On January 3, the first day of Nebraska’s 2018 legislative session, State Senator Laura Ebke stood up and reminded her colleagues about the state’s proud tradition of nonpartisanship. Quoting from a 1937 speech by George Norris—the legendary Nebraska politician behind the state’s unique nonpartisan, single-house Legislature—Ebke urged her fellow lawmakers to hold positions “without any partisan political obligation to any machine, to any boss, or to any alleged political leader.”
Her speech was met with applause, but since Governor Pete Ricketts came into office in 2015, Ebke hasn’t seen the independence or political civility she was advocating. Ebke—an adjunct political-science professor who represents a district 30 miles southwest of Lincoln—has been battling the state’s deep-pocketed governor and the Republican Party, with which she had been affiliated for most of her life.
Ebke is a conservative who isn’t conservative enough for Ricketts. She grew up in a “Goldwater house” and cast her first presidential vote for Ronald Reagan, but the party’s embrace of Donald Trump, combined with Ricketts’s decision to target fellow Republicans, appalled her. In June 2016, she switched parties and became the only registered Libertarian in the 49-person Legislature. “It seemed to me I was no longer welcome,” she told me.
Ricketts targeted Ebke and several other senators after they voted against him on a few key items during his first year in office in 2015. To the governor’s dismay, the Legislature—known to locals as the “unicam,” or unicameral—repealed the death penalty, allowed certain undocumented youth to obtain driver’s licenses, and raised the state’s gas tax to fund bridge and road repairs. At the Nebraska Republican Party convention in May 2016, Ricketts denounced those legislators by name and insisted that party officials elect “platform Republicans,” meaning politicians who would vote exactly as the state’s GOP wanted.
Ricketts then donated to opponents of those who voted against his wishes. Sometimes it came in the form of $10,000 or $5,000 contributions to specific candidates. Other times he poured money into groups like Nebraskans for the Death Penalty or the Nebraska Republican Party. According to data collected by the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission, Ricketts spent about $360,000 of his own money to support political causes in Nebraska during the 2016 election cycle. It’ll be another month until the accountability commission receives the data to compile a report on campaign spending during this year’s primaries. But estimates from the Omaha World-Herald show that by the end of April (the latest data available as of this writing), Ricketts had spent $27,500 on races in Nebraska that excluded his own gubernatorial campaign. In 2016, he spent $13,500 on local races by the end of April, as most of the spending came after the May primaries. Eight of the 14 candidates he supported in 2016 won their races, according to the World-Herald. In three instances, ultra-conservative newcomers ousted Republican incumbents.
Sue Crawford, a state senator, registered Democrat, and political-science professor at Creighton University, told me that the governor’s involvement in local races “made that fear of being primaried on the right a much more visible threat to people who are in the Legislature.”
Ricketts’s office did not reply to multiple interview requests for this story.
Governor Ricketts is the son of TD Ameritrade founder and billionaire Joe Ricketts, who is best known among media professionals for purchasing and later shutting down DNAinfo and Gothamist when their employees voted to unionize. His brother Todd is finance chair of the Republican National Committee, and the family owns the Chicago Cubs.
After a failed bid for the US Senate in 2006, Ricketts swept into the governor’s office in 2015 on a pledge to create jobs, cut taxes, and oppose illegal immigration. Despite outspending his opponents, he barely squeaked by in the Republican primary, winning a six-way race by only 2,200 votes. Once he became governor, his position, wealth, and relationships with other funders allowed him to influence the Legislature by boosting his preferred candidates into office.
The state senators I spoke to were especially disturbed by Ricketts’s alleged dark-money connections. Leading up to the 2016 elections, groups like Americans for Prosperity and Trees of Liberty made robocalls and sent postcards attacking those who voted to repeal the death penalty. The ads used false statistics about senators’ attendance records, lied about voting records, and blamed candidates for tax increases that were passed by public vote. During the 2018 elections, a Virginia-based group that calls itself the 10th Amendment Project sent mailings intended to raise hysteria around property taxes, which Ricketts and his colleagues want to lower. In one instance, the 10th Amendment Project postcards slammed a farmer running for the unicam for receiving government subsidies that, the ad alleges, lowered his personal taxes. Determining who is funding these ads is difficult due to America’s deregulated campaign-finance laws, but several state senators told me Ricketts is likely behind the deceptive ads.
Ricketts has denied having financial ties to these groups, but he is a founder of the Nebraska chapter of Americans for Prosperity, which is partially funded by the Koch brothers. The Kochs are also behind Trees of Liberty, according Politico and Huffpost. As The Nation has previously reported, prior to getting elected as governor in 2014, Ricketts appeared at a summit of wealthy donors organized by the Kochs. Aside from spending directly on local races and endorsing opponents of incumbent Republicans, sources say Ricketts uses his connections to other political power brokers to direct money against his targets.
“His unabashed goal is to take control of the Nebraska Legislature,” said State Senator Roy Baker, a registered Republican and former superintendent at a public school outside of Lincoln named after George Norris. “He is very ideologically inclined rather than looking at other evidence or finding common ground on issues…. When you consider the amount of money the governor has and his dogma-driven agenda, it is a lethal combination.”
As one of the people deposed by a Ricketts-backed candidate, former state senator Jerry Johnson said he believes the governor has links to the groups that attacked him. “If you leaned at all away from being a total conservative, you were targeted,” said Johnson, a registered Republican who used to represent the district that includes Brainard, the farming town where I grew up. Using a business analogy, Johnson told me that the governor “has gone too far in trying to pick his own board of directors.”
