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A Conversation with Dan James

(Show intro with mix of layered music, SFX and people talking)

(Music plays in background)

David Wilson: Alright, so this is the first podcast. It’s called, “Energy Pulse Northwest.” We decided to call it that because...

Kevin Wingert: It’s kind of reflective of our role within the region.

Joel Scruggs: We do a lot of interesting and meaningful work.

Wilson: I originally thought this will be a great platform to talk about fish and wildlife projects.

Sarah Smith: And science, innovation, business.

Wingert: I’m Kevin Wingert.

Smith: I’m Sarah Smith with Bonneville Power.

Wilson: I’m David Wilson and you’re not.

Scruggs: And I’m Joel Scruggs and we’re all part of BPA’s Communications team.

Wingert: I’m digging it. What are we going to be talking about today?

Scruggs: Well, it just so happened when we were brainstorming about launching our podcast we happened to be announcing the selection of our new deputy administrator. So we had a chance to sit down with Dan James and get his thoughts about coming on board, what appealed to him about the job. And then people that don’t know him I think they will have a better sense about what’s he’s all about.

Scruggs: Thank you, listeners for joining us. I’m Joel Scruggs. We’re sitting down and chatting with our new deputy administrator, Dan James.

Dan James: Nice to be here.

Scruggs: So, let’s start with the basic bio stuff. Can you tell us a little bit about your story, where were you born and raised?

James: Sure, I was born in Missoula, Montana, shortly after my parents graduated from the university.

(Sample of My Home’s in Montana performed by Uncle-B, Auntie-E and J-Dog)

I grew up in Kalispell, which was a terrific place to grow up; was very active in music and athletics. But I was also the kid that liked social studies. And once I came out to Pacific University in Forest Grove [Oregon], initially because of a football scholarship, I discovered political science as a passion. And that turned into an internship in Washington, D.C. and a job on Capitol Hill working for an Oregon member of Congress, Les AuCoin. And except for my time in Washington [D.C.] and Hoquiam and Kalispell, I’ve lived in Portland. I live in Northeast Portland with my wife Becky, Katie and Julia, and two dogs.

Scruggs: Shifting gears a bit, can you walk us through your career leading up to this point?

James: The common theme for me seems to be working for people of the rural Northwest. After my time working on Capitol Hill and a few more years working at my alma mater, Pacific University, I went to work at the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association. And my job was added just after the first salmon listings  because the board thought that that might be kind of a big issue and that they really ought to staff up a little bit. That was 1992. I spent nine years at PNWA and then went to work in the government affairs practice of Ball Janik, a Portland-based law firm. And I was one of the people that lived in Portland and commuted back and forth between Portland and Washington D.C. And I had the fortune of having clients and projects throughout Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana. Those are the members that I also served when I was with the waterways association. And so, I've always thought essentially about the Bonneville service territory throughout my career.

Scruggs: Let’s talk about PNGC. Some of our listeners may not be familiar with that organization; others probably know you well from it. Can you explain who they are and what they do?

James: Sure, PNGC Power is a Portland-based generation and transmission cooperative, which is a term of art in the co-op world. There are 15 electric co-op members or owners from Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana. And their headquarters are in those states, but they actually serve a total of seven states in the Northwest. PNGC is an aggregator.  So, they hold the contract with BPA and their members contract with PNGC for the power supply. The reason to do that is because some of them need additional resources above what they would acquire from BPA. And so PNGC gets to do it together, as opposed to each of them doing it individually.

(Sample of Come Together performed by The Beatles)

Scruggs: How will your experience best serve you as deputy administrator?

James: Leaving the other key elements of the deputy’s agenda aside, I think I have a good handle on the role that BPA plays in each of the four Northwest states and there are differences and there are nuances. I also think I have a good handle on the evolving role of Northwest governors has played in policy related to BPA,  especially with the emergence of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council and its relationship to Bonneville. I also understand that there was a time when one of the easiest things to make happen in Washington D.C. was to get every representative and Senator from four Northwest states to agree to something related to Bonneville. And I’ve seen the evolution. There are more differences of opinion. The salmon listings have been one of them. And the proliferation of distributed resources/ variable renewables has really changed that dynamic somewhat. It’s made even more complicated now with the emergence of West Coast energy markets and different perspectives based upon the history that we've had the last ten to twenty years.

