Editor’s note: In July, Jim Matheson became the sixth CEO in the history of NRECA. In this Q&A, Matheson, 56, who represented Utah in Congress for seven terms from 2001 to 2015, talks about his early impressions of NRECA, his background, and how co-ops can get their message across in a time of political polarization.
NRECA CEO Jim Matheson
Q. What has impressed you most during your first weeks on the job?
A. It’s the cohesion among the employees. You really perceive the culture here is one of working together. It’s one of the hallmarks of the co-op community. I’ve been very impressed by the willingness of everyone to pull together.
Q. Talk a little about your family’s tradition of public service and how you feel that fits in with the job of CEO of NRECA.
A. I grew up in a household where the importance of making a difference and leaving the world a better place was frequently discussed around the dinner table. My parents were always involved in a lot of community activities and they led by example.
When I was in high school, my father decided to get involved in politics. He ran successfully and was governor of Utah for eight years [Scott Matheson was governor from 1977-1985]. That influenced me in terms of having an interest in the policy world. As I moved on in my life and had my own career, I gravitated toward running for office myself and served for 14 years in Congress.
One of the reasons that I am so excited about being at NRECA is because NRECA has a community and member focus. So much of what the electric cooperative family does is to create a better life for people. It creates better economic opportunity. It creates a platform for rural development. So I feel that I am continuing in that role of trying to make the world a better place. It’s consistent with the values that I learned around the family dinner table.
Q. Do you recall when you first became aware of electric cooperatives?
A. When I was first elected to Congress, I had a congressional district that was all within one county—Salt Lake County, an urban-suburban county. During that first term, the Utah legislature was involved in redrawing the boundaries after the Census and … created a very different district for me that had all the co-ops, and all of southern Utah and eastern Utah.
It was the beginning of a remarkable relationship with the co-ops because as I met with the various co-ops around rural Utah, I quickly learned that they knew what was going on in their communities. They were so plugged in. They became a real important guidepost for me to reach out to on issues that might not have anything to do with the co-ops—just to say, “What do people think in your community?” That applied to all the individual co-ops and also to the statewide association. Mike Peterson, the statewide manager in Utah, became a very trusted adviser to me in terms of talking about all kinds of issues. So it became a relationship where I developed great trust of and great appreciation for the co-ops.
Q. What do you see as the core of the electric cooperative movement?
A. In my opinion, the real high ground that the co-op movement occupies is representing the interests of the consumer. There’s no doubt about it. That’s our 100 percent focus—what is the right thing to do for our member-consumers? In my opinion, in the policy world, that means co-ops ought to be one of, if not the leading voice when it comes to electricity policy in this country because our motivations are so pure. I’d like to think that whatever the ideology of elected officials, from the right to the left, they all ought to be concerned about what’s in the best interest of the consumer.
Q. How can co-ops cut through the current wave of political polarization to get their message out?
A. One of the great attributes of the electric cooperative community is it has not allowed itself to be pulled into the polarized dynamic that affects so much of our politics today. Co-ops are all about what’s right for our members, and we frame our policy efforts through that focus, and stay away from ideological arguments. If you want to be effective in getting things done, that’s exactly where you want to be.
The co-ops across 47 states represent a great diversity of thought and circumstances, but we have the capacity to engage on Capitol Hill and with the regulatory agencies without being part of that polarized dynamic that really limits your effectiveness. We are one of the most effective advocacy organizations in Washington because we’ve kept true to our mission of doing what’s right for the consumer.
Q. What do you say to the critics who say, “In 2016, America’s been electrified and we don’t really need this program anymore.”
A. I would fundamentally disagree with that statement. The co-op mission has evolved over the years. Back in the 1930s, there was a need to electrify rural America and the co-ops stepped in where no one else would, and it’s one of the great successes of American history. That being said, the mission of providing value to our members never goes away. The circumstances may change—yes, the act of electrification has happened, but now how do we make sure our members continue to receive reliable, affordable power today and in the future? We represent those members every day.
In an ever-changing world where technology is creating all kinds of options, Co-ops actually have a more important role to play because we have the capacity to sort out all these different choices. Again, our motivation isn’t on behalf of certain investors or making a profit. Our motivation is doing the right thing for our members.
Q. You’re going to be doing a fair amount of traveling. How do you feel about that?
A. I am so excited to travel and meet with people from the co-op community. I’ve always valued the opportunity to engage with folks and hear what’s on their minds. It’s going to make me a much better CEO of NRECA the more I meet with our members.
Q. What should co-ops or members know about you that’s not in the official biography?
A. What I want people to know most about me is that I’m just a real straight shooter. I think that’s the best way to behave in life; try to be as straightforward and honest as you can be. That’s the best way to make progress.
Steven Johnson is a staff writer at NRECA.