Friday, September 29, 2006

Be Back on Monday....

by Kyle Michaelis
Never fear, gentle reader - family obligations will prevent any further posts this week, but the New Nebraska Network will return on Monday - with more of whatever it is I do.

Until then, do your best to contain that sinking feeling in your stomach when you read about the Senate's vote to strip "detainees" of the right to appeal their detention to the courts. The vote on the Specter Amendment is particularly telling and - in Nebraska's case - particularly damning. The Benator at least supported provisions increasing Congressional oversight and putting a sunset clause on the formation of military tribunals, but our other supposedly independent Senator helped defeat both measures with his friends in the Republican majority.

A sad day for America. An embarrassing day for Nebraska. Feel free to speak your mind.

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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

David Hahn Keeps His Promise with Property Tax Proposal

by Kyle Michaelis
Okay, Nebraska....the balls in your court now. For decades, voters have talked about the state's property taxes being too high, calling for government to reduce its reliance upon them, particularly in the funding of public education.

Well, Democratic gubernatorial candidate David Hahn has released a workable plan to accomplish that very goal with six weeks before the election. Voters have that much time to wake-up to the feasibility of Hahn's proposal and to finally realize they can do more than complain about property taxes - with their vote and their support of Hahn, they can affect actual change.

The simple fact of the matter is that Republican politicians such as sitting-Gov. Dave Heineman cannot be counted on to tackle Nebraska's property tax problem. At best, they would offer band-aid pseudo-solutions rather than the the substantive and systemic reforms that are truly necessary. Why? Because property taxes, in their current form, are regressive and most burdensome to rural Nebraskans and those living on fixed incomes, meaning Republicans - focused on the interests of corporations and the wealthy - will not prioritize property tax reform and will offer little but the same lip-service we have heard for years and have heard from Heineman since his campaign began almost 2 years ago.

Hahn, on the other hand, has the vision and the values to make true property tax reform a reality. His entire plan - the Nebraska Tax Fairness Act - can be downloaded from Hahn's website.

Honest, thought-provoking, and impressive in scope, the plan fulfills all of the promise Hahn has shown on the campaign trail, offering bold leadership with creativity and unflinching concern for the future of our state.

Hahn's unprecedented pledge - a true Contract with Nebraska - includes the following highlights (though I'd advise everyone in the state to read the full text for themselves):
[O]ur governor and the political elite in our state decry high taxes as though they are addressing middle class concerns, and then proceed to prioritize the repeal of the estate tax, which would result in the vast majority of Nebraskans paying higher taxes to compensate for a reduction in taxes for the wealthiest.

Our current leadership, noisily tinkers around the margins of our tax programs, offering "tax relief" and doing so in a way that is calculated to maintain public outrage at an unfair tax structure while obscuring what is indeed unfair about it.

Tax reform, which is what I offer today, should identify and tackle the core issues involving funding and spending mismatches, with careful attention to who pay, and how.....

Nebraska’s founders so valued public education that they placed a free public education guarantee for all citizens in the State Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They understood that the economic and social prosperity of their state is dependent upon an educated citizenry. They intended that all Nebraska children receive an education suitable to the times in which they live, no matter where they live or what their socio-economic status.

To this end the founders created a system of public schools supported by tax revenues. Since land was the principal measure of wealth in their time, they devised a funding system for education based on property taxes. Over time, as government funding was broadened to include a variety of other taxes — the most important being taxes on income and sales — funding of public schools continued to rely predominantly on property taxes....

Because of over-reliance on property taxes by Nebraska school districts, it should be no surprise that property taxes in Nebraska are largely dedicated to funding education. Over three-fifths of all property taxes in Nebraska are collected by local school districts....

Nebraska is not alone among states in over-reliance on property taxes for public school finance. However, many states contribute more to public education than their local funding sources. And most other states contribute proportionately more to school funding than does Nebraska, which gets very poor marks in this regard.

A 2003 U.S. Census Bureau survey ranked Nebraska near the top (5th) among states in terms of local sources for K-12 public school system finance, while ranking it near the bottom (44th) in terms of state sources....

[F]or two years Governor Heineman has taken a dive on the issue of education finance reform linked to property tax reform, preferring to play dodge ball with the issues while offering voters the illusion of tax cuts. LB 968, the Governor’s tax bill passed by the Legislature in 2006, trimmed state income tax rates while at the same time removing the reduction in the school levy lid from $1.05 per $100 of value to $1.00 scheduled for 2008....

By replacing scheduled property tax rollbacks with continued higher property taxes, LB 968 easily offsets any income tax cuts for the majority of homeowners, farmers and ranchers. Heineman’s LB 968 income ‘tax cut’ is in reality a total tax increase for most Nebraskans. In the final analysis, LB 968 represents a setback for efforts to unwind the state’s over-reliance on property tax to fund public education.....

Nebraska lawmakers, like those of many other states, can be dragged by the courts into taking responsibility for the needed reforms of public school finance. A better course, however, is for our state’s leaders to tackle the problem with true resolve that springs from an unflinching understanding of the issues and the commitment to strengthening our state institutions to the benefit of all Nebraskans....

Nebraska’s ongoing reliance on property taxes to fund public education is a ticking time bomb politically, economically and legally. Nebraska needs a leader in the Statehouse with the courage to reverse this regressive tax shift and make the state shoulder its responsibility to provide a constitutionally adequate education for all Nebraska children. Continued failure to address this tax equity problem stands to put all Nebraskans at economic risk.

As for Hahn's actual proposals, they were listed in a Hahn campaign press release as follows:
*Create an exemption so that the first $50,000 of value on a primary residence will not be taxed. That exemption will eventually grow to a $100,000 exemption. This means Nebraskans pay less in property taxes now.

*Freeze taxable values of agriculture land at current valuations for family farms and ranches. Land value will not be revaluated until ownership of that land changes hands. Permit intergenerational and like-use without step up to maintain family farms and ranches.

*Double the Tax Equity and Educational Opportunities Support Act aid (TEEOSA), the mechanism that disperses state funds to local school districts. This will double funding for Nebraska's public schools and make school funding less dependant on property taxes.

*Establish a lid on property tax levies to guarantee property tax rates cannot be raised by a property tax levy.

*Determine land value of undeveloped land in key areas based on raw square footage of that land, as opposed to the current system which is based on land use potential. This will encourage economic development in the places that need it most.

Hahn finally explained:
"The benefits of this proposal include tax fairness, stable and fair education funding, increased home sales and construction, and focus on economic growth to enhance state revenue rather than continuing over reliance on the unfair property tax.

"I propose the Nebraska Tax Fairness Act and, as Governor, will work for this necessary tax reform."

Challenged for more details as to where the increased state funding would come from, Hahn told the Lincoln Journal-Star:
The state budget can be cut by $200 million to $250 million by “attacking overspending and inefficiencies,” Hahn said.

He’d raise additional revenue by proposing elimination of some tax shelters and loopholes, including those now accorded to corporate jets.

Under his governorship, Hahn said “the day of corporate largesse and giveaways would be over.”

Hahn said he’d apply the state sales tax to sales on the Internet and broaden the sales tax on services, including the addition of attorney fees, before determining an increase in tax rates.

Meanwhile, the Omaha World-Herald reported:
Hahn said his plan would reduce property taxes by 57 percent from 2004-05 levels....

Hahn said hundreds of millions of dollars can be trimmed from the state budget.

He said Nebraska could cut its $400 million annual cost for prescription drugs by driving harder bargains with pharmaceutical companies, for example.

The state spends more than $20 million on outside consultants for information technology, he added, a cost that could be reduced by going in-house or working with the University of Nebraska.

And, Hahn said, he would trim business tax incentives by $100 million to $150 million a year - the bulk of the program....

[H]e said, Heineman's tax changes earlier this year amounted to a tax shift, not a tax cut. The Legislature, with Heineman's agreement, offset the tax cut by repealing a law that would have forced schools to reduce property taxes.

Most of the measure's income tax reductions, Hahn said, benefited high-income Nebraskans by allowing them to claim more tax deductions.

"The brutal reality is that Governor Heineman . . . has shifted the tax burden from those best able to pay onto the shoulders of farmers, ranchers, homeowners, small business owners, the elderly and the retired."

I'm not going to label the plan outlined above as the ultimate, final solution for Nebraska's property tax woes, but there's no doubt Hahn has put forward an impressive set of ideas that offer a true alternative for those who have so long called for action on this issue.

With one stroke, Hahn has converted years of taxpayer frustration into a plan both bold and constructive. With the support of Nebraska's voters and the energy of a newly-engaged legislature, challenged by the example Hahn has set by his leadership, there is no doubt this could be the dawn of a new day for our state.

