Thursday, November 30, 2006

Boycott Bell Ringers Because of Ken Svoboda?

by Kyle Michaelis
Lincoln Republican uses Salvation Army campaign to advance his own

Ken Svoboda, in his second term on Lincoln's city council and one of the two front-runners in this spring's mayoral race (with Democratic State Senator Chris Beutler), is the featured spokesman in a TV ad campaign for the Salvation Army's annual fundraising efforts.

Although I would not actually advocate boycotting the Salvation Army's bell ringers this Christmas season as they stand outside department stores in the cold, the possibility of a charity allowing itself to be used by a politician to raise his profile is very, very troubling this close to an election.

For all intents and purposes, this is free advertising for Svoboda's mayoral campaign - either on the Salvation Army's dime or masquerading as a public service announcment aired as a courtesy by Lincoln television stations. Either way, the ad is highly suspect and one can't help questioning the motives, the judgment, and the integrity of both Svoboda and the local Salvation Army.

There are so many things in life more important than politics but not to a candidate who's serious about winning four months out from an election. Believe it or not, city council representatives are not really household names. Getting on TV while being associated with Christmas and a popular charity at no expense is as great a deal as any politician could possibly ask.

It's too good of a deal if you ask me. I won't blame the bell ringers, who will still be welcome to my spare change, but Ken Svoboda and those responsible for airing this ad should have known better. Theirs is a terrible precedent that opens the door to all sorts of future abuses.

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Chuck Hagel Reaps His Reward

by Kyle Michaelis
In March, I had the following to say about the effect of the 2006 elections on Sen. Chuck Hagel's presidential ambitions:
One gets a sense that the one thing that could really make Hagel a player in 2008 is a total electoral catastrophe for the Republicans this November. If Bush, the war in Iraq, and the Republican Party's continuing string of ethical lapses leave Republicans in retreat, party leaders and GOP voters might suddenly like the idea of a man who's managed to separate himself from the incredibly unpopular current president while maintaining a voting record that is as partisan as they come.

In other words, Hagel might make for a fine "comfort food" candidate - different in tone, same in substance - around whom Republicans would rally in case of total and utter disaster.

With the Republican Party having now lost Congress and taken a beating in plenty of state houses as well - as President Bush's disapproval reaches record levels and the war in Iraq shows signs of becoming an even greater disaster - it would seem, by the above logic, that Hagel could stand poised to benefit. In fact, that possibility was put forward by columnist David Ignatius in Wednesday's Washington Post:
A month ago the idea that Sen. Chuck Hagel would make a serious run for the Republican presidential nomination would have been a non-starter. As an outspoken critic of President Bush on Iraq and other issues, Hagel's way was blocked. His best hope was nomination by a quixotic third party in an online convention.

It's a measure of the step change brought about by the Nov. 7 elections that Hagel is now seriously exploring a GOP presidential bid. The Republican blowout, he says, reflected a "breakdown of confidence and trust in governance" and opened the way for what he believes will be "the most wide-open presidential race since 1952." The Nebraska senator says he will make a formal decision in the next two months on whether to run.

What would make a Hagel candidacy interesting is that he can claim to have been right about Iraq and other key issues earlier than almost any national politician, Republican or Democratic. Though a Vietnam veteran and a hawk on many national security issues, he had prescient misgivings about the Iraq war -- and, more important, the political courage to express these doubts clearly, at a time when many politicians were running for cover....

[O]utspoken criticisms of Bush policies had put Hagel outside the respectable Republican perimeter -- until Election Day....

It strains credulity to imagine that a GOP controlled by Bush and Karl Rove could learn to love Hagel, but, as the Nebraskan says, this is a time of "transformational politics"....

Will the Bush administration's problems become so severe that Republicans would embrace a senator from the radical center? The very fact that Hagel is mulling a campaign reminds us that American politics turned a corner this month and that we are in new territory.

I understand a columnist's urge to sex-up his material but - wow - that right there is a whole lot of bullshit.

For starters, Ignatius turns a blind eye to the voting record that undermines Hagel's claims of prescience on Iraq. The man deserves credit for speaking out early and often with his concerns, but he has yet to challenge the Bush Administration or its strategy in Iraq with a single vote in the United States Senate. As I wrote this summer, addressing a similar oversight by Arianna Huffington, Hagel is conductor of the All Talk Express.

And, pardon me, but when the hell did Hagel become a member of "the radical center"? I have respect for the man in several regards, but he is not and has never been a centrist, let alone a radical one. He's a conservative Republican who showed little regard for anything but partisanship in Nebraska's 2006 Senate race. Just because Hagel is capable of an independent thought and will speak his mind when politically advantageous can't possibly justify Ignatius' exaggerated praise.

Then, there's this nonsense about Hagel's potential bid for President reflecting some huge change in American politics. This is insultingly idiotic because a)simply running for President doesn't say a damn thing about a candidate's actual appeal and b)Chuck Hagel's been thinking about this race for a long damn time. The country may have turned a corner in this year's elections, but the "new territory" Ignatius is writing from is La-La Land if he finds any deep meaning in talk of Hagel for President when, so far, talk is all there is.

Still, you have to give Hagel credit - he's been effective at winning attention from the national media even if that hasn't yet translated into grassroots support (not even in Nebraska, where only 37% of voters think Hagel would be a good president). From cover stories in New York Times Magazine last February to a headline-making column calling for withdrawal from Iraq in Sunday's Washington Post, some high-powered players clearly think Hagel belongs on the national stage. He's been given a chance. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, he's able to do with it.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Help Wanted

by Kyle Michaelis
The New Nebraska Network wants you. Hell, it needs you if it's going to survive. Please give some thought to writing on this site that it can continue to offer an independent, alternative, and progressive voice to the people of Nebraska.

A Thank You & A Goodbye
You Can Keep the New Nebraska Network Alive

Interested? Contact Kyle at And, we'll know soon enough if this site is getting busy being born again or busy dying.

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The Failure of Ben Nelson's "Border Security First"

by Kyle Michaelis
On the issue of immigration, the new Democratic-controlled Congress brings a new dynamic and new opportunities that should not be lost on Sen. Ben Nelson. Nor should they be wasted in an effort to translate campaign rhetoric like "border security first" into actual public policy when such sloganeering is set to become irrelevant and even vaguely irresponsible the moment the new Congress is sworn into office.

That's why it was so disappointing when, right after the election, the Omaha World-Herald reported:
Sen. Chuck Hagel predicted Wednesday that the new Congress will pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul bill in the next session.

The Nebraska Republican had strongly criticized his fellow GOP lawmakers in September for failing to update immigration law. He said then that it would cost them in the midterm elections....

A[n] extensive bill - influenced by Hagel and favored by Bush - had passed the Senate 62-36, with bipartisan support. But it stalled when a handful of House Republicans blocked negotiations with the Senate.

A spokesman for Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., who voted against the Senate immigration legislation that passed in May, said Nelson still opposes it. Jim Fagin said a change in leadership won't necessarily mean it will fare any better.

"No matter who's in the majority, Sen. Nelson's position is not changed," Fagin said. "He continues to believe, as he always has, that we need to secure the border first and enforce workplace laws before we take any other measures."

Key elements of the bill backed by Hagel and Bush included more Border Patrol agents and customs and immigration enforcement officers; increased border fencing and electronic surveillance; sanctions on employers; and a tiered system under which illegal immigrants could become legal....

Nelson and other opponents call that an amnesty that the American people won't support.

"A pathway to citizenship, amnesty, whatever you want to call it, is too controversial" to pass, Fagin said.

But Hagel called it a realistic approach to dealing with the "12 million illegal aliens" already in the United States.

I have long advocated comprehensive immigration reform, but this summer the New Nebraska Network acknowledged the logic and foresight behind Nelson's call to secure our nation's borders before seeking resolution of the larger problems besetting our immigration policy. Not only did Nelson make a reasonable argument that concerns about national security in the age of terrorism justified divorcing border control from our larger immigration policy, but his position also made sense as something of a compromise between radically different legislation passed by the House and the Senate that Nelson proved correct in predicting would not be reconciled.

Therefore, because of the supposed urgency of our national security concerns and the demands of the American public for at least some sort of action on immigration, Nelson's "border security first" was an entirely honorable campaign theme in 2006 that also made for a useful contrast between Nelson's style of leadership and the prevailing attitudes in the do-nothing Republican Congress. It's time now, however, for Nelson to recognize that the campaign is over and that it's a new day in Washington D.C.

The time has come for comprehensive immigration reform. The leadership is in place and the votes are there to make it a reality. Sure, it will take some work - some finesse - but the American people expect no less. They want action and a Congress that does not deliver will suffer the same fate as its predecessors.

