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Buying Indulgences from Casino Jack

I watched “60 Minutes” last Sunday. Like most shows that air in the summer, it was a re-run. But it was one I hadn’t seen before and it featured a profile of Jack Abramoff, the notorious lobbyist who spent time in prison (and rightly so) for his part illegally influencing public policy through what can only be described as bribery.

He claimed to “own” nearly one-third of members of Congress and the tactics he described to acquire that ownership stake were nothing short of disgusting. Long-story short: if a legislator was willing to be bought, then “Casino Jack” was more than willing to be the highest bidder. And his clients were more than willing to pay exorbitant fees in order to get the legislation they wanted enacted.

Even more amazing was Abramoff’s contention that “everybody on K Street” engages in this kind of despicable activity. And that he felt he was on the moral high ground because he contributed so much of his ill-gotten gains to charitable causes. And you thought buying indulgences went out of style in the Middle Ages…

After the story, my wife – who knows well that my career is based largely on advocacy and public policy initiatives – asked: “How can you stand to work in an environment like that?”

My response: “We advocate the right way. All we have is our story – and it’s a good one.”

Making politics personal at home and on The Hill

As you know, the Alliance is supporting a Congressional Resolution that reaffirms the value that fraternals deliver to their members and the communities in which those members live and work. The Resolution’s sponsors are Rep. Eric Paulsen (R-MN) and Ron Kind (D-WI), and we’ve successfully recruited more than a dozen other co-sponsors for the measure. The fact that the sponsors and co-sponsors come from both sides of the aisle – at a time of unprecedented partisanship in American politics – should tell you something about the universal “common sense” appeal of the fraternal business model.

How are we doing this? Telling our story to members of Congress in face-to-face meetings at home and on The Hill. Here is a rundown on our most recent activities:

  • Days on the Hill – In the past few months, we’ve had five fraternal executives travel to Washington, D.C., for a day of Capitol Hill visits. Kristin McDaniel of Royal Neighbors, Pam Hernandez of Woodmen of the World/Omaha, Bill O’Toole and Joe Gadbois of Catholic Financial Life, and Harald Borrmann of Catholic United Financial have been the face and voice of their individual societies and the Alliance with over 30 members of Congress. These individuals and their organizations have done an incredible job of letting public policymakers – who, by and large, have no clue as to what a fraternal is – know the vital role we play in securing our members’ financial future and in enhancing the quality of American society through our community service activities. And they’ve generated more than a few co-sponsors as a result of these efforts.
  • Bringing it all back home – On June 27, the Catholic Order of Foresters conducted one of its signature “Feeding God’s Children” events in Northern Illinois. Society members helped feed hundreds of local families – many of whom needed assistance making ends meet for the first time in their lives. The Alliance arranged for an in-district staff member of the local U.S. Representative’s office to attend the event. It didn’t take long before the staffer joined the line of volunteers in handing out food – and came away with an all new impression of what fraternals are capable of doing. Telling our story is one thing, showing it is unforgettable.
  • Thrivent and Knights of Columbus – These two societies – the Alliance’s largest members – have their own government affairs teams working on garnering support for the Congressional Resolution. And the Alliance just could not get the job done without their selfless efforts. With well-established networks of legislators who share the common bonds of these groups, Thrivent and the Knights have been instrumental in building momentum for the co-sponsorship drive – momentum that every other Alliance member society needs to sustain through their own outreach activities.
  • State Fraternal Alliance initiatives – Representatives of State Fraternal Alliances in Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania have sent emails to congressional delegations in those states outlining the impact of fraternals in legislators’ backyards and asking them to sign on as co-sponsors of the Resolution. Remarkably, a number of members of Congress have done so after receiving that one email.
  • Letters from Board members – Alliance Board members have sent letters to the U.S. Representative from their society’s home district asking them to sign on as a co-sponsor of the Resolution. These efforts began this week, and we are expecting several new co-sponsors as a result of these simple requests.
  • McBee follow-up – Of course, it often takes more than one letter, email or phone call to make a difference. And the Alliance is fortunate to have the professional advocates at McBee Strategic Consulting – about the furthest thing from Jack Abramoff’s as you will find – representing fraternals on Capitol Hill. The McBee team is making personal follow-up calls and visits to every congressional office contacted by Alliance members to secure co-sponsorships.

Want to be a part of this movement?

Every society – and every individual member of an Alliance society – can be a part of this effort. Just let me know which of the following you are willing to do and we’ll get back to you with all the details:

  • Capitol Hill Visits – We are looking for CEOs and/or other senior executives of member societies to travel to D.C. for these meetings.
  • In-District Visits – Is your society conducting a meaningful community service activity in the second half of 2012? We’d love to know about it and can help you invite a district office staff member to participate.
  • Letters to Lawmakers – Are you willing to write a letter to your Representative urging him or her to sign on as a co-sponsor? We’ll send you some suggested language to include in your letter or email, along with all the contact information you need to get it to the right person in the legislator’s office.

Securing passage of the Resolution in 2013 – before the debate on tax reform heats up – is the goal. The success of our effort to generate co-sponsors depends on you. It isn’t difficult to participate – but the rewards will be invaluable…

6 Responses

  1. Joe: about twenty legislators (Iowa and national) will be part of the grand opening of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library this next weekend, four years after the flood. Many staff and lodge members will be volunteering as well as directors. We will have several international visitors from the Czech and Slovak Republics as well. We will be wearing our wfla tshirts and some will be in native kroj. It will be a great festival celebration of all the work community and legislators have done together to rebuild. We will all be sharing the fraternal spirit – 200 plus volunteers and thousands of visitors.

    • It’s service projects like these where we can make the greatest impression on public policymakers. “Showing” beats “telling” every time. And I know that WFLA will provide a vivid demonstration of the value and validity of the fraternal business model at this event. Thanks for sharing, Kitty…jja

  2. Joe, this is encouraging for us to advocate integrity for everyone. I want to be a part of the initiative. I will be happy to contact our Representative, Kristi Noem of SD. I’d be open to the “suggested language” that you offered. Thanks.

  3. Great article, Joe, and thanks for leading the system’s efforts on the resolution. Here at Thrivent, we’ll soon launch a major effort to get our chapter leaders and field force (like Loren!) to contact their House members. The planning process itself has been very valuable, so I’d definitely recommend that other societies use the resolution as an opportunity to try some things and learn how they can get their members involved.

  4. Nice piece Joe. One small correction — I believe that Rep. Ron Kind is from Wisconsin.

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