Now is the time to believe. Now is the time to demand change - to fight for it and to make reform a reality. Hahn has shown us the way, but he can't do it alone. We must take his message to the people that they might - at long last - make an informed choice between continuing the status quo or taking the long overdue first step towards a Nebraska of the 21st Century.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Pete "Rock Bottom" Ricketts

by Kyle Michaelis
Republican Senate candidate Pete Ricketts has had no success winning the suppport of Nebraska voters. The most recent polling by Rasmussen Reports shows him losing in his challenge to Senator Ben Nelson by more than 20%. In fact, September's poll showed him losing to Nelson 55% to 32%, a repeat of Ricketts' pathetic August performance at a time when his campaign is most desperate for any sign of hope.

Well, I hate to break it to Ricketts, but the latest numbers don't just show a lack of improvement. They actually show his campaign taking a turn for the worse.

Two months ago, Pete Ricketts was viewed unfavorably by 50% of Nebraska voters - a disastrous result for any campaign. Last month, Ricketts was viewed unfavorably by 52% of Nebraska voters. Then, just when it seemed things had hit rock bottom, this month's numbers report that 54% of Nebraska voters don't like Pete Ricketts!

Ouch! Ricketts has spent almost $10 million of his family's billion dollar fortune on this campaign, and - with each check he writes himself, with each attack on Ben Nelson, with each month of endlessly annoying advertising, with each loss in a televised debate - another tens of thousands of Nebraskans are realizing not only do they have no intention of voting for Ricketts but they're just plain sick of him.

Considering that it's hard enough to beat an incumbent even when voters like you, this continued backwards slide suggests Ricketts has run one of the most fundamentally flawed campaigns imaginable. He clearly has no understanding of Nebraska's voters or their values as anything more than a campaign slogan for which he paid far too much money to strategists and advertising agencies.

Meanwhile, as Ricketts languishes and continues to gain disfavor with voters, Nelson maintains an approval rating greater than 70% (72%, to be exact).

Demonstrating a new degree of desperation sure to alienate even more voters - apparently hoping 60% of Nebraska dislikes him before Election Day - Ricketts has redirected his endless self-funded resources to a juvenile and amateurish negative attack ad damning Nelson for his failure to correct the property tax designation on his rural retreat and hunting cabin along the Platte River.

Nevermind that Ricketts is already known for stretching the law and the bounds of good taste to avoid paying his own property taxes. Ricketts only goal here is to make voters just as suspicious and distrustful of Nelson as they are of Ricketts himself. Just one problem - Nebraskans have known Nelson for more than 15 years and aren't going to be fooled by a silly little cartoon that might humor as an Internet distraction but, in the general public, makes a complete mockery of the democracy and the debate voters deserve from their candidates.

In fact, voters are sure to recognize how absurd it is for this advertisement to mention over and over that Nelson is a "millionaire", as if that should be held against him when Ricketts and his family are worth more than $2 billion. It is also plainly misleading to suggest, as the ad does, that Nelson was asked to pay $10,661 in back taxes and refused....when that request was nothing more than a political stunt by the chair of the Sarpy County Republican Party.

One also has to wonder what the Ricketts campaign was going for putting a gun in Nelson's hand and reminding voters that he is an avid hunter and gun enthusiast. This ad can only highlight Nelson's long-standing support and endorsement in the 2006 election by the National Rifle Association, a fact that isn't likely to cut into his popularity in Nebraska.

With so misguided a campaign, it's no wonder 54% of Nebraskans are fed-up with Pete Ricketts and just wish he'd go away. One would like to imagine he's reached rock bottom with numbers like that, but, as Ricketts' desperation grows, his continued attacks on the ever popular Nelson are likely to earn him even greater disdain and disfavor from voters.

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Karl Rove's Empty Pete Ricketts Endorsement

by Kyle Michaelis
It's been said that every cloud has its silver lining, but Nebraska Republicans would have to look pretty damn hard and live in quite the bubble to see anything positive in the dark and ominous shadow cast by this weekend's appearance by presidential adviser Karl Rove. Consider this report from the Lincoln Journal-Star:
Karl Rove finally said what Nebraska Republicans have been waiting to hear.

“Let me make it clear,” the White House political strategist told about 150 people at a GOP reception Saturday in the Haymarket in Lincoln.

“The president of the United States would like to have Pete Ricketts in the U.S. Senate”....

The White House would prefer to have two senators from Nebraska on the Republican side, Rove told the breakfast buffet reception....

Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel told the audience the difference is the 95 percent support he provides the GOP and the White House, and the 50 percent support Nelson may provide.

“Why can’t Nebraska have two conservative senators who support the Republican position?” Hagel asked.

This invited comment from Journal-Star columnist Don Walton:
In the wake of Karl Rove, Republicans can ride the wave of an unequivocal proxy endorsement of Pete Ricketts by President Bush. Not unexpected, of course, but finally on the table lest there be any lingering doubt that the president has no real preference in Nebraska’s Senate race.

But Ben Nelson also has the opportunity now to hone his message that Ricketts would go to Washington to represent the Republican Party and rubberstamp the White House while he represents the people of Nebraska independent of party, partisanship or president.

Although Walton does a good job of stating Nelson's obvious retort, it's just plain silly to suggest that a sitting President sending a minion to tell voters he'd like another Republican in the Senate is somehow a positive for the Ricketts campaign. We are just six weeks away from an election in which Republicans are desperate to hold onto Congress anyway they can. The fact that this late in the game Rove would even feel the need to clarify Bush's support for Ricketts says all you need to know about how shallow that support runs.

Of course, Bush would "like to have Pete Ricketts in the U.S. Senate” - just like an alcoholic wants one more drink or a professional thief wants to make one last score. Ricketts would be one more unquestioning, unthinking vote of support for Bush's agenda. He would be one more Senator honestly willing to buy the administration's rhetoric and repeat it - even to the point of announcing "We are winning in Iraq" without any basis in fact or reality.

Ricketts in the Senate would mean more power for President Bush. As a politician, there was never any doubt Bush would want more power - even though Ben Nelson's reelection is better for Nebraska and the nation. Still, it is an incredible sign of weakness both on the part of the Ricketts campaign and Bush that it took this long to state such position and, in doing so, it was still through an underling speaking in less-than-enthusiastic terms about their prospects for success.

And, who is Walton kidding that Rove offered an "unequicoval" endorsement of Ricketts? Considering how late the endorsement came despite the Republican's desperation is, itself, a pretty huge equivocation. That it came by proxy is another one. Still, the greatest display of hesitancy was in Rove's wording - the fact that Bush would "like" Pete Ricketts in the Senate does not mean he believes in Ricketts' campaign, and it sure as hell doesn't mean he thinks Ricketts would be a better Senator than the one we already have - Ben Nelson, who he's truly praised without reservation...without relying on Karl Rove to send the message.

The circumstances speak for themselves. Yet, surprisingly, it ends up being Sen. Hagel who offers the most damning equivocation when he also proposes that voters support Ricketts over Nelson - not because he'll be a better representative, not because he's more deserving of their trust, not even because he is more conservative...but simply because Nebraska should have "two conservative senators who support the Republican position."

Raw, empty partisanship - that's what the Ricketts campaign started with and, months later, that's still all they have to offer. Nebraskans understand this. From their own statements, so do Hagel, Rove, and President Bush. And, from their actions, even they can hardly bring themselves to endorse Ricketts but for the power they would gain.

But, this race isn't about their power. It's about what's best for the people Nebraska and who would better serve their interests. To that question, there's no doubt it's Ben Nelson all the way.

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Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Real Reason to be Excited About Scott Kleeb for Congress

by Kyle Michaelis
As readers might have pieced together from across the vast Nebraska blogosphere (and the comments down below), two competing polls have been released by the campaigns of the Third District Congressional Candidates painting very different pictures of the political landscape heading into the last 6 weeks before the election. Republican Adrian Smith's poll showed him up 51% to 24% over Scott Kleeb, with another 24% undecided. Meanwhile, Kleeb's campaign released their own poll showing Kleeb within the margin of error of Smith, down by only four points at 41-37%. Those numbers, however, are compiled from "definite voters" - a larger sampling of "likely voters" put Smith ahead with 40% to Kleeb's 31%.

So, there's the numbers game for you. Personally, I'm inclined to believe - with the two extremes - both campaigns are offering inflated results, but, from the rumblings across the Third District, those 40% to 31% figures sound just about right. And, to be honest, those are some pretty encouraging results that don't need to be artificially hyped because, above all else, they demonstrate just how vulnerable Smith is and how weak a base of support he holds.

For a true illustration of this point, if you want a true sense of where things stand in this race, I suggest looking beyond any of the numbers listed above and instead reading a very telling article from Wednesday's Kearney Hub. That story reports:
Some Kearney-area Republicans are crossing party lines to support a Democrat in the race to replace 3rd District Rep. Tom Osborne.

