Monday, July 31, 2006

World-Herald Fails to Share Full Story of Amendment Funding

by Kyle Michaelis
A month after Nebraska voters were left at the mercy of out-of-state interests and their legions of professional signature-gatherers without the facts necessary to make an informed decision on petitions supporting the proposed "Humane Care Amendment," it's nice to see Sunday's Omaha World-Herald finally got around to reporting on the issue with the slightest hint of depth and objectivity.

What their reporting reveals is that this is one of those solutions that is sure to prove more destructive and hurtful than the problem it's supposedly intended to address.

The article can be read here. Thankfully, it does a pretty good job of pointing out the practical considerations that make this particular ballot initiative a total insult to the institution of family, seeking to replace the informed judgment of medical professionals and the pain-staking decisions of beloved family with a rigid law so lacking in concern for the desires and best interests of the suffering that it can only be called inhumane.

What might be even more offensive than the proposal itself, however, is the deceptive means by which it ever found its way into our state. Sponsored by the "Nebraskans for Humane Care Committee", the following passages should help put the true nature of this organization into perspective:
Others in the state's right-to-life community have concerns about the amendment and its sudden sprouting in Nebraska.

"We're not a part of it at this point," said Greg Schleppenbach, director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference's Pro Life Office....Schleppenbach said the conference had no input on drafting the petition language, though organizers have asked him for support.

"Unfortunately, this petition came to us at a point where there was nothing that could be done to change the language," Schleppenbach said. "And as far as I know, nobody in Nebraska had any input on the language or its potential effects until it had already been submitted to the secretary of state."


Nebraskans for Humane Care Committee...has so far been funded entirely by out-of-state interests - $605,000 from a group with Montana, Idaho and Illinois ties.

Well, it's nice to see these facts finally getting the attention they deserve. Inexplicably lacking from the World-Herald's coverage, however, is any mention of this efforts connection to the Spending Cap Amendment also set to appear on the November ballot.

As reported on NNN several weeks ago, the entire funding for both SOS Nebraska (backers of the Spending Cap) and the Nebraskans for Humane Care Committee has come from the same mysterious sources, while the two organizations have also used the same petitioners and the exact same strategies for covering their tracks. Why the World-Herald would not draw attention to this connection or take the time to question its full extent shows a startling lack of concern for the voting public's understanding of this on-going abuse of Nebraska's petition process.

Clearly, the World-Herald is aware of this relationship, as they report the $605,000 in contributions from America At It's Best (our "Montana Connection") rather than the quarter-of-a-million dollars less still reported in the Nebraskans for Humane Care Committee's most recent ADC filings.

When is the World-Herald - or the rest of the Nebraska media - finally going to meet its obligation to the people of Nebraska to ask some tough questions and get some real answers? Looking for a place to start, here's a quick refresher....and there's a lot more where that came from for any journalist out there with an ounce of curiosity or the tiniest bit of respect for the integrity of this state's democracy.

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Sunday, July 30, 2006

Chuck Hagel: Iraq "An Absolute Replay of Vietnam"

by Kyle Michaelis
After giving a fairly high-profile speech to the Brookings Institution on the need for fairer and more extensive engagement by the United States in the Middle East, U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel shared some choice words about America's failing strategy for the war in Iraq. As yet, they haven't received much attention but in the local media, undoubtedly much to the ever-ambitious Hagel's dismay.

Well, here's my attempt to help, since what Hagel had to say really is quite important and needs to be heard by Republican voters who know they don't like what they see and hear of Iraq but are looking for the permission of a loyal Republican like Hagel to overcome the reflexive assumption that their gut worries are just the result of the media's bias.

Whether you like what you hear from Hagel or not, here's your permission to think for yourself. Saturday's Omaha World-Herald reports:
Calling conditions in Iraq "an absolute replay of Vietnam," Sen. Chuck Hagel said Friday that the Pentagon is making a mistake by beefing up American forces in Iraq.

U.S. soldiers have become "easy targets" in a country that has descended into "absolute anarchy," the Nebraska Republican and Vietnam combat veteran said in an interview with The World-Herald.

He said that in the previous 48 hours, he had received three telephone calls from four-star generals who were "beside themselves" over the Pentagon's reversal of plans to bring tens of thousands of soldiers home this fall.

Instead, top Pentagon officials are suspending military rotations and adding troops in Iraq. The Pentagon has estimated that the buildup will increase the number of U.S. troops from about 130,000 to 135,000.

"That isn't going to do any good. It's going to have a worse effect," Hagel said. "They're destroying the United States Army."

Hagel previously has likened the war in Iraq to Vietnam, but Friday's comments drew a stronger connection. They followed a speech on the Middle East that Hagel delivered at the Brookings Institution.....

Seeking reaction to Hagel's comments, particularly the "absolute" comparison between Iraq and Vietnam, today's World-Herald reports:
"He's absolutely right," Lawrence Korb, a former senior Defense Department official in the Reagan administration, said of the Vietnam comparison. "The signs are all around."

Korb, who works at a centrist think tank, also agreed with Hagel's view that the Pentagon's reversal of plans to reduce troops this year would hurt the Army in the long run. "Yes, they're ruining the all-volunteer Army," Korb said.

Michael O'Hanlon, a defense expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, disputed both arguments. "I think he's wrong" in the Vietnam comparison, O'Hanlon said.

"Although he could be right about the broader fact that we're just reinforcing failure in Iraq, the 'absolute' analogy with Vietnam is not quite apropos. It's unfortunately more apropos than [it] used to be," because of the emerging civil war, O'Hanlon said....

The White House, asked about Hagel's views, defended President Bush's strategy in Iraq and said coalition forces must remain on the offensive, including in Baghdad, to succeed....

To be honest, I'm amazed these remarks by Hagel haven't gotten more attention nationally. Yesterday's New York Times ran a none-too-revealing article about the partisan divide in perception of the war in Iraq and, from reading it, you'd never imagine it possible that one of the most prominent Republican voices on U.S. foreign policy had made so bold and unequivocal a comparison with the war in Vietnam just one day prior. In that article, Ken Mehlman - chair of the Republican National Committee - accuses Democrats of embracing defeatism, which he said "is not only bad for American troops, but...for their party.”

Well, it would be nice to hear what Mehlman has to say about Hagel's latest comments. There couldn't be a much greater defeat than Hagel's declaring Iraq in a state of "absolute anarchy", while accusing the Pentagon (and, by implication, the Bush White House) of "destroying the United States Army."

Hagel's actual speech to the Brookings Institution (which can be read here) was far more toned-down. In it, he kept his criticism more deliberately vague and less targeted at the Bush Administration. Making a more general call for greater engagement in the Middle East, Hagel largely danced around the Bush Administration's disastrous avoidance of the true issues at hand, leaving the region "captive to the fire of war and historical hatred."

Probably his most pointed criticism in the speech was that the Beirut Declaration negotiated with the Arab League but rejected by Israel in 2002 was a "squandered" opportunity. The World-Herald also reported Hagel's calling the Bush Administration's decision to pull out the U.S. Ambassador to Syria "mindless".

Little of Hagel's speech directly referenced the war in Iraq besides the following bleak assessment:
There is very little good news coming out of Iraq today. Increasingly vicious sectarian violence continues to propel Iraq toward civil war. The U.S. announcement this week to send additional U.S. troops and military police back into Baghdad reverses last month’s decision to have Iraqi forces take the lead in Baghdad...and represents a dramatic set back for the U.S and the Iraqi Government. The Iraqi Government has limited ability to enforce the rule of law in Iraq, especially in Baghdad. Green Zone politics appear to have little bearing or relation to the realities of the rest of Iraq.

The Iraqis will continue to face difficult choices over the future of their country. The day-to-day responsibilities of governing and security will soon have to be assumed by Iraqis. As I said in November, this is not about setting a timeline. This is about understanding the implications of the forces of reality. This reality is being determined by Iraqis – not Americans. America is bogged down in Iraq and this is limiting our diplomatic and military options. The longer America remains in Iraq in its current capacity, the deeper the damage to our force structure – particularly the U.S. Army. And it will continue to place more limitations on an already dangerously over-extended force structure that will further limit our options and public support.

My God, a Republican Senator talking about the reality of the situation in Iraq - not just wagging a purple finger in the air, not just tossing-off meaningless platitudes about staying the course.

Though it's undeniably too simplistic to draw too close a comparison between Iraq and Vietnam, it's comforting to know that Hagel - a man who actually lived through the horrors of war - keeps an actual eye to the lessons of history rather than just irresponsibly reading from the Bush Administration's talking points.

It's easy, of course, to give Hagel too much credit just for being so distinct in this regard as a Republican Senator. He's long been shattering illusions about Iraq with his words while voting, time and again, to feed this fantasy Bush & Co. have constructed. There's a dismaying disconnect there, but one that is still preferable to the alternative.

