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

Rural America In These Times June 28, 2017

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.

This blog’s mis­sion is to pro­vide the pub­lic ser­vice of help­ing make the issues that rur­al Amer­i­ca is grap­pling with part of nation­al discourse.
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