“I wish Scott Kleeb were a Republican, but in this case we have to support the candidate who is better for the district,” said retired Kearney businessman Ron Larsen, a Republican.

Larsen and his wife, Nancy, are among 13 couples listed as hosts on invitations for a Sept. 29 fundraiser for Kleeb....

“I feel pretty strongly that Kleeb is the better of the two candidates,” Gene Koepke said. “When you talk to people about this, they say, ‘You’re a Republican?’ ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘a lifetime Republican.’”

The fundraiser invitations went to about 1,900 Kearney business operators and professionals, and suggest donations ranging from $50 to $250....

Some of the Kearney Republicans for Kleeb said they had supported candidate John Hanson of Kearney in the Republican primary because Hanson had the best grasp of agricultural issues. They said Hanson’s loss disappointed them, but they are angry because [Adrian] Smith won the primary using contributions from an organization that opposes farm subsidies.

“What disturbed me the most in the primary,” Kearney businessman Tom Henning said, “was that Club for Growth gave Adrian Smith $325,000. They (Club for Growth) are in favor of eliminating the USDA. I’m not certain what Smith’s motive was”....

“Club for Growth is a serious issue. Adrian Smith may wish he never heard of Club for Growth before the race is over,” Henning said.

He and Larsen said they hesitated to support a non-Republican, but after they met Kleeb and heard his positions, they were satisfied....

[Steve] Buttress said he doubts Smith’s abilities because he hasn’t distinguished himself in the Nebraska Legislature..."Between the two of them, Scott Kleeb just seems so articulate and thoughtful, someone we’d be proud to have back there.”

Koepke offered similar comments about Smith. “If you can’t provide service in the Unicameral, you can’t do it in Washington.”

Henning echoed Buttress’ assessment of Kleeb. “He’s a bright guy, well-educated and a good listener. And he’s not controlled by any group.”

Larsen and Henning said many Republicans would have to cross party lines in order for Kleeb to win the 3rd District, where Republicans outnumber Democrats almost 2-1....

Larsen said when people see that Republicans are organizing behind Kleeb, they might look more closely at his candidacy. “There are some pretty good Republicans on the fundraiser list. Maybe it’s something the rest of the Republicans in the district should see.”

That, right there, is the story of Nebraska's Third District this election year. It's a story of one candidate, Adrian Smith, who is not only utterly unimpressive on the campaign trail but who already sold-out the voters by aligning with the Club for Growth, whose disastrous agenda for farmers and ranchers promises to drive them off an economic cliff in the name of an extremist ideology. With the entire Third District economy rooted in agriculture, Smith's conduct is not only unacceptable; his campaign is downright dangerous.

Contrast that with the other candidate, Kleeb, who possesses uncommon intelligence and charisma yet has never lost that common touch for which the greatest leaders who've emerged from Western Nebrska will always be remembered. Kleeb possesses that "something special", that spark for which the Third District has so long been in need and so long been lacking from its leadership. If voters are able to look beyond partisan labels, they are going to recognize that spark - they are going to rediscover hope of awakening and renewal that had all but given way to conceding the steady decline of their communities and the death of their way of life thanks to years of false promises and familiar rhetoric from politicians like Adrian Smith.

Clearly voters recognize the stakes, and that's why they are so hesitant to embrace Smith's sub-mediocrity. Over the next 6 weeks, however, they must recognize the possibilities - looking to the future, looking in their hearts, looking after their own best interests - and, if they do, you can expect their embrace of Scott Kleeb for Congress.

Sadly, were Adrian Smith just another status quo Republican, voters would probably resign themselves to supporting him for that reason alone. But, by his selling-out to the Club for Growth (for well more than 30 pieces of silver), Smith betrayed the very people whose support he took for granted, mistakenly assuming his being a Republican would be good enough.

But, being a Republican isn't enough. Not in 2006. Not in Nebraska's Third District. And, certainly, not against a candidate of Scott Kleeb's caliber - a leader of vision who would be an actual voice for the people he represents.

Already, as the report from Kearney suggests, a number of Republicans have realized how completely Smith fails by comparison to Kleeb. More will realize the same each and every day as their attentions turn to this election, meaning - with the hard work and the continued commitment of those who recognize Kleeb's promise - this race could be the shock of the nation on November 7th as voters answer Kleeb's call and stand together with actual hope for the years ahead.

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Friday, September 22, 2006

A Good Day for Pete Ricketts?

by Kyle Michaelis
Okay, so Pete Ricketts' Senate campaign isn't going so well. But, he has two reasons to be cheerful on this very special day:

1. Answering a Valentine from campaign manager Jessica Moenning (see above), Karl "Bush's Brain" Rove is in Omaha tonight speaking at a $500/plate fundraising dinner on Ricketts' behalf.

Of course, the real appeal to this event is not the speech or the money; it's the opportunity to get some advice on how to attack Sen. Ben Nelson over the last 6 weeks of the campaign from one of the dirtiest and most shameless political operatives this country has ever seen.

Despite Moenning's best efforts, none of the negativity we've seen over the last 3 months has managed to break Nebraska's bonds of faith, respect, and trust in Nelson. Obviously, there are new depths to be plummeted, and who better than the unscrupulous and indecent Rove to show them how? Have your notebooks out, children. Let's see what kind of dirty tricks "the master" has in store for us from his ever-ready roadmap of the low road.

2. Even if the Moenning/Rove imaginary braintrust fails to come up with a plan to destroy Nelson, the only chance for victory Ricketts has since his campaign is wholly without a message or a vision of its own, there is still this little bit of happy news to brighten Ricketts' day:

You are still SUPER RICH!!!

Yup, Joe Ricketts and family were listed yesterday as the 133rd richest Americans in the country by Forbes Magazine, with an estimated fortune of $2.3 billion. With daddy having that much money, Pete can pretty much afford to do whatever he likes - hell, he could afford enough campaign advertising to bombard and annoy the hell out of the people of Nebraska as he has over the last 11 months for the next 200 years.

$10 million, $12 million...that's just a drop in the bucket. Hardly worth crying over if he loses in November. If anything, Pete hasn't been thinking big enough. Maybe he should run for President! After all, when you're as rich as Ricketts there's only one overriding question - why the hell not?

Sure, he might not be able to buy the votes and fool the people of Nebraska, but maybe he'll have more luck nationwide. Hey, it worked for Lex Luthor.

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

"Born with a Silver Foot in his Mouth"

by Kyle Michaelis
LIBA Luncheon - Tuesday, 09/19
Ricketts said voters "can’t keep sending back the same old career politicians to Washington and expect change."

Tom Becka Show - KFAB 1110 AM; Wednesday, 09/20
Becka (asking question sent in by listener): "Lee Terry has done less than Ben Nelson in Congress. Should we vote him out too?"

Ricketts: “Well I’m not running against Lee Terry right now, and I haven’t studied Lee Terry’s record. Though, again, I’d say, you know, look, if you think things in Washington are broken, if you think things have to change and we can’t continue to have business as usual, you can’t keep sending back the same old career politicians and expect to get change. You’ve gotta send somebody new.”

Considering that Republican Sen. candidate Pete Ricketts has made the "R" next to his name the hallmark of his campaign, one would expect him to be more supportive instinctively of his fellow Nebraska Republicans. Still, in his desperation for an effective campaign theme, Ricketts has shown his first sign of independence by suggesting voters throw the bastards out and elect new people to Congress - despite the fact that all three of Nebraska's Congressmen are Republicans.

Of course, this isn't truly an instance of Ricketts asserting his independence so much as it is guarding that $10 million investment in his campaign. Cynics and the most die-hard of Republicans will surely see shades of Senator and presidential hopeful Chuck Hagel in such self-interested manuevering, putting his personal ambitions ahead of everything else. Or, like the alternative understanding of Hagel's conduct, Ricketts might just be calling it the way he sees it - saying what needs to be said about this do-nothing, Republican-controlled Congress with only a 25% approval rating.

I must say, however, it is rather sad that Lee Terry has been Pete Ricketts' Congressman for eight years, yet Ricketts - who wants to be a U.S. Senator - can't speak to his record. I don't kow if that speaks worse of Terry as a representative or Ricketts as a citizen. Regardless, Democratic Congressional challenger Jim Esch appreciates the implied endorsement, stating in a press release this morning:
While I don’t agree with Pete Ricketts on many issues, he is right about Lee Terry. Ricketts missed his calling to run against someone ineffective, perhaps he should have considered the second congressional district primary and run against Terry. If Ricketts spent ten million looking into Terry’s record maybe he would find something significant. Finding the lack of accomplishments associated with Lee Terry is in abundant supply.

Nicely said, Mr. Esch, and - shucks - nicely said, Mr. Ricketts. Of course, Ricketts' rhetoric has very little application to Nelson's distinguished record, which has even been acknowledged by President George W. Bush, but Nebraska voters should certainly take into consideration the implications of Ricketts' statement for Terry and his First District counterpart Jeff Fortenberry.

