Sen. Debbie Stabenow has been a champion for electric cooperatives and rural communities for more than two decades in the U.S. Senate, and her leadership has earned her NRECA’s 2023 Distinguished Service Award.

In the last two and a half years alone, Stabenow championed a $65 billion investment in the bipartisan infrastructure law to help connect all Americans to high-speed internet and secured $10 billion in the Inflation Reduction Act to support electric co-ops, which was the single largest rural electric investment since the New Deal and will create an estimated 90,000-plus jobs.

As chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, the Michigan Democrat has worked to strengthen U.S. Department of Agriculture programs that are crucial to co-ops and their consumer-members, Michigan co-op leaders say.

Those programs include ReConnect funding for broadband, the Rural Utilities Service Electric Program to modernize co-ops’ infrastructure and the Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant Program, which allows co-ops to pass federal funding on to local businesses that create new jobs.

The senator is currently leading efforts to pass a new five-year Farm Bill that will set funding levels for those programs.

“Senator Stabenow has been a loud advocate of those programs and of Michigan co-ops’ participation in them,” says Craig Borr, president and CEO of the Michigan Electric Cooperative Association, which nominated Stabenow for the NRECA award. “She’s always advocating on our behalf about how to make the programs easier for electric cooperatives to use.”

Individual Michigan co-ops wrote letters of support for Stabenow to receive the award, citing examples of how she’s aided their efforts to win federal grants and helped them navigate the bureaucracy.

“While several of Wolverine Power Cooperative’s members have benefited from her leadership with grant programs, a specific example can be found with Spartan Renewable Energy’s solar array, located adjacent to Wolverine’s corporate headquarters in Cadillac, Michigan,” wrote Eric Baker, the co-op’s president and CEO. “The solar project was a recipient of a $500,000 REAP (Rural Energy for America Program) grant in 2016. The funding helped construct the largest community solar array in Northern Michigan.”

Stabenow’s “strong and consistent” support for RUS has been essential for Midwest Energy & Communications, wrote President and CEO Robert Hance.

Without RUS funding, “MEC would not have had access to start-up capital that enabled us to augment our communications network, deploy smart grid technologies and build a fiber telecommunications network that now serves over 21,000 rural customers,” Hance said.

Stabenow has had a close relationship with Michigan co-ops going back decades before the historic 2000 election that made her the state’s first female U.S. senator, Borr says.

She served in the state House of Representatives from 1979 to 1990 and in the state Senate from 1991 to 1994.

She also served in the U.S. House for two terms before her election to the U.S. Senate.

“The beauty of Sen. Stabenow is that I don’t think she’s changed ever,” Borr says. “She was born and raised in rural Michigan, in the little Irish community of Clare. She’s true to her rural roots. She’s a thoughtful, decent lady who cares deeply about rural people. It’s just who she is.”

Stabenow’s powerful position on the Senate agriculture committee has meant that Michigan co-ops have had the privilege of helping to shape Farm Bills, he says.

“It has meant that field hearings have been held in Michigan, allowing us to attend all of them and testify at many of them,” Borr says. “We’ve gotten accustomed to the senator’s willingness to always listen to us and collaborate with us on issues that help rural people.”

Stabenow said it was an honor to receive the NRECA award.

“For more than 80 years, rural electric cooperatives were instrumental to our efforts to electrify the country, and now they are leading the way to make sure every community is connected to the internet,” she says. “When we invest in rural electric cooperatives, we invest in people, and I am proud to be your partner in Congress.”

The 73-year-old plans to retire when her term ends in January 2025, a move that will be a big loss for co-ops, Borr says.

“The relationship between co-ops and the senator is just such a comfortable fit,” he says. “We’re really going to miss that.”