Kelly Cushman’s rural roots run deep in the North Carolina soil, where her grandfather grew corn, cotton and soybeans and most of her extended family still lives on electric cooperative lines.
Cushman, who became NRECA’s new vice president of political programs in October, has advocated for farmers, veterans, military families and consumers as she worked for trade associations and for the Department of Defense, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, former President George W. Bush and the late Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C.
“I have lived in the Washington, D.C., area for many years, but I have not forgotten my roots,” she said.
In a Q&A, Cushman—who has a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from Clemson University and a master’s degree in environmental science and policy from Johns Hopkins University—described how her ties to rural America will help guide what she does in her new job.
Your last job before joining NRECA was vice president of domestic policy for the National Pork Producers Council. How did that help you get to know the rural communities that electric co-ops serve?
Cushman: It was a really amazing experience. I have tremendous respect for America’s pig farmers and their families. I believe that farmers are genuine stewards of the land who are proud to feed families around the world. And they do so while facing increased regulations, a labor shortage and other unintended consequences of misguided policy decisions.
I once had a pig farmer tell me, when speaking about new restrictions placed on farming, ‘We will adjust and move on. We always do. We care about putting food on the table and we work every day to make sure that happens, no matter what. We will survive.’
That really hit home. Rural communities are resilient.
Explain what your job entails as NRECA’s vice president of political programs. You’ll oversee both NRECA’s grassroots advocacy efforts and the fundraising efforts by America’s Electric Cooperatives PAC, right?
Cushman: Yes, that’s right. The political programs team here is made up of experienced government affairs professionals who work every day to ensure that our consumer-members have the platforms and resources to make their voices heard and to educate policy leaders on the value and role electric co-ops play in their communities. We are here to help our co-ops and the members at the end of the line tell their story and, in doing so, make sure government does everything it can to help keep the lights on.
What is your vision for improving NRECA’s political advocacy?
Cushman: It didn’t take me long to realize that NRECA’s political engagement program is first rate. Many groups would be happy to have a program as effective as NRECA’s. What my team and I are focused on is what we can do to amplify it or, in other words, make it even more visible and influential.
For example, what is the best way for our members to communicate with Congress? Do they want to use traditional media, social media, texting or phone calls? What resources do we need to provide so they can take action when it is most needed?
Additionally, we have an active political action committee, America’s Electric Cooperatives PAC, with strong support. Our PAC is different than most. We are a true grassroots PAC with membership across the country—so we have a very powerful voice in Washington, D.C. The PAC is a vital part of our political advocacy program because it provides us the opportunity to support like-minded elected officials who share our policy positions and stand ready to promote and defend them when necessary. Next year is an important election year and there is power in our pooled resources. We need to ensure that the PAC continues to grow and get stronger.
We’re digging deeper into our programs and figuring out how to make them easier to use and more effective.
We have a unique membership. NRECA’s members and our co-ops’ consumer-members are very educated about policy issues. They like to speak up and advocate on behalf of their communities, and many of them are on a first-name basis with their elected officials.
There are many ways for our members to get engaged and stay involved by joining our grassroots coalition, Voices for Cooperative Power, which has almost 1 million members, becoming a member of America’s Electric Cooperatives PAC if they are eligible to do so, registering to vote, and taking every opportunity to tell their co-op story. It takes a lot of tools in a political engagement toolbox to shape and influence policy.
We also have leaders at co-ops across the country who have direct relationships with members of Congress. Their outreach provides a tremendous opportunity to engage with policymakers in a substantive way. We refer to this group as our grass-tops army. Each and every one of these leaders puts a local face to the cooperative brand in Washington, D.C., and helps distinguish us from other groups, especially those who may not agree with our positions.
I’m looking at how we can pull all of these programs together to make sure they are aligned.
You’ve come on board just in time to lead political programs for the 2024 election year. What are your plans to amplify the voices of electric co-ops?
Cushman: 2024 is going to be an exciting year!
I think the main focus is to take every opportunity to put our issues and our priorities front and center with all policymakers. We’ll be working to make sure current members of Congress and congressional and presidential hopefuls understand the important role that co-ops play in their communities. We’ll be finding new ways and new platforms to get our messages across.
I think members of Congress may forget how the decisions they make affect rural communities. We need to make sure they understand that their decisions determine whether folks in the countryside can keep the lights on.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell NRECA members?
Cushman: I’m really excited to be part of the team and I look forward to meeting you, learning more about you and advocating on your behalf.
I work for each and every one of you. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if there’s ever anything you need.