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"Engage, support and empower:" building political strength into the future.

The recently concluded elections were a tidal wave of emotion expressed by the American Voter. It was a statement of dissatisfaction and it affected both major political parties. This same sense of unrest can--and may--affect local cooperative board elections in the coming years if we don't glean anything from these results. We may very well be doomed to repeat history. But it doesn't have to be that way.

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At the regional meetings this fall, we had an opportunity to examine our political strength, its source, and to determine if this strength was growing or possibly waning.

In order to ensure that our political strength continues to grow, we must examine the answers to two very critical inquiries.

First, are we as strong--politically speaking--as we use to be? But more importantly, are we as strong as we need to be, going forward?

These two questions strike at the core of our political survival. They aren't meant to be read quickly or left unanswered. It may be worth a minute to read them again before moving on.

For this political exercise, consider the analogy of building a home, and our foundation is our traditional political strength.

The Way We Were: Cooperative & National Interests Aligned

What gave us our initial strength when your cooperative was formed in the 1930s, when there were many political factors in play and we needed political strength to get the cooperative started? The source of that strength was individuals: farmers, ranchers and anyone without electricity. They were the organizers and they initiated the process. The goal--electric power--was simple to understand. Their method--create a cooperative-was practical and everyone supported it.

Their results--poles in the ground and wires overhead--were grand achievements.

Politically speaking, access to safe power, its reliability and affordability became important issues to any legislator who served a rural district. In that day and age, if the countryside was going to be electrified, if your rural towns and villages, ranchers and family farmers were to receive the benefits of electric power, legislators knew it would only happen because the people made it happen.

Moreover, legislators knew the hardships of life without power, and they understood what the possibilities were for the rural family with power.

The frustration felt by so many in those days, along with the affinity legislators had for rural America, is found in this quote of Sam Rayburn, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives:

"... we waited for half a century for the power companies to electrify the farm and rural homes of this country, after all of that time; fewer than 3% had the comfort and conveniences of rural electrification."

Once your public power districts (PPDs) and cooperatives strung the wires, it was an unparalleled success. Those present for that first light never forgot it. Or who brought it.

Over time, your cooperative grew, and became more sophisticated.

Together with other co-ops, many worked with the Power Marketing Administrations (PMAs), others formed generation and transmission cooperatives (G&Ts), and we met the one main challenge before us: the growing power needs of the membership, local communities and our nation's rural economy.

All in all, in this era, legislator and constituent were cut from the same cloth. There were no misunderstandings about the purpose and goal of the local electric cooperative to bring power to rural America.

In a grander sense, everyone understood the cooperative mission. America was, at that time, predominately rural, and rural legislators held sway in Congress.

Today, however, things have changed, and there are trends that threaten the foundation of our existence.

Today's Political Climate: The Rise of the Urban Tide

Fast forward eighty years to today. Has anything changed? Are the factors that gave us political strength still in place?

In many cases they still are. Yet some will argue that there are at least four major undercurrents at work that could slowly erode the very foundation our political presence is built upon.

Examining these rip tides to determine just how active and detrimental they might be is imperative. Only by doing so will we know our strengths and weaknesses so as to begin to improve our ability to remain politically strong.

Stress Factor Number One: We The Cooperative People

The first factor at play--is us. Why?

In 1930 the US population was under 123 million. Today we are currently over 307 million. In other words, our nation's population has more than doubled-and almost tripled--since your cooperative was formed.

Politically, what does this mean for us? Look at it through the eyes of Congress.

It is a little known fact, but back in 1911, almost exactly 100 years ago, Congress voted to increase the size of the House of Representatives to its current 435 member format. With the number of Representatives holding constant, in 1930, the average congressional district held 280,000 constituents. (See Figure 1.) This count increased in the 1960s and was doubled by the late 1980s.

This upward growth trend continued and by 2000 the average congressional district topped 600,000+ constituents.

With the recent 2010 census just completed, the average congressional district is expected to hold over 700,000 constituents. As Figure 1 shows, this represents a near tripling of the number compared to the 1930s.

This sheer increase in the number of constituents alone makes for an uphill battle for any organization to get "face time" and its messages delivered to your legislators.

The flip side of this is that many legislators are now being stretched and pulled like saltwater taffy, in so many different directions by so many individuals and interest groups that it is difficult for them to establish a good understanding of every organization, their goals and purpose.

