Nelson’s Decision Opens New Political Doors
Don’t Bet Against Heineman As His Successor

I had a “let’s look at the good news” column already dictated when Senator Ben Nelson tossed his bombshell; i.e., that he will not seek re-election, to the considerable surprise of some political observers, including me.

A quick change of direction from soft to hard news, written Tuesday to meet an early Wednesday deadline for publication on my website Thursday:

Nelson’s decision opens the door to all sorts of interesting speculation.  I would expect that Attorney General Jon Bruning, whose campaign has been marked by a number of questionable calls, will now face more formidable opposition than his present challengers for the Republican nomination, State Senator Deb Fischer and State Treasurer Don Stenberg.

Best bet, in my opinion:  Governor Dave Heineman will respond to considerable pressure from Republican leaders both in Nebraska and nationally and will file for the Republican nomination.  He would, I believe, be very strongly favored in a contest with Jon Bruning.  You can count out Fischer and Stenberg, I believe.  Rep. Lee terry’s name has been mentioned.  I doubt he could beat Bruning, and it would be foolhardy to run against Heineman.

Dinsdale A Dark Horse Possiblity?

The name of Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood of Norfolk pops immediately into the speculation over a successor to Nelson, but only if Dave Heineman sticks to his often-stated position of not choosing to run.  The “political book” on Flood is that while he would have broad support based on the respect he has gained as a very effective Speaker of the Legislature, his ambitions run more towards the governorship.

If Heineman stands firm in his decision against running (a decision initially made when most Nebraska political observers expected that Nelson would seek another term), the door would be open for an entirely fresh face such as Sid Dinsdale, chief executive of the Pinnacle banking interests, a position which gives him acquaintanceship with some of the state’s Republican movers and shakers.

A recent news story indicated that Dinsdale might be interested—might be very interested—in a try for the Republican nomination if Heineman gives up his ambition to become the state’s longest-serving governor and decides to run for the Senate in 2012.

A factor to be considered:  The current pattern is one senator from Omaha, one from “Greater Nebraska.”  Should this be a factor?  Personally, I don’t think it should be.  Let the better man—or woman—win.

Understandably, as I see it, most of the immediate speculation is on how Nelson’s decision might affect challengers for the Republican nomination.  Such reaction is understandable, I believe, since the political climate in Nebraska is surely not conducive to replacing a Democratic Senator, Ben Nelson, with another Democratic senator to conceivably help maintain a Democratic majority in the Senate.

But two of the names I have heard mentioned as Democratic possibilities—without any indication of their interest at this early stage—are former Lieutenant Governor and now legislative lobbyist Kim Robak and Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler, a former state senator.

Kim Or Chris Would Likely Face Long Odds

I think very highly of both Kim and Chris, but I think the odds would be strongly against even such a responsible Democratic candidate as either of them would be.

Then—and you can probably hear any political rumor of any kind if you listen long enough—the name of former governor and senator Bob Kerrey has surfaced as possibly being interested in seeking the Democratic nomination.

But Kerrey has resided in New York City for a good many years now—a good many years away from the time when he seemed to charm rather than offend Nebraskans by having actress Debra Winger live with him for a time in the Governor’s Mansion.

At this stage of his life, Kerrey presumably still has all of his charm, but he would look more like an aging carpetbagger, a 68-year-old ex-Nebraskan purporting to come home to perform a public service for his native state.  (And let me stress that I like Bob Kerrey very much and am pleased to spend time with him in his new role as a former Nebraskan, but not as a United States Senator from a state he left years ago.)

Now to the material with which I had planned to start this week’s column.  (I’ll save some other comments for later sharing with you, assuming their timeliness hasn’t been wiped out in the meantime.)

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Despite Partisan Political Gridlock In Washington,
There Was Good News In America In 2011

Despite irresponsible partisan gridlock in Washington as our national government teeters on the edge of bankruptcy, out across the real America there are developments which we can celebrate today and others which hold the promise of better days ahead as we enter 2012 (assuming politicians in Washington don’t totally screw things up in the 12  months ahead).

In cities and states across this great land, there are “good news” stories and others which promise good news to come.  Today, just a few examples as we look back at 2011 and ahead to 2012.

On the local scene, good news in the fact that donations to The World-Herald Goodfellows charity in 2011 set a total-contributed-by-Christmas-Day record–$439,704.  Contributions are still coming in.

Good news for Nebraska and other Midlands states in the remarkably strong agricultural economy.  Corn at around $6 a bushel and soybeans around $11 a bushel (some soybeans were sold this fall for $13 a bushel) put a good many millions of dollars into the Midlands economy.

And a global commodity expert for Bank of America in New York City said recently that if European governments survive their fiscal challenges and the Chinese economy keeps growing, the demand for American agricultural commodities will remain strong for five to 10 years.

Good Budget-Balancing Statehouse News

Optimistic news, too, in the word that Nebraska state government finances have so improved that there is talk of trimming the state’s income tax rate to make Nebraska more attractive to companys looking for locations for new investments.

Good news, too, as I see it, in the report of a panel of experts which (1) said, in effect, that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers personnel did all they could to prevent the worst of last summer’s Missouri River flooding and also (2) called for revision of the Corps’ operating manual which includes river management responsibilities assigned to the Corps by Congress.

