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The Wonder of It All

January 18, 1987

Nebraska is quintessential Middle America, sitting astride the 100th meridian, which traditionally has separated the West from the rest of the country. Politically, Nebraska has had a reputation for bland conservatism occasionally swept by a wave of populism. It gave the nation William Jennings Bryan, the silver-tongued orator of the Platte; Sen. William George Norris, father of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and, in 1982, Gov. Robert Kerrey, a Democrat and 39-year-old Medal of Honor winner in Vietnam who later denounced the war.

The handsome Kerrey, onetime beau of actress Debra Winger, inexplicably decided not to seek a second term. So now Nebraska has the first female Republican governor in the nation--former state Treasurer Kay A. Orr, 48, a longtime Ronald Reagan loyalist. She won a historic contest that matched her against another woman, Democrat Helen Boosalis, former mayor of Lincoln.

Within the broad ebb and flood of the American political tide, swirls and eddies bring constant change to leadership in the separate states, reflecting the diversity of America. Exciting new faces appear, often touted for future national leadership. Familiar old ones slip into voluntary or forced retirement. The major change brought about by the 21 state inaugurals this year has been the increase in the number of Republican governors, now trailing the Democrats by only 24 to 26. But statistics bore; personalities fascinate. Big reelection victories have enhanced the national status of a number of governors--including Democrats Mario M. Cuomo of New York and Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts and Republicans George Deukmejian of California and Jim Thompson of Illinois.

Two refreshingly outspoken Western Democrats have retired--Colorado's Richard Lamm and Arizona's Bruce Babbitt--but Babbitt will remain on the political scene as the first declared Democratic presidential candidate.

Hawaii has its first governor of native Hawaiian ancestry in Democrat John Waihee, and a Latino Republican, former Tampa Mayor Bob Martinez, succeeds Sen. Bob Graham in Florida. Democrat Madeleine M. Kunin of Vermont, a Swiss native, won a second two-year term.

In Maine, Democratic Gov. Joseph Brennan and Republican U.S. Rep. John McKernan traded offices. McKernan, 38, now is Maine's first GOP governor in two decades, and Brennan is one of 50 House freshmen out of a membership of 435.

Natives of ancient Hawaii and Switzerland . . . a Latino in Florida . . . two women running in Nebraska . . . the son of Italian immigrants in New York state . . . the son of Armenian immigrants in California. We take these political events in stride. And that, perhaps, is the wonder of the constant renewal of the American political system.

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