By Steven Johnson | ECT Staff WriterPublished: May 7th, 2012

Here’s how you know that a political outreach program is working—at a town hall meeting, a lawmaker defers to a co-op representative to explain the details of legislation.

That happened not long ago in Iowa, when a state legislator turned over the floor to a co-op manager, who could better describe the nuances of a complex measure concerning stray voltage.

“I can’t imagine a better position to be in than explaining a legislator’s position to his constituents for him,” said Ben Tiernan, grassroots coordinator for the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives, as he recounted the incident.

That success story, and others described at a May 1 forum at the Grassroots Summit and Legislative Conference in Washington, show that well-thought-out plans can help co-ops and their members make their voices heard in the political arena.

“It really does give you the kind of backing you’re looking for when you go to talk to your legislator,” said Randy Dwyer, NRECA director of grassroots advocacy.

Huge gains also can come in small places. Rick Nelson, general manager of Custer Public Power District in Broken Bow, Neb., told summit participants he has about 4,500 consumer-owners in his service territory.

He and his board decided to create a political action plan, and they’ve recruited a whopping 3,000 political advocates, despite a paucity of high-speed broadband as a mass outreach tool.

Print ads, radio programs, newsletter columns, letters to the editor and booths at fairs and farm shows have helped in recruiting, he said, with the common theme of “Let’s make sure Washington hears central Nebraska.”

Tiernan said co-ops in the Hawkeye State are engaged in across-the-board political activity, all aimed at reminding lawmakers how their energy policies will affect rank-and-file member-owners.

“This is reaching out to your legislators, letting them know that you are the energy expert in the district,” he said. “They’re looking for people to get information from.”