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The Case for Ben Nelson, Democrat

Adapted from the New Nebraska Network:

Sen. Ben Nelson officially declared his candidacy for re-election Friday. Thank God because Nebraska needs him. I write that without reservation and without relying on the absolutely horrifying Republican alternatives (though, I must admit, the very idea of "U.S. Senator Don Stenberg" makes me feel dirty and sick to my stomach).

No, this isn't about the lesser of two evils. This is about what's best for Nebraska and the nation. There is no doubt about it -- Ben Nelson is a good fit for Nebraska voters. The people know him and respect him. In 1994, he won re-election as governor by one of the widest margins in Nebraska history. That he has been able to translate that popularity into national politics, currently with a very impressive two-thirds approval rating, is not particularly suprising and speaks to the trust and faith Nelson has earned with voters.

Few will admit it, but -- in many ways -- the Nebraska Democratic Party is lucky to have such a standard bearer.

Still, I would be remiss not to acknowledge and express the frustration I share with many fellow Democrats at Nelson's voting record. Last week, a report was released by Congressional Quarterly indicating that in 2005 Nelson actually broke rank with fellow Democrats more often than he voted with them on clearly partisan issues.

The Lincoln-Journal Star reported:

Nelson split from the Democratic majority 53.9 percent of the time on key votes that divided the two parties. He supported the Republican president's positions 75.6 percent of the time….

"If Congressional Quarterly had a way to measure Senator Nelson's votes in support of Nebraska values, his number would be 100 percent," said David DiMartino, the senator's spokesman in Washington.

"Every year, the CQ study underscores Nelson's bipartisanship and independence," DiMartino said.

Republican State Chairman Mark Quandahl of Omaha said being ranked as the strongest Democratic supporter of the president "still doesn't make him Bush's strongest supporter."

What the president would prefer, Quandahl said, is "somebody who votes with him not some of the time, but most, if not all, of the time."

Hagel: 89 percent
Fortenberry: 87 percent
Terry, 85 percent
Osborne, 76 percent
Nelson: 76 percent

Still, what might be most interesting about these numbers are the implications that result from Nebraska Republican Chairman Mark Quandahl's pathetic attempt at making them work for his party politically. If Quandahl wants to make an issue of Nelson's not supporting President Bush enough, then he is attacking one of the most prominent Republicans in the state -- not to mention the likely Republican candidate for governor -- for the exact same thing.

Does Quandahl really mean to suggest that Tom Osborne has not voted for the best interests of Nebraska? Does he mean to suggest that Osborne is out-of-touch with Nebraska voters? That certainly seems to be what he's saying because these numbers don't leave much room for interpretation.

That no one has called Quandahl on this blatant double-standard is just another example of the Nebraska press' incompetence. I dare say both Tom Osborne and Ben Nelson deserve an apology.

But back to the question at hand -- to what extent should we as Democrats and progressives embrace Nelson this election year?

Frankly, on so many issues and simply as a matter of maintaining a functional U.S. Senate, Nelson has proven himself indispensable. He is an important voice in the Democratic Party and an important bridge with midwestern and socially-conservative blue-collar voters who need to be reminded that the Democratic Party not only has a place for them but is, in fact, their natural home on the issues that matter most.

The common refrain about Sen. Nelson is that he puts Nebraska before the Democratic Party -- the people before politics. Although certain to result in more frustrations and the occasional disappointment, Nebraska Democrats are asked to make much the same choice by volunteering, voting, and -- yes -- fighting for Nelson in 2006.

Is he a "good" Democrat? Is he a "real" Democrat? Who, honestly, can say? But I can say, without hesitation, that Nelson has been a great representative of the people of Nebraska.

Some might question whether representing the people really amounts to leadership, but I think the vital, concurrent role Nelson has played (and will continue to play) in bridging this nation's perilous partisan divide should put any such questions to rest. In fact, the country might need Nelson as a voice of compromise, common sense, and partisan restraint every bit as much as we do in Nebraska.

Those able to recognize this and support Nelson to the fullest extent their energy and passion allow are doing more than being pragmatic and practical. This is a choice of principle -- in the truest Democratic sense -- that puts aside our respective political laundry lists and whatever grudges may from there result in favor of what's best -- when the stakes are so very high -- for our neighbors, our nation, and our state.

