In a tumultuous political era, National Rural Electric Cooperative CEO Jim Matheson brings a proven track record of bipartisan credentials to his new role
By Ted Case
“If you’ve met one coop,” says Jim Matheson, “you’ve met one coop.”
Matheson, who took over as CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association this summer, made this observation at the October Region VIIIX meeting in Reno, Nevada.
The geographic sweep of the crowd in the audience—coop leaders stretching from Hawaii to Kansas—proved Matheson’s thesis about a membership that exhibits what he calls a “wide range of circumstances.”
As Matheson introduced himself to coop leaders at regional meetings across the country, he witnessed firsthand how diverse his 900plus electric cooperative membership is.
Matheson told the audience in Reno that while he knows every coop is unique—whether they are large or small or powered by coal, nuclear, diesel or hydroelectricity—there is a bond that overshadows any perceived differences among them.
“The notforprofit cooperative business model is the common thread,” he said. “It gives us our strength.”
The audience was more than a little interested in hearing from its new association leader. But Matheson seemed more interested in listening, making himself available to coop leaders of every stripe throughout the two-day meeting.
Matheson is the sixth CEO in the 74year history of NRECA. Matheson joins a distinguished group, ranging from the brilliant oration of Clyde Ellis to the tenacious advocacy of Glenn English and the infectious enthusiasm of Jo Ann Emerson.
For his part, Matheson—a former congressman from Utah—brings a sense of humility along with a strong record of legislative success and constituent service.
“I have a background that combines business, policy and politics,” he says.
That combination helped him get elected seven times to Congress as a Democrat in arguably the most Republican state of the union. He succeeded, he says, by carving out a position as an independent voice, regardless of what was going on with party politics.
When Republican leaders gerry-manded him out of his previous congressional district, Matheson was mapped into an unfamiliar district that included several of Utah’s electric cooperatives. Matheson forged a relationship with electric cooperative leaders and regularly checked in on legislation with Mike Peterson, the late statewide manager of the Utah Electric Cooperatives who helped make the coops a political force in a state dominated by larger power companies.
Matheson now takes over an association that was formed because of politics in 1942 but finds itself caught up in one of the most acrimonious political times in the history of the Republic.
Matheson is committed to keeping his membership above the fray.
“We need to rise above it,” he said.
“I resist us being called bipartisan. We should be nonpartisan.”
This statement, which was met with rousing applause in Reno, is easier said than done. But Matheson has a formula to get beyond the partisan bickering. Electric coops need to be knowledgeable and reasonable to “cement NRECA’s place as the leading voice of rural America,” he said.
There are few places more rural than electric cooperatives in the Western United States, and Matheson’s background with federal land management issues is viewed as a key asset.
“I am excited to have someone at the helm that has a deep understanding of Western issues,” said Bryan Wolfe, a director at Umatilla Electric Cooperative who also serves on the NRECA Board of Directors. “Jim has shown great leadership and vision in his short time at NRECA. I am really impressed.”
Matheson’s Western roots will benefit the many electric cooperatives whose territories are often interspersed with federal lands, creating potential areas of controversy.
NRECA supports legislation streamlining the process for vegetation management on federal lands. The inability to cut so called “danger trees” across federal rightsofway has created problems for Western coops crossing land managed by the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management.
Matheson, who worked successfully on federal land legislation in Congress, noted he is a big believer in getting ahead of these issues and opening lines of communication with the Forest Service and BLM.
“Public land issues are critical for Western coops,” he said, and added NRECA will work on the front end to make sure coops’ concerns are addressed.
While there are parochial regional issues for all of NRECA’s members, Matheson is aware he has taken over the organization in the midst of what he calls an unprecedented time in the industry.
With the pressure on carbon reduction— as well as the rise of renewable generation and the advent of battery storage—the days of a sleepy, status quo electric utility industry are long gone.
But Matheson thinks electric cooperatives are well positioned to succeed. “As long as we do right by our members, we have no reason to worry,” he said.
Another reason not to worry is how well coops are meeting their members’ needs. Matheson recently spent a day touring Delaware Electric, an 84,000member cooperative in the MidAtlantic area. Matheson says he came away impressed with the coop’s level of innovation and how forward leaning it is.
Matheson is interested in more of these meetings, but with a schedule whipsawing him from industry meetings to visits to Capitol Hill, he knows meeting each one of NRECA’s members on their home turf will be difficult.
But Matheson says he is committed to getting out among the membership all he can. Umatilla Electric’s Wolfe has discussed plans to have Matheson tour one of the giant hydroelectric projects on the Columbia River that power electric cooperatives in the Northwest.
It will be part of a continuing education for the new CEO, who next year will preside over the celebration of the association’s 75th anniversary. In the meantime, he will no doubt make some history of his own.