The (Partial) Memoirs Of A Recovering Politician — Tales Of Derring-Do On The Campaign Trail Or Why You Should Consider Running For Office
I had the distinct pleasure of running for the U.S. House in Nebraska CD01 in 2014 and 2018. One of the greatest honors of my life was to be the Democratic nominee in 2014. I worked hard(but perhaps not always wisely) in my two bids for elective office. Just what would possess me to run twice in a safe Republican district?
I suppose the origin of this madness dates back to 2008 when Vince Powers and I helped Max Yashirin create a TV ad in his bid for the House against Jeff Fortenberry. The ad targeted Fortenberry’s fealty to the oil industry when gas was $4 per gallon. I scoured Fortenberry’s voting record and suggested a few tweaks to the script. You can still find the ad on Youtube.com if you plug “Fortenberry fails” into the search engine.
My next step towards running for the House was an actual conversation I had with Fortenberry in 2010. Before a Nebraska home football game, Fortenberry was attempting to shake hands with the fans but he wasn’t getting many takers. It wasn’t his fault — Husker fans before a game aren’t in any mood to talk to politicians. They are going to the game to forget about them.
A young aide for Fortenberry approached me and asked if I would like to talk to him. I answered with an enthusiastic “yes” and here’s how our conversation went.
DPC: The deficit is currently $1 trillion per year and you want to balance the budget with spending cuts alone. As you may know, 60% of federal spending is for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Another 20% goes for defense and we spend 7% on interest on the national debt. You will have to make big cuts in these programs to meet your goal of a balanced budget. Now please give me some specifics on where you want to cut.
Fortenberry: Now that’s a big problem.
DPC: Where do you want to cut?
Fortenberry: It’s going to take a big solution. (By now, the look on Fortenberry’s face was who is this guy and why am I talking to him. He looked both bewildered and irritated.)
DPC: You Republicans have no credibility on spending and the deficit. You’re all talk and no action. Have a good day and Go Big Red!
Let’s just say I wasn’t very impressed with Fortenberry at this time. No surprise.
Three years later, in October 2013, Fortenberry voted to shutdown the government after saying he was opposed to a shutdown. That’s typical Fortenberry. At the time, I was the Second Associate Chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party and I wanted to make a big contribution of some kind in the 2014 election cycle. That’s why I decided to run for Congress.
My decision to run was greeted with great enthusiasm. My phone rang off the hook with supporters wanting to help and with reporters who wanted an interview. One of the reporters was Michael Wines of the New York Times.
One of my first interviews was with the New York Times at my law office in Lincoln. Wines was in Nebraska to cover the Nebraska CD02 Congressional race and to write about an avalanche of new Democratic candidates who announced for Congress during the shutdown.
I talked to Wines for about two hours. About half of the time was on the record and half was off the record. He was curious about the Nebraska economy and political landscape. Because I was an underdog candidate, Wines asked me on the record if I was on a “kamikaze mission.” It was a great experience but I only got one line in his story.
Over the next year, I probably attended just about every parade and community event in Nebraska CD01. I addressed Democratic groups, civic groups, senior citizens, labor unions and knocked on countless doors. It was a genuinely great experience. The voters of Nebraska CD01 — even though the ones who didn’t agree with me — were very nice. I won’t give you an exhaustive list of my activities but I will give you some highlights of life on the campaign trail.
One thing I heard from some well connected GOP insiders was that Fortenberry is thin skinned and my criticism was bugging him. Shortly after I heard that, I actually met Fortenberry at a Lincoln Home Builders candidate night. It was a rare appearance from Fortenberry. He avoided the voters and me like the plague.
When Fortenberry entered the room, I made a beeline to him in an attempt to size him up. I greeted him effusively and began to make small talk with him. He appeared to be visibly nervous and somewhat standoffish. In order to mess with him, I said: “All of the reports were correct — you have great hair, better than mine.”He look at me like I was crazy and I couldn’t help but laugh.
Fortenberry wasn’t the only GOP elected official or candidate I encountered on the campaign trail. I had some interesting encounters with Ben Sasse, Adrian Smith and Hal Daub. One of the interesting things about running for office is that you meet most of the other candidates and elected officials. I made fast friendships with the Democrats but the Republicans tended to avoid me.
I ran into Ben Sasse two times in 2014. We first met a parade in Macy in August. I took the liberty of going over to Sasse and talking to him before the parade. Our conversation mostly focused on life on the campaign trail and how our families were adjusting to it. It was a pleasant and genial conversation in which at one point he surprised me. Here’s how part of our conversation went:
DPC: Is your wife a political junkie, like you?
