As a freshman congressman, Jim Matheson was just getting to know his congressional district in Utah when the state legislature pulled the old switcheroo.
It couldn’t have worked out any better for him.
In 2000, Matheson won election to the U.S. House of Representatives from Utah’s 2nd District, which consisted of the urban-suburban area of Salt Lake County. Soon after he took office, lawmakers redrew congressional boundaries on the basis of the 2000 census and replaced Salt Lake County with all or parts of 14 counties in rural southern and eastern Utah.
That meant Matheson had an important new set of constituents—the state’s electric cooperatives.
“It was the beginning of a remarkable relationship because as I met with the various co-ops around rural Utah, I quickly learned that they knew what was going on in their communities. They were so plugged in,” says Matheson, who won a narrow, hard-fought victory in the redrawn district in 2002 en route to seven terms in Congress.
“My initial relationship was to learn about them and their roles in the communities as electric co-ops, but my relationship with them grew well beyond that. They became a valuable guidepost for me to reach out to on issues that might not have anything to do with the co-ops— just to say, ‘What do people think in your community?’”
In July, the bond with electric co-ops that started 15 years ago came full circle when Matheson joined NRECA as the association’s sixth CEO. It’s an ideal position for the 56-year-old native of Salt Lake City who never saw himself as a lifer in the House of Representatives, instead following the model of his father, Scott, who was governor of Utah from 1977 to 1985.
“He believed elected public service should be something you do for part of your life. It should not be your whole career. You would have experience in other aspects of the community, be involved in elected office, and then you’d go back into the community again,” says Matheson, who retired from the House in 2015.
A Co-op Connection
Mike Peterson first met Matheson when he was running for Congress. He was quickly impressed.
“I knew he had some experience working on energy issues as a consultant, so I thought, ‘This guy already understands energy and business. He just needs to learn about electric co-ops,’” says Peterson, executive director of the Utah Rural Electric Association (statewide) and NRECA’s Utah director.
Peterson took Matheson, when he was a new congressman, to an annual meeting of Moon Lake Electric Association in Roosevelt, Utah, and found that other co-op members had the same first impression.
“He fit in so well with the people,” he says. “Everyone liked him and wanted to be around him. It was natural from the start. Once elected, our co-ops had some specific challenges involving federal lands, and Jim jumped right in to help solve the problems.”
Matheson, who served on the House Energy and Commerce Committee in Congress, says he gained even more appreciation for co-ops once he started digging into the details. Garkane Energy Cooperative, based in Loa, Utah, reached out to him for assistance in dealing with federal officials when it was upgrading to a 138-kilovolt transmission line through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
“I worked with [recently retired CEO] Carl Albrecht at Garkane Energy,” Matheson says. “He asked me, as a member of Congress, if I could help at least get the federal government to give him some attention because he had been working this for a long time without getting an adequate response.”
Matheson also joined forces with Dixie Escalante Rural Electric Association (now Dixie Power) in St. George, Utah, when it faced a similar problem trying to site a transmission line into Beaver Dam in Arizona.
“So I actually had a chance to work on substantive issues with co-ops. All those relationships and all those activities were really positive and really rewarding,” Matheson says. “They led to a relationship of trust with the co-ops, which I’ll always remember.”
He sees a parallel between his constituent service as a congressman and working with co-op members.
Case in point: Matheson took the job of constituent contact seriously compared to some of his colleagues who sent one-size-fits-all letter responses.
“I decided there was real value to developing a thoughtful response when people wrote in. If someone took the time to communicate with their member of Congress, they deserve a thoughtful answer,” he says. “It also was a great exercise for me and my congressional staff to understand issues that were of concern to our constituents and write into words what we thought about them. It made us better informed. It made us a better office.”
He plans to style his accessibility and openness as NRECA CEO in the same fashion.
“I am so excited to travel and meet with folks throughout the country,” Matheson says. “I’ve always valued the opportunity to engage with people and hear what’s on their minds. I think it’s going to make me a much better CEO of NRECA the more I meet with people.
Collaboration, Not Confrontation
Washington County, Utah, had been growing like a weed. Located in the far southwest corner of the state, its population soared from less than 50,000 in 1990 to more than 155,000 in 2015.
More than 80 percent of the land in the county was under federal control, and the strain became apparent. Too many people, too little real estate—a development quandary familiar in many western states, and one that usually leads to endless rounds of name-calling.
“Generally the public lands issues quickly dissolve into a polarized dynamic with only two points of view: One side says, ‘Let’s develop everything,’ and one side says, ‘Let’s preserve everything and do nothing,’” Matheson reflects.
Matheson, a Democrat, worked with Sen. Robert Bennett, a Republican, to flesh out a different approach.
“We went to the community and said, ‘We are not going to come from Washington and tell you what to do. We want to hear from people here.’ It was a very bottom-up process. We asked everyone to sit around the table from their perspective, and we developed 23 different stakeholders— not just a two-dimensional argument, but 23 different points of view on what we should be doing on public lands,” he says.
