Sunday, December 31, 2006

Chuck Hagel's Retirement Plans?

by Kyle Michaelis
For some ungodknown reason, a rather trivial post at Leavenworth Street, our friendly rightwing counterpart in the Nebraska blogosphere, garnered national attention this weekend by relaying a Thursday night report on Omaha's KMTV Channel 3 news suggesting Sen. Chuck Hagel will announce next month that he'll neither be running for President or for re-election to a third term in 2008.

While such outcome would not be of any particular surprise to most who follow Nebraska politics - witnessing Hagel's frustration as a Senator but recognizing the near-insurmountable financial disadvantages standing in the way of his presidential ambitions - it's evidence of a slow news cycle and some desperate prognosticators that they'd actually jump on this unattributed report from anonymous sources for a story. This is especially the case if, as reported, we'll have word of Hagel's plans from the man himself in just a few short weeks.

Personally, the way we see the news media and blogs exploited by politicians and political operatives to build hype and to spin a story in their favor, I won't be taking any news of Hagel's plans seriously until they're reported by his good friends, fraternity brothers, and former USO underlings at the Omaha World-Herald. The World-Herald practically created Sen. Hagel, rolling out the red carpet for him in its pages before he'd even returned to Nebraska from his two decades making millions ($$$) in and around our nation's capitol. Until they print the final word on whatever decision their golden boy Hagel makes, any such rumors should be taken with a grain of salt.

I don't care to contibute any further conjecture along these lines, though readers are certainly welcome to do so. Me? I'm going to take a few days to get back into the swing of things after my unintentionally extended Christmas vacation to get myself and all y'all back up to speed in time for the kick-off of the Nebraska legislature's 2007 session later this week. Hang in there, boys and girls.

And, in case I don't get around to posting again before the stroke of midnight, this is the New Nebraska Network wishing everyone a happy and safe New Year. Celebrate tonight. Have a good time. But, tomorrow (or the next day) let's be ready to live up to all the hope and the possibilities for change that a new year brings.

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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Always Moving Forward

by Ryan Anderson
"I figured it up the other day: If we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it would be about 1.6 million Americans - enough to fill the city of Detroit."
Bob Dole, 1976 Vice Presidential Debate
This infamous quote -anachronistic even in its own time- seems downright absurd now. Most of us don't remember a time when Democrats were the warmongers; when a belief that government could help spread prosperity, freedom and opportunity at home naturally led men like FDR, Harry Truman and JFK to call on the military to achieve those same ends abroad. It took us a long slog through Vietnam and a new breed of leader - RFK, Eugene McCarthy and MLK- to convince the Democratic Party to embrace a reasoned approach to foreign policy, where military intervention is last on a long list of alternatives.

In their day, these men were iconoclasts. Now they are icons.

In Nebraska especially, progressives are often asked to balance ideological purity and delectability. If a candidate isn't liberal enough, they aren't worth supporting. If they're too liberal, they can't possibly win.

I think we spend too much time framing the debate in this way. Progressivism has never been and can never afford to be about a dogmatic adherence to a specific set of principles. If our commitment to moving our state and our nation forward is genuine, we must be willing to move ourselves as well.

Robert Kennedy was right to challenge liberal tradition and propose tax breaks to companies that developed in the ghetto. Russell Long was right to embrace Friedman economics and create the Earned Income Tax Credit. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was right to question the social effects of 1960s welfare and call for reform. And Bill Clinton was right to make balancing the budget a priority.

We owe the modern progressive movement not just to the old bulldogs of liberalism - the Franklin Roosevelts and the John Maynard Keyneses. We owe it also to those who built upon their work, often by adopting ideas formed in the conservative movement. Compromise isn't always surrender, and it isn't always about winning elections. It's often a valuable tool of progress, which is what the "progressive" movement is supposed to be all about.

We have a new Congress and a new Unicameral. We have new races coming up and a new executive director coming in. But as we look ahead to the next cycle let's not forget that in the long run, this isn't just about winning elections. No, building a "new Nebraska" means winning the war of ideas, and that will require a constant process of self-review.

Too often these blogs are used as just another tool to control spin and bully candidates into "sticking to the message". That's never been this site's aim, and I hope to continue our tradition of real debate about real ideas in the new year.

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Friday, December 22, 2006

All I Want For Christmas Are Readers' Comments

by Kyle Michaelis
An early Christmas present came in Wednesday night, responding to my post last week about "Nebraska's brain drain" and the harsh realities of life as a young, progressive Nebraskan just wanting to make a difference. Elisabeth wrote:
It is challenging to decide to stay/return to Nebraska. Like Scott [Kleeb], I too had the East Coast Ivy experience, and the opportunities many of my classmates are pursuing all around the world do, from time to time, make me wonder what the hell I'm doing here.

But I know why I came back. I love living here. I love being able to enjoy the natural environment. I like living comfortably without a lot of money.

The catch, however, is the lack of good full-time jobs for those who want them. It's also the lack of amenities like a major airport nearby, or a good public transit system. When we're young, many of us want to live the life of young, urban professionals, not soccer moms and dads. We want a safe way to get home from the bars, classy apartments, fine dining, and quality entertainment, and don't yet care about traffic in the suburbs. Others of us would like to be able to take over the farm without feeling like it's a dead end road with nothing but debt ahead. We'd like to preserve the tradition of ranching, live on our grandparents' land, because it means something to us.

It's not just scholarships our state needs to provide. Fine and good, but we need the infrastructure and support readily available for young Nebraskans regardless of whether they attend college. [W]e need support after they graduate, and likewise need support for those entering the working world from any place in life. Career education classes in high school? Close to worthless; you have no idea at 16 where you'll want to be at 21. It might cost us some money to make a viable presence of the kind of job placement/small business support infrastructure we need to keep young Nebraskans around, but really, what is the cost of losing us?

I want to thank Elisabeth for such a thoughtful response, as well as everyone else who reads and participates in NNN's running conversation about the future of Nebraska.

I also want to put in a shameless plug for the on-going debate between myself and Gary Brown of Nebraska Fair Tax about the feasibility and desirability of adopting a national sales tax. I hope the discussion will continue and certainly invite readers (following Eric's lead) to jump in with comments of their own or with questions for Gary or myself.

With Christmas coming up, I can't promise a whole lot of activity around the site, but that's no reason to let our brains and our passions go on holiday. Please, fire away!

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

CommuNity ColumNist - The "FairTax"

by Kyle Michaelis
Gary Brown of Nebraska Fair Tax has expressed a desire in starting a discussion with Democrats and progressives about the merits of doing away with the federal income tax and adopting a so-called “FairTax” (aka national sales tax) tied to personal consumption.

Brown and his organization achieved some minor celebrity in the 2006 Senate campaign as challenger Pete Ricketts and the Nebraska Republican Party attempted to use correspondence between Sen. Ben Nelson and Brown to portray Nelson as a hypocrite who’d newly adopted a hard-line stance against the national sales tax just to score political points.

Over the summer, Nelson’s campaign used selective but substantiated quotes to characterize Ricketts as supporting a national sales tax that would require a federal surcharge of 30% on every good bought and sold. Ricketts denied the charge, claiming such statements were taken out of context. Yet, he would not go on record in opposition to such proposals, refusing to take any options for tax reform “off the table.”

Nelson successfully parlayed this posturing into a wedge issue that contributed effectively to Ricketts' "Wall Street Pete" persona, particularly with Nelson's claim that a national sales tax would benefit the wealthiest 5% - people like Ricketts and Nelson - to the detriment of 95% of Nebraskans. Brown and other "FairTax" proponents dispute these figures.

In his letter to Brown from May of this year, Nelson expressed serious concerns about moving to a consumption-based tax but encouraged further debate in Congress on the issue. Three months later, in his first debate with Ricketts, Nelson explained that relative receptiveness as a polite gesture that seemed better than telling Brown “where to go.”

The New Nebraska Network hopes to show Mr. Brown a little more respect than that. And, hopefully, readers will provide him the fair critique and open debate he supposedly desires. So, we present:

Gary Brown on
Why the "FairTax" is the Fairest Tax

The election is over, so how about some honest debate over REPLACING the Income Tax system.

Here are the FACTS. To replace the current 60,000 page Code the FairTax proposes TWO simple rules.

Rule 1:23% of the cost of all new, retail products and services will go to the U.S. Treasury as a National Retail Sales Tax. What is NOT considered a retail purchase? Used items, businesses expenses, investment expenses, educational expenses and basically anything not CONSUMED by an individual consumer.

No more IRS confiscation of 20 – 30% of your income. Your GROSS pay EQUALS your NET pay.

Rule 2: Every American is forgiven the first 100% of all sales tax attributed to poverty-level spending. Simple math guarantees that effective tax rates that now range from 15% to 35% will FALL DRAMATICALLY into a 0% to 23% range. Every American is treated the same. No loopholes, no special tax breaks.

