Stand by your candidate? Well, that depends.
Social media, #MeToo and a "woke" culture are changing how the public sees political candidates, and raising questions for credit unions in the process.
In recent years, some industry groups have reversed their support of candidates and found themselves asking that campaign contributions be returned following incidents with lawmakers they previously supported. While in the past those moments might have flown under the radar, the modern news cycle, social media and more helped spread those stories. In some cases, CUs have elected to distance themselves from candidates they previously endorsed – even when the issue in question was unrelated to the industry.
“I do think [social media] makes it harder to have honest and open discussions about issues, because people can be hypersensitive about making sure that what they’re talking about … isn’t misinterpreted,” said Carrie Hunt, EVP of government affairs and general counsel at the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions. “It does have a role and it has changed politics.”
Michigan State Sen. Pete Lucido came under fire last month after making suggestive comments to a female reporter. When her allegations came out, two more women came forward with their own stories of harassment or inappropriate behavior, including an employee from the Michigan Credit Union League.
Campaign finance data shows the Michigan league as one of Lucido’s top 10 donors, having given $7,000 to his campaigns since 2013.
MCUL representatives declined to be interviewed for this story but President and CEO Dave Adams said by email that “media coverage regarding alleged misconduct by [Lucido] will be considered in future endorsement discussions.” Adams did not clarify whether the league had requested any of its donations be returned, and said the league has not done so for any candidates in recent memory.
“That said, if a candidate/lawmaker were to change a position that negatively affects credit unions, or if he/she becomes guilty of serious crimes or well-established conduct unbecoming of their office, the MCUL would certainly cease future contributions and endorsements and/or request the return of any recently delivered fund,” Adams wrote.
The Northwest Credit Union Association, which represents CUs in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, found itself in a similar position in 2018 after Washington Rep. Matt Shea was seen in an online video calling for, among other things, a holy war. The league sent Shea a letter asking that its $1,000 contribution be returned, but never received a response.
Lynn Heider, AVP of public relations and communications, said the league is not supporting Shea, who is currently facing a primary challenger.
“We are a bipartisan organization – we don’t go red or blue. We go credit union party,” Heider said.
The league vets candidates by inviting them to its office for in-person interviews to gauge where their views fall in line with industry priorities, Heider explained. That was the case before the Shea incident and remains true today, she said, noting that Shea was an outlier.
“We haven’t had to ask for money back before then or since then, to my knowledge, and I’ve been here nine years,” said Heider, adding that at the time NWCUA requested its money back, no one on staff could recall that ever happening before.
Finding the right balance
Unless a law has been broken, candidates are not required to return donations upon request. According to one report, candidates nationwide returned more than $100 million in contributions in the run-up to the 2016 election. Credit union experts could not say whether such requests from within the industry are on the rise or if they merely get more attention now because of social media and other factors.
But how do CUs and industry groups balance supporting candidates who prioritize credit union goals but may not behave in ways that align with the movement’s values?
That was the decision CUNA had to deal with in the Alabama Senate election in 2018. The trade group originally supported Luther Strange, who ran for a full term after having been appointed to fill the seat left vacant when Jeff Sessions was confirmed as U. S. attorney general. The Republican nomination ultimately went to Roy Moore, who proved to be a controversial candidate after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced. Rather than back a new candidate, CUNA stayed out of the race entirely, but it plans to support Sen. Doug Jones – who bested Moore in that special election – in 2020.
Other incidents have caused the group to pull back. CUNA originally supported Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss. But after remarks in 2018 that implied Hyde-Smith’s support for lynchings, the association has shifted gears.
Asked if CUNA would support her in the future, Trey Hawkins, the association's VP of political affairs, was adamant that “we have no plans to do so. Period.”
John McKechnie, a credit union consultant and former staffer at NCUA and CUNA, suggested the incidents of credit unions asking for campaign donations returned are still just outliers, and overall vetting of candidates may not need to be tweaked.
“When we’re doing our jobs on behalf of credit unions, credit union issues have to be predominant, but when you encounter something out of bounds, you have to factor that in and assume it affects their viability as a candidate,” McKechnie said. “It’s entirely fair for credit unions and every interest group to step away from candidates who step out of bounds.”