He's Chuck Hagel, folks - the thinking man's unthinking Republican. And, you almost have to like him; you just can't count on him.

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More Adventures in Letter-Writing (now with personal attacks and flat-out lies)

by Kyle Michaelis
Continuing from yesterday's post, let's see how the discussion about my Letter to the Editor asking for an apology by Congressman Jeff Fortenberry has "progressed" at the Lincoln Journal-Star's website:
Anthony wrote: "I believe Congressman Osborne voted as did Congressman Fortenberry. It's interesting that Democrat blog regulars (which Mr. Michaelis is, I just Googled his name) don't accuse Congressman Osborne of exploiting black children. Ah, but this isn't about the rights of's about putting Democrats in office. A group of young, talented, exciting, entertaining musicians choose to perform with Congressman Fortenberry's entourage, and the Democrat operatives turn it into a race war. This is yet another indication of the utter lack of respect for minorities demonstrated by many in the Democrat Party. This is bad for the country, and America is SICK of it. I am thankful to the Congressman for extending an open hand to these young people."

Anthony really should find a better use of Google - mainly, educating himself on issues rather than speaking out with nothing but reactionary ignorance imagining that whatever he wants to believe is reality. The fact is that Congressman Tom Osborne did not vote with Fortenberry on ANY of the Amendments to the VRA. The audacity that it takes to suggest otherwise, attacking my credibility without any regard for the truth, is really a sad testament to the depraved mentality of the Republican noise machine with its primary interest of silencing dissent by intimidation and insinuation.

But, hey, at least he didn't stoop to playground bully tactics like calling me Kylie. I have to give him credit for that.
Barry wrote: "Kyle Michaelis's propaganda attack on Fortenberry is one befitting the pages of the Democrat blogsites he frequents, not the Lincoln Journal Star. If Michaelis knew anything of the amendments he mentions, he'd know that they, like Mr. Harbison points out, would discontinue the use of multilingual ballots and require that our common language be the one we cast votes in. Is this an insult to the black community? I think not. If Democrats are going to continue playing the race card, they should at least have their facts straight."

Wow, look at that noise machine kick into high gear. Now, my letter was propaganda. But, wait, hows this for propaganda? Only one of the Amendments Fortenberry voted for had anything to do with multilingual ballots (and pandering to anti-immigration activists). Fortenberry also voted to shorten the extension of the VRA from 25 years to 10 and to weaken the Justice Department's hand in enforcing the provisions of the Act. And, you're damn right these Amendments are insulting to the black community and to every leader who gave his or her sweat and blood to see the VRA become law.

My God, can you imagine speaking out of such total ignorance and with such disdain for the truth? Right here, this is what we're up against, folks. I don't know if these responses are coordinated or not, but they are clearly intended to undermine my credibility - as a lowly citizen writing a humble Letter to the Editor - while saying absolutely anything that would be convenient for their otherwise non-existent arguments.

Of course, it is nice to see that I'm not alone in this fight. Three posters - No More Fort, TH, and A.S. - have responded to the personal attacks against myself, while also standing-up for the principles on which the Voting Rights Act were founded. A.S provides a particularly poignant response, writing:
"The proposed amendment to eliminate the requirement of printing out multilingual ballots in communities with large ethnic populations does not affect blacks in Nebraska. It does however affect the spirit of the struggle they went through for equal rights and many died for in the process. It is an insult to the civil rights act. That is why Congressman Fortenberry owes an apology to not only the black community but all ethnic minorities who are citizens of this country. It is a disgrace. Any weakening of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is regressive and [a] step in the wrong direction...."

Well, this has been fun, and I want it to serve as a reminder to all readers to get out their and speak your mind. Be informed. Be engaged. Be proud of who you are and what you believe. I'm not going to tell anyone that writing a letter is going to change the world, but it will reverberate and touch others' lives - challenging them to think, while reminding others that they are not alone and that they have a voice as well.

That's true even if the newspaper runs your letter on Saturday, the least read day of the week - the day on which, for whatever reason, the last three Letters I've written ran in the Omaha World-Herald or the Journal-Star. Just poor timing, I suppose. Just poor timing, indeed!

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Saturday, July 29, 2006

Adventures in Letter-Writing

by Kyle Michaelis
I had a letter in today's Lincoln Journal-Star. Nothing profound, but - as a little experiment - I think I'll post it, along with the responses it has received on the LJS website:
Recently I had the pleasure of attending the Fremont Days Parade in Fremont. Undoubtedly one of the most memorable entries in that parade was First District Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s enormous entourage, which included an all-black drum and dance team.

These youth were incredibly talented, and, to most parade-goers, their marching with Fortenberry probably stood as testament to the congressman’s commitment to diversity and equality. Unfortunately, they would have been mistaken.

Just three days earlier, Fortenberry had voted for amendments intended to weaken the Voting Rights Act of 1965 upon its renewal. By doing so, he turned his back on the centuries-long struggle for civil rights, choosing to stand with his party’s far-right fringe rather than the legacy and sacrifice of leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.

Fortenberry owes an apology to Nebraska’s entire black community, whose children’s talent he is willing to exploit in a parade but whose rights he is not willing to protect in Congress.

Kyle Michaelis

Now, right off the bat, I have to admit something that might color ones response to this letter - I'm white. As such, there is some question whether I have any right to demand an apology for a population of which I am not even a member. Do I have any right to be offended on the "black community's" behalf?

Well, I could see it either way - as a citizen and a human being, I don't think there's anything wrong with standing up for one another. Still, if anyone really believes this is improper or exploitative, I could probably see where they're coming from.

It's a perplexing question that truly reflects the debate earlier this week ("debate" giving the level of discourse far too much credit) - when is the act of pointing out hypocrisy and exploitation itself an act of hypocrisy and exploitation?

Well, so far the responses to my letter haven't gotten that big picture - which is probably for the best. Such a complicated issue - for me, at any rate - can't really be done justice in the throwaway back-and-forth of most online discussions. But, let's see what some folks have to say:
Gerard Harbison wrote: "Nice job, Kyle, taking talking points directly from the web page and getting them published as a 'letter'. Actually, one amendment was to insist on English only ballots. Could someone explain how that impacts Nebraska's black community?"

To Professor Harbison, I would say that the Voting Rights Act was all about expanding the franchise. It is an abuse of the VRAs legacy to now use it as a means of excluding voters - no matter their skin color or the language they speak - especially with so sick a purpose as scoring political points with anti-immigration activists.

That said, thank you for directing people to the Nebraska Democrats' website. Since our newspapers do such a poor job of covering Congressional votes and putting them in context, I did have to learn about Fortenberry's votes from the NDPs Blog, but I guess I don't see where any talking points were lifted. Not a bad way of undercutting a writer's credibility, though - how very O'Reillian/Orwellian!!!
Mad Democrats wrote: "I'm a minority and Democrats take my vote for granted. Well, wrong folks. You haven't advanced the Civil Rights movement in 45 yrs and I am voting Republican. Thank you Congressman Fortenberry for being a uniter and not a divider."

Fortenberry's "a uniter and not a divider"? Only if the same holds true of George W. Bush, who's spent the last 6 years making a mockery of that claim. They are welcome to the claim - I prefer the principle.
CS wrote: "I don't see how voting on an Act that is irrelevent eccept that it gets minority blowhards 5 seconds in the spotlight is doing the Republicans or Democrats any favors. I know I haven't observed any voter testing or income means testing going on-or voting lines for blacks and whites. Its an election year, folks, look how 'busy' our legislators are on 'important' issues."

The VRA was a landmark action 40 years ago, and we are still not where we need to be. Anyone who's paid attention to the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections knows about the intense voter suppression efforts that continue to this day, especially in black communities. Since when does standing up for your rights - and the rights of all Americans - make a person a "blowhard"?
Concerned and Offended wrote: "I am offended by today’s “Letter to the Editor.” It is hardly a letter, but rather a contrived rant seeking to objectify a racial group in pursuit of public policy objectives. A group of talented, young people should have the right to demonstrate their support for whichever candidate they choose. Those students chose Congressman Fortenberry as their representative. The author of today’s “letter” claims to be concerned about protecting political expression and freedom, but instead disrespects the political expression of these talented and engaged citizens. Instead of demanding an apology from our Congressman, Kyle should apologize to these students."

"A contrived pursuit of public policy objectives." Hello, Mr. Pot. Good to see you again. Love, Mr. Kettle.
Al Jolson wrote: "Kyle, I definitely didn't need to hear from somebody with a chip on their shoulder talking about minority voting rights. As a white male, I will be in the minority in the future was will Mr. Fortenberry. Will you be so willing to stand up for my rights when that time comes, Kyle?"

You're damn right I'll stand up for your/our rights. And, when this day comes, I think we'll all be better off with a strong VRA there, engrained in America's political consciousness. It's Fortenberry who's neglecting the Golden Rule here - not me.

If any more responses come in, I'll post those and continue to answer in-kind. Isn't this fun?

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Friday, July 28, 2006

The Pete Ricketts Property Tax Fiasco

by Kyle Michaelis
I again over-reacted yesterday in my response to the latest development in this continuing saga. Though I still think that, from the start, the issue was poorly framed and the negativity was unnecessary, I've let my personal feelings obscure one very important consideration, one too often neglected by political observers who obsess over these sorts of things - most people don't give a shit.

Most Nebraskans are living their lives with very little concern for the fact that Pete Ricketts lost his attempt to cut his property taxes. Fewer Nebraskans care that Ben Nelson succeeded in a similar protest more than two decades ago. Some folks might follow the back-and-forth coming from the respective campaigns - they might even have picked a side - but, at the end of the day, it's just more political nonsense, one more trivial little excursion in a campaign that has already been fraught with silliness.

Voters don't take this stuff so seriously. Neither should I. Besides, the worst is most certainly yet to come with another 3 1/2 months before Election Day.

Candidates will make missteps. Campaigns will have their share of internal squabbles and political in-fighting. Good for them, but just because I follow these things - just because I continue to write about them - I really should be more careful in the future to remember that most of this is BS about which normal (and sane) people don't really care.

Of course, I would like to tell myself that's because they care about issues of substance and about the direction of our nation, but - for this morning, at least - I'm not really in the mood to trade in one delusion for what is probably another.

Pardon my momentary disillusionment - it's been a long week.

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Thursday, July 27, 2006

Heineman's 2007 Tax Agenda

by Kyle Michaelis
From the Lincoln Journal-Star a few weeks back, Gov. Dave Heineman reveals his intentions to abandon Nebraska's middle class to reduce the tax burden on the state's wealthiest residents:
[Heineman] said that next year he plans to focus on ending the estate tax and nibbling away at the income tax.

Nebraskans are moving out of the state because they don’t want to pay the estate taxes, he said.

Heineman doesn't say much, but what he does speaks volumes. What are probably the two most progressive taxes in the state for disproportionately affecting the wealthy? You guessed it - the income tax and the estate tax. Taking his cues from the Bush White House and the Republican Congress, it seems like a pretty safe bet that what reduction middle and low-income wage earners will see would be minimal under Heineman's eventual proposal, with the bulk of the cuts he's talking about targeted to those in the most powerful economic position.

Of course, it's no surprise that Heineman would be calling for more tax cuts. In the last fiscal year, the state budget produced an approximate $250 million surplus with $70 million more in revenue than had been projected. By default, that excess goes directly into the state's cash reserve fund. Heineman and the Legislature are already set to skim $100 million off the top of that fund to keep the budget balanced over the next two fiscal years. With it standing at an estimated $500 million, the temptation is going to be there to put even more of that back into taxpayers' pockets...which wouldn't be so bad if it weren't already clear that the pockets Heineman is most concerned about are the deepest and most finely-tailored.

There are also very legitimate concerns that the budgetary "good times" won't last. The reserve is known as a "rainy day" fund for a reason, and - with the projected growth of the state's liability for Medicaid expenses over the coming years - many forecasters are predicting a hell of a storm in Nebraska's future. We're talking biblical/Noah's Ark proportions.

Still, responsible government doesn't entail needlessly hording citizen's tax dollars. It's hard to fault attempts to come to a reasonable balance that looks to the needs of tomorrow without neglecting the needs of today. With rising fuel costs, rising health care costs, rising education costs, many Nebraskans are feeling an economic pinch. Heineman lacks the vision to seek ways of using the resources of the state to address these problems as a community, so he'll just look to make tax cuts that do nothing to resolve the systemic problems bleeding our senior citizens dry and driving our young people away for good.

Well, fine - there's more than one way to make an omelet, so there's probably more than one way to practice responsible stewardship of the people's resources. Except, Heineman has already turned his back on that principle by allowing his political party's unwavering allegiance to the upper-class to hijack the tax cut debate before it has even begun.

If Heineman is elected in November, he won't take the necessary steps to reduce property taxes, which are far and away the most burdensome on Nebraska families. Sure, talk of reforming property taxes must sound almost quixotic after eight years of the Johanns/Heineman status quo have failed to produce even an honest attempt to bring order to the system. But, their unforgiveable inaction is not a sign of impossibility. It's a challenge - no more and no less.

Just as Johanns and Heineman so often put their own political interests before the state's by forcing the Legislature to override their vetos on necessary and common sense spending proposals, they have also hid behind the theoretically local control of property taxes as an excuse to do nothing about them. Besides, property taxes are generally regressive in nature - meaning they disproportionately stand in the way of low wage-earner's dreams. Heineman - like Johanns before him - is a Republican. Why would a Republican care about people like that?

Sad but true. Nebraska deserves better than easy talk of tax cuts motivated by ideology and greed. We need a vision from our governor of something more than lining the pockets of the rich with token bags of peanuts (maybe even the price of a pizza) for everybody else.

Although he hasn't yet announced the details of his proposal, David Hahn has at least been talking about ways to make tax reform work for the common man rather than against him. With all the recent talk of property taxes in the U.S. Senate race, it's too bad Hahn hasn't been able to stand above both parties with a plan that would make sense to the people of Nebraska.

But, there's still time. There's still an opportunity - with the understanding that this is only one of dozens of issues on which Nebraskans have a choice between becoming a state that can prosper in the 21st Century or sinking further into the economic and cultural oblivion promised by Heineman and the Republican status quo.

2007 can be a beginning, or it can be another chapter in "the Good Life's" long goodbye. Wake up, Nebraska! Wake up before it is too late!

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"Good for Me (Not Thee)" Haunts the NDP

by Kyle Michaelis
I can't even say "I told you so" because this is much worse than I had previously considered possible. The Omaha World-Herald reports:
Republicans fired back Wednesday at Democratic critics of Pete Ricketts' property tax protest, saying Democratic U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson did the same thing 21 years ago.

Nelson purchased his Omaha home in 1984 for $345,000. A year later, he filed a protest after the house was assessed at $256,500. Nelson prevailed, and the property's valuation was lowered to $220,000.

Mark Fahleson, a spokesman for the state GOP, said it was "hypocritical and deceitful" of Nelson and the Democratic Party to criticize GOP Senate candidate Ricketts in television and newspaper advertisements for doing the same thing Nelson had done earlier.

A Nelson spokeswoman responded that Republicans were comparing "apples to oranges," and that the two protests were not comparable.

Spokeswoman Marcia Cady also disclosed that Nelson successfully contested the valuation of his Washington, D.C., town house three times in the last three years....

Ricketts came under fire from the Democratic Party earlier this month for contesting his Omaha home valuation. He bought a house in 1999 for $1.2 million. He filed a protest in 2002, asking that the house be valued at $625,000. The county dropped it to $900,000.

He filed another protest this year when the county gave notice that his house's assessed valuation would be increased by 32 percent. He lost.

The State Democratic Party bought newspaper advertisements that used a Dr. Seuss-style rhyme and cartoon to criticize Ricketts.

Nelson said that Ricketts' valuation protest, along with the Republican's comments suggesting consideration of a national sales tax, was the beginning of a pattern.

"My opponent wants to pay less so others can pay more," Nelson said at an Omaha press conference Monday.

Fahleson said Nelson had been "dishonest" by not disclosing his own valuation protests. He called on Nelson to apologize to voters and for the State Democratic Party to pull advertisements critical of Ricketts....

Cady argued that there were key differences in the two protests. First, she said, Nelson had prevailed all four times. She also said Nelson did not argue that his property was worth half the purchase price.

Exactly how much Nelson argued that his home was worth in 1985 wasn't available Wednesday. His original written protest could not be found in the Douglas County Clerk's Office.

Cady said Nelson would not apologize. Barry Rubin, executive director of the State Democratic Party, said they would not withdraw any advertisements.

"Pete Ricketts has every right to protest his valuation. He does not have the right to say his home is worth half of what he paid for it," Rubin said.
(Insert Expletive Here)!?!

This was entirely avoidable and should never have happened. Never.

This is not Apples and Oranges. This is maybe a case of Red Delicious and Braeburns, but even that seems a bit of a stretch.

2 quick pointers: 1)There is nothing magical about the 50% valuation, and voters will not be convinced that there is; 2)Nelson's perfect record in protesting his assessments is not helpful. If anything, it portrays him as more of an insider who's even better than Ricketts at gaming the system. Right now, Nelson is known to have succeeded at getting his '85 valuation reduced to 64% of what he paid for the home - that's a hell lot better (or worse, from Nelson's current standpoint) than Ricketts has ever been able to manage.

Stop defending. Get off the damn subject. After all, this was never about Pete Ricketts' property taxes - it's about the national sales tax and Pete Ricketts continually putting his own self-interest before the interests of Nebraska's middle-class families. The whole property tax fiasco was only intended to illustrate this larger point.

If the facts accompanying the Nebraska Democratic Party's spiffy new ad are to be believed, the national sales tax Ricketts has advocated would reduce his taxes by 2/3rds while raising the tax burden on 95% of Nebraskans. Ben Nelson would never advocate an idea so ludicrous.

End of story.

Rinse. Repeat.
Rinse. Repeat.

And now, with a straight face, ask yourself - are Nebraska Democrats trying to lose this election?

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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Dave Heineman's 50 Days of Cowardice & Calculation

by Kyle Michaelis
If I were really a good blogger (whatever that entails), I probably would be running a daily counter announcing how many days it has been since Gov. Dave Heineman first said he needed more time to look at the language of the state spending lid amendment before taking a stance on it.

It has now been more than 50 days since Heineman first played that card, and he's been playing it ever since - first, as signatures were gathered; then, when challenged for his lack of leadership by Democratic gubernatorial challenger David Hahn; then, when the required number of signatures were submitted to make the November ballot earlier this month.

In that time, Heineman avoided taking a stand on another controversial issue - immigration - by announcing he tries to keep his focus "on state issues." Here's as big an issue as this state will face this or any year, and he's had all the time in the world to focus on it. So, let's hear an actual opinion already.

Of course, one assumes Heineman will eventually be forced to take a stand. If he ends up supporting the Amendment, it will be a blanket admission that he can't be trusted, as Governor, to know what's best and to do what's right with the people of Nebraska's tax dollars. As such, he would also be drawing a clear line in the sand with Hahn, who's been clear from the start that he opposes the Amendment, perhaps giving Hahn an issue for which a lot of voters might finally find a reason to take a stake in his campaign.

If Heineman ends up coming out against the Amendment, however, he will be stepping on some toes with the activist, anti-government base of the Republican Party, who are hoping - with the aid of hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from mysterious out-of-state interests - to force a drastic solution to their token problem (out-of-control government spending).

Who cares that the "solution" they propose has the potential of being a far greater disaster for the state? Not Heineman, it appears, from whose perspective the longer he can go without offending so rabid and outspoken a population the better.

So, really, it's perfectly understandable why Heineman, as a politician, has been dodging questions on the spending lid amendment. But, as the leader of our state, his silence has gone from irresponsible to laughable to downright treasonous. So radical a change to the functioning of state government is not something on which a sitting Governor can afford the luxury not to have an opinion.

The people of Nebraska deserve to know where Heineman stands. He owes us an answer, and he owed it almost two months ago. His cowardice and political calculation do not trump our right to honesty and accountability from our public officials.

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No Going Back

by Kyle Michaelis
Since I can't undo what's been done or erase what's been's how this incident began. Apologies for the confusion that has resulted, as well as my lack of writerly conviction. Hopefully, we can now move on to more important things.

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The Secret About Pete Ricketts' Sister (originally published 7/24/06, with minor alteration for clarity's sake)

I feel pretty damn slimy even writing about a political candidate's family. It's beneath my dignity and beneath the purposes I imagine for this site. But, as a writer, sometimes you don't choose the issues - particularly dealing with news that readers and the voting public are likely to find important, even if they shouldn't. Alas, it's not up to a reporter (or whatever the hell I am) to make those sorts of decisions.

What is the secret about Pete Ricketts' sister? Why is it relevant to his challenge against Sen. Ben Nelson? One reason and one reason alone: all the damn hypocrisy.

For months, we have listened to Ricketts' cookie-cutter, pre-manufactured message of so-called "Conservative change and Nebraska values," showing no respect at all for the diversity of thought and lifestyle existing within our own communities and, yes, within our own families.

But, what does it say about Ricketts - what does it say about his values - that he would exploit the hardship of a minority for political gain? What does it say that he would betray his own sister - who's a member of that minority - for such cynical purposes?

Doesn't Ricketts believe that family is one of those "Nebraska values" he talks so much about? Doesn't Ricketts believe one has a duty to love and support family rather than offering a message of intolerance that would see your own sister made a second-class citizen?

Because, make no mistake about it, that's exactly the divisive politics Ricketts has been practicing. In his homogenized vision of Nebraska, there doesn't seem to be room for anyone who's different. People like that are all expected to move elsewhere to find acceptance, as his sister has - hidden from view so big brother can hoot and holler with unthinking conservative war cries to which she might prove an embarrassing reminder of how low his campaign has sunk.

That's probably what's saddest about this situation - up to now, Ricketts has decided it better not to talk about his sister. Rather than speaking of her with love and acceptance, he seems to have considered her a liability whose name and status hopefully wouldn't come up during the campaign. For a man who's otherwise used his family - particularly his mother - as a key component of a multi-million dollar TV ad campaign, that seems like a very telling choice as to his ultimate character.

If there was a real question of respecting the privacy of Ricketts' sister, that would be one thing. But, from the looks of it, she's not the one ashamed of who she is. In fact, a simple Google search reveals that she's pretty damn open about it, making Ricketts' decision to avoid the issue stupid on top of its being self-serving and insulting.

Yes, you guessed it. Pete Ricketts' sister - Laura Ricketts - is a lawyer. The L Word. The second oldest profession. At endless campaign stops, even in his advertisements, Pete has bragged that he's not a lawyer, preying on voters' biases and denigrating an entire class of people as if they were unfit for public service. Now, it's been revealed he was even disrespecting a member of his own family.

Holding a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago (Pete's alma mater, as well) and a law degree from the University of Michigan, it's unclear whether Laura Ricketts is currently practicing or whether she has a partner, but the website of Ecotravel, a company she started with a different Ricketts brother, makes quite plain that she "practiced corporate law in Chicago."

And, not only has Ricketts practiced - she seems to be quite prominent in the Chicago legal community, even serving on the Board of Directors of a nationally known and widely-respected civil rights organization. She's also proven quite willing to put her money where her mouth is, supporting organizations in Illinois that would no doubt disapprove and wage war against her brother's message of soft bigotry here in Nebraska.

To think, Laura Ricketts has contributed more than $4,000 to her brother's campaign, only to see herself and the community of which she is a part insulted and demeaned in service to political soundbytes. Having donated money to Sen. John Kerry and the Democratic Party in 2004, it's sort of ironic that two years later she's helped fund her brother's advertisements holding Kerry out as one of those evil Democrats who might take-over with a pinko agenda if Ben Nelson isn't defeated this November.

After all, when Pete Ricketts talks about liberal, activist courts - when he talks about rewriting the U.S. Constitution to defend marriage from imagined assaults by armies of lawyers - he's not speaking in a theoretical vacuum. What he says affects real people and contributes to a true climate of intolerance, exploiting one group's fears and another's aspirations for cheap political gain.

I think it's time Laura Ricketts get back in the company of those who will actually accept her and defend her rights to be who she is - as a human being, the way God made her. Black or white. Lawyer or not.

We are all family. If her brother doesn't respect that, that's his loss. Nebraska values, indeed.

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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Controversial UN Ambassador to Visit UNL - Is the University Being Used?

by Kyle Michaelis
This may be an instance of my foreseeing political implications that are not intentional. Even in politics, sometimes things just happen. Still, while I may be giving the Republican Party too much credit, there's no overestimating the GOPs willingness to politicize even the most innocent-sounding event or their total commitment to winning elections at any cost.

This is how they got into power - this is how they intend to stay in power. And, so far, it's worked out pretty well for them. That's why I refuse to dismiss the potential impact of controversial UN Ambassador John Bolton's planned appearance at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln as just some random speaking visit on Bolton's long overdue but no less unlikely Goodwill Tour.

The Lincoln Journal-Star reports:
John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, will lead off the E.N. Thompson lecture series at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a September 8 talk (3:30 pm), university officials announced this week....

Bolton was appointed by President Bush as chief diplomat to the U.N. in 2005. His nomination survived a prolonged filibuster in the Senate.

Talk about your bare essentials - I think Bolton's visit really requires a bit more context than that to put the situation into perspective.

Last spring, Bolton's nomination as UN Ambassador was met by enormous criticism because of his record of mistreating employees in the State Department, denigrating the United Nations, and perhaps even manipulating intelligence data. Of the United Nations, he'd been quoted suggesting the top 10 floors of the building could be destroyed (implying the murder of the UNs leadership) without anyone being the worse for it. As such, Bolton's nomination was understandably perceived as quite insulting to the world community.

Add in his penchant for tyrannical behavior and even Sen. Chuck Hagel was forced to express extreme misgivings about Bolton. Hagel stated, "I have been troubled with more and more allegations, revelations, coming out about his style, his method of operation," and proceeded to acknowledge "a disturbing pattern of things that have come out about Bolton's management style, this intimidation...We cannot have that at the United Nations...That should not be anywhere in our government."