We are all Ben Nelson.
There is no shame in that. He is one of us -- as a Nebraskan first and a Democrat second (heck, let's be honest, maybe third or forth). For some, such a trade-off causes considerable and understandable difficulty, particularly those who hold their political ideals so closely to their heart. In matters of conscience, no more should be expected of voters than the representatives they elect -- be sensible but never betray who you are and what you believe.

Here, it's important to remember that the virtue of democracy does not lie in its ease of use. Democracy does not lend itself to self-indulgence. To reduce it to a clash of ideologies is absurd, if not suicidal as a free society. Politics must be about getting things done and making peoples' lives better -- ideology can not get in the way of that, our highest priority.

To put it in simplest terms, democracy is always a matter of choices. In 2006, in Nebraska, there will be no better choice on the ballot than Sen. Ben Nelson. No one else will have his experience. No one else will have his common touch. What more, as reasonable citizens and responsible voters, do we really need to know before answering the call to do what we can and what we must to see Nelson win a second term?

He is the only politician in the state who can make a straight-faced claim to represent all Nebraskans. Those who would see that as a weakness must ask themselves what this thing called democracy is really all about. Who is it that really fails to understand where America's strength and democracy's greatness lie?

Not me. Not you. Now, let's get to work.

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Salt Valley Sally

To the President, I would like to say this: I knew Coretta King, and you, Sir, are not her.

This story is true. As a young girl in Atlanta in the 1960s, I had a best friend, Donna. Her mother, like Donna's father a psychotherapist, was the sort of early feminist standout who got invited to meet important people. Like a good feminist, she resolutely dragged her only daughter Donna with her, and Donna dragged me. (I once had supper, wearing a size nine borrowed frock, with Betty Freidan, who was researching The Feminine Mystique, but that is another story for another day.)

In March of 1968, we all put on our church clothes and went to tea one afternoon at the home of Dr. and Mrs. King. I have no idea how Donna's mother managed this invitation. There was another girl along too, someone I did not know well and never saw again.

Mrs. King answered the door of the family's house, a modest bungalow in a decent black neighborhood, not far from Ebenezer Church where Dr. King preached. She was young then, not 40, and I thought she was very grave and beautiful. We really did have tea, with lemon or cream, from fine thin cups. There were small sandwiches too and cheese pennies, tiny sharp melting completely addictive biscuits. Cheese pennies attend wedding dinners, white and black, around the South. One is too many and the handfuls I longed to stuff into my mouth would have been, of course, unthinkable in the presence of so great a lady as Mrs. King.

In truth I cannot recall the things we said. She asked us girls about ourselves, our studies and our plans. Then out of the blue, it seems in memory, I asked if I might see the Nobel Peace Prize. Unbelievably, she went through a door into their bedroom, straight to a tall dresser, and took the Prize from a shallow wooden tray, no doubt the same where Dr. King kept his cuff links. It was much smaller than I expected. She let me hold it in my hand.

A few weeks later, on the miserable night of April 4, 1968, it was raining steadily in Atlanta. Dr. King was dead, shot dead in Memphis. There was nothing to be done, and we had to do something, so Donna and her mother and I drove to the King's house and, with a handful of others, black and white, stood vigil. We did not sing or even talk much. Mostly, we cried. The King house was swarming with FBI and Fulton County deputy sheriffs. At some point, one of the FBI officers walked across the street to where we were standing and asked us to follow him. He crossed the street and walked up onto the porch.

Under the yellow porch light, Mrs. King stepped out into the rainy night. She took us one by one into her arms. We murmured to one another in the soft language of grief. Then she was gone back into her house, and Donna and I were speechless, stumbling after Donna's mother through the puddles to the microbus, past the blooming azaleas sagging in the rain.

Even as a stupid callow kid which I was and more, I knew in the moment that act was, as they said, really something. That a person who had lost what she had lost would not give herself the luxury of one evening of private grief, but would step out into the rain to embrace even white folks--I cannot imagine what that cost her, inside.

I had to go to school next day and listen to peckerwoods laugh and crow about the assassination of Dr. King. If you have one instant of doubt that the President was among the laughers and the crowers on April 5, 1968, then you just have not spent enough quality time with peckerwoods.

