Tuesday, February 28, 2006

A Few Good Candidates

by Kyle Michaelis
An article in today's Lincoln Journal-Star brings up an important issue I've been meaning to write about for some time - one I'd hoped I wouldn't have to write about - the Nebraska Democratic Party's seeming inability to attract, enlist, recruit, or retain candidates for Nebraska's statewide constitutional offices.

Nate Jenkins and Nancy Hicks write:
The state Democratic Party has put a lot of effort and rhetoric behind its efforts to revive itself and loosen the tight grip Republicans have on most parts of the state. Part of the strategy — surprise — is to simply get more Democrats to run for office.

It’s been tough sledding so far.

The candidate filing deadline for legislative and statewide offices is Wednesday, and as of presstime Monday, zero Democrats had filed for four of the five constitutional offices: Secretary of State, State Treasurer, Attorney General and Auditor.

The lone Democrat in the constitutional office mix, David Hahn, is running for governor.

“Obviously, we’re getting down to crunch time” to field candidates for the other four offices, said Barry Rubin, executive director of the Nebraska Democratic Party. Rubin said he is still hopeful that Democrats will file for some or all of the seats, but acknowledged it’s been a struggle. “Running for (the offices) isn’t as sexy as running for governor or Congress or Legislature.”

But for a party trying to rebuild itself and establish a presence in all levels of government, it could be nearly as important.

Now, maybe I'll wake-up on Thursday morning and discover that we have a full slate of well-qualified and dynamic candidates for these positions, but - frankly - I'm not putting much faith in the idea. And, at the end of the day, there are really only two people I can blame for this:

You. And me.

Of course, finding good candidates is part of Rubin and the Democratic Party's job - it and getting such folks elected might even be their whole reason for existing. On that level, it's fair to recognize failure, but fault is another matter entirely.

At the end of the day, the Nebraska Democratic Party will only ever be as strong as the people willing to wear its label before the voters on a ballot. In so far as I have not been scouring the state high and low for qualified, respectable, and passionate candidates for these offices, I am to blame for what could prove a very pathetic display on the November ballot, and so are you (unless you're a Republican).

Pointing fingers rarely does any good, even when pointing in a mirror. Still, I'm distressed that things could have gotten to this point with my barely having made a peep about the Democratic Party's dire need for candidates. While I've been distracted and only really serve an essential function in my imagination, I can't believe what I must have been thinking to assume candidates would just pop-up out of the blue (or red, as the case may be).

Then again, no candidate is usually better than an embarrassing and unprepared one. And, this late in the game (we're talking inbounds pass from the other side of the court with 2 seconds left here), it really is expecting too much that legitimate candidates are going to come forward. So much of politics is preparation - yes, in raising money and building a campaign but also in reconciling work and family with such a huge committment and even getting to a point where you can reasonably look the voters of this state in the eye and ask them to put their trust in you.

But, without people willing to make that sacrifice, to take that risk, the Democratic Party will never be anything but an echo in this state. If we can't offer an alternative to voters, we are every bit as much to blame for this state's failures as the Republicans in actual office.

Running for office is an incredible committment. And, admittedly, the numbers in this state are not all that inviting for those would run as Democrats. But, for anyone with the means, the ability, and the inclination to run not to do so on the basis of party registration amounts to an act of contempt for Nebraska voters. Running for office is always an act of faith - if we're not willing to put our names, our ideas, our reputations, and our expertise on the line, trusting our fate to the reasonableness of voters, how can we ever expect things to improve?

Maybe we are a party devoid of ideas and without talent. Of course, I know Democrats who prove that notion wrong. Our lone candidate for governor, David Hahn, is a prime example. Stranding him on the ballot is an abandonment of him, of our ideals, and of the future of this state. It is politically unconsciounable and unforgiveable ...especially in an election year where any candidate will be sharing the ballot with a popular Ben Nelson and not have to run against a Republican president. To waste such opportunity and potential can only make Nebraska's hoped-for progressive renaissance that much more distant and improbable. It's sad really.

Though I've supported Jon Bruning to some degree on many of his controversial choices of late, whether he has the legal expertise required of an Attorney General has certainly come into question of late. Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Gale has been caught turning supposed election reform into a Republican get-out-the-vote effort. The Republican elected state Treasurer in 2002 resigned in disgrace, casting a cloud that still hangs over that office. Finally, the State Auditor position stands to be filled by a man who has dedicated 6 years in the legislature to a singular, self-serving purpose of chiseling away at the rights of women. How Mike Foley would do the same as State Auditor is anyone's guess, though it likely involves using that office as a stepping stone to a position of even greater political influence.

Four open slots. Four opportunities. Four cases to be made that the voters of Nebraska need change and deserve a better alternative - a Democratic alternative. Unless Rubin and the NDP have something up their sleeves, it's probably too late to expect a true slate to come together that could break Nebraska's cycle of stagnation and put the state back on the path to progress. But, if anyone out there has been seriously considering seeking any of these offices, I hope this plea might encourage you to make that leap, that investment, that act of act of faith in our democracy and our Democratic Party. If nothing else, you'll be relieving this lonely blogger of some of that blame I share for not taking up this charge sooner and with greater force.

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Friday, February 24, 2006

Nelson More Popular Than Ever?

by Kyle Michaelis
Last week, SurveyUSA updated it's monthly 50 state tracking poll of every U.S. Senator's approval rating. While Nebraska's Democratic Senator Ben Nelson has consistently outpolled his Republican counterpart Sen. Chuck Hagel in these ratings, what is most impressive about Nelson's latest results is that they rank him as one of the most popular senators in the country.

As Nelson's would-be challengers duke it out for the Republican Party's nomination, he has to feel pretty good about receiving a 68% approval rating in February, a new personal best. With numbers like that in an election year, it's pretty clear that whoever wins the right to take on Nelson is going to have a hard time getting any real fire under his campaign. At the end of the day, regardless of political affiliation, voters tend to stick with a guy they like.....and Nebraskans like Ben Nelson. Hell, some downright love him because he's plain-spoken, honest, and more concerned about getting things done than playing political games.

Nelson's remarkable showing puts him tied with three other Democrats as the 7th most popular Senator in the nation. As such, he is one of seven Democrats holding spots in the top ten (note, on the other hand, that Republicans hold 14 of the 18 worst approval ratings in the Senate).

While Nelson scored big, it was more of the same for Hagel, who has shown no real movement one way or the other since polling began last spring. Still, his 59% approval rating was good enough to rank him at the tail end of the Senate's upper-third. So, for all the protests by hardcore Republican activists about Hagel's outspoken criticism of the Bush Administration's foreign policy, it seems Hagel can pretty well rely on the core supporters he's got and should continue to demand some measure of accountibility from this White House that has made an art of shifting blame and disregarding the facts.

But, enough about that. The day is Sen. Nelson's. With the election coming up, his numbers seem cause for celebration...even if Nebraska's Republican registration advantage leaves one hesitant to ever take anything for granted. Nelson's been able to overcome that disadvantage at the ballot box, and here's proof that he continues to do so in voters' hearts. No matter where he falls in ones subjective notions of what a true Democrat should be, I feel confident joining with the rest of the state in the opinion that this man is a great representative and a true asset to the people of Nebraska.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Defending & Solidifying Your Right to Privacy

by Kyle Michaelis
Although not an idea which anyone but the most die-hard libertarian is likely to embrace completely without hesitation, the time has come to affirm and define an inviolable right to privacy in the state of Nebraska's Constitution and, ultimately, the U.S. Constitution.

Presenting some danger in the age of terrorism and when science and medicine have so blurred the lines between life and death, it is precisely the challenges these issues present to the traditional court-held doctrine that make it so imperative that a concrete and true standard for the right to privacy be recognized before political pressures are allowed to chip away at long-standing freedoms piece-by-piece.

The Omaha World-Herald reports:
Worries about creeping government intrusion into people's lives are behind a proposal to include a right to privacy in the Nebraska Constitution.

Legislative Resolution 254CA would prohibit the state from making or enforcing "any law which infringes upon or interferes with the privacy of the person, family, home, property, documents, correspondence or information of any person."

Laws restricting privacy rights would be allowed only to protect the rights of others and if they are the only means to ensure public safety.

The proposal is the brainchild of two Lincoln attorneys, David M. Williams and former state insurance director Robert Lange, and State Sen. David Landis of Lincoln.

Lange said his interest comes from seeing what he called "an erosion of individual privacy and civil rights" over the past decade or so. He has been especially concerned about the Patriot Act, passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"We want to have the right balance so our individual privacy isn't a fatality of trying to increase security," he said. Including privacy in the Constitution would force legislators to think more carefully before enacting laws that could infringe on individual rights, he said.

Contrary to what some people believe, the U.S. Constitution does not guarantee Americans a right to privacy. The U.S. Supreme Court has decided a number of cases based on privacy rights "implied" in the Constitution.

If Nebraska added a constitutional privacy right, it would be at least the 11th state to do so, Lange said. Florida, Hawaii, California and Louisiana are among states that include privacy in their constitutions.

LR 254CA will be heard by the Judiciary Committee at 1:30 p.m. Thursday. The measure would have to be approved by the Legislature and by Nebraska voters to become part of the state constitution.

