The Political Revolution Is Alive and Well in Nebraska

Climate campaigner and Democratic Party activist Jane Kleeb is lighting a fire on the prairie.

Joel Bleifuss

“If we actually are going to rebuild the Democratic Party, and if we want to elect Democrats at the local and state level, then you cannot fund a bunch of elite groups in Washington, D.C.,” says Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party. (Photo by Mary Anne Andrei)

The polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion is alive and well in Nebras­ka. In Decem­ber 2016, Jane Kleeb, a self-described mom with a mini­van,” took the reins of the Nebras­ka Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. In the race for par­ty chair the pre­vi­ous June, Kleeb, a Sanders sur­ro­gate dur­ing the pri­maries, defeat­ed Chuck Has­se­brook (who backed Hillary Clin­ton) by 42 votes out of the 410 cast. Fol­low­ing her elec­tion, Kleeb threw down the gaunt­let and declared: The oppo­si­tion par­ty is now here.”

We have to get back to the 50-state strategy’s decentralized model of trusting people to know what they’re doing. We know how to win elections—on the ground.

Kleeb grew up in Broward Coun­ty, Fla., the daugh­ter of a moth­er who was pres­i­dent of Flori­da Right to Life. In 2004, at the age of 30, she got her start in nation­al pol­i­tics work­ing for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee as the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Young Democ­rats of Amer­i­ca. In 2011, she was elect­ed to the school board of Hast­ings, Neb. She lives out­side the town of 25,000 on a farm with her hus­band Scott and their three daughters.

In 2010, Kleeb found­ed Bold Nebras­ka, an orga­ni­za­tion that began orga­niz­ing oppo­si­tion to the Key­stone XL pipeline. In These Times first fea­tured Kleeb in a Feb­ru­ary 2014 sto­ry in which she spoke out against AFL-CIO Pres­i­dent Richard Trumka’s endorse­ment of Key­stone and invit­ed him to come to Nebras­ka and vis­it with farm­ers and ranch­ers whose liveli­hoods are direct­ly put at risk.” Two months lat­er, In These Times cov­ered the anti-pipeline protests in Wash­ing­ton that Kleeb helped organize.

This spring, Kleeb was back in the spot­light. She joined the board of Our Rev­o­lu­tion, the orga­ni­za­tion that grew out of the Sanders cam­paign, which endorsed Heath Mel­lo, a pro­gres­sive Nebras­ka state leg­is­la­tor who ran for may­or of Oma­ha. The Wall Street Jour­nal false­ly report­ed that Mel­lo had cospon­sored a bill requir­ing women to look at an ultra­sound image of their fetus before receiv­ing an abor­tion.” Ilyse Hogue, pres­i­dent of NAR­AL Pro-Choice Amer­i­ca and a big Clin­ton sup­port­er, ran with the sto­ry, lam­bast­ing Sanders and Tom Perez for kick­ing off the Democ­rats’ Uni­ty Tour with an endorse­ment of Mel­lo. (She appar­ent­ly for­got that NAR­AL had endorsed Clinton’s pro-life vice-pres­i­den­tial pick Tim Kaine months before.) Perez sub­se­quent­ly waf­fled on his sup­port of Mel­lo, who lost in a city that Clin­ton had car­ried. Kleeb, how­ev­er, was a vocal defend­er of Mel­lo and remains so. (For anoth­er per­spec­tive on the con­tro­ver­sy, see Democ­rats’ Waf­fling on Abor­tion Rights Isn’t Just Wrong, It’s a Huge Polit­i­cal Mis­take”) In These Times spoke with Kleeb by phone.

How is the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s 50-state strat­e­gy work­ing out?

It’s not, yet. We have to get back to the 50-state strategy’s decen­tral­ized mod­el of trust­ing peo­ple to know what they’re doing. We know how to win elec­tions — on the ground. We had this very pro­gres­sive can­di­date run­ning for may­or in Oma­ha, Heath Mel­lo, and Democ­rats in the entire state were behind him. This race was crit­i­cal — it was in one of the top 10 con­gres­sion­al dis­trict tar­gets in the coun­try for us to take back the House. But Mel­lo is pro-life, like many of the Democ­rats in Nebras­ka, and Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee Chair Tom Perez got pres­sured by NAR­AL and sent out a press release con­demn­ing Mel­lo. Democ­rats can’t stay in this D.C. bub­ble and think that is how we’re going to win elections.

How do pro­gres­sive down-bal­lot can­di­dates in Nebras­ka have to dif­fer from those in, say, Brooklyn?

They have to be con­nect­ed to where the peo­ple are on the issues that they care about, because they’re rep­re­sent­ing those indi­vid­u­als. Heath Mel­lo was authen­ti­cal­ly pro-life. His mom was a teenage mom who cleaned hous­es to raise a fam­i­ly, and he feels deeply com­mit­ted to the choice that his mom made. But we also have to chal­lenge the vot­ers and make sure that they under­stand that being pro-life means expand­ing Med­ic­aid, and not tak­ing away fund­ing from health clin­ics, espe­cial­ly our rur­al health clin­ics. That’s where we Democ­rats have to stand up. We can’t become Republican-lite.

