Electric co-ops benefit from connections in the Legislature

Alabama Living Magazine

By Minnie Lamberth

House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, isn’t the only elected official with connections to the electric cooperative community. Two state representatives and one state senator also have strong relationships with the co-op world.

Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter addresses the House of Representatives after his election.

State Rep. Donna Givens, R-Loxley, had a 47-year career with Baldwin EMC before she retired to run for the House District 64 seat and represent central Baldwin County.

After her high school graduation, Givens began working part-time at the drive-up window to fill in for an employee out on maternity leave. When the new mother elected not to return, Givens was asked if she wanted to stay on the job at the co-op. Because this would mean adjusting her plans for college, she had a big decision to make. 

Donna Givens thanks the Alabama Rural Electric Association for presenting her with the Jack Jenkins Award in 2018 for her service to electric cooperatives.

“My daddy said, ‘What better place could you work once you finish your degree? You’ve got the ideal place.’” She took the job, adding, “I did my schooling at night.”

Givens served in a number of roles, including keypunch operator, collections and special projects. In 1998, she took on a newly created position in governmental affairs.

“This was new for Baldwin EMC and the state of Alabama,” she says. Though there’d been a statewide governmental affairs position with the Alabama Rural Electric Association of Cooperatives (AREA), which publishes Alabama Living, Givens explained that Baldwin EMC was the first co-op to create the position at the local level. The job was a great fit for her, she says. “I loved it up until the day I retired.”

With her November 2022 election to the House of Representatives, Givens believes her service to constituents will benefit from the great relationships she’s built in her community and in the Legislature, as well as her background in economic development.

Rep. Van Smith has served on the board of Central Alabama Electric Cooperative since 1994.

State Rep. Van Smith, R-Clanton, is a retired educator first elected to the House of Representatives in 2019 to fill an unfinished term for House District 42, which covers parts of Chilton and Autauga counties. He was elected to his first full term this past November. He has served on the board of trustees for Central Alabama Electric Cooperative since 1994 and, as an extension of that service, he has filled terms on both the PowerSouth and AREA boards.

Smith says his respect for co-op trustees began when he was a young educator teaching agriculture at Selma High School. “I saw young people who were getting to go to leadership workshops provided by our electric co-op,” he says. His exposure to youth tour plus other leadership workshops made an impression. Later, when he became principal at Billingsley School, he says, “We were recommending young people to go to those workshops as well.”

As he learned more about the co-op, he said he admired the trustees’ willingness to serve. “When I was given the opportunity to do that, I was thankful to be considered,” Smith says.

Smith also sees ways he is bringing his co-op experience to the State House. “The opportunity to do things that benefit the entire group – that’s the cooperative way,” Smith says. “We band together for the benefit of all.” 

Noting that cooperatives work to keep the quality of power high and the cost as low as possible, he believes that mindset can be useful as elected officials look for what can benefit the state. “Yet we want to do it at a cost that doesn’t penalize anyone.”

Sen. Clyde Chambliss speaks to Baldwin EMC Board Chairman Peggy Vanover Barnes after participating in a legislative panel during a past Alabama Rural Electric Association Summer Conference.

In the upper chamber, state Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, elected in 2014 to the District 30 seat, also has co-op ties. Earlier in his career, Chambliss was working as an engineering consultant in Montgomery, and Central Alabama Electric Cooperative was one of his clients. Among his projects, he worked on preliminary layouts during the initial stages of developing Interstate Business Park, a commercial and retail development in Pine Level.

Later, he was invited to join the staff, and his role expanded into manager of business and community development. He worked for the co-op for several years prior to launching his own firm, Chambliss Engineering, in 2002. Even then, he continued to have a relationship with CAEC while he was serving on the Autauga County Commission. His first of three terms began in 1996, and he served as chairman from 2000 until 2008.

One takeaway from his experience with CAEC, Chambliss says, is the knowledge he gained about the district he represents, which currently covers areas of Autauga, Elmore, Chilton and Coosa counties. “I was able to learn the communities of four primary counties that the co-op serves and the people of the communities and the needs. Then it so happens the district I was in changed, and it was a very close resemblance of the co-op’s territory,” he says. 

“What it also helped me see was the wide-ranging needs of my district – which has some of the fastest growing areas (as well as) areas that struggle. I have all of that in my district, and those needs are very, very different.”

This insight into the people and places of the communities he represents “has been invaluable,” he says.

Historical legacy

While helping photographer Bryan Carter set up a cover photo shoot for this month’s article on House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, Alabama Living editor Lenore Vickrey pulled a random book from the historical volumes stored on the shelves of the speaker’s office in the Alabama State Capitol.  It was a compilation of the “General Laws of the Legislature of Alabama” passed during the sessions of 1947. Ledbetter was happy to pose with the volume at his ceremonial desk, and curiously opened the book to the first page.  Something caught his eye: “Look at this,” he said, pointing to a name on the first page. “There’s the last speaker from DeKalb County, W. M. Beck.” Irony? Maybe so. Rep. Beck, who was from Ft. Payne, indeed served as speaker from 1947 to 1951, during James E. “Big Jim” Folsom’s first term as governor. Seventy-six years later, another DeKalb County native  is proud to carry on the legacy representing his home district while also leading the Alabama House, just as his predecessor did seven decades ago.

Ledbetter points out a familiar name to editor Lenore Vickrey. Photo by Carter Photography & Design


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