Of course, any recognition of the "privacy of the person" is likely to make this proposed Amendment anathema to the anti-abortion crowd because such is already a sizable chunk of the reasoning behind Roe v. Wade and similar decisions. How unfortunate that a single issue so easily manipulated should likely cloud the debate and stand in the way of voters demanding and asserting their own individual liberties.

With new technology, the ability of government, corporations, or other people to intrude into our lives will be limited only by the principles we uphold and the standards we expect. The encroachment will not end - nor will the dangers already evidenced by the Bush Administration of an executive branch without proper regard for institutional and constitutional checks on its authority.

Thanks to Sen. Landis and company for doing what they can to bring this essential idea to the people of Nebraska. Hopefully, this will start us along the path as citizens of the state and nation to thinking about and, if need be, fighting for rights we have too long taken for granted without exercising the proper cares to see that they are shared by our children, part of their birthright as human beings and American citizens.

If the legislature will not act (as I suspect), how nice it would be to, for once, see a statewide petition supporting a constitutional provision that actually protects people's rights rather than taking them away. Dare I even dream of such a possibility? Who among us - I ask - is willing to take the lead for a better state that will stay true to our highest principles and our most freedom-loving heritage?

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The Andersen Echo

by Kyle Michaelis
In regards to the Omaha World-Herald's previously-mentioned bit of misdirection, one small step forward was quickly met by a giant leap back this weekend courtesy of our old friend Harold W. Andersen.

For a short time, it seemed from Saturday's editorial page even the World-Herald was implicitly acknowledging the ridiculousness of its choosing to let the story about the story eclipse Vice-President Dick Cheney's shooting a man and allowing more than the appearance of impropriety to fester by embracing an immediate lock-down mentality that showed total disregard for the ideal of open government and the concerns of the American public.

Giving short shrift and still notably qualified to a pathetic degree (why any mention of "critics" rather than speaking on its own behalf as it does on any other issue it pleases?), the World-Herald editorial board wrote in one of its "Furthermore" footnotes:
Critics of the Bush administration were quick to accuse the White House of arrogance for sitting so long on the story of the Dick Cheney hunting accident. Arrogance or incompetence, take your pick. Neither possibility instills confidence in a presidency that, well into its second term, still seems at times to be in training.

Fair enough. The still inadequate gesture is almost enough to forgive the fact that this inconvenient admission (for a Republican-leaning newspaper) didn't originally take precedent over critiquing the media's response. Who cares that such choice was far more indicative of bias than most of the supposed claims of it the World-Herald itself is constantly suggesting?

But wait, this little bit of semi-honorable back-tracking in the little-read Saturday paper was quickly counteracted in the Sunday paper when Andersen chose to echo the earlier editorial's obscuring the facts and the public's legitimate concerns so as to make another over-generalized and uncalled-for pot-shot at the media.

Andersen wrote/spun:
Cheney properly has taken full responsibility for the accident. A fundamental rule of safe shooting is that you know where every other hunter and guide - and, yes, the dogs, in case of possible low-flying birds - are before you shoot.

But the flap in the press has not revolved around the fact that the vice president accidentally wounded a hunting companion. The screams from reporters and commentators - a major percentage of whom are constantly alert for any way to discredit President Bush and anyone connected with his administration - are based on the fact that no one on Cheney's staff or in the White House immediately announced what had happened.

For example, the Washington Post editorialized: "Neither Cheney nor the White House gets to pick and choose when to disclose a shooting. Saturday's incident required immediate public disclosure - a fact so elementary that the failure to act properly is truly disturbing in its implications."

"Required immediate public disclosure." Why? Who decrees such a requirement? The Washington Post?

From Cheney's standpoint, prompt announcement would have kept journalists and commentators from having one more reason to snipe at the Bush administration. The incident itself, even if promptly reported, would have been used by bashers of Bush and Cheney as offering some kind of new grounds for renewing their attacks.

Some in the press have played the story responsibly, reporting it fully but not as something of nation-shaking importance. But not the New York Times.

For two consecutive days, top play on the Times' front page, in a spot customarily reserved for a story that Times editors should consider to be the most important news in the world, was given to stories dealing with the shooting incident.

USA Today gave front-page play to the Cheney interview on the Fox News Channel. USA Today's story carried this large headline: " 'I'm the guy who pulled trigger.' " This was news? I hadn't been aware there was any doubt about who pulled the trigger.

* * *

Some Democratic politicians joined the attack on Cheney as, even more predictably, did late night talk-show hosts.

Some of the talk-show hosts, true to form, offered supposedly funny comments ranging from nasty to vicious....

One of the less nasty jokes that was making the rounds went like this: "Dick Cheney shot the last moderate Republican in Texas."

The Internet quickly delivered this rebuttal...in the form of a proposed bumper sticker: "I'd Rather Hunt With Dick Cheney Than Ride With Ted Kennedy."

I shouldn't even have to mention that Andersen's attempt to rationalize Cheney's failure to disclose because there are "Bush-bashers" who would use the information to attack the administration is so lacking in logic as to be utterly nonsensical. The attempt to kill a story does not, in itself, make a story less valid. Rather, it makes it that much more deserving of the public's attention and the media's scrutiny. Following Andersen's failed reasoning, all cover-ups - from G. Gordon Liddy's crow bar to Monica Lewinsky's lips - would be justified as a legitimate act of political self-preservation. How utterly absurd and contemptible.

Of course, Andersen also completely neglects to mention why Cheney's admission of guilt was newsworthy - because his staff had earlier suggested, in most perverted fashion, that the shooting was the victim's fault.

With such twisted and dishonest reporting on display, it then comes as little surprise when Andersen stoops to that most familiar of refrains used by Republicans to excuse their representatives' most heinous and indecent crimes - making reference to the sad and unfortunate, almost 40-years-old Chappaquiddick incident and thinking themselves clever for doing so. It's a pathetic fallback position that reveals just how low their sort is willing to drag a debate before ever taking the slightest bit of responsibility for their own failings.

And so, everything is back to normal at the World-Herald. That is, everything is back to being twisted and distorted to fit their despicably partisan agenda.

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Friday, February 17, 2006

Campaign Finance Showdown

by Kyle Michaelis
In the world of Nebraska legislative politics, a battle doesn't get much bigger than six-term Sen. Chris Beutler of Lincoln versus Speaker of the Legislature Kermit Brashear of Omaha. Of course, Ernie Chambers could be more involved, but then you're likely to get more of a political spectacle than a debate.

On the important issue of reforming or repealing Nebraska's campaign finance laws, some of the most progressive in the nation, Nebraska got an actual debate between two senators playing for keeps before they are term-limited out of office later this year. With Beutler defending the campaign laws he helped write and trying to adapt them to survive his departure, Brashear is taking one last swipe at this equalizing force in Nebraska politics that has been a constant ideological irritant to his "Cash is King" ethic.

In this first of what is likely to be several rounds of battle, I am happy to report that Beutler (and those voters who want fair elections decided by more than dollar $igns) came away victorious. The Lincoln Journal-Star reports:
An all-or-nothing clash over campaign finance laws Wednesday ended with two of the Legislature’s most respected senators shaking hands, and one conceding defeat.

“Talk to him,” Sen. Kermit Brashear of Omaha said to a TV reporter asking him for an interview. “He’s the winner.”

Brashear was referring to Sen. Chris Beutler. The Lincoln senator faced the prospect that the campaign finance laws he’s tried to uphold for more than a decade might be discarded altogether, as Brashear wants, rather than tightened and updated, as Beutler proposes.

But after a contentious, three-hour debate, Beutler left with a first-round victory — though not with a lot of confidence he has enough votes to usher it through two more rounds of debate.

“My sense is people here are not wildly enthusiastic” about updating the laws, Beutler said afterward....

[W]hen it comes to making changes, Beutler and other campaign law supporters may be aided by the ongoing legal wrangling over University of Nebraska Regent David Hergert, whose admission he broke several laws on his way to unseating a regent in 2004 has put a spotlight on the issue.

The bill (LB188) makes a variety of changes, including raising the amounts candidates for different offices can spend before opponents are eligible for public campaign dollars.

Other changes could prevent another “Hergert-type maneuver” by possibly triggering the release of public campaign dollars sooner, thereby increasing chances candidates would get the money when they could still use it in campaigns, Beutler said.

Hergert spent significantly more than he had estimated and topped limits that should have released funds to incumbent Don Blank. But he missed late reporting deadlines, causing Blank to miss out on thousands of dollars.

One change in the Beutler bill would require an additional campaign statement to be filed near the end of a race to determine whether a candidate is eligible for public dollars. Another would tie the release of funds to actual expenditures instead of estimates.

The bill also increases fines and penalties and gives the Accountability and Disclosure Commission — which reached a $33,512 settlement with Hergert — the power to subpoena witnesses when conducting preliminary investigations.

Unlike campaign finance laws in other states, Nebraska’s only applies to races where at least one candidate agrees to abide by spending limits. For legislative races, it’s $73,000 but would increase to $82,000 under the bill. The $50,000 voluntary cap in regents’ races would double under LB188.