Farm­ers and ranch­ers know that I’m a pro­gres­sive Demo­c­rat and that I sup­port gay mar­riage, and I sup­port gun safe­ty laws, but that I also sup­port their prop­er­ty rights. So, you earn vot­ers’ respect by being very clear on where you stand — but at the same time, real­ly try­ing to push peo­ple out of their com­fort zone.

Do you think it was a mis­take to make Heath Mello’s race a nation­al race?

Nation­al­iz­ing races is exact­ly what we should be doing, so we can lift up the local issues that we’re fight­ing for and show­case Democ­rats like Mel­lo, who stood up for DREAM­ers when nobody else was in Nebras­ka, and who as a leg­is­la­tor came up with the first-ever cli­mate action plan in the state. If we’re not going to take dark mon­ey and big cor­po­rate mon­ey, we need as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble to be giv­ing small dona­tions to can­di­dates all over the country.

Can some­one be a pro-life progressive?

You can def­i­nite­ly be pro-life and pro­gres­sive. But, if you’re pro-life in name only, that’s where I would draw the line. Some Repub­li­cans are pro-life in name only. If they were tru­ly pro-life, they would be giv­ing more mon­ey to health clin­ics, rather than tak­ing it away. They would be expand­ing Med­ic­aid for all, rather than tak­ing health insur­ance away. But pro-life Democ­rats also need to sup­port women’s repro­duc­tive rights. So if you’re a pro-life Demo­c­rat and you are out there say­ing that you’re going to ban abor­tion, then you should prob­a­bly change your par­ty reg­is­tra­tion to Repub­li­can. But if you’re a pro-life Demo­c­rat doing every­thing you can to reduce the num­ber of abor­tions — expand­ing birth con­trol, expand­ing Med­ic­aid, sup­port­ing com­pre­hen­sive sex ed in schools — then you’re just as pro­gres­sive as a pro-choice Democrat.

Nebras­ka is shap­ing up to be the last stand against the Key­stone Pipeline. What is your strat­e­gy for winning?

Focus­ing on the landown­ers. We believe — not just with Key­stone XL but with all pipeline fights — that the one thing that cit­i­zens hold in their con­trol that the pipeline com­pa­nies need is land. We are going to focus on prop­er­ty rights. Key­stone would be the first time in our state’s his­to­ry that we are giv­ing emi­nent domain for pri­vate gain to a for­eign cor­po­ra­tion. That opens a dan­ger­ous door to oth­er for­eign cor­po­ra­tions that are cur­rent­ly buy­ing up land in our state, par­tic­u­lar­ly Chi­na, which wants to cre­ate these big hog facil­i­ties to then ship their prod­ucts back to Chi­na. Those for­eign cor­po­ra­tions use our land and threat­en our water so they can get prod­ucts to the export mar­ket. That’s exact­ly what Tran­sCana­da is doing.

Do you see a path for U.S. action in time to avert cat­a­stroph­ic cli­mate change?

The path is clear. One, end emi­nent domain for pri­vate gain for fos­sil fuel cor­po­ra­tions. Two, ban new fos­sil fuel infra­struc­ture, includ­ing drilling in our pub­lic lands and in our pub­lic oceans. Three, cre­ate a hard-hat rev­o­lu­tion. Not just for build­ing solar and wind, which clear­ly we need to do, but also expand­ing the use of bio­fu­els, which I know some of my sis­ters and broth­ers in the cli­mate move­ment don’t agree with. I think it takes the mar­ket share away from big oil, and it’s cer­tain­ly bet­ter for the envi­ron­ment and for emissions.

We have let the cli­mate get very close to the brink of dis­as­ter. What could the cli­mate move­ment have done better?

Not make us feel guilty for not hav­ing an elec­tric car, which is some­times what I feel in a room of cli­mate advo­cates. I dri­ve a mini­van and my hus­band dri­ves a pick­up, there­fore I’m a bad envi­ron­men­tal­ist? Um, no. Can we start talk­ing about sys­temic ways that we’re going to tack­le cli­mate change?

How did grow­ing up with a moth­er who was an anti-abor­tion activist affect you?

I would go with my mom to every speech she would give, every vig­il and protest she would orga­nize. I saw from an ear­ly age that the way you take action is in the streets. I didn’t real­ize that wasn’t nor­mal for oth­er families.

What do you see as the like­ly future of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party?

It’s going to be more local, and it’s going to be way more diverse, and that’s not just diver­si­ty of skin col­or, right, but diver­si­ty of geog­ra­phy and eco­nom­ic background.

And the future of the GOP?

The Repub­li­cans con­tin­ue to go to the extreme far right, from build­ing the wall and ban­ning Mus­lims, to tak­ing away health insur­ance and vot­ing rights, to say­ing that cli­mate change does not exist. They’re on a very nar­row elec­toral path, and I think you’ll see a very dif­fer­ent 2018 elec­tion cycle.

Joel Blei­fuss, a for­mer direc­tor of the Peace Stud­ies Pro­gram at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri-Colum­bia, is the edi­tor & pub­lish­er of In These Times, where he has worked since Octo­ber 1986.

Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue