Rep. Jo Ann Emerson easily won a ninth term as a GOP member of the House last month, receiving 72 percent of the vote in her southeast Missouri district. And she’s the chairwoman of the Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee, a seat she could expect to retain in the 113th Congress.
But when the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association called this fall, Emerson says, she had to listen. In February, she will take over as the trade group’s president, moving from Capitol Hill to the association’s headquarters on a prominent corner in the Ballston area of Arlington County, Va.
Emerson will head an organization with 800 employees split between offices in Virginia and Lincoln, Neb. The trade group has a lobbying team on which it spent just more than $2 million during the first nine months of this year, according to federal lobbying reports. Federal Election Commission records show that, since 2011, the group’s political action committee has distributed more than $1 million to affiliated political committees and contributed $2 million to Democratic and Republican congressional candidates.
In short, the 905 rural and suburban electric cooperatives served by the group have formed a small powerhouse.
Emerson says she has been impressed by the members of the nine electric co-ops in her 28-county district, which not only provide power to homes and businesses but also lead drives in times of natural disasters and community need.
“They are the first people on the scene, the first people setting up the shelters. They are the first group of people doing warm meals for people,” Emerson said last week. “I love the values that they represent, and I always have.”
The organization’s nonprofit electric co-ops trace their roots to a push by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to bring electricity to rural areas. Their service areas range from hamlets populated by a handful of people to farmland-turned-suburbia populated by tens of thousands, in areas that ring Atlanta and Dallas.
By law, co-op customers are also owner-members. Net earnings are shared among the members in the form of capital credits or deductions usually applied to their power bills. Co-ops also can elect to convert the credits to cash and send it to members.
Sixty-five co-ops generate and transmit their own electricity, while the others buy power from federal power producers or on the open market. Overall, the co-ops serve 42 million people in 47 states.
Emerson, a former trade association executive, became a House member after winning a special election in 1996 to finish the term of her late husband, Bill Emerson, who died of cancer.