Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Fortenberry Profits Again from GOP Corruption

by Kyle Michaelis

Okay folks, I don't care who you are or what your agenda is; go sign this petition now.

Nebraska's First District Congressman Jeff Fortenberry, a freshman Republican, received $4000 last year from Republican Congressman and national disgrace Randy "Duke" Cunningham.

Cunningham, a 15-year Congressional veteran from California, resigned on Monday after pleading guilty to taking more than $2 million dollars in outright bribes from defense contractors, qualifying him as one of the most disgusting violators of the public trust in recent memory.

And guess what - that dirty money, stained with the blood of our democracy - found its way into Nebraska thanks to Fortenberry and the unprincipled, win-at-any-cost fundraising of the Republican Party.

Cunningham's $4000 went to Fortenberry through his personal money-funneling operation, the American Prosperity PAC. In 2004, this PAC donated to 38 Republicans running for Congress, but Cunningham must have seen something he particularly liked about Fortenberry since "Fort" was one of the Top 6 recipients of his tainted money.

Back in June, I declared Fortenberry Nebraska's PAC-man for his disturbing ability to rake-in campaign cash through these operations, and he has continued to live up to the title. By September 30th, he had already received $328,000 in PAC contributions for his 2006 campaign.

But today we're talking about only $4,000 of Fortenberry's fortune donated by a man who betrayed his oath, his office, and his country. The Nebraska Democratic Party has properly called on Fortenberry to donate this dirty money to charity that at least something good might come of it. Their petition asks that he follow in the footsteps of fellow Republican Jim Nussle of Iowa who has already promised the $1000 he received from Cunningham to a local charity.

The very least Fortenberry should do is follow suit, though voters truly deserve far more in the way of accountability in light of Cunningham's actions and the general wave of corruption that has engulfed Republican politics in the last several months.

This is not the first instance of Fortenberry's thirst for campaign cash inviting corruption into our state. He received $20,000 from the PAC of indicted former House Republican leader Tom DeLay, with whom Fortenberry has subsequently voted with a loyalty proving he was worth every penny of the investment.

Fortenberry has shown no remorse or hesitation about keeping DeLay's dirty money, suggesting it won't be easy to make him part with the corrupt and now-convicted Cunningham's cash. Thank you to the Nebraska Democratic Party for keeping up the pressure on Fortenberry to cleanse this blight from Nebraska politics, where we expect better.

In other words, this isn't Louisiana, Mr. Fortenberry...or shall I call you "Kingfish"?

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The Term Limit Debate Rages On

by Kyle Michaelis
In continuation of my previous post and lifted from Ryne McClaren's blog, our debate on Nebraska's legislative term limits continues, with a few more voices entering the fray.

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Ryne: Perhaps it isn't that term limits will impose limits on our freedoms, but will instead force those we elect to be more deliberate in their decisions. Without having to cater to the winds of public opinion, our officials will be able to vote in the manner that the Founders originally intended. (Or, in theory I suppose, everyone could be a lame duck. So there you go.)

Politicians are notorious for polling and following the lead of the people they represent, at least in theory or in lip service. However, the one area in which they most conspicuously defy public opinion is on the issue of term limits. And let's not forget that the public does indeed support term limits. It seems to be one of the few things that we support across party lines, gender and race. States and municipalities, when they put term limits on a ballot, pass them. I have no doubt that term limits on the Legislative branch would pass as well.

The simple fact of the matter, and I have nothing to back this up besides a gut feeling, is that people hate careerism in their elected officials. Plain and simple.

While I certainly sympathize with many of the arguments against term limits, I've yet to see an effective enough argument to persuade me that the people can't figure out what is good for them most of the time.

And yes, this is a democracy. But only the minority is opposed to term limits, and so far the minority has ruled the day. That, in and of itself, does not reflect democracy in action, unless the word "democracy" suddenly means "the rule of the politicians, their lawyers and the courts" in this context.

Whether or not term limits will or won't alleviate the institutional advantages of incumbency is obvious: state and national term limits will effectively end the unfair perpetual incumbency that has kept not just good, decent politicians in office, but corrupt, power-mad politicos as well.

Our government -- locally and in Washington -- has become so involved in matters outside of its original scope that it is now practically useless. I mentioned earlier that I was unsure of how the Founders felt about careerism in politics, but I doubt if they thought about it at all. What they did caution us about, however, was perpetual power left unchecked. Career incumbents represent just that very thing.

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Steve: Candidates are much more responsive to the general public than are the established politicians. I have witnessed many an already elected official act rudely, boorishly and flat out ignore their constituents. Candidates running for an open seat rarely exhibit these tendencies.

Most of the people arguing against term limits have an established relationship with a sitting politician and they don't want to have to go out and reestablish one with someone they don't have a relationship with. As the old saying goes, it is better to deal with the enemy you know than the enemy you don't.

It is my belief that many that sit in any position for a long time end up rewarding their powerbase and ignoring and even abusing everyone else. I have watched this happen on library boards, NRD boards, and in the legislature. I am not saying there are not good politicians that resist this temptation but I think the majority of humans that sit on a board for more than 10 years reek of arrogance.

There are two ways to break the problem. One is term limits. The other is a press that reports a lot more than the current press does. Right now, most elected officials act in secret. This doesn't mean they hold secret meetings although in the case of my NRD, they are routinely holding what I believe to be illegal meetings. What I mean is that most public bodies make a lot of decisions that never get reported by the press. If the public was more informed about what elected officials did then there would probably be more turnover. But that is a two way street. Someone has to report it and enough people have to care enough to listen to or read the report.

Right now we have about 25% of the population making all of the decisions. The rest either don't care or get out voted. Happy are those that are in the 25%.

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Abe: Good discussion. Personally, I think term limits are less needed in the Nebraska Unicameral than in the US Congress. In the House there is practically no turnover unless the encumbent dies. The House was supposed to be the most responsive government body, but it has become the least.

Politics has become all about taxing Peter to buy the vote of Paul and get re-elected. Removing the possiblity of re-election could significantly improve the quality of our lawmakers' decisions.

These were not intended to be lifetime jobs. Even with term limits in place, nothing prevents a career in politics. The politician just has to go after other offices.

"Campaign finance reform" is far more undemocratic than term limits. It's all about encumbent protection. Forced equality in spending = advantage for the encumbent. Encumbents are writing these laws, and they are not going to write themselves out of an advantage. As long as government is in the business of handing out favors and penalties, money will be brought to bear in obtaining the favors and/or avoiding the penalties.

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Me: While I respect all of you gentlemen's opinions, I must take issue with cetain things said. [Steve]'s ludicrous and insulting to say that those who oppose term limits do so only because they have an established relationship with elected politicians. 44% of Nebraska voters did not support the 2000 Amendment and many of those who voted for it did so out of a well-intentioned but poorly-reasoned desire to simply cut their legislators down to size (especially one Mr. Ernie Chambers). Above I've offered a reasonable (though perhaps refutable) argument against term limits without relying on...or possessing...any such personal connection. I write on principle.

As for Abe and Ryne, I don't think either of you give enough recognition to how fundamentally undemocratic it is to tell people they can't vote for a respected and well-known legislator...or that said legislator can't run for another term. Open and fair elections are our defense against lifetime appointments - the only defense needed if your average citizen were active and actually gave a damn.

Term limits are the ultimate expression of the childish anti-government thinking that has everyone up in arms over how terrible politicians are EXCEPT for the one they keep voting for. They won't work because they run such a risk of making the legislature every bit as bad and pathetic as people like to blame it for being. Personally, I prefer a strong legislature - both in federal and state govt - to a bunch of single-issue knee-jerk reactionaries otherwise beholden to lobbyists and the ruling executive. We need strong and experienced legislators - held accountable by the people at the ballot box - to keep those powers in-check.

Term limits throw the balance of power all to hell. Maybe they could work in a bicameral system (for instance, I could probably support a 2 or 3 term limit in the U.S. Senate because of its exclusivity) but imposing them on the Unicameral (and Nebraska voters...even if foolishly self-imposed) is an invitation to disaster. While the advantages of incumbency demand discussion and reform, THIS is not the way.

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As you can likely see, I'm sort of standing alone on this one (as I seemingly do on a great deal of issues amongst Nebraska political writers). But hey, that's okay. Anything you'd like to add, please do so here or at the source (though beware, things are a lot more "conservative" in those parts...God bless'em).

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Has Heineman Plateaued?

by Kyle Michaelis
For being unelected and having about a 30% chance of surviving May's Republican primary, you've got to give Governor Dave Heineman some credit for maintaining a respectable degree of favorability in the eyes of Nebraska voters.

The latest job approval numbers in SurveyUSA's state-by-state tracking poll put Heineman at 59%, down from his high last month of 63% but still within the same margin of error. As a matter of raw approval, this ties him for 13th most popular governor in the country.

