Wednesday, August 30, 2006

David Hahn 'Pulls A Heineman' On OPS Segregation

by Kyle Michaelis
In the gubernatorial debate at the Nebraska State Fair on Saturday afternoon, the most newsworthy message to rise above the inescapable echoes of marching bands and revving engines came with Democratic candidate David Hahn's repeated challenges to Dave Heineman's signing LB 1024 into law, the controversial bill establishing the joint Douglas and Sarpy Counties Learning Community that is also set to break-up Omaha Public Schools into three separate, racially-identifiable school districts in time for the 2008-2009 school year.

For a taste of how the issue played in the media, the Omaha World-Herald reported:
Whether it was a question about property taxes or the KKK, Democratic governor candidate David Hahn found a way Saturday to attack Republican Gov. David Heineman for signing a controversial Omaha school law.

Hahn accused Heineman of committing a "huge blunder" and failing to "stand up" to State Sen. Ernie Chambers when he signed a law this year that would break the Omaha Public Schools into three districts, one mostly white and two with large minority numbers.

Heineman opted to answer the panelists' questions rather than Hahn's criticism.

After the debate, Heineman defended his support of the bill, saying it was needed to bring warring school districts in the Omaha area to the table......

[Hahn] said Heineman used the divisive OPS issue to score political points in his campaign against Osborne. Hahn also said the school law amounted to "segregation."

"This was the wrong education policy done in the wrong way for the wrong reasons," said Hahn, saying the governor should call a special legislative session to overturn the law.

What this story leaves out is Hahn's assertion that the state-ordered OPS break-up has effectively ended Nebraska's much-heralded tradition of locally-controlled education. Hahn repeatedly emphasized that the government bodies managing the transfer to the Omaha-area Learning Community would see their power "creep across the state."

As for State Sen. Ernie Chambers, Hahn not only denounced Heineman for failing to stand up to him but even went so far as accusing Heineman of making "a backroom deal" with Chambers to secure passage of LB 1024. Hahn also declared the most controversial aspect of the bill the Chambers Segregation Amendment, calling on Heineman to join him in demanding its immediate repeal.

Although the New Nebraska Network was an early critic of LB 1024 (1,2,3), particularly for the speed with which it was thrown together and the lack of debate before its passage, I think there's enough merit to Chambers' argument that his amendment does little but acknowledge the unspoken but undeniable reality of the situation - that OPS is already segregated and that his measure simply puts power in the hands of those too often neglected under the current system - to warrant greater respect and consideration than Hahn afforded it at Saturday's debate.

In fact, I'm uncomfortable with the way Hahn put Chambers front-and-center in his criticism. Such an approach is inherently race-baiting, playing - as so many politicians have in the past - on the animosity towards Chambers in the hearts of Nebraska's traditionalist (white) majority.

Of course, Chambers has always welcomed such scorn, so I wouldn't dream of taking offense on his behalf. And, this latest controversy is so tied into the racist legacy Chambers either rages against or perpetuates (depending on whom you ask) that Hahn couldn't help but acknowledge his role, but it's silly to single him out when the vast majority of legislators cast an equal vote in the legislation's favor.

That said, it's hard to argue with Hahn's laying blame with Heineman. Heineman's intervening in the OPS "One City, One School District" debate was a needless and destructive instance of political pandering that made this sort of over-reaching legislation all but inevitable. Unfortunately, when the issue was most salient and stood largest in the public's imagination, Heineman's ill-prepared primary opponent, Congressman Tom Osborne, failed to explain the precarious position in which Heineman's meddling had cornered the relevant parties. 5 months later, that's a harder case to make with the issue of the plan's constitutionality left to the courts and its practicality left to those authorities charged with making something workable of the legislation's dictates.

Heineman's greatest sin was his ever politicizing the issue of school district boundaries to begin with. His second offense was his encouraging and ultimately signing whatever the legislature could get to his desk before the end of its 2006 session. For a man who took more than two months before announcing an opinion on the state spending lid amendment - and who's natural instinct appears to be delaying taking a position on an issue until he absolutely must - it's shocking and sickening that Heineman would have signed such far-reaching legislation as LB 1024 with so little concern for its consequences beyond the short-term political gain it offered him with suburban and rural voters more interested in sticking it to Omaha Public Schools than in doing what was best for the affected students.

This legislation has hurt Omaha, and it has hurt Nebraska in the eyes of the rest of the country and even the world. Fear of such consequence alone should not have controlled our actions, but it at least warranted an honest and upfront debate before this course was chosen.

So, ultimately, I'm glad that Hahn is taking this fight to Heineman. This state can't just sit back and idly wait for court verdicts and what could be an endless appeals process to wreak havoc on our system of public education.

What's so ironic about Hahn's use of this issue, however, is how much it reflects what might have been expected of Heineman were he in Hahn's position. Up to now, Hahn has generally stayed above the political fray, attempting to engage his opponent and voters in a discussion about the competing visions for Nebraska's future. This newest message, however, is intended to deliver an overdue and well-deserved blow to the public's confidence in Heineman's leadership. Whether or not such a strategy will ultimately prove successful, it is at least the mark of a candidate who is still very serious about winning the race for Governor.

Heineman, the consummate politician, can surely appreciate Hahn's new approach. In some ways, it parallels Heineman's use of the issue of in-state college tuition for undocumented graduates of Nebraska high schools to draw a distinction and boost his chances against Osborne...except Hahn has an actual controversy to work with that will affect real peoples' lives. He's got legitimate criticism on his side that appeals to voters' intellect rather than their fears and their prejudice (even if, as regards Ernie Chambers, there's room for those as well).

In other words, even as Hahn comes into his own as a politician - late, with the cards stacked against him, but just as Nebraskans finally turn their attention to the November election - he has not sacrificed the principles or the promises that have driven his campaign from its start. You don't have to agree with everything he says, but you will know where he stands and why.

It's still hard to imagine that sort of candor and forthrightness coming from a Nebraska governor. It would be such a marked contrast to the hemming and hawing that has passed for leadership these last eight years with Mike Johanns and Heineman in office that the mere possibility boggles the mind.

A leader who leads - is Nebraska truly ready for such a thing? I believe we are. The hard part is seeing us realize this for ourselves before it is too late.

PS- I must refrain from scoring the debate because - frankly - the distracting presence and participation of Nebraska Party nominee Barry Richards prevented any substantive debate from taking place. Hahn was generally better-spoken than Heineman, but his creatively framing his responses to return to a familiar theme like LB 1024 surely alienated some listeners. And, honestly, neither Hahn nor Heineman were ever going to be able to compete with Richards' outlandish suggestion that free samples of Nebraska beef might be the key to ending welfare (so great-tasting that everyone who tries it will immediately go job-hunting to afford it).

Even Hahn's criticism of LB 1024 was overshadowed by Richards' suggestion that this whole Learning Community-idea sounded downright "communistic." Meanwhile, Richards called for putting God "back into schools," while - at the same time - claiming schools need to stop indoctrinating our children. Seriously, how were either Hahn or Heineman ever going to compete with that? If the remaining two debates are only going to be an hour long (as this one was), they shouldn't have to try.


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