Gov. Dave Heineman (R)
Elected: Assumed office Jan. 2005, term expires Jan. 2011, 1st full term.
Born: May 12, 1948, Falls City .
Education: U.S. Military Acad., B.S. 1970.
Religion: Eastern Orthodox.
Family: Married (Sally Ganem); 1 child.
Military career: Army Ranger, 1970-75.
Elected office: Fremont City Cncl., 1990-94; NE treasurer, 1994-2001; Lt. gov., 2003-05.
Professional Career: Ex. dir., NE Republican party, 1979-81; Chief of staff, U.S. Rep. Hal Daub, 1983-88.
Republican Dave Heineman became governor of Nebraska in January 2005, when Mike Johanns resigned the post to become President Bush’s secretary of Agriculture. Heineman, the state’s lieutenant governor, moved up to the top job and then ran successfully in 2006 for a full four-year term.
|Dave Heineman (R)||435,507||(73%)|
|David Hahn (D)||145,115||(24%)|
|Dave Heineman (R)||138,216||(50%)|
|Tom Osborne (R)||121,973||(44%)|
|Dave Nabity (R)||14,786||(5%)|
Heineman was born in Falls City (pop. 4,375) in the state’s southeastern corner, 100 miles equidistant from Omaha and Lincoln. He grew up in a handful of small towns across the state, the son of an itinerant J.C. Penney store manager, before graduating from Wahoo High School. He went east to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and expected to see action in Vietnam, but the war ended first. He served five years in the Army, graduating from Airborne and Ranger schools and rising to the rank of captain. When his tour ended in 1975, Heineman returned to Nebraska and immediately dove into politics as an envelope-stuffing volunteer for the Republican party in Omaha. He met Hal Daub, the future Omaha mayor and U.S. representative who became his political mentor. Daub also introduced the 28-year-old to his future wife, Sally Ganem, a Fremont school principal. In 1979, Heineman was named the party’s executive director, a job he held for two years; for the rest of the decade, he worked as campaign manager and aide to Daub, as a political consultant, and as the local office manager for then-Rep. Doug Bereuter. Even in those early stages of his career, Heineman harbored an ambition to become governor.
In 1990, he won his first elective office, a seat on the Fremont City Council. He was elected state treasurer in 1994 and re-elected in 1998. Heineman modernized the state’s money-management system and its methods of returning unclaimed property to residents. In 2002, he ran for lieutenant governor on a ticket with Johanns; they won 69%-28%. As lieutenant governor, Heineman was the state’s official lobbyist in Washington, its homeland security director, and chairman of Nebraska’s Information Technology Commission; at the commission, he helped to create a telecommunications backbone for state government, state medical facilities, and the University of Nebraska. When Bereuter announced he would not seek re-election in 2004, Heineman declined to run for the open 1st District House seat, saying he was focused on running for governor in 2006, when term limits would prevent Johanns from running again. “I would rather pursue my dream of becoming governor, even if that opportunity never materializes, than to pursue another office that I am not committed to.”
The dream came true sooner than expected with Johanns’s surprise Cabinet appointment in 2005. Heineman was able to step up to the job immediately and to run for the post the following year as the incumbent, a powerful advantage. In March, Attorney General Jon Bruning announced he would not run for the governorship and would instead seek a second term as attorney general. On April 11, Heineman signaled his intention to run, and popular GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel endorsed Heineman’s candidacy the same day. From there, Heineman was expected to waltz to election—until Rep. Tom Osborne, one of Nebraska’s most popular politicians and former University of Nebraska football coach, entered the race that spring. After Osborne announced he would give up his seat in Congress to run for governor, national party officials tried to persuade Heineman to change course and to challenge Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson. But Heineman told The Lincoln Journal Star in May that his interest in serving in the Senate, on a scale of zero to 100, was “minus-1,000 and dropping.”
Heineman moved quickly to cement his hold on the governor’s office before the election. That summer, he led a 10-member trade delegation to encourage Cuba to purchase Nebraska-grown products. Despite criticism from several anti-Castro Republican House members from Florida, Heineman met for four hours with Cuban President Fidel Castro and came back with an agreement to sell 5,000 metric tons of dry beans, with the future prospect of exporting 25,000 metric tons of corn, 25,000 metric tons of wheat, and 15,000 metric tons of soybeans and soy meal. In August, Heineman signed an agreement with Cuban officials for a total of $30 million in agricultural products.
He also challenged the Legislature on a number of controversial issues. Nebraska’s unicameral Legislature, the Senate, (often called the Unicam), has 49 members, who are not grouped by political party as in most other legislatures.. In 2006, Heineman vetoed a pay raise for the state’s top elected officials, a bill to improve retirement benefits for state workers, and a third measure to allow children of illegal immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities. The Legislature overrode all three vetoes.