In another instance of Hagel's talking like an independent lion while voting like a Republican lamb, he - of course - ended up supporting Bolton's nomination from his seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Republican Senator George Voinovich (OH), however, did not back down, voting with the Democrats on the Committee and successfully withholding its recommendation. This was a serious set-back to Bolton's confirmation, as Voinovich declared him "the poster child of what someone in the diplomatic corps should not be."

Facing an insurmountable filibuster from mostly Democratic Senators (grounded in the White House's refusal to provide key intelligence documents relevant to Bolton's performance), President Bush simply waited a few months and made a recess appointment without the consent of the Senate. Absent any extraordinary circumstances to justify such a Constitutionally-suspect action, slight consolation remains in the fact that Bolton's appointment loses effect in January 2007. As that deadline approaches, Bolton appears to be intent on keeping his job and has overcome his first major hurdle by getting Voinovich to fall in line with his fellow Republicans and withdraw his opposition. That leaves the continued threat of a Democrat-led filibuster the one thing standing in Bolton's way, with Sen. Christopher Dodd (CT) already promising "a bruising fight".

What could any of this have to do with Bolton's September visit to Nebraska? Well, like so much in Nebraska politics lately, that answer begins and ends with Sen. Ben Nelson's reelection campaign.

Nelson reacted with a disturbing lack of skepticism to Bolton's initial nomination - despite all the evidence of his unsuitability for the job. Nelson went on record almost immediately as "leaning toward voting to confirm" Bolton. That put him in a distinct minority of Democratic Senators. This year, with Bolton already in a stronger position (although Bush is far weaker), there's no reason to expect Nelson has changed his mind.

In fact, I assume Nelson will have more company amongst Democrats this time around. With the increasingly volatile situation in the Middle East begging for a renewed emphasis on international diplomacy and coalition-building, many Democratic Senators are going to be hesitant before undermining the Bush Administration's efforts along these lines. No matter how unsuitable Bolton might be for the task before him, there's something to be said for avoiding a partisan power struggle and a potential vacuum in leadership at a time of international crisis. And, let's not forget that with the approaching mid-term election, Democratic Senators are going to feel pressure to avoid the easily-manufactured perception that they are playing politics with American foreign policy....even if the reality is quite the opposite.

So, what is Bolton's Lincoln appearance? I would contend that it's an insurance policy and a warning shot to make Democratic Senators think even harder before going down the filibuster route. Having likely secured Nelson's vote (God help us), you might expect Bolton would be appreciative of Nelson providing his nomination the illusion of bipartisan support. But, I think not. That's not how the endless campaign operates.

If there is a filibuster of Bolton's confirmation, it is going to be a mostly, if not entirely, Democratic effort. Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry are going to be on the filibustering side, and Ben Nelson - though not supporting the filibuster himself - is going to be open to attack just for being their ally. Bolton's Nebraska appearance - whether intentional or not - provides an opportunity to highlight such assumed guilt by association if a filibuser comes to pass.

In itself, that's not going to cost Nelson the election, but it could put him on the defensive by emphasizing partisan allegiance in the minds of Republican voters at an inopportune time on an inopportune issue - divisive and fractured foreign policy as the world goes to Hell all around us (Iraq, Lebanon, Israel - pretty much the entire Middle East).

I trust that the University and those in charge of the E.N. Thompson forum are not aware or have not considered this event's potential implications for the 2006 elections. I don't mean to suggest any sort of conspiracy on their part but only the possibility that they and their program are being used to serve Bolton and the Republican Party's ends. Though admittedly walking a careful line bordering on paranoia, I do believe these considerations are credible enough that they should be taken seriously.

I am in no way advocating Democratic Senators back down from a challenge of Bolton's confirmation, but it's important to understand the stakes. For the Nelson campaign, it's also essential just to be prepared for the political attacks this situation could invite, with its serving as a potential reminder of one of the myriad ways in which Nelson serves the "liberal agenda" just by advancing the Democratic Party and its convenient boogeymen's positions.

Unfair? Absolutely. Is the Republican Party going to care? Not at all.

For more on the politics of the Bolton confirmation, check out this NPR story. Here in Nebraska, I guess we'll just have to see what unfolds as September 8th approaches. And, keep in mind just how close that is to the tragic but oh-so-easily-politicized 11th.

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Monday, July 24, 2006

Rewriting NNN History

by Kyle Michaelis
For the first time ever, I've entirely removed a post that was written and published earlier this evening. Though shooting for humor in its tone, the article touched on and made not all that incredibly subtle reference to the personal life of a certain political candidate's sister. I thought by trying to have some fun with the post I could keep my hands clean of the underlying controversy, but - ultimately - this sort of subject matter just can't be made to fit with my personal goals for this site or the somewhat vague standards of integrity to which I try to hold myself.

Though no more than a few dozen readers read this earlier post, I want to apologize to them for my failed attempt at wit. Apologies, too, to anyone who might have been offended by my having fun with a controversial subject - the struggle for equal rights and protections for Nebraska's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered community - that I should not have made light of in a sorry bit of misguided but well-intended social commentary that could not be divorced from its potential function as a political hit-piece. The candidate in question has done little to nothing to earn voters' respect, but his family does not deserve to be exploited as a political liability, even if that is how this one member has been treated by the relevant campaign.

Word is that the full story will be reported shortly. Instead of encouraging the damage control mentality that is likely to result, I hope this can be a starting-off point for a debate of substance on the important issues of family and community that arise, along with a discussion of what oft-talked-about but little examined Nebraska values truly say about our state.

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Maxine Moul Makes A Blip on National RADAR

by Kyle Michaelis
First District Congressional candidate and former Lt. Governor Maxine Moul, challenging Republican Jeff Fortenberry in his first bid for re-election, obviously made a bit of a statement with her impressive 2nd Quarter fundraising totals. Still, the real test for her candidacy is translating the credibility these figures afford her into belief in her campaign's actual chances for success.

Of course, people don't usually invest in a candidate against whom the odds seem insurmountable, so clearly there are already folks who consider Fortenberry vulnerable. Up to now, though, the combined forces of conventional wisdom and the press have been reluctant to acknowledge that Moul poses an actual threat.

The first crack in that idea has finally shown. Although the Moul-Fortenberry contest remains far removed from the top-tier of potential Democratic pick-ups in the November elections, it has been recognized by National Journal as a "race on the fringe" in its rankings of the most competitive House races in the country.

That's still not a giant vote of confidence, but it does suggest - along with this recent Roll Call article - that Moul should be and is being taken seriously as a challenger.

Cause to celebrate? Not a chance. Reason to hope? Absolutely.

So, for God's sake, get out there and do something to help Moul make the next step, going from a blip on the national newsmedia's RADAR to a (not-so) secret weapon in the Democratic Party's 2006 arsenal. This is exactly the sort of race where victory could change the course of the nation, restoring balance and accountability to a federal government that has otherwise been completely lost to hypocrisy and incompetence.

You can make a difference. But, it means believing in Nebraska's voters and belieiving that this state actually does deserve better than Jeff Fortenberry. For many who have been burned by losses in the past, that's a high hurdle, indeed. Yet, if we are not willing to try - if we are not willing to dare - if we are not able to believe, then we have already failed ourselves, our state, and our future.

Such failure is not something you just accept. It's something that you fight. I look forward to doing my part and hope you will do so as well.

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Saturday, July 22, 2006

Pete Ricketts Prime Example of GOPs 2006 Failure

by Kyle Michaelis
From the Sunday New York Times - yet more proof that Pete Ricketts' challenge to Sen. Ben Nelson is struggling not only in Nebraska but has also flopped with the Republican big wigs in Washington D.C....and, now, the entire country knows it:
WASHINGTON, July 22 — The tables were loaded with untouched platters of food as Senator Elizabeth Dole rose this week to introduce her party’s Senate candidate from Nebraska. Sixty people were supposed to be at the fund-raiser, but Mrs. Dole, the host and leader of the Republican effort to hold the Senate this fall, found just 18 people scattered across an expanse of empty carpet.

Mrs. Dole has been a nearly unstoppable star for 25 years: the secretary of both transportation and labor, the head of the Red Cross and a popular senator from North Carolina, never mind the wife of Bob Dole, the former Senate majority leader and Republican presidential candidate.

But going into the most fiercely competitive Congressional election in 12 years, some Republicans say Mrs. Dole is faltering in her latest job, as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which raises money, recruits candidates, plots strategy and shapes the party’s message.

She has been lapped in fund-raising by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The latest filing, on Thursday, showed Democrats with $37.7 million on hand, compared with $19.9 million for Republicans....

She failed to find strong candidates to run against vulnerable Senate Democrats in at least four states, a shortcoming that could also be partly attributed to the White House, which has often played a crucial role in candidate recruitment....

In interviews, Republican senators voiced support for Mrs. Dole but made it clear they were nervous about the months ahead.

“I’m going to say it’s going well, because at this point in time, that’s what you need to say,” said Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, who earlier this year publicly criticized Mrs. Dole’s recruiting efforts....