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Pete Ricketts Approaches $10 MILLION Milestone

by Kyle Michaelis
Talk about being a "Reagan Republican."

To be honest, I couldn't quite believe my own calculations when I wrote almost 6 weeks ago that Pete Ricketts would end up spending $12 million of his own money in his campaign against incumbent Sen. Ben Nelson. Yet, as ridiculous as that idea remains, it appears closer and closer to becoming a reality with word that Ricketts has dumped another $2.5 million of his billionaire father's Ameritrade fortune into his well-funded but still-floundering campaign.

This pushes Ricketts' personal spending in the primary and general elections right up to the $10 million mark, making his reaching $12 million all but inevitable. In fact, such previously unheard of and unfathomable spending in Nebraska politics could even prove an underestimation with well more than 6 weeks remaining before Election Day.

The Lincoln Journal-Star reports:
Pete Ricketts has plugged another $2.5 million of his own money into his Senate campaign, bringing his total personal contributions near the $10 million mark.

With the Republican nominee’s new infusion of funding, Nebraska appeared headed toward a record-busting Senate contest with total expenditures approaching $20 million....

“Clearly, this is a sign (Ricketts) does not have a broad base of support across the state,” Nelson campaign spokeswoman Marcia Cady said Wednesday night.

“He’s unable to raise money. The only support he has is his checkbook,” Cady said....

Ricketts’ new commitment of personal funds comes during the week White House political guru Karl Rove is due in Nebraska to campaign on his behalf. Rove is scheduled to address a $100-a ticket reception and a $500-per-plate dinner for Ricketts in Omaha on Friday evening.

Ricketts spends $10 million and, for that, not only have voters been subjected to 10 months worth of endlessly grating campaign ads but, now, Nebraskans must suffer Karl Rove polluting our state with his poisonous, win-at-any-cost approach to politics.

One can only imagine what depraved campaign tactics Rove's cursory appearance will inspire on the part of Ricketts campaign manager and Rove devotee Jessica Moenning, who will no doubt be looking to impress. This race is her opportunity to shine, and if Rove is taking an interest it seems safe to assume there's plenty of ugliness yet to come. In some recent comments, this site has already seen a few hints of what Ricketts' supporters are capable of and just how far beyond the bounds of decency they are willing to go.

Those same people will ask what possible relevance Ricketts' spending the family fortune on his campaign could have. They need only look at their own actions - and the level of discourse we have seen this summer - for the answer. All this money has had an undoubted corrupting influence that has alienated Nebraska's voters while cheapening our democracy. In so many ways, Ricketts' attempt to buy a Senate seat has resulted in his selling-out the state he supposedly wants to serve. We've seen a disturbing cycle of escalation in the candidates' attacks ever since Ricketts' slick but insulting campaign ads first surfaced early this summer. How sad to see that such great financial power would not be backed-up by at least some measure of civic responsibility and democratic concern that could have prevented such a degrading situation.

Of course, the Nelson campaign has played along with Ricketts, keeping pace and rarely missing a beat in the back-and-forth so as not to be caught-off-guard. At least, Nelson did have the decency to offer an eight-week cease fire in the candidates' first debate but Ricketts summarily rejected that offer because he'd be giving up the bread & butter of his scorched-earth, $10 million-and-counting campaign.

As reported, "the Ricketts effect" has the potential to push total expenditures in this race above $20 million. The previous high for a Nebraska Senate race was the $7 million spent in Bob Kerrey's 1988 defeat of David Karnes. On the other hand, Nelson's race with Don Stenberg in 2000, which proved more of a nail-biter than this one shows any signs of being, was fought on a shoestring budget of only $4.5 million by the two campaigns.

So, behold what Wall Street Pete Ricketts has wrought on Nebraska politics with his free-spending ways, totally devoid of accountability to anything but his trust fund - at least until voters have their say in November. One hopes this particular Pandora's Box has not been loosed to hold sway and run havok over Nebraska politics from here on out, but time alone will tell that tale.

Until then, enjoy the show. There are 47 days remaining.


PS- It's worth noting that in the vaguely comparable but more competitive race in Arizona between wealthy Democratic challenger Jim Pederson and Sen. Jon Kyl (a native of Oakland, NE), the National Republican Senatorial Committee has made a very big deal of Pederson's political spending and his partially self-funded campaign. They have devoted an entire website (with animation) to attacking him on these grounds, although he's done little but contribute from his personal fortune to the candidates and causes in which he believes, including his own. These attacks are entirely undermined by the NRSC's tepid but real support of Republican Pete Ricketts, who's proven far more reliant on self-funding than Pederson, contributing almost as much to his own campaign in the last 10 months as Pederson has in 15 years of involvement in Democratic politics. Needless to say, the Arizona market is also much more expensive and has a much greater population than Nebraska, putting the ridiculousness of Ricketts' insane expenditures, not to mention the NRSC's hypocrisy, into full display.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Pete Ricketts' Offensive Abortion Offensive

by Kyle Michaelis
Sen. Ben Nelson's pro-life/anti-abortion/anti-choice voting record is hardly something this site is inclined to celebrate, but Republican challenger Pete Ricketts' attempt to undermine so consistent a record deserves immediate rebuke for twisting Nelson's votes as Ricketts has pledged himself to a ridiculously extremist position pandering to the very worst instincts of single-issue voters.

Those who don't make a regular habit of reading the Daily Nebraskan's Opinion page have missed a three day exchange between Ricketts, Nelson, and the Executive Director of Nebraska Right to Life, spurred by Ricketts' original challenge to Nelson's pro-life credentials last week:
I was surprised to read the comments of Pete Ricketts in a recent edition of the Daily Nebraskan. He is quoted as saying that I "(go) out and tell everybody (I'm) pro-choice." I hope this is a misstatement on his part because nothing could be further from the truth.

I am anti-abortion. And my opponent knows this because I have been endorsed by Nebraskans United for Life and received the sole endorsement of Nebraska Right to Life.

Ben Nelson
U.S. senator

- - - - - - -

To set the record straight regarding your Thursday article on Pete Ricketts's visit with Catholic student leaders ("Ricketts has quiet visit to campus"): Sen. Ben Nelson met the criteria to receive the sole endorsement of Nebraska Right to Life PAC for the General Election....

Julie Schmit-Albin
Executive Director, Nebraska Right to Life

- - - - - - -

In a Sept. 14 Daily Nebraskan article, I was quoted as saying that my opponent calls himself "pro-choice." This is a misprint or a misstatement.

I am fully aware that Ben Nelson claims to be anti-abortion, but his record tells a different story.

Ben Nelson's Political Action Committee has given more than $85,000 to abortion-rights candidates this year alone. After pledging in a survey for Nebraskans United for Life to support anti-abortion candidates, Ben Nelson turned around and gave $12,500 to abortion-rights, Democrat candidate Maxine Moul who is running against anti-abortion, Republican Congressman Jeff Fortenberry....

Nelson has voted with Sens. Barbara Boxer, Barak Obama, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton to overturn President Reagan's Mexico City Policy and to send our federal tax dollars to foreign organizations that provide abortion. He claims this to be a "pro-life" vote. Yet, National Right to Life rated these votes of Nelson's as "negative."

I believe that life is precious and that we, as a nation, must act to preserve the sanctity of human life from conception until natural death. Ben Nelson refuses to state that life begins at conception. I am more than just "anti-abortion." I am pro-life, and I will work to promote a culture of life.

Pete Ricketts
Republican Nominee for U.S. Senate

The Ricketts campaign and the Nebraska Republican Party pulled every string they could this summer hoping to pressure one of the state's most powerful special-interest groups, Nebraska Right to Life, not to give Nelson its sole endorsement in the general election. Ricketts was sent reeling when that effort failed, and his campaign has never recovered.

Obviously, Ricketts has recognized his weak base of support, even amongst conservatives, and this newest attack is something of a desperate, last-ditch attempt to chip-away at the support Nelson has earned from this constituency, whom Ricketts confuses for unthinking Republican rubberstamps like himself. Unfortunately for him, all he's probably managed to do is highlight Nelson's "Right to Life" endorsement.

It's the outrageous spin Ricketts puts on Nelson's record, though, that is most troubling and reveals the true extent of his desperation and deception. For starters, Ricketts has lied about the amount Nelson has contributed to "abortion-rights" candidates. Ricketts' claim that Nelson has contributed "more than $85,000" through his Nebraska Leadership PAC is a gross exaggeration, failing to acknowledge that many of the candidates to whom Nelson contributed - including Scott Kleeb, Jim Esch, and Pennsylvania's Bob Casey - are all opposed to abortion. But, at this point in the campaign, why would Ricketts care about being honest and performing some actual fact-checking?