There are no other rules. If you doubt me read the plain-English version of the House Resolution (HR25) (also at or look up the full legal version if you are a lawyer.

Let’s look at the main problem areas with the current Code that the FairTax solves:

*1*The current system is terribly REGRESSIVE to lower-income Americans. The FICA component of withholding is a set rate for every working American up to $92,000. And the lower your income the higher percentage you pay in higher prices caused directly by corporate income taxes. I call the current system a SERFDOM TAX.
The FairTax is infinitely more PROGRESSIVE in that no American pays any tax till they spend above the poverty level, and then rises slowly the more affluent your lifestyle choices are.
*2*The current system allows over 1/3 of Americans to escape paying income taxes. Millionaires can escape income taxes because they don’t earn a paycheck and can pay lawyers to shelter their money. Criminals don’t pay income taxes because they don’t claim income. Some folks that work for cash don’t report all their income. And ALL of us lawfully taxpaying working saps pay a good 30% more just to make up for the free-loaders.
The FairTax collects all Federal taxes at the register when you make a retail purchase. Hard for anybody to escape that. And if a business (legal or otherwise) sells to you wholesale (no sales tax) then they had to ultimately buy their merchandise retail themselves so they likely paid sales tax.
*3*The current system incurs close to 20% in totally wasted overhead just to maintain the system. Taxpayers pay $2.5 TRILLION in Federal taxes and tax compliance (tax preparers, lawyers, time spent filing returns, etc). The U.S. Treasury collects $2.0 TRILLION in actual taxes. That’s $500 BILLION in payments for nothing other than paying tax preparers, lawyers and lobbyists.
The FairTax has NO overhead. The only taxation is via the Retail Sales Tax. No tax filing. No deductions. No loopholes.
*4*The current system inflates the prices of ALL goods and services sold in the U.S. and exported abroad by up to 20%. How do you think corporations pay for the production costs that are Federal Taxes, payroll taxes, tax accountants, lobbyists and tax lawyers? It’s built into the price of their product.
The FairTax charges sales tax on retail sales only. There is no corporate taxation so retail prices will be 15-20% lower. Even after the sales tax prices won’t be much higher than now. Imports cost more because the sales tax applies. Exports aren’t consumed in this country so there is no sales tax. Fantastic for our balance of trade.
*5*The current system hides government taxation rates. No American knows how much tax they pay the Federal government in Individual Taxes, FICA Taxes, Corporate Taxes, etc.
The FairTax makes all Federal taxation 100% visible every time you look at your sales receipt.
And the FairTax is the ONLY plan on the table which actually solves the biggest looming financial disaster that EVERY economist agrees on: the solvency of Social Security and Medicare.

So let’s debate the actual FairTax plan, not the imaginary plan politicians and tax lobbyists make up to scare you.

All true Fair Tax supporters ask for is a public debate. We feel confident that our proposal can withstand any TRUE scrutiny.

This is just a taste of the benefits of the FairTax. I urge everyone to investigate this plan. There is info all over the web – pro (mostly truthful) and con (mostly lies). The NE source for info is and the official national site is

Thanks for your time.

Gary W Brown

A longer, more complete version of this article written with the express purpose of encouraging debate with Democrats on the FairTax can be read here.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Hagel: Pointing in Leadership's General Direction

by Ryan Anderson
It made me sick to see Sen. Chuck Hagel glad-handing Kofi Annan at the Truman Library. I'm sure President Truman was rolling over in his grave after Annan's remarks about America. Sen. Hagel should have turned his back on Annan for what he said.

I believe that Chuck Hagel has turned his back on President Bush and on Nebraskans in hopes for a shot at the president's job. We all should be ashamed of Sen. Hagel. If Americans don't start standing up for America someday, there won't be an America and we won't be free.

This letter last week joined a growing cacophony of Nebraskan voices disgusted with Senator Chuck Hagel's introduction of Kofi Annan at the Secretary General's controversial farewell address. The ensuing ruckus forced Hagel to issue a response in the form of an intriguing guest editorial published in last Sunday's edition of the Omaha World Herald:
Global challenges like the environment, pandemic health issues and energy also will factor into a new 21st-century policy paradigm. The more defined threats like proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and religious extremism will not be successfully met only through the use of America's unequaled military power. It also will require enhanced and strengthened multilateral relationships and institutions, closer intelligence-sharing with allies, expanded trade and effective exchange and education programs.

All of the great challenges of the 21st century will require U.S. leadership that is trusted and respected, not feared, throughout the world. Inspirational leadership, moral authority and confidence in America's noble purpose, not imposed power, will be essential if the world is to live together peacefully with hope for all of mankind.

An expansion of American influence must include a strengthening of the world's multilateral organizations like the United Nations.

Hagel wisely argues for a shift not only in foreign policy tactics, but also in our larger strategic goals. For forty years in the latter part of the 20th century, the broad framework crafted by a small group of statesmen and intellectuals in the Truman administration largely determined the course of the Cold War. This world order collapsed along with the Berlin Wall and in its place we have… nothing.

Our national debate can no longer afford to focus solely on the strategic shortcomings of this administration or our response to whatever immediate threats dominate the morning's headlines. The long-term interests of our nation and our world require that we start thinking twenty or thirty years ahead, and doing so will require not only an informed and engaged public but also significant political courage on the part of our national leaders.

These are questions we can’t really answer as long as our military (and our treasury) remains caught in sectarian crossfire, but a successful exit from Iraq will almost certainly require opening up a dialogue with Iran and Syria, an unpleasant option to many.

Considering how sour the public’s perception of the Iraq War has become, this just might be the easy part. Eventually, our global crisis will demand that we confront issues we’ve become rather found of ducking: Sudan and Somalia, the National Missile Defense Shield, restructuring the military, reforming agricultural subsidies...

But Hagel isn't calling for any of these first steps. He's not even coming close. Hagel argues only for diplomacy most basic. If such a call is considered controversial in this state, we Nebraskans have a long and rocky road ahead.

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Fun With Numbers: Just $5 Million More?

by Kyle Michaelis
Looking back at the figures reported by the Omaha World-Herald earlier this month showing that 2006 Senate challenger Pete Ricketts spent $60 in his campaign for each vote received in the general election, I just found myself curious how much it would have cost him, at that rate, to make up the difference in his 36%-64% whooping by incumbent Sen. Ben Nelson.

The Secretary of State's election results have Nelson winning by a margin of 164,460 votes. Assuming a fixed turn-out, Ricketts needed 50% + 1 of that total to flip on his behalf to have won the race. In other words, he would have needed another 82,231 votes.

At the established cost of $60 per vote, Ricketts would have won had he spent only $4,933,860 more on his campaign. And, just to be on the safe side, who could have blamed him for upping that amount to an even $5 million?

Of course, economic and political realities don't lend themselves to such simple calculations. But it's certainly something to think about. In November, did the people of Nebraska prove their votes weren't for sale or did they simply have a higher asking price?

More likely, "MONEY" is a threshold concept - one you need to win but which can't be broken down into dollars and cents. As an heir to a multi-billion dollar fortune, it was a threshold Ricketts met the second he declared his candidacy. In a position like that post-election, I can't help wondering whether Ricketts has been asking himself what he should have done differently or how much more he should have spent.

Unless he's convinced himself his race with Nelson was never winnable. If only that had truly been the case.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Western Nebraska Votes on the Iraq War

by Kyle Michaelis
The website of the McCook Gazette recently ran a poll asking readers, simply, "What's your opinion on Iraq?" I first noticed the poll the day it was posted and made note of the then-incomplete results, which seemed to pretty well capture what I would have guessed of a thoughtful population rightfully torn by such a complicated issue.

On Thursday, Dec. 7th the poll indicated:
* Stay until the job is done.: 27.6% (24 votes)
* Gradually hand over control to the Iraqis.: 44.8% (39 votes)
* Get out now.: 27.6% (24 votes)

I refrained from discussing the poll at NNN while it remained open out of curiosity as to what ultimate results would prevail. Besides my single vote, I wouldn't have wanted the readers of this site to color the results.

Organized efforts to tilt these sorts of numbers have always seemed rather insulting to the general public who desire and deserve some easy means to gauge what their fellow citizens are thinking. While there was surely some tampering with the poll by those who care less about truth than controlling public perception, I trust that element was kept to a minimum considering its local character and appeal.

After running a week-and-a-half, the poll finally closed this weekend. With the above caveat as to its veracity, I think readers will still be interested in the final results:
What's your opinion on Iraq?

* Stay until the job is done.: 25.4% (96 votes)
* Gradually hand over control to the Iraqis.: 39.9% (151 votes)
* Get out now.: 34.7% (131 votes)

378 votes cast
If I had to guess, the "Get out now"-sentiments are probably a little over-represented by these numbers. It seems fairly reasonable to expect some skewing towards the extremes since the most polarized segments of the population are generally the most motivated to be heard and to see their opinions reflected.