Nelson breaks no promise by adjusting his position to actually reflect the new Congress in which he serves and the new, much-needed reforms that he can still have a hand in developing. In fact, it is a far greater betrayal of everything voters expect Nelson to stand for if he refuses to change his mindset, allowing himself to devolve from an agent of compromise in 2006 to an enemy of progress in 2007.

Nelson and Fagin are correct that amnesty will be controversial, but they are dead wrong if they honestly believe it won't happen anyway. The American public will not and should not celebrate amnesty because it represents the breakdown and failure of the last 20 years of our immigration policy, but the majority understand and accept that some such program is inevitable. All other possibilities are too costly, too uncertain, or too lacking in compassion, actually contributing to the chaos in our current system rather than relieving it.

Like it or not, amnesty is the common sense solution. With comprehensive reform and a firm commitment by the U.S. government that - by securing the border and vigorously enforcing the law - it should never be necessary again - amnesty offers, as Hagel stated, the "realistic approach." At long last, it will establish some sort of order from which progress might finally be made, with precedent and without offending our principles and legacy as a nation of immigrants.

Leaders should be expected to be consistent in their messages and positions. But, we've seen what happens when that gives way to rigidity and inflexibility (i.e. "stay the course"). The playing field has changed, and it's time Nelson wakes to that fact. Neither Democrat or Republican can any longer justify this nation's inaction on immigration. Ben Nelson was elected for just this sort of issue - to work in a bipartisan fashion and to get things done.

"Border security first" was never the answer, but it might, at one point, have been a first step towards a solution. That step is no longer needed. Comprehensive immigration reform can, should, and must be accomplished by the next Congress. As our representative, it would be sad, indeed, if Ben Nelson chooses adherence to an obsolete campaign theme over being our voice in its crafting and doing what's best for this country.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Jeff Fortenberry: Mark These Words

by Kyle Michaelis
One of the main reasons I haven't done suitable recaps of the 2006 Congressional races in Nebraska is because I haven't had the stomach to say what needed to be said about the poorly-conceived campaign of 1st District Democratic challenger Maxine Moul. After my brush with retirement, it's time to cut loose.

Moul is a fine woman, a great Nebraskan, and I have no doubt she would have been a true asset to her state and her nation in Congress. That said, for all Moul's impressive qualifications and credentials, there was a spark missing from her campaign that led me to question in early October whether she was even in the race to win...or just to mobilize the Democratic base on Sen. Ben Nelson's behalf. That says a lot, although it pains me to make such suggestion now as much as it ever did.

In that post, I focused on the need to define incumbent Rep. Jeff Fortenberry as out-of-touch with the needs and interests of First District voters. But, as Election Day neared, what was truly lacking from Moul's message was the Nebraska-rooted, local flavor that should have been her greatest, most natural asset.

Voters did not know Moul when they cast their ballot. Hers was a cookie-cutter, paint-by-numbers, Democratic campaign in which both candidates were nothing more than stand-ins for dueling national political themes. In New York, Connecticut, even Pennsylvania, such may have had the makings of a winning campaign in the current political climate.....BUT NOT IN NEBRASKA, not by any stretch of the imagination.

Of course, I don't envy the choices Moul and her campaign had to make. On both immigration and the war in Iraq, it seemed there were pressures to adopt ill-fitting messages to fall in line with and not be a liability to Sen. Nelson's reelection. That robbed Moul of two powerful issues on which she might have really defined herself, perhaps injecting her campaign with the passion and the personality it generally seemed to lack.

Taking the positions she did within the confines I perceived, Moul's only chance at victory would have been running as Ben Nelson in a dress, with Nelson completely embracing Moul's campaign as his own. But, a) that was never going to happen and b) that would have been a terrible betrayal of the principles, the intelligence, and the independence that made Moul such an attractive candidate to begin with.

So, Moul lost. That doesn't bother me. Fortenberry was never going to be easy to defeat. As a first-termer in a do-nothing Congress, his record was thin but also generally inoffensive. Still, with Moul's margin of defeat after the resources she'd amassed and the prevailing mood of the general public, it's hard not to consider her campaign a flop, although I have nothing but respect and affection for the candidate herself.

That leaves us with at least another two years of Congressman Fortenberry, and I won't deny that it could be a whole lot more. Already laying the groundwork for such a possibility, Monday's Lincoln Journal-Star reports:
Fortenberry says he’s not deterred or discouraged by his sudden bump from the House majority into the minority in his second term.

“I’ve been trying to build relationships (across party lines) since I’ve been there,” he says. “Relationships build trust, and trust leads to common ground”....

The 1st District Republican congressman won his second term earlier this month by the largest margin in Nebraska’s three House races despite being matched against the best-known Democratic opponent.

Fortenberry defeated former Lt. Gov. Maxine Moul by 18 percentage points, winning 23 of 24 counties, all but Burt....

With members of the House considered to be most vulnerable in their first bid for re-election, Fortenberry’s big win more firmly established him politically. His predecessor, Doug Bereuter, served 13 terms....

While he may have won by a comfortable margin, Fortenberry says: “We had to fight for it considering the national environment.”

What was the message voters delivered in turning out Republican incumbents and establishing Democratic majorities in the House and Senate?

“I think the American people have told us they want inspired leadership independent of political party”...Fortenberry says.

If Fortenberry means what he says in the above article and truly works in the bipartisan fashion that Nebraska voters expect, demonstrating the true leadership and independence that Fortenberry failed to establish in his first term, he's going to be well-positioned to win future elections. But, if he hasn't learned such lessons and continues to serve his party before the people who elected him, the right Democratic candidate running a strong campaign is going to give Fortenberry a very hard time in 2008.

The people want "inspired leadership independent of political party." We hear you, Mr. Fortenberry, and we will be watching very closely to see that you've heard us.

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Monday, November 27, 2006

You Can Keep the New Nebraska Network Alive

by Kyle Michaelis
I don't like copy-and-paste jobs. I like to contribute ideas, do research, and write stories that might actually help move Nebraska forward. But, right now, I can't do what I want to do with this site. Still, I'm going to try to keep the home fires burning around best I can....for a while longer.

I'm serious, though, about the site taking a backseat to other priorities - especially over the next several weeks. And, if anyone out there is willing to step up and take an active role writing for this site, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE contact me. If you think there's a need for a progressive online presence in Nebraska - if you think what this site's been doing is worthwhile - I hope a couple people reading this might be willing to sacrifice a little bit themselves to keep it going - not financially, but in your passion, ideas, and energy.

It's never been my intention for this site to be a solo project. In the past, I made some meager efforts at reaching out to other Nebraska bloggers, hoping they might want to work together or serve as correspondents of sorts. Obviously, that never came to pass - or, at least, has not yet. And, I've always felt the lack of alternative voices at this site has been something of a detriment, particularly where I've not been able to devote enough focus to certain candidates, issues, or events because of limitations in geography, time, and information.

Consider this, then, an open call - probably my last call - for others to take part ownership in the New Nebraska Network. You don't have to agree with me on everything. You don't have to know me. All you need to do is make an investment -be able to make a commitment and be willing to follow it through.

I probably should have put out this desperate plea for reinforcements in the fight before announcing my hiatus/departure. In hopes that others will join me and pick up my slack, I'm going to make an effort (against my better judgment and my personal interests) to keep this blog running while others consider their options.

My best work (at this site) is behind me, but the best of our work may still be to come. That choice is up to you. It's your state and your future. And, the New Nebraska Network is yours to help shape both if you want it.

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A Thank You & A Goodbye

by Kyle Michaelis
(Author's Note - 11/29/06: By popular demand and my weakness for ego-stroking, the New Nebraska Network remains open for business. The below may thus seem silly and over-dramatic, but - I assure you - it was written with great conviction and total honesty in the moment.)

With a heavy heart but a telling sense of relief, I am taking leave from the New Nebraska Network, perhaps permanently. Although I recognize the need for a site such as this, I'm no longer willing to make the personal sacrifices that sustained it these last 20 months.

I'll be writing no new posts for at least the next several weeks. And, beyond that, I make no assurances but that this site will never again be what it has been - in terms of both production and personal investment.

Of course, I feel like I'm letting down many of the wonderful readers who've found this site somewhere along the way. To all those who have contributed their own voice to the New Nebraska Network and who have shown me such kindness and respect, you will always have my deepest gratitude for making this experience rewarding and (hopefully) worthwhile.

I am proud of the work we've done at the New Nebraska Network. That's a large part of why I feel compelled to give it up. When it gets right down to it, I have expectations of commitment and quality that I'm no longer able to meet at this site. If I'm going to do something, I want to do it right. Readers deserve no less. I don't want to waste your time or my own with a half-hearted effort insufficient to fulfill the goals and the vision to which I've always adhered.

