Jane Kleeb is the chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party. A founder of BOLD Nebraska, she put together a coalition of ranchers, farmers, Native Americans, and environmentalists that fought the Keystone XL Pipeline to a standstill. She’s also on the board of Our Revolution, and is a member of the national Democratic Party’s Unity Reform Commission. Nation contributing editor D.D. Guttenplan spoke with her in her hometown of Hastings, Nebraska. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Nation: What do you want from the Democratic Party nationally?
Jane Kleeb: Well, for one, to stop screwing our local candidates. Two, I want them to stop giving lip service to rural and red states and actually give us the resources—both financial and training—that we need. If you’re serious about turning around a party, it is a full-time job. Right now I’m in the middle of raising my salary so I can come over to the party full-time. It is mind-boggling to me that we only have 12 paid [state] chairs. All the rest are either part-time, or full-time volunteer like me. And then you wonder why we’re losing elections at the state level…
TN: I want to ask a more personal question: You often refer to your own history with an eating disorder and coming from a background where money for treatment was not lying around on the ground. Why do you do that?
JK: Because I’m an organizer. I feel like the only way I was able to get parents to come help their kids learn how to read when I ran an AmeriCorps program, or get young people to help other young people turn out to vote—or for the Keystone Pipeline, the only way to get farmers to the table—was to share our personal stories of why we were doing this work.
For me, battling an eating disorder and coming to a realization that Republicans were protecting big insurance companies, and that that power structure was in place, was [the start of my] political awareness. I was raised a pro-life Republican.
TN: In South Florida?
JK: In Plantation. Right outside of Fort Lauderdale. My dad and my grandmother had a Burger King in Hollywood, Florida. I was draining pickles and cutting tomatoes and onions in the back growing up. For me, telling stories is how you connect with people. And how you really show folks that our political leaders don’t have to be some magical people picked out of the ground—that all of us have stories. And all of us have the ability to lead on these issues and lead in politics. I never want to hide that part of me.
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TN: You started out in politics as a staffer at Young Democrats of America, and met your husband, Scott Kleeb, during his 2006 campaign for Congress. How did you get from being a Florida Republican to being a Nebraska Democrat?
JK: When I graduated high school, I went to college at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida. I had been in eating disorder treatment for eight years. It was very intense.
I wasn’t really involved in politics. I was very involved in community service. I went to Catholic school my whole life. When [President Bill] Clinton started talking about AmeriCorps, that was this other political moment for me: A politician is actually talking about something that I care about. Being connected to my community.
My first job out of college was running an AmeriCorps program in Tallahassee, Florida. I don’t know why or how I was able to convince them that I should be running it at 21, or whatever I was. We had 20 AmeriCorps members in a school, doing literacy for kids. It was a 100 percent African-American school [in] a deep-poverty area of Tallahassee that I lived in. I did that for five years.
Then I got a promotion to a national AmeriCorps program in Philadelphia. I saw a lot of mental illness in the kids we were working with. So I decided to go back to grad school. I wanted to test out the theory that activism and community service had kept me alive, kept me connected to recovery.
American University had this very flexible [master’s]. I did my fieldwork at the same treatment program that I went to, the Renfrew Centre. When I got my graduate degree, I wasn’t yet a Democrat. This is when the whole Terri Schiavo thing happened. She was in the coma because she had bulimia. So she couldn’t get access to mental-health care. But here George Bush was not funding menta-health care, but then wanted to keep her—
TN: a vegetable….
JK: It really pissed me off. I wrote my first blog post on that. And I started to try to get involved in politics.
TN: You are no longer Republican.
TN: You are pro-choice.
TN: But you’ve said life begins at conception—
JK: I believe that.
TN: How does that—
JK: I think the vast majority of Americans are both pro-life and pro-choice. And I think that we’ve forced politicians and sometimes individuals to say that you’re one or the other, and that’s it’s some black-and-white issue. I’ve had an abortion, and I think it’s really difficult to put women and their families—when families are involved in the decision—into this black-and-white position. It’s a very personal choice, and I don’t think that government should ever restrict women’s right to make that choice in their own lives.
But I also… There’s no question in my mind that life begins at conception and that that is a precious life, that we should do everything we can when women decide to give birth, to make sure that they have the health care they need.
When I had Cora, I was a single mom. So I both had an abortion and chose to have a baby as a single mom, and I was working full-time and going to graduate school at the time. And because family leave is not a great thing in our country, I had to go on WIC for almost three months because I didn’t have the income from my full-time job anymore. Those are the programs that, from a very personal perspective, are why I firmly am in the Democratic column, where I believe that government is a safety net for families. I sometimes feel that some pro-choice leaders don’t talk about those prospects.