Still, I could be wrong. Perhaps I've underestimated how much opposition - not just ambivalence - has really developed against the war in places like McCook.

I'd certainly be curious to know what my fellow Nebraskans think about that possibility.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

Who Will the Republicans Nominate?

by Ryan Anderson
Maybe I'm alone, but Kyle's thread discussing possible Democratic candidates in a Senate election that's still two years away just wasn't enough to satisfy my insatiable hunger for idle speculation. I wanna know: if Hagel retires, who will the GOP nominate?

On paper, Attorney General Jon Bruning seems to be a shoe-in. Unlike most of the other candidates eyeing this race, he's actually won statewide. He's got a knack for putting himself out in front of popular legal crusades and he hasn't been shy about using public funds to raise his profile and lay the groundwork for his next race, whatever it may be.

But he reportedly has a very frosty relationship with Senator Hagel (the Grand Pooh-Bah of the state GOP) and it seems unlikely that either Hagel or Governor Heineman would support a Bruning Senate bid. But if not Bruning, whom will Hagel tap as his successor?

Maybe Mike Johanns? Again, a candidate with strong statewide appeal and a solid base in Lincoln, a must-win for any statewide Democratic candidate. But Johanns has largely stayed out of state politics since moving to Washington, and I can't even tell which side of the Hagel/Bruning split he's supposed to be on.

Lee Terry is about as exciting as a wet sponge, but he's one of the few Republicans in the state who have actually faced down credible Democratic challengers. Neither he nor Hal Daub seems to have much statewide appeal, but that hasn't stopped either from testing the waters.

Which isn't saying a whole lot. Republicans will likely crawl out of the woodwork for the chance to run for an open Senate seat in Nebraska. Feel free to speculate. Who knows? It could be Alan Keyes.

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A Little Fun at the World-Herald's Expense

by Kyle Michaelis
Yes, that headline did run in the print edition of the Omaha World-Herald last week. Yes, it's just an innocent little screw-up. Yes, a blog full of design specialists are quite entertained by the sanctimonious World-Herald's making such a glaring mistake.

Me? I'll just use this as an opportunity to congratulate the Husker Volleyball team on their winning the national championship this weekend. Way to go, ladies!

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Best Case Scenario: Nebraska Democrats' 2008 Senate Recruitment

by Kyle Michaelis
The good folks at Swing State Project have invited readers to propose their picks for Nebraska's Democratic Senate nominee in 2008.

The thrust of the entire discussion seems to be dependent on Senator Chuck Hagel not seeking re-election if a Democratic candidate is to have any realistic chance at victory. Alas, if history is any guide, the already thin ranks of top tier Democratic contenders would most likely sit-out any race against an incumbent Hagel.

Although Hagel certainly has his problems with President Bush's loyalist Republican base, it's pretty damn hard imagining that discontent running deep enough to jeopardize Hagel in a primary challenge. Of course, some disgruntled Republicans want to imagine that Dave Heineman's victory over Tom Osborne in the 2006 gubernatorial primary was some sort of activist uprising offering a model to take-out Hagel in similarly surprising fashion. But, these people are entirely oblivious to the extent of Hagel's reach in the Nebraska Republican Party - which was only solidified by Heineman's election.

Heineman's victory was the triumph of an institution that Hagel was not only instrumental in building over the last decade but over which he and his staff assumed almost complete control in the 2006 election cycle. The question for Republicans then becomes not whether any candidates could defeat Hagel but, rather, whether Hagel has already chosen his successor for them.

Back to the discussion of potential Democratic challengers, I have to agree with the argument put forward by Nebraska's own Dave Sund at Swing State Project that the top prospect is Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey, followed by that champion of rural America Scott Kleeb, after which there is a pretty steep drop-off in terms of probability and electability - if not quality - for any of the other suggested candidates.

In fairness, my NNN compatriot, Ryan Anderson, makes a strong argument for Kleeb's being better positioned to make the leap to a statewide race, but the experience, the record, and the resources Fahey could bring to the table are all powerful assets to which he alone lays claim.

As for the other names that arise, none of them scream instant credibility. But, I enjoy outlandish speculation as much as the next guy and encourage anyone with an intriguing theory to share it at Swing State Project and right here at the New Nebraska Network.

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

A Tough Week for Workers' Rights in Nebraska

by Kyle Michaelis
It's been a tough week for working people in Nebraska. For starters, the now 10-week old strike of the Steelworkers at Lincoln's Goodyear plant continues as temperatures have plummeted, heating costs have skyrocketed, and fewer presents sit scattered around the family Christmas trees of 500 workers who haven't seen a paycheck in over two months.

Meanwhile, it appears the nine month effort at unionizing the nurses at Bryan LGH in Lincoln has also failed. The Lincoln Journal-Star reports:
The union attempting to organize BryanLGH Medical Center nurses has suspended its efforts and closed its Lincoln office, citing a lack of progress....

The local office was closed Saturday. The Capital City Nurses Association, formed under the banner of the [International Association of Machinists], emerged publicly with billboards in June after months of quiet organization.

After nine months of recruitment efforts, organizers realized in late November, “We’ve hit a brick wall”....

BryanLGH spokeswoman Suzanne McMasters said hospital officials were pleased a distraction from patient care was eliminated....

In addition to issues of pay and benefits, nurses who supported a union raised concerns over patient care, working conditions, policy and procedures, pensions and staff involvement....

In September 2005, BryanLGH cut the equivalent of 41 full-time employees, the culmination of a six-month efficiency review. By then, roughly 400 other employees —about 10 percent of a previous total — had been squeezed from the hospital by attrition and hiring freezes....

[T]he layoffs and job freezes — along with unpopular policy changes — fueled discontent among nurses.

With much of the hospital empty of patients, nurses were sent home, where they were paid $2 per hour to be on call. Management also reduced the higher hourly pay nurses earned by working nights and weekends.

In November 2005, the hospital announced it planned to eliminate a popular pay incentive nurses call “add-a-shift.”

Administrators later backed off some of those changes as financial conditions improved and in an effort to slow union efforts.
The readers' comments at the Journal-Star's site are quite illustrative of what the above article called "the problem of educating 1,000 nurses in a conservative state as to why a union would benefit them."

Apathy would be one thing, but the prevailing animosity towards organized labor in Nebraska is distressing in the extreme. Workers should understand that what reforms were instituted to stave-off unionizing efforts could prove just as temporary and remain practically unenforceable in the absence of collective bargaining. And, the community should recognize Bryan LGH's declaring this episode "a distraction from patient care" for what it truly was - a distraction from profit.

When nurses and the other employees of a hospital have no protection, it's the patients who are left most vulnerable and who will ultimately suffer the consequences. How unfortunate that such isn't better understood - and that management is able to so exploit that fact.

Finally, on the Nebraska end of what was essentially a nationwide sweep earlier in the week, approximately 265 undocumented workers were taken into custody in a raid by immigration agents at the Swift & Co. meat packing plant in Grand Island. Most were detained for simple immigration violations, although charges of identity theft have been filed against 15 of the workers so far.

Interestingly, the laborers in Swift's Grand Island operation are members of the United Food and Commercial Workers (Local 22). The effects of the raid have already been quite far-reaching, hitting Grand Island's public schools and its Hispanic community very hard.

Of course, the issue of immigrant labor - undocumented and otherwise - is quite ancillary to the interests of the larger labor movement. A strong argument can be made that illegal employment has hurt American workers - and the Unions that represent them - but, ultimately, it's the same exploitation they face from the same sources.

So, on a certain level, it seems fair to say that Nebraska's working families have taken it on the chin quite a bit in the last week. Still, it's great to know they're taking nothing lying down. In particular, the Steelworkers from Lincoln's Goodyear plant are staying on the offensive, maintaining their months-long vigil and even organizing off-site protests this weekend with the help of Nebraska's ALF-CIO at Lincoln's Sears and Omaha's Jensen Tire.

And, as bleak as things may sometimes seem, there are things for which Nebraska has a lot to be proud of in defending worker's rights. Probably the most obvious of these is none other than the state's only-of-its-kind Meatpacking Industry Workers Bill of Rights. Last month, Nebraska Appleseed released a comprehenisve report examining the effect of this landmark 6 year-old legislation, including suggestions for areas where much progress yet remains.

The full report can be downloaded here. But, the gist of it follows:
The Nebraska Meatpacking Industry Workers Bill of Rights (MW Bill of Rights) was an innovative declaration of policy undertaken by Governor Mike Johanns in June 2000. The MW Bill of Rights is the only state-level worker protection policy of its kind. It outlines fundamental rights for workers and established guidelines employers must follow.

