SAN FRANCISCO—Gene Herritt has a simple definition of politics, and it’s one that carries an important lesson for electric cooperative directors.

S. Eugene Herritt (r), a director at Adams Electric Co-op, explains the importance of political involvement with Stephen M. Brame, a vice president at the Pennsylvania statewide. (Photo By: Steven Johnson)

 “Politics, at its lowest level, is when your 3-year-old daughter will not invite the neighbors’ 3-year-old daughter to her birthday party,” he said during a forum at the 2013 NRECA Directors Conference.

Herritt, a director at Adams Electric Cooperative, Gettysburg, Pa., and former chairman of the Pennsylvania Rural Electric Association board, wasn’t talking about cake. “It’s about relationships,” he quickly pointed out. “It’s about people.”

That’s something to keep in mind because electric co-ops cannot match the big money flashed around during public policy debates at the national and state levels.

But participants at an interactive session on “Mining Political Gold at Your Cooperative” learned they can take steps to forge relationships with elected officials that will pay off for their members.

“Get to know them when they’re running for local office, recorder of deeds, tax collector, whatever the case might be. I’ve never met a politician who doesn’t want to go to the next level,” said Steve Brame, vice president for public affairs and member services at the Pennsylvania statewide. “You have to start it early.”

For example, there’s been an 84 percent turnover in the Pennsylvania legislature during the last decade, providing co-ops with an opportunity to explain the cooperative advantage to dozens of new lawmakers.

“By the time our statewide staff meets these local legislators, in most cases, they’ve met with local co-op directors in their district or maybe they have been to the co-op,” Brame said. “Our co-ops take getting in on the ground floor with new legislators very seriously.”

Randy Dwyer, NRECA director of grassroots advocacy, noted the association offers a toolkit to help co-ops create a strategic political plan and added that some co-ops hold monthly employee meetings devoted solely to political activity.

“Even if you’re frustrated with politics on a personal level, as a director, you’re in a leadership position at your co-op and you have an obligation to be involved,” he said.