relatively quiet. Bankers, for instance, would be hard-pressed to determine his position on postal banking even though Inez Deposit Bank is a member of the Independent Community Bankers of America, which opposes the proposal.
But the board's decision to hire DeJoy, a former CEO of a North Carolina logistics company, to replace retiring Postmaster General Megan Brennan immediately drew the ire of Democrats who claimed the move bypassed an established search process. Changes DeJoy says are aimed at efficiency have raised concerns that they are delaying mail delivery and could imperil mail-in voting.
At Monday’s hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Duncan said the decision to hire DeJoy — one he said would likely be the biggest choice he will make as part of the Postal Service — came after an “organized, deliberate and thorough” search process.
“The board has confidence in the Postal Service's ability to perform for the American people in this election season,” Duncan added.
Still, the hearing was unusual for Duncan, who tends to shy away from attention. Those who know him say he prefers to have an incremental influence on the future.
At Inez Deposit Bank, he has developed an internship program that mentors high school and college students. For more than two decades, interns have worked in various departments of the bank while participating in a program that features meetings with social, economic, academic and political figures.
Participants are also required to develop and implement community service projects with the goal of encouraging them to pursue professional careers in Appalachia after college.
Duncan “is a tremendous mentor,” said Joseph Stepp, president of Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, Ky., where the banker has served on the board of trustees since 1990.
Along with banking and politics, Stepp and Cassady said Duncan has devoted considerable time to community service projects throughout his career.
“He’s been a part of” many local initiatives, Cassaday said. “Bringing business back to Kentucky. Building up his community. The bank’s apprentice program for young people. … It’s quite a bucket list.”
Duncan "has the highest integrity and character of anyone I know," Stepp said.
"He was on the board when I came here 38 years ago and he's been chairman all 21 years I've been president," Stepp said, adding Alice Lloyd College doesn't pay its trustees. "He's given a lifetime of service and never accepted one dime."