There is such a need for independent and progressive voices in Nebraska. Whether writing letters to the editor, making phone calls to your state or Congressional representatives, or even starting a blog like this, my greatest hope for this site is that it might have inspired (and yet inspire) others to speak out with courage and conviction. But, having opinions isn't enough. Those of us who respect the power of ideas and trust in democracy must recognize our responsibility to persuade others if we truly believe in change.

It's easy to know you're right. It's easy to speak "the truth" if you're willing to accept the consequences. But, persuasion is an art - one that requires enough confidence in yourself to actually respect those who disagree or share different principles.

The truth is our guide. But, in places like Nebraska, persuasion must be our work. I promise to continue working to win the hearts and minds of the people of Nebraska to new possibilities and a progressive vision for this state we love. For some, this struggle is a political one, but that isn't its essence. Elections, registration numbers, and roll calls are just manifestations of forces far greater than partisan concerns. As I seek new avenues for my passions and skills, I look forward to new voices stepping-in where this site leaves off.

Again, I don't know what - if anything - the future holds for the New Nebraska Network. I'm open to suggestions if anyone has any bright ideas. I just know that, right now, I have other priorities that must take precedent and other interests I must pursue.

Thank you for reading. More importantly, thank you for believing.

Wishing peace and love,

Kyle L. Michaelis

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

More Disturbing Donations To Dave Heineman's Campaign Fund

by Kyle Michaelis
This weekend, I devoted considerable attention to the donations to Gov. Heineman's campaign by several ambitious state senators (1, 2). But, to be honest, there were contributions to Heineman's campaign that were more interesting and that raised more serious ethical considerations.

For starters, as a matter of political intrigue, one can't help but acknowledge the $5,000 contributed to Heineman by Attorney General Jon Bruning in September. Some will remember that Bruning was the most prominent Republican in the state to endorse Tom Osborne in his bid for Governor - defying Sen. Chuck Hagel's political machine, which offered key support to Heineman before Osborne even had a chance to enter the race. Not even Osborne's Congressional colleagues Lee Terry and Jeff Fortenberry were willing to cross Hagel and enter the fray on Osborne's behalf. That left Bruning alone in Osborne's corner, a lonely place to be when Heineman pulled off his primary "upset."

One wonders how far Bruning's $5,000 will go in repairing his relationship with Heineman. Probably not very far. Bruning faced no opposition in his own bid for re-election. And, having raised over $300,000, he was still able to run campaign commercials with an eye on future offices. Clearly, there was a little something left over for damage control as well. But, I wouldn't expect Bruning to be counting on Heineman's support if/when he finally gets his shot at a higher office. Nope, not that cheaply.

(As a side note, there is some discrepancy in the reports of Bruning's donation, with Bruning reporting it as an expenditure by his campaign committee but Heineman reporting it as a personal contribution. Not a big deal, but is it really so hard to file these reports properly?)

Another noteworthy contribution to Heineman's campaign was the $100,000 he received from the Republican Governor's Association. Considering Heineman's lopsided victory on Election Day and total dominance in terms of fundraising, this contribution becomes quite questionable in hindsight for the fact that the Republican Party lost a combined six governorships across the country, giving a 28 state majority to Democratic governors. But, trust me, I'm not complaining about the result.

Meanwhile, Heineman also took more than $30,000 from the billionaire Ricketts family, along with an $11,000 in-kind contribution from failed Senate candidate Pete Ricketts' campaign Committee. This shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who read my article just before the election about the ridiculous amounts of money the Ricketts family had poured into the Nebraska Republican Party and Republican campaigns in 2006.

Suddenly, the ads and the robo-calls Heineman recorded for Ricketts don't seem quite so selfless in their raw partisanship. And, to those keeping track of the Ricketts family's reach, it looks like another $41,000 should be added to the $12 million spent on Pete Ricketts' Senate campaign, the approximate $100,000 donated to the NE GOPs federal account (from 10 different Ricketts each donating the maximum allowable by law), not to mention a previously unreported $35,000 donated by J.J. Ricketts and listed on the NE GOPs state disclosure forms in two lumps sums.

It's a pity that no one will take the time to scour all the 2006 Republican candidates' campaign filings to create a more complete picture of the Ricketts family's spending. I just don't have the time, and - alas - it seems I'm the only semi-journalistic voice in the state who finds such information relevant and newsworthy.

But, there is one contribution to Heineman's campaign that goes beyond being an interesting tid-bit, truly raising serious and disturbing ethical questions. This contribution was made by Robert Phares, a former mayor of North Platte who was appointed this summer by Heineman to fulfill the seat left vacant by David Hergert on the University of Nebraska Board of Regents after Hergert was impeached and removed from office for repeated and unrepentant campaign finance violations.

Phares was appointed by Heineman on Aug. 4th, from a pool of 12 applicants. Later that same month, Phares made a $1,000 contribution to Heineman's campaign fund.

Now, Phares' contribution doesn't imply any quid pro quo, but the fact that it received no attention when it was made casts an ill light on Nebraska's press for not catching it and reporting it of their own accord. Without someone playing the role of watchdog, Nebraska's very progressive campaign disclosure requirements are practically worthless.

The contribution in question was only $1,000. In Heineman's $2.7 million campaign, maybe that isn't worth taking a closer look at. But, the circumstances demanded reporting whether or not there was proof of any wrong-doing. It is oversight that gives campaign finance laws their teeth. When no one is watching them for this sort of potential conflict of interest, we all but invite corruption and fraud.

People should not only wonder whether Phares was thanking Heineman for his appointment with his $1,000 contribution but also whether an earlier $100 contribution to Heineman in June might have played some role in his being picked for appointment in the first place. But, wait, neither of those contributions have ever been reported in the press.

Of course, maybe this was just Phares' way of showing solidarity with his fellow Regents. Regents Howard Hawks and Jim McClurg both donated $1,000 to Heineman as well. I'll admit - from this report and those this weekend - that I'm not entirely comfortable with elected officials making these contributions - not because they are inherently wrong but because the public should know about them as a check on their worst possible effect. And, the Nebraska media can't be trusted to make such information known because the news isn't sent to them on a frickin' press release.

I'm reporting these things only because someone should. I'm asking these question just because someone has to - because people should be aware of how great a role money plays in politics, even at the state and local levels.

This is not a cry of "wolf." It's not an accusation. It's not a paranoid fantasy. It's my attempt at shining a light where the Nebraska media is far too complacent and far too willing to leave the public who rely on them ignorant and in the dark.

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Monday, November 20, 2006

Update: State Senators Invest In Heineman & Their Own Ambitions

by Kyle Michaelis
According to the Lincoln Journal-Star's Nancy Hicks, the 2007 legislature is coming more firmly into focus and - sure enough - those returning state senators who donated to Gov. Heineman's campaign are all seeking leadership positions.

This definitely jives with the theory I advanced this weekend, upon examining Heineman's Accountability & Disclosure reports, that some state senators believed contributions to Heineman might prove useful in the pursuit of their own ambitions in the approaching legislative session.

The one point on which Hicks' report differs is that it makes no mention of Sen. Mick Mines' desire to run as Speaker. Assuming Hicks is operating from more up-to-date information, it seems likely Mines (and his $1000 Heineman contribution) is foregoing a run as Speaker in deference to Sen. Mike Flood (who gave an extra $50 - for a whopping total of $1050 - and who was first out of the gate declaring his intentions).

According to Hicks, Mines is now running against Sen. Ray Janssen for Chair of the Revenue Committee. Meanwhile, Heineman contributing Senators Chris Langemeier ($1000) and Deb Fischer ($500) are competing for Chairs of the National Resources and the Transportation & Telecommunications Committees, respectively, against more experienced Senators who didn't donate to Heineman's campaign. Here, we should get a pretty clear illustration of how far an investment in Heineman (and his influence) can carry his supporters.

Needless to say, we'll see the same in the race for Speaker, where the only significant advantage Flood has over Sen. DiAnna Schimek is the party label he wears off the ballot and outside the legislature.

Finally, Sen. Ray Aguilar ($550) is uncontested seeking the Chair of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, while Sen. Pat Engle ($500) is without opposition seeking to become Chair of the Executive Board.

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

David Hahn says, "Thank you, Nebraskans."

by Kyle Michaelis
My sincere thanks go to every Nebraskan who participated in our recent elections.

Many of you ere excited about the ideas that were the foundation of my bid for the governorship, ideas like real and immediate property tax cuts, quality Internet service statewide, realistic help for our family farms, ranches and small businesses, support for the middle class and an innovative energy policy.

Together, we can create a brighter future for all generations of Nebraskans.

Sincerely and Respectfully,

- - - - - - - - - -
The above ad (or a close approximation thereof) ran in today's Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star, well-sized and prominently placed. It may have appeared in other newspapers as well. From the perspective of a campaign manager or a political strategist, this sort of spending by an underfunded candidate 12 days after losing a race that wasn't even close would pretty much speak for itself.