If Ricketts is going to use Nelson's contributions to pro-choice candidates to undermine his pro-life credentials, it would seem to follow that the money Ricketts himself has taken from "abortion-rights" Republicans would likewise jeopardize his own pro-life claims. It certainly follows, however, that if Ricketts wants to hold Nelson to such a standard, he ought also hold Sen. Chuck Hagel to the same. Through his Sandhills PAC, Hagel has given at least $40,000 to pro-choice candidates, including $10,000 a piece for Sen. Lincoln Chafee (RI), Washington challenger Mike McGavick, and New Jersey challenger Tom Kean Jr. Hagel also gave $5,000 to both Sen. Olympia Snowe (ME) and Rep. Chris Shays (CT).

Moreover, using Ricketts' extremist idea of what qualifies as pro-life, Hagel's given tens of thousands of dollars more to candidates who would not meet such ridiculous criteria. One wonders when we can expect Ricketts to call Hagel out for not being "consistently pro-life."

As for those votes Ricketts questions, he makes a complete mockery of the "pro-life" label by spinning Nelson-supported provisions in foreign funding that would save lives, having nothing at all to do with abortion, as somehow contradictory to Nelson's proven record on this issue.

It's utterly absurd, yet judging from a Ricketts meeting with the Lincoln Independent Business Association on Wednesday, Ricketts shows every sign of escalating these misguided attacks. As reported by the Lincoln Journal-Star, Ricketts not only repeated much of the above but even staked out the most reactionary position he could on embryonic stem cell research, declaring it akin to "destroy[ing] people."

That's pretty far out there and pretty far out-of-touch with the voters of Nebraska. While our entire Congressional delegation, including Nelson, voted against expanding the scope and funding of this government-sanctioned research, Ricketts is all by himself in going to this particular rhetorical extreme.

Clearly, Ricketts is grasping at straws here. The fact that this late in the campaign he'd rather squabble over who's the most pro-lifiest rather than drawing honest distinctions with Nelson that would give voters an actual choice shows just how misguided and lacking in a message the Ricketts campaign has been from the start.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Teachers Union Endorses Heineman: A Lesson In Hypocrisy & Political Expediency

by Kyle Michaelis
After endorsing Tom Osborne in the Republican gubernatorial primary - to no avail - the Nebraska State Education Association has decided to go with the sure thing in the general election, endorsing sitting-Governor Dave Heineman rather than the challenger, David Hahn, who without question stands better aligned with their positions and more in-tune with their priorities.

Nebraska StatePaper reports:
The Nebraska State Education Association said Tuesday it was glad that a judge blocked the breakup of the Omaha Public Schools along racial boundaries, and then called for the election of Governor Dave Heineman – the man who signed the OPS bill into law.

Heineman, a Republican, is overwhelmingly favored to defeat Democratic candidate David Hahn in November. Hahn has vehemently opposed the OPS measure, frequently criticizing Heineman for supporting it. The NSEA is a statewide union representing teachers.

“NSEA will put its political clout behind Governor Dave Heineman in the November 7 General Election,” the association proclaimed in a news release.

Hahn said he was outraged that the NSEA endorsed Heineman because “We are talking about a man who supported and signed into law a policy that made Nebraska look to the rest of the nation like a sanctuary for racism … a law intended to maintain segregation under the guise of neighborhood control of schools. It is unconstitutional, unworkable and guaranteed to raise local property taxes. It is disgraceful”....

In the statement endorsing Heineman, [NSEA President Jess] Wolf said it would be of particular importance to have “an open line of communication between NSEA and the governor's office to resolve issues around LB1024, which split the Omaha Public School district into three smaller districts … Resolving these issues in a manner that is acceptable to both OPS and our suburban districts is critical.”

"It's critically important to have a positive working relationship with the governor and the legislature to resolve these kinds of issues," said Wolf.

The only explanation needed for NSEA's decision is that it would rather make nice with Heineman than take a chance on Hahn and risk further offending the man expected to win in November.

NSEA's abandonment of its principles can probably be understood as a practical consideration - putting the short-term benefits of protecting its members from a potential political enemy before the long-term interests of the state, its schools, and its children. This continues an unfortunate trend by certain quarters of Nebraska Labor towards cozying up with Republican politicians who do not share their priorities for lack of faith in the Democratic alternative, particularly for state offices.

This example is particularly egregious only because of the high-profile controversy surrounding LB 1024. No voice has been more articulate or outspoken against this legislative disaster than that of David Hahn, who challenged the actions of both the legislature and Heineman as soon as Heineman signed it into law.

Alas, being right on the issues is not always enough. This is a blow to Hahn's campaign, but - even more unfortunate - this is a blow to the NSEAs credibility and to the principles they espouse.

Of course, Nebraskans from both political parties care deeply about the state's system of public education, and it's unlikely that Heineman would prove a total disaster to the short-term interests of the teachers union. But, if elected, his lack of vision and his failure to understand that Nebraska must embrace the future if it is to prosper in the 21st century would no doubt prove a sorry reminder of the Hahn campaign's promise.

At the very least, Heineman has made a weak announcement in opposition to the State Spending Lid (again, following Hahn's lead months after he should have originally done so). Had he not done so, there was no possible way the NSEA could have offered its endorsement. As is, NSEA should demand Heineman be far more public with his opposition to the State Spending Lid, as it is one of the greatest threats to public education this state has ever known. If Heineman will not lead the charge against this outrageous and destructive Constitutional Amendment, the NSEA has made a terrible blunder for which the students of Nebraska could suffer for years to come.

Change will not be possible in this state until organizations like the NSEA are willing to take a chance on candidates and on issues in which they actually believe. Until that day comes, they can expect one crisis after another as the fiscal bleeding and moral beatings continue in perpetuity.

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Monday, September 18, 2006

50 Days to Make A Difference - "Act Blue Nebraska"

by Kyle Michaelis

The New Nebraska Network is an entirely volunteer project, and - despite multiple opportunites from various vendors and software peddlers - I have no intention of commercializing the site with hokey advertisements just as annoying as they are debasing. So long as this site can be operated without expense - as visually unappealing as it may be - I would never seek or expect compensation for my meager and altogether insufficient efforts.

Still, this site does have a purpose. And, though I'm not willing to tie that purpose inextricably to that of building the Nebraska Democratic Party and helping elect Democratic candidates, those both seem like pretty good places to start for the time being - hopefully restoring some measure of balance and accountability in both our state and federal government, where Republican office-holders have betrayed their supposed principles and completely lost touch with the needs, values, and interests of the people of Nebraska.

There is still time this year to make a difference in the November election. There are some fine candidates to support, right here in Nebraska, even if they are not on the national RADAR and have not yet broken through the local media's disturbingly singular focus on the disappointingly (from their perspective) lopsided, lackluster, and uncompetitive Senate race.

As Pete Ricketts continues to flounder in the voters' disfavor, there remains a definite window in the media's 2006 election coverage for better able challengers to emerge who might be able to piece together an actual argument for their campaigns.

Four candidates who are in the process of meeting that very task are Scott Kleeb, Maxine Moul, David Hahn, and Jim Esch. To assist them in their respective efforts, I have put together a webpage through the popular and proven "Act Blue" - which has raised over $6 million for Democratic candidates and causes since 2004. Here NNN readers are encouraged to donate what they can in the coming weeks and in the final push to the general election.

While the Ricketts campaign has thus far proven testament to the limits of even the son a billionaire's buying an election, candidates still need all the financial assistance they can get from those people who believe in their campaigns and their cause. As Ricketts has shown, you can't buy victory - you can hardly even buy legitimacy - but a candidate needs money if he or she is to have a shot at either.

I have no idea if this little fundraising plea will be successful in the slightest. If you enjoy NNN, I ask only that you consider giving to these worthy candidates, as soon as possible, while that money can still do the most good for their campaigns. These people have put their names, their reputations, sometimes even their families and their livelihoods on the line because they don't like the direction this state and nation are heading, and they know they would do a better job for the people of Nebraska.

All have sacrificed to get this far, but all have a long ways to go. They need your passion. They need your hope. They need your time. And, right now, I'm asking on their behalf - in the name of the "New Nebraska" that will one day be - for your financial contribution as well.

I've written more thoroughly about the individual candidates and their respective chances for success at NNN's Act Blue page. Please check it out, and please give today. I don't receive a cent. Neither does Act Blue. It all goes to the candidate(s) you choose - where it belongs and where it can do the most good as per the needs of the individual campaigns in these last 50 days to take back Nebraska and to put our country back on the paths of peace, progress, and prosperity.