Scruggs: What’s your most memorable work-related story?

James: Well, there are several but there is one that was very stressful but it had a happy ending. When I was a young staffer on Capitol Hill, I was sent from Congressman AuCoin’s office in the house to walk over to the Senate to pick up Governor [Vic] Atiyeh in Senator [Mark] Hatfield’s office and walk him to the Capitol to meet Congressman AuCoin outside of a secure hearing room. It was in the basement of the Capitol. And I was absolutely sure that I knew where I was going, but in the labyrinth of hallways and passageways in the Capitol I got lost with the Governor of Oregon.

(Sample of mysterious sounding music)

And that was one of the only times that I remember looking down the hallway and not seeing a Capitol Hill policeman or another staffer. And I felt my heart begin to race and beat fast and a little bead of sweat to emerge on my forehead. And the Governor, he began to become a little bit anxious. But we eventually found our way and we weren’t late. But one of the nice things that happened is after I left Capitol Hill and went back to work at Pacific [University], Governor Atiyeh joined the board of trustees. And I got a chance to work with him a few times. And he never failed to remind me that I was the young man that got him lost in the basement of the Capitol. And every time that he would tell that story it would embellish. Before you know it we were lost for days. So, it was a very stressful moment for a young Capitol Hill staffer but I can now smile about it.

(Music with acoustic guitar)

Scruggs: What was the most appealing part about coming to BPA as the new deputy administrator?

James: I’m very committed to public power. I’m all in. And because of my role at PNGC and really going all the way back to being at the waterways association, I see the importance of BPA to our region and the unique gift that we have in terms of the FCRPS [Federal Columbia River Power System]. As I worked closely with so many people at BPA, I was attracted to their commitment to public service and their commitment to the region. When I think about what Bonneville does I think about my neighbors and friends where I grew up in Kalispell, Montana, some of whom are living very well and others who are struggling. And I think about friends that I know that are unemployed loggers who have a hard time paying their bills. And I know that we need to do our jobs right with those people in mind. I also recognize that I’m making a shift from being a representative of a large public utility to one that serves a variety of stakeholders with the variety of legal obligations and moral obligations, I believe. So this is an opportunity for me to take everything that I know to serve the agency and to serve the citizens of the Northwest.  And I’m really excited to get started.

Scruggs: What has it been like for you since we announced you would be our new deputy in early May?

James: It has been humbling in a way. If someone were to ask me what is the most important thing in my work life I would say it’s my community. And that has been public power. It’s been the industries around the river. It’s been working to get to know people who I disagree with. I worked on Capitol Hill at a time when people were friends even if they passionately disagreed about things. I think that personal connections can help get people past their professional disagreements. And that kind of support from the people that I've been working with in the renewables industry, the environmental community, the tribal community demonstrates to me that I have even more of  an opportunity to truly be a representative of the agency for all.

Scruggs: When we look at your responsibilities as deputy, it’s a long list. Notably, you’ll be responsible for leadership, strategic planning, financial management, and regulatory affairs, as well as intergovernmental and public affairs oversight. Understanding you’ll need to settle into the job and take a closer look at things, what’s at the top of your to-do list?

James: There are several key transitions happening throughout the agency. I'm well aware of the gray tsunami that we’re seeing both at Bonneville and externally. And so one of my biggest goals is to spend as much time as possible with the people who have been the institutional memory — spending time with Claudia Andrews and Nancy Mitman, for example, are two. I also look forward to spending time in the field. Those are the people that represent the agency with our stakeholders and with our customers. So I'm hopeful that in my first six months that I would have spent as much time as possible with the people that won’t be here; to learn how they do things and to learn their perspectives. And that doesn't happen with one conversation. It happens just being around. But also to be able to be out there in the field. Those are my priorities. And I also know that I need to be nimble and be willing to flex when other things come up.