Still, things aren't necessarily looking up for Heineman. Even with the Mt. St. Osborne challenge on the horizon, Heineman's approval has not only stagnated (or slightly fallen); there has also been a steady but undeniable rise in those who disapprove of his performance.

Whereas in May, more than a quarter of voters were still feeling Heineman out, six months later only 11% are still unsure about the guy....and most of those who have since made up their mind have decided he's not their man.

Of course, Heineman still has a 70% approval rating with registered Republicans, and they're his first hurdle if he wants a term in his own right. But thinking he's doing an okay job does not translate into giving him the electoral nod over one of the most famous and beloved men in the state.

Another six months to go. I don't personally put a whole lot of stock in each and every poll that comes out, but I certainly appreciate having something to report on this front besides my own pure, unsolicited speculation.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Mano a Mano on Term Limits

by Kyle Michaelis
After my posts (1 and 2) this weekend on the challenge to Nebraska's legislative term limits, I've found myself engaged in something of a debate on the merit of such restrictions with Nebraska blogger Ryne McClaren. I figure some of you might be interested in the debate so far.

Ryne started things off (and I'll give him the benefit of fancy italics):
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R: I've always been generally supportive of term limits. Various arguments can certainly be made in favor of term limits, of course; Jesse Helms, Ted Kennedy and Strom Thurmond spring immediately to mind at the Capitol Hill level.

But let me submit the following hypothetical to you. You're a resident , as I am, of a rural Congressional or State legislative district that is mostly rural and "middle class" (at best). You and other voters like you elect a representative who carries the fight from your district to the halls of Lincoln or Washington. That person creates jobs. That person brings home state/federal funding for worthwhile projects. Why on Earth would you want to term limit such a person?

I suppose that the reason you vote for term limits, given the following hypothetical, is because no one happens to be satisfying you, the voter, by carrying the fight to Lincoln or Washington. Situations aren't improving. We're merely voting for the same old, same old, year in and year out.

The other head of the coin is that if the residents of a District want to more or less elect someone to serve them for life, why not? Why should I care if the fine folks in District 11 choose to keep Ernie Chambers in office from now until Doomsday?

At the same time, you have to remember that the term limit amendment also reflects the "will of the people," and the irony of the flagrant disregard for those voters by some of our elected officials isn't lost on me either.

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K: You fail to mention that which is most objectionable about these term limits - they are fundamentally undemocratic.

While "the people" may have voted for them, it is an entirely legitimate question whether 56% of voters in 2000 should be able to tell 100% of voters in 2006 and beyond who they CAN NOT vote for - especially when there has always been the recourse of voting for alternative candidates to the incumbent in the first place.

Of course, term limits in the executive branch are also, in a sense, undemocratic, but these are much longer established and reflect the anti-authoritarian principles and precautions on which this nation was founded. Risk of monarchy (or aristocracy) from the legislative branch is of a much different, lesser sort...particularly when a strong legislature is another protection against the executive exercising too much power.

Term limits in the legislature (state or federal) undoubtedly reduce its stature, standing, and experience-levels. As the branch most responsible and closest to the citizenry, the true power of the people in our government is therby weakened. For this reason, legislative term limits are terrible public policy and raise fundamental issues of constitutionality even when "the people" foolishly embed them in a state's constitution.

What is a truer reflection of the will of the people - a vote in 2000 funded by ideological extremists from outside of Nebraska or a supposed vote in 2006 choosing an incumbent such as Dennis Byars over anyone who opposes him? One of these voices is going to be silenced, regardless. Promoting open ballots without term limits is the more democratic solution because the option is ALWAYS there to "throw the bastards out."

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R: Yes, term limits may be viewed as fundamentally undemocratic. All of the points that you make are completely valid, and I do agree, in part, that simply going to the polls every two, four, or six years ought to offer a recourse to the voter.

These are all things that I grapple with when trying to decide whether or not I support term limits.

However, more and more states, counties and municipalities are adopting term limits as a way to prevent corruption before it starts, reduce the abuse of power and encourage participation by those who want to be involved.

Another popular catchphrase floating around out there from a group supporting term limits is "Citizen Legislators, Not Career Politicians." I think that one speaks for itself.

One of the biggest obstacles in getting people to participate in their civic duty to vote is that there is a perception that "my vote doesn't count." After all, if you do not like Ted Kennedy or Ernie Chambers, what good is going to do you to go and vote against them? They're going to win anyway. In fact, career politicians from the legislative branch all the way down to our municipalities have served for entire generations. No qualified, honorable candidates run against them and many self-respecting citizens refuse to get involved in what they see as a lost cause.

While the option to "throw the bastards out" may be there in theory, it seems as though it fails when in practice.

While it's undoubtedly true that open ballots would be the best way to handle career politicans, the career politicians reman. I'll admit that I have no idea what the Founders would have thought of, say, Strom Thurmond, but surely it flies in the face of an open, participatory government of the people and by the people.

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K: The whole "Citizen legislators vs. Career Politicians" thing is just a good campaign slogan gone over-board. There's absolutely nothing wrong with "career politicians" so long as they remain responsive and accountable to voters.

The whole argument for legislative term limits is an argument that democracy doesn't work. People are "too stupid" to vote the way they should on candidates, so we have to trick them into changing the rules and foregoing their right to vote for whomever they choose....all by making boogeymen of those we once considered public servants.

Under your "my vote doesn't count" theory, the Republican Party should be banned in Nebraska because it has such a registration advantage that Democrats and Independents have no reasonable reason to vote.....EXCEPT THIS IS A DEMOCRACY AND WE PUT OUR FAITH IN THE PEOPLE. That means we believe people can change their minds. We believe that with hard work and perseverance a bad politician will get beat. If that's not true, democracy has a problem that no term limit can repair.

Just because so few people are willing to put in the work and make the leap of faith that is a political campaign doesn't mean we should impose limits on our freedoms. Nor should we necessarily even be able to do so - many rights have been held as inalienable under the U.S. Constitution.

None of this means we shouldn't do something to alleviate the institutional advantages of incumbency, but campaign finance reform has always been the more reasonable, more democratic alternative to these ill-conceived and fundamentally cynical term limits.

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Well, it's not quite Lincoln-Douglass, but a little polite debate on these matters is always enjoyable....and hopefully - sometimes - a little good can even come of it.

If anyone has anything to add, please feel free to do so. Both Ryne and I are always appreciative of our fellow Nebraskans' (or really anyones') opinions.

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Monday, November 28, 2005

The Long Road to "One City, One School District"

by Kyle Michaelis

Today's Omaha-World Herald offers a bit of required reading for anyone venturing an opinion on Omaha Public School's controversial plan to absorb the city's outlying, more affluent school districts. The article provides some important historical context that makes clear this is one battle that's been a long time coming:
Omaha's "one city, one school district" controversy only appeared to come out of nowhere. In reality, it is a fight that the Omaha Public Schools backed away from during the turbulent times of the 1970s.

Many of the current issues echo those from three decades ago. Racial segregation. Money. Community identity.

"We discussed at great length going after 'one city, one school district' at the time," said Tim Rouse, an Omaha school board member in the 1970s. "It's the same topic that's on the floor now: If Omaha wants to be a desegregated school system, it needs to have a citywide system or you'll have poverty in one part and wealth in others"....

While OPS leaders were discussing the issue in private, a maverick Omaha state senator was pressing it in public.

David Stahmer, a former Omaha school board member who has since died, sponsored a bill in the Legislature that would have merged virtually all of the Westside, Millard and Ralston school districts with Omaha. He cited the 1891 so-called "one city, one school district" statute OPS is trying to use now.

The bill failed. OPS did not support it....

Not trying to annex Millard, [former OPS superintendant Norbert] Schuerman said, could be attributed to "a lack of foresight, a lack of sensitivity to the future demographics."

Besides all that, OPS faced the challenge of peacefully mandating busing for desegregation....

According to Schuerman, local officials had three priorities: Meet the court guidelines, avoid violence and integrate so children could build relationships....

Omaha left out the suburbs when it desegregated its main urban district. OPS busing accelerated the pace of suburban growth, particularly to Millard, according to retired Benson High Principal Frank Hoy's research for his 1978 doctoral dissertation.

By 1971, when the City of Omaha annexed Millard, the Omaha Public Schools had nearly 64,000 students. Millard Public Schools had a little more than 5,100 students.

By 1976, the year Omaha started mandatory busing, OPS enrollment had dropped to less than 54,000 students. Millard's had mushroomed to more than 9,100....

"There was a western migration in Omaha before (desegregation)," Hoy said. Yet he added that his research showed "a spike in that migration that can't be attributed to anything else other than desegregation"....

Low-income students are increasingly concentrated in the Omaha Public Schools. So are black and Latino students. The main urban district is now only 44 percent white. Meanwhile, suburban schools, even within the city of Omaha, are vastly majority white. They have relatively few low-income students.

"Omaha desegregated by school, and (then) resegregated by school district," Hoy said.

Those are just some select passages. I really do suggest that everyone give the full article a read. It does a superb job of calling attention to the troubling current of latent though long-standing racism underlying the situation.

Admittedly, it provides what opponents might consider a one-sided perspective, but the debate really is so lopsided by all measures of conscience and economic justice.

Note that even the suburban school districts recognize the problem, to the extent that they're now crafting their own counterproposal to OPS' plan for consolidation. Ironically, their idea largely amounts to bringing back busing:
The suburban Omaha districts say Nebraska's option enrollment law could be expanded to provide state money for transportation for low-income students. The suburban districts' plan also calls for recruitment of low-income students from OPS into the suburban districts to break up concentrated poverty in the Omaha district.

30 years ago, these same people denounced busing and high-tailed it to the suburbs so their children could escape it. Now, they hold it up as a cure-all to the growing malignancy of Omaha's educational segregation.

Essentially, they'll take in the best of OPS' bad, just so long as their own good (i.e. "white") children don't have to go anywhere.

Funny, sad, unprincipled, and foolish - history will not be kind to those who show so little regard for its lessons, sacrificing community and compassion on an altar of ill-gotten gain.

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Sunday, November 27, 2005

Andersen Mocks Reader and His Profession

by Kyle Michaelis
In today's column, long-time Omaha World-Herald hatchetman Harold W. Andersen writes:
An angry caller left a message on my voice mail, including blistering criticism of a column in which I had suggested that I think the so-called outing of CIA employee Valerie Plame Wilson had been blown out of all proportion by Bush-bashers determined to make the White House look bad.

The angry caller said: "I don't know how you can call yourself a newspaperman."

It's easy. In fact, I'll show how easy it is right now: I'm a newspaperman.

Saying it doesn't make it so. The very legitimate criticism answered with such childish mockery and disdain was in response to Andersen's Nov. 6 column, in which he claimed:
The anti-Bush hard core of journalists in the national press has been hammering away at the White House for close to two years now, reporting (frequently quoting anonymous sources) how a special prosecutor is proceeding and how the White House is reacting (fearful almost to the state of panic, if you would believe some news reports).

Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff - a man whom I would suspect 99.9 percent of the American public never knew existed but is described by the press as a key White House insider - has been indicted not for the alleged crime of "outing" a "covert" CIA operative. Rather, he has been indicted for allegedly obstructing justice, making false statements and perjury. (I. Lewis Libby Jr. pleaded not guilty on Thursday.)

The truth is that special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald - who spent two years trying to determine if anyone was guilty of a crime in knowingly revealing the name of a so-called covert CIA employee, Valerie Plame Wilson - gave no indication during a press conference that he has yet discovered evidence of such a crime....

Surely this seemingly endless investigation must come to an end. Consider the time lag between the questioning of Libby in March 2004, the questioning of NBC commentator Tim Russert in August of that year and the special prosecutor's decision in October 2005 (15 months after Russert had been questioned) to prosecute Libby for lying about his conversations with Russert.

Andersen may very well be a "newspaperman" but that doesn't prevent him from frequently being an insult to journalism. Aside from the sheer ridiculousness of his declaring the national press "anti-Bush" after their being so complicit in the campaign of misiniformation and propaganda that gave birth to the invasion of Iraq (of which the Plame investigation is very much a part), Andersen's chief sin is his totally hypocritical disregard for the historical precedent of this investigation.

Where was Andersen's outrage in the 1990s when Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr's "Whitewater" investigation dragged on for for more than 4 years at a price tag of more than $40 million? Meanwhile, the "seemingly endless" 15 month investigation that has him so in up in arms has cost a mere $723,000 according to the GAO.

Oh wait...that $40 million went to investigating a Democratic administration, so that was money well spent. Nevermind that the offenses being investigated there were not nearly as serious as a treasonous manipulation of classified intelligence at time of war.

Andersen's mere suggestion that Scooter Libby was a nobody in the Bush Administration shows the full extent of his perverse way of thinking. Libby was a central player in the build-up to invasion - a man you could not escape reference to in any in-depth reporting on the Bush Administration's actions and strategy. No matter his made-up numbers, I can guarantee Andersen knew who Libby was, as did most any attentive observer of the political scene. Trying to manipulate his readership's assumed ignorance of the man to portray this as a universal state, implying that Libby was some peripheral character, is simply a despicable abuse of his position in the press.

The better question for Andersen to answer is not how he can call himself a newspaperman but rather how dare he call himself a journalist.

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Ricketts Raises the Stakes

by Kyle Michaelis
Building off this prior post, Pete Ricketts' decision to open up the floodgates on his personal fortune to his Senate campaign more than six months before the primary has changed the rules of the game for his competitors as well.

The Omaha World-Herald reports:
Omaha multimillionaire Pete Ricketts has upped the ante in Nebraska's U.S. Senate race.

Ricketts has pumped nearly $1 million of his own money into the campaign, according to documents filed Wednesday with the Federal Election Commission.

His personal loan triggers the so-called "millionaire's amendment" under federal law, giving his opponents the right to collect a lot more money from donors.

It also sets the stage for what could be one of the more expensive primary battles in the state's history....

Ricketts lent his campaign $950,600, according to the FEC reports. That amount kicks in the millionaire's amendment, approved by Congress in 2002 and designed to level the playing field for a wealthy candidate and his opponents.

Under the law, Kramer and Stenberg can now apply to the FEC for the right to collect up to $12,600 from individual donors. The regular limit is $2,100 per individual....

Ricketts has said he would not place a limit on his personal spending....

Stenberg said the millionaire's amendment will have a limited effect on his campaign. "I don't know a whole lot of people who have enough money to write checks that large," Stenberg said of the $12,600 figure.

Poor Don Stenberg. First, he gets forgotten entirely by an important tracking poll that shows Ben Nelson with a SIGNIFICANT lead over his if he doesn't even exist. And now, despite all his work for large corporations attempting to screw-over state governments and the citizens they represent, he can't get any of them to pony-up to his campaign.

Alas, these folks know a bad investment when they see one.

As for Ricketts' spending bonanza, I've already seen him in the dailies several times and word is his smiling chrome dome has made the pages of most small communities' weekly newspapers as well. Last week, he was a constant presence on the nightly newscasts, and his ad even made an appearance during Monday Night Football.

I don't remember seeing a Ricketts ad during last week's Desperate Housewives, though. We'll see if this slight is corrected tonight. What's the matter, Pete? You're not getting cheap on us, are you?

Ahh...let me guess...some focus group or strategist he paid way too much for decided DH doesn't jive too well with all Ricketts' talk of Nebraska values. That's nice; I'm going to watch the show now.

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Saturday, November 26, 2005

More on Term Limits

by Kyle Michaelis
All declared and potential candidates for the Nebraska Unicameral take heed: Tony Ojeda, candidate for the District 30 seat currently occupied by Dennis Byars - the state senator set to challenge Nebraska's legislative term limits - provides a pretty good example of what not to say when you suddenly find yourself running for state senate against an incumbent you expected to be term limited.

From the Lincoln Journal-Star:
Nebraskans have already shown support for term limits and taking the issue up with the courts “seems like a backdoor attempt to thwart the will of the people,” said Tony Ojeda of Roca, who is campaigning for the District 30 seat.

Ojeda said he voted against term limits in 2000 but is hearing a different message than Byars while on the campaign trail: Voters like term limits because they can infuse the Legislature with new energy.

“I don’t know why somebody who has served so honorably for such a long time would waste people’s tax dollars on this issue” in a court battle, Ojeda said.

Whine, whine, whine - what a stupid and pathetic response. Seriously, no matter your opinion about term limits, Ojeda has taken the completely wrong approach here, demonstrating his own unsuitability for leadership regardless of whether Byars succeeds with his challenge.

Byars and any state senators who join him in challenging this law are exercising their rights as citizens. To suggest that is somehow dishonorable is dishonorable itself in the extreme. Ojeda should be ashamed.

These term limits are terrible public policy. Ojeda obviously knew that himself when he voted against their adoption in 2000. The people/state obviously deserve some latitude in being able to shape their government (even for the worse), but it does not extend to violating the U.S. Constitution. Hence, those who care about good government and remaining true to our principles have an obligation to take this question of constitutionality to the courts, no matter their ultimate decision.

Ojeda treats this as nothing more than a political game. Though politics is, of course, in play, it's obnoxious and repugnant to be using this complicated issue to make a personal attack. If Ojeda had an ounce of character, he would let this challenge play out in the courts as it will, taking his message to voters in true democratic fashion without worrying about whether or not he shares space on a ballot with Byars. It would be pure hypocrisy for Ojeda to put so much faith in the decision of voters in 2000 imposing term limits if he isn't going to put that same faith in them in 2006 - the faith that if he has the better message it doesn't matter who he's up against.

That's the perspective of a leader. Though Ojeda failed the test, I hope those in similar situations will learn from his mistake and campaign accordingly. Trust the voters. Let the courts do their thing. If you're really so scared of the incumbent and have so few ideas to distinguish yourself from their record, you shouldn't be running for office in the first place.

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Term Limited Senators: "Hell No, We Won't Go!"

by Kyle Michaelis
It always seemed inevitable that Nebraska's 2000 amendment to the Constitution limiting state senators to two terms would end up in the courts as the 2006 election that will see the law's first electoral sacrifices approached.

But, when the challenge wasn't made earlier this year, as candidates started emerging in reliance on the expected abundance of open seats, one had to start wondering if we wouldn't see a real challenge to these term limits until they finally reached their intended target - legendary Omaha Senator Ernie Chambers - in 2008. It was beginning to look like none of the senators being forced out gave enough of a damn about their job to fight to keep it - or at least, none of them had the courage/audacity to fight the assumed "will of the people."

Of course, I'll bet a number of senators would have been happy to piggy-back a challenge by Chambers if only the timeline had played in their favor - just so long as he absorbed the accompanying notoriety, as has so often been the case when Chambers has fought the good fight on principles, providing cover and shelter for those who share them when convenient.

With such meek behavior in the face of their own rights being trampled, term limits were almost looking like a good idea - if for no other reason than to clear the forest of its dead wood. If these folks won't even stand up for themselves for fear of stepping on some toes, really...what good are they to anyone else who needs a voice?

Well, the jury is still out on that one, but - at long last - it seems one state senator is finally ready to tread where others have been unwilling. And, if he succeeds, we might just have an unGodly mess on our hands with an army of geezer legislators coming back from the verge of political death to defend their claims to power.

The Omaha World-Herald reports:
Dennis Byars is challenging the will of the people with . . . the will of the people.

Byars, a state senator from Beatrice, said Wednesday that he will seek to overturn Nebraska's constitutional amendment restricting legislators to two consecutive four-year terms.

Byars, who ran unopposed in 2002, said the people of Legislative District 30 are largely responsible for his challenge.

"At virtually every speaking engagement or gathering that I attend, people come up to me and tell me they want me to oppose term limits," Byars said. "They say they are happy with how I represent them and my accessibility. They don't want me to step down."

Under the ballot measure overwhelmingly approved in 2000, senators elected in 1998 - including Byars - were limited to one more term.

"I believe Nebraska's term limits are unconstitutional because they violate the First and 14th Amendments of the United States Constitution," Byars said. "Term limits take away my rights to run for re-election and my constituents' rights."

Byars, 65, will be completing his 14th year in the Legislature when the 2006 session ends next summer. He said he plans to file for re-election Monday.

"I expect the secretary of state to turn down my application because of term limits, so I will then file a lawsuit asking that the portion of the constitution dealing with term limits . . . be overturned."

The Lincoln Journal-Star continues:
Lincoln Sen. Marian Price and other state senators could follow a Beatrice lawmaker’s plan to challenge Nebraska’s term limits law, she said Thursday....

“A majority has spoke and said ‘we want term limits’ but I think if a number of us come out it will say ‘heck no, we don’t want to go,’” she said. “I’m going to go out very defiantly”....

Byars [and Price are] among 20 of the 49 senators in Nebraska’s one-house Legislature who are barred from seeking another term in 2006....

“All I’m asking is for the court to let me place my name on the ballot and let my constituents make a decision on if they want to keep me,” he said. “That’s giving people a democratic choice. Nothing guarantees I would be elected”....

Nebraska is one of 15 states that limit the terms of state lawmakers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Courts in Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming have thrown out term limits, and lawmakers in Idaho and Utah repealed them.

Strange days ahead. Who knows what this foretells for next year's elections? Got to assume many term limited Senators will just step down to avoid the hassle of asserting their rights (not to mention the difficulty of throwing together an unexpected campaign this late in the game).

However, there is certainly an element by which all bets are off and everything is now up in the air, especially when the inherent advantages of incumbency (the whole reasoning for term limits to begin with) leave running for re-election on the fly a still rather inviting proposition.

The numbers simply don't lie about such things. I honestly can't see any possible backlash from challenging these voter-approved term limits doing any worse than almost level the playing field. Current senators know this is true, too, and now that one of them has made this move it's going to be that much easier for the next one (or next dozen) to follow suit.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

World-Herald's Iraq Illusions

by Kyle Michaelis
Yesterday, the Omaha World-Herald checked-in with its opinion on recent high-profile calls for withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. The editorial board wrote:
Americans who choose not to suffer from political amnesia certainly have been under no illusions about the key goals of this postwar.

Iraq needed time to get on its feet, to decide how best to restructure its government and to put that government in place. Then, and only then, would it be time to talk about bringing the troops home.

It has taken longer for Iraqis to hammer out a government (who ever said democracy was easy?) and has cost more in blood than either nation wished. But the Dec. 15 elections for Iraq's permanent parliament - following the October approval of a constitution and last January's election for the assembly that wrote it - are nearly upon us. The finish line is near....

To set an artificial deadline for withdrawal would be an open invitation to insurgents for even more frequent attacks on U.S. troops and on Iraqis, military and civilian alike, in advance of the Dec. 15 elections.

Middle Easterners won't believe we intend to leave until we go. Americans in 2006 appropriately will focus more strongly on when to wrap up the Iraqi postwar situation.

I just want to get the World-Herald on the record on this - come Dec. 15th, it's finally OKAY to talk about troop withdrawal? Right? Isn't that what you guys are saying? Come Decmeber 15th, the American people and their elected representatives can suddenly question our continued presence in Iraq (or, at least, the extent thereof) without their patriotism and character being called into question? You promise? I'm going to hold you to that. Seriously.

I'm by no means calling for immediate withdrawal myself, but the debate about our long-term objectives in Iraq and when our continued presence will have become a hinderance to peace is well overdue. For those who don't want to reveal their plans and, yes, admit the short-comings in terms of freedom and stability that America will ever be able to guarantee in the region, there will always be another December 15th just around the corner to silence debate and kill dissent.

Glad to see the World-Herald won't be playing such a vicious and deceitful game with peoples' lives (not to mention another nation's future). I assume this also means that, come December 15th, readers can expect them to actually take a lead on this issue, calling for renewed accountability and the Bush Administration's finally leveling with the American people.

I look forward to it. December 15th. Mark your calendar, and let's see that they keep their word.

Just remember: there's always another mile for those who are running from the truth.

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Monday, November 21, 2005

How Close is Heineman?

by Kyle Michaelis

From the following Omaha World-Herald article, it's clear the Nebraska press is hoping for a real race in the 2006 Republican gubernatorial primary. Gov. Dave Heineman is presented as the consummate underdog winning people over with hard work and a flawless political game plan. Meanwhile, Congressman/Coaching legend Tom Osborne is portrayed as aloof and as losing his grip on Nebraska voters.

There's just one problem with this whole proposition - where's the proof? The article is so patently one-sided that one can't help but wonder if it's reporting reality or attempting to create it:
When former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne announced his candidacy for governor in late April, few thought his opponents - including new Gov. Dave Heineman - had a chance.

What a difference six months on the campaign trail can make. All three Republican candidates and about a dozen party regulars and political observers interviewed say the 2006 primary race has tightened and will be competitive.

"I think he's (Osborne) ahead . . . but I think Heineman is making it difficult for him by really doing a lot of things right," said John Hibbing, political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln....

Osborne won his last election to Congress with 87 percent of the vote. Heineman was viewed as an accidental governor - the lieutenant governor who got promoted when then-Gov. Mike Johanns became U.S. agriculture secretary....

Heineman has always believed he had a credible chance. He has maintained from the start that as Nebraskans get to know him better, they will have a tough time ousting him from office.

"We've always said this race was going to be about a governor who was doing an outstanding job, and why should we change (governors)," said Carlos Castillo, the governor's campaign spokesman.

David Nabity, the third candidate in the GOP race, said he believes there has been a "sea shift" in the race and that Osborne is no longer the presumed winner-to-be. Nabity said the race is up for grabs because most voters have yet to tune in.

"It's definitely a whole different world today than it was back in May," Nabity said.

What has changed?

First, Heineman is working hard to keep his job, using the power of incumbency to the fullest.

Second, Osborne is trapped in Washington four days a week, working on congressional business. The former coach also made some decisions and comments that have hindered his campaign.

Heineman travels widely, cutting ribbons and attending chamber of commerce dinners. He averages about 17 public appearances a week....

