- Colette Honorable
- Position: Partner at Reed Smith LLP; Senior Fellow at Bipartisan Policy Center; Senior Fellow at Brookings Institute.
- Tenure: Appointed to Arkansas Public Service Commission in 2007; Served as Interim Chair in 2008; Served as Chairman from 2011-2015; President of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners from 2013-2014; Commissioner of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission from 2015-2017.
- School: BA from University of Memphis; Juris Doctorate from University of Arkansas at Little Rock School of Law.
It was the spring of 2017 and only two sitting Commissioners out of five sat at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. FERC is used to being shorthanded, and while this was a particularly shorthanded period, it might not have been notable except for one thing: the last two sitting Commissioners were women.
One of those women was Colette Honorable. She's used to being first in many things, especially as an African-American woman coming from Arkansas, a hotbed of civil rights more than half-a-century ago.
"Unfortunately I was the first of many things, which was sad because in the 21st century, we should be past that, and I don't think it's anything to brag about," Honorable said.
Honorable's parents divorced when she was young, leaving it to her mother to raise five children. This, Honorable says, was a key part of her success, especially as she eyed a degree in law.
"I have been raised to do more, work harder and do better because unfortunately people do look at you and they do arrive at thoughts about you already," Honorable said. "We all do that too," she added.
She's been called "marshall" and "eagle-eye," because "I like things a certain way," she says. Her seriousness can be traced back as far as recess when she was in fifth grade.
"I didn't go to recess ... I thought the kids were silly," Honorable recalled. "I asked to work in the office, and I was happy doing that. I love having fun ... I love people and I love travel, but I'm always serious about my work."
That seriousness underpins how Honorable approached her work as a Commissioner, and then Chair, of the Arkansas Public Service Commission after being appointed in 2008. Energy wasn't her first choice after just being chosen to serve on the cabinet for the then newly-elected Gov. Michael Beebe.
In fact, Honorable recalls self-doubt in her journey. But she boldly approached the then-Attorney General Mark Pryor and said she wanted to work with him one day.
This was when she was a special assistant in the AG's office. Pryor remembered her confidence and asked if she would serve as his Chief of Staff in the AG's office, passing over other deputy AGs and special assistants. At the time, she tried to refuse. But nonetheless, he persisted.
"He said 'Listen, let me stop you right here. I'm not giving you anything; you deserve this. You worked hard for it,' ... I said 'okay, I'm going to go to work.' "
She later worked for the subsequent AG, and then Gov. Mike Beebe asked her to serve on his cabinet. About eight months in, he appointed Honorable to a vacant seat on the Arkansas Public Service Commission, an entity she knew very little about.
''It was a tremendous learning curve … actually at first I thought I didn't know if it would be a good fit for me because it seemed at times a little mundane and honestly at times a little dry," Honorable said. But she soon hit her stride, just as renewable energy and natural gas began to rise. In a short time, she rose to chair the Commission and served as President of the National Association of Regulatory Commissioners (NARUC).
She credits believing in herself and willingness to learn and to be open to criticism as major factors to her success.
"Energy is so vast and broad — no one can say they are a master at anything in energy," Honorable said. "When I'm presiding over a room full of people with 30 years of experience or more who like to try to educate me, I try not to be defensive and try to take every thing constructively and as the governor once told me, don't take things personally.' "
Similar to those couple of months in 2017, Honorable often found herself one of few women, if not the only woman, in the room. And even her success in mastering the industry didn't stop her self-doubt when the White House called in 2014 to discuss a FERC nomination. She came home and told her husband about the call.
"I said 'you'll never guess who called,' and he said 'who' and I said, the White House but they want me to go and work in [Washington D.C]. I'm going to tell (then President Obama) I'm not going to do it," Honorable recalled. Their home, family and church were in Arkansas, and she didn't want to uproot the family to advance her career. Her husband immediately told her she wasn't going to turn down the White House.
"You're going to tell him that you're interested and if you get the job, we're going to D.C," she recalled him saying. He added 'No man would ever tell the White House that they weren't interested in a job.' "
She agreed and was nominated. But before she could go to her confirmation hearing, Rickey Earl Honorable, her husband, died. It was sudden. Honorable's confirmation was delayed as she buried her husband and thought about staying in Arkansas, as a single mother to her teenage daughter Sydney. But she forged on and was unanimously confirmed by the Senate. She stepped down at the end of her term in mid-2017, leaving Cheryl LaFleur as the only Commissioner until President Donald Trump's nominations got confirmed by the end of the year.
But she never stopped talking about the need for diversity in the power sector. At every speech, she gives nowadays, she ends by encouraging people to hire more women and more people of color.
It's something she's used to speaking about as a single representative of African-American women in FERC and Arkansas PSC.
"It was an older-men's, an older white men's industry quite frankly and I had to get past that," she said. Many of her mentors were white men who sponsored and mentored her, she said, who saw something in her that she often didn't see.
This, she says, is also key to a woman's rise in the industry — those within power willing to give a leg up to someone who likely does not have that same power. And to hold accountable those who would abuse it.
"I think we are in the middle of a movement and we're right now in a period of enlightenment that would not have happened this way 10 years ago," Honorable said. "We really need to take advantage of this time to raise the consciousness of our colleagues and for all of us to be educated about what is accepted in the workplace."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post misidentified Mike Beebe as the Attorney General that Honorable approached for a job.