A natural-born lobbyist

A natural-born lobbyist
© Greg Nash

Most kids dream of being a professional athlete or a rock star, but Dan Berger knew at a young age what he wanted to be in life: a lobbyist. 

By the 8th grade, the future head of the National Association of Federal Credit Unions (NAFCU) was a self-proclaimed political junkie who spent his time campaigning at northern Florida’s watermelon festivals for a state senator who would become his mentor. 

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Between his early involvement in local politics and the encouragement from that mentor, former state Sen. George Kirkpatrick, Berger found himself directed toward the world of policy and influence. 

“I got bit by the bug,” Berger said. 

Through high school and college, Berger helped run campaigns for county commissioners and state representatives and senators, honing his political chops and building a list of connections. 

“I knew in high school this is what I wanted to do,” Berger said recently at the NAFCU’s Arlington office. “I always wanted to be a lobbyist.”

“It just snowballed,” he added.

Berger equates his career to a sort of three-dimensional chess. 

“It sounds hokey,” he said, but being a lobbyist combines business, politics and policy and “it’s the perfect convergence of the three, and I’ve just always been fascinated by it.”

After getting his degree in economics in 1989 at Florida State University, he joined the ranks of the state’s lobbying corps, first advocating for the farm bureau and then going to bat for real estate agents and the insurance industry, mostly focusing on workers’ compensation issues.

“I’m an economist by education and a lobbyist by profession,” Berger said. “My dad used to call me a parasite on democracy,” he added with a laugh. 

Berger spent the bulk of the 1990s lobbying in the Sunshine State before heading off to Harvard University to add a master’s degree in public administration to his resume. 

Eventually, his long-held political ties in Florida landed him a job in Washington as the chief of staff for Katherine Harris, Florida’s secretary of State-turned-House lawmaker. 

Berger helped Harris, who won a seat in 2002, get her offices up and running both in D.C. and Florida. 

But his time on Capitol Hill was short-lived. Within a year he’d moved on to lobby for America's Community Bankers before getting a call from the NAFCU in 2006.

Seven years into his run at the NAFCU, he was tapped in 2013 to take over for the retiring Fred Becker as the group’s president and CEO. 

And Berger, an avid fan of his Seminoles football team, is keeping his group on offense.  

In fact, his favorite part of the job is the X’s and O’s of the lobbying game and the strategy needed to tackle issues on Capitol Hill and beyond.

“It’s a constant drumbeat,” he said.

In the past two years, Berger has reshaped the trade association’s plan of attack, drilling down on a three-pronged approach focusing on advocacy, education and compliance assistance in the post-financial crisis world.

When Congress is in session, he spends most days on Capitol Hill, educating congressional lawmakers about what credit unions need to ensure they aren’t paying the price for mistakes made by much larger financial institutions.

“Our focus has always been on Capitol Hill. with the regulators and the administration, is we need more Main Street financial institutions and less Wall Street,” Berger said. 

“If you look back, they’ll tell you that the credit unions and smaller financial institutions didn’t cause the crisis; it was bigger banks and the Wall Street guys doing that. It wasn’t us,” he said. 

A rallying cry for credit unions has been that they have consistently maintained a high level of business practices, while the big banks nearly collapsed the economy in 2007 and 2008. 

“Credit unions, we have a different mission, and so being not-for-profit financial institutions we operate a little bit differently. We don’t have shareholders we have to worry about or the quarterly stresses of Wall Street analysts,” he said. 

Compliance with regulation is a major issue for credit unions as they navigate new financial rules. To that end, his group fields dozens of questions a day as it guides members. 

“So that’s a message we have to keep telling them is don’t lump us in, if they are predatory lenders, if they’re bad actors out there, go after them,” Berger said. 

He expects that fight to continue into the next presidential administration, which has promised to scrap a wide swath of regulations. 

“We’re hopeful that some of these regulatory burdens that we’re dealing with will be addressed in the next Congress,” he said.

That means credit unions will continue trying to untangle themselves from rules they argue don’t or shouldn’t apply to them and only increase their costs. 

“It keeps me up at nights,” he said. 

To further bolster the message to Congress, Berger also spends upward of 100 days a year traveling around the country meeting with the CEOs of his members to find out what’s happening around the industry.

“You hear these stories and you can convey those to Capitol Hill and the regulators,” Berger said. 

Meanwhile, Berger’s group has expanded by 170 new members during the past year, up to just over 800 total as part of the larger $1 trillion credit union industry. 

On top of that, millions of U.S. consumers have flocked to credit unions since the 2008 financial crisis, he said. 

“You continue to see the growth because of that. I think they trust credit unions,” Berger said. 

But while Berger loves his job, he definitely enjoys the chance to escape the Washington scene and meet new people. 

If Berger isn’t on Capitol Hill or traveling around the country, you might find him and his family fly-fishing or scuba diving in the Florida Keys or touring through a national park or riding over to the Eastern Shore on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. 

And Berger seems to love all the connections he makes on the motorcycle.

“That’s part of the neatness of being a Harley rider, is the community, you meet so many people, you meet CEOs of major corporations, doctors, lawyers, ex-convicts, people from all walks of life,” he said. “It’s awesome.”

Dan Berger worked at America's Community Bankers before NAFCU. Incorrect information appeared in Tuesday's story.