Other Republicans had harsher views. “Look, we have a lot of Republicans who are on the ropes, this has not been a spectacular year of recruiting, we are way behind in fund-raising,” said Pat Toomey, the president of the Club for Growth, a conservative political action committee. “I don’t see a lot to brag about”....

Mrs. Dole said some of her recruiting failures had been out of her hands. Even before the cycle began she was counting on Mike Johanns, then the popular Nebraska governor, to challenge Senator Ben Nelson, a Democrat. She was surprised when President Bush nominated Mr. Johanns as secretary of agriculture.

“It was like a dagger to the heart,” she said.

Wow. That article's pretty damn hard on Ricketts. First, it uses the embarrassing turn-out at his D.C. fundraiser to demonstrate everything that's wrong for Republican candidates in 2006. Then, it quotes Sen. Dole yearning for a different candidate in Nebraska, likening her being stuck with Ricketts to a dagger through the heart.

Ouch! What's probably most insulting is that Ricketts' name didn't even make it into the article. He's left as the nameless Republican "recruiting failure" from Nebraska whom nobody wanted in the first place.

If there's no such thing as bad press for a politician, this being insulted but not by name might be the one exception to the rule.

Of course, Ricketts and the Nebraska Republican Party would contend and will no doubt try to convince themselves this is just the East Coast Liberal media trying to destroy them, but the facts pretty much speak for themselves. Ricketts' D.C. coming-out party was a flop. And, no one forced Dole to offer Nebraska's race as the #1 example of where she should have had a better candidate. It sounds like she volunteered that candid assessment of Ricketts chances all by herself.

Talk about "a dagger to the heart" - right through the heart of the already faltering Ricketts campaign.

After this article, I think you could probably add Ricketts to the growing list of Republicans unhappy with Sen. Dole's performance. That's not surprising since it sounds like the feeling is mutual.

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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Bush's Approval Plummets in Nebraska

by Kyle Michaelis
Nebraska's always been a little bit behind the rest of the country when it comes to the latest trends and fashions. It seems the same might be said of our politics, though - when it comes to being fed-up with President George W. Bush - we're catching up in a hurry.

The latest SurveyUSA tracking poll of Nebraska puts Bush's approval at a new all-time low of 45%. At the same time, 53% disapprove of Bush's performance.

While these numbers still don't reflect the national average that has seen Bush's approval rating hovering in the mid-30s for months, they no doubt speak to a pretty substantial turning of the tide here in Nebraska - where Bush enjoyed a 60% approval rating just last summer. He's fallen a full 15% since that point.

Probably the most surprising thing about these most recent numbers is where Nebraska now stands in relation to the other states. After having been one of the last bastions of majority support for Bush throughout the latter half of 2005 and the early months of 2006 - consistently ranking in the top 5 states in terms of Bush's job approval - Nebraska and its net approval of negative-8% suddenly rank as only the 15th "safest" state for Bush in the country.

Of course, these are just the results of a single poll and no one should get too excited about their implications. But, there's no denying the trend that has been established over the last few months. In Nebraska - one of the most Republican states in the country - there's a deep sense of dissatisfaction with Bush and the direction our nation is heading under his leadership. That dissatisfaction only seems to be growing, and - though the bleeding will have to stop eventually - there's clearly an opportunity this election year to turn all that negative feeling into something positive for the future of our state.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

GOP Agrees: Pete Ricketts "Doesn't Have the Support" of Nebraskans

by Kyle Michaelis
The hits just keep on coming:

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has targeted Arizona Democrat Jim Pederson - his party's challenger to Sen. Jon Kyl - for his reliance on self-funding his own campaign. If this demonstrates weakness on the part of Pederson, however, the NRSC has just admitted that Pete Ricketts' campaign in Nebraska is all but dead in the water.

Through June 30th, Pederson had contributed $3.7 million to his own campaign, while raising around $2.6 million from other sources. Pete Ricketts, on the other hand, has already poured $5.5 million of his own money into this race and has had a hard time raising even $500 thousand from individual contributors.

With Ricketts matching up so poorly to Pederson, one can't fail to draw parallels to what the Senate Republicans have had to say on their website:
Because Arizonans have been unresponsive to his campaign, Dem challenger Jim Pederson has no choice but to open his own checkbook...Combine his weak fundraising numbers with news of a new campaign manager...and it’s apparent that Pederson doesn’t have the support of Arizonans.

Sound familiar? Try this on for size:
Because Nebraskans have been unresponsive to his campaign, Republican challenger Pete Ricketts has no choice but to open his own checkbook...Combine his weak fundraising numbers with news of a new campaign manager...and it’s apparent that Ricketts doesn’t have the support of Nebraskans.

What''s good for the goose is good for the gander. Of course, applying common sense to Republican talking points and expecting them to acknowledge logic are probably exercises in futility. But, the facts are what they are. Pete Ricketts is in the GOPs own calculations. His campaign is dying on the vine, and even the NRSC - whose sole purpose it is to elect Republicans - knows it.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

'Can't Buy Me Love' - 50% of Nebraskans Don't Like Pete Ricketts

by Kyle Michaelis
Public opinion can be funny and unpredictable - especially in politics as Election Day draws near. Voters can be fickle, and their moods can be erratic. But if there's one kiss of death from which there is no making a comeback, it's when the voters just don't like you.

Such seems to be the case with Pete Ricketts, who - for all the money in the world and all the advertising that money can buy - has so far completely failed to to get Nebraskans to like him, let alone vote for him over a popular incumbent like Ben Nelson.

The latest polling by the highly-respected and non-partisan Rasmussen Reports, released yesterday, shows Ricketts with a near-fatal disapproval rating of 50%. 27% of Nebraskans claimed to have a "very unfavorable" impression of Ricketts, with another 23% claiming a "somewhat unfavorable" impression.

Ouch! It's one thing, at this stage in an election, when a lot of voters haven't made up their mind about you. These summer months generally promise plenty of time to get your name out there and win the people over. But, when half the state has already made up their mind that they don't like you, that's a heck of a blow right out of the gate.

Ricketts has to be asking himself where he's gone wrong with numbers like this. After spending almost $6 million of his own money on the race and running TV ads since November of last year, it's got to be quite the shock to see such a huge personal rejection as his only pay-off.

And, what's saddest, is that things are only getting worse for Ricketts. In a head-to-head match-up with incumbent Sen. Ben Nelson, Nelson now leads 57-31%. That's a 3% swing in votes for Nelson over his already impressive 54% showing the previous two months. What has to be even more disheartening for Ricketts, however, is the fact that his anemic 31% shows a drop-off in support of 5% since April.

How's that for money well spent? That's really not the direction any campaign wants to be heading.

Of course, when Nelson has a 78% approval rating with Nebraska voters - including 79% favorability with Nebraska Republicans, more than 20% higher than that for their party's own candidate - it's pretty easy to see why things stand as they do.

Nebraskans know Ben Nelson. They trust Ben Nelson. Most importantly, they like Ben Nelson.

After millions of dollars spent, the same can't be said of Pete Ricketts. People know who he is - they know what kind of campaign he's running - and a lot of them clearly don't like what they've seen.

From what's transpired these last two months - the false advertising, the scare tactics, Ricketts' proposed tax hike on 95% of Nebraskans - who, honestly, can blame them?

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Monday, July 17, 2006

Woo-Hoo! Our State Constitution Again Discriminates Against Gay People!!!

by Kyle Michaelis
I'll spare everyone the legal analysis (which I'm not really qualified to provide in the first place). Federal District Court Judge Joseph Bataillon's suspension of Nebraska's Constitutional Amendment prohibiting state recognition of same sex relationships was over-ruled last week by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Omaha World-Herald reports:
A federal appeals panel ruled Friday that the state had a legitimate interest in promoting "responsible procreation" within the confines of traditional marriage when it approved the 2000 ban.

The three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis also ruled that the state's argument that traditional marriage was the "optimal partnership for raising children" was a rational justification for prohibiting same-sex marriages.

Michael Gordon of Citizens for Equal Protection, whose organization challenged the ban on behalf of Nebraska's gay and lesbian citizens, said the lawsuit "was never about marriage" but about gay couples' basic rights, such as making medical decisions on behalf of each other.

The same-sex marriage ban, also known as Initiative 416, was approved by 70 percent of Nebraska voters in 2000. Gay rights supporters say the Nebraska amendment went farther than similar laws elsewhere in the country, because it blocks any legal recognition of same-sex couples....

Nebraska's amendment was challenged on the grounds that it deprived gay men and lesbians of basic rights, including the right to participate in the political process.

U.S. District Judge Joseph Bataillon of Omaha agreed with the opponents and last year overturned the ban. Bataillon ruled that the ban was motivated by "animus" toward homosexuals....

Gordon said his group will meet over the weekend to discuss its next step.

