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Nebraska: a Singular State for Genderless Politics

May 25, 1986|C. DAVID KOTOK | C. David Kotok is a political writer for the Omaha World-Herald.

OMAHA — When Nebraska Republicans and Democrats chose two women to face one another for the governorship earlier this month, the whole nation took notice. Now this rural state of 1.6 million people outnumbered more than 2 to 1 by hogs and 3 to 1 by cattle is being called a trend-setter, pointing the way to a genderless political future. The attention has lifted the state's collective spirit to a level of euphoria usually reserved for when the Cornhuskers are No. 1 in college football.

But a word of caution is in order for the trend-spotters: Nebraska has a reputation for starting political movements that seldom extend beyond its borders.

The Populist movement of the late 1800s was virtually born in Nebraska. The fusion of Bible-thumping, rural agrarianism with ethnic, big-city anti-temperance sentiment brought Nebraskan William Jennings Bryan the Democratic nomination for President three times. He was never elected, of course.

Nebraska helped lead the way to lighting the country in the 1920s and 1930s by repeatedly sending George Norris, father of the Tennessee Valley Authority, to the Senate. Norris' independence and his belief in public ownership of electric plants became policy in his home state. Nebraska, a bastion of free enterprise, remains the only state with no private electric utilities.

During the 1930s Nebraska looked into the future and decided that the doctrine of one-man, one-vote would make two-house state legislatures obsolete. It adopted the one-house unicameral system, with members elected without party identification. More than 50 years later, no other state has followed Nebraska's example. Legislative delegations have looked at the unicameral system and rejected it, partly because of the false assumption that nonpartisanship is required and partly out of a sense of self-preservation. Adoption of a unicameral legislature would eliminate half to two-thirds of their members.

Staunchly Republican, Nebraska (where Gerald R. Ford was born) has been in the Democratic column only once in presidential elections since 1936--that being the Lyndon B. Johnson landslide of 1964. Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan racked up some of their most impressive victory margins here. Yet Nebraskans rebelled against the Reagan revolution by electing a Democratic governor in 1982 and reelecting Democrats to the Senate in '82 and '84.

Despite their seemingly contrary voting patterns, Nebraskans are not the nation's political pranksters. Instead, the pioneer spirit and the individualism of the 19th Century continues to permeate the state's political culture, with the addition of the anti-party attitudes of the 1930s, according to Frederick Lubbke, director of the Center for Great Plains Studies.

Political dynasties are unheard of in Nebraska. Edward Zorinsky, the state's maverick, conservative senator, was a Republican until he ran for the Democratic nomination in 1976. In 1982 the Democrats couldn't even find a candidate for governor until Bob Kerrey, a restaurant owner and Vietnam Medal of Honor winner, stepped forward and went on to beat a Reagan-backed incumbent.

This year's contenders, state Treasurer Kay Orr, a Republican native of Iowa, and Helen Boosalis, a Democrat and transplanted Minnesotan, are merely the latest beneficiaries of Nebraska's political openness.

The possibility that Nebraska could be the first state to nominate women from both major parties seemed to catch on with voters and have a life of its own.

What is easiest to miss in all the "why Nebraska" talk since the May 13 primary is that the two women entered the 15-candidate field with the most impressive credentials. Orr was the first woman elected to statewide office in Nebraska and was a platform committee co-chairman at the 1984 Republican convention. Boosalis was the first woman elected chief executive of an American city with a population of more than 100,000 (Lincoln) and is the former president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

The state's voters may have wanted to make sure that there was a woman in the governor's mansion after four years of bachelor Kerrey. During the governor's romance with actress Debra Winger, a fundamentalist minister questioned the morality of her staying overnight in the mansion. Yet a newspaper poll found that only 12% of Nebraskans shared his view; 76% did not disapprove of Winger's visits. That was greater than the number who wanted Kerrey in the governor's mansion.

Orr thinks that, with the state's depressed agricultural economy, the voters were more willing to turn to a woman. She recalled a letter from one supporter who said that Nebraska needs a mother--"someone to give us a hot bowl of soup, put on a pair of warm mittens and convey that kind of caring."

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