Heineman earned the gratitude of many small-town Nebraskans when he vetoed a bill to force smaller rural schools to consolidate. He scored political points in the Republican-rich areas of Millard and Elkhorn by opposing the Omaha school district's effort to gain control of some suburban schools.

Finally, Heineman made a good impression with some farmers - especially those who grow Great Northern beans - by going to Cuba and returning with a $30 million trade deal for Nebraska farm products....

In turn, Osborne has made what some consider political missteps.

Early on, he said he was "90 percent certain" he would run for only one term. Some questioned whether a one-term governor could make significant changes. Nabity quickly capitalized on the remark, saying Nebraskans deserved a governor who would commit to two terms....

Osborne since has said he was trying to emphasize that he won't spend his first term worrying about re-election. "My feeling is that I'm certainly very willing to serve two terms," Osborne said....

He hindered his fundraising ability with self-imposed limits: He will not accept political action committee money or a donation of more than $1,000 from an individual.

Heineman has no such limits and appears likely to lead the fundraising game early next year. That will become critical in the spring, when the campaign becomes more focused on expensive television ad wars....

(Osborne) said he continues to believe, especially since going to Washington, that campaign donations from special interests are a major problem in politics.

"I've seen legislation that should have passed be stopped, because of special interests, and I've seen some legislation pass that should not have passed, because of special interests," Osborne said.

He faces other hurdles. Some voters in the heavily Republican 3rd Congressional District are disappointed that he is giving up his growing seniority in the U.S. House.

"Personally, I think the feeling out here is that Osborne is well thought of because of his history in the state. But I think they're disappointed they sent him to Washington and now Mr. Smith wants to come home," said Terry Christopher, a former county GOP chairman from Sidney....

Other Republicans take exception to Osborne's decision to challenge a sitting Republican governor.

Some hard-core Republicans also have voiced doubts about Osborne's commitment to GOP values..."Osborne is so independent in his thinking that dyed-in-the-wool Republicans don't know what to make of him," Christopher said.

And others insist that no one - not even famous and beloved football coaches - should take a vote for granted.

"It's easier to want to vote for Tom Osborne because of his reputation, but it should come down to who's best for the job," said Lee Schuppan, a Doniphan businessman, who remains undecided.

Quite a hatchet job, if I might say so myself. Nary a kind word about Osborne and not a single criticism of Heineman - isn't that just a little bit suspicious?

"Mr. Smith wants to come home"??? Holding Osborne's desire to return to Nebraska and get out of the mess that is this Republican Congress can hardly be held against him. The suggestion that Osborne is "SO INDEPENDENT" is similarly ludicrous and is not reflected in the slightest by Osborne's voting record.

Moreover, Heineman's unconstructive exploitation of the Omaha and Class I school district issues has demonstrated anything but responsible leadership, and it's silly to act as if it has. On the other hand, I'd say if Osborne has made a mis-step it is in his disingenuous attack on Heineman for not pushing through a tax cut in 2005. But, that involves real issues, and I guess the World-Herald doesn't want to touch on those.

And, all the while, the self-interested Nabity tags along getting his name out there any way he can - making it all the sadder that a similarly-dedicated Democratic candidate hasn't emerged to offer a REAL alternative to Tweedles Dee, Dum, and Dummer.

How close is Heineman? I don't know, but this is not yet anywhere close to the even race you'd expect from this article.

While true that voters aren't yet paying a lot of attention to the election, they also haven't paid much attention to Heineman in general. If he's going to impress (or alienate), it's going to be in next year's legislative session and in debates. Until then, voters have no stake in the guy and can be assumed to support Dr. Tom no matter how adept Heineman is with a giant scissors.

Then again, the Cornhusker football team ended up disappointing once again this year, so the race is still up-for-grabs.

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Sunday, November 20, 2005

Holding Hagel to a Higher Standard

by Kyle Michaelis
There's probably nothing I hate more in the world then unproductive partisanship purely for partisanship's sake. It is why people hate politics and, in Nebraska, it has a lot to do with why voters have so little respect for the Democratic Party.

That's why it pains me to read this press release from the Nebraska Democratic Party responding to Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel's recent comments largely defending Democrats' and his own right to dissent on the Bush Administration's plan for the continued occupation of Iraq (in so far as it can even be considered a plan).

The press release reads:
Hagel Flip Flops on Pre-War Intelligence

He's making lots of headlines these days undermining President Bush's attacks on Senate Democrats, but what about Senator Hagel's own role in promoting pre-war intelligence that indicated Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction?

See what he said in 2003:
February 2003: Hagel Believed Iraq Had Biological Weapons and Ties to Terrorists. "We know something's out there in the way of chemical and biological weapons… I don't think it's any mystery or any surprise that Saddam Hussein has some and had some, still does have some relationships with terrorist organizations and terrorist leaders. That certainly is not a surprise." [NPR, "Talk of the Nation," 2/5/03]

Now, in 2005, he's got a different story...
November 2005: Hagel Says Democrats Were Right To Demand Probe Into Prewar Intelligence Manipulation. "I think the Democrats had a valid point…This has been frustrating… There are very legitimate and critical questions that need to be answered… That is the responsibility of governance. That's part of leadership. And we don't have answers for all those things." [Omaha World-Herald, 11/11/05]

"Senator Hagel has done a remarkable job in avoiding questions about his own use of pre-war intelligence while he hammers away at President Bush's administration for how they used the intelligence," said Barry Rubin, Nebraska Democratic Party Executive Director. "Someone needs to ask Chuck Hagel why he said that Saddam had links to terrorists and had chemical and biological weapons. Now he says he wants answers; we want answers too, but from him."

Wow, talk about protesting too much. It is one thing to question the motives behind Hagel's occasionally bold and commendable comments since it's obvious the man is setting himself up for a presidential bid, especially since his votes rarely reflect the streak of independence he so proudly flashes before national media. But here, the Nebraska Democratic Party is just being plain ridiculous trying to score points off Hagel for doing and saying THE RIGHT THING.

As reported in Wednesday's Washington Post:
Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) strongly criticized yesterday the White House's new line of attack against critics of its Iraq policy, saying that "the Bush administration must understand that each American has a right to question our policies in Iraq and should not be demonized for disagreeing with them."

With President Bush leading the charge, administration officials have lashed out at Democrats who have accused the administration of manipulating intelligence to justify the war in Iraq. Bush has suggested that critics are hurting the war effort, telling U.S. troops in Alaska on Monday that critics "are sending mixed signals to our troops and the enemy. And that's irresponsible."

Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran and a potential presidential candidate in 2008, countered in a speech to the Council of Foreign Relations that the Vietnam War "was a national tragedy partly because members of Congress failed their country, remained silent and lacked the courage to challenge the administrations in power until it was too late."

"To question your government is not unpatriotic -- to not question your government is unpatriotic," Hagel said, arguing that 58,000 troops died in Vietnam because of silence by political leaders. "America owes its men and women in uniform a policy worthy of their sacrifices."

Hagel said Democrats have an obligation to be constructive in their criticism, but he accused the administration of "dividing the country" with its rhetorical tactics.

Hagel supported the 2002 resolution to authorize military action in Iraq, but he has emerged as a strong skeptic of the Bush administration's handling of the war....

At one point, while answering a question from the audience about Syria, Hagel suggested that the Middle East is worse off after the invasion because the administration failed to anticipate the consequences of removing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. "You could probably argue it is worse in many ways in the Middle East because of consequences and ripple effects," he said.

Take these comments into consideration along with Hagel's above concession that Democrats have legitimate questions that need to be answered and it becomes almost sickening that he would be taken to task by, of all people, the Nebraska Democratic Party.

Recent suggestions by Republicans that President Clinton and the Democratic Party are just as much to blame for the failures of the Iraq invasion, especially the faulty and mishandled intelligence on which it was based, have been just pathetically disingenuous and desperate. But that doesn't absolve Democrats of any responsibility whatsoever for where we stand today. The Nebraska Democratic Party has no right to question Hagel on his support for the Iraq invasion without expecting answers to the exact same questions from their own, particularly Sen. Ben Nelson.

Several Democratic Senators have recanted and now say their votes to authorize the invasion of Iraq were wrong. Honestly, I neither expect nor even desire such an admission from Nelson, but I'll be damned if Hagel should be held to a higher standard...Republican or not.

Both Nelson and Hagel voted according to the information shared with them by the Bush administration. That there were holes in that intelligence and likely outright fabrication was evident from the get-go. But, Americans were told that there was always more, better intelligence - secret intelligence - that we couldn't know about. Every suggestion was made to this point, with plenty of scare-mongering about "mushroom clouds" thrown in for good measure. So, we took the Bush Administration at its word and the Senate did the same.

How Hagel and Nelson will be judged on those votes - and the comments surrounding them - is between them, their consciences, their God, and the history books. What matters now is what they say and do in the present to make matters right in the Middle East.

