Credit Unions Must Get Political: Onsite at GAC

WASHINGTON – If your opponent is Public Enemy Number One, you get to wear the white hat. And you should take advantage of it.

That was the message delivered by credit union officials Monday as they urged CUNA members to increase their political activity this year.

“It’s about the big banks,” Keith Frederick (pictured), owner of FrederickPolls in Arlington, Va., said at the CUNA Governmental Affairs Conference. “It’s great to be a candidate campaigning against the big banks.”

He said that Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) has based much of his campaign on the perceived abuses of large financial institutions.

“There’s a nice playing field for us if we want to take advantage of it,” Frederick said.

And if big banks are the enemy, credit unions should paint themselves as the good guys. People are angry about the big banks, but many credit union members do not realize that the financial institutions are not for profit.

“You’re pushing off [from] the biggest devil,” Frederick said.

Credit unions should use that advantage to urge members to support candidates that support credit unions, according to Bill Anderson, president/CEO of the $218 million, Bend, Ore.-based Mid Oregon Federal Credit Union.

“We have a very engaged membership,” he said, adding that when the credit union sent members emails endorsing certain candidates, he received “zero objections.”

Anderson said some state lawmaker inevitably introduces an anti-credit union bill in the Oregon State Legislature. He added people expect credit unions to be active in their communities and are not shocked by political activity.

“This was just a natural extension of what we were doing,” he said.

The same was true in Illinois, where Citizens Equity First Credit Union has also supported candidates, according to Matt Mamer, the credit union’s COO. Citizens Equity First, based in Peoria, has $5.3 billion in assets.

“At the end of the day even those people who were upset understood there were issues important to credit unions,” Mamer said. “Bankers seem to jump on anything that is positive for credit unions.”

He added there are anti-credit union billboards in the southern part of the state.

Anderson and Mamer warned that any political activity initiated by credit unions should be thoroughly examined by attorneys familiar with federal campaign finance laws.

And Anderson said that the message delivered by credit unions should be positive so they can continue to “wear the white hat.”

But at the end of the day, 2016 remains an extremely volatile election year, Frederick said.

“Nobody knows what the heck is going to happen,” he said.