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Friday, September 15, 2006

UNL Catholics Hoped for a Ricketts Donation, Got His Rhetoric

by Kyle Michaelis
Republican Senate challenger Pete Ricketts continues to amuse on the campaign trail. After this weekend's second of three debates with Senator Ben Nelson (available online), in which he shamelessly accused Nelson of being a liar and a poor representative in a desperate attempt to gain any sort of traction, Ricketts appears to have continued on the attack - even in the most inappropriate places. On Wednesday, he turned an innocent invitation to tour the Catholic student center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln into just one more assault on Nelson's record.

The Daily Nebraskan reports:
[Pete] Ricketts ... scheduled a brief and informal meeting with representatives from UNL's chapter of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students.

Jude Werner, the development director for the Newman Center, a Catholic community organization that reaches out to UNL students, said he called Ricketts's office to tell the candidate about the center's Catholic ministries on campus, since Ricketts did similar work while in college.

"We were just hoping to get some money (from Ricketts) and get the word out about what we were doing," said James Jansen, the campus director of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students.

In response, Ricketts's office sent an e-mail to Werner saying the candidate was interested in visiting the Newman Center.

So about 15 people ended up with a chance to shake hands with Ricketts and hear him speak ... [T]he candidate walked in the room, greeted each person, made small talk and directed attention to his widely publicized campaign against Sen. Ben Nelson for the Nebraska Senate seat.

"Ben Nelson is one of the least effective senators in the U.S. Senate," Ricketts said.

"He's completely ineffective....If we send legislators to Washington to solve problems, he's not doing it."

Good Lord, after subjecting the students to this latest routine, I hope Ricketts at least wrote the Newman Center some sort of check to make it worth their while. Can't really fault them for what sounds like a failed attempt at securing a donation - word that Ricketts has spent more than $7 million of his own money on his seemingly ill-fated campaign is bound to suggest that this is a guy with money to burn.

On the substance of Ricketts' attacks, it's hard to know where he's coming from but a place of total desperation. Just as Nelson deftly answered Rickett' charges of lying about his statements at the debate, all the substantiating evidence a person could want is available at Nelson's campaign may have put a lot more emphasis on some of Ricketts' statements than he ever intended, but the record speaks for itself. Ricketts has no right to call anyone a liar - let alone a sitting U.S. Senator - just to avoid being held accountable for the most foolish and self-serving aspects of his now more discrete agenda.

As for Ricketts' most recent attack on Nelson's effectiveness in the Senate, Nelson did alright defending himself by mentioning his vital role in the centrist Gang of 14 coalition that prevented the shutdown of the U.S. Senate in Spring 2005. Still, one gets the sense that Nelson could have ended the race right then and there by reminding Ricketts that President George W. Bush himself had come to Omaha and testified to the effectiveness of his leadership and his service to the people of Nebraska.

A missed opportunity perhaps, but - with this race largely falling off the national RADAR as the Ricketts campaign has completely failed to materialize - there shouldn't be much reason to worry.

Although I, of course, would have liked seeing Nelson run entirely on his own record of standing for and by the people of Nebraska, one knows that Ricketts' endless resources would then be devoted entirely to a vicious campaign of character assasination far more intense than what we've seen. Ricketts hasn't been able to run that sort of campaign precisely because he's spent much of the last two months on the defensive - grasping for a message with no record of his own, pointing a finger at Washington D.C. politicians as he hopes voters don't recognize the same empty and undelivered promises that Republicans have been making throughout 12 years of one-party domination.

He's hungry to get on the attack - desperate, in fact - as evidenced by Ricketts' leaping at the opportunity to lob insults in front of a nonpartisan religious service organization "just hoping to get some money." Yeah, that's kind of sad, but I expect Ricketts has plenty more such pathetic escapades in store for us over the next 50-odd days before the November election.

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

My "Kate Witek" Mea Culpa

by Kyle Michaelis
Thanks to some sensationalized reporting by the Lincoln Journal-Star, I - and probably most readers not privileged to this state's backroom political dealings - accepted the notion advanced by the LJS that the Democratic Party was honestly pursuing a second spot for Kate Witek (both as a Democrat and by-petition) on the November ballot.

Turns out that threat - perhaps supportable as a matter of law but hardly as a matter of principle or practicality - was merely a bargaining chip to exact some leverage over the Republican-dominated Secretary of State's and Attorney General's offices, protecting Witek's nomination as a Democrat from further challenge in the courts.

The more reliable AP reports:
State Auditor Kate Witek will be listed on the Nov. 7 ballot as a Democrat only, under a deal reached with her lawyer and the state attorney general’s office....

Vince Powers, one of Witek’s lawyers and a Democratic national committeeman, said the attorney general’s office agreed to not appeal a judge’s ruling that Witek, a longtime Republican who recently became a Democrat, should be on the ballot as a Democrat....

“The whole issue about her being on twice was only protection against an appeal,” Powers said. “Because had they appealed, it would have put her in jeopardy as far as being listed as a Democrat.

“Ultimately ... it was very important to the Democratic Party that it not get pushed around by the Republicans,” Powers said.

Had I understood the context from which this argument emerged, I would have certainly withheld my ill-informed criticism, saving me from partaking in another self-righteous scolding of the Nebraska Democratic Party. As is, I apologize to readers and the NDP alike for taking the Journal-Star's reporting at face value.

It appears the Democratic Party had some fine legal representation throughout the struggle to get Witek's name on the November ballot, resulting in what seems to be across-the-board success (barring the unfortunate aforementioned report). Compliments to all involved, and I hope all the kids at home enjoy Powers' fighting words about the Democratic Party's refusal to be pushed around by their powerful Republican counterparts.

Now, having gotten the story wrong - in the grandest journalistic tradition - let's finally move on to a different subject.

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The "Real Democrat" Deceit (& the silliest online comment I've ever read)

by Kyle Michaelis
I generally wouldn't lift something so trivial as an anonymous comment from the Lincoln Journal-Star's website, but - since my own name was invoked in said comment - I feel compelled and shall take license to respond.

Replying to the Journal-Star's Wednesday report on State Auditor Kate Witek's bid for reelection as the Democratic nominee, Go Larrick! posted:
[Larrick is] the real democrat. This just proves how out of touch, childish, and downright stupid the Nebraska Democratic Party is. Rubin, Powers, Michaelis...Kerry, Seng, and Moul. They have turned their backs on us real Democrats! Its time to take it back.

Now, for starters, I do not seek and do not deserve any sort of mention alongside such tireless and devoted leaders as those with whom I'm named above. These other folks, along with a trio of current and former NDP staffers who were also named ("...") work each and every day in building a stronger Democratic Party or, in the instances of Lincoln Mayor Coleen Seng and First District Congressional Candidate Maxine Moul, fighting for better government more representative of the people's interests.

I, on the other hand, am a guy who types because he has too much time on his hands. How that qualifies me for such illustrious company - even in the somewhat disordered ramblings of an anonymous blogger - is completely beyond my comprehension. It would be flattering if it were not a reminder of how little I honestly contribute to creating a "New Nebraska."

The only possible explanation for my name coming up in this context is as a misplaced response to a comment I myself posted on the Nebraska Democratic Party's blog earlier this week. When one writer declared Green Party nominee Steve Larrick "the real Democrat" in the race for State Auditor, I replied:
I’ll be damned if Steve Larrick is the “real Democrat” in this race. He’s a good man, but he’s given up on this party – given up on its legacy, on its ideals, and on the hard-working common people who have always made it great.

Green Party nominee Larrick had every opportunity to run in the Democratic primary – as he could have in the 2004 Congressional race. He’s instead chosen a road of marginalization, false equivocation, distraction, and empty protest that weakens the progressive community and promises our continued disunity and defeat.

I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone they can’t vote for Larrick – that’s their right in a democracy – but I would ask that they not concede he’s the “real Democrat” in this race when he’s turned his back on us at our most desperate hour, when this party has been most in need of leaders with courage and vision.

Now, for all my misgivings about the Green Party in general (and Larrick's 2004 campaign), I should have made clear that I really can't fault Larrick for running in this race in any way, shape, or form. Were it not for Witek's last minute reelection bid and her surprise party-change, I would have been thankful that at least someone gave a damn enough about our state government to offer an alternative to "Lying Legislator" Mike Foley's ascension as State Auditor.

My problem is not with Larrick or his campaign. Rather, it's simply with the false and misleading rhetoric concerning his being the "real Democrat" in this race. If a voter honestly believes Larrick will do a better job than Witek as State Auditor, he or she should go ahead and vote for the man, but pretending some sort of ideological and partisan superiority in the process is utterly ridiculous.

I've gone on record numerous times with how destructive I find these sorts of claims. At the end of the day, political affiliation is a matter of conscience, choice, and personal identity. Looking to history, the current political situation, and the principles in which one believes, an individual can be expected to know for herself where she stacks-up. But, for that same individual to imagine that what she believes and what she finds most appealing about that party should be held as the standard against which all others shall be judged is plainly idiotic.