I’ve never met a woman that’s proud she had an abortion. It’s not like I’m putting a bumper sticker on my minivan that I had an abortion. And maybe some people in the pro-choice community wish that that was different, and there’s no question that there’s a stigma around having an abortion. I just wish that pro-life and pro-choice leaders would come to the table to work together on real reforms that would help women, [like] more funding for Planned Parenthood. And a stronger family medical-leave act, so you don’t have to go on food stamps and WIC to raise your child those first few months if you’re staying home. Instead, they demonize each other and you stay stuck in this ugly environment.
TN: Tell me about Hastings.
JK: This is a railroading town, like a lot of the small towns in Nebraska. I always try to remind people that if I had been fighting an oil train rather than a pipeline, I don’t think we would have been able to galvanize the unlikely alliance that we did, because so many people have deep connections and strong emotional ties to the railroads. If you drive down NE-2, the Sandhills Byway we call it, you’ll see beautiful rolling sand hills, nothing, nothing, nothing, and then you’ll see a town similar to Hastings.
TN: A depot—
JK: Exactly. Kool-Aid was invented in Hastings. That’s our claim to fame.
TN: What’s the difference between a ranch and a farm?
JK: A farm is more corn, soybeans, beets. People who say they run a farm, that’s also dairy cattle. Ranches are just beef cattle.
The vast majority of ranchers in our state are in the Sandhills, because that’s where the huge grasslands are, the open fields. The Ogallala Aquifer essentially sits at the surface and you can create watering holes wherever you want for the cattle. Which is why there’s so much opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline out there, because it’s pristine land, it’s porous soil, so they know that if a tar-sand spill happened, the water supply is right at the surface. You’d actually be building a pipeline in the water.
TN: That’s insane.
JK: Yeah, and it’s such an intricate system, the Ogallala Aquifer. It’s not like one river with a bank. It’s everywhere. The Aquifer lies beneath the entire state of Nebraska except on the Eastern portion.
TN: How did you get involved in the Keystone fight?
JK: When we started BOLD Nebraska in the fall of 2009 I really thought the first year would be focused on implementing health-care reform, to actually create the exchanges. But three months after we started, the Keystone pipeline came up, and I started to get calls from farmers and ranchers because of my husband [who comes from a ranching family] saying, “Can you help because we literally have no idea what we’re doing, and we know we’re up against a big oil corporation?”
I knew that Republicans would be for it, because they love oil pipeline companies, but I also knew that the one thing TransCanada needed that we had control over was the land. So I immediately started organizing landowners.
TN: Did you have a way in?
JK: I started first talking with the Farmers Union, because I knew that they had old timers in every community, and I asked John Hansen if he would come and validate what oil was doing in these small towns. He came with us for the first several community-education sessions.
TN: He’s the leader of the Farmers Union in Nebraska?
JK: Yeah. And he then would ask a local rancher or a farmer to give the opening remarks at the community-education session.
TN: Were the people who were turning up already hostile to the pipeline?
JK: You had some people who felt it was our patriotic duty to help get us off Middle East oil, which was TransCanada’s main message—which of course is a lie. Some people were opposed to it, opposed to it from day one because of eminent domain. Some people had already started to do their own homework about tar sands. They knew that it was bad for the environment.
It was a mixed crowd. We would go and we would do these community-education sessions that we put together. I was learning about the issue as I was teaching, and so were farmers and ranchers, and we were all teaching each other, which looking back was probably one of the most successful parts of the model because it wasn’t like some expert coming in and then leaving.
We were all literally in it together trying to figure it out. People in rural communities have a deep connection to the birds, to the cranes in particular, and they’re in a migratory path with the pipeline, and so there were all these reasons of why people in rural communities would be against this big pipeline.
And then I started to realize that we have to get the landowners organized to say that they are not going to sign contracts—
TN: A strike, basically.
JK: Yeah. So, I didn’t know how to do that. At the time, TransCanada had started this group called Landowners for Fairness. They would have landowners sign a contract saying, “We’re going to negotiate the easement terms as a group.” So they were never trying to stop the pipeline. They were just trying to get a better deal for the landowners. I thought, “Well, that’s fundamentally messed up. They are immediately surrendering.”
So I started flyering at those meetings in the parking lot, and asked Native Americans to come and drum, and we had people holding signs against the pipeline.