If one candidate agrees to limit spending and another candidate exceeds the cap, the first candidate receives public funds.

Beutler argued the act has been “wildly successful” since it took effect in the 1994 election cycle because, in part, it cooled the rapid increases in spending. In 1978, a total of $350,000 was spent on legislative races. The figure increased to $1.7 million by 1994.

In 2004, spending on legislative races was less than it was in 1994, Beutler said.

Nobody in the Legislature bought their way into office, Beutler told fellow senators Wednesday. “There aren’t many legislatures in this country that can say that … and this act is the reason why,” he said.

Brashear, Hergert’s attorney when he reached the settlement with Accountability and Disclosure, said the law protects incumbents....

Raising money, he added, is a consequence of good ideas and the ability to promote them. “If nobody gives you money for your ideas, maybe you ought to go back and think about them,” Brashear said.

Brashear can talk all he wants about the campaign finance laws protecting incumbents, but his real objection is to their standing in the way of his wealthy Republican friends buying whatever elected office they can afford. Despite his attempts to tie high-dollar campaigns to successful messages, it's important to remember that Brashear's friends who have abused and manipulated the system, particularly Regents, Randy Ferlic, Howard Hawks, and the infamous Hergert, all did so with their own fortunes.

Through these campaigns and subsequent legal and legislative action, Brashear has done everything he could for eight years to undermine the established laws. He has stood in the way of their reform for years, and that they still survive is a testament to Nebraska voters' intrinsic understanding that, much to Brashear's chagrin, good government is not founded in selling influence and public office to the highest bidder.

The Omaha World-Herald's article on the debate adds:
State Sen. Ed Schrock of Elm Creek said he had supported Brashear's repeal proposal in previous years. But he said Hergert's violations changed his mind.

"I believe in a fair fight," Schrock said. "I don't like people to cheat"....

Despite Wednesday's defeat, Brashear said he plans to try again during second-round debate to repeal the campaign finance act.

Brashear is smart. When he declares Beutler "the winner", you can be sure he does so with fingers crossed and knife in hand behind his back. I only hope that Beutler's pessimism at the possibilities of passing these reforms is equally as calculated to pressure his colleagues to stand strong and do what's right for Nebraska by maintaining the legislature's qualified independence from the chains of corporate and special interest slavery.

David Hergert - NEVER AGAIN!!! Nothing else should need to be said for senators to answer Beutler's call to immediate action.

It would be a remarkable legislative victory and a fitting end to almost 25 years of honorable public service if Beutler actually proves able to win this battle. Regardless, the responsibility lies with every voter in this state to see that the next generation of senators share the vigilance that has thus far kept the likes of Brashear and Hergert at bay.

They will always have the money to fight for their interests. All we have in our defense is the law, and that's plenty enough so long as we remain united and strong.

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Misdirection by Design

by Kyle Michaelis
That Omaha World-Herald - you've got to give them credit for their ability to slant almost any news item to fit their political objectives. Whatever isn't convenient, simply ISN'T...or they choose to obscure it by redirecting their focus and hopefully their readers' attention to something better-suiting their agenda.

This second strategy finds itself almost perfectly illustrated by the following editorial in today's paper:
Let's just suppose that Dick Cheney and his friend had been hunting in the Sand Hills instead of the south of Texas - and that, 18 hours after the unfortunate shooting accident, it was the Grand Island Independent, the Kearney Hub or the North Platte Telegraph that got the story first.

Would the New York Times, the Washington Post et al. be howling as loudly as they have about the Corpus Christi Caller-Times (circulation 56,267) getting the first shot, as it were, at the vice president?

Probably. Opined the Post: "How is it that the vice president of the United States can shoot and wound someone and the American public doesn't learn of it until 18 hours later - and then only because the owner of the location where the event occurred decided the next day to tell a local reporter?"

And the Times: "It took the White House nearly 24 hours to share that information with the rest of the nation because Dick Cheney thought it would be better for the ranch's owner to give the story to the local newspaper first."

One wishes this unnecessary kerfuffle would teach the Bush administration at last that prompt transparency, at least when lives aren't at stake, is less painful than trying to hide most everything.

But consider how the Caller-Times got the story. The owner of the ranch where Cheney put birdshot into Harry Whittington was a friendly source for its reporter on local stories. She called the reporter, not vice versa. She even got Cheney to talk briefly to the reporter - something the Nebraska-born, Wyoming-bred vice president didn't repeat for three days.

Why on Earth should our peers working in the hallowed halls of power always get the scoop about the most powerful in the land?

Look at that agenda in action. An unprecedented situation arises - the circumstances of which cast the behavior of the Bush Administration in the most questionable light imaginable, especially with their record of distortions and bending the facts to fit their purposes - and the World-Herald, in all-too-similar fashion, manages to make the issue one of small town newspapers proving their worth to the insecure Goliaths in the national press.

Talk about knowing your rural Nebraska audience. And, talk about deceiving them as well.

Conveniently "forgotten" - lost in the World-Herald's slight of hand - is one simple question: why attack your conterparts in the media? After all, they didn't shoot anyone. Yet, 6 of 7 paragraphs are dedicated solely to their reprimanding, with only one paragraph making a qualified acknowledgement of Bush and Cheney's paranoia and deceit.

Unnecessary kerfuffle, indeed!

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Ricketts Buys His Way Back on TV

by Kyle Michaelis
Multi-millionaire son of a billionaire Pete Ricketts decided to spend this week's allowance on some more commercial time supporting his bid for the Republican Party's 2006 Senate nomination.

The Lincoln Journal-Star's Don Walton reports:
Looks like Pete Ricketts may be about to show up in your living rooms again.

Word's out that his campaign has purchased about $100,000 in 30-second television ads in the Omaha and Lincoln markets this week, and they may stay "up" the rest of the way to the May 9 Republican senatorial primary election.

No confirmation or comment from the Ricketts campaign.

Campaign finance reports show that Ricketts spent $617,000 on TV and radio ads last November...In addition, his report listed $114,000 in media production costs...

Ricketts' latest ad can be seen right here. You're also likely to catch it during local newscasts.

To be honest, I think there's something a little bit repulsive about this ad. What was almost charming in Ricketts' biographical ad last November, here comes across as overly-slick. And, at this point in the campaign, it seems reasonable to expect a little more substance than Ricketts' speeding through his unformed ideas for responsible government.

Particularly interesting is Ricketts' failure to differentiate himself from the Republican Party in charge of every level of the federal government, a fact he conveniently leaves out as he attacks Washington D.C. politicians for their reckless spending and lack of accountability.

If Ricketts is serious about "stopping the tax squeeze on middle class families," are we to assume he doesn't support making President Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy permanent? Otherwise, how exactly does he propose we pay for the "War on Terror" and our continuing occupation of Iraq?

Unless he's just going to do what the Republicans in Congress are already doing - shifting the tax burden on to college students and the working class while passing mountains of debt to future generations. Ah yes, there we have it - a Republican's idea of fiscal responsibility and Pete Ricketts' notion of Nebraska values.

If nothing else, he's at least looking out for daddy and the rest of the Ricketts clan. The best interests of America and Nebraska voters is another story completely.

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Monday, February 13, 2006

COUNTERPOINT: Bruning Shooting Blanks?

by Kyle Michaelis
In my latest update to the "Dave Hergert Disgrace File" immediately below, is it possible I - like many Nebraskans and seemingly the state's two major newspapers - have been hoodwinked by Attorney General Jon Bruning, letting our desire for a champion to take on this blight on our state government overcome our meager understandings of the rule of law?

That's what's been suggested at Nebraska State Paper, where - first - Ed Howard challenges Bruning to quit with the needless grand jury theatrics and just press charges already. Then, in the comments below that article, the 2002 Democratic nominee for Attorney General, Mr. Mike Meister, suggests that Bruning is in over his head on this one. Meister writes:
What a mess.

John Bruning doesn't want to charge Dave Hergert. He was hoping that the secrecy of the grand jury would give him cover from the fire storm that is currently taking place.

Any prosecutor worth his salt knows that the deal cut by accountability and disclosure is binding on the state. It is a state agency and it has the authority to bring criminal charges. The choice not to do so binds the state regardless of the belief of...John Bruning . It wouldn't surprise me if the criminal division of the AG's office has already told Mr. Bruning that is the case. (Some investigative reporter ought to snoop around)

If the Attorney General does not want state agencies speaking for the state on criminal matters he needs to issue an order to all those state agencies with police authority that they have no authority to deal away criminal charges without the Attorney General's explicit blessing. It won't help in this case but it will avoid the problem the next time around.

Hmm. I really can't believe it's such an open and shut case as that, but in 2002 Meister was running with a lot more legal credentials than his opponent. Maybe he's right, though I can't believe Bruning - with all the state's resources - would go out on a limb so shaky.

Would be a damn shame, regardless, because Hergert's escaping prosecution and potentially remaining in office if the legislature finds it doesn't have the authority to impeach would be a terrible blow to the voters' faith in Nebraska's campaign laws. Who knows how this case will turn out? It's already seen the bastardization of the Hergert name. Now, just when Bruning was emerging as a defender of this state's democratic institutions, his motives and competence have suddenly come into question.