It could ask the full 8th U.S. Circuit Court to hear the case - a request that would have to be made by the end of the month - or seek legislative remedies not yet tried. The case eventually could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.....

Gov. Dave Heineman applauded the ruling.

"I am grateful that the 8th Circuit has seen fit to uphold our state's right to define and defend marriage," he said. "All stable societies base their successes on the unique bonds of the family structure, and I am pleased that we can define marriage as between a man and a woman."

U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., also praised the decision: "I support this long-awaited and common-sense decision by the 8th Circuit. States have always had jurisdiction over marriage laws. Today's ruling should not come as a surprise."

Not particularly shocking, this issue is just going to be one of those that's going to take a couple more years - or even decades - to resolve. Whether or not gay marriage should be recognized, this Amendment's going beyond the definition of marriage and precluding the recognition of same sex relationships for any reason is one of those shameful facts that one day will be looked back upon as nothing more than a sad manifestation of our culture's reactionary fear of change.

Still, the reinstatement of Nebraska's shame may ultimately prove for the best. By placating the likes of Sen. Hagel with this ruling - a man who at least recognizes this sort of social policy has no place in the U.S. Constitution - I tend to believe America can get back on the course towards greater recognition and protection of non-traditional families.

The reactionaries can have this battle, but even they know they can't win the war. Time is on our side. Progress is on our side. Justice is on our side. All they have are hate, fear, and ignorance - with most of Nebraska's 70% motivated by the fear and ignorance side of the equation.

Understandable, really. Change doesn't come easy. It takes time. Though I'm sorry for those caught in the middle of this cultural crossfire, I hope they can see that things are getting better - they're getting better all the time.

For those who want to show solidarity with Nebraska's GLBT community in its struggle, please consider attending the following event:
Hands Around The Nebraska State Capitol
Friday, July 21, 2006
5:00pm - 6:00pm
Nebraska State Capitol
Lincoln, NE

All members of the GLBT Community, organizations, allies and fair minded citizens from across the state are encouraged to attend. The human chain will be formed as a statement of solidarity and our unwavering commitment to equality for ALL people in the state of Nebraska.

For more information, see

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Deflating the 'Chuck Hagel for President' Hype

by Kyle Michaelis
Don Walton of the Lincoln Journal-Star includes some choice references to Chuck Hagel's potential as a presidential candidate in today's column. Walton writes/paraphrases:
Kind words for Chuck Hagel from GQ and the Houston Chronicle.

“Willingness to take a stand differentiates him from most of his colleagues in the Senate,” Wil Hylton wrote in a GQ assessment of 2008 presidential prospects.

“He has the charm, intellect and wit to make people like him instantly, despite political differences.”

However, GQ noted, opposition from the White House in retaliation for his criticism of Bush administration foreign policy “could derail Hagel before he has a chance to get his campaign up and running.”

In an editorial, The Chronicle praised Hagel as “a moderate anchor in the divisive debate over immigration.”

The newspaper urged Houston business leaders to “forcefully champion Sen. Hagel’s realistic and moderate proposal, which would bring undocumented workers and their families out of the shadows.”

Hagel authored the controversial Senate plan to provide a pathway to legal status for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already living in the United States.

Well, that certainly seems to put Hagel in good stead - even if he's going to face some obvious difficulties in getting his campaign off the ground. Yet, according to the National Journal - which Walton normally quotes like the Bible but noticeably holds off mentioning in this regard - Hagel's presidential possibilities might be more of a lost cause than anyone in the Nebraska press will want to admit.

Having ranked Hagel in its second-tier of candidates for the Republican presidential noimination (#7-10), the NJ's Chuck Todd appears to be on the verge of dropping Hagel down even further, if not entirely.

Todd writes/pleads:
Chuck Hagel (R), Nebraska Senator
Why do we still include him? Somebody make the case to us, please.

That's the shortest write-up any of the supposed candidates received. It's also the most plain and the most brutal.

Of course, there's still all the time in the world for Hagel to make a legitimate run at the White House, but - at this point in the summer of 2006 - despite Don Walton's hopes to the contrary, it doesn't look like it's going to happen.

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Nebraska Democrats Get Clever

by Kyle Michaelis
A full-page advertisement was taken out in the Sunday Omaha World-Herald, paid for by the Nebraska Democratic Party (click for higher resolution). It highlights the on-going debacle of billionaire-to-be Pete Ricketts' attempting to avoid paying $6,000 in property taxes on his million dollar home while spending upwards of $6 million on his vanity campaign for the U.S. Senate:

Although somewhat amusing - guess what - I'm not a fan. While I'm sure those who put the ad together are very proud of themselves for being so clever and those (like myself) already inclined to mock Ricketts with comparisons to Lex Luthor and Richie Rich probably enjoyed it as well, I don't see it helping one iota towards securing Sen. Nelson's reelection. In fact, I'd suggest that it may needlessly open an opportunity for the Ricketts campaign and could blow-up in Nelson and the Democratic Party's face.

Hopefully, I'm being overly-caustious when I say that. This whole pattern of property tax avoidance on the part of Pete Ricketts is pretty damn pathetic. The six thousand dollars he doesn't want to pay - which goes directly to local schools and finally reflects what he paid for his house 7 years earlier, before recent improvements to the property - isn't going to elicit much sympathy from the average Nebraska home owner who's been paying the full value on his or her home plus inflation all that time.

But, let's face it - a lot of Nebraskans are pissed off about recent hikes in their property assessments. Lancaster County has seen a near-record number of appeals this year, and you know Pete Ricketts isn't alone in Douglas County either. By attacking Ricketts in the broad sense this ad entails - for not paying his 'fair share' - the Nebraska Democratic Party could be said to be attacking every home owner who's filed an appeal - not to mention a whole lot more who thought about it or would have done so if it weren't so much hassle.

For a party that has taken such a beating over the last few decades for being tax-happy, does that really seem like a smart idea?

That's my problem with the ad - more than just forsaking the moral high ground and precluding me from ever again condemning Ricketts' negative attacks without testing my internal hypocrisy detector - it also fails to target that which is truly objectionable about Ricketts' behavior: not the fact that he doesn't want to pay more taxes than he has to (a desire shared by most Nebraskans) but the pettiness of fighting a fair valuation while spending so extravagantly on his Senate campaign.

By being cute, the ad may well make more of an impression, but I'm not at all convinced it's going to be the impression that was desired.

I think the majority of readers who saw this ad probably found it mean-spirited and childish. Those who will find it clever are not likely to be the persuadable Independents and Republicans Ben Nelson needs and has so far demonstrated his ability to hold. Amongst these voters, in fact, I would contend that this ad is not only too unfocused to be effective but also might be vaguely insulting.

If played correctly, this could have been one of those festering wounds in the Ricketts campaign that lingered from here until November - inviting a steady flow of criticism for being a Dead-Beat Billionaire who continues to burn millions upon millions of dollars on this campaign but wouldn't pay a few thousand in reasonable taxes to support local education.

By going high-profile with this attack - seeking to turn a festering wound into a killing blow - I'm inclined to think the NDP has overplayed its hand. It might have even given Ricketts an angle whereby he can cast himself as the champion of lower taxes he'd love to be thought of as.

Ricketts has broken no law. He's taken advantage of his rights as a citizen and a taxpayer - one with enough financial resources at his disposal to defend himself as such. I just hope, for Nelson's sake and Nebraska's, that Ricketts isn't able to use that fact to establish his first real connection with voters. Otherwise, I fear the potential is here for this going-nowhere campaign to gain some actual traction, perhaps even building a semi-legitimate message relating his private battle to most Nebraskans' concerns about high taxes and government waste.

And, look....Nelson and his fellow Democrats (as Ricketts would repeat over and over again) just don't get it. "They think the government is entitled to our money - as much as they can get their hands on, without question."

Of course, the Nebraska Democratic Party has never sought my approval for its advertising, and that's probably for the best. I have no track record to back up my criticisms as legitimate. I've never claimed to have the stomach for campaigning, and I should be careful before suggesting that the vague ideals to which I grasp are going to win elections. More than that, I probably have a tendency to overthink things and to grossly overestimate the degree to which an average Nebraskan's response is likely to reflect my own.

Hopefully, my concerns here are ridiculous. Hopefully, voters like this sort of bold advertising and respond favorably to its use of humor - accepting it as funny rather than childish and mean-spirited. Hopefully, Ricketts is forced to pay his "fair share" of property taxes and never recovers from this embarrassing act of civic irresponsibility. But, I'm not willing to take these things for granted.

"Good for Me (not Thee)" - be it escalating how personal the attacks get in this race or even opening the door for Ricketts to establish his conservative credentials - I hope these gentle words of Seussian sarcasm do not prove prophetic in our political reality. It would, indeed, be a tragedy if that Cheshire grin planted on Ricketts' face in the above illustration ended up hiding the last laugh.

