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WASHINGTON PERSPECTIVE: Thoughts of a legislative strategist E-mail

Floyd Stoner on BankPac, the Alliance, his most satisfying legislative victory, what he likes to read, and more
As the December ABA Banking Journal profile of Floyd Stoner noted, the veteran lobbyist started as a professor and in many ways continued to be a teacher when he went to Capitol Hill for ABA.

Here, in Q&A format, is more of what Stoner said during an interview with Editor-in-Chief Bill Streeter and Executive Editor Steve Cocheo, beginning with a story that taught Stoner a key lesson in his early days that stood him in good stead throughout his ABA career.

As mentioned in the print article, Stoner retires Dec. 31 as ABA’s executive vice-president for congressional relations and public policy, after 27 years at the association. He joined ABA in early 1985 as the trade group’s agricultural lobbyist, and therein lies “Professor Stoner’s” first lesson. (The conversation below has been edited for clarity.)
ABABJ: You’ve spoken about how bankers need to do more to communicate what they do. Can you say more about that?

Stoner: It’s a balance between self-promotion and no communication. And it’s got to be authentic.

When I was new as ABA’s ag lobbyist, we were scheduled to testify before Congress during the ag crisis of the mid 1980s. I was working with the chairman of the ABA Agricultural Banking Committee—a banker from Missouri—who was going to give the testimony. I didn’t really know him, I was new to the ABA, and I had never written testimony before.

So I’m in my office at 8:00 PM writing the testimony. I called the banker and said, “You know, you’re going to get asked by the committee why you are foreclosing on farms.”

He said, yes, he knew that.

I said, “They’re going to ask you why.”

His response was, “They’re out of resources.”

When I heard that I said, “Man, that’s cold. Can you expand on that a little bit?”

And he did. He said, “A couple of years ago I knew this was coming. So I got a list of all of our ag customers—there were over a hundred. I reviewed their files and I laid out their financials. Then I asked each to come see me. To some, I said, ‘Well, we can probably help you…this is what we can do.’ To others, I said, ‘I don’t know, it’s kind of close.’ But others I told: ‘You know, you’d probably be better off selling now than “farming ’til it’s all gone”.’ That was the term that was used at the time. Well, some of them decided to “farm ’til it was all gone,” anyway, so now we’re foreclosing.”

After hearing that, I said to the banker, “Well, that’s a different story. We can work with that.”

So that’s an example of explaining what you do and not assuming people understand what you do and why.
ABABJ: Washington has changed quite a bit during your ABA career. What’s an example of “then” versus “now”?

Stoner:  What makes everything harder now is we don’t have back rooms in Washington anymore. What I mean by back rooms—they used to be called “smoke-filled back rooms”—is the place where people can come together away from the cameras. You decide what you can do, what you can’t do. You could do the kinds of things that were necessary to produce an important document. Then you’d go out in public, and the press may be out there, and you would talk for your constituents, whomever they may be. But you had the deal, and you could carry it out. Now the media all have cell-phone cameras, or whatever, and there isn’t privacy. There isn’t a way to do the kinds of behind-the-scenes negotiation that I believe every important organization and, by implication, every important decision requires. Because if you do everything in public you will never get there.
ABABJ:  What about the way people think about politicians these days? That’s evolved tremendously, hasn’t it?

Stoner:  Yes, and it’s a shame. Our expectations of our elected officials are so high and our demands on them are so great. Compared to what many in business make, we don’t pay them that well. They’re paid more than the median income, of course, but they’re under a 24/7 focus. We expect them to be knowledgeable on everything and we expect our letters to be answered. But we don’t want to give them the staff that would take. I have tremendous respect for those who are elected, willing to put themselves in front of the public to do the public’s business. Democracy cannot function without people willing to serve. And yet we, the people, put an incredible amount of pressure on them.
ABABJ: Barney Frank, former chairman of the House Financial Services Committee and ranking member of the committee now, announced that he won’t run for another term. What was it like working with Frank through the years?

Stoner:  I’ve enjoyed working with Barney Frank throughout my career at ABA. He is a liberal who understands markets. Therefore, over the years he frequently engaged with the industry to craft legislation that works for both consumers and bankers. He is a most effective legislator—and he is very funny. I shall miss him.
ABABJ:  Something that seems like it’s become much more of a focus overall in Washington and at ABA is grassroots lobbying….

Stoner:  It’s a great step forward for the organization, and politically it makes sense. It is what everybody is trying to do, but we were ahead of the curve on getting an automated communications system--a system for helping bankers produce letters and emails on a timely basis. If you don’t have that, then [a member of Congress] will say, “Well, we got X-thousands of communications from the credit unions and we didn’t get any from the bankers.”

