Politics, Presidents and Power
September 25th, 2016 by Jennifer Brown
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Ted Case, executive director of the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association, spends much of his time roaming the halls of the state Capitol in Salem, trumpeting the electric cooperative message to state legislators. Photo by Mike Teegarden

As the 2016 presidential candidates debate current issues facing the country, many rural Americans—whether they know it or not—owe the ease of access to electricity to a man who served in office more than 80 years ago.

But Franklin D. Roosevelt was not the only president who played a large role in electrifying the country.

Ted Case, executive director of the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association, has spent the past three years sharing what he learned as he studied numerous presidents’ roles in making public power what it is today.

Case began his research while working as a lobbyist for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association on Capitol Hill.

“NRECA had a wonderful library in Arlington,” he says. “Iconic photos of leaders and presidents lined the walls. It started me thinking. I didn’t know a whole lot of the history and where the presidents fit into it. I realized there was not a real body of work on it.”

His interest led him to presidential libraries around the country, where curators brought him boxes filled with letters and speeches—including original notes—from such presidents as Lyndon B. Johnson and Harry Truman.

“It was just fascinating what I found—things no one else had uncovered,” Case says. “Electric co-ops had more impact on the presidential campaigns than I imagined.”

His work culminated in “Power Plays,” a 250-page book that explains how several U.S. presidents—from Roosevelt through George H. Bush—transformed rural electrification.

“The book has struck a chord with people,” Case says. “People have come up to me and said, ‘I was there on Truman’s whistle-stop tour.’”

A 52-year-old Klamath Falls, Oregon, native, Case has a bachelor’s degree in communications and political science from Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, and a master’s degree in fiction writing from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.

“I’ve always been interested in the presidency, even as a kid,” he says. “In college, I started to think, ‘I want to be in D.C.’ I’ve been able to merge my professional life with an inherent interest in the U.S. presidency.”

In 1985, Case’s interest led him to Washington, D.C., for Ronald Reagan’s second presidential inauguration. Due to bad weather, the outdoor proceedings were cancelled and moved indoors.

Disappointed, Case was determined.

“I called up and asked if I could get into the inauguration,” he says. “I was asked, ‘Are you a member of Congress? No? Then you’re not invited.’”

“I didn’t get inside,” he says with a laugh.

In 1986, Case became a staff member for Congressman Bob Smith during his bid for re-election. Smith’s Eastern Oregon territory covers 90,000 square miles and includes 10 electric cooperatives. Case’s position took him on another route to D.C. the following year.

“NRECA approached me about a job lobbying issues such as the federal hydroelectric program,” he says. “It was a difficult decision to leave Capitol Hill because it’s an exciting place to work. I really toiled over it. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”

He spent 11 years in D.C. before returning to his home state.

Since 2008, Case has been executive director of the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association. He describes his work as “largely legislative,” and spends a lot of time at the state Capitol in Salem when the legislature is in session.

Several times a year, he takes his work to Washington, D.C.

Case says his work with politicians is an uphill climb.

“My biggest challenge is convincing legislators and other leaders that electric cooperatives are locally controlled and don’t need mandates telling them how to do business,” Case says. “It’s also a challenge to convince a Portland-centric legislature that rural Oregon should have a voice, too.”

Many urban Oregonians who do not get their electricity from the Bonneville Power Administration think they do, “which allows me to describe how different we are,” Case says. “We’re 95 percent carbon free, but we don’t get a lot of credit for that contribution. Hydropower doesn’t get the respect it deserves.”

Case is working on his next book project, “Poles, Wires and War,” which takes a close look at LBJ, electric cooperatives and Vietnam. Johnson strongly supported electric co-ops as he watched them transform his home state of Texas. He believed co-ops could do the same in Vietnam, and supported pilot projects to electrify the country.

“People have no idea the extent that rural electrification played a role in the Vietnam War,” Case says. “Lyndon Johnson was convinced it was a key part of his campaign to win the South Vietnamese’s hearts and minds. He thought they could beat back communism. They tried, but with tragic results. The Viet Cong blew up dams and cut power lines. It’s not the same as Texas Hill Country.”

Although Case’s interest in politics remains behind the scenes—he has no interest in running for office—several family members have served the public. His aunt, Mary Lou Reed, was a state senator in the Idaho Legislature. Her son, Bruce Reed, served as Joe Biden’s chief of staff and President Bill Clinton’s domestic policy adviser. Another relative, Bryant Williams, served as a Klamath County commissioner.

Case’s concerns for the future of electric co-ops are forefront in his mind as the presidential election approaches.

“How do we become relevant to the White House again?” he asks. “We have to get on their radar screen and ask, ‘What is your plan for reliable, affordable power?’”

For more information, go to tedcaseauthor.com.