Pete Ricketts eight years as governor is nearly coming to an end. It’s now a good time to review his eight year reign of error.
Ricketts never would have been elected governor in the first place but for his personal wealth. Ricketts donated $1 million to his 2014 campaign and his parents contributed another $1 million. The former T.D. Ameritrade executive lacked any real qualifications to serve as governor. The only thing that made him politically viable was his vast personal wealth.
Ricketts’ victory in the 2014 GOP primary was fluky. There was a large field of candidates and Ricketts only garnered 26.5% of the vote but that was enough to send him on to the general election. His signature promise as a candidate was to reduce property taxes.
The new governor got off to a rocky start in the 2015 legislative session. The legislature overrode vetoes of bills abolishing the death penalty, a gas tax increase and drivers licenses for DACA recipients. Ricketts subsequently reinstated the death penalty in a 2016 referendum financed by himself and his family.
The Ricketts family’s immense personal wealth has stressed the separation of powers and polarized the legislature. Ricketts used his money in 2016 to take out three moderate GOP senators who had the audacity to stand up to him. Senators in both parties have said that the legislature has never been more dysfunctional.
Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb blasted Ricketts for using his personal wealth to achieve political ends. “His success is buying elections,” Kleeb said.
While Rickett was effective at winning elections, he failed as an executive. One of his biggest failures was in administering Nebraska’s prisons — which are among the most overcrowded in the country. Ricketts’ response was to support a new prison which would cost $270 million. At the same time, Ricketts and his allies in the legislature blocked criminal justice reform, which would have released non-violent criminals.
Another Ricketts failure was the scandal surrounding Nebraska’s child welfare program. In 2019, Ricketts signed a contract with St. Francis Ministries for child welfare services. The 5-year, $197 million contract was for 40 percent less than was being charged by the previous private contractor. The bid was suspicious but Ricketts fell for it.
Subsequently, Ricketts was forced to spend another $150 million on this failed contract. At the end of the day, Nebraska taxpayers didn’t save any money on this fiasco. The contract was finally canceled in 2021.
The biggest challenge that Ricketts faced as governor was the Covid-19 pandemic. Ricketts opposed both mask and vaccine mandates. He even tried to recruit anti-vaxxer nurses to take care of Nebraska’s veterans and most vulnerable citizens.
Nebraska only avoided disaster during the pandemic due to the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the mask mandates in Lancaster and Douglas Counties. “The state has been able to turn to the success of some of the county and local city measures and count that toward their success,” said Leirion Gaylor Baird, Lincoln’s Democratic mayor. In Lincoln and the surrounding county of Lancaster, according to Baird’s office, the per capita Covid death rate was below the statewide rate.
Pete Ricketts even failed on his 2014 signature promise to reduce property taxes. Jim Pillen — Rickett’s hand picked successor — ran on cutting property taxes. Pillen’s ads said: “There’s one thing we can all agree on: Nebraska property taxes are out of control.” Pillen, too, has vowed to cut property taxes.
Where do we go from here? The continuing success of the Nebraska GOP is due to a huge advantage in campaign cash, the nationalization of elections and the right wing media. Republican candidates on a daily basis get free advertising from the likes of Fox News and AM radio. Similarly, the Democrats get unfairly demonized.
The comeback will be long and hard. It took Georgia Democrats ten years to transform Georgia from a red state to a purple state. If it can happen in Georgia, it can happen in Nebraska. We must commit ourselves for the long term fight.
The great George Harrison said it best:
“But it’s gonna take money
A whole lotta spending money
It’s gonna take plenty of money
To do it right, child
It’s gonna take time
A whole lot of precious time
It’s gonna take patience and time, mmm
To do it, to do it, to do it, to do it, to do it
To do it right, child”