But, personally, I think this is one of the classiest moves I've ever seen by a candidate for public office. Who knows what, if anything, the ad foretells of Hahn's political future, but there is something so honorable and so dedicated in its ego-free focus on the ideas that guided Hahn's campaign that it is truly awe-inspiring. Even having lost the election, Hahn has proven once again how good a fit he is for Nebraska and how vital a voice he can still be in shaping a positive agenda for Nebraska's future.

Last week, Hahn also mailed letters of thanks to those who donated their time and money to his campaign. Some would no doubt look at all those stamps and all the printing costs and say this is a man who does not understand campaigning and who had no business running for Governor. But, what I see is a man whose campaign was never about a single vote. . . a man who knew he had something to offer Nebraska and who hasn't given up his struggle for the people and the state he loves.

Campaigns fade. Vote counts are forgotten. But, Hahn's message and his vision aren't going anywhere. He had the right ideas to move Nebraska forward. Although they may have failed to capture the public's attention and imagination in 2006, there are many voters and policy-makers who were intrigued by Hahn's candidacy and who will not let those ideas die.

Take another look at the agenda that fueled Hahn's campaign. Any way you look at it, his was a substantial and impressive contribution to debates on a whole assortment of issues that Nebraska will be dealing with for years to come.

An election may be over but not the fight. David Hahn understands that and continues to sacrifice under this progressive ideal. The New Nebraska Network salutes that passion, thanking Hahn for all he has done and will do to - at last - move our state into the 21st century.

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Saturday, November 18, 2006

Ambitious State Senators BANKING On Governor's Support?

by Kyle Michaelis
In considering the possible ramifications of term limits on Nebraska's legislature, probably the most common prediction has been an increase in the governor's influence over the legislative agenda. The thinking goes that with more inexperienced legislators and fewer entrenched leaders there will be a vacuum in power that the governor is best positioned to fill.

Of course, state senators owe the governor no more deference than they ever have. And, the legislature's nonpartisanship certainly encourages some measure of independence, ensuring that senators answer first and foremost to their constituents. Not a political party. Not the governor. (The special interests who fund their campaigns may be a different story.)

There's no denying, however, that the legislature is likely to take on a somewhat different dynamic in 2007. What that will entail no one can yet say with any certainty. Some would contend that Governor Dave Heineman's election with 73% of the vote is grounds for his claiming a mandate, but the fact that he didn't run on any particular agenda - more as just the competent incumbent - begs the question of how deep his support could actually run.

Still, he is the governor. He has power and influence. Whether rooted in his partisan affiliation or simply his position of pre-eminence in Nebraska politics, Heineman's is a voice to which senators will listen. That's certain to be the case on issues. It may even be the case in the election of their leadership.

Although it might violate the separation of powers under Nebraska's Constitution, a look at those State Senators who gave money to Heineman's campaign suggests that some of its most ambitious members might have been attempting to curry favor and win the governor's support for influential committee chairs or even as Speaker of the Legislature.

Consider the following Oct. 19th report by the Omaha World-Herald:
[T]wo returning lawmakers have announced they will compete for the Nebraska Legislature's top job.

State Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk declared his candidacy for speaker of the Legislature in a letter delivered to colleagues Wednesday morning. Sen. DiAnna Schimek of Lincoln followed with a letter that should arrive today.

Flood, a Republican, was elected to the Legislature in 2004. Schimek, a Democrat, was elected in 1988.

Acknowledging his relative lack of experience, Flood said he would not have considered running for speaker at the end of the 2006 session. He said he changed his mind after being encouraged by many colleagues and after talking with previous speakers.

Schimek said she doesn't believe that being a Democrat running in a body where Republicans are the majority is necessarily a disadvantage. The Legislature is officially nonpartisan. She said skills, personality and friendship count for more than party affiliation.

A second Republican, Sen. Mick Mines of Blair, may join the race later. Mines, elected in 2002, said he is "very interested" in running for speaker.

Gov. Heineman's campaign received approximately $2.7 million in contributions, so it's hard to say how much one would have to give to be noticed, let alone to be in a position to ask a favor. But, in light of the above article, it is most telling that would-be Speakers Mike Flood and Mick Mines each made substantial contributions - especially considering their $12,000 annual salaries as State Senators.

Flood and his wife donated $1,050 to Heineman's campaign back in June. Mines, on the other hand, donated $1,000 on Oct. 20th, when it was quite clear that Heineman was on his way to victory. The amount suggests that Mines - in the midst of his own re-election campaign - intended to keep pace with Flood in the governor's affections. As a matter of timing, though, Flood must still be said to have the upper hand.

Then again, the fact of these contributions does not intrinsically imply currying the governor's favor. Interpreting such motive is little more than intelligent and entirely reasonable conjecture. And, alas, it will be practically impossible to discover what, if any, hand Heineman might eventually play in electing the next Speaker, as those pressures and subtle suggestions he might bring to bear on the process will almost certainly be in private.

But, looking at other state senators who donated to Heineman's campaign, it doesn't come as much of a surprise they are some of the most ambitious of the lot. First term Sen. Chris Langemeier (Schuyler) gave $1,000. Sen. Deb Fischer (Valentine) gave $500. Incoming Sen. Tom Hansen (North Platte) gave $1,100. Sen. Pat Engel (S. Sioux City), a 13-year veteran and recent Democratic defector who will be term limited in 2008, gave $500. And, Sen. Ray Aguilar's campaign committee (Grand Island) gave $550.

In that bunch are many who will be seeking committee chairs in the 2007 legislative session. It should be most interesting, indeed, to see how well positioned they all end up. Not that they would have bought their seat with a check to Gov. Heineman, but - hey - it couldn't have hurt either.

After all, if the man has newfound influence over the Legislature, it shouldn't surprise that a few senators would make an investment in Heineman (and in their careers) hoping he might use that pull on their behalf.

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Friday, November 17, 2006

Giving Gov. Dave Heineman His Due

by Kyle Michaelis
Dave Heineman is the governor of Nebraska. For whatever reason, he won the support and approval of a vast majority of Nebraska voters in last week's election. Although the New Nebraska Network has frequently been critical of Heineman's leadership (or lack thereof) and proudly supported Democratic challenger David Hahn in the gubernatorial race, I have no intention of spending the next four years (or however long this site survives) looking each day for some new reason to attack Heineman.

He was the people's choice. Whether I agree with that choice or not, NNN respects the will of the people enough to give democracy the benefit of the doubt and to give Dave Heineman a new opportunity to prove he is the leader this state needs to move forward and to fulfill its potential.

Although I am a proud Nebraska Democrat, I am far more concerned with Heineman's influence and impact on the future of Nebraska than I am with any partisan label. Beginning his first term in his own right after taking over for Mike Johanns almost two years ago, I would love nothing more than for Heineman to be a governor for all Nebraskans, demonstrating the wisdom, courage, and compassion that office demands and this state so desperately needs.

In all likelihood, Heineman is going to be the governor of Nebraska for the next four years - possibly, the next eight. At this critical juncture, with a looming financial crisis on the horizon and the economy struggling to adapt to the 21st century, the future of Nebraska depends on good leaders with strong voices guiding it along the path to progress. There is no obscuring Heineman's role in shaping that future, so - today - Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike look to him with hope and respect.

What he does with that hope and whether he returns that respect will define Heineman's term. And, it may even decide Nebraska's fate. With stakes so high for the state and its way of life, one can't help but wish Heineman success, even if there are certain to be disagreements and ideological differences along the way.

Dave Heineman is our governor. Nebraska needs him to be a good one. Looking at the campaign Heineman ran from the moment he swore the oath of office, he is clearly a smart politician who understands themes that resonate with voters. He is clearly a hard worker who can get things done when setting his mind to a goal. May those traits serve him well - and serve our state well - in the coming years.

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Omaha World-Herald Should Divest from Vote Counting Company

by Kyle Michaelis
Last week, the Omaha World-Herald published what read like a post-election press release for Election Systems & Software on the general success of its vote counting software and hardware across the country. Amidst the love-fest, it also shared some important details about ES&S and its corporate relationship with the World-Herald:
"It's been, all things considered, a smooth day," said Jill Friedman-Wilson, a spokeswoman for Omaha-based Election Systems & Software.

"When you look at the scale and the scope of this election, what you're seeing are problems you would expect," she said....

ES&S, in which the Omaha World-Herald Co. owns a minority interest, is the country's biggest supplier of election hardware and software.

On Tuesday, nearly 67 million people were expected to vote using ES&S equipment. The company's machinery counts well over half the votes in a national election through 1,800 voting jurisdictions in 43 states....

Some voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas complained that touchscreens showed a vote for Republican candidates when they wanted to vote Democratic. Election officials said that wasn't the case, and ES&S' Friedman-Wilson said touchscreen machines were designed to highlight candidate selections so a voter could change them if an error were made.