Scruggs: Looking at the big picture, what are some of the notable opportunities and challenges you see facing BPA at this time?

James: Every generation of BPA employees has left the agency in a better place and those who are here now have a deep responsibility to honor their legacy by adapting to the new realities and challenges. If I were to think about one thing that will always be in the back of my mind at this position is what does BPA need to do in working with the region and with all stakeholders to become cost competitive as we approach the end of the current long-term contracts. To me, that’s the lens that we need to be looking out our obligations through.

(Music with acoustic guitar)

Scruggs: What do you expect out of BPA employees as the new deputy administrator?

James: For me, the biggest priority is a commitment to safety and excellence in all that we do. And in a business like BPA where there are issues that are a matter of life and death. I think that always taking the time to do it right is paramount. And another one is that I will always remember that I’m spending someone else’s money. It’s my unemployed friend who lives in a trailer at Columbia Falls, Montana, and has to think about paying his electric bill, as well as feeding his kids and putting gas in his pickup. And keeping the big picture in mind as we focus on the minutia of our day-to-day work — to understand your role in this big thing even as you think about whatever it is you have to accomplish by the end of the day or before lunch.


Scruggs: Which leadership trait is most important to you and why?

James: Honesty and trust, empathy; doing what’s right even when no one will ever know what you did or didn’t do. I’ve got an anecdote for when I was a student at Pacific. I worked in the football office and one of my jobs was to call potential recruits. And one time I went into the office I saw that my call sheet for that night were Montana prefixes that included Missoula and Bozeman. And I thought, oh, this is a great opportunity to call my buddies at Montana and Montana State. And then I looked up on the wall and there was this little card and had this statement, “Character is what you do when no one’s looking.” And that’s always stayed with me. What do we do just because it’s the right thing to do, even if no one will ever know. To me, that is the sign of a good leader.

Scruggs: What are your biggest pet peeves?

James: Dishonesty, hypocrisy, mean people and probably the phrase that I like the least is someone who begins a statement by saying “somebody should,” because that always means I think this is important, but somebody else should do it. I’d like to think that if I think something is important and I have the capability of doing it I ought to be willing to step up and do it myself.

Scruggs: So, what inspires you?

James: There are some people that inspire me. My mother is the hero of my life. My brother, the music teacher. My wife and daughters, who are strong, capable women. People who give selflessly. I have a friend in Northeast Portland who gave a kidney to a friend. And I’m not sure that it will ever be possible for me to give that kind of gift. So that will always be a touchstone for me. The hymns of the Episcopal Church Hymnal inspire me.

(Episcopal Church Hymn)

I sing them to myself in times of stress or sorrow or fear.

(Sample of Thunder Road performed by Bruce Springsteen)

And the music of Bruce Springsteen. And then finally, the mountains of western Montana.

Scruggs: All of those give us more insight into who you are. Thank you for sharing that.

Scruggs: So as we wrap up, can you tell us more about your musical family and your passion for music?

James: My family and I go to the Trinity Episcopal Cathedral here in Portland. And I’m on a brief hiatus from the choir, but I’ve had the benefit of singing and touring with two longtime BPA employees, Pat Zimmer and Wayne Litzenberger. By the way, I’m the only non-music teacher in my immediate family. So I refer to myself as the black sheep.

My dad was a high school choir director and football coach.  He also won the Metropolitan Opera auditions for the West Coast when I was little boy, but chose not to go to New York but to raise us in the mountains of Western Montana because that’s where he was from. My parents will say that their greatest legacy next to my brother and I is being two of the founders of the Glacier Chorale and Symphony, which is located in Kalispell.

My heroes were always tenors who played linebacker. When I was in junior high one of the big guys in Kalispell, who I especially respected, was Larry Bekkedahl. He was a longtime leader in Transmission here at BPA. And he was linebacker who sang tenor.  That was the kind of guy I saw myself being. And I never failed to try to embarrass him to talk about him as my hero when I was in junior high.
And this isn’t about me, but my sister-in-law, Eve, that works here, she and my brother, and a guy my brother played rock and roll with in college, have a children’s group called, “Uncle-B, Auntie-E and J-Dog.” And they have played here down at the children’s center. And Bill and Eve sang for the BPA 75th [Anniversary] up at Bonneville Dam. So I get to bask in the radiance.