But it’s not just about automation. We have banker grassroots coordinators in each state and we work with the state associations. There are a lot of hands involved and it is absolutely essential. What counts is the personal relationships. Every member of Congress has a farmer, a doctor, and a banker, and, when there’s a key vote on the floor, a member will say to their staff, “I want to know what John thinks.” You don’t get that kind of call out of the blue. You get that by years of being there, talking to the member, working with them. That’s what we’ve built and it’s getting better and we are proud of it.
ABABJ: What was the most satisfying piece of legislation you worked on?

Stoner: The Fair Credit Reporting Act. [The 2003 amendment to the original bill.] The reason is because it was a bi-partisan effort on a very important issue. FCRA governs how credit-reporting agencies function and how banks can share information internally and across state lines. Because it was bi-partisan, I believe it was better public policy than, for example, the Dodd-Frank Act, which could have been bi-partisan, but became partisan. So many of the bills done since FCRA have just been ugly.
ABABJ: Art Johnson [CEO of United Bank of Michigan, Grand Rapids], during his term as ABA Chairman, talked to bankers about BankPac, ABA’s political action committee. He said words to this effect: “I know you guys don’t like to hear about BankPac. I know you don’t like what it seems to indicate. I feel the same way. But this is how Washington works--and if we want to be heard we have to play the way Washington plays.”

What are you views on the Pac?
Stoner:  You have to understand a couple of things about PACs. PAC contributions are limited to any individual member of Congress--$5,000 per election. And these contributions are reported--they are public, you can look them up. So it’s transparent.

I like the fact that BankPac is disclosed. Members of both parties want support from BankPac, it’s a brand, it’s important. And we work closely with the state associations. No dollar is spent that isn’t a joint decision between ABA and the relevant state association.

We don’t get them all right, but we play in a lot of elections. And frankly this goes back to my earlier comment about people being willing to run for office. If they’re going to run they need money, and if you want to be a major trade association you better be willing to participate—on both sides of the aisle.
ABABJ:  Regarding the state associations, we’ve heard many times over the years about the importance of the alliance between ABA and the states. Having been in some of the joint ABA/state meetings, it does seem that ABA takes it very seriously….

Stoner:  We take it very seriously. It’s one of the most challenging and entertaining parts of my job. I enjoy it. The states are hugely important. We are unusual as a trade association--and not just in financial services--in that we have an affiliate in all 50 states. First, they are affiliates, we don’t own them. And we’re just an affiliate to them. Second, it’s all 50 states. One reason it’s worth doing is because they know a lot of the members of Congress before they become members of Congress. They’re the farm team for new members.

The alliance is also a way to get feedback on a regular basis. I have run a monthly conference call with the state execs for many years. When we were going through the run-up to Dodd-Frank there were times we had calls every day and sometimes twice a day and over weekends to keep everybody informed and involved.

So the state associations are very important to this organization. It’s takes a lot of effort and it’s worth it and it’s a lot of fun. I like the give and take and I like the people.
ABABJ: What do you like to read?

Stoner: When I’m working I read thrillers. I like well-written thrillers. I like authors who kill people with panache. Stephen Hunter [Point of Impact, Black Light, Time to Hunt] is my favorite to “blow him away with good lines.” When I have more time I like reading biography, history, and so on, but when I’m working there’s not much time and I want something that takes me away and does it quickly. But I still want it well-written.
ABABJ: Do you go anywhere near anything electronic like a Kindle or an iPad?

Stoner: I have an iPad. I love it for movies and e-mail. I don’t do any of the social media, though. But the iPad makes travel. I have to be able to edit legislation and letters when I’m on the road. I have approved testimony that I read on a Blackberry, but I don’t want to do that again. So I really appreciate the iPad.
ABABJ: Is that the future of reading?

Stoner: I like newspapers. I like holding something. God intended for you to be able to walk out of your front door at 5:00 AM, which is when I get up during the week, and have newspapers there so that when you sit down with your cup of coffee and breakfast you can read them. But because my wife, Dena, and I are going to be spending, I hope, more of our time at our place in Pennsylvania, electronic access on an iPad is probably going to become mandatory because we can’t get papers delivered on time where we are. So, yes, I see it going there, but I hate to see it going there.
ABABJ: Any closing thoughts?

Stoner: I’m proud to have represented the ABA, and the people that the organization represents. I’m honored. I never dreamed I’d get to do this kind of thing, and I am really delighted to have done it and to have gotten to know the bankers. I’ve made a lot of friends with bankers that I’ve worked with.

— Bill Streeter, editor-in-chief

[This article was posted on December 15, 2011, on the website of ABA Banking Journal, www.ababj.com, and is copyright 2011 by the American Bankers Association.]        
Comments (1)add comment

Mary Ann and Larry Maril said:

You were a talented legislative strategist and a gentleman. We enjoyed our time with you in South Dakota and Boston.
Larry and Mary Ann Marik
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