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Supporting the proper candidate

How credit unions determine who to back in an election cycle.

March 1, 2023

When the Credit Union Legislative Action Committee (CULAC)CUNA’s political action committee, backs a political candidate, it doesn’t pick a name out of a hat. Rather, there’s extensive reasoning behind every candidate CULAC supports.

The reasons aren’t about a candidate’s political party or affiliations. It’s solely about their support of credit unions.

“You’re not picking this person because they’re a Democrat or a Republican, or because they have a view on guns, abortion, immigration, or whatever the issue is. It’s because of his or her support of credit unions,” says Trey Hawkins, CUNA deputy chief advocacy officer for political action. Hawkins spoke Monday during a breakout session at CUNA GAC in Washington, D.C.

“We are a bipartisan industry. We’ve got friends on all side of the aisle, and we come together for credit unions,” he says.

CUNA Senior Director of Political Outreach Andy Byun adds that it’s not enough for a candidate to merely state their support for credit unions. There must be a demonstrated history of “not just supporting credit unions, but also being willing to engage with us and willing to grow. We look at not just their history, but also their potential, what they can do, their seniority, and the impact they are able to have on the credit union industry.”

An incumbent may also have a history on a committee important to the credit union industry, such as the House Financial Services Committee and the Ways and Means Committee. Based on all those factors, CUNA and its League partners collaborate to determine what level of support to provide a candidate.

Hawkins says CULAC spent more than $5 million supporting nearly 400 candidates for Congress in the 2022 elections.

“PACs are incredibly transparent,” Byun says. “Anyone can find out who we donate too, and how much. That’s not something we’re shy about or something we hide. We’re very proud of that.”

Part of that transparency is required by a bylaw that states there must be a dual agreement between CUNA and the Leagues whenever CULAC cuts a check. Involving the Leagues and credit unions in the process on a local level is essential to building connections with lawmakers.

At the League level, League of Southeastern Credit Unions Senior Director of Federal Advocacy and Communications Grace Newcombe says the No. 1 priority is “engaging lawmakers in district as much as possible so we can maximize their engagement.”

Therefore, she suggests creating as many in-district opportunities as possible, whether it’s a credit union roundtable or a legislator visiting local chamber of commerce meetings.

“Because it’s easy to say, ‘Yes, I understand an issue,’ but until a lawmaker is in your credit union, fully observing how a proposed legislation or regulation would impact you, it’s hard to fully understand,” Newcombe says. “When they’re actually in the credit union, they can see the structure, they can see the communities you serve, they can see the difference.

“You take into account their voting record, but a huge piece of us making inroads with lawmakers is finding that connection,” she continues. “Of course, the best place to do that is in person.”

That’s why Dupaco Credit Union Chief Marketing Officer David Klavitter says the $2.7 billion asset credit union in Dubuque, Iowa, frequently invites lawmakers into its branches. This can bring questions in today’s divisive political climate, which allows credit union leaders to stress that any relationship between credit unions and lawmakers is based on advocating for members.

“It’s more important now than ever to really lean into that, own it, explain it, and go courageously,” Klavitter says, suggesting credit unions explain their political support by telling members, “’We’re here to be an advocate on behalf of you, helping advance legislation and regulation that will allow us to serve you better, regardless of party.’ That goes a long way to helping our members understand and start to engage in the process."

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