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Matheson Leads NRECA In Era of Big Change For Utilities

Matheson Leads NRECA In Era of Big Change For Utilities


Jim Matheson, chief executive officer of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, is in The Guinness Book of World Records.

In conversation he points that up, as though it dwarfs his other achievements. He won his fleeting celebrity at East High School in Salt Lake City, when he was 17, with the largest game of musical chairs: 1,789. Alas, his record has been surpassed but his achievement is enshrined in the 1979 edition of the world records book.

On the face of it, Matheson has lived a life which has been one of straight-line achievement, not musical chairs. From schools in Salt Lake City, Matheson went to Harvard for a BA and UCLA for an MBA. Then business, then Congress and finally the spacious office — physically and metaphorically — which he now occupies.

He told me about the musical chairs with relish when I went to see him in the NRECA building in Arlington, Virginia.

Arlington, across the Potomac from Washington, D.C., is what might be called an edge city — and a boom town. Once it was the home of pawn brokers, appliance repair shops, struggling ethnic restaurants, and a lot of apartments and small houses. Until the riots of 1968, the only thing most Washingtonians knew about Arlington was that it is the location of Arlington National Cemetery.

Now Arlington is thriving commercially and residentially. Gone are most of the little shops, and Arlington is a de facto city, favoring business and professionals. Demand for apartments is burgeoning — even more so since Amazon
AMZN
chose Arlington as its second headquarters. Big stuff.

NRECA Is A Landlord

So it is especially fortunate that one of its landlords is the NRECA. With enormous perspicacity, it moved from the nation’s capital to Arlington in 1994 and built two buildings on Wilson Boulevard — Arlington’s main street. A people-inviting plaza separates them: It is a mini-park with access to the buildings and several restaurants, called Electric Cooperative Plaza.

Matheson tells me with pride that the NRECA only occupies a few floors and that rents from the rest help in keeping down membership dues and fees.

I came to the headquarters on Wilson Blvd. to meet Matheson and to try to get the measure of the man who runs the NRECA. The other two electricity trade associations have just gotten new leaders: Dan Brouillette at the Edison Electric Institute and Scott Corwin at the American Public Power Association. With seven years under his belt at the NRECA, Matheson is the veteran of the group.

I had met Matheson before, once briefly at the National Press Club and several times at United States Energy Association virtual press briefings.

This was the first time we met at length, and my reaction to the smile, the easy charm was that he should be in the movies. The man is tall and handsome. In my experience of decades of interviewing, there is politeness and there is charm. Matheson possesses an abundance of the latter quality.

He served 14 years in the House of Representatives as the only Democrat from Utah. He was born to politics and born to being under pressure as a Democrat in a very conservative state: His father, also a Democrat, was governor.

In the House, Matheson co-chaired the Blue Dog Coalition of Democrats, conservative on many issues. He opposed abortion but favored stem cell research; he opposed Obamacare but voted against its repeal.

Matheson survived redistricting in Utah. When he left Congress, it was his choice to do so.

He was close to and to some extent was mentored by the legendary Michigan Rep. John Dingell, known for his tough investigations and for his take-no-prisoners handling of witnesses who testified before him on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Clearly, Matheson admired and learned the ways of Congress from the wily Dingell. He speaks of Dingell, who died in 2019, with respect and affection.

Unlike other Washington-based trade associations, the NRECA is a giant service organization, divided into departments — only one of which is lobbying — that take care of a lot of aspects of the housekeeping for cooperative utilities. Its budget is a whopping $266 million, compared with $90 million at EEI and $36 million at APPA
PPA
. The NRECA handles everything from information programs to the health insurance and social welfare aspects of working in an electric cooperative.

Matheson Pushes Big Issues

Matheson has chosen to push the big issues, especially rural broadband penetration and supply issues like the pole transformer shortage. He and the association have trumpeted alarm over the future demand versus supply of electricity across the country. He sees this as a clear and present danger, something to lose sleep over. He hears about growth, steady growth, from his members regularly,

Matheson is a through-and-through Westerner, but only the lizard-skin cowboy boots he was wearing betrayed it. He tells me that he loves the outdoors but beside horseback riding and skiing, he doesn’t follow a lot of traditional Western activities. He doesn’t hunt or fish. “I just like to be outdoors,” he tells me.

He is a Mormon but doesn’t make an issue of it. When I asked him about his faith, he said the family values which it cherishes are important to him and he believes they are good values for a society. His wife, Amy, is a pediatrician and they have two sons, William, 25, and Harris, 17.

After graduating from business school, Matheson joined a company that developed merchant power plants. His love of rural electric cooperatives — there are seven in Utah — came after he became a congressman.

After leaving the House, Matheson worked as a lobbyist at the eminent Washington law firm of Squire Patton Boggs. “I didn’t like being a hired gun,” he says.

So he jumped to the NRECA when his position was offered, after 17 months as a lobbyist. He says he loves the association and its members.

“I really love this job,” he says, as though he feared I wouldn’t believe him. I do believe him.

My questioning of some of the association’s 900 members, scattered around the country, suggests that they love Matheson doing the job. The NRECA rating as an employer on Glassdoor is high — as is rental income from office blocks in Arlington.



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