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Groundhog Day open Thread

This year, both Groundhog Day and the State of the Union occur (almost) on the same day. It is an ironic juxtaposition of events: one involves a meaningless ritual which we look to a creature of little intelligence for prognostication, while the other involves a groundhog.

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Ready for Action at UNL

As President George W. Bush delivered his State of the Union address Tuesday night, something special was happening in the state of Nebraska at UNLs student union. There was a lot more truth, a lot more energy, and a lot more hope on campus than in the halls of Congress as 55 UNL Young Democrats gathered with their special guest, Democratic gubernatorial candidate David Hahn, to celebrate their 2006 kick-off.

And what a celebration it was. This is a rejuvenated, if not reborn, group of students who are ready to make a difference. Their passion was perfectly matched by Hahn's impressive display of intelligence, wit, and vision. The candidate spoke on issues relevant to young people -- the staggering cost of a college education, Nebraska's long-stagnating economy, not to mention making broadband Internet universally available and forcing the state to the forefront in producing alternative forms of energy.

All in all, Hahn seemed perfectly justified in his claim to be the only candidate "who has the vision to move Nebraska forward." Probably most impressive, when answering questions from the student audience, he did so with a thoughtfulness the people of Nebraska haven't seen or heard for years.

It was then quite a shift in the debate (intellectually and politically) as the UNL Young Democrats tuned in to Bush's speech. A great conversation followed, in which Hahn joined, focused largely on Bush's politicization of the "War on Terror" and his failure to honestly address the American public's growing discontent with the Iraqi occupation.

Still, most glaring to the audience was Bush's unconcern for the issues most directly impacting their lives. When a 20 year-old looks at her job prospects, it's hard to imagine this economy, as Bush claimed, "is the envy of the world." Add in worries about what to do after graduation when booted from your parents' health insurance, with interest rates skyrocketing on student loans, and things really start to seem dismal.

Standing together and speaking out through the UNL Young Democrats, though, these students weren't giving up hope. They're ready for action, hungry for change, and looking to build on their momentum throughout the year. Keep an eye on this group -- they're on the verge of something great.

And be sure to check-out the UNL Young Democrats newly-designed and totally awesome website. You won't be disappointed.

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State of the Union Credit Check

Just a few interesting tidbits from tonight's speech:

Bush: "To confront the great issues before us, we must act in a spirit of good will and respect for one another -- and I will do my part."

Karl Rove on CNN (1/22/06): "Republicans have a post-9/11 view of the world, and Democrats have a pre-9/11 view of the world. That doesn't make them unpatriotic, but it does make them wrong -- wrong deeply and profoundly and consistently."

Bush: "And we are on the offensive in Iraq, with a clear plan for victory."

On 11/15/05, a bipartisan majority of the Senate called for the President to change course in Inraq in order to make 2006 a year of significant transition. 79 Senators called on the President to explain to Congress and the American people his strategy for success in Iraq so that our troops can begin to come home.

Bush: "Our government has the responsibility to help provide health care for the poor and the elderly, and we are meeting that responsibility."

Bush cut the health care of the pooer and eliminated the prescription drug coverage of seniors. Under the GOP reconciliation bill the President supports, the Congressional Budget Office -- a GOP outfit, concluded that "about 45,000 Medicaid enrollees would lose coverage in fiscal year 2010 and 65,000 would lose coverage in fiscal year 2015 because of the imposition of premiums. ABOUT 60% OF THOSE LOSING COVERAGE WOULD BE CHIILDREN.

Bush: "So tonight, I announce the Advanced Energy Initiative -- a 22 percent increase in clean-energy research at the Department of Energy, to push for breakthroughs…"

Bush has actually underfunded research and rejected tangible steps to make America energy independent. The increase Bush is talking about would simply restore the numerous cuts to renewable energy and efficiencies in his budgets.

Bush: "Tonight I propose to train 70,000 high school teachers, to lead advanced-placement courses in math and science…bring 30,000 math and science professioanls to teach in classrooms…and give early help to students who struggle with math, so they have a better chance at good, high-wage jobs."

What Bush is actually proposing will cut aid to students. The cost of a public higher edication has increased a staggering 46% since Bush took office in 2001, makign it no wonder that more than 5.3 million students depended on Pell Grants in the 2004-2005 academic year. instead of helping students succeed, the GOP responded by making the largest education cuts in American history -- $12.7 billion from the student loan program -- and imposed higher fees on parents and students (Labor-HHS Appropriations Conference Report).

