The 2016 elections are history, but that’s no reason for electric cooperatives and rural voters to go into neutral when it comes to political activity. Just the opposite.
“You don’t get to the World Series if you don’t do spring training,” said Andrew Vehorn, director of legislative affairs at the Virginia, Maryland and Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives.
For co-ops, that means being proactive all the time, not just during the legislative session, Vehorn told a 2017 NRECA Legislative Conference session. He said it’s crucial to be constantly building relationships with lawmakers.
In fact, Kim Christiansen, director of government relations at Kansas Electric Cooperatives, said “there really isn’t an off season.” She cautioned that when co-ops only do outreach every two years, “you lose that momentum.”
During an April 24 session at the Hyatt Regency Washington, Christiansen detailed how Kansas co-ops leveraged the Co-ops Vote effort to their members’ advantage. One key feature was the 20 meet and greets co-ops across the state held with candidates. She stressed that they were nonpartisan and did not follow a town hall format.
“We did a co-op tour first. The managers took them around,” Christiansen explained. That provided a chance to chat with candidates about issues of co-op interest.
The 30-minute tour was followed by a chance for the candidates to briefly introduce themselves to the employees and members on hand, leading to a half-hour meet and greet with the audience.
“It was non-confrontational,” Christiansen said. “It’s a great format. Candidates like it.”
As for results, she said there’s no doubt it increased co-ops’ visibility.
“We were able to share our vision, and our voice got stronger.”
Former U.S. Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a Democrat who represented North Dakota from 1993 to 2011, likes what’s being done in Kansas, calling it “voter focused.” He said it provides the opportunity for an “open discussion” that many town halls lack today.
And Pomeroy made clear that rural views must be heard.
“Rural America needs to speak up. We’ve got to speak up loud and clear,” Pomeroy said.
To that end, Vehorn noted that co-ops have a secret weapon the investor-owned utilities don’t: members.
“We’ve got thousands of people who are willing to stand up and fight for the co-ops.”
Michael W. Kahn is a staff writer at NRECA.