The rights included in the MW Bill of Rights are as follows:
1. The right to organize
2. The right to a safe workplace
3. The right to adequate facilities and the opportunity to utilize them
4. The right to adequate equipment
5. The right to complete information
6. The right to understand information entitled
7. The right to existing state and federal Benefits and Rights
8. Right to be free from discrimination
9. Right to continuing training including supervisor training
10. Right to compensation for work performed
11. The right to seek state help

In 2001 the Nebraska legislature voted to enact the MIWBR into law as part of the Non-English-Speaking Workers Protection Act, a statute designed to help non-English speaking workers understand the terms and conditions of their employment as well as the risks involved with their work. This statute applies to all employers who actively recruit non-English speaking employees if more than ten percent of its employees speak the same non-English language. Under the statute employers must:
· provide a bilingual employee to answer questions,
· provide a statement in the worker’s native language of wages, weekly hours, responsibilities and hazards, as well as any transportation or housing to be provided, and
· provide free transportation back to the recruitment site if the employee resigns within four weeks of his/her initial employment.

The statute also made permanent the Meatpacking Industry Worker Rights Coordinator within the Nebraska Department of Labor. The coordinator’s role is as follows: “to inspect and review the practices and procedures of meatpacking operations in the state of Nebraska as they relate to the provisions of the Governor’s Meatpacking Industry Workers Bill of Rights.”


Our evaluation concentrated on four principle categories of rights included in the MIWBR. Findings include:

Access to Complete Information·

· Many workers in Nebraska are unaware of the Meatpacking Industry Workers’ Bill of Rights and do not know how to inquire further with appropriate parties about their rights.
· Most meatpacking companies comply fully with the three specific requirements of the Nebraska Non-English Speaking Workers Protection Act (as opposed to each right listed in the MW Bill of Rights).
· The position of the Meatpacking Worker Rights Coordinator has been effective within the limits of the office’s resources.
· Both companies and worker advocates could more proactively use the MW Bill of Rights to educate workers. Most companies post only a single copy of the MIWBR in a human resources area, and few unions or nonprofits continue to promote the MIWBR.
· Company management we interviewed saw no conflict between the MW Bill of Rights and their bottom line, describing the evolution of a business model previously based on high employee turnover to a new model that values worker retention.
Safety and Health in Meatpacking Plants
· While the meatpacking industry has made some good faith efforts to improve safety, including hiring additional bilingual supervisors and liaisons, neither available statistics nor our own qualitative data indicate a fundamental change in the risks associated with meatpacking work during the last six years.
· Fear of losing their job still inhibits many workers from inquiring about, let alone asserting, their basic rights.
· Erosion of state and federal safety oversight has had a negative impact on safety and health in meatpacking plants.
· Line speed or speed of work, which is not addressed by the MW Bill of Rights, was consistently and spontaneously cited by most interviewees as a primary cause of high injury rates.
Access to Workers’ Compensation
· Workers’ compensation remains greatly underutilized by injured meatpacking workers, and the MW Bill of Rights has not improved workers’ access.
· Many workers do not know the workers’ comp system exists. Company trainings do not adequately educate workers about the system, nor do company supervisors or health personnel adequately explain the system in the event of an injury.
Freedom to Organize
· Publicity and proactive use of the MW Bill of Rights by advocates around the time of its introduction empowered workers to consider the benefits of addressing the issues at their workplaces through organizing, but the policy hasn’t had much impact more recently after publicity declined.
· The MIWBR was a factor in plant organizing in the year immediately following the bill of rights’ introduction.
· The MIWBR is a much more useful tool for communication in organized versus non-organized plants.

The impact of the MW Bill of Rights on workers’ safety and working conditions can be improved by instituting practices that promote the bill’s use as a communication tool and by a number of other means:
· Companies should directly distribute individual copies of the MW Bill of Rights to workers, through worker paychecks, for example. Several companies were open to the idea of distributing individual copies of the MW Bill of Rights.

· The MW Bill of Rights should be incorporated into orientations and ongoing trainings by companies and others. Workers emphasized the importance of talking about rights rather than merely posting them.

· Funding should be provided to extend the existing MW Bill of Rights coordinator position to full time, and to add two inspector positions under the coordinator: one to focus on meatpacking plants beyond the Omaha area, another just to process workers’ questions and complaints about their rights, workplace concerns, and accessing state and federal benefits.

· Non-profits, unions, and other community-based organizations should integrate the MW Bill of Rights into their programs and use it to teach workers how to assert their rights on a practical level.

· State funding and public subsidies for the meatpacking industry should go only to those employers who are complying with the basic rights and community standards enumerated in the MW Bill of Rights.

· Other states with significant meatpacking operations should consider adopting and improving upon the Nebraska MW Bill of Rights and other state-level reform promoting respect for workers’ rights.

· Rigorous and scientific study should be conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to determine what steps would be most effective in promoting worker safety and health, including communication tools like the MW Bill of rights, in industrial meat and poultry processing jobs.

· The erosion of federal and state safety oversight should be reversed. Staff and funding for enforcement should be significantly increased, and such oversight should include the regulation and slowing of line speed/speed of work by the USDA, OSHA, and state regulators.

· Nebraska’s governor and state leaders should publicly reaffirm the MW Bill of Rights and the state’s commitment to meatpacking workers.
That's a lot to read, but anyone who's made it this far should be proud of what strides Nebraska has made in protecting meat plant workers, even while recognizing there's so much more we could and should be doing.

And, so much more we will do if good people remain dedicated to the principles of fairness and solidarity that are the bedrock of the labor movement and that speak all too directly to that which is the very best of Nebraska values.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Plugging Nebraska's Democratic Brain Drain

by Kyle Michaelis
Reading Ryan's fantastic interview with Scott Kleeb, what really stands out and cannot possibly be emphasized enough is just how important it is that young progressive leaders of Kleeb's caliber discover the means to translate their love and passion for "the Good Life" Nebraska promises into a good life of their own.

Brain drain - the sapping of the state's youth and vitality; its best and brightest; it's most precious natural resource - is a problem Nebraska has faced for decades, if not since its inception. Still, beyond some very generous corporate-subsidized scholarships for Nebraska students who attend Nebraska universities, this is not a problem the state has done much about beyond acknowledging it exists and lamenting its effect.

Of course, some of the losses Nebraska suffers in terms of youth and talent are quite understandable - probably even inevitable. There are some fish who simply need a bigger pond to find their place in this world. For some - like the universal, metaphorical "small town of my youth" - Nebraska will always be a great place to have been born and to have grown up, but their calling simply lies elsewhere.

As a state, though, we know that the problem goes far deeper than this. Many of our losses are not natural in the slightest. Rather, they result from not just the perception but, yes, the reality of both our economy and our culture.

Creativity is largely an afterthought. And, diversity is more of a burden than an asset. It makes for a not particularly inviting - at times, downright imposing - climate where any young person who doesn't fit perfectly into a given mold has to recognize that not only are there certain ambitions that can not be met in Nebraska but the choice to stay might actually be one of additional challenges that would not be faced elsewhere.

No matter how much one thrives on adversity, there comes a time - personally, politically, financially - when things just shouldn't be so hard. In particular, for young progressives who hold their ideals passionately and who seek the company, solidarity, and strength of like-minds, the appeal of greener (or shall we say "bluer") pastures is ever-present no matter how much one loves Nebraska.

Here, I can't help but think of two exports from the ranks of Nebraska progressives who achieved enormous success in last month's election. This summer, I wrote a short piece about the first of these, Darcy Burner, a native of Fremont who ran in one of the highest-profile Congressional races in the country in Washington's 8th District.

At 36, with her youth and her experience in the tech industry, Burner sparked a lot of interest and buzz online, running a damn good campaign against a very popular first-term incumbent that almost resulted in quite the upset. Burner ended up losing by about 3% (48.5% - 51.5%) but was heralded by political analyst Stuart Rothenberg as a candidate who'd definitely proven herself and earned another chance.

Then, there's the real shining star of 2006 - besides re-electing Ben Nelson, probably Nebraska's greatest gift to America this election year. I'm talking about Tim Walz, the newly-elected Democratic Congressman from Minnesota's 1st District. Walz actually lived in Nebraska until just 10 years ago, a fact that eluded the New Nebraska Network's attention until the Omaha World-Herald ran an excellent profile that included the following:
Rep.-elect Tim Walz traded Nebraska's Sand Hills for the lakes of Minnesota 10 years ago, but the high school social studies teacher remains proud of his Cornhusker roots.

"An awful lot of who I am was built on being a Nebraskan," said Walz, a Democrat.

Walz, 42, was elected Nov. 7 to represent Minnesota's 1st Congressional District, which stretches across the southern portion of the state. He defeated six-term incumbent Gil Gutknecht, who was first elected as part of the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress.