Here, Hagel, for all his bluster and egotism, is doing what he can to right the disastrous course on which this nation has embarked. It is not honorable in the slightest to attack him for being one of the few prominent Republicans in this country to not only respond to but actually invite responsible criticism, in contrast with so much of his party's blindly marching along to Bush's every order.

Whereas Hagel's comments could be used constructively to demonstrate how the Republican Party is not keeping faith with the common sense and decency of Nebraska voters - to the point that even Hagel must defy them - it is deeply disappointing to see the Nebraska Democratic Party instead make a cheap personal attack without any regard for the underlying principles at hand.

Luckily, no one reads these press releases, and the media hardly reports on them. So long as the Nebraska Democratic Party is so petty and remains more concerned with scoring points than advancing the cause of truth and responsible government, I fear their voice will continue to be irrelevant. Hence, they may continue to use whatever double standards they wish that render them so indistinguishable from their supposed counterparts on the Right.

To question your Democratic Party is not undemocratic... don't ever forget that, ladies and gentlemen. We are better than this or we are no better at all.

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Thursday, November 17, 2005

Stenberg, Small Schools Praise Judicial Activism

by Kyle Michaelis
This week, former Nebraska Attorney General and three-time Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate Don Stenberg won a surprising victory on behalf of rural, elementary-only "Class I" school districts, at least temporarily saving them from forced consolidation under a 2005 legislative bill.

The AP reports:
A state law requiring all elementary-only schools to merge with larger districts was put on hold by a judge Monday.

If the schools are dissolved as current law requires in June 2006, "a fair opportunity to vote in a meaningful manner will not be available," Lancaster County District Judge Paul Merritt Jr. ruled.

Supporters of the elementary-only, or Class I schools, sought the injunction to have the law suspended in case voters repeal it in the November 2006 election. The school merger repeal will be on the ballot, thanks to a successful petition drive.

The law requires the districts to be dissolved in June, 4 1/2 months before the vote.

Should the law be allowed to continue, the November vote would then "represent a meaningless exercise in futility," Merritt said in his ruling....

"Obviously we're happy about the decision but also feel it's fair," said Matt Nessetti with Nebraskans for Local Schools, a group that spearheaded the drive to repeal the law. "Our whole goal initially was to give the people a voice about this."

While enough signatures to put the question of repealing the law on the ballot, petition circulators fell about 26,000 short of enough to have automatically suspended the law without legal action....

The judge agreed with arguments made by Don Stenberg, a candidate for the U.S. Senate and a former three-term state attorney general who represented the small schools. He said that because a vote to repeal the law would be meaningless unless the law were suspended, the court would be justified in issuing the injunction.

This all comes on the heels of a November 4th Omaha World-Herald editorial, providing some much needed historical context to this legal battle:
Backers of Class I schools collected enough valid signatures this year to put Legislative Bill 126 on the November 2006 ballot. That would be almost exactly 20 years after voters destroyed LB 662, the last attempt to force mergers of Class Is with K-12 school districts.

But small-school backers failed where their 1980s predecessors succeeded: They were unable to get enough signatures to suspend the merger law pending the vote.

The state constitution, to put it bluntly, couldn't be more clear. Article III, Section 3, says petitioners need valid signatures equal to 5 percent of the state's registered voters to put a law passed by the Legislature on the next general-election ballot - but 10 percent if they also want the law suspended until then.

These percentages have been in place since 1920...The differing thresholds, then, have been known for 85 years.

So, first, congratulations Mr. Stenberg. There's just one problem here - your "victory" flies in the face of one of the most fundamental principles on which your campaign for the Senate is supposedly founded - putting a stop to activist judges.

As Stenberg's campaign website vows, "JUDGES SHOULD BE LAW ENFORCERS, NOT LAW MAKERS."

In this situation, the law was perfectly clear, and Stenberg - for all his empty campaign promises - specifically asked the judge to disregard Nebraska's constitution. He didn't just want law made - he wanted it violated....and that's exactly what he got.

To be honest, I'm not all that eager to see these school districts closed and I certainly don't mind voters, on principle, having a say in their government. But, the Constitution was clear here - it had stood this way for 85 years! What, might I ask, could possibly be a more "activist" decision than this show of blatant disregard for Nebraska's most fundamental rules of law?

Right decision, wrong decision - who can say? Likely, that now rests in the hands of the voters. But, what is clear here is Don Stenberg's utter and complete hypocrisy. I can appreciate different perspectives on the role of the judge and the courts in public policy, but this case should forever preclude Stenberg from ever again condemning judicial activism because that's exactly what he asked for and got - no question about it.

As this situation illustrates, Stenberg is an empty suit personified willing to say anything to get elected. His complete reliance on Republican talking points and "talk radio" rhetoric is so devoid of honest and critical thought that it almost makes me sorry for the man. Then, I remember that he served three terms as Attorney General and still holds out hope to be a Senator, and suddenly I realize it's the people of Nebraska with whom my sympathies truly lie.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Proselytizing in Nebraska's Public Schools

by Kyle Michaelis
At least one citizen of the small town of Thedford, Nebraska - population 211, located approximately 60 miles north of North Platte - is outraged by the public school's allowing the Assembly of God Church troubling access to school resources, particularly the impressionable minds of its students.

The North Platte Telegraph reports:
The superintendent of the Thedford School District will not be terminated - as was requested by a parent at a contentious school board meeting Monday night - but he will follow through on plans to retire at the end of the school year....

Parent Gary Reiser appeared before the school board Monday night to demand [Bevin] Brown's immediate termination, claiming that Brown has not dealt with complaints of religion-based programs held during school hours and peer pressure from students to join the Assembly of God Church.

Reiser asked the board Monday if a program called "the Sevens Project" violated the separation of church and state. He alleged Brown told him it was "no big deal" when Reiser expressed concern about the sex education part of the program, and the church's involvement.

The Seven's Project program was held in the school, during school hours, and focused on sex education and avoiding drugs. The project website teaches abstinence and a drug-free lifestyle. Principal Gary Klahn said he believed that drug-free grant money paid for half of the $2,100 program fee and the Assembly of God Church paid for the rest.

Pastor Jonathon Busch said the church did not pay for the day-long program, but did arrange for the group to put on an evening program. "We paid to rent the gym, and our goal was to reach out to unchurched kids," Busch said....

Addressing allegations made at the meeting about religious information placed in lockers, Jonathon Busch said that a church youth member went against leadership instructions.

Associate Pastor Clay Luttrell told youth members of the Assembly of God Church to give those who came forward at the altar call a book titled the "Book of Hope." "It is my understanding that the person acted on their own and gave the books out during school, which was against our instructions," Luttrell said.

Jonathon Busch said the person became overzealous, but he has dealt with the situation and addressed it extensively in staff meetings.

Hamilton said he didn't have a problem with activities like the Sevens Project....

Klahn said an assembly will take place address the issues brought up at Monday's meeting...

"Students will be told to place their Bible verse magnets inside their lockers, and if a student finds religious pamphlets in his or her locker, the student is to tell Brown or me immediately," Klahn said.

This story is indicative of a growing problem across the nation as churches explore new ways of infiltrating public schools, with what seems to be unstated government approval from elected officials' general lack of concern for the flagrant unconstitutionality of such programs.

While this article suggests Principal Klahn is doing what he can to correct a bad situation, it's clear Superintendent Brown has no understanding whatsoever of this severe violation of the public's trust. That students are expected to tell Brown if any further proselytizing occurs is a laughable and entirely inadequate response when he has already characterized this conduct as "no big deal."

In a small town, it takes a lot of courage to complain about any unwanted religious influence because churches are often the strongest force in the community. Challenging that influence, even when it is completely inappropriate (as in a public school), carries with it the very real risk of ostracism. Add a proven unsympathetic administrator to the mix, and the situation becomes downright untenable in a society with any respect whatsoever for religious freedom and the seperation of church and state.

Furthermore, Assembly of God Pastor Busch's attempt to pass blame for this incident onto a student is utterly reprehensible. A program such as The Seven Project so blurs the lines between religious and school activity that students are bound to be confused by what is and is not permissible. And, you know what, that's the whole point of these programs - to infiltrate public schools, making converts of the students. Busch admits as much saying the goal "was to reach out to unchurched kids."

Of course, The Seven Project is generally quite good at hiding this purpose. Its website for students is deliberately vague about its purpose, attempting to pass for an all-purpose on-line youth hang-out. It's website for school officials at least admits to the group's religious affiliation, though still in the vaguest terms possible and attempting to sell itself as teaching "traditional American values and the laws of our government" rather than religious material.

The one caveat:
While there is absolutely no religious content in the Seven Project school assemblies, there are evening festivals in the community that often include some religious content. In such cases, a proper disclaimer will be made so that those who would not wish to be affiliated with these festive gatherings may be made aware of the additional religious content.

