Jo Ann Emerson
EVERY NOW AND AGAIN, I LIKE TO PAGE through my well-worn copy of A Giant Step, the memoirs of Clyde T. Ellis, the first general manager (today we’d call him a CEO) of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA).
The book is a terrific firsthand account of the political battles in Washington, D.C., during the formative years of rural electric cooperatives, beginning in the 1930s. Ellis participated in these events as U.S. representative from Arkansas (1939 to 1943) and as the chief national advocate for cooperatives from 1943 to 1965.
It’s hard to imagine today, but prior to the late 1930s, large chunks of America, including most of South Carolina, didn’t have electricity—or much hope of getting it. It wasn’t cost effective for investor-owned utilities to provide service to rural areas, so in farm communities and small towns, neighbors banded together, pooled their resources and formed not-for-profit electric cooperatives to better their lives. They were building something truly beneficial for their communities and our national economy, so naturally, it didn’t happen without a bruising political fight or three.
Even back then, powerful business interests, misguided politicians and uninformed bureaucrats had a habit of blocking progress. While local co-ops were staking poles, hanging transformers and wiring homes, Ellis and a handful of colleagues were working hard in Washington to make sure they had the financing, access to electricity and the regulatory clearance to get the job done. They also made sure Washington heard the voices of the people who are the heart of every cooperative enterprise.
Ellis set the standard for principled co-op advocacy, and although the issues have changed over the decades, the need to engage and inform lawmakers remains as important as ever.
Since 1994, my friend Glenn English has led the national effort to keep power brokers inside the Beltway in tune with co-ops and their members. Glenn signed on with NRECA after 10 terms representing Oklahoma’s 6th Congressional District, and thanks to his contacts, expertise and plainspoken common sense, co-ops have weathered numerous political storms and emerged stronger than ever.
In May of this year, Glenn will begin a well-earned retirement, and he will do so confident that the legacy of co-op advocacy is in good hands. Incoming CEO Jo Ann Emerson represented Missouri’s 8th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, where she worked closely with electric cooperatives. Before becoming a member of Congress, she enjoyed a career in public affairs and grassroots communications.
“Advocacy is critical,” she says. “We need to be sure policymakers are continually being informed about who we are and what we do. Each electric co-op benefits from the fact that their membership is from the community—totally engaged from the grassroots level. It is what makes us unique.
“The electric co-op was born of necessity,” she continues, “but it has grown into a reflection of the way we really value doing business in America—person to person, keeping as much investment, talent and decision-making authority in our communities as we can.”
Welcome, Jo Ann, and bravo. I don’t think Clyde Ellis could have said it better himself.