The Importance of Political Action

Although I have now been retired from Wisconsin Bankers Association for longer than I held the position of WBA CEO from 1990 to 2004, I continue to maintain a very high level of interest in banking.  

Having worked for two other state bankers associations prior to joining WBA, and later serving as president/CEO for the Graduate School of Banking at the University of Wisconsin, as a board member for two Wisconsin banks, and doing selective consulting for various organizations, I believe it’s natural that I have become an “arm’s length observer” of banking.

With a total of 40+ years in these various roles, coupled with the multitude and rapid pace of changes in banking, it’s noteworthy that the primary functions of bankers associations have basically remained steady – government relations advocacy; banker education/training; communications with the membership and general public through the media; providing unique products and services to the membership; serving as a trusted legal resource for banks; and offering a specialized assembly function for member bankers.

While each of these is important, government relations advocacy is absolutely vital.  In a perfect world, which of course does not exist, if every banker communicated with every elected official and every regulator on every issue, WBA’s GR role would be very different from what it is.  

WBA has long held a highly positive reputation as having an unquestioned level of credibility in representing the interests of member banks and their customers with state and federal officials.  Without question, credibility is the most critical element to having a successful GR program for organizations like WBA.  

Allow me to share the details of a conversation I had decades ago when I was named CEO of the North Dakota Bankers Association; I had been working as the communications director for the Nebraska Bankers Association.  The gentleman who was NBA’s lead lobbyist, attorney and a former state senator, told me to “keep in mind that if a legislator ever agrees to support what you’re saying, it’s not because he or she likes you, it’s not because they think you’re smart, and it’s certainly not because they think you’re good looking.  It’s because of who you represent!”  That’s advice I always took to heart and frequently shared with others.

For an association GR program to be effective, it is essential for the association membership to be actively involved.  This includes timely contact with your local elected officials when there are pending issues and prior to elections.  Like everything else, the cost to get elected or re-elected to office requires greater expenditures each election cycle.    

The importance of political action committees and conduit dollars cannot be overemphasized.  If you contribute directly to local candidates, that’s great.  Just please keep in mind that the WBA GR staff literally receives a torrent of requests for financial support from pro-banking candidates as elections approach.  They must have this capability so WBA can continue being a key player in Madison and Washington.

A word or two about political fundraising events. Let me be the first to say the obvious – generally these are not a whole lot of fun to attend, until you realize how vital they are to “show the flag” for WBA. Candidates do remember who was present for their event and their contributions. They need reminding that WBA is the membership, not just the lobbyists. So please participate when WBA invites your attendance. A final suggestion – get there early. You’re much more likely to be remembered if you’re among the early arrivals and hopefully have some quality time with the candidate before it gets crowded.

This leads me to a request for you to help enhance banking’s reputation. Over the years, I’ve detected some reluctance by more than a few bankers to really tell the story of their positive role in the community. I believe in the theory that if you’ve done it, then it’s not bragging. So please proudly tell the world in a forthright manner about the results of what you and your bank staff are doing every day.

One reason I chose to apply for the WBA CEO position in 1990 was my awareness of how successful the organization has always been viewed by elected officials and regulators, other associations, the news media and most importantly, its members. I know that this reputation has only grown and expanded in recent years under the stellar leadership of President/CEO Rose Oswald Poels.  

Finally, if you are already involved with WBA in a volunteer role, I commend you. If not, I hope you’ll give this your serious consideration. As talented as the WBA staff is, combining that with the expertise of volunteer bankers creates an even greater strength for WBA to continue to excel as a diverse and reliable professional resource for Wisconsin banks.

By, Alex Paniagua