By Steven Johnson | ECT Staff WriterPublished: May 1st, 2012

Electric cooperative leaders need to know that political muscle at the grassroots level still carries more weight when it comes to influencing members of Congress than buckets full of campaign cash, according to a trio of congressional experts.

“People trumps money every day when it’s utilized properly,” former U.S. Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., said April 30 at the 2012 Grassroots Summit and Legislative Conference.

How best to employ that people power was the focus of the two-day summit, which brought 1,500 co-op managers and directors to the Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill in Washington for the tools and training they need to mobilize 42 million co-op members nationwide.

“It’s all about political power and political impact, and how we as electric cooperatives can maximize our influence on this Congress and, as importantly, on congresses going forward,” said NRECA CEO Glenn English.

English, a former 10-term congressman, appeared with Davis and former U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, for a panel on “When I Feel the Heat, I See the Light: Thoughts from Former Members of Congress.” They offered a series of practical tips on how to woo and win friends on Capitol Hill.

One way is to get off Capitol Hill, all three agreed. Bonds between co-op members and elected officials are best forged at the local level, outside the bustle of Washington, through attendance at town halls and congressional district forums.

Frost noted that a co-op member might be able to speak one-on-one with a congressman for an extended period of time at a district meeting. “Grassroots makes a huge difference to members in their district,” he said.

And inviting a congressman to appear at a local co-op’s or PPD is a great way to get on the political radar. Davis said co-ops became a priority for him when he first attended a packed annual meeting of Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative, in Manassas.

Davis and Frost, who headed their parties’ respective congressional campaign committees, warned against the practice of hedging political bets by donating time, money or effort to both sides in an electoral contest.

“People need to know, if they’re going to go out on a limb for you on an issue, that you’re going to be with them, come hell or high water,” Davis said.

English said the payoff for attending town halls, inviting elected officials to annual meetings, and fostering personal relationships with senators and representatives can be substantial when it’s most needed.

“By doing those things, it’s much more likely, when you come to a make-or-break issue, that the member of Congress or the senator will speak to the leadership and say, ‘This is one I need,’ because they know it means something to the co-op membership.”