Walz refers to himself as a Minnesotan now, but he tries to get back to Nebraska a couple of times a year and remains a devoted Husker football fan. His campaign Web site boasts that he was named Outstanding Young Nebraskan in 1993 by the Nebraska Junior Chamber of Commerce.

Walz was born in West Point but raised mainly in Valentine....Midway through Walz's high school years, his father was diagnosed with cancer, and the family moved to Butte to be closer to some of their relatives. His father died shortly after Walz graduated from Butte High School in 1982....

Walz joined the Army National Guard at age 17....After returning to Nebraska, he landed in Alliance, where he became a high school teacher and an assistant coach for the school's football and basketball teams....

Walz met fellow teacher Gwen Whipple in Alliance. The two were married in 1994, and two years later they moved to Mankato, Minn., where they taught at one of the local high schools. The couple have two children.

Walz became a coach with his new school's struggling football team. Since then, the team has won two state titles.

"We brought a lot of that Nebraska football here to Minnesota," he said.

Walz said his entry into politics came after he tried to take a couple of students to a 2004 appearance by President Bush. He said the students were turned away from the event because one of them had a John Kerry sticker on his wallet.

Walz said security also balked at allowing him to attend the speech and then kept an eye on him to make sure he didn't cause any trouble.

Angered by the handling of the incident, Walz said, he went to work for the Kerry campaign, and that involvement eventually led to his run for Congress.

Differences of opinion can be good, compromises are important, and the prevailing "winner take all" mentality of Washington must stop, Walz said.

He talked about the importance of working with Republicans and said one thing about Nebraskans is that they are "very pragmatic people"....

Southern Minnesota has a lot in common with Nebraska, Walz said. He cited community values and a strong libertarian streak.

Of course, some of my newfound affinity for Walz is rooted in his biography. Not only is his birth place my hometown of West Point, but my mother and her entire family are from Butte - with a population of about 500 - which can now claim a Congressman among the graduates of its soon-to-close high school.

But, the real appeal of Walz is what I've learned of the man that wasn't written in the World-Herald. For a perfect example, I'd like to direct readers' attention to the summation of Walz's election by an actual Minnesota voter:
I had a feeling in the closing weeks of the campaign that Democrat Tim Walz would pull off a victory in what only a few months earlier seemed like a kamikaze run against six-term Republican incumbent Gil Gutknecht, but I didn't think he'd win by a solid six-point margin. Considering Gutknecht's mid-summer radio ad buys, I don't necessarily think that Gutknecht was unable to see this challenge coming. Nonetheless, his response to the challenge was absolutely abysmal, with boilerplate TV ads where the incumbent couldn't even be bothered to make an appearance in his own commercials and a series of mismatched debate performances where Gutknecht was very clearly on defense at all times and losing badly to the charismatic Walz.

I wrote a diary in September on how Tim Walz could eke out a victory in MN-01 with huge margins in his native Mankato and the college town of Winona, along with fighting Gutknecht to a draw in his native Rochester. In the end, Walz won by huger margins that I would have deemed possible in Mankato and Winona, but also managed to win Rochester by an astounding eight percentage points. Walz outperformed my expectations pretty much everywhere, padding his margin with wins in a few of the more conservative southwestern farm counties.

It'll be interesting to see how Walz holds up in 2008 and (hopefully) subsequent election cycles. The one thing that concerns me is that Walz's presence on the campaign trail is his chief asset....and that presence will not be as abundant if he's stuck legislating in DC rather than travelling the district full-time as he did in 2005 and 2006. Nonetheless, an excellent win for Walz, who I saw speak on two occasions and evoked a level of passion that I haven't seen since Paul Wellstone.

Keep an eye on this guy. Big things could be coming from him.

If that sounds like excessive praise, there are certainly people in the national Democratic Party who'd disagree, as Walz was one of only two newly-elected Congressional Representatives (along with Kansas' Nancy Boyda) chosen to speak at the Dec. 2nd meeting of the DNC's Executive Committee as proof of the 50-State Strategy's success. The symbolism of Walz defeating a hold-over from the Republican Class of '94 is especially potent and reflective of the new day a Democratic Congress represents for the entire nation.

And, to think, Walz was a life-long Nebraskan until just 10 years ago. Clearly recognized as a leader even then (1993's "Outstanding Young Nebraskan"), it's heartbreaking to think how many of our best and brightest - be they Democrats or just Nebraskans in general - have followed a similar trajectory.

And that is why Scott Kleeb's still young tale is so amazing. So distinctive. So important. Although Kleeb has roots in Nebraska, he's not here by default. He's here by choice, and - if he can thrive in Nebraska - that's one mighty reversal of what would ultimately be a deadly trend. Although such success might prove largely symbolic, it has the potential to become so much more for the state of Nebraska, for the Democratic Party, and for the people who call both home.

I know how unfair it is to put the burden of such expecatations on a young man who's still starting out in life - on whom the burden already rests of so many peoples' once dormant hopes. It's not a position I envy or would wish upon anyone. As much as some of us may want a myth-in-the-making - with all Kleeb's enormous potential we've seen for ourselves and which has been recognized across the country - those hopes are ours to grapple with and turn into something great, not Scott's to live up to.

Right now, Scott Kleeb just has to make a life for himself. And, despite the joy so many of us take in speculation at what the future might hold, the best thing we can probably do is let Scott find his own way, deciding what's best and what's next for himself.

Last weekend, I actually had the chance to talk to Scott for a few moments. He told me point blank, "I'm not going anywhere."

The problem - for me personally and for the state of Nebraska - is that I couldn't blame him for leaving if he did. Looking at what Tim Walz has done in Minnesota and will do in Congress, remembering what a man like Ted Sorenson accomplished at so young an age as an aide to President John F. Kennedy, seeing how former Sen. and Gov. Bob Kerrey continues to provide a powerful and principled voice, there's a very real question whether these men could make the same contributions here in Nebraska. Perhaps some people who will always be Nebraskans at heart might simply be better off taking what is best of our state's character with them to a different home.

Scott Kleeb is not Tim Walz, but he certainly has the potential to achieve the same, if not even greater success. The trick is seeing if it can be done right here in Nebraska. Walz was already recognized as a future leader when he was here. But, although I have no doubt he could have done great things had he stayed, I can't say with any confidence that he would have achieved the same level of success in Nebraska's political and cultural climate, particularly while staying so true to himself.

I mean, seriously, who was the last Nebraska politician who could even be mentioned in the same breath as Sen. Paul Wellstone?

Of course, we'll never know if we don't try. We'll never know if such leaders aren't willing to stake themselves in Nebraska and to stake their ambitions on the common sense of its voters. Change has to start somewhere, and things will never get better if we continue to resign ourselves to the loss of our next generation of Darcy Burner's and Tim Walz's.

There might be good reason for why Nebraska Democrats achieve success elsewhere. They've had to look at issues from a different perspective. They've had to discover firmness in their convictions but flexibility in their thinking just as a matter of survival. And, nowhere is the power of compromise as a true asset likely to be better learned than in a state that fiercely holds tight to its nonpartisan traditions.

But, finding the means to translate ones passion and talent into opportunity and a life is never an easy task, especially while a decades-old sucking sound still echoes like the Sirens' song - calling to coastlines, warmer climates, lower taxes, higher incomes, "bluer" pastures, or even a different way of life.

Who can blame them for leaving? Who can ask them to stay? Yet, what fate awaits a Nebraska where no one is willing to try? I'm afraid, by intuition and experience, we already know that answer and, perhaps, have already seen that approaching shadow.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Scott Kleeb: Beyond Populism

by Ryan Anderson

"There aren't a lot of poor people in my district," Scott Kleeb said.

I really didn't know where he was going with that. His district, Nebraska's Third, contains four of the ten poorest counties in America. "There's plenty of people living below the poverty line, but they don't feel poor. And the Republicans have been tremendously successful in saying to these people: you're not poor. Your wealth comes from your family, your community, your sense of values. It's not just about money."

The netroots have moved quickly to declare 2006 the year of the populist, and populism is certainly no stranger to these Nebraskan plains. Here, the prairie boom of the 1880s led to the prairie bust of the 1890s and gave rise to the impressive political career of a young William Jennings Bryan: "the peerless one", the "boy orator of the Platte" who would in 1896 form an economic coalition between the farmers of the South and the miners of the West that would serve as a crude blueprint for the still distant landslide elections of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Both Bryan and Roosevelt rallied against the moneyed interests who lined their pockets while breaking the backs of the working poor and so too, we are told, did the new class of Democrats who rode to victory on November 7. But here in the birthplace of populism, the rising star of the Nebraska Democratic Party seems to reject this strategy and, in doing so, I believe Kleeb is hitting much closer to the source of the problem.

If rural voters don't feel poor, no wonder Democratic appeals to their compelling "economic interests" have failed to move them out of the Reagan coalition. If our message doesn't first resonate with a man's soul, we can't hope to move him by pointing to his checkbook.