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Friday, July 14, 2006

Questions That Need Answering - Abuse of Nebraska's Petition Process

by Kyle Michaelis
Those responsible for pushing the ballot measures supporting Constitutional amendments imposing a state spending lid and stripping families of the choice to remove loved ones from life support have some very serious questions to answer for the people of Nebraska.

Here's what we know: Stop Over Spending Nebraska and the Nebraskans for Humane Care Committee received all of their funding - every penny they've reported to the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission - from the Montana-based America At Its Best. America At Its Best, meanwhile, reports to the NADC that all of its contributions come from the Illinois-based Americans for Limited Government. So, basically, SOS Nebraska and NHCC appear to be shell organizations being used by a shell organization to funnel money from Illinois to Nebraska by way of Montana.

Ya' dig?

In addition, SOS Nebraska and NHCC each report approximately a quarter of a million dollars less in contributions from America At Its Best - as of June 25, 2006 - than AAIB reports contributing to these organizations almost three weeks earlier. That's half a million dollars that has found its way into the Nebraska political process that remain totally unaccounted for, violating this state's every requirement of full public disclosure.

SOS Nebraska reports $380,000 from AAIB. AAIB reports $620,000 to SOS Nebraska. NHCC reports $355,000 from AAIB. AAIB reports $605,000 to NHCC. Those sorts of numbers simply speak for themselves.

Both SOS Nebraska and NHCC set up PO Boxes at which they made payments to a signature-gathering outfit called Renewal Voter Outreach. Both groups also referred to these respective PO Boxes as their "Petition Office" - SOS Nebraska even making a $270,000 payment to the "Petition Office" in its lastest NADC filing statement.

Renewal Voter Outreach has no apparent history in Nebraska before these petition-gathering efforts. It's name is eerily-reminiscent of National Voter Outreach, a corporation that has worked on similar such petitions nationwide, having faced multiple charges of fraud all over the country - from forged signatures in Florida, to false registrants in Nevada, not to mention the names of the dead appearing on their petitions in Michigan.

Furthermore, Thomas Mann - Treasurer of NHCC and organizer of its petition effort - has taken $4,000 from the organization for "contract services." Alexis Mann - of the same address - has received $4,000 in payment from the NHCC (by way of Montana, by way of Illinois) as well.

So, these are the questions that demand the immediate attention of the Nebraska press, the Accountability and Disclosure Commission, or the Attorney General's office for the elucidation of the voting public.

1) Is Renewal Voter Outreach a subsidiary of National Voter Outreach? If so, is the change in name related to the charges of unethical and illegal practices NVO and its petitioners have faced across the country?

2) To what degree are SOS Nebraska and NHCC operating as a single entity? Beyond their use of the same petition-gathering company and their shared use of a false distinction between Renewal Voter Outreach and their own "Petition Office", how is it possible that their NADC filings reflect such similar quarter-of-a-million dollar discrepancies with America At Its Best's own reports?

3) What is the nature of Thomas and Alexis Mann's contractual relationship with NHCC? Are they being paid by the out-of-state AAIB to do little more than attach their names to this effort so it has some relation to Nebraska?

4) What is it about Montana law that encourages Americans for Limited Government to funnel millions of dollars through AAIB to petition organizers in Nebraska and other states?

5) What does a Constitutional amendment restricting the growth of government (state spending lid) have to do with an amendment expanding the reach of governement into one of the most difficult and painful decisions a family will ever make (ban on removal from life support)? To what degree are these joint efforts an attempt to unite religious conservatives with the anti-government, anti-taxation crowd - bringing both to the polls despite their lack of any true shared concern (smaller government vs. more powerful and intrusive government)?

6) What does America At Its Best do besides funneling money from out-of-state interests? Was its name chosen specifically to counteract the quite obvious fact that its work represents so much of money-dominated democracy in America At Its Worst?

7) Did SOS Nebraska break any laws by reporting a $270,000 payment to the "Petition Office" rather than Renewal Voter Outreach, which shared the same address? What might SOS Nebraska or Renewal Voter Outreach stood to have gained from this false distinction?

8) Was America At Its Best lying by reporting contributions of $1.25 million to their Nebraska petition efforts as of June 5th? Were SOS Nebraska and NHCC lying by reporting less than 60% of that amount in contributions as of June 25th? Where is the missing $490,000?

These are, of course, just the beginning of the questions to which Stop Over Spending Nebraska, Nebraskans for Humane Care Committee, America At Its (Worst), and Americans for Limited Government owe the voters of Nebraska some answers. If readers have any questions of their own, please post them in the comments. And, by all means, please start asking these questions for yourselves and demanding that the press and responsible government agencies start asking them as well.

You deserve an answer. We deserve the truth.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

This Should Brighten Your Day - Sing Along With Senator Nelson

by Kyle Michaelis
Wow. If this doesn't bring a smile to your face, I don't know what will. Somehow a recording of Sen. Ben Nelson singing a ridiculous little song about his love for Western Nebraska found its way from radio station KFAB's archives to CNN's website this morning.

Listen to or even download the song here.

CNN "reports":
Nelson sings the song in the yet-to-be-released movie "Out of Omaha" that stars Dave Foley, Lea Thompson, Patricia Richards and Ethan Phillips.

"I'm hoping this will really ignite my career," Nelson said yesterday. "I'm hoping I can get a Metamucil commercial or something."

Nelson said that he is "following in the footsteps" of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) "who sang in the movie Ocean's 12." Hatch is well known throughout the nation's capital for his "second career" of songwriting and singing.

"Neither one of us is an American Idol, quality, but we do enjoy singing," Nelson said. But Nelson did note that this is not his first brush with Hollywood fame. As governor, Nelson appeared in an episode of "Candid Camera."

Nice to see Nelson's sense of humor is still intact. Maybe he won't mind the Nebraska Democratic Party making a music video for the song and using that for their next Nebraska First campaign commercial.

Sadly and sweetly enough, I think a lot of Nebraskans might really like that - it would certainly be quite the tonic for Pete Ricketts' negative attack ads. And, even if done tongue-in-cheek, it would be just as substantive on the issues.

Of course, some of the lyrics are downright cringe-worthy (basically, everything about feeling "momma's lovin' arms" and this Western town in Nebraska "living in my heart and my soul"), but that's probably a lot of the song's charm. And, hearing Nelson sing that he's going to see his next of kin "and maybe have a gin" is sure to make even the most jaded listener crack a smile.

You know, ever since "The Good Life" Nebraska's been in desperate need of a good catch-phrase. This whole "Nebraska...possibilities...endless"-thing just isn't up to par and has failed to click on any level. With this song, Nelson has offered a much superior alternative - Nebraska: The place where the love never ends!

Cheesy as hell. Cute and meaningless. Won't cost tens of thousands of dollars to some advertising agency, and - here - we already have a chorus to back it up. Personally, I think it's perfect.

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Blaming Jeff Fortenberry For Fuel Costs

by Kyle Michaelis
An anoymous reader responding to my post earlier in the week about First District Congressional challenger and former Lt. Governor Maxine Moul's impressive fund-raising took issue with my using gas prices as a campaign issue on which Moul needs to challenge Republican first-term Congressman Jeff Fortenberry.
Anonymous: Why you want to blame a Congressman for the price of energy products is beyond me.

Sounds like a fair enough question to which I will try to provide an honest and worthwhile response.

While there is no holding Fortenberry accountable, as a lowly Louisiana boy who made it big in Nebraska, for the complex workings of the global oil market, I think he and his Republican colleagues have invited criticism and the anger of the American public by their multi-billion dollar giveaways to oil companies as the hallmark of last year's energy bill. These corporations are reaping record profits while putting the pinch on working Nebraskans for whom $3/gallon poses an extreme economic hardship.

Here are the simple facts:
Fortenberry voted against cracking down on the oil and gas industries' price gouging - helping defeat a bill that would have provided the Federal Trade Commission with new authority to investigate and prosecute those who engage in "predatory pricing."

Fortenberry also voted for the GOP energy bill that gave an estimated $85 billion worth of federal subsidies and tax breaks to the industry as the top six oil companies have seen a tripling in profits over the last three years, breaking records across the board.

It may, indeed, be a tad unfair (and ridiculous) to hold Fortenberry directly responsible at the pump, shaking my fist at the sky and damning his name each time I spend $40 filling my Chevy Lumina. But, he should, at least, be held accountable as a steward of the federal government and (supposedly) a representative of the people for following his party's orders by refusing to protect consumers then - even worse - using their tax dollars to help corporate fat cats who benefit from these outrageous prices rather than those for whom they impose an enoromous burden.

Fortenberry cast his lot with the corporations. He invested in them with the American people's money, a poor investment for which they have seen nothing but rising prices and sweeter dividends for share-holders. For that, I hold Fortenberry (and the Second District's Lee Terry) accountable, and so should voters this November.

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