Brent Martin of the Nebraska Radio Network contributed reporting.
LINCOLN, Neb. ― Political offices are typically sparse workspaces, their decor limited to the occasional campaign poster, a stray framed photograph of a dignitary’s visit and whatever bumper stickers staffers have slapped on their laptops. As with so much in politics, such spartan conditions are as much about penny-pinching as they are about demonstrating said penny-pitching.
“Do you see how little we care about ourselves?” whispers the power strip haphazardly plopped on a folding table ringed by interns on Acer laptops. “We are much too busy updating our email lists and coordinating with Valerie from the carpenters local about Tuesday night’s potluck meet-and-greet.”
The Nebraska Democratic Party’s headquarters convey a different message. The downtown Lincoln office is flair’d-out like some kind of political TGI Fridays, its walls festooned with an ennobling collection of campaign posters, portraits of notable bygone Democrats and other political ephemera.
Freshening up the office was one of party chair Jane Kleeb’s first acts after her election in June 2016. The old office did not exactly inspire confidence: “A whole bunch of duct tape, beer cans and dog hair, that’s what we walked into.” More distressingly, the party had very little voter data and not much money in the bank.
Trying to lead the Nebraska Democrats to electoral success might sound as full of professional potential as running business development at Sears or chairing the Log Cabin Republicans, but Kleeb, 44, sees far more potential in her downtrodden state party.
The first thing you have to do, Kleeb said, “is you just have to show up.”
Visibility is a theme Kleeb keeps coming back to ― whether its a booth at the state fair, a pamphlet-wielding volunteer at a livestock auction house, or on the ballot. It represents an improvement over the status quo for the state’s Democrats, who have been defined by low morale after years of neglect from the national party.
“I can’t expect a voter to all of a sudden ― if they’re an independent or even a moderate Republican ― to vote for Democrats if they never see us on the issues that they care about,” Kleeb said.
In this context, refurbishing the office feels like a tastefully bedecked war cry: a rebuttal to the naysayers that even in blood-red Nebraska, there is a Democratic Party, a party with history, one that stands for something, and ― this is the part Kleeb really wants to drive home ― one that’s actually trying.
Kleeb acknowledges her goal of toppling the GOP’s monopoly in the state is an “uphill battle,” and many national progressives are hopeful she can set a winning strategy in deep-red America. However, as Kleeb moves into the morass of national Democratic Party politics, it has become evident that Republicans aren’t her only opponents.
Kleeb herself might be the most conspicuous bit of flair affixed to the state party in years.
What really set Kleeb apart was her professional background: She wasn’t a well-connected Omaha lawyer looking to do a turn in state politics. She’d made her name as an outsider, the founder of Bold Nebraska, an organization principally dedicated to thwarting the construction of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline. The organization later became a chapter of the Bold Alliance as Kleeb nationalized her fight against oil and gas projects.
In that role, Kleeb rubbed shoulders with about as broad a coalition as Nebraska can muster: grim-faced cattle ranchers, tribal representatives, liberal academics and more than a few Omaha lawyers.
Her election heartened progressives nationwide. “[T]his is a textbook example of how movements outside the formal political process can energize the institutions within the formal political process,” liberal commentator Charles Pierce wrote in Esquire.
But her electoral victory rocked Nebraska’s sleepy Democratic Party. Kleeb supported Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) presidential campaign, putting her at odds with much of the local party’s centrist establishment, including her main opponent, Chuck Hassebrook, the party’s failed 2014 gubernatorial nominee.
The party is also still reeling from a bruising Omaha mayoral race earlier this year, in which the Kleeb-backed former state legislator Heath Mello narrowly lost to incumbent Republican Jean Stothert.
At issue was Mello’s anti-abortion voting record. After Mello and Sanders appeared together at a Democratic National Committee event, NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue criticized the event as a “politically stupid” betrayal of the party platform, drawing national attention to the race. Kleeb’s critics say the event nationalized the contest, distracting Mello from local issues. The same critics contend that Sanders’ liberal politics are out-of-sync with the Omaha electorate, and tying Mello to them caused more harm than good.
“I don’t know for a fact that Mello would’ve won had it not been for Sanders,” said Paul Landow, a professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha and a former executive director of the Nebraska Democratic Party, “but I do know that Sanders took away any chance that Mello could have won.”
Sanders defended his endorsement of Mello, citing Mello’s otherwise progressive record and telling CBS’ “Face The Nation” that some ideological concessions are necessary “if we’re going to become a 50-state party.”
Kleeb said that internal polling found Sanders was among the most popular politicians in the state and contends that Mello was partially undone by his failure to address his views on abortion early and attack his incumbent’s economic record. Ultimately, however, she sees a deeper, more visceral source of the tension.