The eager new governor also waded into a highly contentious boundary dispute involving the Omaha public schools. In 2006, the Legislature was grappling with a bitter feud touched off by the Omaha school district’s attempt to take over 25 schools in suburban Millard and Ralston. The Millard and Ralston school superintendents resisted and were joined in opposition by two other suburban districts. In an attempt to resolve the matter, the Legislature passed a bill dividing the Omaha area into three racially identifiable districts—one largely Latino, one largely black, and one largely white. Heineman signed the bill and then defended it against a barrage of outside criticism that it was state-sanctioned resegregation. “This bill is far from perfect, and I’ll be honest, there are parts that make me less than comfortable, and parts that would make me pause as a parent,” he said. “It is clear to me that the motivation behind [this] proposal is neither segregation nor separation, but instead the goal of improving student achievement and the responsiveness of schools.”
Meanwhile, the May primary showdown was looming. Heineman trailed badly in some 2005 polls but by April 2006 he had drawn even with Osborne. Omaha businessman David Nabity, who played up his private-sector experience, was a distant third. Heineman’s hard-charging approach contrasted with the more sedate campaign style of the 69-year-old Osborne, who had never been seriously challenged in his brief political career. Heineman got key endorsements from the state Farm Bureau, Nebraska Right to Life, and the National Rifle Association. The state employees and teachers’ unions also backed him. Heineman gained traction by criticizing Osborne’s support for the in-state college tuition law for illegal immigrants’ children; Osborne said he didn’t believe that children should be penalized for their parents’ actions. For his part, Osborne accused Heineman of embarrassing Nebraska nationally by signing the school boundary bill.
Without a top-tier Democratic candidate in the race, the Republican primary drew heightened interest. As many as 10,000 Nebraskans switched parties so that they could vote in the primary. Famed investor and Omaha resident Warren Buffett, a Democrat, said he would change his party affiliation to vote for Osborne. Osborne said that if he won the governorship, Buffett would oversee a top-to-bottom review of state government operations. But Heineman won 50%-44%, with Nabity finishing third with 5%. Osborne carried the state’s two most populous counties, Omaha’s Douglas County (47%-44%) and Lincoln’s Lancaster County (53%-43%), but not by enough to erase Heineman’s margins elsewhere. Heineman’s early position in the Omaha schools dispute, in which he sided with suburban schools targeted for takeover by the city, boosted him with suburban voters. He carried the central and eastern parts of the state and also won 54 of the 69 counties in Osborne’s western Nebraska-based congressional district.
The general election against Democrat David Hahn, an attorney and Internet entrepreneur from Lincoln, was largely an afterthought. Hahn scoffed at talk of tax cuts and supported abortion rights. Even before the Republican nomination was settled, Hahn was forced to deny that he was a “sacrificial lamb.” In a year that featured competitive Senate and House races, the long-shot governor’s race was a low Democratic priority. Hahn trailed badly in the polls and Heineman won 73%-24%, the largest margin in a Nebraska governor’s race since Dwight Griswold won re-election in 1944 with 76% of the vote.
With that boost of voter confidence, Heineman tackled some new initiatives and took pains to close the book on the sensitive schools issue. He signed a new bill passed by the Legislature that scrapped the old plan and replaced it with one that left school boundaries intact but compelled more affluent districts to share tax revenues with poorer districts. Heineman also sent to the Legislature a get-tough immigration bill to repeal the law making children of illegal immigrants eligible for in-state tuition rates. The measure, which also called for checking the immigration status of anyone applying for government benefits or licenses, stayed bottled up in committee. In mid-2008, with an unexpected rise in state tax revenues of $100 million, Heineman vowed to make tax relief a major push, but the subsequent souring of the national economy late in the year put a crimp in those plans.
In 2008, Heineman won plaudits from conservatives for successfully pressuring the University of Nebraska to rescind a speaking invitation to 1960s radical William Ayers, a co-founder of the violent Weather Underground, who now is a college professor. Republicans criticized Democratic nominee Barack Obama for maintaining political ties to Ayers. But Heineman did himself no public relations favors with his heavy-handed treatment of the Daily Nebraskan in the spring of 2008 after it ran a story he didn’t like. The governor banned the college newspaper’s reporters from his press conferences after they reported, accurately, that a man convicted of second-degree murder was giving tours at the Governor’s Mansion as part of a rehabilitation program. Heineman rescinded the ban the same day.
If he seeks and wins a second term in 2010, Heineman could leave office as the longest-serving governor in state history. No Nebraska governor has served more than eight years.