Strange days, indeed. Stay tuned.

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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Hergert Dodges A Bullet; More on the Way

by Kyle Michaelis
Public pressure isn't letting up on the Univeristy of Nebraska's degnerate Regent David Hergert. In fact, what probably seemed at first a victory for Hergert when a District Court judge dismissed the Grand Jury that had been called to investigate his possible indictment has instead resulted in public outcry at the judge's uncalled-for over-extension of the Nebraska Accountability & Disclosure Commission's administrative decisions to the state's entire justice system.

The question: should a politically-unaccountable government agency really have the ability to trade total immunity for crimes conducted during a campaign in exchange for a one-time fine? The answer: no chance in hell!

Both the Omaha World-Herald and the Lincoln Journal-Star have denounced the judge's decision and conduct. Meanwhile, Attorney General Jon Bruning is largely spoken of as if riding a white horse for his challenging the judge and apparently fighting for the right to do the job to which he was elected and bring Hergert to justice.

So, one bullet dodged - plenty more on the way...especially as the Nebraska Legistlature continues in its preparations to possibly initiate impeachment proceedings against Hergert. It's looking more and more like Hergert had better have moves like Neo in "the Matrix" movies if he's to have any hope of surviving this (the survival of his dignity and reputation are already out of the question).

I'm not willing to declare Bruning the state's knight in shining armor - he's just doing his job - but I do appreciate his tenacity in an effort in which a mere partisan (think Don Stenberg) would probably have let things slide.

For the latest in this increasingly ridiculous charade being perpetuated by Hergert's stubborn refusal to do what is right for the people of Nebraska by resigning, I again direct readers to the Huskers Against Hergert website, a fine group of UNL students (and, dare I say, Nebraskan patriots) who ask only that the same standards preventing them from cheating in the classroom be expected of those leading the university system.

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Chuck Hagel: Ready For His Close-Up

by Kyle Michaelis
Today's New York Times Magazine contains as in-depth a profile of Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel as you're likely to find anywhere. As Hagel looks to the 2008 presidential campaign, this sort of exposure is his only real shot at buidling the name recognition and financial resources to be competitive.

All in all, the NY Times provides a very positive portrayal of Hagel, "The Heartland Dissident." The question now becomes whether that's actually an asset in Republican Party politics, where right-wing blow-hards make their bones by most creatively denouncing and calling for the destruction of the NYT and the entire "mainstream media" of which it is largely considered a standard-bearer.

And, here in Nebraska, besides our hunger for a President to call our very own, those Republicans who are already ranting and raving against Hagel in Letters to the Editor for betraying President Bush by speaking his opinions, aren't going to find much to like in Hagel's most recent string of criticisms that are much of the reason for the attention (and the cover photo above showing off those almost sorrowful baby blues).

Following are some of the highlights of the article, though I strong advise all Nebraskans to read the full story for themselves. It paints a picture of a complicated man whose obvious ambitions have not completely over-shadowed common sense and principle as has been the case with so many of his fellow Republicans:
With a bluntness that seems habitual — and more than occasionally strikes fellow Republicans as disloyal — Senator Chuck Hagel started voicing skepticism about the Bush administration's fixation on Iraq as a place to fight the Global War on Terror more than half a year before the president gave the go-ahead for the assault...

The Nebraskan...felt the White House wasn't going to be diverted from its drive to topple Saddam Hussein. When he rose on the Senate floor that October to explain his vote in favor of the resolution authorizing force...he gave a speech that would have required no editing had he decided to vote against it. What sounded then to the venture's true believers like the scolding of a Cassandra sounds fairly obvious three and a half years later:

"How many of us really know and understand Iraq, its country, history, people and role in the Arab world?. . .The American people must be told of the long-term commitment, risk and cost of this undertaking. We should not be seduced by the expectations of dancing in the streets." The president had said "precious little" about post-Saddam Iraq, which could prove costly, Hagel warned, "in both American blood and treasure."

As the months and years wore on, Senator Hagel's public musings on Iraq became less measured, as if his gorge rose a little higher with each day's casualty report. He would say that the White House was out of touch with reality, that the reconstruction effort in Iraq was "beyond pitiful," that he had lost confidence in Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, that we were losing the war and had destabilized the Middle East, that the United States was getting "bogged down" in Iraq the way it had been in Vietnam...

At the Republican grass roots in Nebraska and in the upper reaches of his party in Washington, the senator's candor was not universally viewed as refreshing. His timing was held against him even more than his dissent. ("Maybe his criticisms are valid," a letter to The Omaha World-Herald said, "but why showcase them and lend credence to the liberal opposition?") Obviously, this was not a team player. Some of his closest friends and supporters fretted that he was killing whatever small chance he might have had to be the national candidate he plainly aspired to be. Now — 33 months before a presidential election, two years before the first primaries — his chances aren't merely discounted; he's seldom even mentioned in Republican circles, as if he has been sidelined by his independence on Iraq.

The fact that Hagel himself emerged with two Purple Hearts from Vietnam, where he served as an enlisted man in the infantry, has often been mentioned in news reports quoting him on Iraq...Compelling as it is, Chuck Hagel's history as an ordinary soldier, a grunt from small-town Middle America who grew up to be a senator, is more layered, less simple...Unlike his own younger brother Tom — with whom...he walked point in the same infantry unit — he supported [the Vietnam] War to the bitter end....

Chuck Hagel never became a dove, but he became a bird that's nearly as rare in the Republican aviary. He became an internationalist...A singular Great Plains Republican, in other words, who cares about the rest of the world for reasons that don't begin and end with agricultural exports...An instinctive and unwavering conservative on most issues — in particular, big government and deficits — he was the antithesis of a neocon....

The senator from Nebraska broke with his party leadership to vote against the new prescription-drug program under Medicare, the No Child Left Behind bill and a big farm bill stuffed with incentives for corporate agriculture...Only on the Bush tax cuts — all of which he has supported — has he been deaf to warnings about the consequences for the federal deficit....

Here's a certified conservative, then, who has regularly decried partisanship — even during the do-or-die Florida showdown in 2000, when he suggested a statewide recount — and doesn't go on about "values." (He has them; most people have them, he says, so seeking to impose one's own values on others isn't right.) A regular churchgoer, an Episcopalian who sends his two children to Catholic school, he thinks religion is a private matter....

None of this easily adds up to a mandate to seek the presidential nomination of the Republican Party, even if you're the senator and happen to believe strongly that the party has lost its way at home and abroad. Hagel leaves no doubt that this is how he feels..."I sometimes question whether I'm in the same party I started off in," he will say. "This party that sometimes I don't recognize anymore has presided over the largest growth of government in the history of this country and maybe even the history of man"....

I asked how he thought history would judge George W. Bush. He said it would be "rather harsh" if things continued for the next three years the way they've gone for the last five. The verdict would depend on Iraq, "on what happens to the deficit and the debt and some of these issues we've not paid attention to over the last five years"....

A Republican campaign pro, after an astute analysis of Hagel's virtues and drawbacks, zeroed in on a factor no one else had mentioned, one that he seemed to feel said a lot about the reason Hagel's party hasn't warmed to him, and therefore about his limited prospects. "He doesn't have a happy face," the pro said....

He toyed briefly with the idea of running for governor of Virginia, then returned to Nebraska in 1992...Having resided full time in Nebraska for only 7 of the last 34 years, he's not apt, in any event, to present himself as a Prairie independent....

In 1996, in his first race, he took on a Republican attorney general in the Senate primary and won by nearly two to one. In the general election, he upset a popular Democratic governor, Ben Nelson, by a margin of 14 percentage points. Realizing too late that he was trailing, Nelson ran attack ads portraying Hagel as a Washington insider who'd used his connections to enrich himself in the cellphone business....

Stung by Nelson's barrage, Hagel countered with an ad in The Omaha World-Herald calling them "the most scurrilous and false attacks ever made in Nebraska politics." Not the forgiving sort, he has never quite forgotten his grudge against Nelson, who, for the last five years, has been the state's junior senator. Senator Nelson has since been heard to ask how it could be that he managed to get over a big loss while his colleague has yet to get over a big win....

He may not have become a leader of his caucus, but, to the likely dismay of the White House, he's also not an outcast...In addition to John McCain, he gets along well with the chairmen of his key committees — Pat Roberts of Kansas on Intelligence and Richard Lugar of Indiana on Foreign Relations — and counts Democrats Joe Biden of Delaware and Jack Reed of Rhode Island as among his best friends on the Hill. "I've been in the Senate a long time, and there's nobody I've liked more than Chuck Hagel," Biden told me....

[In the 2000 Presidential race] John McCain knocked on the Nebraskan's door, divulged his own ambitions and asked his friend to be co-chairman of his campaign...He was sitting with McCain when the South Carolina primary returns came in following a campaign in which McCain's mental stability was questioned and calls were made to likely Republican voters telling them the former P.O.W. and his wife had a black baby, without mentioning that the little girl had been adopted at an orphanage in Bangladesh.

Reached by Don Walton, the respected political reporter of The Lincoln Star Journal, Hagel said Bush had "sold his soul to the right wing." He called it "the filthiest campaign I've ever seen."

