Rep. Rob Wittman has been a champion for Virginia’s electric cooperatives, pushing efforts to fund rural broadband and trying to find solutions to the supply chain delays that are making it tough for co-ops to get transformers and other crucial equipment to serve their consumer-members, co-op leaders say.
“Rob grew up on co-op lines—and is currently a member of Northern Neck Electric Cooperative—and he understands the needs of rural Virginia,” says Andrew Vehorn, vice president of member and public affairs at the Virginia, Maryland and Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives. “From the beginning, he has reached out to us and asked, ‘What can I do to help?’”
The Republican congressman serves as co-chairman of the House Rural Broadband Caucus and introduced legislation, the Serving Rural America Act, that paved the way for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Broadband Infrastructure Program, which provided $288 million in funds for broadband deployment.
Vehorn describes Wittman, who has served in the U.S. House since 2007, as a “pragmatic conservative” and credits him as one of the first Republicans in Congress to recognize the need for federal funding to bring high-speed internet to overlooked rural communities.
“In the early days, it was hard to get Republicans to agree to use federal dollars on broadband,” Vehorn says. “They thought it would be taken care of by Comcast and the other big internet providers, but that of course wasn’t the case.”
Wittman realized that in many sparsely populated rural communities, not-for-profit electric co-ops were the only businesses willing to step in and provide broadband service, Vehorn says.
“High-speed internet service really separates the haves from the have-nots,” he says. “We saw it during the pandemic. Kids in the suburbs worked at home on their laptops while kids in rural areas had to go to the McDonald’s parking lot to get service. Rob understands that broadband is a necessity.”
Wittman has also worked with electric co-ops in Virginia to try to help end the supply chain delays that began during the pandemic. Rappahannock Electric Cooperative has run into shortages just as development has increased, membership has grown and vehicle electrification has surged in their territory, says Lindsey Watson, the co-op’s director of governmental affairs.
“If we can’t get transformers or poles and wires, then we can’t upgrade our grid to meet our members’ demand for EVs or support new economic and residential development,” she says. “We’ve been working on supply chain challenges for about two years, and the congressman and his staff have been responsive and shown incredible leadership.”
In July 2023, Wittman introduced a bill called the Empowering Electric Grid Reliability Act, which would require the secretary of Energy to create a task force to study and report on supply chains for local electric distribution grids, including transformers and equipment.
The task force would be required to submit a report to Congress after studying the problem.
“Rep. Wittman sponsored that bill for us to study the origins of the supply chain crisis,” Watson says. “He worked in partnership with co-ops and the [statewide] association. We had a lot of meetings with the congressman to brainstorm ideas. He made a great collaborative effort to bring that bill to fruition.”
Wittman said that “supporting Virginia’s electric cooperatives is personal to me.”
“As a resident of Virginia’s Northern Neck, I know firsthand how integral electric co-ops are to our rural communities,” the congressman says. “I have been proud to work with local co-ops to improve access to electricity and broadband while expanding job opportunities, boosting our local economy and improving our children’s education for generations to come.”
Wittman, who was re-elected to an eighth full term in 2022, served in state and local government prior to Congress. He was a member of the Montross Town Council for a decade, serving as the town’s mayor for four of those years. He was later elected to the Westmoreland County Board of Supervisors and the Virginia House of Delegates.
Wittman is a strong advocate for the Chesapeake Bay and an avid fisherman whose office walls are filled with mounted fish that he caught in the bay, Vehorn says.
“He can tell you a story about every fish that is on the wall—what kind of fish it is and how he caught it,” he says. “He’s very down to earth, just a nice guy. He’s what you’d expect from a small-town mayor who went to Washington. He hasn’t forgotten where he came from.”