At a time of bitter political turmoil, electric cooperatives represent something rare in Washington: a positive, nonpartisan voice respected by lawmakers of both parties, CEO Jim Matheson told co-op leaders Wednesday at the opening session of NRECA PowerXchange.

“We’re grounded in community interests. We stand apart from everyone else in Washington because we are builders, and because we stay above the partisan fray,” Matheson said.

“We’re active in politics because we’re active in our communities,” he added. “That message is simple, but it’s everything you need to know about us. And we cannot stop—not for one election cycle, not for one year, not for one moment. We cannot say it enough: We serve the people of our communities, and what’s good for the community is good for the co-op.”

The hyperpartisan tone of politics in Washington is turning people off, which should concern co-ops, Matheson said.

“We’ve lost the ability to simply see and hear one another,” he said. “As a result, more and more Americans are tuning out of their role in our public, democratic institutions. And that concerns us because as cooperatives, we are public, democratic institutions in our communities.”

“We understand the need for people to see and hear each other, and people need to see and hear you, to understand the leadership you provide,” he continued. “We make so many positive things happen in the places we serve. That’s not only rare in today’s politics, it’s also incredibly refreshing.”

Members of Congress recognize that co-ops are “different in the best possible way,” Matheson said.

“Members of both parties recognize us as leaders who can get things done—as problem-solvers who are invested in the places we serve. As folks you’d better have in your corner,” he said. “They listen to us because our goals are inseparable from the goals of the community.”

Co-ops’ reputation for positive engagement with lawmakers has proven effective, Matheson said. He pointed to the 2019 passage of the bipartisan RURAL Act by a Congress that was gridlocked on most major issues. The bill preserved the crucial tax-exempt status of co-ops when they accept government grants for storm recovery, broadband and other programs that benefit consumer-members.

“Leaders listen to us and care what we think,” Matheson said. “Our approach works. And it works uniquely well in Washington where, today, that kind of leadership is so rare.”

The foundation of NRECA’s lobbying success is its partnership with co-ops nationwide, he said.

“When I talk about electric co-ops across the country working together, our leaders connect it to you at your co-op,” Matheson said. “Getting someone inside the Beltway to think outside the Beltway—that’s powerful. That’s effective.”

“Hearing your stories and knowing the work you do every day, I know our brightest days are still ahead of us,” he said. “We’re still creating that better, more prosperous future in our communities, coming up on a century since we first turned the lights on. And that, to me, is the most noble goal of all.”

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