Plugging Nebraska's Democratic Brain Drainby Kyle Michaelis
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.