Mr. Smith Still Goes To Washington

by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Editor

Richard Johnstone
Richard Johnstone

It’s hard to explain why some periods and some places serve as fertile fields for certain endeavors; say, France, for example, as a hotbed for painters in the latter part of the 19th century, or Mississippi as a birthplace for great 20th-century writers. And, of course, there’s our very own Old Dominion as the “Mother of Presidents,” contributing four of the first five Chief Executives, six of the first 10, and seven of the first 12! No other state comes close to this record of leadership given to these United States.

And then there’s 1939, and films. Great films. LOTS of great films. In fact, no other year in cinematic history comes close to 1939 as a wondrous wellspring of great moviemaking. Most folks, of course, are aware that two movies widely regarded as among the best ever made — Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz — were made in this magical year.

But fewer may be aware that one of the greatest Westerns ever made — Stagecoach — and one of the best movie biographies—Young Mr. Lincoln — were also made in 1939. And how about such outstanding films as Goodbye, Mr. Chips; Gunga Din; The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Of Mice and Men; and Wuthering Heights? All made in 1939.

(If you’re tired of all the sludge and slop that pass for programming on the 100-plus channels coming into your TV, consider investing several well-spent evenings just watching these great films.)

And then there was that other magical movie from 1939, the one about idealistic, patriotic young Jefferson Smith, appointed to fill a vacant Senate seat, who goes to our nation’s capital to represent his constituents and fight for his principles. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is one of Jimmy Stewart’s finest roles, full of drama and humor, passionate patriotism, and gritty determination to fight petty partisanship and advance the common good. We could use more Mr. Smiths in Washington, now more than ever.

Thankfully, electric cooperatives have our very own “Mr. Smith,” and “Mrs. Smith” too. And fortunately, there are several of them at each co-op, in the form of men and women elected to serve on their co-op’s board of directors, setting policy and looking out for the interests of their fellow member-consumers in a business that is literally owned by those it serves. Many of these elected cooperative leaders make a trek each May to Washington, D.C., to speak out for the folks they represent back home.

Last month, two dozen cooperative board members from nine of Virginia’s electric cooperatives journeyed to Washington for two days of whirlwind visits that included personal meetings with both of our U.S. senators, John Warner and George Allen, as well as with six of our 11 House members. These local co-op board members were looking out for your interests on several important issues that affect your electric business, and your electric service.

One of these issues is maintaining a sufficient pool of loan funds to allow cooperatives to build the necessary infrastructure to meet a growing demand for electricity. These loans are made through a program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service, or RUS (formerly the REA, for those who remember the early history of rural electric co-ops). Another important issue is maintaining a strong federal power-marketing program, which in Virginia includes the Kerr and Philpott dams in the Southside region that provide reasonably priced hydroelectric power for many of our state’s electric cooperatives.

Another issue is making sure that electric cooperative power suppliers are treated fairly as they ship coal to power stations over tracks that are owned by a single rail carrier. In such a situation where there is no choice of rail shipper, there is therefore no competition, and often much higher rail charges. This issue is often called the “captive rail shipper” issue.

Your co-op representatives also encouraged Congress to expand a program created under last year’s Energy Policy Act, and authorize additional amounts for clean renewable-energy bonds. These bonds will make it more affordable for electric cooperatives to invest in renewable-energy projects.

These issues are pretty complicated and pretty esoteric, too. But they’re very important to your electric utility and its mission to provide you with the best possible service at the lowest possible cost.

There are many benefits to being a member-consumer of an electric cooperative: Electric service provided at cost. The return of any “margins,” or profits, to the members. Having a say-so in your utility. Responsive service from local employees. Jobs and dollars staying in your community.

And, as one of the best benefits of all, there’s the comfort of having elected members from your community representing your best interests in the boardroom, and even in the hallowed halls of Washington, D.C.

Like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, most electric cooperatives were created in the late 1930s. Today, both still resonate with the honest passion and dogged determination that come from good people representing other good people in a very good cause. That cause may be Mr. Smith bravely fighting the nation’s entrenched powerbrokers, but it’s also your co-op’s board members fighting for legislation to save you money, or improve your service.


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