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Omaha Sen. Bob Krist announces his independent run for governor
 jyoung  / 

Omaha Sen. Bob Krist says he is fed up with partisan bickering, and believes the people of Nebraska are, too.

And so, in announcing he is running for governor of Nebraska, he said he would also give up party affiliation and register Wednesday afternoon in Omaha as a nonpartisan. It's the first time he has changed his party registration from Republican during his public life, he noted at a news conference in the Capitol Rotunda. 

Krist, 60, will work in the next four months to gather the 5,000 signatures needed to create a new party to get on the 2018 ballot, he said. 

Without a party affiliation, funding for his campaign could be a challenge. But Krist said a campaign doesn't have to be a billion-dollar event. 

He has already begun receiving donations, he said, and promises of funding. 

"I don't think that raising money is going to be easy, but I will do it by taking the time and visiting with folks around the state," he said. 

Gov. Pete Ricketts spent around $7.5 million in his 2014 gubernatorial campaign. 

Krist said party affiliation was the smallest part of the message he wanted to convey Wednesday. 

"Nebraskans are looking for independent and effective leadership," Krist said. "We believe I am the right person to answer the call and return us to the nonpartisan traditions that made Nebraska great."

He will embark on a listening tour of the state, probably beginning before the end of the month. Krist, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, is a pilot and plans to fly around the state to campaign.

His decision to run has grown out of his observations from his seat in the nonpartisan Legislature for the past nine years, and the changes he has seen there, led by partisanship from the governor's office.

What pushed his decision to run was the budget debate in the 2017 session of the Legislature, he said. That budget could have been balanced in a lot of ways without taking money from Medicaid service provider rates and aid for people with developmental disabilities. 

"The Legislature was once a nonpartisan body, but that’s not the case today," he said. "Now we have less conversation, less debate and more of the party highway or no way. It’s counter to everything we need to do right now. I believe the emphasis should be on working together.” 

Krist said he has watched Ricketts, a Republican, personally bankroll challengers to senators who don’t vote with him right down the line.

Krist was appointed by Republican Gov. Dave Heineman in 2009, but soon showed his independent streak, parting ways with the governor on a number of votes.

He has been criticized by the Republican Party on a number of those issues. On Wednesday, state GOP Executive Director Kenny Zoeller was at the Rotunda with a press release that thumped Krist for flip-flopping on what he believes and for not being able to choose a party for the ballot. 

Krist said that in his time in the Legislature he has always presented what he thought was good for the 1.9 million people across the state of Nebraska and the 40,000 he represented in District 10, and never brought party politics into it.

"So they can call me a flip-flopper all they want to. But this is the first time I've changed my party politic, even though they tried to kick me out on a couple of occasions," he said. "I can't say that enough. Let me foot stomp that one." 

The state Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb had a much different response to Krist's announcement. 

Krist's run for governor is good for democracy, she said.

"Nebraska has one-party rule right now. Democrats and independents are part of the fabric of our state and deserve a seat at the table for making decisions that impact our families," she said. "More ideas, beyond the dominant party in our state, are needed to grow the good life for all Nebraskans.” 

Krist said his No. 1 priority as governor would be to focus on finding nonpartisan solutions to reduce property taxes for Nebraskans, while assuring adequate education funding.

He will also commit to fixing the problems in Nebraska's prison systems. 

"I understand the overtime issues that have plagued our corrections officers. I understand the overcrowding issue. I understand that the time for talk is over," Krist said. 

If elected, he said, he will declare an emergency to address prison crowding at 160 percent of capacity, with a number of them at a much higher percentage. 

"Our prisons have become the No. 1 public safety issue in Nebraska and the time to act is past. The time to act is now," he said. 

His campaign will focus on his conservative belief that government is too big, he said. 

"We are committed to making our state government more efficient, hard working for all Nebraskans," he said. "And we must do so without harming the most fragile members of our society." 

In balancing his duties in the Legislature with running for a major state office, Krist said he will not shirk any of his legislative responsibilities, which end in 2018 due to term limits. He had a good example in U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer in 2012, he said. 

"She didn't skip a beat. She continued to drive toward those issues that needed to be solved. She introduced bills. She talked about bills. I intend to do the same thing," he said. 

Ricketts' 2018 campaign manager, Jessica Flanagain, said until Krist successfully creates his own party, and has ballot access for the primary election, the Ricketts campaign would not comment on his candidacy. 

At his announcement were Krist's wife, Peggy, his daughter Courtney, 33, son Justin, 35, daughter-in-law Aura, brother Jim Krist and sister Katie Malmberg. 