"I'd say the same thing today,"
he said when I asked about South Carolina, nearly six years later....

Today the war is so much in the front of the senator's mind that it pops into just about any answer he gives to a political question, sometimes more than once. When I asked whether he saw himself as a maverick, his reply boiled down to saying he was a consistent conservative. But here's how it began: "When I think of issues like Iraq, of how we went into it — no planning, no preparation, no sense of consequences, of where we were going, how we were going to get out, went in without enough men, no exit strategy, those kind of things — I'll speak out, I'll go against my party"....

A candidate who worries about the price he may have to pay for anything he says would not have called for active engagement with Iran and Cuba as Hagel has regularly done in foreign-policy speeches...And he would probably not be displaying, as Hagel has recently done, a newfound sensitivity on civil liberties matters. Through the end of 2004, Hagel's rating on the legislative scorecard of the American Civil Liberties Union was an anemic 22 percent. But at the end of December, as Congress rushed to adjourn, he was one of only four Republican senators whose votes held up an extension of the Patriot Act, arguing for checks on federal powers to invade homes and private records that had passed the Senate unanimously but then had been dropped in conference.

"When government continues to erode individual rights, that's the most dangerous, dangerous threat to freedom there is," he said, calling it "far more dangerous than terrorism"..."I think Congress has failed the country in many ways," he said at a forum in California last month. One way was to allow the administration "to completely overpower the debate based on, 'I'm the commander in chief, and I know what's best"....

He's still at the stage of testing audience responses, of looking into faces to see if they give back any hint of encouragement, even recognition. "Hello," he'll say, sticking out his hand to a receptionist or a registration clerk, "I'm Senator Chuck Hagel." He has done it often enough to know that the likely response is a blank stare, but still he persists as he travels beyond Washington and Nebraska, to Los Angeles, New York, Iowa, New Hampshire...trying to identify potential donors and supporters.

Whatever he concludes, he promises he'll go on saying what he thinks a senator should say about issues as they arise. "I don't have to be president; I don't have to be a senator," he said over dinner in an Omaha steakhouse. "I have to live with myself."

In a way, Hagel's private ambitions have become an essential check on the larger Republican Party's ambitions for total one-party supremacy no matter the cost to the truth or the nation's well-being. For that, I am grateful to Hagel and, though he does not vote my interests or principles, I am glad he at least represents Chuck Hagel so very well in the U.S. Senate.

I'm sure we will all watch intently Hagel's continued attempts to get a fire going under his campaign in the coming months and years. This article should cetainly attract some love from corporate Republicans with fat checkbooks (who would actually read the NY Times), but its effect on the party base who vote with Fox News rather than their paycheck seems likely to be a different story.

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Thursday, February 09, 2006

My "Committee on Americanism" Apology

by Kyle Michaelis
See, this is why I'm hesitant to write more on the activities of the Nebraska Legislature....because, frankly, without actually being there or doing a lot of independent research, it's hard to know just what the hell is going on.

Such was the problem a few weeks back when I over-relied on the Omaha World-Herald for information about a legislative proposal by State Sen. Abbie Cornett. I responded to Cornett's proposal, as reported, requiring school districts to form a "Committee on Americanism" with no small degree of (good humored) mockery and derision. I wrote:
Way to be a better American than everyone who didn't propose this bill, Sen. Cornett. That all it does is add another unnecessary layer of bureaucracy hardly matters, not when we all now know how much you love your country....

Also, how long before we finally get back to our roots and create the more important "Committee on UnAmericanism" that will root out the insidious forces corrupting our children and threatening this nation?

Then, we'll truly know how far we've come.

Well, it has since been brought to my attention that I was somewhat misinformed by the World-Herald and subsequently misdirected my ire. It was an honest, innocent, but nevertheless inexcusable mistake for which I apologize to Sen. Cornett.

What the World-Herald failed to report and I failed to discover by doing any actual research is the fact that the law requiring Nebraska school districts to have "Committees on Americanism" already exists and seems to have done so for over 50 years (see Section 79-724 of the Nebraska Statutes). Cornett's bill is little more than an update to that legislation, the purposes of which remain somewhat unclear beyond its newfound suggestion that students learn about historical documents "that are pertinent to understanding the principles, character, and world view of America’s founders," specifically naming "the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers, the Pledge of Allegiance, Patrick Henry’s "Liberty or Death" speech, Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address," and so on.

Though not a bad idea, ultimately this seems just a bit of feel-good legislation that adds a few more paragraphs and straightens out some language - not really worth the time to comment or to perhaps even reach a vote before the full legislature.

Nevertheless, I'm glad for this snafu because it drew my attention to a competing proposal by State Sen. DiAnne Schimek that, in my mind, actually does a lot to REFORM the existing "Committee on Americanism" mandate. Schimek's bill puts added responsibility on the State Board of Education in directing Nebraska's civics programs. That's sensible enough since what it means to be an American doesn't change much between Plattsmouth and Pawnee City or Alliance and Arapahoe.

Still, the actual reforms of which I spoke are in the elimination of some out-dated and morally questionable standards for review of educators' private beliefs, as well as a series of unnecessarily burdensome demands on each school's civics program. The first of these provisions that would hereby be removed orders Committees on Americanism to "assure themselves as to the character of all teachers employed and their knowledge and acceptance of the American form of government."

In our current political climate, with accusations of being "unpatriotic" lobbed at the slightest hint of questioning America's military activities or the policies of the Bush Administration, it's clear this language is an invitation to censorship and partisan indoctrination in the classroom. While a teacher's politics should never overshadow his or her teaching, it doesn't serve the interests of students or society to have them fear for their jobs at simply expressing an opinion - especially one of dissent that might challenge students - trading all the value of free and open debate for ridiculous fears at an exaggerated (if not imaginary) threat.

Also removed by Schimek's bill is language ordering the teaching of "the dangers and fallacies of Nazism, Communism, and similar ideologies" and ordering the celebration of "Lincoln’s birthday, Washington’s birthday, Flag Day, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day."

While schools should teach about the above ideologies, teaching them from a state-mandated prism can only obstruct the truth and stand in the way of students actually learning why these movements arose and - yes - why they failed. Meanwhile, I have no objection to schools recognizing patriotic holidays, but this bill is right to leave it to individual schools to plan their own activities.

Probably still not a bill deserving of highest priority, it's nevertheless nice to see Schimek taking our nation's democratic principles to heart, not to mention exercising plain old common sense, when considering reform of the state's civics education.

Of course, her changes still do little to relieve my discomfort with the idea of these "Committees on Americanism." Having graduated from a Nebraska high school without ever having heard of such a well-intentioned but philosophically disturbing entity, it simply seems too easily conceived as a tool of propaganda in what is likely our democracy's most sacred space. In so far as Schimek's bill tempers the extremes of such a directive, though, I feel obligated to lend it my personal seal of (qualified) approval.

Now, who thinks that will be enough to get it through committee?

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by Kyle Michaelis
Over the last few days, Nebraska courtrooms have seen a lot of action on several political fronts we've been keeping an eye on. On Friday, a district court judge rejected the lawsuit initiated by several state senators challenging Nebraska's legislative term limits.

The Omaha World-Herald reports:
Twenty state lawmakers almost certainly will have to leave office after the end of the year because of the latest court ruling upholding the two-term limit on Nebraska legislators, State Sen. Dennis Byars of Beatrice said Monday.

"I think it's all over for us, quite honestly," said Byars, who with Sens. Ernie Chambers of Omaha and Marian Price of Lincoln initiated the court challenge.

Byars and Price are among the 20 lawmakers who will be forced to leave after the end of this year under the two-term limit enacted by voters in 2000. Chambers and 16 other lawmakers have two more years to go before term limits would affect them.

Under the constitutional amendment passed by 56 percent of Nebraska voters in 2000, senators are limited to serving two consecutive four-year terms....

Price agreed with Byars' assessment. "There is no way to save this first class of 20," she said.

That will make for a slightly less insane election season than that I first theorized about back in November when this challenge was announced. That might be for the best simply because the uncertainty that would have accompanied otherwise term-limited state senators getting on the ballot while this case was on appeal would have made for a truly terrible situation for voters and candidates alike.

Then Tuesday, in the sad and on-going case of Nebraska's Degenerate Regent Dave Hergert, the AP reported:
A judge late Tuesday vacated an order calling for a grand jury investigation into possible criminal charges against University of Nebraska Regent David Hergert for violating the state’s campaign finance laws.

Lancaster County District Judge Steven Burns, in a statement read by District Court Clerk Sue Kirkland, said “The order to convene a grand jury has been vacated.”

The statement went no further. Burns was not available for comment.

Holley Bolen, chief of staff for Attorney General Jon Bruning, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

But she and Bruning earlier Tuesday declined to discuss the case, citing state laws that require grand jury proceedings to be kept secret.

This news is pretty vague and doesn't do much to clear up the picture of Hergert's political future. That fight simply goes back to the state legislature where it was going to have to be fought out anyway so long as Hergert's refusal to resign from the Board of Regents for his illegal conduct makes impeachment a necessary consideration.

