To attend or not to attend: the four-year convention dilemma

As a former member of Congress and now as a K Streeter, I ask myself a key question every four years: Should I, should we as an association, be going to the Democratic and Republican national conventions? To many of you, the answer may be a resounding yes, but to me it is more complex.

It is true that I and my organization always go to the conventions. We have not missed one during my tenure, and we plan to be at both this summer in full force. But even so, there is still that nagging feeling.

I still wonder about the value of attending. Intuitively, I know we need to be there; any large trade association always is. But is it worth the cost and does it make sense? There is, for example, the issue of substance.

When I was a congressman representing a large South Florida district, I made it my business to meet with constituents regularly, whenever the Congress was in recess. I distinctly remember one convention year meeting with groups in Palm Beach County, discussing their issues, trying to hammer out solutions as any member would, and preparing with my staff to help those constituents when I got back to Washington. So you can imagine there was little to talk about at the convention just a week after meeting with those same constituents in the home district. Yes, it was fun seeing one another in a new locale and meeting with people from back home but, even so, we did not cover any new ground.

Again, if I felt so strongly that the conventions were time and money misspent, I would have stopped attending, and certainly funding, convention association efforts a long time ago. But I ask again: Is it worthwhile?

This year, a K Street association could easily spend half a million dollars on hospitality suites and welcome parties at both conventions. Do these efforts allow us to interact with influential lawmakers? Absolutely. Will these events help to raise the profile of our organization? No question. And will our grassroots members take pride in the fact that we are a visible presence? That is a given.

So what, then, is the debate? It is one of a 40-year political veteran who still wants to grow and make sure he is being the best advocate he can be. Growth is essential to anyone, no matter how many decades of Hill experience he or she might have.

With that in mind, I question if $500,000 could be used for other, perhaps better causes. If, for example, I canceled our convention activities, I would have an extra $100,000 a month for nearly half a year to conduct additional grassroots advocacy. The amount in question would certainly allow us to fly in and host advocates from all 50 states.

The same amount could also pay for additional marketing materials to be used for advocacy and media outreach. Perhaps the same amount could allow for the purchase of TV spots, airing our key messages. Certainly, we could buy more banner ads and increase our Web presence.

Maybe the money could be devoted to additional consumer education efforts, particularly as our service members return home, uncertain about their future, the economy and many other issues.

And yet, all of this noted, I know visibility counts for so much. I know firsthand what it means to have an important discussion with a key lawmaker at convention events and to show him or her that you and your members are an important national force. It is vital to demonstrate that one’s organization is visible in and outside the Beltway, when Congress is and is not in session.

So yes, I am conflicted, and after more than 40 years as a staffer, member and lobbyist, I am still evolving and reevaluating. I do not know — that’s the bottom line. Perhaps we will re-examine and change our minds for 2012. This year, of course, we are going, end of story.

Perhaps I will see you there.

Mica is the president and CEO of the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), which represents nearly 8,500 credit unions with 90 million members. Rep. Mica (D-Fla.) served in the House from 1979-89.