Meanwhile, this weekend, the World-Herald suggested that slow election night returns in Omaha/Douglas County resulted because the county "printed its own ballots instead of purchasing them from Election Systems & Software." Synergy, baby!

It seems fair to say that the above article, for whatever reason, underplays some of the substantial voting irregularities that were reported both pre- and post-election day on ES&S vote counting machines. Election count watchdog Brad Friedman has made note of several published reports of serious failures of ES&S machines that have been routinely dismissed by the company and largely neglected by the press (1, 2, 3, 4).

Most notorious, however, is the on-going recount and legal battle in Florida's 13th Congressional District (1, 2), where an inexplicably high number of unrecorded votes in a Democratic-leaning county (18,000 "undervotes") are still being investigated as the current count shows a slim lead for the Republican candidate of less than 400 votes. There, the ES&S vote machines have been "immediately sequestered and preserved" by the courts for further examination.

Now, across the Internet and amongst many liberal activists, there has long been a building sense of fear and distrust about the expansion of new vote counting technologies and the threats they pose to the integrity of our democracy - be they from hacking, software glitches, or even conspiratorial possibilities of outright vote manipulation.

It is generally outside the purview of this site to discuss these threats in any substantial way (three years ago, I wrote on the subject in a Daily Nebraskan column with little success). The time has come for someone to say, though, that the Omaha World-Herald has no place maintaining its investments in Election Systems & Software. Continuing their corporate relationship does great disservice not only to both companies but also to our democratic institutions.

I don't mean to assert any wrong-doing by either company, but a newspaper having a financial stake in so political and such highly controversial an on-going national debate undermines the World-Herald's credibility and feeds into a perception that democracy itself is being vertically integrated to the benefit of corporations and at the expense of the American people.

In Nebraska, the Omaha World-Herald already plays an unparalleled role in shaping public perceptions and the political climate. As a decision-maker, the newspaper's influence can easily be over-stated, but the simple fact remains that it is the most powerful voice in the Nebraska media and one of the most powerful forces in Nebraska politics.

Because of a lack of established alternatives, it can be said in many quarters of this state that if something isn't reported in the World-Herald it may as well not even have happened because it is the primary source of news for so many, with no other entity having anything close to its reach across the state.

That is a lot of power. That is a lot of responsibility - a responsibility the World-Herald does not live up to by maintaining part ownership in ES&S.

The line must be drawn somewhere. By what and how it reports, the World-Herald exercises enormous influence, guiding debates within the community. From the World-Herald's editorial page, that influence is even further magnified, felt beyond public opinion but also - come election time - at the ballot box and throughout local and state government. After an election, the World-Herald has a similar hand in shaping reaction to the very outcome they helped create - whether successful in its goals or not.

There is nothing truly out of the ordinary there. The only thing really objectionable is just the lack of alternative media and alternative voices to offer some balance, but the World-Herald can't be blamed for it's dominance or its singular place in Nebraska's underdeveloped media market and political machinery.

What the World-Herald can be blamed for, however, is blurring an essential, protective line between reporting the news and making the news - not to mention, shaping the elections and literally deciding their outome. No suggestion of impropriety or corruption is necessary to say that it does not serve the public good for a newspaper that already plays so great a part in Nebraska politics to step beyond reporting on elections to play a role - any role at all - in actually counting the ballots by which they are decided.

Vital safeguards to our democracy are diminished, imperiled, and perhaps even erased outright by this convergence of two streams of information control that should never have been allowed to merge as one.

When so much political reporting is focused around elections, there is a serious conflict of interest on the part of the World-Herald that cannot be corrected by simple acknowledgment of its ties to ES&S. Reliant on government contracts and subject to state and federal legislation, ES&S radically undermines the World-Herald's credibilitity as an independent press.

Furthermore, having often chosen favorites of the candidates and issues that appear on ballots, the World-Herald's ownership of ES&S undermines the latter's essential role as an independent arbiter of elections. With all of the trust that is placed in these machines and the companies that design them - the fate and, in some ways, the survival of the world's oldest and greatest democracy - it should not surprise that the potential dangers inherent to this situation are recognized, taken very seriously,and not to be dismissed lightly.

In fact, I'd go so far as to suggest that such threat must be eliminated. As a matter of both corporate and civic responsibility, the Omaha World-Herald should divest completely of any holdings in ES&S. It takes no grand conspiracy theory to compel such action but merely some measure of respect for the principles such industries demand and for which these companies supposedly stand.

Both the Omaha World-Herald and Election Systems & Software have responsibilities to the public that cannot be made congruous or over-lapped - responsibilities neither fulfill so long as their corporate ties remain.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Nebraska Republicans: Democrats in Disguise?

by Kyle Michaelis
It's often beneficial to look at the world from a different perspective, but the below column written just before the election by former North Platte Telegraph editor Don Simpson offers such a contary view of Nebraska politics that it's hard to even reconcile it with the reality we know.

Responding to the endorsement of Democratic Congressional candidate Scott Kleeb by many Republicans in the Third District, Simpson wrote:
Where the heck are the Republicans in this state?

When you look at the high taxes and the enthusiasm for solving problems with more government, you soon realize that a Nebraska Republican would be called something entirely different in most other states:

A Democrat.

So, it makes perfect sense that a Nebraska Republican would vote for Scott Kleeb, because Kleeb's a Democrat, which is a lot less threatening to most Nebraska Republicans than an Actual Republican.

The problem with Nebraska is that you can't tell the Hatfields from the McCoys. You think you're buying a Ford, and you end up with a Chevy. You order mayonnaise and you get mustard. You think you're rooting for the Cubs, and they turn out to be the White Sox. The lions have lain down with the lambs so often that you can't tell one from the other anymore.

Vote for whomever you want on Nov. 7.

But, to borrow a phrase from Jeff Foxworthy, if you're a lifelong Republican voting for Scott Kleeb, you might be a Democrat.

What's funny is that Simpson's thinking is precisely the opposite of the all-too-common contention that Nebraska Democrats, particularly Sen. Ben Nelson, are so conservative that they would be Republicans in any other state.

Moreover, his rhetorical question of where are the Republicans has to be laughable in certain areas of Nebraska where this very question is often asked for real of the ever-elusive Democrats.

Simpson was clearly hoping to persuade the overwhelming Republican majority in the Third Congressional District to vote the party line by scaring voters with the possibility that next time they look in the mirror they might see a Democrat looking back at them. With Kleeb losing 45%-55% to so clearly inferior an opponent as Adrian Smith, such tactics may have proven effective.

But, what of the 45% that voted for Kleeb? Is Simpson right? Might these people actually be Democrats?

And, there's no reason to stop there. By his logic, the same question can and must be asked of the 64% of Nebraskans who voted for Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson in his reelection, including an estimated 42% of Nebraska Republicans.

According to Simpson, 64% of this state might as well have just registered as Democrats for having the audacity to vote for the better candidate rather than voting against the label that he wears.

This is a pretty clear example of the with-us-or-against-us, all-or-nothing philosophy that holds so much sway amongst Republican power brokers. It's precisely the thinking that forced the Republican County Chair in Sioux City, Iowa to speak up against the extremists who are driving moderate and common sense voters - not to mention anyone with the slightest independent streak in their thinking - away from the Republican Party in droves.

You do have to give Simpson credit for the simplicity of his thinking. And, on some basic level, some of what he said makes sense. Although he intended to shame Nebraska Republicans for not being sufficiently conservative, hoping to radicalize them with a pre-election scolding, Simpson was more right than he probably realized in asserting that a Nebraska Republican could just as well be an Illinois Democrat. That's because, when all is said and done, people are people, no matter the cultural and political divides so exaggerated in the press and in public perception.

Most voters - whether Republican or Democrat - will always prefer good, practical government over rigid, partisan-driven ideology. They will vote for the right candidate before they vote for the right political party. Damn straight! That's the way things should be. That's the way democracy should work.

But, Simpson doesn't think so. Nor is he alone in such thinking. In fact, across rural America, scare tactics about votes for any Democrat being votes for Godless, tax-hiking liberals are the only message Republicans have left to run on.

If you vote for a Democrat, you might be a Democrat.
That's the best they can come up with. In a year of transition, such a message might still have carried some weight and been enough to get a very weak candidate through a single election....but eventually the truth is going to hit home.

Gradually, people are going to be fed up with the false promises. The hypocrisy. The neglect. The incompetence. The petty provocation of personal biases. The pandering to special interests. And, then, they are going to be forced into a very difficult realization. Maybe I am a Democrat. And, maybe that's not so bad.

If Simpson wants a Republican Party of only the ideologues and the mega-rich, that's precisely what he'll get - as both our state and our nation embrace the possibilities of a Democratic future.