Cindy Lange-Kubick: Petticoat junction, two sisters go back in time carrying parasols
 CindyLangeKubick  / 

They read the diary when they were girls growing up in Stockholm.

The words of their great-great-grandmother, Augusta Soderholm, who died when she was 28 but had lived like royalty, traveling and chasing off suitors.

“All these guys who proposed to her and she thought they were stupid,” says Sara Azzam, the older of the two Swedish sisters. “She wrote about boyfriends and going to balls and what to wear.”

Back in the '70s, the sisters turned the copied pages, as exciting and tragic as a Jane Austen novel.

Then Sara moved to Nebraska to go to college. She stayed and married and raised four kids and had a career as a scientist at Celerion. Her sister, Kerstin Melin, still lives in Stockholm.

Next week, they will meet there and set off on Part 2 of “Augusta’s Journey,” dressed in 1847-era chic.

“This has kind of taken over my life,” Sara says from her East Campus living room, surrounded by petticoats and shawls, ball gowns and bonnets.

Sara is 63 and semi-retired. Her childhood interest in the diaries was renewed a decade ago, when she began to research her ancestor’s suitors and travels with the help of a 21st century invention called the internet.

“It was so interesting and I thought, you know, we should just redo that trip (Augusta took) to Germany.”

Her sister agreed.

And: “She thought it would be interesting to do it as an historical re-enactment.”

Historical, hysterical.

Think Chautauqua without a bandstand.

Think Civil War battle portrayals with civility.

Think old cotton nightgowns and lace-trimmed night caps, hat boxes and parasols in the overhead bin on airplanes.

“We decided to make the clothing and one thing led to another, it became almost addictive,” Sara says, explaining the historical research, the many trips to thrift stores, the hours ripping apart and stitching together, the proper way to starch a petticoat. (Dip it in a bath of cornstarch and water and hang to dry.)

On Tuesday, she was still deciding which dress to wear to retrace the back-to-nature segment of Augusta’s long-ago trip. A topic she’d also pondered previously in her blog: “How wonderful it will be to hike in Saxon Switzerland National Park, in a dress with several layers of petticoats.”

Indeed, she had a rough idea. The sisters had embarked on a test run in May, Part 1 of Augusta’s Journey, tracing a route their ancestor had taken through the canals of Sweden as a 23-year-old. “We wanted to see, does it work to travel this way?”

And it did.

“You experience things really differently when you’re walking with these wide dresses,” Sara says. “You start watching your language, you talk more softly. It’s almost like you’re in a movie, but it’s your movie.”

Speaking of movies, Kerstin’s son shot a video as they left port aboard the M/S Juno — the world’s oldest registered cruise ship — and sailed away with their lace kerchiefs waving, catching the eyes of perplexed fellow travelers.

That was one of three standard reactions to their getups, Sara said.

Some people were curious and asked what was going on, she said. (Were they filming a scene for a movie?) Some avoided eye contact. (If I don’t look, maybe they will go away.)

“And there are lots of tourists to Sweden,” Sara said, “who think this is just how we dress in Sweden.”

A newspaper caught up with them during their voyage and published a feature story.

And the sisters are keeping their own not-so-private diaries — blogs and Instagram and a Facebook page written in English and Swedish, filled with 19th century art and literary links and photos of finished ball gowns.

For their upcoming tour of Germany, they’ll travel by steam engine passenger trains and steamer — although they’ll start out from Stockholm Central Station with the morning commuters, looking like the Bronte sisters in Skechers.

Their two-week route is set. A boutique hotel in Lubeck with a family tie. A few days in Berlin and a visit to the opera (thus the ball gowns), followed by Dresden and a national park in the south. They’ll head to Prague before boarding the train back to Hamburg and home.

Augusta died of tuberculosis in 1855, six years after she first wrote about coughing up blood in her diary.

By then, she’d said “I do” to one of her many suitors and left behind a grieving husband and a 1-year-old daughter named Gerda.

Gerda married an Army officer and had six children. One of her daughters — Eva — gave birth to a boy named Pontus who became the father of two smart and curious girls named Sara and Kerstin, who set out to “understand the life of a young, wealthy, Swedish girl in the mid-1800s.”

From her living room in Lincoln, Sara the scientist holds up a pair of lacy white gloves a friend crocheted for her.

She waves her hand in the air — fingerless.

“So I can use my iPhone.”

LES crew moving to help more after Irma; search-and-rescue task force coming home
 Riley Johnson  / 

A Lincoln utility crew will leave the Florida Panhandle for the central part of the state to continue helping restore power following Hurricane Irma.