Like the decades-long NCAA-record sellout streak of our university’s football team or our doughy Runza meat-cabbage pockets, the unicameral is a quirky homegrown cultural institution admired across Nebraska. From kindergarten through high-school graduation, I went to the same public-school building two blocks from my parents’ house. From there, I spent five years in the state’s capital, Lincoln, attending Nebraska’s flagship university. At both institutions, people praised the unicameral every time the state government came up in conversation. We were taught, and believed, that the poisonous partisanship found across the country wasn’t as potent in our Legislature because it wasn’t officially controlled by the parties’ apparatuses.
But as I’ve started writing a book about life in rural Nebraska, I’ve come to a more depressing realization: The state’s single-house State Legislature may be devoid of party labels, but it’s becoming increasingly ideological. The unicameral used to have less bickering than many other state chambers, but those days are gone.
In 2000, Nebraska voters approved an amendment to the state’s Constitution that limited state senators to two consecutive four-year terms. Nearly every source interviewed for this story told me that the primary reason term limits were implemented was so that the Legislature could remove Ernie Chambers, a liberal state senator who represented north Omaha from 1970 to 2008, when he was term-limited out.
Chambers—who was often the sole black member of the unicam—was an expert in legislative procedures and could delay and kill bills better than anyone. It was his opposition to conservative laws that fueled the drive for term limits. Chambers, who declined to be interviewed, was forced out for four years but was reelected in 2012 and again in 2016. Terms limits only kept Chambers out of office for one term, but researchers have shown that they’ve had the broader effect of making the unicameral more partisan.
“We find that the imposition of term limits in the middle of the last decade helped to instigate greater partisan polarization within the chamber,” wrote political scientists Seth Masket and Boris Shor in a 2014 study of the unicameral. “With at least a quarter of the chamber now regularly being turned out of office, a handful of partisan actors, including the Republican governor and Democratic political operatives, have become intensely involved with recruiting partisan candidates to run for office and keeping them faithful to a partisan agenda once in office.”
As state senators churn at quicker rates and the governor influences who wins seats, basic civilities are eroding away, state senators told me. Crawford told me it used to be common courtesy that if people were going to run for committee chairs, they’d send a letter to every member of the Legislature so that the senators knew who’d be running for each position. But when committee chairs were selected following the 2016 elections, people didn’t announce they were running, because the Republican majority already chose the committee heads behind closed doors. A bloc of 27 voters banded together and on the first day of the session selected 17 Republicans, one Democrat, and one Libertarian to committee chairs, reported the World-Herald. A few of the committee chairs were awarded to Republicans who were in their first week in office.
“Some of the committee chairs were obviously unqualified to lead a committee,” said State Senator John McCollister, a registered Republican in Omaha. “They were freshmen, so of course they did not know how to lead a committee.”
Alongside the partisan divide in selecting committee chairs, the Legislature spent its first month fighting over filibuster rules. State Senator Burke Harr, a registered Democrat out of Omaha, said this polarized environment is altering how legislative aides and staffers choose their bosses. Sure, many staffers work exclusively with Republican or Democratic senators. But some used to flip between working for conservatives and liberals when the person they worked for left office and a new batch of senators flowed in. Now staffers are being told that they can’t ever work across party lines, according to Harr.
Harr said he used to get deference on bills that were important to his constituents but of no consequence to his conservative colleagues. But that’s no longer the case. Last year, Harr presented a bill that would restrict the sale of ivory in Nebraska. Since the state isn’t exactly an ivory hub, Harr said it was “an innocuous bill.” But he wanted to pass it because the bill mattered to the Girl Scouts in his district and to the local zoo. Conservatives resisted and defeated the bill.
With the Nebraska legislative primaries on May 15, Ebke said the mailboxes of her constituents are beginning to fill with ads denouncing her. To compete with the upcoming onslaught, she’s doing more fund-raising. When Ebke ran in 2014, she spent $81,000 on her race, according to data from the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission. This year, she said she will spend at least double, if not triple that.
“It is somewhat obscene, I think, that I should have to spend $200,000 or more to win a race for a position that pays $12,000 a year,” she said.
When listening to people complain about the governor’s influence over the state’s legislative branch, progressives often fashion Ricketts as some kind of supervillain. Comedian John Oliver even compared him to Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor. But that characterization is too simplistic. A new set of laws has allowed Ricketts to bully and manipulate the unicameral.
Ricketts’s predecessors did not live in an era of unlimited corporate spending on political campaigns where donors could remain hidden. Legislators in today’s unicameral may feel Ricketts is overreaching, but it’s likely previous governors would have made these same moves if they had had billionaire fathers and the law on their side.
The removal of campaign-finance restrictions after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 led to a surge in political spending. Total expenditures during Nebraska state legislative races in 2000 totaled $1.7 million, according to data from the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission. By 2016, that figure increased to $4.6 million. If Ebke’s campaign is any indication, the 2018 races will end up as the most expensive ever.
The gutting of finance rules matters in places like Nebraska because $10,000 can have a big impact in rural districts of 35,000 people where campaigns have been, until recently, cheap. With such a small chamber, deposing a few lawmakers can significantly alter the makeup of the body, while pumping Washington-like partisanship and gridlock into an institution beloved by locals for being above party nonsense.
Frank Daley, executive director of the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission, acknowledges that changes to campaign regulations make his line of work a “First Amendment landmine field.” He said he’d noticed that campaigns had become more expensive and the unicameral more partisan, but that Nebraska’s Legislature is still more cordial than the lawmaking bodies of other states. When pressed on whether he’s worried the governor is dismantling the separation between the executive and legislative branches, he gave me a measured reply: “Anybody in our system can give as much money as they want to any candidate. I mean, that’s just the way it is.”
That’s exactly the problem, according to W. Don Nelson, a veteran insider of Nebraska politics who served on the staffs of Democratic politicians like Bob Kerrey and Ben Nelson: “So often in today’s political world the scandal is never what’s illegal,” he said. “The scandal is what’s legal.”