Different people are Democrats for different reasons. Ultimately, what a party stands for is determined by its voters by the candidates they nominate and the officeholders they elect, but such definition is betrayed by over-generalizations and single-issue litmus tests that sacrifice a candidate's autonomy to an absurd and patently false monolithic ideal.

I have no right to say who is or is not a Democrat. All I can do is fight for the issues in which I believe and the candidates in whom I best find myself reflected, leaving to the almighty wisdom of the people what form their Democratic Party and their democracy will take.

With such a vision of the Democratic Party as a microcosm of American democracy in general, there really is only one absolute qualification that could be considered reasonable - that of objectively wearing the label and being registered as a Democrat (paralleling citizenship and the bare act of registration). Now, I don't personally subscribe to even that qualification in my voting because I don't believe raw partisanship serves the long-term interests of democracy. But, if I were running around looking to label a candidate as "the real Democrat," there's absolutely no justification - particularly here in Nebraska, where the powers-that-be aren't all that powerful - for any candidate to wear that title without being registered as such.

Still, I'm not going to argue that anyone should vote for Witek for purely partisan reasons. I don't have to. Despite my parting ways with Witek on many of her mid-90s votes as a state senator, she's served honorably as Auditor for the last eight years and has shown true concern for righting this state's finances (no pun intended). That she has proven her mettle and her willingness to stand up to the GOP Machine on multiple occasions certainly speaks in her favor and to her qualifications for the job as well. The way I see it, Auditor is a position where an independent streak like Witek's is a definite asset, whether or not she meets ones standards as a full-fledged Democrat.

If a voter remains unconvinced on these grounds and still thinks Larrick would do a better job, then - by all means - vote accordingly. Sure, it's a de facto vote for Lying Legislator Foley, but all I really ask is that it not be cast under the "real Democrat" delusion.

Larrick and the Greens were never forced from the ranks of the Democratic Party. They gave up on it - plain and simple. It could be said that they have given up on American democracy itself, choosing political martyrdom for which an entire nation must now suffer. By their circular logic, their continued inability to connect with voters is the only proof they need of systematic failure totally obscuring their/our own. But, that is a debate for another day.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Continuing Saga of Kate Witek's Democratic Conversion

by Kyle Michaelis
Several weeks ago, I joined in welcoming incumbent state auditor Kate Witek into the fold of the Nebraska Democratic Party. At that time, there was some question whether Witek, who'd received the endorsement of the NDP in her surprise bid for reelection just two days prior, would appear on the ballot as a candidate by-petition or as the Democratic nominee. Secretary of State John Gale rejected the Democrats' initial claim that their convention had the authority to designate a candidate, leading to a court appeal as well as a back-up effort securing the 2,000 signatures necessary to petition Witek onto the ballot just in case.

Well, it turns out the Democratic Party was successful in both these regards - with Gale verifying that Witek had submitted enough signatures by petition just hours before his rejection of the NDPs nomination was overruled in court.

Now, on most levels, this is a clear victory for the Democratic Party. Whether it's a true victory for democracy, however, is more in question because this court decision clearly asserts greater power in the hands of political parties by reserving them ballot access even without running a candidate in the state's primary election.

In one sense, this should encourage greater choice on the general election ballot, but it could conceivably weaken the hands of partisan voters in having a say in their own nominees by giving candidates an alternative insider's route to the ballot without competing in a primary. That's a problem because of the potential within such a framework for abuse and a return to the machine-style/ party-boss politics of old. Direct primaries are supposed to be a check on that sort of consolidated power.

When Gale rejected Witek's nomination-by-convention, the Democratic Party accused him of playing partisan political games with his office. Seeing an opportunity, the Omaha World-Herald attacked the Democrats' for that hasty accusation in two seperate editorials, and I can't help agreeing with the OWH's assessment despite their own unfair overkill. There was a legitimate conflict in the law, one for which I must admit my own reading this spring resulted in the same conclusion to which Gale had come - that a political party only had the right to appoint a nominee when their candidate who'd won in the primary dropped-out of the race.

I have since been persuaded that I was wrong - that Gale and I were wrong - in light of a century-old court case that suggests conflicts in election law should be decided in favor of increased choice on the ballot. But, the statutes themselves were not so clear-cut, and, in this instance, I can no more call Gale a Republican hack than I can myself (makes you wonder).

None of which is to suggest that Gale hasn't politicized his office. Very serious questions persist about how several elections have been conducted under his watch, particularly in heavily minority areas. Moreover, the plans Gale announced for implementing satellite voting in Lancaster County this spring proved colored in favor of Republican turn-out, so much so that the entire test-run was scrapped.

Even in this race for State Auditor, there's some potential for partisan shenanigans on Gale's part in an alternative and, thus far, unreported regard. Green Party nominee Steve Larrick's petition to appear on the November ballot was initially rejected by Gale - on the grounds that the Green Party had not achieved recognition as a statewide political body - only to be approved in what seemed a complete reversal as soon as the specter of Witek's running as a Democrat appeared. It goes without saying that nothing helps Republicans at the expense of Democrats quite like throwing the Green Party in the picture - a lesson of which Republicans are well aware (i.e. George W. Bush's presidency and the current Pennsylvania Senate race debacle).

It seems worth noting that, with this latest court decision, not only the Republican and Democratic parties but also Nebraska's "third parties" should be able to nominate future candidates for state office in convention, assuming their election year performance allows them to maintain recngnition and validity in the eyes of the state. That right there is one long-term wrinkle of interest I expect few considered in this battle.

Looking back to the Democratic Party's success at getting Witek on the ballot, however, there is one further development worth mentioning. As reported in today's Lincoln Journal-Star, the NDP is making an unfortunate request that Witek be named twice on the election ballot - once by-petition and once as the Democratic nominee.

I fear this request - somewhat silly and impractical as it would open the door for any candidate to get their name on the ballot twice by submitting signatures on top of their party nomination - overshadowed the Democrat's two-pronged victory the day before and invited some measure of recrimination for their own political game-playing without regard for the public interest.

The Democratic Party may not be used to winning these sorts of battles, but they should understand that a victory can quickly become a loss in the more important (for their immediate purposes) court of public opinion, in which there's no way to dress-up a claim to two ballot spots as anything but an attempt to game the system, even if they can make a valid legal argument in its support.

Witek made the ballot. She will appear as the Democratic nominee. That's victory enough for now...let's not make it a loss by over-playing the Democratic Party's hand at expense to the voters' trust. Instead, they should focus on building the case for reelection, making the argument to Democratic and Republican voters alike for why they should stick with Witek in 2006.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Two Candidates; One Insanity

by Kyle Michaelis
There are certainly higher profile news stories out there than a debate between the two legislative candidates in Nebraska's 42nd District held at the North Platte Senior Center on Monday night. Having read excerpts of that debate from the North Platte Bulletin, however, I doubt any of these other stories are more relevant to Nebraska's future...or more troubling in what they foretell.

The race between Marc Kaschke and Tom Hansen in the 42nd legislative district is illustrative of a very real problem that has held Nebraska, particularly its overwhelmingly Republican 3rd District, in its grip for decades. That problem is false promises founded on outright fiscal irresponsibility. Behold, in their own words:
Spending lid amendment

Kaschke – “I wish there were a different solution,” Kaschke said. “The last 20 years or so the legislature has said, ‘trust us, we will lower your taxes and our spending.’ But they haven’t done that. I don’t know how to change it without a constitutional amendment. I don’t believe it will hurt schools or roads. Nebraska should live on the same restrictions we have to live on.”

Hansen – “I signed the petition on the first day out. Then my son brought up that it could lead to property taxes going up. I had the chance to unsign it but I didn’t. I believe the question is legitimate. The legislature lowers taxes when revenue is down. They have to. Our state has a balanced budget amendment. State agencies are accountable to the legislature but they need to be more accountable. If they have money left in their budgets in May, they hurry up and spend it before June or they won’t get it the following year. Spending lids don’t seem to work so well.”

State estate tax

Kaschke – “I’m a proponent of repealing the estate tax. People sometimes have difficulty passing on businesses to their children and have to pay for the business for the entire second time.”

Hansen – “Governor Heineman wants that settled too. Money that’s been taxed and taxed gets taxed again. Investments get taxed again. It needs to be repealed.”

In a pamphlet prepared by the AARP, both Kaschke and Hansen:

Opposes cutting off Medicaid coverage for people who cannot afford to pay premiums, deductibles or co-payments.

Supports a prescription-plus program – a program that would allow people without prescription drug insurance to purchase drugs at the same price Medicaid pays.

Supports increasing the level of funding for home and community based services for Nebraskans over age 65.

