Jane Kleeb, Nebraska Democratic Party Chair, on How to Overcome the Rural-Urban Divide

Rural America In These Times

Jane Kleeb stands in the Nebraska Sand Hills, on land Keystone XL is slated to cross.

In 2010, Jane Kleeb founded Bold Nebraska, a political advocacy group working in the state to advance progressive causes and unite residents against projects like the Keystone XL pipeline.

In June 2016, with the help of Bernie Sanders supporters, Kleeb was elected chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, defeating Chuck Hassebrook (a Hillary Clinton backer) by 42 votes out of 410 cast. Following her election, she threw down the gauntlet and declared: The opposition party is now here.” On the national stage, she serves on the board of Our Revolution, the organization that grew out of the Sanders campaign.

Kleeb, 43, lives on a farm outside Hastings, Nebraska, with her husband Scott, three daughters and their three-legged dog. She describes herself as a mom with a minivan.”

In the following interview Joel Bleifuss, In These Times editor & publisher, asks Kleeb what the climate change movement could be doing better, how the Democratic Party can best reach rural voters and whether she is an agent of the Lutheran Church.

Joel Bleifuss: The climate change movement has in recent years become a force in national politics. As someone who is a leader of that movement, and looking back at yourself critically, what do you think that movement could have done better?

Jane Kleeb: After seven years where rural farmers and ranchers were at the forefront of one of the most significant battles of the climate movement, when I’m in a room with some of the most respected leaders of the climate movement there is still neither a connection or acknowledgement that rural people matter.

A lot of these fights are in rural communities, whether it’s rural Louisiana, rural Oklahoma or rural Nebraska. And the vast majority of their membership and donors are on the coasts, so that’s where their mindset is. I’ve been challenging this group to hire people, to not hire a young kid out of college and put them in Oklahoma, but spend time on the ground in Oklahoma so you can identify the true grassroots leaders who may not come from an Ivy League background, but know the land and water better than anybody else.

It’s important that we talk about climate change in different ways, right? In rural and small towns we may not use the word climate change” in the first five sentences, but everything we’re doing is talking about protecting the land and water and stopping these risky projects, which ultimately, obviously, impact climate change. So I think that there’s got to be an embracing of rural communities, an embracing of the agriculture sector, not as a villain, which still, to this day, some of the big green groups, you know, villainize farmers and ranchers. And instead, look at the things that they are doing to help on climate change, like decreasing water use, many of them are putting up solar and wind to become energy independent. They’re a big part of that kind of revolution in our country. That’s one of the biggest lessons.

At the marches — and I’ve been to a lot of marches with the climate community — they always acknowledge, rightfully so, the indigenous communities who are given the first several rows of the march. But at the Forward on Climate march, on Feb. 17, 2013, when Keystone was in the height of its resistance, they didn’t even ask a farmer or rancher to be onstage. For me that shows how far we still have to come to get them to understand that focusing on things like ending imminent domain for private gain is one of the best things that they can do to help stop climate change. 

JB: And I ask this as having grown up in a very small town in Missouri, why is there this divide between liberal, urban America and rural America? What are its origins? What are its roots?

JK: Some of it is because folks in urban towns have never really met or engaged with folks in rural communities. And so, there’s this stereotype that everybody in rural communities or small towns are right-wingers, which, as you know, is just not true. Right-wingers exist everywhere, right? Urban towns, small towns. They’re everywhere.

But I find, on all the small towns that I work in, that there is this beautiful ecosystem happening, and because they’re not near a Target, people become very resourceful, and there are a lot of small creative businesses that cater to the local economy — that build up the local economy. And local food is very much part of, not just a fun thing to do at a farmers’ market, but how that economy keeps going. I know not everybody from an urban town can go visit a rural community, but you can create an open space that integrates more rural thought into everything that we’re doing, because that will not only get us the votes needed to pass critical climate policy, it will also make us look at those two words — climate change” — in very different ways. 

JB: As you note, in our culture, information flows from the coastal big cities to the rest of the country. If that were reversed, what are some of the things about rural life, rural communities, small towns, that rural communities could teach the rest of the country?

JK: That relying on your neighbors is the number one key to surviving. Cattle ranchers, without their neighbors, can’t get branding done, they don’t get their fences fixed, they don’t find a stray cow. There’s a very strong connection to neighbors and the culture of helping out each other in small towns. We all know each other. There’s a very deep moral connection to the land and to the water. It’s obviously connected to their very livelihood, but it’s also connected to their culture. That is, I think, a lesson to be learned. If you actually spend some time with a farmer in a combine, he knows every contour of that land. They’re the best environmentalists. They do everything to protect endangered species. They know where the endangered species are on their land, where the whooping cranes come, you know, the nests. So, taking a step back and looking at rural communities differently and really seeing that they’re the ones that know the land and water best, and those are the experts that you should be talking to, as well as the climate scientists. 

JB: How do Nebraskans feel about opening up public lands to drilling? And is this an issue that could attract more rural voters to the Democratic Party?