What we need in our party are candidates who have a sincere respect for and share a genuine identity with the people they are trying to represent. In a superficial sense, I think this is what some people mean when they talk about "populism" anymore: Jon Tester's flat-top, Jim Webb's straight shooting and Scott Kleeb's cowboy boots aren't just cynical props designed to garner conservative votes, they're part and parcel of who these men are as human beings.

What we need in Nebraska, it would seem to me, is Scott Kleeb.

Now, don't get me wrong. The task of building a "new Nebraska" starts with all of us and it most certainly doesn't end with a single man. But our bench isn't exactly overflowing with candidates possessing Kleeb's understanding of and compassion for our rural communities and, more importantly, his unique ability to communicate that passion on the stump.

In Nebraska as well as in the greater United States there remains a growing rift between rural and urban, between Omahans/Lincolnites and those who live outstate. This rift lies at the very heart of our state's political shortcomings, and it won't be bridged by the Adrian Smiths and Dave Heinemens of the world. Nor, I'm afraid, by the Ben Nelsons. We need not a "caretaker" government at a time when the state isn't taking care of its people.

But having now had a chance to meet with Mr. Kleeb, I see in him a potential to bridge this divide and move Nebraska forward. Considering his intelligence, his eloquence and also his energy and discipline as a candidate I think the Republicans should consider themselves extremely lucky to have defeated him. But Kleeb's a fighter and I think - certainly, I hope - that they're mistaken if they believe he's down for the count.

Read the rest of Ryan's Interview with Scott Kleeb.

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An Interview with Scott Kleeb

by Ryan Anderson
By: Ryan Anderson, NNN
First of all, do you have any reaction to Barry Rubin's announcement last night that he was leaving his post [as Executive Director] with the Nebraska Democratic Party?
I think Barry did great work out here, he and I worked together great, and at the end of a cycle you look for new opportunities and new challenges. I think that's all Barry's doing.
The Omaha World Herald quoted you after the election as saying that you could divide the campaign into two halves: the last month and the year or so that preceded that. What'd you mean by that?
The pace of a campaign picks up throughout the effort. When I started out in August 2005 it was a much slower pace, obviously, and it just slowly picked up steam until at the last month so much is happening so quick that the campaign really becomes a different thing... Now does that mean that both halves aren't equally important? No, they are. You have to lay the groundwork in the first half in order to make the second half as successful as it can be. The only way we were able to have 30 people a day coming in and out of our office to make phone calls that last month was because we cultivated that base, worked it, made sure it was going to be there. But that first half is all about building up support for those last few weeks.
Also in the last couple of weeks, the GOP and the Club for Growth threw a lot of attack ads your way. Which of those attacks do you think had the greatest impact on your campaign? Which ones stuck?
Probably a combination of all of them....They had big, heavy points against me, five different ads, the robo-call thing. Probably all of that was effective. But I think the one that hurt the most was the claim that was, on its face, the easiest claim to make, but the one that I actually think was the most wrong. Which was... not being from here.They talked about, you know, "went to school at Yale, raising money in San Francisco... Scott hasn't even lived here."
Which is a claim that is more specific to your candidacy, obviously. But it seems that a lot of the attacks that they threw at you, things like "he's gonna vote for Nancy Pelosi"... are claims that almost any Democrat running in Nebraska would be vulnerable to. How can Democrats in red districts effectively counter those claims?
Our campaign had been very careful at defining this as a race between Adrian Smith and Scott Kleeb. Not between a Republican and a Democrat. Now we were very successful –by talking about my beliefs, my values structure, why I'm doing this, who I am, all those things- in convincing some very rock-ribbed Republicans to say, "hey, I actually like this guy." But from the media standpoint, where it's all done in thirty second bites, you have to define it as between Scott Kleeb and Adrian Smith, not Democrat versus Republican. And you don't do that by going weak on who you are, you do that by saying "look, this is the choice: who do you want to represent you?" You point out his deficiencies, try to point out your strengths, and make the case why you're better. You know, that whole "message box" thing that you learn about [when you start a campaign].

Once we released our poll, the DCCC came in with $100,000, and the headline the day after the D-trip did that was "National Dems look to Third District Race". The next day, President Bush was on his way out here. The race nationalized in a way that got us a lot of attention that last week, but it made the story "the future of the house is increasingly dependent on this seat", which was not true. Anybody that follows politics closely knew that that wasn't true. But that's what folks in the media said, and I understand why they did it. They want to sell copy and they want to make it exciting and make it really happening...

It did increase turnout. Just to give you an indicator, we had figured out what our win number was... based on previous elections in previous years of off-year cycles, gubernatorial elections and all the ways of finding out what the turnout would be, what we would need to get to 50%+1, and we actually surpassed that number.
So, do you regret the DCCC getting involved? Do you think that ad was effective, or do you think that the cost you paid in nationalizing the race wasn't worth it?
No. We were getting hammered in the out districts very effectively because we didn't have the money to go up on TV in a way that we needed to in those out-markets. Out-markets being everything but the Lincoln market, for us.

By the way, we don't have a choice about where or at what levels the DCCC buys time....I couldn't have said, "don't do this". So when I'm answering the question, I'm answering the question: do I regret releasing the poll?

No, because we needed money, and we made a lot of money that last week. We were able to bump up our points, we were able to pay some bills that needed to be paid... You need to take some chances. And we took some chances by going up on TV as early as we did. There were points where we were really low, embarrassingly low. Less than a $1,000 with five weeks left. So we needed to find some ways to raise money.
When you announced your bid, were you met with skepticism by the Nebraska Democrat Party?
You know, when I entered this, I told some of my friends, colleagues and professors back at Yale that my goal was 40%. Our PVI [base] is 25, and if I could get 15 above that it'd be tremendous. And I knew I could do that, I knew we could do that, if I worked hard and worked aggressively.

But when you believe in something yourself, you need to convince others. They (the NDP), could see the numbers like anybody else, in fact they know better than the folks back in Washington that the numbers out there are ugly. Our last poll still showed President Bush very popular. Very popular.

You have to prove yourself on the campaign, especially in a district like ours. One thing that corporations do is offer matching grants. They say: if you can raise the money, we'll match it. That puts some sense of ownership on the part of that organization. Same principle when it comes to campaigns. Parties should be skeptical. They shouldn't just willy-nilly waste money.

But it would have been nice to have found a way to move that forward so we could have had two months of excited campaign at the end. That was the challenge, to find some way to do that.
This district was only one of a number of very red districts that discussed as possible flips, and the Democrats didn't pick up many of them. Do you think those results reinforced skepticism about going into areas like Nebraska's third? Or do you think that the party has become more interested in this fifty state strategy?
I hope the latter. I hope that it's gotten more people interested in the fifty state strategy.

Now, do I believe in the equation "Scott Kleeb loses therefore fifty state strategy is wrong"? No, and that's true, across the board, with any of these districts. Look at the people who are competing in areas where people still don't understand how they won. Stephanie Herseth won in South Dakota in 2004, same year Tom Daschle lost. Jon Tester wins two years after Brian Schweitzer wins, even though in 2004 [Montana] went heavily Republican, heavily Bush. You know, Earl Pomeroy in all his campaigns, same with [Byron] Dorgan. Colin Peterson -he ran three times before he won. Now that whole north-western part of Minnesota is more blue.

All of those were a sustained effort over a period of time. Schweitzer loses Senate bid then runs for Governor. Nancy Boyda, in Kansas, lost by [a significant margin] in 2004, and she won this year. We've got to realize that immediate results are not going to come from this fifty state strategy… It didn't collapse in two years, it sure as heck isn't going to be rebuilt in two years.

Now, one of the problems I think we need to sort out is: how do you fund a never ending two-year cycle that demands immediate results with a longer term approach that says "you know, we got to put off our cake until later"? That's a huge challenge.
So what are you doing now that the campaign's over?
Looking for a job. Trying to look for a job and find ways to help. You know, my commitment to what you were talking about is still there. Finding ways to help support people. We got some great new legislators here in Lincoln, so hopefully we can work on some of these issues. I know that they're as passionate about these issues as I am, so I hope I can be helpful in that. Continuing to help the party rebuild in areas around the state... continuing to help stoke that fire, I guess, keep it alive.
So are you yourself looking at running for another office?
I have no idea. I don't know.
Have you discussed that with anyone?
There are different people talking to me about things, but I keep telling them: look, I made $2,500 last year. I made $16,000 the year before that. You know, I've got bills. I need to get a life. I need to get a job. That's my focus right now, getting a job. Seeing how I can be helpful... I'm not going to turn my back on it at all. But as far as setting up the next run, if there is one, I don't know. And I'm not being coy, I'm being honest.
Just playing my role as "journalist" here: you haven't closed the doors on running again, say, in two years? Your personal interests don't necessarily conflict with running in '08?
It was the greatest experience of my life. Truly the greatest experience in my life, and one that I'll always cherish, and one that I'll never turn my back on. Does that mean that the potential for me doing this again is real? Yeah, it is. I don't know if it's two years, or four years, or twelve years... whatever it might be. But it was too moving of an experience. I was inspired by that experience. And I'm not going to turn my back on it.
To wrap things up, what do you think the party in general has to do to prepare for 2008 and build off of the successes they had this cycle?
Recognize that the 2008 cycle starts now. What I was saying before about needing to prove yourself as a candidate: we needed to do that, Jim needed to do that, Maxine needed to do that, Nelson had done that... and I think a lot of people got upset that that wasn't fair, you know, "why aren't we giving to every candidate?" and that type of thing, but there's an accountability there and that was good. Now we've proven ourselves. We can't afford to wait a year to try and get involved again.

