Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts appears to be terrified of Nebraska State Senator Laura Ebke, and is devoting his considerable resources and the power of the Nebraska Republican Party to stop her reelection.
It seems like an odd play for Governor Ricketts, who is rich and powerful enough not be afraid of anyone. He is a multi-millionaire (thanks to the $38 billion company, TD Ameritrade, founded by his father Joe Ricketts). He shares ownership of the Chicago Cubs with his sister and three brothers. And although he is up for reelection this year, he is facing only weak opposition in the Republican primary and is pretty much a sure thing to win in November.
With all this going for him, why would such a powerful man be so frightened by Laura Ebke?
Laura Ebke: the shining star of the Nebraska Legislature
Elected four years ago, Ebke has made a name for herself as a one of the Cornhusker State’s most pragmatic, likeable, and thoughtful state legislators. She excels at working across factional lines, building consensuses, and getting bills passed.
On Sunday, summing up what had been a contentious 2018 Legislative Session in the state, the Lincoln Journal Star singled Ebke out for praise:
“Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete stood out this session as one who put a priority on finding compromise for more-controversial bills, such as a proposal for more transparency and accountability for the State Patrol and an occupational licensing bill.”
Ebke told the Journal Star, “Senators may not be paying enough attention to how to forge consensus and work with people on legislation. Working a bill and trying to find compromise is so important. You can’t just bully your way through on things.”
Three of Ebke’s bills were passed this session, which is a more than respectable total. One, a bill to reform occupational licensing laws in Nebraska, was praised in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, which called it a “reform that could be a national model.”.
Is Ricketts upset with Ebke’s performance in this latest legislative session? Hardly. All three of Ebke’s bills were signed by Governor Ricketts yesterday.
But Ricketts did more than just sign Ebke’s bills. Ebke’s occupational licensing reform was enthusiastically supported by the Platte Institute, a think tank Ricketts founded in 2007.
A second law, which increases transparency among law enforcement agencies, was introduced by Ebke directly in partnership with Governor Ricketts himself. As the chair of the Judiciary Committee, Ebke could help Ricketts by shepherding this bill through a difficult session. Which she did.
And yet, despite all the good Laura Ebke has done for Nebraskans in ways that Ricketts himself supports, Ricketts has targeted Ebke as the number one incumbent Senator he wants to defeat this election cycle.
Ricketts is pulling out the stops. In the last few days (at great expense) two sets of highly negative mailers were sent out to residents of Legislative District 32, twisting Ebke’s legislative record to portray her as unprincipled and as a friend of criminals.
Why is Governor Ricketts so afraid of Laura Ebke?
What happens when you defy Pete Ricketts?
Pete Ricketts may appear to have everything a normal man could want from life, but he appears to still want much more. He still wants total control in Nebraska and is singling out Laura Ebke for punishment despite their successful working relationship.
Laura Ebke is such an effective legislator because of two classic midwestern values she has in spades: she can negotiate in good faith to reach a compromise, but she remains very independently minded.
In 2015, in her first year in the legislature, Ebke voted with the majority of other Nebraska senators to overturn the death penalty in the state. Her concerns were with the application of the death penalty only, saying, “If government can’t be trusted to manage our health care … then why should it be trusted to carry out the irrevocable sentence of death?”
Governor Ricketts vetoed the bill, but Ebke and her colleagues overturned the veto. At the Nebraska GOP convention later that year, Ricketts attempted to “name and shame” Republicans who had voted against him, and said the party needed more “platform Republicans.” Ebke, not one to be pushed around, left the Republican party, and changed her registration to Libertarian.
Speaking to News Growl, Ebke cited this event as the issue that riles Ricketts about her the most.
“I suspect that I embarrassed him when I left the GOP,” she said. “After he called us out at the GOP State convention, I left. I don’t think he thought anyone would actually call his bluff. He thought it would just scare us into submission.”
Defying Ricketts and resigning from the Republican Party was an act of enormous political courage for Ebke. With millions of dollars at his disposal, and the organization of an establishment party behind him, Ricketts can focus enormous resources on negative campaigning against Ebke.
And he has.
Ricketts takes the low road
Governor Ricketts cannot attack Ebke on her recent notable legislative achievements because he has either sponsored or signed all of them. Instead, the Nebraska Republican Party has prepared a series of mailers which twist Ebke’s voting record, with references to votes on procedural motions and other “inside baseball” operations of the Legislature.
It is not pretty, and it is not even mostly true.
One mailer shows a shot of a man in a black hoodie holding a picture of Ebke with the words, “Laura Ebke: Siding with Criminals.”
As evidence it cites Ebke’s vote against the death penalty (even though this was about application of the law, not the penalty itself), a criminal justice reform law that reduced the use of mandatory sentences (but did not reduce the possible sentences themselves), and a bill to abolish Nebraska’s ridiculous Marijuana Tax. As marijuana is not legal in Nebraska no one pays tax on it, and yet the state spends money paying for marijuana tax stamps to be produced. The stamps are highly prized by collectors, not by marijuana dealers.
Each claim is backed up by website URLs, but they are very long, printed in very small print, and lead to obscure pages of the Nebraska Legislature website that the average voter would struggle to make sense of without accompanying explanations. One of the links listed appears not to even work.
Even more ridiculous is the mailer that claims in bold red letters, “Laura Ebke is NOT a Republican,” and claims that Ebke “abandoned our party..and our principles.”
In reality, the Republican Party has done much more to abandon its principles since Ebke was elected in 2015 than Ebke has herself.
In 2015 Ebke was elected as a member of a party that supported individual liberty, the second amendment, low taxes, small government, and free trade that helps Nebraska farmers be world leaders in corn and soybean exports. She still has these beliefs, and she still belongs to a party that supports them – just not the Republican Party.
In contrast, the Republican party in recent years has largely moved away from its traditional principles. It has remained in favor of tax cuts, but completely given up on cutting government spending. Republican President Trump has publicly endorsed a Democratic proposal to increase gun control. The Republican president has also initiated a trade war against China, which has resulted in threatened retaliatory tariffs that spell disaster for Nebraska farmers.
If abandoning principles is a problem, then Nebraska Republicans have a lot more explaining to do to the voters than Laura Ebke does.
Laura Ebke in a primary fight
The most ridiculous assertion of all on the flyer says, “It’s time for a change. Vote no on Laura Ebke.” As a respected, independent voice in the Nebraska Legislature who refuses to kowtow to Pete Ricketts, voting against Laura Ebke would certainly not bring about change. Ricketts wants a Legislature that will do his bidding – giving him what he wants would only further entrench the establishment in Lincoln.
Ebke faces two Republican opponents in the May 15th primary, Al Riskowski and Tom Brandt, with the top two advancing to the general election in November. Governor Ricketts has personally endorsed Riskowski.
With Ricketts facing little in the way of Republican primary opposition, and no real threat in the general election, he can afford to invest his time and money into getting a legislature that will obey his directives unquestioningly.
The question for Nebraska voters this year is, will he get that, or will the people of Nebraska Legislative District 32 return an independent voice in their Legislature?
The Nebraska Republican Party was asked to contribute to this article but not reply.