"Kiss Me Kate" - Rolling Out the Welcome Mat to Witekby Kyle Michaelis
Witek becomes Nebraska's first Democratic office-holder in state government since 1998. Her high-level defection - having served as a state senator and as the 1994 Republican nominee for Lt. Governor - could do much to resphape the entire political landscape heading into the November election.
As far as political surprises go, Witek's switch is probably as big and as unexpected as any this state has seen since Mike Johanns stepped down as Governor, delivering a tremendous blow to Nebraska Republicans' hopes of defeating Sen. Ben Nelson. No doubt, this is another blow to Nebraska Republicans - not just for the fact that it breaks their strangehold on the state's Consitutional offices but also for the message it sends to voters: there is no longer a place for independent thought in the modern Republican Party.
Although political considerations certainly played a role in Witek's change of parties (as she now stands positioned to seek reelection as State Auditor rather than conceding her office to Republican nominee Mike Foley), there is a larger and more important principle in evidence that stands on the verge of becoming a national movement away from the Republican Party.
In Kansas this year, nine former Republicans are running for office as Democrats - most notably Mark Parkinson, who was chair of the Kansas Republican Party as recently as 2003 but is now running for Lt. Governor on the Democratic ticket with popular incumbent Governor Kathleen Sebelius. In a similar vein, the popularity and continued success of Ben Nelson opened the door for Witek's becoming a Democrat. Nelson's example and his record are testaments to the Democratic Party's singular ability to bring people of diverse perspectives together in the interests of getting things done.
What's most surprising about Witek's becoming a Democrat is that - unlike her Kansas counterparts and unlike Jim Webb's Democratic campaign for the U.S. Senate in Virginia after having served as Secretary of the Navy under President Reagan - Witek really doesn't fit the mold of these political moderates who've discovered they no longer have a place in the Republican Party. Whereas most of those driven from the Republican Party have been driven out by its adoption of an extremist right-wing ideology, Witek's defection seems to have been forced less by policy and more by the methods of the modern Republican Party.
As a woman and an elected official who thinks for herself and has refused on numerous occasions to forsake her duties by buckling under partisan pressures, Witek has earned the respect of Nebraska voters from across the political spectrum, precisely for her willingness to challenge the status quo. Witek's emphasis on competence, efficiency, and accountability in government made her few friends amongst party big whigs who would have preferred a state auditor who would look the other way and keep her mouth shut as Republicans exercised near-total control over state government these last eight years. She has proven herself principled and fair-minded, willing to put her duties ahead of the interests of her party - for that reason and that reason alone there is no longer a place for Witek in the Republican Party.
In an editorial this Saturday, the Omaha World-Herald unfortunately but not-at-all unexpectedly attempted to undermine Witek's conversion as little more than a marriage of convenience between a woman looking to hold onto her job and a party looking to fill a place on the November ballot. Such Republican-serving spin can not hide the fact that Witek's conversion was truly an act of principled necessity. It is a well-deserved and vitally important act of protest against what the Republican Party has become.
Kate Witek was isolated and eventually driven from the Republican ranks because she's maintained her right to think for herself, putting good government ahead of partisan advancemement. Her example can serve as only one more reminder to voters that the Republican Party has lost its way and demands some check on its lustful 12-year-long power-grab lest it lead this country and this state even further down the roads of divisiveness and disaster.
Of course, there's no denying that the Democratic Party benefits from Witek's change of registration. Not only do they gain a well-respected office-holder and (likely) a candidate for State Auditor on November's ballot, but they have also again put voters on notice that they are not only showing signs of life but actual signs of progress. In a year that saw many Democrats temporarily changing their registration to Republican to vote in the hotly-contested May primary - as two state senators joined in the phenomenon without changing back - Witek's surprise announcement shifts the momentum and sends a long overdue warning sign to the average Republican voter that it's time to seriously reconsider the style of partisanship by which their party has found such success by imperiling the future of our democracy.
No doubt, Witek's registration change also solidifies Sen. Nelson's already strong position by emphasizing his broad appeal, his accessibility to all, and the underappreciated example he has set in the Nebraska Democratic Party for leadership that not only transcends blind partisanship but actually thrives by the lost arts of principled compromise and consensus-building.
The Democratic Party is a big tent. It certainly has room for a man of Ben Nelson's pragmatic character and common sense values. And, in an age when the Republican Party has lost any claim to the principles and pretenses on which it was once founded, this same party has a place for Kate Witek and all those whose approach to government is focused on getting things done and doing them right.
Message control and consolidation of power are not the stuff of leadership, yet - increasingly - these are all the Republican Party have to offer. For this, its moderates have been driven from the GOPs ranks, and - now - any Republican with a mind of his or her own has been forced to stand-up to the cynicism at the heart of their politics and the despair it promises for our future.
The disease and rot have sent Sen. Chuck Hagel onto national television to condemn what his party has become ("I think we've lost our way."). In the case of Kate Witek, it has sent her into unexpected and uncharted waters as a newly-christened Democrat.
For Republican voters who expect more than meaningless gibberish about "staying the course" and more empty promises of fiscal responsibility that have failed to materialize after 12 years in power, their own recourse is more limited. In Nebraska, of course, they have a candidate like Ben Nelson who can be trusted to put their interests first without regard for the pettiness of Washington partisanship. Elsewhere, however, they will have a more difficult choice.
Luckily, I confine myself to discussion of Nebraska politics - where you almost have to ask yourself "if leaders such as Ben Nelson and Kate Witek are Democrats, why aren't you?" (admittedly a more dangerous question of NNNs left-leaning readership, but, surely, they get my point).
PS- I must confess that my receptivity to Witek's sudden onset of Democratic fervor might have a lot to do with its so-fortuitously answering my incessant calls last spring for a challenge to Mike Foley's being crowned state auditor. After Foley's deceitful conduct before the state legislature this year, he is totally unfit to serve in this office for which the most basic and essential qualification is the simple integrity he so obviously lacks.
For whatever my political differences with Witek, she has demonstrated her integrity on numerous occasions, while also maintaining an impressive record of depoliticizing the auditor's office in a manner to which the zealot Foley is not capable and would not even aspire. She is the better person for this particular job and I have little doubt she would do the Democratic Party and the people of Nebraska proud if reelected.