On the impeachment front, the Lincoln Journal-Star writes:
The decision by a Lancaster District judge to halt a grand jury investigation of University of Nebraska Regent David Hergert before it started and not say why befuddled lawmakers and legal observers, but does not negate the possibility Hergert can be impeached.

Some state senators who learned Wednesday of Lancaster District Judge Steven Burns’ decision to nix a previous order by another judge to convene a grand jury said they had never heard of such a maneuver before. One of those, Sen. Ernie Chamber of Omaha, Hergert’s chief critic, blasted Stevens on the floor of the Legislature, at one point calling the judge a dunce overseeing a kangaroo court.

“When a judge has behaved in a way Steven Burns has behaved it casts a cloud over the system,” Chambers said....

The chairman of a legislative committee charged with recommending to the Legislature whether impeachment is a viable legal option, meanwhile, said the judge’s decision “will have no effect” on the committee’s work.

The chairman, Sen. Pat Bourne of Omaha, and the rest of the committee decided recently to wait until the grand jury that it now appears won’t be formed to complete its work before crafting a recommendation. Now, said Bourne, the committee will move ahead.

Intriguing stuff. Much of the argument over whether Hergert's impeachment is permissible for crimes committed before taking office is known and has been discussed here, but it will be most interesting to see what ultimately develops.

My only concern is that this court decision might confuse Nebraskans into thinking Hergert has somehow been exonerated, which is simply not the case. He's already admitted to and paid over $30,000 in fines for his flagrant violations of the law - easily reason enough to remove this continued embarrassment from public office.

Finally, in a case on which I haven't specifically written before but which definitely touches on the much-covered treatment of sex offenders in the state of Nebraska, as well as the political future of Attorney General Jon Bruning, Matthew Koso of Falls City was found guilty and sentenced to 18 months to 30 months in prison for first-degree sexual assault.

The Omaha World-Herald reports:
Moments after Matthew Koso was sentenced to prison Tuesday for sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl he later married, his family angrily lashed out at the men who sent him there.

Both Attorney General Jon Bruning, who prosecuted the case, and District Judge Dan Bryan Jr., who opted against a sentence of probation, should be voted out of office, said Koso's parents and his older brother.

They said most people back Matthew Koso, who was 21 when the girl became pregnant, because he had accepted responsibility for his mistake and loved his wife and child.

They contended that Bruning took the small town case for political gain. "I want this in there: Bryan and Bruning both have committed political suicide," said Koso's father, John.

"Whatever happened to leaving things up to the discretion of the families?" asked Koso's mother, Peggy.

Well, I don't actually have much interest in defending Bruning (the man once equated legalizing gay marriage with allowing men to marry their furniture), and I've devoted considerable space to defending the rights of sex offenders. Here, though, I don't understand the supposed political motivations the Koso family assumes of Bruning, nor do I have any sympathy for what seems a just - perhaps even lenient - sentence.

A crime was committed - a very serious crime of an adult having sex with a 13 year-old girl. There's no question about that, and there's no question that society can not allow such behavior to go unpunished. Sympathy for the children involved (a teenage mother and her baby) can not stand in the way of justice - the best hope we have for seeing these crimes cease.

Koso will be eligible for parole in only 9 months. After serving his time, I don't wish him any hardship in building a life with his (too) young family. It's in society's interest that he be able to pick-up the pieces, paying for his crime but not to the point that he should have forever foresaken his claim to a normal life. This sentence accords to the law and emerged from the courts, as it should....residency restrictions of the sort I have largely criticized foresake this legitimate form of justice in favor of excessively punitive and unforgiving stigmatization beneath us as a people.

As for Bruning's supposed political suicide, I don't see it - not on this one. For all the difficulty in defending a sex offender from political hysteria, I really don't think people are going to get up in arms on the behalf of one who received a fair trial. The short-term effects it will have on his family are unfortunate but in no way unjust.

Though some might feel differently, I have a hard time thinking of any of these decisions in terms of political wins or losses. Without any particular evidence to the contrary, I choose to believe these courts' decisions are guided by the law rather than their ramifications for voters, politicians, and our public institutions. If such proves not to be the case, particularly in the Hergert case that appears to have been handled quite abnormally, I hope readers will join me in standing up and speaking out.

And it must just be that time of year. Tomorrow, the Nebraska Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in the legal challenge to the legislature's forced consolidation of the state's elementary-only, Class I school districts. While empathizing with the parents and communities battling this change, it is sad to see the extent to which their efforts have been politicized by the likes of our desperate governor, Dave Heineman, and the always self-interested Don Stenberg.

Frankly, the legislature had an obligation to Nebraska's students and taxpayers to force some sort of wake-up call on those Class I school districts that have increasingly become monetary and educational black holes. It is entirely understandable that a dying community should cling so tightly to its children and schools as matters of both public morale and pure economic survival. But here the legislature has done the responsible and, dare I suggest, merciful thing - not closing schools by mandate or stripping local control but rather by putting choices of priority and efficiency in the hands of school boards able to take a larger, less parochial view of the public interest.

I recently saw Congressman and gubernatorial candidate Tom Osborne speak, and he addressed this issue for which he has received some criticism for not being more supportive of the rural, Class I school districts hanging-on for survival, many of which are in his Third Congressional District. Thankfully, Osborne has resisted succumbing to these pressures, as opposed to the vote-grabbing Heineman, sticking simply to the message that something has to be done when, as he reported, there are 11 Class I's that have no students and others that are spending as much as $90,000 per student annually.

The legislature's hand was forced by those communities that have refused to accept reason, economic restraint, and their new reality. Again, there's little to celebrate in that but government actually choosing the responsible though politically difficult option, particularly in light of Heineman's cheaply undermining its efforts with his over-ridden veto and his continued attempts at reaping political benefit from this unfortunate battle.

Regardless of the Supreme Court's ultimate decision on this matter, I trust they will disregard the political pitfalls and decide as is best and most lawful for all Nebraskans.

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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Andersen OKs Gay Sheepherders - Not Cowboys

by Kyle Michaelis
I don't think the World-Herald's Harold W. Andersen really meant any harm in his Sunday column griping about Hollywood's using this year's Oscar nominations to advance a social agenda. It's pretty much same ol, same ol' from a conservative old man who has been doing the Bill O'Reilly "Tirade-of-the-week"-thing for decades.

Still, when Andersen tries to speak authoritatively on Hollywood economics, while making a straight-faced complaint at the press' failure to distinguish gay sheepherders from gay cowboys - as if this latter suggestion would be some sort of blasphemy - he really is being too ridiculous for words and demands at least some sort of rebuttal.

Sorry folks, you're just going to have to read this for yourself.
It's certainly nothing new, the Hollywood practice of trying to indoctrinate you under the guise of entertaining you - and making you pay at the box office for the indoctrination.

But this cinema season, Hollywood's emphasis on producing movies with a political or social "message" has become so strong that even predictably liberal observers, such as the Los Angeles Times and ABC's "Nightline" television show, offered facts and comments last week that raised the question of whether Hollywood is losing touch with the interests and tastes of the majority of Americans.

The Los Angeles newspaper described the five Oscar nominees for best film as "movies with overtly political messages." The New York Times referred to "deep political and social themes, from gay romance to the abuse of government power to racial relations to the cycle of vengeance in the Middle East." The L.A. Times story also noted that none of the nominated films has done well at the box office.

In their choices of the five "best film" nominees, the Hollywood voters included a film ("Good Night, and Good Luck") that depicted another figurative exhumation of the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy, working him over yet again for his irresponsible exaggeration - more than 50 years ago - of the infiltration of communists, including Soviet agents, into the federal government....

The "social/political message" film that has received the most favorable attention, "Brokeback Mountain," with eight Oscar award nominations, has received a tremendous volume of publicity and promotion. But I have heard or read only one critical review that seems to me to explain all the attention being lavished on the movie.

Leonard Pitts Jr...wrote that he believes "gay men threaten our very conception of masculinity." Pitts believes that "Brokeback Mountain" challenges that conception by depicting its two principal players as "cowboys" who have a love affair.

The significance, the columnist suggests, is that "there is no figure in American lore more iconically male. Think Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, the Marlboro Man. The cowboy is our very embodiment of male virtues."

I agree with that assessment of the movie or, more accurately, the way the movie's theme is being promoted as a love affair between two cowboys. If homosexuality can be part of the life of two cowboys, what is the justification for considering gay males as less than masculine?

The flaw in all of this is that the two characters depicted in "Brokeback Mountain" aren't cowboys at all. They're sheepherders....

But promotion of the movie, including press reports and commentary, has been dominated by language like "two young cowboys" or "cowboys caught up in a complicated love" or "a cowboys' love affair" or "two Wyoming cowboys."

If the movie had been publicized more honestly as a romance between two sheepherders, its impact almost certainly would have been substantially diminished, I believe. What would have been the appeal of descriptions like "two young sheepherders" or "sheepherders caught up in a complicated love" or "a sheepherders' love affair"?

Let's hope that...the obsessive interest in the movie on the part of the press, movie critics and late-night talk-show hosts will fade.

"Brokeback Mountain" then could be remembered, especially by those who enjoyed the film, as a story involving two males who fell in love on a Wyoming ranch, just not the kind of ranch that would make them into that American icon of masculinity - cowboys.