We need to make sure that the 93 county strategy, which is the in-state equivalent of the 50 state strategy- is implemented in a very real way. We need to encourage, for instance, the people that we brought into our campaign: people who had never been to a Democratic Party function in their entire lives. Those people, their concerns and passions, their wants, needs and desires, hopes and dreams are still the same, and they saw something in our campaign that they didn't see in Adrian's campaign, and they're ready to stay engaged.

I met a woman who had never voted before. She sent me an e-mail that just said "it's time for me to take ownership". That's still there. And what the party will do, I think, is recognize that and encourage those people, make it safe for them to get involved. In that way we will make the 2008 cycle a much more real possibility. We just can't wait until March of '08 to get this thing going. It starts now.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

Help NNN Be a Better Online Neighbor

by Kyle Michaelis
If there's one area in which the New Nebraska Network has been sorely lacking, it has been in actively participating and fostering the growth of Nebraska's still under-developed online community.

While I've never intended to be rude or dismissive to other Nebraska bloggers, I've generally been too wrapped up in whatever purposes I've had for this site to concern myself much with what's going on or being said elsewhere. But, as I've encouraged readers to contribute more to this site with their comments or with articles of their own (which are ALWAYS welcome), I've also realized a need to expand the conversation about Nebraska's future beyond this little domain to at least acknowledge the wider world of opinions in Nebraska's so-called "blogosphere."

To do so properly, however, I need your help. Later this week or early next week, I'm hoping to do a massive overhaul of the sites linked on NNNs homepage. Please consider this an open call for the names and web addresses of any sites - blogs or otherwise - written by Nebraskans or touching upon Nebraska politics.

Of course, these sites need not be so entirely focused and concerned with politics as this site is, but I do ask that they at least occasionally discuss local, state, or national issues of relevance to the NNN audience. Any nominated site should also be updated at least semi-frequently (weekly?).

If you have a site of your own that meets these criteria - or if you've come across any of note in your online travels - please post the address here or send word of it to

I understand how hard it is to build an audience and appreciate the hard work and even the courage of anyone who's willing to contribute their voice and their opinions to the ongoing debates of who we are as a people and what we should expect from our government. I don't care how far left or how far right an author is - if they're from Nebraska and participating in these same discussions, they have a place right here at the New Nebraska Network.

As an illustration of just how serious I am about this, let me offer up this post lamenting UN Ambassador John Bolton's resignation from that position by a gentleman in Kearney who goes by the name Uncle Wiggily. I'll not be mourning Bolton's departure (1, 2, 3) and generally consider Uncle Wiggily's desire to stand with Bolton "at the gates of Armageddon" more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than any sort of praise.

Still, our anonymous author appears to be a quality writer with clear ideas to whom I look forward to directing a little more traffic no matter how much I might disagree. (Needless to say, his claim that Bolton and Donald Rumsfeld are "two of the staunchest supporters of liberty ever birthed on this planet" is one of the most ludicrous and stomach-churning I've read in months. But, in Nebraska, we can't forget there are plenty of reasonably intelligent people who remain convinced of just this sort of nonsense.)

Although unrepentant about my own liberal/progressive persuasion, there is no idea that can not be made better through seeing it from someone else's perspective. Ideas are our currency and - exchanged freely - they really can make a difference.

So, please, send me those addresses - make some nominations here - and I'll do what I can to highlight the efforts of those fine Nebraskans engaged in the same pursuit as my own. Though some may be working towards a different destination, we're all in this state and in this democracy together.

The more fully we recognize that fact, the stronger we'll all be for it.

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

PARTISANSHIP: What Does It Mean at the Local Level?

by Kyle Michaelis
In response to my previous post, reader and contributor Elisia Harvey asked:
What does it mean to be a Democrat on the local level (mainly city/town/county level)? What kind of policies do Democrats support on the local level that distinguish them from Republicans?

Without the national platforms/issues defining a person's stance, the only thing that seems to distinguish a candidate is the candidate himself/herself.... I realize many local offices are non-partisan (and rightly so) and other offices are partisan (unrightly so), but for the local offices that are rightly partisan, what distinguishes one party from the other?

Hope this makes sense....I would appreciate any feedback anyone wants to give.

I think Elisia's question makes perfect sense, but I can't give her a very good answer. At the local level, the distinctions between Ds and Rs really are quite exaggerated and undefined. I think even a lot of candidates would say the exact same thing. What differences do exist are probably most recognizable in their respective approaches to economic development.

What's funny is that traditional Republican "Laissez faire" economics really has given way to the idea that government shouldn't just stay out of business' business but should actually subsidize economic development.

While Democrats are open to the possibilities of government taking such a role - hell, they started it - they've really become the more moderate - even perhaps conservative - party because they want to see such programs regulated and seem more likely to expect actual benefits for someone other than corporate shareholders.

When issues of discrimination and minority concern arise, one will also see some pretty big distinctions. With moderates in both parties, this difference is largely just one of priorities. But, on the extremes, there's a huge gap in even admitting when these problems exist - along with differences more moral in nature.

But, even here, partisan labels speak to little more than a tendency. Each candidate must speak for him or herself and be judged on his or her own merits. That's probably easier at the local level because, on the meat and potato issues there addresed, you can't help realizing how much more we have in common than not.

Those are my thoughts, at least. Anyone else care to share their two cents?

For a bit of perspective on the issue, I suggest everyone read this article from last week's Lincoln Journal-Star, emphasizing partisanship on Lincoln's city council to an absurd and insulting degree in regards to - of all things - the city's regulation of electronic billboards.

Lincoln's city council is elected in non-partisan fashion. It's silly and unproductive for the Journal-Star to frame this debate as one of Democrats versus Republicans. One suspects this is their way of lashing out against "the Democrats" because the Journal-Star itself is impacted by the council's regulations.

Perhaps a shot across the bow to warn Lincoln Democrats what they can expect from the local newspaper and the Republican Party in the city's elections this spring - wouldn't you say?

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Friday, December 08, 2006

Democrats Must Find "Common Ground" With Nebraska Voters

by Kyle Michaelis
Looking to South Dakota model a good first step

Although a supporter of the nonpartisan ideal in Nebraska's Unicameral legislature, there's no doubt that this makes it difficult for the Democratic Party to establish an identity and an agenda that might force the people of Nebraska to reconsider their long-standing allegiance to the Republican Party.

Of course, individual Democratic politicians have found great success on their own merits and with their own message, but this has not translated into more Nebraskans registering as Democrats and uniting under the Democratic Party's banner. In fact, in the last decade, quite the opposite has been the case, with Republicans having now reached majority status in voter registration.

What can be done to end this backslide? Right now, a Democratic politician's strongest asset in this state is the ability to separate him or herself from the national Democratic Party. There may be no single issue on which such separation is absolutely essential, but - to win in Nebraska - establishing enough distance to pass for a credible independent voice is the threshold that must be met before a Democratic candidate even has a chance.

To be honest, this isn't all that peculiar. There are actually quite a few states in the old South and in the central United States where, at least to win statewide, Democrats must have an identity separate from their characterization nationally.

The problem for Nebraska is that state and local issues are usually those from which such an independent identity can be forged and the trust of hesitant voters won. Yet, without control of the governorship and with no recognized Democratic presence in state government, the Nebraska Democratic Party has a difficult task staking itself in the public consciousness in the manner that they must to succeed.

I may be overstating a little bit. Last month, assuming the victory of Steve Lathrop in District 12, Nebraska Democrats made an unofficial gain of three seats in the 49 member state legislature. So, clearly, good candidates who run good campaigns in a good Democratic climate can win, particularly at the more local levels. But, these victories - as satisfying and encouraging as they may be - aren't going to change the way Nebraskans think about the Democratic Party. Yet, to do anything about the registration disadvantage other than efforts at often fruitless outreach to the disenfranchised, this change in perception (if not conception) must be precisely the goal undertaken by the Nebraska Democratic Party.