Ben: Dennis, I’m not a political junkie. There are more important things in life than politics.
DPC: What? You’re not a political junkie and the GOP Senate nominee?
Ben: That’s what I said.
We parted on very positive terms and I next talked to Dave Domina because I was in a state of shock over this. Dave is smarter than I am and responded in his usual brilliant way.
DPC: Ben Sasse is completely full of shit.
Dave: He believes his own myth.
My next interesting encounter with a member of the GOP ticket was when I addressed the Ethanol Producers convention in Kearney in October. Once again, Fortenberry was a no show but Adrian Smith actually appeared and gave a speech.
In my speech, I blasted John Boehner’s management of the House and criticized him for abusing the so-called “Hastert rule” which gave the radical right veto power over what bills could be called up for a vote. I (correctly) contended that immigration reform could be passed on a bi-partisan basis if Boehner would stand up to the right wing and allow an up or down vote.
At a reception after the convention, Adrian Smith made a point of button holing me shortly after it started.He wasn’t happy because he’s not used to be criticized. Here’s how it went.
Adrian: I disagree with you about how Boehner runs the House. Just where did you get your information?
DPC: From the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN.
Adrian: Those aren’t reliable sources.
DPC: If there had been a Hastert rule in place in 1981, there would have never been an up or down vote on the Reagan tax cuts.
At that point, Smith just turned and walked away. If felt good to speak truth to power.
My next opportunity to speak truth to power was when I ran into then UNL Regent Hal Daub at the Nebraska Nurses’ Candidate forum. At this event, candidates were working the room and chatting with the nurses. It was a positive event. I even ran into a woman I went to Creighton with between 1978 and 1982.
As I was working the room, I became face to face with Daub and he went up and began to talk to me. We exchanged some pleasantries but things got pretty weird when I brought up a substantive issue. Here’s how it went down.
DPC: I just want to let you know that I oppose Dave Heineman being appointed the president of UNL.
Daub: Why? What’s wrong with Dave?
DPC: As Governor, he has mismanaged the Departments of HHS and Corrections.
Daub (getting testy): What about those Democrat university presidents?
DPC (calm): Were they incompetent?
Daub (visibly angry) : You’re completely full of shit!
Daub then turned and briskly walked away. His wife gave me a look like she wanted to apologize. I wasn’t mad. I just couldn’t believe what had just happened.
As a candidate, you do numerous media interviews. I found some of the most interesting interviews to be the ones with AM radio conservative talk show hosts. Some of them are out to trip you up and I always found it to be an interesting, intellectual exercise. I never blew an interview.
One of my most memorable interviews was with Scott Vorhees on 1110 AM on the Friday before the 2014 general election. He started out asking me about my biography. I said that I was married, had some kids in college and a law practice. Then things got kind of humorous.
I jokingly said that like Lee Terry, I had a nice house and two kids in college. Vorhees and I then began to laugh uproariously on the air. I knew Terry was toast after that interview if even Vorhees laughed at my lame attempt to ridicule Terry.
My 2017–18 campaign wasn’t nearly as memorable since it ended earlier than the first one. Let me say this about second campaigns. They’re like movies — the sequel isn’t as good as the original.
The highlight of the campaign was a speech I gave on the steps of the State Capitol Building where Franklin Roosevelt and George W. Norris had delivered speeches together during campaign 1936. I showed up unannounced at a rally sponsored by the Jane Raybould for U.S. Senate campaign in opposition to the Trump tax bill. I was there to work the crowd and meet some voters.
When I arrived, somebody from the Raybould campaign asked if I would like to follow Jane on the list of speakers. Of course I said yes even though I didn’t have any prepared remarks. I felt it would a great honor to give a speech at such an historic venue. I figured I would go through all of the bad features of the bill.
That didn’t turn out to be an option since Jane gave a great speech blasting the tax bill. Then it was my turn and I launched into an extemporaneous speech on the history of trickle down economics beginning with the Coolidge tax cuts. The speech went well because I was inspired by FDR and Norris. At one point in the speech, the crowd hissed and booed when I mentioned Ronald Reagan. I received a tremendous round of applause when I finished. It was gratifying.
Campaign 2018 didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to but Jessica McClure ran a great and classy campaign. I was more than happy to endorse and support her in the general election cycle.
My advice to all of you potential candidates: Just do it! But before you run, make sure you are very interested in the office and the issues associated with that office. I ran for the U.S. House because I’ve studied the Congress and federal issues since the mid-1970s. I had a real passion for the office and the issues. If you have that kind of enthusiasm for a particular office, I would encourage you to go for it. Even if you don’t win, you will have the experience of a lifetime!