As you can read for yourself, Hansen at least admits that "Spending lids don't seem to work so well." However, disregarding that simple fact, you almost have to respect the way Kaschke stands by the spending lid amendmenet, practically admitting that, if elected, he'd be no better than current legislators at managing the resources of state government.

All in all, though, what we have here are two candidates who talk a lot about cutting taxes but offer no answers for where the requisite cuts in spending are going to come from. Instead, they've each made guarantees to the AARP - who were sponsoring the debate - of more spending and expanded programs under Medicaid.

This seems particularly ludicrous in the frontrunner Hansen's case since his website acknowledges "the State’s share of Medicaid payments is approaching 20% of the budget and that is not sustainable." It's nice to know he sees the problem, but already he's made commitments that all but guarantee no solutions will be forthcoming. Since he's concurrently calling for repeal of the state's estate tax - as is Kaschke - the question has to be where this extra money is going to come from when they're actually cutting into the state's revenues.

Both candidates in this race - both Republicans - are engaging in the same political song and dance that voters have seen for decades. They tell us what we want to hear, promising more services and fewer taxes. But, the numbers don't add up. Their irresponsibility is our irresponsibility because we fall for it, again and again.

The fact that some of these candidates are now willing to accept so drastic a measure as the Spending Lid amendment - choosing the constraints of a simplistic and destructive formula over simply being honest with voters about their agenda, their limitations, and their priorities - is a sad testament to the state of our democracy.

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Comments Worth Commenting Upon

by Kyle Michaelis
There's plenty of stuff to write about this week, but a pair of comments posted by readers has forced me to reflect (yet again) on my purposes for the New Nebraska Network and its approach to Nebraska politics.

For starters, I was very appreciative of the following anonymous response to coverage of the highly-charged political dynamic between Pete Ricketts and his sister Laura as regards equal rights for gay citizens and whether or not the U.S. Constitution should be used as a means to discriminate against them.

Anonymous writes:
I too had hoped that [Laura] would help to usher in a public discussion on this charged issue. Perhaps those of us who hope for people like Laura to stand up should reconsider her circumstances. Should she make her personal relationships with her family public so that the media could pick them apart? Should she use her brother’s campaign efforts to advance her cause? What would it really accomplish—genuine dialogue or more polarization? Should Pete lose, is there a risk of being blamed for her brother’s loss?

I believe that if Laura would reply to the media’s appeals to contribute to the debate, she would find herself alienated from her family, used, devoured and discarded by the media....ruin[ing] any opportunity to influence her brother’s apparent polar views on gay civil rights....

Before we judge Laura for not taking this supposed disagreement with her brother to the media, we should keep in mind the high price she would pay, and respect the integrity that she displays by walking her own path in her fight for civil rights.

While the above does not criticize NNN's own handling of this situation, I take very seriously the concerns it raises about Laura Ricketts being exploited by the media. Hers is not an enviable position, and I'll be the first to admit how difficult it is to measure her right to privacy against the public good. As a partisan site that no less strives for fairness, it's been hard to accurately gauge my own motivations in focusing on this issue, hoping that I'm not partaking in the same manipulation of the GLBT community and their struggle for equality for which I've accused Pete Ricketts on the campaign trail.

Whereas bringing attention to the fact that Ricketts has a lesbian sister could hurt his campaign with certain voters - particularly since she's an activist lesbian at the forefront of the GLBT community's legal efforts to achieve equal rights and recognition of same-sex relationships both in Nebraska and across the nation - it's not easy to divorce the principle demanding the story's reporting from its potential political consequences, which may unitentionally turn some people's bias to the advantage of incumbent Sen. Ben Nelson.

Since I support Nelson's reelection effort, I can't help worrying that each time I write about this subject it might - on some level - be an act of exploitation. Pete Ricketts has treated his sister as a political liability. His sister's silence - so contrary to her works and her lifestyle in Illinois - is all but an acknowledement that she thinks of herself in the same terms.

Although I can't vouch for the whole media, I can make personal assurances that my own discussion of this situation has been rooted in its undeniable relevance to the progress of Nebraska and the thinking of its people, not the short-term impact on any candidate in the November election. I have not sought to use or devour. Readers may take my word in this matter for what they will.

Meanwhile, another comment responding to a post last week puts into perspective the very fears I've just expressed of what this site is or may become if one is not eternally vigilant in guarding its supposed purpose.

Bama_barron writes:
i have been reading your blog for sometime now so i am going to take this opportunity to make a couple comments. first, why the hell are you so nice to the crooks of the republicon party ... would they be nice to you ... moderation in the face of republicon nastiness wont feed the bulldog ... hit back hard. ... i think during the election process if would be better to worry less about policy then electoral concerns ... you seem to focus alot on policy ... enjoy this time of the political cycle ... beat up on the republicons with anything that is handy even if you have to invent it. ...

as a resident of a blue state ... i feel your pain ... but dont forget pain can be optional ... create some of your own.

I don't mean to put myself or this site on a pedestal, somehow above the approach called for by our new friend bama_barron. However, I must be upfront with the fact that I have no intention or desire to engage in the approach for which he advocates. Such a site would probably be more useful in building a progressive online community. It would certainly be less boring. But, I am not the person to run it and have no aspirations to be so. In fact, the very idea that I might be beating up on Republicans "with anything that is handy" (for example, Pete Ricketts' sister) is so unsettling and in such violation of the principles to which I claim to adhere that I would rather give up this entire venture and perhaps even my political involvement in general than go any further down that road.

I am not a good "blogger." I accepted that fact long ago. If Nebraska had a better progressive alternative, I would gladly give this up and devote myself to other pursuits. Until such a voice emerges, though....or, at least until I or my readers can no longer tolerate this site's self-important delusions of noble intent...I'll just keep doing what I do.

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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Ricketts Family Friction Finally Makes the News

by Kyle Michaelis
Today's Omaha World-Herald finally reported on the division between Republican Senate challenger Pete Ricketts and his sister Laura on the controversial issues of legalizing gay marriage and writing fundamentally discriminatory language into the U.S. Constitution. The story doesn't add much to what was reported a month and a half ago here at NNN, though it is nice to get the obligatory "no comment" from Ricketts on the record.

The World-Herald reports:
As Republican U.S. Senate candidate Pete Ricketts campaigns on a platform that supports traditional marriage, his sister sits on the board of a national group that is fighting Nebraska's ban on same-sex marriage.

Laura Ricketts serves on the board of directors of Lambda Legal, a group dedicated to the civil rights of gay men and lesbians. It is one of three organizations challenging Nebraska's ban on same-sex marriage in court.

Her brother is running against Democratic U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson in the November election. Pete Ricketts has spoken out in opposition to same-sex marriage on the campaign trail and in his early political advertising.

The Ricketts siblings declined repeated requests to discuss their polar-opposite views on gay marriage.

"I love my sister. I disagree with her on this issue. What more is there to say?" said Pete Ricketts, who declined further comment.

Laura Ricketts, a lawyer who lives in Chicago, did not respond to telephone calls or e-mail messages. A spokeswoman for the Ricketts campaign said Laura Ricketts did not wish to comment for this article....

In early television advertisements, Pete Ricketts highlighted traditional marriage as one of his core "Nebraska values."

He has said he would support a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and said he opposes any federal regulations that would require businesses or others to provide domestic partner benefits to employees.

For as outspoken and active as the Ricketts siblings have been on their respective sides of this issue, it really is sort of sad that they're not willing to use their high-profile positions of prominence and privilege to engage the public in this debate.

That said, it's understandable that the Ricketts campaign would be uncomfortable with such a discussion. Having engaged in the right-wing sport of exploiting the love between homosexual partners for political gain, there's no truly reconciling such actions with the love Ricketts attests for his sister. Running on a campaign agenda that would see your sister made a second-class citizen may appeal to hard-core conservative activists but doesn't easily fit into most voters' idea of family values.

Of course, we don't want voters to think about this issue in terms so humanizing of those who are actually affected by it. It's better for Ricketts' purposes to play on cultural insecurities and the majority's false sense of victimization, imagining the struggle for equal rights as an assault on marriage itself. To acknowledge that these are real people seeking justice - not just those dastardly liberal, activist judges but also our friends, neighbors, and family members - muddies the waters and makes Ricketts' subtle message of intolerance so much more difficult a sale.

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Question of the Day

by Kyle Michaelis
Considering that Pete Ricketts is disliked by more than half the registered voters in this state, why the hell is he polling them on their feelings about Sen. Chuck Hagel? Shouldn't Ricketts be more worried about why voters think he's such a putz rather than whether or not they have a favorable opinion of Hagel?

Seriously, this doesn't make a damn bit of sense. Whether Ricketts casts himself as Chuck Hagel's shadow or the Anti-Hagel, he's still going to be Pete Ricketts - a man Nebraskans don't trust, don't respect, and won't support on Election Day.

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