As a result, we now must get through the clutter in order to continue being relevant and understood by our legislators--at all levels of government. This requires having dedicated co-op leaders and active participation throughout the process. It will take local, statewide and national resources to ensure that we are being heard.

Moreover, these resources can't be piecemeal, occasional or an afterthought. There's way too much at stake to play the game that way and for us to expect to win. They must, instead, be viewed as essential, strategic resources that we cannot survive without.

Many cooperatives take the position, either formally or through their actions in budgeting and planning, that this political action is the job of the statewide or NRECA. Certainly, NRECA and your statewide play key roles on your behalf. Yet our collective strength is greatly enhanced when every cooperative--every cooperative--makes it a priority to be engaged and politically active.

Stress Factor Number Two: Shifting Member Demographics

Your Membership--the demographics of the local cooperative member--has changed. Like it or not, there's a growing distance between members and their cooperative, and this is occurring generation by generation. The affinity toward your cooperative of those who formed it, strung the wire and saw the benefits in their homes is very different from today's member.

When the cooperatives were first formed, the flip of that light switch was a glorious, celebrated thing. Members were grateful for it. And they were patient folk. When outages occurred, they lived with it. Why? They had lived with it before, and knew their cooperative would fix it.

But times have changed.

Today, most members take their power for granted. Flip the switch and the lights had better come on. Today's expectations are different. And the demand for service is greater than ever before.

Polling data shows, time and time again, that your members have a strong sense of loyalty to their cooperative when they:

a. know and understand the cooperative business model, and

b. know that their ownership has value.

This is politically important, and every cooperative must continue to reach out to their membership. Whether you're a TouchStone Energy member and it's the "Together We Save" campaign or your own communication effort, building trust with your membership is going to be paramount for your cooperative to retain its leaders.

You, and your cooperative, must be seen as doing more than just providing a service. You must be seen as advocating on your members' behalf. This will be essential to our political survival in the coming decades.

It is true that we represent the consumer--the member on that last mile of line--but if that member doesn't see themselves as an owner, or having a relationship with their cooperative, then something vital is lost. And when that happens, we all lose political strength.

The bottom line is this: we cannot undervalue the need for your members to "understand and feel they are a part of" your cooperative. Closing this gap and building trust is so politically important for us that it cannot be overstated or overlooked.

Why? Because if we don't connect with our membership, others will.

It may very well be the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, the Natural Resources Defense Council or the Alliance for Climate Protection.

In fact, the Alliance, headed by former Vice-President and Nobel prize winner Al Gore, launched a three-year, $300 million campaign to mobilize Americans to enact aggressive climate change legislation. Unlike the message of providing energy at an affordable rate, his message has little to do with affordability, and it is targeting the hearts and minds of as many of your members as it can get.

The Alliance wants to get your members on board and then to turn to YOUR legislators and say "Look who's with me!" And if the Alliance is able to do this, it knows legislators will listen.

Stress Factor #3: The Rise of the Urban Legislator

The third undercurrent relates to the first two, and has affected every cooperative in almost every state.

As our nation's population has grown dramatically over the last century, as your cooperatives have grown, there has also been a significant shift in where our population is found.

Politically, this has resulted in the Rise of the Urban Legislator.

One of the biggest political changes every state has undergone is the concentration of its population into suburban/urban centers: the cities. Along with this comes the rise of Urban Legislators. According to the numbers, America is now an urban/suburban nation. Its population base is no longer found in rural America as it once was. And as such, the legislative bloc, in just about every state, is now located squarely in its larger metropolitan areas.

This shift in population equals a shift in politics.

It is hard to argue that this mega-trend has strengthened our collective political clout. What's important is to recognize and to strategize on how to tackle this issue, and it's an issue facing just about every state, as well as NRECA in Washington, DC.

As shown in Figure 2, electric cooperatives are well represented in forty-one congressional districts. Here we have at least fifty percent or more of the constituents belonging to an electric cooperative. This is very good news. Where it takes 218 of the 435 Members to have a majority in the House of Representatives, 41 is a step in the right direction.

But it won't get us across the finish line.

In another 104 congressional districts, cooperatives have a presence of fifteen to fifty percent. Yet when we look at the number of districts where we are 15% or less of the total, where the average congressional district will soon top 700,000 people, we are quickly becoming a diluted political force.