Wow. That's just one of those commentaries a person can't ever really believe he just read. You don't know whether your eyes should be bleeding from the inanity or watering from the laughter.

I really take no pleasure in beating up on an old writer who no longer even makes an attempt at fact-checking. Nevermind that Andersen's assertion that the Oscar nominees have been economic failures is totally off-base. I don't like nit-picking that "Brokeback Mountain" has already made $60 million at the box office off a budget of only $14 million or that an Oscar win for Best Picture would likely put it over the $100 million mark. Nor, despite Andersen's veiled defense of Joseph McCarthy, the loony king of America's reactionary Right, do I really feel all that compelled to make a stink about "Good Night, and Good Luck" having also earned almost 4 times its budget.

No, I like to write about Nebraska issues, particularly Nebraska politics. This only relates to either because the ignorant but proud defense of the cowboy that Andersen attempts is so very indicative of the same shallow thinking readers have suffered from and suffered by for years.

Maybe this is just a pithy, tongue-in-cheek column. I only wish that I could actually belive that it were so because the material would make for some pretty damn solid satire depicting America's silly hang-ups about homosexuality - here, to the extent that Andersen's defending the Marlboro man's manhood. But, no....he means it. Worse than that, many of his readers probably appreciate Andersen's point, even if it does refrain from making a good and proper condemnation of the homosexual lifestyle. They'll just have to make do with the less obvious but no less demeaning assumptions at the column's heart.

Imagine - Andersen asks the perfect question, the answer to which the people of Nebraska could desperately use some genuine contemplation. "If homosexuality can be part of the life of two cowboys, what is the justification for considering gay males as less than masculine?" Then, out of nowhere, he dismisses the uncomfortable truth about masculinity and, by inference, humanity itself to jump head-long into a silly diatribe that skirts real issues of equality and discrimination in favor of romanticizing cowboys at sheepherders' expense.

It's pathetic. It's stupid. I can't believe I've taken it upon myself to even write about it. But, the cognitave dissonance demonstrated, the likes of which is so prevalent in perpetuating ignorant and hurtful stereotypes, is just too good an example of too many Nebraskans' mentalities to pass up.

Andersen is not the problem, but there is no doubt that he and his way of thinking are part of the problem and always have been. Every Nebraskan of conscience who knows better has a duty not to let this foolishness stand without challenge. To allow such stupidity to go unpunished, even when trivial on its face, is to fail the truth itself. And, let's face it, there's nothing trivial at all about the continued discrimination the gay community faces in this state and across the nation precisely because such stupidity is allowed to thrive.

Now, please God, back to the real news....

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Sunday, February 05, 2006

Update: Heineman No Longer Distracted By His Own Insecurity

by Kyle Michaelis
Still playing catch-up, it's important to note that Gov. Dave Heineman has rescinded his childish and unprincipled order that state agency heads not meet with gubernatorial challenger and Congressman Tom Osborne without he or a member of his staff present.

Frankly, this is one of the worst abuses of political office that Nebraskans have seen for some time, particularly in light of the fact that Heineman is so desperately protecting his hold on an office to which he has not been elected.

The Omaha World-Herald reports:
Tom Osborne once again can meet with state agency heads without his chief political opponent, Gov. Dave Heineman, sitting in.

Heineman said Thursday that he no longer will join meetings between the congressman - an adversary in the Republican governor's primary - and state employees....

"The governor has made it clear that the congressman can have any information he wants, political or otherwise," said Aaron Sanderford, the governor's spokesman.

Asked why the ban was lifted, Sanderford said Heineman "will not allow political distractions to keep him from doing the people's business"....

Osborne said it was "fine" that the verbal order had been lifted. But he disputed the idea that all, or most, of his meetings with state officials were political in nature.

He also said he was especially upset that, upon returning from a congressional trip to Iraq, he had not been allowed to meet with Nebraska National Guard Maj. Gen. Roger Lempke without the presence of Heineman.

That meeting with Lempke was arranged by his congressional office and was not about the campaign, Osborne said.

"I'm a citizen, I'm a 3rd District congressman, and to deny access to information by state officials is something that doesn't compute with me," Osborne said.

Heineman said through a spokesperson that he wanted to attend the meeting in his role as commander-in-chief of Nebraska's National Guard....

At the time, his spokesman said it made "common sense" for the governor to attend meetings arranged by a rival's campaign manager....

"I didn't want to put my directors in a very difficult position. . . . What would happen if Tom Osborne and I are engaged in a political debate, and he says, 'Your state agency director said this,' " Heineman said earlier this month.

Wow, that is some song and dance Heineman puts on when trying to weasel his way out of being held responsible for manipulating the state government to serve his political ends. I especially like the part about Heineman "not allowing political distractions to keep him from doing the people's business."

Ha, since assuming the governorship one year ago, winning this election has not just been a distraction but has been Heineman's sole concern. Heineman's idea of "the people's business" begins and ends with his winning a four-year term of his very own.

Imagine what it took for the almost Zen-like Osborne to admit that he was "especially upset" by this personal slap in the face and insult to the people of Nebraska. By all rights, he should have gone on a rampage, denouncing Heineman's sickening display of political avarice, but Osborne's been pretty good these last fifteen years at following his doctor's advice and not getting over-heated.

Too bad because he's really letting Heineman off the hook rather than sinking it in like he deserves. On the off chance Osborne loses to Heineman, it will be wasted opportunities such as this that are to blame - failing to capitalize on conclusive evidence that Heineman lacks both the class and integrity to serve the public rather than his own ambitions.

He wanted to attend the meeting "in his role as commander-in-chief of Nebraska's National Guard"...that's the silliest damn excuse I've ever heard. At the very least, Heineman should have tried to make nice with Osborne and admitted he's such a Husker fan that he just couldn't pass up any opportunity he could get to sit down with Coach Osborne.

The people of Nebraska can forgive and probably even embrace the fanatacism of a raving football fan. Fanatacism in the name of Heineman furthering his own career is a different story entirely.

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Saturday, February 04, 2006

Ben Nelson & You: Putting Nebraska First

by Kyle Michaelis
Sen. Ben Nelson officially declared his candidacy for re-election yesterday. Thank God because Nebraska needs him. I write that without reservation and without relying on the absolutely horrifying Republican alternatives (though, I must admit, the very idea of "U.S. Senator Don Stenberg" makes me feel dirty and sick to my stomach).

No, this isn't about the lesser of two evils. This is about what's best for Nebraska and the nation. There is no doubt about it - Ben Nelson is a good fit for Nebraska voters. The people know him and respect him. In 1994, he won re-election as governor by one of the widest margins in Nebraska history. That he has been able to translate that popularity into national politics, currently with a very impressive two-thirds approval rating, is not particularly suprising and speaks to the trust and faith Nelson has earned with voters.

Few will admit it, but - in many ways - the Nebraska Democratic Party is lucky to have such a standard bearer.

Still, I would be remiss not to acknowledge and express the frustration I share with many fellow Democrats at Nelson's voting record. Last week, a report was released by Congressional Quarterly indicating that in 2005 Nelson actually broke rank with fellow Democrats more often than he voted with them on clearly partisan issues.

The Lincoln-Journal Star reported:
Sen. Ben Nelson departs from his party more often than any other member of Congress and is the strongest Democratic supporter of President Bush’s legislative positions. Those are the results of a survey of 2005 voting records by Congressional Quarterly.

Nelson split from the Democratic majority 53.9 percent of the time on key votes that divided the two parties. He supported the Republican president’s positions 75.6 percent of the time.

Most recently, Nelson was the first Democratic senator to announce he will vote to confirm Bush’s nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“If Congressional Quarterly had a way to measure Senator Nelson’s votes in support of Nebraska values, his number would be 100 percent,” said David DiMartino, the senator’s spokesman in Washington.

“Every year, the CQ study underscores Nelson’s bipartisanship and independence,” DiMartino said.

Republican State Chairman Mark Quandahl of Omaha said being ranked as the strongest Democratic supporter of the president “still doesn’t make him Bush’s strongest supporter.”

What the president would prefer, Quandahl said, is “somebody who votes with him not some of the time, but most, if not all, of the time.”

Nelson, who is poised to seek re-election this year, has often differed with his party since his election to the Senate in 2000.

In 2004, he supported President Bush 81.6 percent of the time and departed from his own party’s position on 47.8 percent of Senate votes....

Earlier this month, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada told a news conference in Omaha he’s not upset by Nelson’s frequent departure from his party’s position.

Nelson is “very conservative (and) a person who votes his conscience,” Reid said. When he departs, Reid said, he “just tells me it’s not good for Nebraska (and) Nebraska comes first.”

The article also included the following run-down of Nebraska's Congressional delegation - apart form Nelson, comprised entirely of Republicans:
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, 95 percent
Sen. Chuck Hagel, 94 percent
Rep. Lee Terry, 94 percent
Rep. Tom Osborne, 93 percent
Sen. Ben Nelson, 46 percent

Hagel: 89 percent
Fortenberry: 87 percent
Terry, 85 percent
Osborne, 76 percent
Nelson: 76 percent

If those raw numbers don't raise some eye brows and cause some distress amongst Nelson's Democratic supporters, frankly, they're not paying enough attention. There is something slightly disturbing in Nelson's supporting Bush's agenda at the same percentage as 3rd District Congressman Tom Osborne.