While many voters may not naturally identify as Democrats for reasons of family tradition and some vague cultural differences, there is enormous potential in carving out an identity by which these same voters might consider themselves Nebraska Democrats. To accomplish that, the Nebraska Democratic Party need not compromise itself on hot button national issues to the point where it stands for nothing, but it must expand its interests and stake positions at the state and local level. Only then can new connections develop and a new idea be born.

How can this be accomplished? For an example, we need look no further than South Dakota, our friendly neighbor to the north, where all 89 of the Democratic Party's legislative candidates united around a statement of principles and goals called Common Ground. And, not only did every statehouse candidate rally around these ideas addressing "the Meat and Potato Issues that Affect South Dakota’s Families," but "Common Ground" was also endorsed by Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth and U.S. Senator Tim Johnson.

Now, in Nebraska politics, it would probably be impossible and would certainly be inadvisable to attach our candidates to a Democratic agenda in quite the same fashion. While candidates are typically the means by which a party is most logically defined in the minds of voters, the peculiarities of Nebraska nonpartisanship might demand that the Democratic Party take a more proactive role in expressly defining itself.

I suggest that drafting a Nebraska Common Ground of its own, taking a few cues from South Dakota and perhaps building on many of the themes on which David Hahn ran for Governor, might be the perfect first step in this process. From there, it would become a matter of getting these ideas to the people - informing them, motivating them, and even organizing them under the Democratic banner. If the politicians are off-limits, Nebraska Democrats must discover their strength and take action through the people.

I'll refrain from dissecting the South Dakota Democrats' Common Ground agenda in any detail (though discussion is welcome and encouraged in any comments). And, I don't mean to leave the impression that these ideas totally swept the state or that such strategy offers a cure-all to our woes. Actually, South Dakota Dems saw gains quite proportional to their Nebraska counterparts, gaining only one seat in the 70 member House but a whopping 5 seats in the 35 member Senate.

Still, the idea has potential in Nebraska - perhaps to do even more good than it did in South Dakota. Two possible avenues for turning the agenda that would result into action include using the initiative process to put individual Democratic reforms to the voters or even embarking on intensive lobbying efforts as Democrats, through the media, to our elected representatives (of both parties).

At this late hour, I will even put forward the possibilty of the Democratic Party hiring a lobbyist to push for its agenda and serve as its voice at the state and local level. Part spokesman, part politician, it would be great to have someone in the halls of the capitol very publicly working on "the meat and potato issues that affect Nebraska families."

The People's Lobbyist has a nice ring to it, wouldn't ya' say?

Give it some thought. Tell me what you think. Ideas are easy. Talk is cheap (especially about registering/re-registering voters). It's action that's hard. But, damn it, the Nebraska Democratic Party has to start somewhere. Consider this but one humble proposal to get us to that new beginning.

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Not news, just a holiday reminder

by Ryan Anderson
Deviating from our site's promise to provide something both "New" and "Nebraska[n]", I'd like to share with our network some thoughts that have been running through my head as we enter this Christmas season.

Conservative commentators were alight last week while visions of a new book by Arthur Brooks danced in their heads. In the book (provocatively titled Who Really Cares), Brooks surveys the results of multiple economic studies and concludes that on all income levels political conservatives outperform liberals in private donations to charitable causes, both religious and secular in nature.

Now, is Brooks a credible source? I don't really know. Is this book fair and accurate? I have no idea; I haven't even picked it up. Frankly, I don't care about either question. Lies, damned lies and statistics aside, the message still hits pretty close to home.

I realize that despite my efforts to do more for those in need, there is still plenty left to give and do. If we are serious in our efforts to effect change in our state and our country, we must be willing to accept that such change starts at home, and that the burden of helping the less fortunate doesn't merely fall on the shoulders of the the well to do. And I'm sure I'm not the only one who could afford to dig deeper than he's usually willing to admit.

But alas, I realize that I'm not quite big enough for a soapbox this size, so let me hand over the stage to a man of greater calibre. As a humble holiday reminder to our loyal readers out there, I've spliced together some remarks given by Senator Robert F. Kennedy to two groups of college/medical students he encountered while campaigning for president in Indiana.

Let me just say something about the tone of these questions. I look around this room and I don't see many black faces who will become doctors...Part of civilized society is to let people go to medical school who come from ghettos. I don't see many people coming here from slums, or off Indian reservations. You are the privileged ones here. It's easy for you to sit back and say it's the fault of the Federal Government. But it's our responsibility, too. It's our society, too, not just our government, that spends twice as much on pets as on the poverty program. It's the poor who carry the major burden of the struggle in Vietnam. You sit here as white medical students, while black people carry the burden of fighting in Vietnam...

How many of you spend time over the summer, or on vacations, working in a black ghetto, or in Eastern Kentucky, or on Indian reservations? Instead of asking what the Federal Government is doing about starving children, I say what is your responsibility, what are you going to do about it? I think you people should organize yourselves right here, and try and do something about it... As Camus once said, "Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children." And if you don't help us, who else in the world can help us do this?

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The Final Countdown: Time to Concede in District 12

by Kyle Michaelis
The on-going sage in Nebraska's 12th Legislative District looks to finally be coming to an end, with Omaha attorney Steve Lathrop claiming a narrow 14 vote victory over Millard school board member Jean Stothert. But, there remains some question whether Stothert will concede the race or challenge its results - not on the basis of any wrong-doing or corruption but simply to give the Legislature the chance to correct the voters' supposed mistake.

Yesterday, the Omaha World-Herald reported:
Legislative candidate Jean Stothert laid the groundwork Tuesday for a possible election challenge in her bid for Omaha's District 12 seat.

Stothert's attorney sent a letter to Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps saying she had discovered that "dozens of apparently invalid provisional ballots" had been included in the vote count.

The letter asked Phipps not to count those ballots during today's recount.

"The people of District 12 deserve a fair vote count according to the laws of our state," said Stothert, a Republican.

The morning after the Nov. 7 election, Stothert led Democrat Steve Lathrop by 14 votes in the officially nonpartisan election, but when the provisional ballots were added in, Lathrop claimed a 15-vote edge. The final unofficial totals were 5,072 for Lathrop and 5,057 for Stothert.

People who move within a county without re-registering are allowed to cast provisional ballots. The ballots are counted only after the voters' addresses are verified.

In the letter to Phipps, attorney Steve Grasz said provisional ballots must be accompanied by a voter registration application that includes the voter's current and previous addresses.

The ballots in question had the application, he said, but not the previous address.

Phipps, a Republican, rejected 39 of the 108 provisional ballots for other reasons, Grasz said, but the address issue affects "dozens" of the remaining 69 ballots.

Neal Erickson, deputy secretary of state for elections, said it would be impossible now to identify which ballots were affected by the questions Stothert raised.

Following today's recount, the District 12 loser could bring an election challenge. It would be up to the Legislature to decide the winner in such a case.
And, today, the Omaha World-Herald updates:
Steve Lathrop was confirmed Wednesday as the victor in the southwest Omaha Legislative District following a complete recount of the votes cast in the Nov. 7 election.....

The final totals being sent to the State Board of Canvassers, which will certify election results on Monday, was 5,073 for Lathrop and 5,059 for Stothert. Lathrop gained one vote and Stothert two as a result of the recount of all ballots cast.

Stothert has until Dec. 15 to file an official protest.
Stothert's right to challenge the election results does not negate her responsibilities to the voters. Just doing the math, Stothert must have lost on the provisional ballots that were counted by an approximate count of 20 to 49 for them to have flipped the election as they did. Under the circumstances, her only claim to victory would require that all the provisional ballots be excluded, including many about which there is no question of their validity.

Although the temptation of a last-ditch attempt to exploit this "previous address" technicality is understandable, no one should want to win that way. It would be both cynical and contemptible for Stothert to even make any further attempt at suppressing these votes.

She lost the race. If she has any respect for the voice of her would-be constituents, Stothert must now concede.

The Nebraska Democratic Party's website states:
While there has been talk of Stothert asking the Legislature to overturn the election results, Lathrop said he does not believe state lawmakers would act to disenfranchise District 12 voters and overturn the will of the people.

“The 69 ballots that attorneys for Jean are arguing about clearly represent the votes of legitimate District 12 voters,” said Lathrop.

Stothert has stated that District 12 voters "deserve a fair vote count." That's precisely what they've had throughout the entire recount process. But, the people also deserve to have their vote counted.

Any further challenge by Stothert can only fly in the face of this principle, looking to the Legislature to violate the integrity of our democracy for no other reason but to have one more Republican in that officially non-partisan body.

It's time for Stothert to prove she would have belonged in the legislature. It's time for her to put aside her own ambitions and the interests of the Republican Party to do the right thing for Nebraska. It's time to recognize the will of the people and concede to newly-elected State Sen. Steve Lathrop.

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