The crew, which had been working in Tallahassee since Monday, plans to leave for Ocala, about 170 miles south, on Thursday, said Lincoln Electric System spokeswoman Rachel Barth. 

Irma left an estimated 7 million homes and businesses without electricity in Florida.

The LES crew along with utility workers from Omaha Public Power District, Nebraska Public Power District and power districts in Columbus and Grand Island went to Florida to provide assistance.

Tammy Manning, a grandmother from Tallahassee, emailed the Journal Star to publicly thank the LES team for restoring her power after she spent 36 hours in the dark. The strangers from Nebraska "went above and beyond" to help her after she mentioned her outage on a Facebook page.

Manning's hopes of having power restored weren't high Tuesday when Tallahassee utility workers told her a transformer was blown and wouldn't be a quick fix. 

Home with her grandchildren, Manning's mind wandered back to 2016, when Hurricane Hermine downed power lines there and kept her home in the dark for seven days, she said. 

The LES crew, led by Tyler Nixon, surprised her that afternoon and asked for her by name when they stopped by to ensure her home got back online.

The crew happened to have a transformer on hand and worked for about an hour to get power up and running again, Manning said.

"They were very much appreciated, and then they just went about their business helping someone else," Manning said.

Meanwhile, Nebraska's urban search and rescue task force is headed home from Florida after emergency managers there determined the group's help is no longer needed.

The 80-member team from Nebraska Task Force 1 — which includes firefighters, doctors, structural engineers and heavy rigging specialists from Lincoln, Omaha and Papillion — began its two-day trip back to Lincoln on Wednesday morning, according to a news release.

For now, Task Force Chief Brad Thavenet will remain at Florida's state emergency operations center in Tallahassee as a liaison between state and federal officials.

Eight federally designated urban search and rescue teams will continue to work in Florida, mostly in the Key West area. 

Nebraska Task Force 1 deployed to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida late last week.

For 35 members of the task force, the trip marked their second deployment in two weeks, and orders to head to Florida came two days after they returned from Hurricane Harvey relief missions in Houston.

The team's boats helped evacuate hundreds of people stranded by record flooding in the Houston area.

The back-to-back deployments are a first for the specialized team, officials have said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency sponsors the Lincoln-based task force, paying for the work of its members and equipment as well as compensating the departments they leave for the overtime hours used to fill vacancies.

Documentary shines light on schools' work with immigrants, refugees
 Margaret Reist  / 

Two years ago, Sally Nellson Barrett was working on a documentary about students who live in poverty when a Crete Public Schools preschool teacher told her just 5 percent of the students in her class spoke English fluently.

“That was just a stopper for me,” said Nellson Barrett, a director with Nebraska Loves Public Schools, a nonprofit organization backed by the Sherwood Foundation that supports public schools through film. “Here was a population and a challenge in a school I had no idea about.”

That led Nellson Barrett and her crew on a two-year journey to make the 35-minute documentary “Seeds of Hope,” which premiered in Omaha Wednesday and will be shown Thursday at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

Seeds of Hope Trailer

The project took them into the classrooms of Lincoln, Omaha, Schuyler and Chadron schools and ultimately to poverty-stricken areas near Cancun, Mexico, and parts of Malaysia, where refugees are living in limbo.

They met all of the bilingual liaisons at Lincoln Public Schools, asked them to tell their stories, and Oscar Rios Pohirieth, who coordinates the liaison program for LPS, arranged for filmmakers to visit the area of Mexico where his brother lives.

“(Rios) became a very close consultant on this story and layer by layer he peeled back this story,” Nellson Barrett said.

They visited a Seventh-day Adventist school in Mexico that offered a rigorous education but was often inaccessible to students who didn’t have 75 cents for the bus to get there. They visited another school that operates three hours a day, a place where the principal hoped students would learn to read by the sixth grade.

They interviewed officials in Washington to better understand immigration and refugee policies, and visited two refugee schools in Malaysia, heard stories of families who fled horrible violence in their countries and now were in limbo waiting for the opportunity to apply for resettlement, Nellson Barrett said. The refugees can only attend schools organized by the refugees themselves or organizations supporting them and they can't work in Malaysia legally, or attend college.

“They’re trapped,” she said. “Like rats in a maze, there is no 'out' door for them. They can’t go home, and once they get their (documentation) they can apply for resettlement -- but that’s not very likely -- and they can’t go on to college.”

The filmmakers interviewed agencies in Nebraska that help immigrants and refugees and the students themselves -- a population that’s increased 113 percent in the state’s schools since 2000. And the documentary shines a light on the educators who help them learn English and adapt to life in a new country and a new culture.