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Just North of the Border: Sioux City Republican Chair Condemns "Christian Fascists"

by Kyle Michaelis
Iowa Republicans had a lot more to be disappointed about in last week's elections than their Nebraska counterparts, but that disappointment has forced some ugly truths to the surface that are just as true in Nebraska as they are at the northeast border it shares with Sioux City in Iowa's Woodbury County.

The Sioux City Journal reports:
A day after the Democratic sweep of the midterm elections, Woodbury County Republican Chairman Steve Salem had harsh words for his own party, lambasting the influence of the conservative Christian right wing.

Salem said he coined a new phase: "You've heard of IslamaFascists -- I think we now have Christian fascists. What is the definition of a fascist? Not only do they want to beat you, but they want to destroy you in the process."

Salem said "if things keep going the way things are going locally and statewide, it is going to be more and more difficult for Republicans to recruit candidates. We have elements of the party who are moral absolutists, who take the approach that if you don't take my position every step of the way, not only will I not support you, but I will destroy you"....

Continued Salem, "We have a number of factions within the Republican Party who are putting their own personal agenda ahead of what is best for the party"....

With voter turnout at 28,000 rather than the 32,000 predicted by county auditor Pat Gill, Salem said the 4,000 shortfall "to a large extent, was Republicans who stayed home" out of disaffection....

Salem said he's going public with his views in order to ultimately help the party.

Said Salem, "I think that the Republican Party needs to do a huge self-analysis and determine if we are going to learn from our mistakes or if we are going to repeat the same mistakes, which, if we do, we are going to continue to lose elections. ... Personally, I don't know how we could have done much worse in this election cycle. That should be a wake-up call to this party."

For more on the inner-party struggle that's struck Sioux City and Woodbury County Republicans, check out this post from the Sioux City Journal's blog, wherein a fellow Republican actually declares Salem's harsh criticism "overly polite."

Western Iowa is generally considered a closer fit politically with Nebraska than it is with the rest of the state. The fact that the Republican Party has reached such a crisis point just east of the Missouri River suggests these same fractures and divisions could very easily develop between Nebraska Republicans if their own leaders continue pandering to the farthest reaches of the right-wing.

Of course, Iowa is not Nebraska, but the truth knows no bounds. Voters are waking. Republicans will either heed their warnings and choose a new course or face the consequences in 2008.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A Note to Readers

by Kyle Michaelis
The most careful of readers will probably have noticed a few changes to the New Nebraska Network. For starters, "we" are now offering a free subscription service that will deliver a daily collection of the most recent NNN articles to your e-mail address whenever there is new content. The service has been up and running for a week or two now, and a number of readers have already taken advantage of it - eliminating the need to cycle through your bookmarks and the risk of missing our latest commentary on Nebraska politics (the horror....the horror).

Unfortunately, the e-mail service does not include readers' comments and the discussions that follow, so I hope even those who subscribe to it will be sure to stop by the website to see what others are writing, to share their own thoughts, or just to keep me in line. And, if anyone finds they are having trouble with the subscription service, please contact it remains something of an experiment.

On that note, I've also inaugurated a new e-mail address at which readers should contact me with any kind words, inside scoops, suggestions, submissions, or even the occasional anonymous assault on my personal character. All are welcome and appreciated at

That will hopefully be more memorable and less confusing than the address I'd been using since this site's inception, as well as allowing me to better keep track of and respond to NNN-related messages. Of course, this whole NewNebNet-thing is still a bit official-sounding for my tastes, but it's just one more long-overdue change to make the New Nebraska Network more inviting to the readers who make this site and the effort that goes into it such a worthwhile experience.

Any other changes you'd like to see? Fire away! I'm game for just about anything that requires little work or technical know-how.

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Pre-Emptive Excuses By the "Timid Trio" 2.0

by Kyle Michaelis
Nebraska's all-Republican House Congressional delegation is one of the weakest and least effective in the nation, and - now that they're in the minority - they have a new excuse for that status. They'll need it, particularly with the addition of the notoriously unskilled and ineffective Adrian Smith to their number.

Nevermind that in one of the worst Do-Nothing Congresses in history - under Republican leadership - Lee Terry and Jeff Fortenberry were amongst the worst Do-Nothing Congressmen. Foreseeing that their inadequacy and incompetence will carry-over into their next terms, they are already laying the groundwork to blame their future failure on those ever-convenient scapegoats in the Democratic Party.

The Omaha World-Herald spins on their behalf:
Get ready for life in the minority, Nebraska.

The state bucked the national trend in last week's elections, choosing Republicans in all three of its congressional districts.

Meanwhile, the wave of Democratic victories elsewhere will give control of the House of Representatives to their party for the first time since 1994.

"That clearly reduces the clout of the delegation," said John Hibbing, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Nebraska congressmen, who returned to the Capitol for the lame-duck session that began Monday, already suffered from low visibility, coming from a less-populated Plains state and holding little seniority.

When the new Congress organizes under Democratic leadership in January, they also face the challenge of being on the short end of the gavel.

"This will be a new experience," said Rep. Lee Terry, Nebraska's senior House member. "There's no doubt it'll be harder."

Terry, re-elected to a fifth term from the 2nd Congressional District, said he was happy to have survived "the worst Republican atmosphere since Watergate," but said he felt "depressed" at the prospect of moving to the minority.

The delegation is getting greener, too, with the addition of newcomer Adrian Smith in the 3rd District. Tom Osborne is retiring from that seat after three terms, taking with him the celebrity factor he held from his days as a college football coach.

Jeff Fortenberry will return to represent the 1st District, but it's just his second term.

Next year will be the first time any of the Nebraska House members have served in the minority. All three said that bipartisanship and building relationships will be even more important. They hope recent talk from Democrats and the White House about working together will prove true....

One silver lining is that the departure of some veteran Republicans clears the way for the Nebraskans to advance in seniority. One of Terry's goals has been to climb the House Energy and Commerce Committee ladder. The defeat of Rep. Charles Bass, R-N.H., will bump him up a spot.

It's great that Lee Terry can find something to celebrate in his fellow Republican's defeat, but a time will come when Nebraska voters, too, will expect something more than rubber-stamping and the party-line from their supposed representatives. At that point, Terry, Fortenberry, and Smith had better have something more to show for themselves than cheap excuses.

In politics as in fashion, trends have always arrived rather late in Nebraska. Even in the fabled Republican take-over of 1994, Nebraska re-elected not only Democratic U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey but also Ben Nelson as Governor with over 70% of the vote. It took a while longer for the GOPs domination to set in. It may take a while longer to break as well.

The newly-reconstituted "Timid Trio" of Terry, Fortenberry, and Smith would be wise to take heed of what 2006 may foretell for their own futures. If they think they've survived the worst and can coast from here on out - having fooled Nebraskans once and for all - they've got another thing coming.

They have the choice of continuing to play partisan games or of providing the independent leadership they most surely have not in their combined legislative careers. If they choose to put politics before the people of Nebraska, I have little doubt this "Democratic wave" we've seen nationally will catch-up with the "Timid Trio" and catch-on with Nebraska voters in the next election cycle.

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A Lost Opportunity in Lancaster County

by Kyle Michaelis
In March, after the 2006 filing deadline, I took note of the sad lack of challengers for elected office in Lancaster County. In particular, I lamented the failure to recruit Democratic candidates to run against 9 of the 10 Republican incumbents who appeared on the November ballot in Nebraska's second most populous county.

In many ways, this empty slate at the local level is even more serious than the statewide failure to recruit Democratic candidates for State Treasurer and Attorney General because the former feeds the latter and detracts from the pool of potential candidates who've established a foothold - or at least gotten a taste of campaigning - that would prove useful in pursuit of higher office. It also contributes to a certain legitimacy problem for the Democratic Party in the public's imagination.

In illustration of this fact, a Lincoln Journal-Star editorial scolded local Democrats this weekend:
There are few things in this world so frustrating for Americans as a lack of choices...So it seems a bit odd we cling as we do to a two-party political system.

Odder still that we tolerate a virtual one-party county government. So we’re not going to tolerate it.

We’re going to aim a rant at local Democrats, who were unable to field candidates for a whole lot of local offices....

One wonders, is there an open plot out at Wyuka [Cemetary] awaiting the local franchise of Jackson, Kennedy and Clinton?

Local Democrats, please, what is your purpose here? Voters of all political stripes deserve better than this....These Republicans don’t deserve a free ride.

The Democratic party is doing itself and the rest of this county a disservice by not recruiting, preparing and vigorously running qualified members for every public office.

What the Journal-Star fails to note, however, is how great an opportunity for a literal take-over of Lancaster County might have been missed. The one Democrat to challenge an incumbent Republican, Dan Nolte, won his race for County Clerk by more than 5%. At the same time, all four legislative races in (or partially in) Lancaster County were won by Democratic candidates, including two that had previously been held by Republicans in the officially non-partisan Nebraska Unicameral.