Nevermind the social pressures that already make these corresponding, cross-purpose events highly objectionable. When these "evening festivals" are not just held in the community but in the school that already hosted the Seven Project assembly, any line between them is effectively destroyed.

That the Thedford school board and administration allowed this conflict of interest, inviting a church to take advantage of the public trust under the ruse of education, is a gross failure of duty to students and parents alike. That they are not willing to rectify, let alone apologize, for the situation is an even worse violation, especially when the only person taking any responsibility is an unnamed student labeled as "over-zealous" for doing what he considered right - doing out in the open what his church was doing by far more insidious means.

Note that government money went to pay for this program. Note, too, the deliberate confusion about who covered the other half of the cost - the principal suggesting it was the Assembly of God and the Pastor knowing better than to admit so. He can get away with it because, again, the church is using deceitful techniques that would make your common money-launderer proud. An imaginary line is constructed between the church and its services so they can make mockery of our constitution and further blur the lines serving as the foundation of our most cherished democratic principles.

This can not be tolerated. Public schools need not be free of religious expression when it is honestly students sharing their beliefs, but allowing organized religious entities to establish hold in this most sacredly secular of institutions is utterly un-American.

School boards have extended Zero Tolerance policies to include butter knives and wayward glances - it's time they do the same for religious indoctrination. And, if they will not, our legislators most certainly should.

Shall I hold my breath?

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Can Jim Vokal Ride Prostitution to the Mayor's Office?

by Kyle Michaelis
Omaha city councilman Jim Vokal, fresh from a narrow re-election this spring after which he immediately declared his intention to run for Mayor in 2009, has chosen a peculiar cause to define himself - getting tough on prostitution.

Having faced questions of his own sexuality, one might assume Vokal would steer clear of the world's oldest profession for fear of drawing attention to the generally malicious rumors that became an issue in his last campaign. Instead, it seems he's chosen the well-worn road of reactionary excess and over-compensation to PROVE he's no deviant by cracking down on socially unacceptable and illegal sexual conduct.

Last week, the Omaha World-Herald reported:
"(Prostitution) continues to plague our neighborhoods," Councilman Jim Vokal said during a public hearing at the Omaha City Council meeting.

Under Vokal's plan, the mandatory minimum fine would be $300 to $500 for a second offense and a minimum of $500 for third and fourth offenses....

Vokal also plans to ask the City Council to lobby state legislators to make third and subsequent prostitution offenses felonies.

To which, an OWH Editorial responded:
Good governance entails forward thinking in determining the appropriate course and punishment for wrongdoing. Society is ill-served, that is, when government leaders try to address a complex problem with a simplistic, narrowly drawn approach.

Such is the case with a proposal by Omaha City Councilman Jim Vokal to add mandatory fines to the jail time already required for second, third and fourth offenses of prostitution....

The proposal would deal clumsily with a complex problem that cries out for a thoughtful, broadly constructed response....

Prostitutes often are trapped in horrific circumstances. Many sell their bodies to help pay for drug habits, food or a place to stay because of homelessness. Some do it as a result of untreated sexual abuse in their childhood that leads to inappropriate sexualized behavior. Given those circumstances, it is unrealistic to imagine that raising the fines would make much headway in finding a remedy for the problem....

Treating the disease (what leads to prostitution) rather than the symptoms (the act itself) could result in an outcome that favors all involved - prostitutes, their clients and the neighborhoods harmed by the activity. That's good governance.

Attempting to defend his plan, Vokal writes in Tuesday's paper:
Prostitution continues to plague our neighborhoods. When the residents see their elected officials strike out at these criminal activities, they see people who care and are willing to take a stand against crime in their neighborhoods.

Increased police staffing and corresponding stings, as well as outreach and prevention programs, have been part of the solution all along but are not working. Something more needs to be done in conjunction with them, and this would be a start.

This approach would not make the problem go away but hopefully would help reduce it. While some may call this a simplistic, narrowly drawn approach, using effective techniques from other cities to at least try to make a difference is better than sitting on one's hands.

So, is that going to be Vokal's future campaign theme - I may not do the right thing, but at least I'll do something?

Regardless, even the mighty World-Herald's criticism isn't going to hurt Vokal with the many religious and social conservatives so desperate for a moral crusader - no matter the unreasonable and foolish public policy espoused. It's these votes to which Vokal is making an appeal here, locking-up support and squelching any remaining doubts about his own moral/sexual/religious integrity among those who make no distinction between the three.

Will it pay-off? Who knows. But, I'm sure we'll all enjoy the debate - some of us with what can only be considered a perverse delight. be so repressed!

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Ricketts Buying GOP Senate Race Before it Starts

by Kyle Michaelis
I'm pretty sure this is unprecedented in Nebraska politics - nearly 6 months before the May primary, Republican Senate hopeful Pete Ricketts has declared an all-out air war, bombarding local print, tv, and radio with campaign advertising.

It's clear Ricketts wants to use his spending prowess to scare off his Republican opponents and dry-up their fundraising efforts - effectively ending the race before it starts. Honestly, with "trust-fund baby" Rickett's family fortune in the hundreds of millions of dollars, it's not a bad strategy.

The AP reports:
Republican Senate hopeful Pete Ricketts fired a financial shot across the bows of his GOP rivals Tuesday in officially launching his campaign.

Ricketts, who is vying for the GOP nomination with Don Stenberg and David Kramer, took out ads in every daily newspaper in Nebraska and in several weeklies. He also launched a series of television and radio spots - all with six months to go before the May primary.

Ricketts declined to say how much he spent on the ads....

Ricketts has said he is worth $25 million, but said Tuesday he did not know much of his own money he'd be willing to spend on his campaign.

"I have an obligation to get my message out to the folks in Nebraska so that they can be informed when it comes to the election," he said. "I need to get out and make that introduction around the state so that people know who I am.

"I'm a household name in my household" only, he said.

He recently stepped down as Ameritrade's chief operating officer. He continues to serve as vice chairman and a member of Ameritrade's board of directors.

Stenberg spokesman Dan Parsons said it was not surprising that Ricketts was spending so much money so early.

"We expected him to spend several million of his own dollars ... to get his name ID up," Parsons said. "We are not intimidated."

Kramer said in a statement through his campaign manager, Sam Fischer, that he also was undaunted by Ricketts' early financial salvo.

"We are successfully building a grass-roots campaign," he said. "The activity or inactivity of any of my fellow candidates isn't going to change my strategy or message."

In reports filed last month with the Federal Election Commission, Ricketts led the GOP pack, having raised $373,000. He had $297,000 cash on hand.

Kramer had raised $172,000 and had $89,000 in the bank.

Stenberg had raised $135,000 and had just $12,500 cash left.

Stenberg and Kramer damn well better be intimidated, and - from the look of those fundraising reports - Parsons and the whole Stenberg campaign had better just be praying for a paycheck.

There's no getting around the fact that Ricketts is the favorite here. He has the money and neither of the other two candidates have "the goods" to overcome least, not without some flawless campaigning and a couple strokes of good fortune.

As for Ricketts' commercial, I've got to say it's one of the best money can buy - the bit with his mother telling him to cover that bald head of his before he catches a cold is pretty good stuff as far as cheesy "get-to-know-the-candidate" moments go. Still, there's something almost repulsive about Ricketts' willingness to expend as much money as he has this far out from an election. Buying a race is one thing, but buying it this early is just poor form, though it may prove brilliant in shutting-down the competition.

In his print advertisment (quarter-page in the Lincoln Journal-Star) and at a press conference today, it's amusing that Ricketts emphasizes as much as he does eliminating the estate tax and making President Bush's 2001 tax cut for the economic elite permanent. On both of those issues, Ricketts is plainly protecting the interest of the Ricketts family and fellow millionaires rather than Nebraska families.

Come on, Pete...if you can afford to spend grandpa's money this early in your campaign, you can afford to pay your fair share in taxes. Let's give money back to the people who need it - for food, clothing, heating, school supplies - rather than those who are going to use it to play "Senator" because it sounds like fun.

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Monday, November 14, 2005

Hergert in Hiding

by Kyle Michaelis
The Daily Nebraskan has provided some truly outstanding reporting lately, particularly with reporter Meredith Grunke's coverage of Dave Hergert's evermore embarrassing presence on the Nebraska Board of Regents. This week, however, the DN is looking beyond Hergert's cheating and the resulting public outcry, more generally examining in a four-part series the purpose of the Board of Regents and the reasoning behind several Regents' ridiculous levels of campaign spending to win their seats.

The first such article reports:
In 2000, Regent Randy Ferlic of Omaha spent $290,000 on his campaign.

In 2002, Regent Howard Hawks of Omaha spent almost $450,000 to win the District 2 seat.

In 2005, Regent Dave Hergert of Mitchell paid $33,000 in fines alone to maintain his seat after admitting to campaign finance violations in his 2004 election. Regent Drew Miller of Papillion paid $6,000 for violations committed during his campaign for re-election to the board in 2000.