And we still don't have a numeric majority in Congress.

As Figure 2 shows, 123 Members of Congress have only "some trace" of an electric cooperative presence in their district. In these districts we are a minor voice.

The most eye-opening fact is the final segment of Congress, made up of those members who have absolutely no co-ops in their district at all.

There are 167 Members of Congress without any electric cooperative presence in their congressional district. None. This is an imposing figure. Many of them are urban legislators, but not all. And this group includes Republicans and Democrats.

In other words, nearly forty percent of Congress has no electric cooperative presence at all.

The key element we all need to recognize is this: the math is not in our favor.

NRECA is well aware of this fact and is working closely with your statewide associations to close this gap. Our federal lobbyists are constantly visiting key urban legislators, your statewide officers make visits to Washington D.C. and constantly work with them back home; and our annual Legislative Conference is an important reminder to Members of Congress of who we are.

More and more, we--electric cooperatives--are finding the path to a majority in the House of Representatives is getting steeper and steeper all the time.

Stress Factor #4: The Issues Have Multiplied

What has also changed from those somewhat "singular purpose" days when your cooperative was formed is the sheer growth of legislative issues facing your cooperative, which have multiplied tenfold from those earlier days.

This is the fourth trend. Today's issues include not only traditional issues but a slew of new issues that were unheard of when your co-op started serving its members. These issues include such matters as: Broadband & Pole Attachments, Access to financing & RUS, Cybersecurity & Smart Grid, FEMA, Derivatives, Renewable Energy Mandates, Climate Change/Pollution Controls, and this list goes on.

In addition, the number of legislative committees and subcommittees, which involves many legislators, many of which are from that large slice of the pie in Figure 2, can make a tough sell for our issues, especially if they don't know us, don't represent us and in a few cases, just don't care.

It wasn't like this years ago. Back then, everyone, including legislators, supported our efforts to site a line, drop a pole and string a wire. As the saying goes: "It was a much simpler time back then."

Future Success?

There is a recipe for political success, and it involves a three part plan. And it all begins with you.

It's people like you who are willing to stand together and deliver a unified message to their legislators. This is how legislation is won. This is how it works in your state capitol, your nation's capitol and in your own backyards.

It will require active organizational involvement, creating a CULTURE of political involvement at your cooperative today that then leads to a TRADITION of involvement at your cooperative going forward.

No matter who is in charge or who is on the board, down the road, members and cooperative leaders alike will know how to act and what to do. That's one of the greatest legacies anyone in leadership can offer.

The second part of the recipe for success is ACRE and your state's political action committee. These organizations give us a political voice which, when added to yours, enhances our overall political strength. It is important to follow the rules and communicate with members, emphasizing the need for the work these groups do. It's an investment in the future, not an expense to be cut.

The third and final part is to membership empowerment. Your membership is a largely untapped resource ready to help carry your message. They are passionate about these issues, too. Build rapport and trust with that membership, and then tell them how they can help, and they will be powerful indeed.

Can We Do It?

Can we really erase any doubt to the questions posed at the start of this article?

Yes, we can!

We have the tools and ability to leave our foundation intact and build the political strength needed to meet any new challenges coming our way. We will be successful if we have engaged leaders, strong political action committees and cooperatives that empower their membership.

Knowing what to do makes all the difference. Now it's time to get to work!

William (Randy) Dwyer serves America's rural electric cooperatives as Director of Grassroots Advocacy. In this capacity, he assists statewide and local coop efforts to bring the full weight of member-owners' needs and concerns to their legislators at the local, state and federal level. The grassroots programs he is responsible for include Candidate Training Academy, Grassroots Development, Community Service Awards Competition and the annual Electric Cooperative Youth Tour.

Prior to joining NRECA, Mr. Dwyer served as Political Director for the American College of Emergency Physicians. He also served as Political Finance Director for the National Association of Home Builders' political action committee in Washington D.C for ten years.
Figure 1: Constituents per Member of Congress

1930 280,000
1960 410,000
1980 520,000
2000 646,000
2010 705,000

Note: Table made from bar graph.

Figure 2: Co-op Representation in the House of Representatives

Under 15% 123
15%-49% 104
50% + 41
0% 167

Note: Table made from pie graph.
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Author:Dwyer, William "Randy"
Publication:Management Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2010
Words:2805
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