“If you don’t like Bernie Sanders, you’ll blame Heath Mello’s loss on Bernie,” Kleeb said.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Kleeb’s transition from bullhorn-wielding activist to party bigwig is the extent to which she is willing to support candidates who stray not just from the party line, but from the fights that have defined her career.
“It’s my job to elect Democrats,” she said. “That means pro-life, pro-choice Democrats, pro-pipeline Democrats and anti-pipeline Democrats.”
If Aaron Sorkin ever wrote female principals into his scripts, one suspects he might dream up Kleeb, whose semi-manic devotion to duty, intelligence and sharp-elbowed likeability make her a perfect fit for a good walk-and-talk. Indeed, to watch Kleeb at work is to witness a rapid-fire sequence of orders, flashes of frustrations and snappy one-liners about difficult local officials.
One can’t blame Kleeb for feeling a tad harried. Unlike most state parties, Nebraska Democrats don’t pay their party chair, forcing Kleeb to keep her job at the Bold Alliance, a development that has raised eyebrows. Kleeb said she would gladly relinquish her other job if the party had the willingness and resources to provide a salary and benefits.
“Nebraskans have this culture in the Democratic party where it’s just assumed that the person will volunteer,” she said, as frustration appeared to creep into her voice. “People need to look at the party as a professional organization and [the chair as] somebody who is leading a massive infrastructure that helps get Democrats elected.”
Straddling several worlds is nothing new to Kleeb. She was born in Miami, Florida, to Richard and Marsha Fleming and raised in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Plantation. Both parents were active in the anti-abortion movement, and her mother was the head of Broward County Right to Life. Kleeb spent much of her childhood tagging along to rallies, protests and radio interviews.
“I did not know it was not normal to have yard signs and literature that we needed to stuff in envelopes all over the house until middle school,” she recalls.
Though Kleeb describes her views on abortion as “pro-choice,” she doesn’t regret the politics of her childhood. She says her mother inspired her own activism, and she refuses to describe opponents of abortion as “anti-choice,” preferring the “pro-life” moniker that often irks progressive colleagues.
Kleeb’s political metamorphosis occurred gradually, seeded largely by early struggles. As a teenager she suffered from an eating disorder she describes as life-threatening, and high school was a blur of recovery programs and in-patient facilities. Her father, meanwhile, was often incapacitated by health issues stemming from his alcoholism. Kleeb describes her father as loving and attentive ― often accompanying her to her own recovery meetings ― but the financial burden of their combined health care costs put a considerable strain on her family.
“I started to connect these dots of politics and insurance during treatment as I watched women and girls getting kicked out of treatment because they could not afford it, and their insurance would only pay for like a week of treatment,” said Kleeb.
After college at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida ― where she was among the first students to minor in women and gender studies ― and grad school at American University, she did stints at a number of advocacy organizations. This included a spell at Rock The Vote. In 2003, she was named executive director of the Young Democrats of America.
It was in that capacity that Kleeb met Scott Kleeb, a Nebraska rancher running as a Democrat in the deeply rural and Republican 3rd Congressional District, in 2006. She was initially hesitant about meeting such a lost cause, but when she saw a photo of Scott — absurdly handsome, with a face more reminiscent of the cowboys on the covers of bodice-rippers than of your everyday ranchers — she made a point of seeing him more often.
Scott ended up losing that race, but the two got married a few months later, and Kleeb moved to the unwinnable district her husband’s family has called home for generations.
Jane took to local politics with characteristic relish. It was during this period that Kleeb founded Bold Nebraska, which at the time advocated for a litany of progressive issues, though it conspicuously steered clear of abortion, which she feared could shatter its fragile coalition.
Kleeb sees other openings for dialogue with historically Republican constituencies, including ranchers frustrated over the use of eminent domain and employers who benefit from immigration. “I literally haven’t met a farmer or rancher yet who doesn’t support a path to citizenship,” Kleeb said. “You walk into the meatpacking in Omaha, it is filled with Somali, Sudanese and Mexican immigrants.”
“Never judge somebody by where they live or what they look like,” Kleeb said. “If you were to look in the room of the pipeline fighters, they were cowboys with big belt buckles who if you have never spent time with folks in rural communities, you would automatically put them into the category of Republican.”
One might be forgiven for assuming all Nebraskans are Republicans. There isn’t a single Democrat in statewide office or the congressional delegation. Although Nebraska’s unicameral legislature is officially nonpartisan, Republicans have an unofficial supermajority, and they maintained it in the 2016 elections even though Democrats managed to gain three seats.