Does this man have no shame?

"Bush says we're addicted to oil -- chooses Pablo Escobar as new Drug Czar.."

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More from Fortenberry's Mailbag

Another great letter in the Lincoln Journal-Star -- this one written by Marge Schlitt of Lincoln.

A call to Rep. Jeff Fortenberry's office told us that we needed to put our request in writing; e-mail would be fine. So we sent the same request to the address they gave us. We got no reply. So we sent it again. Again, no reply. So we e-mailed him at and got this response:

Dear Friend:

Thank you for taking the time to contact my office.

I am honored to serve as your United States Congressman. Please know that I value your opinion and look forward to reviewing your concern. Should your inquiry request a response, I will reply via the United States Postal Service.

Thank you again for your comments. Your thoughts and ideas are extremely important to me as I work to represent you in the United States House of Representatives.


Jeff Fortenberry
Member of Congress

I don't know who he is representing, maybe the lobbyists or fat cats. He doesn't seem to want to talk to mere constituents.

No matter Fortenberry's personal beliefs and inexperience, the people of Nebraska's First Congressional District deserve better representation than this. They deserve a voice that dares to rise above the chorus. More than that, they deserve someone who will at least take seriously and listen to their concerns.

Dare I suggest that voters deserve Congresswoman Maxine Moul?

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Salt Valley Sally

My county Democratic convention is less than six months away. As has recently been made public, I have not heretofore carried my share of the local political burden, and in my shame and innocence, I personally have no share in either praise or blame for my county party's platform, a document of many pages. Like fictional detective Nero Wolf, the Lancaster County Democrats platform has an opinion about, well, everything.

Same can probably be said regarding the platforms of too many county and state and even perhaps the national Democratic parties. We long to and need to and must be the party of the Big Tent, but with the rising waters of Republican-driven apocalypse, our tent feels more like an ark, with Democrats, like Noah and Adam before him, naming off ALL the animals.

The Democratic Party needs to get over its Annie Hall phase, all self conscious add-ons and layering. Forget shy and bookish, because Bubba does not get it. What the Democratic Party needs is the Little Black Dress of platforms. No more than five things we can all agree on, in plain English.

What would they be, I wonder?

•Protect and create good jobs, including family farm agriculture, the number one economic driver in this state. Free trade is not the same as fair trade, and Americans ought not give up national sovereignty.

•Do not give away the tax base, but levy fair taxes for good education, roads and other infrastructure, safety, culture and health. Taxes should reflect ability to pay; the fairest balance is 1/3 sales tax, 1/3 income tax and 1/3 property tax.

•Provide for honest house-cleaning in federal government with meaningful campaign finance reform and other protections; rein in foreign military adventurism. When you are in a hole, the first step to recovery is to stop digging.

•Quadruple investment in and national commitment to renewable energy development, and come to the table with the rest of the world on mitigating climate change.

•Protect labor rights, the Bill of Rights, Social Security and the safety net for children and the poor. Universal health care access is the next step.

Five bullets, 163 words. All it needs is a candidate and a string of pearls.

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Lee Terry Endorses Jim Esch for Congress


Today, in a surprising move…my opponent Lee Terry publicly endorsed my candidacy in an interview with the Lincoln Journal Star. Or at least, it sure sounded like it. I quote Mr. Terry -- "We need to get rid of the DeLay group and elect new blood that was not caught up in the DeLay style and is open to reform," he said. "I think we need a clear break from the old regime."

Clearly Mr. Terry was referring to himself on all counts..he's most certainly a member of the "DeLay group", as Mr. DeLay and Mr. Terry go way back. Consider these facts:

Lee Terry has taken $8,308 from Tom DeLay's ARMPAC. Tom DeLay has campaigned for Lee Terry in Nebraska. No surprise that Terry voted with Tom DeLay 92% of the time between Jan. 1 2004 and March 31 2005.

Lee Terry voted to weaken the ethics rules in a move that many say served only to protect Tom DeLay.

When Republicans realized it was "impossible to win the communications battle" over the gutted ethics rules, Terry flip-flopped and voted to put the old rules back into place.