And they did it all to become one of the eight unpaid members of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents.

Regents’ travel and other expenses associated with their official university duties are covered, but they otherwise serve without compensation – aside from two season football tickets, parking passes and tickets to NU events....

So why did the regents run, and what do they get out of their position?

That's an important question to which the people of Nebraska deserve an answer, particularly from those candidates who have seemingly bought their seats by violating campaign finance laws and out-spending their opponents by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Yet, unsurprisingly, it is these candidates - the Ferlics, Hawks, and Millers - who provide the least satisfactory responses.

The print edition also includes this amusing and revealing Reporter's Note:
As Regent Dave Hergert left Varner Hall's boardroom Friday during a break in the Board of Regents meeting, I asked him if I could schedule a time to speak with him about this week's series about the board.

While he ran up the stairs, I called up to him, saying I just wanted to make sure his voice was included in the article. Hergert replied by saying he's been very busy.

But that response was nothing new - I've heard it several times before. After attempts to contact Hergert through e-mail and multiple phone calls, I was unsuccessful at ensuring Hergert had that voice.

I offered to miss a day of class last week to travel to Scottsbluff and interview Hergert personally. But business was too busy, he and his secretary said.

And so, Hergert is the only regent not quoted in today's opening story.

Of course, Hergert had just been scolded and asked again to resign by members of Huskers Against Hergert for half an hour of public comment, so it's understandable why he might not have been in a very talkative mood. He also can't appreciate the DN's continued criticism, nor the poll they published last week that poked a hole bigger than Hergert's head through the delusional theory that he still has the support of Western Nebraska voters.

But running from and evading a reporter for a college newspaper - that's just sad. Besides, he's been making the same excuses for months to print and TV media all over the state to avoid having to go on record and answer any tough questions about his unethical conduct. It's pathetic.

Hergert should do himself a favor - do this state a favor - for the sake of the University, its students, and it's reputation - the time has come to resign.

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Nelson Breaks with Dems/Dean on Alito

by Kyle Michaelis
Symbolic gesture? Empty statement? Outright betrayal?

It's difficult to say just which of the above Sen. Ben Nelson's column in the Sunday Omaha World-Herald qualfies as in regards to the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. Until now, Nelson had remained uncommitted on Alito beyond stating respect for his qualifications with a generally favorable impression heading into January's confirmation hearings.

It was a well-reasoned, entirely respectable and respectful position that maintained his essential role as one of the Senate's bipartisan "Gang of 14" protecting the minority's traditional right of filibuster balanced against the rightful authority of the President to name federal judges as he sees fit. Wait and see...give the man a fair hearing...let's take our time and do this right before making any final decisions - - - all perfectly acceptable ideas that Nelson seems to have now abandoned needlessly with little regard for his "fellow" Democrats or the potential long-term repercussions of this nomination.

Nelson writes:
With one successful and one unsuccessful Supreme Court nomination behind us, the Senate now is considering the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to replace retiring Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. By all accounts, Judge Alito is a nominee with impeccable judicial credentials and experience.

That's both the good news and the bad news. His background and extensive record on the appellate court are fodder for all sides in the debate. His record can be used to prop him up or tear him down.

Just days after his nomination was announced, the battle has been fully joined. Already, in Nebraska, television advertisements sponsored by Washington special-interest groups have been carried over the airwaves....

For me, when it comes to judicial nominees, the issue is judicial activism. Does the nominee want to make law or apply law? The answer to this question is central to the constitutional ideal of separation of powers and could disclose the intent of a nominee to act as a legislator instead of an adjudicator.

For the most part, what I've heard from Nebraskans when it comes to considering Supreme Court nominations is that they want the president to appoint and the Senate to confirm a "good judge" and, in the process, to avoid labels and resist litmus tests. The special-interest groups in Washington have litmus tests and expect nominees to adhere to them.

In my meeting with Judge Alito on Nov. 2, he assured me that he was carrying no political agenda to the bench. I asked him if he envisioned himself carrying a hammer and chisel and looking to forge new law. He assured me that he would consider each case on its merits and would bring no agenda to the bench.

The president's nominees, especially to the Supreme Court, deserve an up-or-down vote, even if the nominee isn't popular with the special-interest groups in Washington. As a former governor who appointed the entire Nebraska Supreme Court and the entire Nebraska Court of Appeals and more than half the current judges in Nebraska, I understand how important appointments are to our judicial system.

What the John Roberts appointment showed us is that the process can work even in the most partisan atmosphere. What the Harriet Miers nomination showed us is that it's not always partisanship that derails the process.

Perhaps the Alito appointment could show us all that judges can act independent of their political agendas and avoid the traps of judicial activism.

Is it just me or did Nelson just kill the Gang of 14 compromise - at least in principle if not in practice?

Today's none-too-subtle shift by Nelson calling for an up-or-down vote on Alito and seemingly ALL of the president's judicial nominees is entirely lacking in the "extreme circumstances" qualification that has until now been the hallmark of this vital, bipartisan compromise. Be it intentional or not, he has completely undermined the Democratic minority and the carefully-crafted positioning of the Gang of 14 that has thus far been Nelson's most impressive legislative contriubution.

Of course, Nelson's reliance on buzzwords denouncing "judicial activism" and "litmus tests" has long seemed a generally unprincipled and ultimately cynical abuse of political rhetoric. It is a hodgepodge of soundbytes masquerading as a judicial philosophy with little regard for the true role of the courts in U.S. history.

Use of convenient, politically-charged language could be justified (barely) when Nelson used it to balance the protection of Constitutional freedoms with the political reality of our day, but his backing away from any attempt at such balance by swearing allegiance to this idea that any nominee deserves an up-or-down vote is one of those last straw situtations that tests ones ability to tolerate, let alone actively support, Nelson as he seeks re-election.

That Nelson could even suggest that the withdrawal of Bush's first nominee, Harriet Miers, was not a partisan act demonstrates an absurd divorce between ideology and partisanship in Nelson's thinking. It is plainly ludicrous and insulting. Of course partisanship brought down Miers - except here it was Miers' ideological uncertainty amongst partisan purists of the same stripe rather than those on the other side of the aisle.

She was not a sufficiently known quantity to pass muster with the conservative powers that be, who feel they have been burned by such types before feeding an endless persecution complex so sickening that it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy if their were any justice or sense in this world.

Nelson's disregard for the truth of the Miers nomination is disloyal and dishonest - extending the Republican Party undeserved latitude and deference he fails time and again to extend to his own party. I can embrace the independent leadership of a true non-partisan but not this unthinkingly biased buying-into Republican talking points. By virtue of Nelson's new-found call for universal "up-or-down" votes, he should - if anything - be pointing out the hypocrisy of Republican special interests' years-long calling for such treatment when they would not even extend it to one of their own. Consistency should not be too much to ask.

Note, too, how Nelson's newly-stated position contradicts the efforts of Democratic Party Chair Howard Dean, as stated in a Sunday "Meet the Press" interview:
Despite early signals to the contrary, U.S. Senate Democrats must keep open the option of blocking a confirmation vote on U.S. Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, Democratic Party leader Howard Dean said on Sunday.

"This could be a defining moment," Dean said. "Judge Alito is a hard-working man, a good family man, but his opinions are well outside the mainstream of American public opinion...."

Conservatives have rallied behind Bush's nomination of Alito, 55, believing he would help push the nation's highest court to the right on abortion and other social issues.

If confirmed by the Republican-led Senate, Alito would replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who often has been the swing vote on the nine-member court.

A number of moderate Senate Democrats and Republicans have said at this point they see no "extraordinary circumstance" that would merit a filibuster against Alito.

And last Sunday, Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he expects members of his party to permit a confirmation vote on Alito without the threat of a filibuster.

Biden and others have said a final judgment on a possible filibuster would be made after they learned more about Alito. But so far indication have been there will not be one.

Dean, asked if Democrats should keep the possibility of a filibuster on the table, said, "Absolutely. Of course we should...."

"I think the Democrats are going to have to think long and hard, as the hearings progress, about whether we should support him," Dean said.

Whether Alito is filibustered or not - frankly, I think it would probably be a very bad idea to do so - Nelson was wrong to take advantage of the likelihood of Alito's confirmation in such a manner that ties the hands of Senate Democrats by straying from the simple and effective message of impartiality and patience that would allow the citizens of this country every opportunity to examine Alito for themselves.

I am disappointed. I am dismayed. The Ben Nelson I respect should have known better than to foolishly go out on this limb contradicting the principles he has heretofore espoused, not to mention the work of his party as they responsibly consider Alito's nomination on behalf of the American people in the careful manner to which Republicans - for their philosophy of "message control before all else" - have proven completely and fundamentally incapable.

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