Economically, things aren’t that ripe for a revolution. Nebraska’s unemployment rate hasn’t hit 4.0 percent since late 2012, and it mostly avoided the worst ravages of the Great Recession thanks to a mostly robust agricultural industry― bull or bear market, corn and beef are going to find their way into our gullets.
A decidedly womp-womp pall has fallen over the state’s Democrats this decade.
David Domina, a prominent Omaha lawyer who represented Keystone XL opponents in court, agrees with Kleeb about the underlying progressive sentiments in many rural communities. But Domina ran for Senate in 2014 and lost to now-Sen. Ben Sasse, and his assessment of his own race doesn’t inspire much confidence.
“I didn’t run so much as I walked,” he quipped. He says he mostly entered the race to ensure that Sasse didn’t run unopposed.
But Landow is skeptical about attempts to win over rural voters.
“If our strategy is building the party by electing Democrats in Republican towns and counties, it’s going to be a long time coming, if at all ― and I would argue not at all,” he said. Landow sees the national Democratic Party being defined by a liberal, mostly urban agenda, something that doesn’t jibe in Nebraska.
This is, after all, a place where Hillary Clinton won only 33.7 percent of the vote during the 2016 presidential election, where seats on the state fair board are handed out to political allies and where the gun culture is such that the Lincoln Journal Star can run a headline about a high school marksman with the headline “Student happiest when shooting” and not raise any eyebrows.
Kleeb see kernels of hope. Democrats are competitive in the 2nd District, which comprises the Omaha area. A successful 2014 ballot initiative raised the state’s minimum wage from the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour to $9. And Omaha has seen one of the country’s largest influx of millennials over the last decade.
“For me, the proof will be at the end of 2018 if we’ve been able to flip seats in the state legislature and if we’re able to win at least one statewide race, whether that’s Senate, governor or attorney general,” she said. “You have to get wins and build upon that.”
The Kleebs’ hometown of Hastings is surrounded for miles by cornfields, which in early September were lazily taking in the late summer sun, patiently waiting to be subjected to that distinctively American alchemy wherein a vegetable is transformed into Mountain Dew. Nebraska’s farm economy has helped sustain Hastings’ small businesses, and a growing immigrant population has helped it ward off population losses common to rural small towns these days.
The day after Kleeb’s interview with HuffPost, she had business to attend to back home in Adams County: a meeting of the county Democrats.
Nearly 70 percent of the county went for Donald Trump in the 2016 elections. It’s exactly the kind of rural community where Kleeb wants Democrats to get a toehold, and it’s events like this that provide her the opportunity to galvanize local members.
The party meeting, held at a local pizza shop, was no less charming than Hastings. For all of the stress and despair of the moment, the event was imbued with a distinctly midwestern warmth and perseverance.
There was county chair Kathy Jensen reporting on the success of the party’s booth at this year’s state fair (not as many people made “nasty comments” this time); there was Judy Sandeen talking about the upcoming solidarity rally at Heartwell park (food and games, also!); there were Deb and John Quirk, sipping on cans of Miller High Life; and there was a kind man handing out pamphlets from the Southern Poverty Law Center on combatting hate groups.
Kleeb updated the crowd of roughly 20 attendees on the party’s financial state, provided an overview of the 2018 gubernatorial race, implored them to call anyone wavering over whether to run for office, and heaped praise on the state fair booth.
Kleeb also brought some good news. Reversing a years-long trend, the Democratic National Committee has begun to refocus on local organizations, and is helping pay for field organizers to embed in each of the state’s three congressional districts.
“That’s exactly what we need to be doing year-round,” Kleeb said.
Many Democrats here, Kleeb included, agree the Obama years weren’t great for the state party. The former president directed resources to outside organizations like Organizing For America, which focused more on advancing a national agenda than on the nuts-and-bolts of building local parties.
“It starved resources from the state parties,” said Kleeb, making it near-impossible to translate national issues into a local context.
Life isn’t always easy as a Democrat in Hastings, said Deb Quirk, a lifelong resident and Democratic activist who served as state party chair in the late 1990s. The publisher of the local paper used to derisively call her “Debbie Democrat.”
Quirk supports Kleeb’s focus on grassroots organizing, but decades of work in Nebraska politics has made her wary.
“People see the ‘R’ after their name and mark the box,” said Quirk, adding that nothing short of “getting people to quit watching Fox [News]” would reverse that trend.
“She’s got a tough row to hoe, as we say in Nebraska,” Quirk said with a wry smile. “If there’s someone who can do it, it’s Jane.”
CORRECTION: This article initially misstated the results of the 2016 elections. Democrats picked up three seats, so Republicans did not increase (but did retain) their supermajority in the state legislature.