The panel of experts report was an effective answer to those uninformed critics who seemed determined to make the Corps of Engineers the scapegoat for the floods.  Their criticism overlooked the fact that unexpectedly heavy rainfall created the worst flood potential in recorded history and the fact that Congress has assigned the Corps responsibility for managing the dams for other purposes in addition to flood control.

To his credit, Representative Steve King of Iowa recognizes the Congressional responsibility in this whole matter and is proposing legislation which could make clear that flood control is the top priority, ahead of recreation and hydroelectric power and downstream channel stabilization to accommodate barge traffic.

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Bell, Scott, Little, Johnsgard, Haynes

Let’s Talk About Some Nebraskans
Worthy Of Praise As We End 2011

Names make news, they say, so let’s talk about some names—names of people who have earned recognition because of what they have accomplished for the benefit of our city and our state and, in some cases, brought national and even international attention to Nebraska.

Let me stress that I’m talking now about people who have made news currently or recently.  There are, of course, a good many other Nebraskans who over the years have achieved deserved attention for their contributions to Omaha or Nebraska or the nation.

I start with two names most recently in the news:  One is Dick Bell, who is retiring after building Henningson, Durham and Richardson into a national and international leader in engineering and architecture.  Omaha is fortunate that Dick and Pat Bell choose to continue their residence in Omaha, with Dick continuing to work on philanthropic causes while, he says with a smile, working also to reduce his golf handicap to below 10.

“What better place to live than Omaha, Nebraska?” Dick asked a reporter with a smile.

Also currently in the news:  George Little.  Omaha is fortunate to have Little, a veteran HDR executive, available to take Dick’s place as HDR chairman and chief executive.

Some other Nebraska names spotlighted in “good news” stories this past year:

–Walter Scott, former Peter Kiewit Sons chief executive, who helped broker the deal which resulted in Berkshire Hathaway, under Warren Buffett’s control, acquiring The Omaha World-Herald.

–Gene Haynes, principal of Omaha North High Magnet School, who was elected to the Ak-Sar-Ben Court of Honor, appropriate recognition for Haynes’ splendid leadership—with notable help from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and generous financial support from Omaha North alum George Haddix—in making Omaha North a model “magnet” school which attracts students from throughout the metropolitan area.

–Paul Johnsgard from Lincoln, Foundation Regents Professor Emeritus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a world-class ornithologist, naturalist and author.

Johnsgard’s fourth book on cranes will be released in March by the University Press.  It joins a long list of Johnsgard’s books, most of which feature his hand-drawn illustrations.

Among the most impressive to me is Paul’s book on the Niobrara, The Niobrara:  A River Running Through Time, a 2007 publication which included a call for Nebraskans to be alert to protect that remarkable river and the valley through which it flows.

Let’s Hear It For My Readers

Moving now to another category of names of those who deserve mention in this typically very personal column of opinion.

Response from readers encourages me to continue a weekly tradition which goes back 19 years, for which I feel fully compensated when I hear from people like Maxine Christensen of Exira, Iowa.  Maxine sent Christmas greetings to me and my “beautiful bride” and said she especially liked the recent column dealing with Newt Gingrich’s qualifications—or lack thereof—to be president of the United States.  Maxine wrote:  “Can you believe for one minute that Gingrich can be elected?  3 wives?  3 churches?”

Then always welcome letters from Julian Canaday of Bloomfield, Nebraska.  His latest letter concluded:  “I am so happy Nebraska has such a good newspaper…if it is to be sold, it appears that it is a good situation for all concerned.”

Julian’s comment was among a number which I received from a variety of Omahans and Nebraskans in reaction to sale of The World-Herald to Omaha-headquartered Berkshire Hathaway, where Omahan Warren Buffett, Berkshire chairman, can assure that control and management of the hometown newspaper remains in its hometown.

I appreciate also correspondence from Omahan Sam Brower who wrote a thoughtful letter expressing appreciation for my detailed account of the transfer of ownership of The World-Herald from heirs of the founder, Gilbert M. Hitchcock, to Peter Kiewit Sons’ corporation headed by the late Peter Kiewit.  He asked some good questions and wrote back to thank me for my answers.

I appreciated also this message from Brower:  “You are absolutely correct in calling out those folks who have been trying to blame the Corps of Engineers for the Missouri River flooding without having any facts.”

And this from an Omaha reader:  “My husband wanted me to tell you how much he enjoys your newsletters.  He looks forward to them on Thursdays.  I’ve never heard him say he disagrees with you on any topic yet.  He has said many, many times, “He’s right on the money.”  We hope you continue for many years (and us, too).

I’m very thankful for the letter and I certainly share the hope that my weekly column continues for many years!

* * *

Statue Of Liberty Still Symbolizes
America As Haven For Refugees

Let’s finish with another piece of significant good news—the kind that makes you proud to be an American—the fact that America continues to be a refuge for oppressed people from other lands, so that the Statue of Liberty continues to “lift a lamp” figuratively lighting the way to a door welcoming refugees seeking freedom from oppression.

A current example, reflected in a headline in The Wall Street Journal:  “Egypt’s Embattled Christians Seek Room in America.”  The story started with this example.  A 23-year-old engineer, a Coptic Christian, a religious minority in Egypt, was approached in Cairo by a gang of thugs who beat him and told him “you deserve to die.”  His offense, he said:  “refusing to convert to Islam.”  He fled to the United States.

You don’t read stories of refugees from brutality seeking refuge in China—a positive thought, as I see it, for ending this brief collection of snapshots of the state of the union in the United States of America as we say goodbye to 2011.

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