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Washington • A new national group created and led by Utah bankers is rallying around two Republican senators in tight races and in doing so hopes to make a statement that reverberates through Congress.
Politicians who support bankers can tap into a deep stream of campaign contributions and those who don't may get targeted in the next election.
Friends of Traditional Banking is the brainchild of Howard Headlee, president of the Utah Bankers Association. It's his answer to the financial reform bill spawned by the 2007 economic collapse, which Headlee feels placed unnecessary requirements on smaller banks.
"We feel like we have to do something different to get people's attention and to make sure that the traditional banks in this country are not inappropriately targeted by politicians trying to grandstand," Headlee said. "It appears the only thing they understand and respond to is money."
And that is something bankers have plenty of.
But Headlee didn't like the idea of creating a super political action committee that would raise millions of dollars to pummel opponents and support allies. He favored a subtler, behind-the-scenes approach.
Friends of Traditional Banking has picked two candidates Sen. Dean Heller in Nevada and Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts and has urged supporters to give between $150 to $500 to each candidate directly. The hope is that dozens, if not hundreds, of bankers and bank shareholders will follow suit, sending an amount of money that candidates can't ignore.
Heller, a former member of the House Financial Services Committee who has a finance background, is running against Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev. Heller voted against the financial reforms, known as Dodd-Frank, while Berkley supported them.
Brown also voted against Dodd-Frank, though the group is likely supporting his candidacy more out of opposition to Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic candidate who came up with the idea of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Democrats tout the Bureau as a way for regulators to look out for average consumers when it comes to credit cards and bank loans, but bankers revile the agency, saying it creates excessive reporting requirements that make community banks less competitive and may foster consolidation.
The group picked these campaigns because they were competitive and would likely draw the attention of bankers, who wanted to get more involved than just supporting the traditional bank political action committees. Those PACs can only give $10,000 to each candidate.
"This is a much more surgical way of donating to very specific races throughout the country," said Matt Packard, the CEO of Central Bank in Provo and the chairman of Friends of Traditional Banking.
The group is made up largely of the heads of state banking associations. Beyond Packard and Headlee, the advisory council and board includes bankers from 13 other states including Colorado, Arizona and Idaho.
The advisory council originally identified seven potential candidates to support, which included Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, before deciding on Heller and Brown. In the past two months, the bankers have lobbied their colleagues to join their cause and donate some cash.
Friends of Traditional Banking can track donations made by clicking through its website, but Headlee said an accurate count won't be available until after the election.