It's easy to see how this was possible when Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson - who received 64% of the vote statewide - won an awesome 70% in Lancaster County. Clearly, Democrats were very successful at getting voters to the polls. There just weren't enough Democrats to support when voters got there.

No doubt, there was the potential for some mammoth gains with such numbers and in this particular electoral climate. The worst thing is that these seats won't be up again for another four years, and there's no guarantee the same sorts of resources will then be available. Hence, it's never too soon to be recruiting those candidates and developing those resources, ensuring that similar opportunities are not forsaken in the future.

Still, with Lincoln's city elections coming in the spring, capitol city Democrats should at least take heart at the momentum they'll be carrying into what are sure to be heated races to hold onto both the Mayor's office and the Democratic majority on the city council. They are well-positioned for continued success in 2007, with little to gain by regretting what could have been this November.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

The "Ben Nelson Moment" and the Future of the Nebraska Democratic Party

by Kyle Michaelis
To be honest, until the last week before the November 7th election, I never really thought the Democratic Party had much chance of winning control of the United States Senate. Doing the math and looking at the numbers, I could see an evenly-divided Senate wherein Vice-President Dick Cheney would have been the tie-breaking vote, but an outright majority just seemed like it would take more pieces falling into place than could possibly be relied upon.

Then, those pieces fell into place. And, now, the real work begins.

In Nebraska, we are faced with the particular question of what role our Democratic Senator, Ben Nelson, will play in the new majority.

The Omaha World-Herald reports:
After six years as a minority party senator from a small rural state, he's poised to become "Big Ben" on Capitol Hill.

Boosted by the Democrats' takeover of the U.S. Senate and his own landslide re-election, Nebraska's Ben Nelson almost certainly will see his influence rise as a centrist leader.

"It's the Ben Nelson moment," said Marshall Wittmann, senior fellow at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

In Tuesday's elections, Democrats won control of the Senate with a razor-thin, 51-49, majority. Among the new Democratic senators headed to Washington are several who scratched out wins as moderates promising bipartisanship.

Nelson, a foe of abortion, friend of hunters and fan of tax cuts, has demonstrated how a Democrat can survive in a conservative state by working across Washington's party lines.

Next year, Wittmann said, Nelson and other centrists could be in a position to bless which bills the Senate will approve.

Nelson agreed. "We can become a force to help something to pass, or I suppose something not to pass."

He's already seeking meetings with new Senate Democrats James Webb of Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Claire McCaskill of Missouri.

He will team up again with another veteran centrist, Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who lost the Democratic nomination but won re-election running as an independent.

And he'll try to continue partnerships with Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

The goal, Nelson said, is for the centrists - always a loose-knit coalition - to see whether they want to pursue similar issues....

With both the House and Senate narrowly controlled by Democrats, "It's the moment for centrists," said Stephen Hess, a congressional expert at George Washington University....

While Nelson said he would like to see more bipartisan laws approved by the new Congress, he's not setting himself up as a power broker.

"It's much more about working to get things done," he said.

In any closely-divided Senate, Nelson's vote was poised to be a crucial one because of his willingness to cross party lines. Hopefully, that will be less of a problem as Democrats control the least, if Nelson's primary concern truly is "getting things done."

Still, as much as I would personally love if Nelson made a leftward shift, there's a lot to be said politically - particularly here in Nebraska - for Nelson staying true to the moderate-conservative record that won him re-election. Despite Nelson's popularity, Nebraska voters are still fundamentally wary of the Democratic Party and will take some warming up and winning over to Democratic leadership and the Democratic message in the coming years.

Looking to future Congressional and Senate races, the Nebraska Democratic Party is not wholly the master of its own fate. Nebraskans need to see a national Democratic agenda that speaks to their own values and interests. They need to see a Democratic Party they don't need to fear - and of which they might even want to be a part.

Clearly, Nebraska voters were not so afraid of a Democratic Congress that they would vote against Nelson on that basis alone. But, Nelson is a special case, and it will take a concerted effort by state and national leaders to win that same measure of acceptance for other candidates wearing the Democratic label.

Although regrettable on some points, Nelson's staying true to the record on which he was re-elected is essential to the continued progress of the Nebraska Democratic Party. Sure, he's locked-in for the next six years and may never face the voters again, but it's crucial that Nebraskans maintain their faith in Nelson's judgment and character - that he remains the Ben Nelson they have so long known and respected.

Beyond that, it really is imperative that Nelson take a more active hand in building the Nebraska Democratic Party. Great strides were made this year in building a statewide operation of which Democrats could be proud, and it's essential that idea survives, not only in terms of resources but also in Nelson's involvement.

As Governor and in his first term as a U.S. Senator, Nelson has, indeed, kept some measure of distance from party-building activities. Unless he wants his ultimate legacy in Nebraska politics to be the continued withering away of the Nebraska Democratic Party, he must step up to the plate in lending Democratic candidates and the party itself his credibility and support.

Nebraska Democrats rallied around Senator Nelson in 2006. If he gives a damn, he will return the favor in 2008 - not by changing his voting patterns or his stances on the issues to better conform with liberal orthodoxy but by helping recruit Democratic candidates and letting them know they'll have his support on the campaign trail.

As for the national political scene, I don't know if it's truly "the Ben Nelson moment" in Washington D.C. The fact that the much-maligned Democratic Leadership Council has declared it so doesn't carry a whole lot of water, even if the demonization of the DLC tends to be overstated. But, no doubt, if there is to be any progress during the last two years of the Bush Administration, it's going to fall on the moderates and the centrists to craft legislation acceptable to both Congress and the White House. If it's acceptable to Midwestern and Nebraska voters as well, then there's no reason the successes of 2006 can not carry-over and even build in 2008 and beyond.

Nelson is certainly well-positioned to exercise influence on Nebraska's behalf. Whether that also entails playing some hand in a make-shift centrist coalition remains to be seen, dependent on political and personal dynamics that won't come into view for months. The possibilities, though, are certainly intriguing - with new Senators perhaps looking to Nelson for guidance and some endangered Democratic Senators (i.e. Tim Johnson & Mary Landrieu) perhaps looking to Nelson's 2006 victory as a model for their own re-election campaigns.

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Our New Unicameral

by Kyle Michaelis
With the advent of term limits this election year creating an unprecedented number of open seats in the state legislature, the 2006 election ran the risk of being a disaster of epic proportions - and could likewise be an opportunity of the same magnitude - for Nebraska and all those citizens of a progressive persuasion.

Only 2 of 24 races in the one-house legislature had an incumbent on the ballot, opening the door to plenty of new blood, lots of inexperience, and hopefully some fresh ideas. Unfortunately, it also meant the departure of numerous long-time representatives of working people who have offered voices of common sense and moderation to balance the Unicameral's more reactionary elements. Senators such as Matt Connealy, Nancy Thompson, David Landis, Chris Beutler, Dennis Byars, and even Don Pederson were all forced to abandon their seats.

Clearly, it's too early to say how Nebraska will truly fare under the term limits regime, but - just looking at the results from Tuesday - I feel confident saying the worst dangers have been averted. In fact, there's even a lot of reason to be excited.

In partisan terms, the Democratic Party is assured gains of two seats, with the possibility of picking-up a third seat in the as-yet undecided 12th District currently represented by Pam Redfield. At the very least, this makes up for the two defections reported last spring.

Meanwhile, Democrat Steve Lathrop is 14 votes down to Republican Jean Stothert in the 12th - the most expensive race of the cycle - to which the final outcome may not be known for several weeks. In the spirit of the nonpartisan legislature, though, I must say that both of these candidates have a lot to offer and their constituents are likely to be well-represented no matter who ends up victorious.

By my count, 6 seats changed party hands - 2 Democratic seats won by Republicans and 4 Republican seats won by Democrats (with the possibility of a fifth). One of the Democrats' lost seats, however, should provide little change in voting patterns, as out-going State Sen. Pam Brown (Dist. 6) was generally quite conservative. The other lost seat was that of Thompson (Dist. 14) to Tim Gay, the Republican near-appointee to that seat in 2005 when Thompson flirted with resignation.

Democratic gains were made in the Dist. 26 seat held by Marian Price, the Dist. 30 seat held by Dennis Byars, the Dist. 32 seat held by Jeanne Combs, and the Dist. 34 seat held by Bob Kremer. The new senators, respectively, are Amanda McGill, Norm Wallman, Russ Karpisek, and Annette Dubas.

McGill's victory was important because it completed a Democratic trifecta in Lincoln's interior, and Wallman's victory is certainly welcome as another repudiation of his opponent, the ever-ambitious Tony Ojeda. Karpisek and Dubas, however, are the biggest pick-ups because the Senators they're replacing (Combs & Kremer) are cut from a much different cloth than moderate Republicans Price and Byars. The fact that they represent gains in rural Nebraska is particularly heartening.