The process was laborious, involving groups ranging from municipalities to environmentalists. It took five years from start to finish. No one got everything they wanted, but everyone got something.
In the end, the measure placed 256,000 acres off limits to development or energy exploration while letting the government sell 5,000 to 9,000 acres around cities like St. George. The legislation identified transportation and utility corridors that allowed for long-range planning. In March 2009, President Obama signed an omnibus lands bill that included the Washington County provisions, hailed as a model approach for land development.
“Jim is dedicated to the approach of, when there’s a complicated issue to resolve, all points of view need to be at the table and many voices heard,” says Alyson Heyrend, who served as his communications director from 2001 to 2012. “He has said many times that issues are complicated and that there are usually more than just two points of view. He believes it’s important to consider all aspects of the issue.”
Matheson says he believes in the same tactic in his role as NRECA CEO—listen, let everyone have their say, treat all views with respect, and find common ground.
“One of the great attributes of the electric cooperative community is it has not allowed itself to be pulled into the polarized dynamic that affects so much of our politics today,” says Matheson, who was known in Congress for working across the political aisle. “If you want to be effective in getting things done, that’s exactly where you want to be.”
Commitment to Service
The name Matheson goes back generations in Utah public affairs. In addition to his father’s two terms as governor, his grandfather was U.S. attorney for Utah in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
“When my father first ran for governor, we’d usually split up, and my dad would go around with a couple of my other siblings while I traveled a lot of the state with my mother,” Matheson says. “My mother and I went to more of the rural areas throughout Utah.”
“You know, when you’re 16 years old, you just think of your parents as the people who have been raising you. It was fascinating to see another view of them when they would actually perform in public, give speeches, and interact with people. It gave me a whole new context to appreciate who my parents were and what they were about.”
Matheson received a bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard University and a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree in finance and accounting from the University of California, Los Angeles.
Before entering the political arena, he was a project development manager in the independent power industry and also worked at two consulting companies, including his own firm, providing services to large-energy consumers.
As Congress became increasingly partisan during his tenure, the job became more than a little disconcerting at times, he acknowledges.
“I’m not naïve. We’ve had partisanship and polarization at some level throughout our country’s history. But by many metrics, it’s never been as extreme as it is now. So as someone who was always about trying to get something done, it was really frustrating to me to see the institution not function as well as I think it should,” Matheson says. “That’s why we have polls that indicate a very high disapproval of Congress as an institution. The public expects better than what we’re getting. I think it’s in all of our interests to have a better functioning Congress.”
Voice of the Consumer
NRECA President Mel Coleman says he was convinced the association’s board chose “the right guy” in June after an extensive search and interview process.
After watching Matheson at the Regions 1 & 4 meeting in September in Grand Rapids, Mich., he was even more convinced.
In his first address to a large co-op audience—about 800 directors, managers, and key staffers—Matheson set an ambitious goal for electric cooperatives to be the leading voice of the electric industry and rural America.
“He is very good with people, and people clearly respond to him,” Coleman says. “I have been very impressed by his dedication to the cooperative movement and his quick grasp of the issues that we face. There’s no doubt in my mind that he will be an extremely effective advocate for electric cooperatives.”
Matheson says he believes co-ops occupy a unique niche because they are beholden solely to the interests of their members. “We are one of the most effective advocacy organizations in Washington because we’ve kept true to our mission of doing what’s right for the consumer,” he says. “There’s no doubt about it. It’s our 100 percent focus: What is the right thing to do for our consumer-members?”
In today’s fast-changing energy world, that means co-ops have the opportunity to reinforce their role as their members’ trusted energy advisors. Matheson speaks from experience. Someone knocked on the door of his residence recently to see if he wanted to install some solar panels on his roof.
“And I asked, ‘Well, who are you?’” he recalls with a grin. “I didn’t know if this was a real business or some guy selling a few solar panels out of the trunk of his car.”
“To me, co-ops are exceptionally well positioned, in terms of their relationships with their consumer-members, to be the point of information they can trust and get good advice on all kinds of issues,” Matheson says. “Distributed generation, home energy management systems, smart grid technologies … these are all exciting developments, but they’re also pretty overwhelming to the average consumer.”
That outlook is an extension of Matheson’s experience and his problem-solving approach, says Heyrend, his former communications director. “Jim has a deep understanding of the world of energy business finance. As an MBA, he looks always through the lens of what the data and analytics show.”
Just as he did during his years in Congress, Matheson continues to rack up frequent flyer miles as he commutes to his home in Salt Lake City, where his wife is a pediatrician and a son is in high school. The regular air miles give him time to reflect on his personal journey from Utah to Capitol Hill to NRECA.
“One of the reasons that I am so excited about being at NRECA is because it has a community and member focus. So much of what the electric cooperative family does is to create a better life for people. It creates better economic opportunity. So I feel that I am continuing in the role of trying to make the world a better place. It’s consistent with the values that I learned around the family dinner table, and I’m still living it today.”