Still, what might be most interesting about these numbers are the implications that result from Nebraska Republican Chairman Mark Quandahl's pathetic attempt at making them work for his party politically. If Quandahl wants to make an issue of Nelson's not supporting President Bush enough, then he is attacking one of the most prominent Republicans in the state - not to mention the likely Republican candidate for governor - for the exact same thing.

Does Quandahl really mean to suggest that Tom Osborne has not voted for the best interests of Nebraska? Does he mean to suggest that Osborne is out-of-touch with Nebraska voters? That certainly seems to be what he's saying because these numbers don't leave much room for interpretation.

That no one has called Quandahl on this blatant double-standard is just another example of the Nebraska press' complete incompetence. I dare say both Tom Osborne and Ben Nelson deserve an apology.

But back to the question at hand - to what extent should we as Democrats and progressives embrace Nelson this election year?

Perhaps some of the candidates comments on filing for re-election can provide some guidance (as reported in today's Omaha World-Herald and the Journal-Star):
Nelson said he considered not seeking a second term but decided there was more work to be done on health care, defense and border security issues and that his "leadership style" was needed.

Nelson has taken some criticism in letters to newspapers and elsewhere for supporting Bush's recent Supreme Court nominees and the Republican president's tax-cut proposals.

Nelson said he believes it is important to work with people on both sides of the political aisle.

"The last thing the people in Nebraska want is a political lap dog," he said.
After considering whether to seek a second term in the Senate, he said, “I felt there’s still more to do.”

Answering questions at a brief news conference, Nelson said his independent nature...fits Nebraska’s political style and interests.

“I will always look for solutions,” he said. “I will not obstruct.”

Working together with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, Nelson said, just this week he “took on the Pentagon” and prevailed in reversing an Army plan to reduce National Guard troop strength.

Looking ahead, Nelson said, “I’d like to take on a major role in reform of health care.”

Well, I'll admit to worries that Nelson lacks the boldness to adequately tackle a problem of the magnitude of the American health care crisis. I really don't know that he'll be willing to make the tough but necessary choices that will put this country on the path to sanity by providing adequate medical care to all Americans. Anything less than that simply isn't going to be sufficient.

But, on so many other issues and simply as a matter of maintaining a functional U.S. Senate, Nelson has proven himself indispensable. He is an important voice in the Democratic Party and an important bridge with midwestern and socially-conservative blue-collar voters who need to be reminded that the Democratic Party not only has a place for them but is, in fact, their natural home on the issues that matter most.

The common refrain about Sen. Nelson is that he puts Nebraska before the Democratic Party - the people before politics. Although certain to result in more frustrations and the occasional disappointment, Nebraska Democrats are asked to make much the same choice by volunteering, voting, and - yes - fighting for Nelson in 2006.

Is he a "good" Democrat? Is he a "real" Democrat? Who, honestly, can say? But I can say, without hesitation, that Nelson has been a great representative of the people of Nebraska.

Some might question whether representing the people really amounts to leadership, but I think the vital, concurrent role Nelson has played (and will continue to play) in bridging this nation's perilous partisan divide should put any such questions to rest. In fact, the country might need Nelson as a voice of compromise, common sense, and partisan restraint every bit as much as we do in Nebraska.

Those able to recognize this and support Nelson to the fullest extent their energy and passion allow are doing more than being pragmatic and practical. This is a choice of principle - in the truest Democratic sense - that puts aside our respective political laundry lists and whatever grudges may from there result in favor of what's best - when the stakes are so very high - for our neighbors, our nation, and Nebraska.

We are all Ben Nelson.
There is no shame in that. He is one of us - as a Nebraskan first and a Democrat second (heck, let's be honest, maybe third or forth). For some, such a trade-off will cause considerable and understandable difficulty, particularly those who hold their political ideals so closely to their heart. It is not the easiest path to walk, but - then again - the strength of democracy does not lie in its ease of use. To reduce it to a clash of ideologies is absurd, if not suicidal as a free society. Politics must be about getting things done and making peoples' lives better - ideology can not get in the way of that, our highest priority.

To put it in simplest terms - democracy is always a matter of choices. In 2006, in Nebraska, there will be no better choice on the ballot than Sen. Ben Nelson. What more, as reasonable citizens and responsible voters, do we really need to know before answering the call to do what we can and what we must to see Nelson win a second term?

He is the only politician in the state who can make a straight-faced claim to represent all Nebraskans. If that is to be somehow held a weakness or a liability, indeed we do have a problem.

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Thursday, February 02, 2006

Return to "The Twisted World of Harold W."

by Kyle Michaelis
Last week, the Omaha World-Herald's Harold W. Andersen had another ridiculously one-sided bit of pseudo-wisdom for his readers. He wrote:
If a falsehood is repeated often enough, it frequently masquerades as truth. You can repeat it without offering any explanation, facts or figures to support it and usually go unchallenged.

Such is an allegation that surfaced yet again in a recent, President Bush-bashing Pulse letter.

The writer implied that "tax cuts that overwhelmingly favor the wealthy" would not have been enacted if Al Gore had been elected president.

The facts are that income-tax revision legislation supported by Bush does not overwhelmingly favor the wealthy. The legislation included substantial income tax relief for middle-income taxpayers, especially those with children.

An estimated 8 million taxpayers at the bottom end of the income brackets were relieved of all income tax liability. Even a Bush-bashing tax-cut "analysis" in the New York Times acknowledged - if you read through the myriad of figures closely enough - that taxpayers "in the middle" would see their share of federal taxes decline by 2015.

It has been argued, of course, that reduction in rates on dividends and capital gains is of greater benefit to higher-income taxpayers. But remember these facts:

The rationale for lowering the tax rates on dividends was that they are double-taxed - first at the corporate income level, then when they are paid to stockholders as dividends. It is also worth noting that a very great many non-wealthy Americans also are stockholders who benefit from lower taxes on dividends and capital gains.

How ironic that Andersen has already provided his own best criticism? Surely this column tid-bit, like the vast majority of his work and a great deal of the World-Herald's editorial output, engages in the very falsehood masquerading as the truth of which he writes above. What an amazing feat of misdirection for Andersen to write of the deceitful power of repetition when his decades-long tenure at the World-Herald has been one long exercise in bending the will of the people to a newspaper's all-too-partisan ends.

How else can Andersen possibly explain his deceitful contention that Bush's tax cuts have not over-whelmingly favored the wealthy? Who is he kidding? He plays with the facts - confining his discussion to only income taxes - then relies on rhetoric about the New York Times being anti-Bush to suggest their "analysis" - which MUST BE BIASED because they're the New York Times - even agrees with him. Except, look, he provides no direct quotes, no actual figures, reading what he wants into the numbers knowing that he won't be challenged on it from his editorial page perch.

Here's some actual COMPREHENSIVE numbers for you to chew on (courtesy of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities):
The benefits that the tax cuts provide to different groups vary dramatically. New data from the Tax Policy Center show the effects in 2004 of the tax cuts that have already been enacted, including the corporate and estate tax cuts, as well as the individual income tax cuts. The Tax Policy Center data show that the combined effect of the tax cuts in 2004 is as follows:

* The one-fifth of households in the middle of the income spectrum will receive an average tax cut of $647.

* The top one percent of households will receive tax cuts averaging almost $35,000 — or 54 times as much as that received on average by those in the middle of the income spectrum.

* Households with incomes above $1 million will receive tax cuts averaging about $123,600. The tax cuts for millionaires will cause their after-tax income to jump by 6.4 percent, nearly three times the percentage increase received by the middle fifth.

The overall shares of the tax cuts that are going to different households also are illuminating. The Tax Policy Center data show that:

* In 2004, the middle 20 percent of households will receive 8.9 percent of the tax cuts.

* By contrast, millionaires — totaling just 0.2 percent of U.S. households — will receive 15.3 percent of the tax cuts. In other words, the small handful of millionaires will receive total tax cuts far larger than those received by the entire middle 20 percent of households.

* The tax cuts will confer more than $30 billion on the nation’s 257,000 millionaires in 2004 alone.

As uneven as the distribution of the tax cuts is in 2004, their distribution will become still more uneven over time. This is because the tax cuts of most benefit to the middle class are already fully in place while some of the tax cuts of most benefit to high-income households — such as the eventual elimination of the estate tax — are only partly in effect now or have yet to take effect at all. If the tax cuts were fully in place today, the middle fifth of households would receive essentially the same tax cut that they are scheduled to receive under 2004 law, while the top one percent would receive tax cuts substantially larger than under 2004 law.

Please read the full report. There's plenty more where that came from, and if that's not grossly favoring the wealthy at the expense of every other American, especially the middle class, I don't know what is.

There are your direct quotes. There are your facts. Challenge me. Please. Bring it on.

Feel that, Andersen? It's time - time to get out of the game. Your days of smokescreens, selective facts, and brainwashing are over. You just doesn't know it yet.

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