Another legislative race of note is the 8th Dist., where Tom White will replace term-limited State Sen. Patrick Bourne - a supposed Democrat who's fallen into disrepute at this site after topping his earlier endorsement of Gov. Dave Heineman with a late-election endorsement of Adrian Smith in Nebraska's Third District Congressional race. The former may have been tolerable under the Unicameral's nonpartisan ideal, but getting involved in a highly-contested, extremely partisan federal race does not invite the same attempt at understanding.

Although not representing a party change, the New Nebraska Network also celebrates the victories of Tom Hansen, Professor Bill Avery, and the magnificent Danielle Nantkes - each of whom were the more progressive alternative in the races to replace long-time Senators Pederson, Beutler, and Landis, respectively. Of course, Hansen - a former head of the Nebraska Cattlemen Association - doesn't really fit alongside proud Democrats like Avery and Nantkes, but he was certainly a more attractive choice in North Platte than Marc Kaschke, who was one of few candidates to go on record in support of the Initiative 423 spending lid.

There were quite a few other legislative races across the state in which I may have missed some significant political implication. If anyone has anything to add about these, please do so in the comments. And, best of luck to all of our new state senators. I wish them all courage and wisdom in their service to the people of Nebraska.

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November 7th: A Great Day for America; A GOOD Day for Nebraska

by Kyle Michaelis
The results are in for the 2006 election. We all know about the massive gains by the Democratic Party nationally, as the Democrats swept back into power in both Houses of Congress. Yes, for the first time in 12 years, the People's House is back in the hands of the People's Party.

The New Nebraska Network wants to take a few moments to celebrate this fantastic and inspiring moment, with hopes that the Democratic Party will use its new majorities to govern with the decency and respect for democracy itself that has been so lacking during the Republican Party's power-tripping decade of corruption and abuse.

Neither bipartisan compromise nor a liberal agenda will serve the interests of the American public or the Democratic Party so much as restoring the basic integrity of our democratic institutions. That means respecting Republican representatives - welcoming their input and encouraging debate - setting a new tone that will prove to the American people they were right to put their faith in a Democratic Congress.

The Democratic Congress should not be afraid to stand for what they believe, but they must avoid the temptation to retaliate against the Republicans after years of petty insults. The fierce partisanship created by such an environment plays to the favor of the Republicans - always has, always will. The Democratic Party will succeed by offering a better, more principled alternative....and by making damn sure everyone knows how they're changing business-as-usual in Washington D.C.

We need more than a change in leadership. We need a new era in American politics. Getting there will require a strength of character and a faith in our ideals that few in power have ever had the courage to attempt. The reward, however, could be immeasurable - perhaps grounds for another 40 years of Democratic leadership that would never have been but for the harsh, ugly, but no less illuminating lessons of the last 12 years.

Democrats must rediscover their better selves. If they do so, the country will soon follow, and the possibilities will be endless.

And, that's all I have to say about that......which brings us to the election results here in Nebraska, about which there is plenty for every Nebraska citizen to be proud.

Not all we hoped. Not all we dreamed. But, progress was made - not only in terms of wins and losses but also in the hearts and minds of Nebraska voters.

There's certainly much to be said, and it will be said in time. Please be patient as the New Nebraska Network takes a little time over the next several days to digest the results and to hopefully play host to some important conversations before moving on to the next great challenges for our beloved state.

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Pete Ricketts: The Final Insult

by Kyle Michaelis
"I never said most of the things I said."
-Yogi Berra

In a campaign full of half-truths, singing cartoons, and baseless accusations, it's not surprising at all to see Senate challenger Pete Ricketts is taking one last opportunity to insult the intelligence and integrity of Nebraska's voters.

Pete Ricketts' latest and last (THANK GOD!!!) ad of the campaign - featuring his endorsement by President Bush at Sunday's Grand Island rally - is, perhaps, not as outrageously dishonest as some of Ricketts others have been these last few months. But, it's deceptive on a whole new level because the ad - purporting to quote Bush's speech - is nothing more than an outright, computer-generated forgery.

Listen to the ad. Notice how it sounds kind of funny - how the volume and the crowd noise cut in and out with no rhyme or reason. That's because the entire ad is a batch of edited Bush soundbytes strung together to put words in the President's mouth that he never said.

Besides the first time Bush praises Ricketts for being a "small businessman" (nothing like a Fortune 400, multi-billionaire SMALL businessesman burning $12 million on a campaign...oh, those crazy Republicans), every other remark heard in the ad is a lab-created counterfeit.

Read Bush's real speech. Watch Bush's real speech. (on Wednesday - there are better ways to spend 40 minutes today). What Bush actually said just doesn't match-up - at all - with Ricketts' latest ad.

At no point in Bush's 40 minute speech did he ever say “vote Pete Ricketts for the United States Senate.” Yet, by the magic of modern technology, that little line is repeated four times in Ricketts' one minute radio spot. When talking about keeping taxes low, the death tax, and the role of judges, Bush never even said Ricketts' name. Yet, in this pieced together monstrosity, Ricketts has inserted his name all over the place.

And, it should be noted that half the time Pete Ricketts was mentioned, Bush actually mispronounced his last name as either "Rickerts" or "Recketts." Yet, if you listen to the ad, you'll hear that the overpaid sound engineers on Ricketts' million dollar payroll decided not to use those somewhat embarrassing quotes that demonstrate just how little respect Ricketts has earned.

Of course, Bush did endorse Ricketts. Maybe that gives the Ricketts campaign the implied okay from Karl Rove and company to play whatever games they want with Bush's statements. So, I'm not offended on Bush's behalf. But, I am offended by the outright fraud of constructing a false, politically convenient version of what Ricketts wishes Bush had said and then presenting that lie to the public as if it were the real thing.

Just one more deception. Just one more distortion. Just one more betrayal of the public's trust and one more demonstration of what happens when a candidate without a message and - seemingly - without principles runs a campaign built on nothing more than his family's riches and his being a Republican.

After today, let me just say for the people of Nebraska, "Goodbye Mr. Ricketts. And, good riddance!"

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If You Can't Beat Scott Kleeb, Beat the Voters

by Kyle Michaelis
In the fog of Election Day, it's hard to know exactly what is real and what is shadow. But, it certainly seems like the Republican Party is conducting a massive effort to alienate Democratic-leaning voters in Nebraska's Third District, doing everything in their power to stave off an election-defining victory by Scott Kleeb.

Yesterday, there were reports of such activity right here at NNN. And, amazingly, we have a published report in the state's largest newspaper to substantiate this threat and to get the word out on the true nature of these underhanded tactics in time to counter at least some of their worst effects.

The Omaha World-Herald reports:
Complaints about repeated - and annoying - recorded "robo calls" to likely supporters of Democratic congressional candidate Scott Kleeb marred the last-minute campaigning in the hotly contested race in the 3rd District.

Both Kleeb's campaign and representatives of Republican candidate Adrian Smith denied involvement in the recorded calls, which one Hastings man said were repeated five times, about two hours apart, Sunday night and Monday morning.

Jack Sandeen, a 65-year-old retiree, said the calls were annoying and might prompt someone to not vote.

"If that's what democracy has come to . . . we're in a pretty sorry state," said Sandeen, a Democrat who said he responded to a telephone poll earlier this year that he was a likely Kleeb voter.

Sandeen described the calls as a poor-quality recording of Kleeb's voice describing his views and countering claims made in advertisements run by Smith....

Kleeb campaign spokesman Ben Lumpkin said the Democrat's campaign has used "robo calls" like that described by Sandeen. But the poor sound quality and repetition made him suspicious.

Lumpkin said Kleeb's phone contractor assured him that its computer system is not set up to make repeated calls like those described by Sandeen and about a half-dozen other people from Hastings and Kearney who had complained to him.

"It's clear to us that it's being done intentionally to annoy Kleeb supporters," Lumpkin said, citing complaints about similar tactics in other states.

Dan Huber, Smith's campaign manager, said that while his campaign is also using "robo calls," the repeated calls were "definitely not something we're affiliated with."

With the dual denials, Huber said the only possibility was that a "third party" may be doing it.

"Third party"? Alas, the OWH doesn't mention if that was said with a straight face or not.

I suspect that the fact this story even made it to the press on Election Day has a lot to do with the preparation, forward-thinking, and careful strategizing of Kleeb and his campaign staff. They've had hundreds of thousands of dollars and a somewhat popular president thrown at them this last week but have effectively countered every challenge that has come their way.

Kleeb will continue to do us proud today. And, I trust the decent, common sense folk of the Third District will do the same by sending Mr. Kleeb - not Mr. Smith - to Washington.

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by Kyle Michaelis