(Sample of Save Electricity performed by Uncle-B, Auntie-E and J-Dog)

(Sample of Star-Spangled Banner performed by Alfie Boe)

I have sung the national anthem at some meetings. But most of the time people don’t really think of me that way, so there is a certain amount of, “What’s Dan James doing?” But kind of coming back to my family, our dad did it at all of my football games, all of our wrestling tournaments. So wherever we were, everybody knew if Doug James was around he could sing the national anthem. And so I was going to do it at the meeting of one of the statewide utility trade associations. And just before I went on, my brother called me …

(Phone ringing SFX)

And he goes, “Remember, remember what Dad would tell you. Think of your first note and then go three down because you can really put yourself in a world of hurt at the end if you start too high.” So, think about it, right? It ends really high and if you don’t start right you can be in a bad place. So, I do that occasionally and it’s always an honor.

(Sample of Star-Spangled Banner performed by Alfie Boe)

Scruggs: And before we step away from the topic of music, what are your top three Springsteen songs?

James: “Land of Hope and Dreams” is one. “Should I Fall Behind” is another one. I actually heard the words read at a wedding once because it’s a lovely song and it’s about staying together. And I think probably “Thunder Road” would be third. “Land of Hope and Dreams” though it kind of weaves in my faith. The live version is even better.

(Sample of Land of Hope and Dreams performed by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band)

Scruggs: Any other hobbies and interests that you want to share?

James: Sure, I really like to travel. I’m a history nut. I’m a political junkie. I love going to hear live music of all kinds. I grew up hunting and fishing and I really hope to return to fishing. And I would say that my happy place is western Montana where I can spend time at our cabin up in Glacier [National] Park.

Scruggs: What do you think is the best thing about living in the Pacific Northwest?

James: The only other place that I have lived is Washington D.C. And I wouldn’t pretend to say that that’s a normal place. But a lot more focus seems to be put on what you do, your job, your home, your degree, and your status. I think that we place a greater emphasis on the other quality of life issues here in the Northwest. And for me, I get to live in progressive Northeast Portland but think about people in the areas that we serve. So that’s really the best of both worlds.

Scruggs: Any final thoughts for our listeners?

James: I hope that people will come up and introduce themselves to me, no matter what, no matter where I am. And I hope that people will be willing to teach me. I hope they will be patient with me. And Bonneville is an agency full of smart people, most of whom had other options but they have chosen to be here, as have I, and I respect that and say thank you for that.

Scruggs: Thank you for helping our listeners get to know you better, Dan. We look forward to seeing you out there.

James: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

(Sample of Land of Hope and Dreams performed by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band)

Wingert: Wow, Joel. That was pretty cool. I really enjoyed that interview.

Scruggs: Yeah, he’s one of those people; you talk to him for five minutes and you feel like you’ve known him for years. And he’s really excited to get started. So I think we’re very fortunate to have him.

(Theme music)

Wilson: So, later on this summer we’re going to have more podcasts.

Wingert: Yeah, I’m really excited about what’s coming up next. I had a chance to go hang out with the folks at our high-voltage lab in Vancouver. And they have one of the coolest jobs. They get to make lightning.

(Testing and lightning sound)

Scruggs: It’s myth buster type stuff.

(Sample of Grand Coulee Dam performed by Woody Guthrie)

Wilson: And then we’re also going to dig a little deeper into the Woody Guthrie story. We’re going to talk to the author who wrote the most recent book about Woody Guthrie.

Scruggs: About his employment.

Smith: His 26 songs in a month at BPA; all about the Columbia River.

Smith: Thanks for listening.

(Sample of Grand Coulee Dam performed by Woody Guthrie)

Wilson: Energy Pulse Northwest is a production of the Bonneville Power Administration.