“’Seeds of Hope’ is really about how our schools are so welcoming and do whatever they can to help immigrants and refugees find success,” Nellson Barrett said. “If only (viewers) can see what we’ve seen and hear what we’ve heard, maybe they’ll have a little more empathy.”

The documentary is part of a bigger series, “For a Better Life,” that includes more than 20 micro-documentaries -- under 3 minutes in length -- touching on various topics related to immigrants and refugees in the state. 

“I think we have an opportunity and a responsibility to give voice to people who don’t have one,” Nellson Barrett said. “Sometimes that’s refugees and immigrants but more and more it’s teachers and administrators and kids.”

The release of the latest film -- amid heated debate on immigration policy -- came at a perfect time, Nellson Barrett said.

If the film opens people’s eyes to the complexities and stories of those living them, it will be a success, she said.

“If they decide to sponsor a family, then I think we had a home run.”

Inspector general for child welfare airs concerns
 jyoung  / 

State Inspector General Julie Rogers said Wednesday she was "deeply troubled" by how high child welfare caseloads continue to affect Nebraska children, families and staff. 

In her fifth annual report, released Wednesday, the child welfare watchdog also said she's concerned about the rising number of attempted suicides among youths in the system.

The office received 45 reports of suicide attempts by 38 children in the 2016-17 fiscal year.  

Rogers was also critical of the Office of Probation's lack of response to her previous recommendations. The office fired back that it has no obligation to respond to Rogers.

The office of inspector general was created by the Legislature in 2012 to provide accountability and oversight for child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Rogers and her staff investigate complaints and allegations of wrongdoing by agencies and individuals, deaths and serious injuries of state wards and children in the system and other critical incidents. 

On the issue of child welfare caseloads, Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Russ Reno said the department is working to combat its high turnover rate and expeditiously fill vacancies.

It's looking closely at its training, career paths and ways to help improve job satisfaction, he said, and talking to team members in the field about ways to alleviate their workload.

"We're looking at a lot of options right now," Reno said. "We appreciate the hard work of our team members out there. They are really dedicated to helping children and families." 

Rogers also noted concerns about the Office of Probation, which handles youths involved in juvenile justice cases. She has issued two reports since 2015 on the deaths of youths supervised by Probation, and made 13 recommendations, including how to better serve youth with developmental disabilities, along with ideas for improving internal processes. 

There's no evidence Probation had taken steps to implement any of the recommendations or address issues identified in the investigations into the deaths of two youths supervised by the agency, she said. 

Last fiscal year, the office investigated seven child deaths, including the suicide of a 17-year-old supervised by the Office of Probation who was given alternatives to detention.

Rogers found those alternatives were different from those listed in law and policies. It did not address the youth's significant mental health problems, and restrictions placed on him contributed to his social isolation and perception of being a burden, she said. 

Another youth supervised by Probation was the victim of a homicide.

The Nebraska Judicial Branch was sharp in its response to Rogers' report, saying that while it appreciates input from Rogers, it alone is responsible for probation services. Her report has no credibility, its statement said. 

"Nebraska judges, the Administrative Office of the Courts and Probation, and the local probation offices are doing a superb job and work in the real world and make difficult decisions and as such, have collectively light years more experience than anyone in the (Office of the Inspector General's) office in working with children and families in the court," the statement said.

Reform is a process, officials said, not an event, and their efforts have been recognized and assisted by national partners. 

"It is unfortunate that many facts as to Probation’s collaborative efforts and a recent written response to (Rogers' office) were grossly omitted from the 2016-17 annual report," the statement said. 

Even so, the recommendations have been thoroughly considered by Probation, it said.

In her report, Rogers praised progress made in the Youth Residential Treatment Centers. In the past 12 months, she said, the centers have met all nine of her recommendations on improvements to oversight and operations, taking steps to stabilize and improve the centers.

"This year the (Office of Inspector General) noted a large decrease in the number of escapes and other concerning incidents at YRTC-Kearney, in particular," Rogers said. 

Between July 1, 2016, and June 30 this year, Rogers' office reviewed 339 critical incidents. In addition to the seven deaths, it also opened investigations into three serious injuries.

It received 172 complaints, primarily related to the Department of Health and Human Services from parents, grandparents and other relatives of children, many of them about child abuse investigations and placement of children. 

As of June 30, Rogers' office had 34 death and serious injury investigations pending. That work has limited investigations into conditions at residential facilities, abuse and neglect in foster homes, and performance of private providers, Rogers said. 

Rogers has been appointed to a second five-year term, and said she will continue to provide accountability to the child welfare and juvenile justice system, and promote transparency.

KRISTIN STREFF/Journal Star file photo