'Never Waste a Crisis' and Other Political Lessons From Buddy Gill

February 19, 2009

By Bill Merrick

“Potomac Fever” struck Buddy Gill during a congressional internship in college, and he has been afflicted ever since.

Crisis brings opportunity, says Texas CU League Chief Advocacy Officer Buddy Gill. Listen now.

The Texas Credit Union League’s chief advocacy officer/senior vice president has participated in more than 120 political campaigns spanning 47 states. Beginning as a pollster, operative, and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee director, Gill earned his political stripes as a self-described “campaign mechanic.”

“We’d parachute into Boise or wherever and get a sense of what was working and what wasn’t, and how to fix it,” he explains. “I learned that polling is invaluable. I came to understand the dynamics of arguments and how different arguments would play with different groups.”

Gill comes by his political inclinations honestly. His grandfather’s best friend was Russell Long, the longtime Louisiana senator and son of the charismatic populist Huey Long.

A “political person who came to care about the credit union cause,” Gill relishes “David vs. Goliath” fights. He entered the credit union arena in 1998 as day-to-day campaign strategist for the Credit Union Campaign for Consumer Choice, the effort to pass the Credit Union Membership Access Act (H.R. 1151). It was a fight few expected credit unions to win.

“All the capital observers said, ‘There’s no way you can beat the banks. They’re too wealthy and powerful, and they give too much in campaign contributions,’ ” he recalls. “But we did it by getting people involved and becoming an overwhelming noise. We have to go with less on the dollar side and make up for it on the brain and people side. David is still getting a lot of good PR for beating Goliath 2,000 years ago, and I’m OK with that.”

‘Never waste a crisis’

What’s the next David vs. Goliath fight for credit unions? Fallout from today’s economic morass, Gill says.

“There are very powerful money interests in Washington that aren’t stabilized, and we’re the little guy. The worry is when the government wants to redesign or restructure things, whether we’ll prevail when the Goliaths in the room say, ‘This is what we want.’ ”

That said, crisis brings opportunity, Gill maintains, citing a line from White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel: “Never waste a crisis.”

“Most people are in the ‘don’t let this happen to me’ mode,” he says. “But you want to look at this and say, ‘Things are bad. But how can we position credit unions so when this is over, they’ll come out stronger and do more toward their mission and purpose than they do now?’

“This is a time when things are positioned to move. For example, we just saw the stimulus bill pass. That’s normally something you could never get through Congress. But because of the nature and circumstances around it, it zoomed through despite the fact that no lawmaker read the complete bill at 1,000 pages.”

Gill's advice for working with lawmakers: Be useful.

“It’s hard to be a lawmaker. Be there [for them] when you don’t need something. That can pay off. Then when you really need something, they’ll know what you’re all about.”