Vice President Mike Pence honored Dairyland Power Cooperative employees on Labor Day for their essential service providing electricity to Wisconsin families during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I can’t think of a better place to be on an American holiday where we celebrate America’s tradition of hard work and the American dream,” Pence said from a stage in Dairyland’s parking lot. “For 79 years, you’ve been keeping the lights on here in Wisconsin. So, to all the hardworking men and women of Dairyland Power and to every American worker across Wisconsin, Happy Labor Day.”
The last time a vice president visited a Wisconsin electric co-op was in 1951, said Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association CEO Steve Freese. The vice president that year was Alben Barkley, who served with President Harry Truman.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for any organization,” said Brent Ridge, Dairyland’s president and CEO. “We were so proud that they would spotlight our workforce on Labor Day to show how important co-ops are in keeping the power on during the pandemic.”
Pence’s speech, attended by about 250 Dairyland employees and family members, was the first major event attended by Ridge since he became the co-op’s new CEO about eight weeks ago.
“I’m 53, but when my mom found out that the vice president was coming to Dairyland during the pandemic, she said, ‘Honey, are you gonna be OK?’” Ridge said, chuckling.
He said the experienced team at Dairyland pulled the event together “seamlessly” in less than a week, after the White House let them know that Pence had chosen Dairyland’s La Crosse Service Center as the site for his speech. The generation and transmission co-op also found out that Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., would be speaking.
Dairyland rented a stage and sound system and worked with White House officials to set up audience seating that allowed space between different family groups for social distancing. Employees who wanted to attend were required to RSVP for the event and wear masks. Temperature checks were taken at the entrance to the outdoor event.
Ridge said he learned last-minute event tips, including how to use weights to ensure that the American flag flying from a co-op crane would blow in the right direction. He coordinated flag locations with the White House.
Secret Service officials worked with state and local law enforcement to provide security for the event, which drew protesters and pro-Trump supporters near the co-op fence, Ridge said.
“Both sides just peacefully did their thing,” he said.
Wisconsin is a crucial swing state in the presidential election, attracting frequent visits from both the Republican and Democratic candidates for president and vice president. The Labor Day event was strictly voluntary for employees, Ridge said. He emphasized that the co-op is nonpartisan and is not endorsing anyone for president. Dairyland hosted Democratic Rep. Ron Kind the week before Pence’s visit to talk with the Wisconsin congressman about legislation affecting co-ops.
“The local press coverage focused on how co-ops are the engines behind the economy,” Ridge said. “It made us feel like we’re an important part of the American mission.”
Recognition from the vice president gave employees “an extra boost going forward,” he said.
Employees were especially excited to talk about workplace issues with Scalia, and those who stood onstage behind Pence were thrilled when the vice president autographed their hardhats, Ridge said.
“It was a welcome break and a good time to take a breather and get a virtual high five. Then it was back to work on Tuesday, hitting it hard.”
Erin Kelly is a staff writer at NRECA.