When Democrats offered a solution to clean up the House by strengthening ethics rules, Lee Terry voted twice to make sure it never even came to an up or down vote.

So yes Mr. Terry, we are in complete agreement that it is time to get rid of the DeLay group, yourself included, and make a clear break from the old regime by putting a reform minded candidate into office. Mr. Terry, I thank you for your vote.

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Your Prayer for the Unicameral

You may have heard by now about the controversial "prayer" at the opening of the Nebraska legislature's business on Tuesday. Delivered by Rev. Tom Swartley of Elm Creek in clear violation of guidelines prohibiting the state senate's morning prayer from being political in nature, it most notably denounced legal abortion and the teaching of evolution.

While this political speech was obviously inappropriate in this context, it presents a good opportunity to discuss our own prayers, objections, and hopes for Nebraska's legislative agenda for the remainder of the 2006 session and beyond.

What's not being talked about? Who, so far this session, is most deserving of your thanks or your wrath (even if not the Almighty's)?

And finally, though the Unicameral and its senators are non-partisan, what issues do we as Nebraska Democrats have a duty to take the lead on according to our principles?

A dangerous conversation, perhaps, but one I'd love to see take place without degrading into one of the stand-by debates over traditional hot button issues. Instead, think about your life, the lives of your neighbors -- what should state government be doing in Nebraska to improve the quality of our way of life?

Anyone care to comment? Anyone have an actual proposal he or she would like to share? The seeds of change may only be a click away.

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Blinded by the Right

From the New Nebraska Network:

Omaha World-Herald institution Harold W. Andersen may no longer be a registered Republican -- last year, announcing he was becoming an independent after his disgust over the GOPs exploitation of Terri Schiavo and her family -- but I'm sad to report that single act of self-liberation has not been reflected in his thinking and writing.

Yesterday's column offers a good example of the crippling limitations on his still-partisan perspective, whether such partisanship is official or not. After running through some of the enormous expenses on the horizon for the state of Nebraska and hinting at the inadequacy of Gov. Dave Heineman's calls to study them further, Andersen writes:

Heineman's performance is probably about what could be expected as he approaches a May primary election showdown with U.S. Rep. Tom Osborne, who is challenging Heineman for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

As for Osborne, his call for larger tax reductions than Heineman has proposed is not unexpected but is nonetheless subject to question.

I believe that until the need for tax revenue has been better determined -- the need to deal with such things as the meth epidemic and the well-documented malfunctioning of the state foster care system -- it is obviously premature for Heineman, Osborne or any state legislator to propose tax-rate reductions....

Let's hope that the Legislature, in which nearly three-fourths of the members are serving their last term, will deal more realistically with state spending needs than we apparently can expect from candidates whose political future, at least for the next four years, will be determined by Republican primary voters some 16 weeks from now.

Mr. Andersen, meet Mr. David Hahn (from Sunday's Lincoln Journal-Star):

Tax reductions, he said, "always would be on the table in my administration, but I think it's important to look at things realistically."

One of the factors that deserves serious consideration, Hahn said, is legislative fiscal analyst Mike Calvert's conclusion that the state may need a much larger cash reserve to avoid substantial budget cuts or tax increases in the near future.

Careful consideration also ought to be given to future obligations attached to such issues as current and new business tax credits, Medicaid reform and prison overcrowding, Hahn said in a Friday interview.

"Not one Republican is talking about this," the Lincoln attorney and Internet entrepreneur said….

"How can you talk about tax reductions until you talk about the cost of business incentives? It's not that I'm against tax credits to (stimulate) business, but we need to know what the costs are.

"And I am not against tax cuts," Hahn stressed. "They will always be under consideration by me. But one of the reasons I got into this race was I was not hearing reality-based positions on these issues."

While opinionated and prideful enough that he's never been strictly constrained to the Republican party line, it's clear Andersen has the unfortunate inability to think as anything but the life-long Republican he remains at heart. It's impossible to know whether he fails to mention Hahn and give him credit for being a better, more principled candidate because he doesn't want to say anything nice about a Democrat or simply because he's deaf to the truth when it comes from a Democrat's lips.

Let's just pray the people of Nebraska aren't similarly afflicted -- trapped by a partisan allegiance that violates common sense, shatters hope, and can actually bring a man to betray his own intellect.

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