Some landowners didn’t know any better, so they went in and signed their land away because they felt like there was no other option. So we formed what we called the Nebraska Easement Action Team, which was a legal group for all the landowners along the pipeline. We didn’t do that until two years into the fight. Now when we’re advising other communities, we tell them, “Day one this is what you need to do.” Still, we do have 20 percent of the pipeline locked up. If we’d started earlier we would have had 50 percent locked up. No question.
TN: Excuse my East Coast ignorance, but I don’t see Native Americans and ranchers as natural allies. How does that work?
JK: Faith Spotted Eagle, a member of the Yankton Sioux, asked me to come to a meeting that she was holding where they were going to sign a treaty against the Keystone XL Pipeline. She wanted me and the farmers and ranchers to come up and do a workshop on the Ogallala Aquifer, because obviously water is very important to the Native Americans. I was terrified about going because I had never worked with Native Americans.
I felt sure there would be some hostile feelings, because they are now farming and ranching their land, especially up in the Sandhills where you find arrowheads where you’re just walking. It is Native American land. And I just didn’t know what the protocols were.
So, I brought 15 farmers and ranchers with me, and we went out to the Rosebud Casino, and it was a two-day meeting. At first we were all very nervous. And they organize their meetings differently. It’s not like, “Here is the schedule.” There was no real agenda, and about half a day of just ceremony before anything was discussed. But then they asked us to do our presentation, so I got up and gave this PowerPoint presentation about the Ogallala Aquifer, and then one of the elders asked if the farmers and ranchers would tell their stories.
They got up one by one. We were all sitting in a circle at this point, and they started telling their stories, and naturally, not prodded or anything, started talking about how they knew that the land that they’re now farming and ranching is [the Native Americans’] ancestral home ground, and that they love the land just as much as they know Native Americans do, and that is the common bond between them, that they take care of the land for the next generation, which is a deeply held value of farmers and ranchers, especially in the Sandhills where they’re going on seven generations at this point, and have family members lined up to take over the ranch.
Chief Arvol Looking Horse, who is one of the huge spiritual leaders of the Sioux, was there. He didn’t say a word the whole day, and sat there with his arms crossed, just looking down. I was very nervous. So, he stands up and he just looks at everybody and opens his hands, and says, “Welcome to the tribe.” Our government forced all these families into a life that nobody wants to see happen, and now the government is trying to do that-
TN: To the same—
JK: To the farmers and ranchers. There could be a very strong sense of anger, but instead there was this sense of love and clear spirit that we have to beat this thing together. There were a lot of hard lessons for me as an organizer to learn, but worth it.
Because the culmination of that organizing was the Reject and Protect protest in DC. We put up 12 tepees on the National Mall. It was the first time the White House ever called me. It was Rohan Patel, who was the key staff person on Keystone for Obama. And he said, “Well, Jane, you have our attention.” I said, “Can we come over and meet?” And he did. He met with us the next day, so we brought some farmers and ranchers and some tribal members in to meet with Rohan to tell their story of why we’re fighting the pipeline.
TN: You said you had learned some hard lessons. What was the hardest?
JK: That I don’t have all the answers. That maybe your idea is not the best idea. The Native Americans wanted to be part of everything, and they should have been.
And then I just made some really stupid mistakes. We had to get a permit for those 12 tepees. Part of the agreement with the Parks Police was that we wouldn’t have people sleep in them. On one of the calls there was a clear pushback: “You have no idea what you’re doing. You don’t know what you’re talking about. These are our sacred homes.”
And I just did not get it, and was like, “You can’t sleep in them. This is not Occupy Wall Street,” and that was obviously very offensive—to tie their history to Occupy Wall Street. And so, we had to have several meetings after that for me to learn where they were coming from. That these weren’t just tents, they’re not just articles to display. They had deep cultural meaning, and spiritual meaning to them.
TN: Not just props.
JK: Right. And so that was obviously a huge lesson.
TN: Trump has come out in favor of Keystone. But TransCanada still needs your 20 percent.
JK: That’s right. We have a very intense legal proceeding August 7th through the 11th. Then [the state] will decide on a permit by the end of September. They can approve the permit, they can reject it, or they can force TransCanada to go along Keystone One, which is an existing corridor in our state, and by law they have to consider existing corridors. So I think that’s going to be the ultimate outcome.
TN: And that would be a win?
JK: That would be a win for us, because I’m not sure TransCanada can afford two years…in order to get all the other easements they would then need in South Dakota—
TN: To connect with Keystone One.
JK: They’d have to go across the border and then come down. They would have to cross tribal land, and there’s no way the Rosebud Sioux, for example, are going to give up their land to Keystone.