Making electric connections

Brian McCormack’s new job means becoming a community organizer of sorts. The former Bush administration aide is the new vice president for political and external affairs at the Edison Electric 
Institute (EEI), which represents the nation’s for-profit power companies.

McCormack — who held several White House jobs, including aide to Dick Cheney — will seek to leverage outside support for the trade group.

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That means collaborating with governors, mayors, state lawmakers and others to help tackle Edison’s goals in Washington.

McCormack’s position at EEI is new. The group’s leadership “was interested in having a more strategic approach to various stakeholder relationships, elected leader relationships that we have as an organization,” he said.

“So much federal legislation and regulation [is] implemented at the state and local level,” McCormack said Wednesday at EEI’s office on Pennsylvania Avenue.

The plan: “Making sure that … people are educated about it, engaged about it and, where possible, turn them into advocates for how to influence the policy as it is being considered on the Hill,” he said.

McCormack is taking the field for EEI as the power industry grapples with a number of pivotal, politically contentious issues.

Those include looming climate-change regulations, several other pending Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules and new controls on derivatives trading that will affect EEI members. The group has warned of a regulatory onslaught coming from EPA and the climate change rules aren’t even the biggest worry for the group. 

“In the utility industry, we’re even more concerned near-term about regulations that are coming down on coal ash, on clean water, on mercury and hazardous air pollutants. All of these regulations, in series, are going to add billions and billions of dollars to our customers’ costs,” EEI President Tom Kuhn told E&ETV in early February.

At the same time, the White House and various top Republicans are floating (and already tussling over) several big proposals. Republicans and some centrist Democrats want to scuttle or delay EPA’s climate rules — proposals that EEI isn’t directly weighing in on for now. President Obama, meanwhile, has floated a “clean energy standard” that would require utilities to expand generation from low-carbon sources.

Although McCormack’s work will be primarily with state and local officials, he has some key Capitol Hill ties. McCormack’s last job at the White House was deputy assistant to the president for strategic initiatives and external affairs, where he reported to Barry Jackson, now chief of staff to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Before that, he was a top official with the Office of Public Liaison, where he worked under Karl Rove on outreach to businesses on issues and first met Kuhn.

Jackson said McCormack was an effective member of the White House team. 

“Brian’s years in the administration were defined by an extraordinary ability to figure out the path to success, regardless of the task. His broad network of friends and allies, the range of jobs he filled and his understanding of the crossroads of politics and policy made him the go-to guy for the team and a trusted counselor,” Jackson said in a statement to The Hill.

While an EEI spokesman said McCormack wouldn’t be lobbying for the group, his deep GOP ties could be an asset. 

One energy lobbyist noted that EEI currently faces political hurdles in the GOP-controlled House and in the Senate, where the Democratic majority shrank in the last election. The group last year lent cautious support to a modified cap-and-trade bill floated by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). Kuhn even appeared at the senators’ May 2010 press conference announcing the legislation, which ultimately sputtered and died.

“That has really pissed off the Senate Republicans and particularly irritated the House Republicans,” the lobbyist noted. Mandatory emissions curbs have become radioactive in GOP circles.

In early 2009, when Democrats had a much stronger hand on Capitol Hill, EEI hired Brian Wolff — who headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and advised then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — as a top lobbyist.

EEI also faces battles on its left flank on issues such as the stringency of EPA rules and proposals to require expanded renewable power generation.

“EEI has never publicly endorsed any federal proposal to increase the deployment of renewables,” notes Marchant Wentworth of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who has clashed with EEI in the past on renewable energy bills.

The diverse membership of EEI also presents a challenge, as it can be difficult to get all the companies on the same page. 

The interests of EEI members tend to reflect factors like the sources of electricity they sell. Coal-based giants such as American Electric Power, for instance, might have a different agenda than a nuclear power heavyweight such as Exelon, whose chairman, John Rowe, has been a cheerleader for climate legislation. Views on renewable energy also vary by company.

McCormack, however, has navigated fractious terrain before, during policy and political work that took him from Capitol Hill to the Bush-Cheney campaign and then to the White House and Iraq.

The Pennington, N.J., native —who went to college at Idaho’s Boise State — got his start in 1997 working for then-Sen. Dirk Kempthorne (R-Idaho).

He subsequently worked on Kempthorne’s successful campaign to be Idaho governor and in the Kempthorne administration. He worked on the Bush presidential campaign in 2000, where he met Dick Cheney and followed him to the White House.

McCormack went to Iraq in 2003 as an aide to L. Paul Bremer, the White House envoy who ran the Coalition Provisional Authority.

In an interview Wednesday, McCormack shrugged off any direct comparison between navigating the thicket of interests in post-invasion Iraq and working with stakeholders in the United States. But some lessons are transferable, he said.

“You had a lot of different voices, and you had to be able to help cut through the clutter and synthesize down what it is we were actually trying to achieve and whether it was in the realm of the possible and then how do you implement that,” McCormack said.

Kuhn, in a statement, said McCormack’s record meshes nicely with EEI’s goals.

“Brian has an impressive record in the area of coalition building — bringing together diverse stakeholders from across the country to help reinforce policy objectives in Washington,” Kuhn said. “This will be a major element of EEI’s advocacy efforts as the industry transforms to cleaner, more efficient generation and a smart grid.”

McCormack, for his part, said he’s excited to get into the mix.

“It is a great opportunity. It is an important industry because of the product that we provide to the ultimate end entity, which is the consumer,” he said Wednesday.

“There are a lot of exciting things happening in the electricity sector, whether it is electric vehicles or smart-grid, smart meters,” he added. “We are transforming, and we have a great story to tell.”