JK: They hate it. When the Bundy thing was happening, ranchers that I know were so pissed off at the Bundy family, because some of them graze on public land, and pay the government to do that. And they see it as a beautiful circle. Their cattle are helping manage the land and helping turn over the soil, which is critical, especially in our prairie. They’re not freeloaders. They want to see more cattle grazing on public land, and more parks that our kids can enjoy for hunting, fishing, et cetera, and not a bunch of oil companies, polluting the land. So, yes, this is one of those issues that urban and rural folks can be joining hands. We could and should be talking to rural communities. But, you can identify several of these types of issues. Public land is certainly one of them. But you can’t just do a TV ad or brochure, right? You’ve got to have the Democratic Party in these towns, talking about that issue and making it clear that Republicans are completely on the opposite side. 

JB: So you think there are a significant number of Bernie/​Trump voters in Nebraska, and have you met any?

JK: Yes! (Laughs) Just at the hearing this week, one of the ranchers came up to me, and said, You know, Jane, I respect and love you for standing with us this entire time. I don’t always agree with all of those stances, like that gay marriage thing, but I know you’re always with us on our property rights and our water.” And he said, in this election, I would’ve voted for Bernie, because Bernie really had our back. I could have never voted for Clinton.” And I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Bernie supports that gay marriage thing, too.

Rural voters definitely saw Bernie in a different way. They saw him as respecting them. His ad, America, that showcased farmers and ranchers, was earth-shattering, like the way he respected the poll workers at that one town hall with CNN.

You know, small towns hate big corporations. Right, they hate big anything. They think Tyson is the devil, trying to consolidate markets and put chicken farmers under these really bad contracts. And so, there are lots of threads that Democrats should be talking to rural and small town voters on. And Bernie was obviously one of the best messengers for that.

JB: In recent years, Nebraska, on a per capita basis, has settled more refugees than any other state in America? And the Nebraska Democratic Party, under your leadership, has become known for supplying welcome baskets to refugees who are settling in Nebraska. And in that welcome basket a Democratic Party voter registration card included. Why are you doing that? Are you agents of the Lutheran Church?

JK: (Laughs) Yeah, you know, I definitely come to the party with one foot in the advocacy world and one foot in electoral politics. In every single job I’ve held, I’ve always straddled both worlds. So even when I was at AmeriCorps in the 1990s, I was always connecting the issues we working on at the local level and in school to laws that we needed to change in order to help our kids. Whether it was reduced free lunch, or money going to all-minority schools, et cetera. So when President Trump created his travel ban against Muslims, as the Democratic Party chair, I was like, we have to do something. I’ve worked with refugees, some of whom are from the Ogoni tribe along the coast of West Africa. They are our best pipeline fighters, because they had had to leave their land in Nigeria because of the oil pollution from Shell. We had to do something other than writing press releases and going to the vigils, which we did, and those were important stances for us to take.

So I called the Lutheran Family Services and the Refugee Empowerment Center and asked, what do families need? And they said it’s really difficult just getting the basic stuff: silverware, dishes, blankets, towels. So we put up an Amazon wishlist, and put out the call that at our next state Democratic Party meeting. Within a week there was very little room to walk in our office, we were getting boxes from Amazon daily with items that people donated.

People really kind of leaned into that. And at each meeting, we do this. We collect something to leave behind for the community that we’re holding our meeting in.

We have four meetings a year. So, the first meeting we collected diapers for a homeless shelter and left those with the community we had the meeting in. We did the refugee baskets this last time. This next time we’re having a meeting out in Western Nebraska, right near a reservation, so we’re collecting hygiene kits, which is something they’re in need of. There’s a lot of homeless folks up there.

It’s important that we live our values, and that we don’t just do it through statements to the press.

JB: I heard about the kerfuffle over the Democratic Party registration form and a Nebraska Democratic Party sticker that you were giving to refugees, the implication being that you are encouraging voter fraud.

JK: Yeah, it was a major week-long battle in the state. I got some death threats and some ugly posts during Keystone, but the amount of death threats and rape threats and just flat-out disgusting, racist emails and phone calls I got during those two weeks was, like, mind-boggling.

I make no apologies for including a Democratic sticker, a voter registration form in those baskets and a letter from me, as the state party chair, saying the Democratic Party welcomes you.

Our president was part of the Republican Party and I wanted them to know that there was a political party here in our country that does welcome them and does see them as a critical part of our nation. And of course the refugees couldn’t vote they weren’t citizens, but they were on the path to becoming so in the future, and I wanted them to know that it was the Democratic Party welcoming them. But of course, the Republicans take any good deed and turn it into some type of scandal. Which is so typical of the Republican playbook. So, we keep our head high, and we’re not going to back down from what we did. 

JB: What kind of welcome baskets has the Nebraska Republican Party supplied to refugees settling in?

JK: None. Instead, our Republican governor just vetoed a bill that would have given felons the right to vote back. So, you know, the Republicans don’t welcome refugees, or anybody that is not white and middle-class. They put up barriers to having them engaged in our democracy.

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