Tom White, who has served in the Legislature for two years, has emerged as both.
“Events have put me there,” White says, although he’s reluctant to accept the word “hope.”
Nevertheless, Democrats have embraced White’s willingness to lead in the Legislature as sort of an informal minority whip and they view him as a future statewide or congressional district candidate.
Republicans have their eye on him, too.
“If you put yourself out there, you’re going to be a lightning rod,” GOP state executive director Matt Miltenberger says.
White says he has simply “reacted to the Unicameral as I found it.”
What he found, he says, was a nominally nonpartisan Legislature in which Democrats were systematically shut out of leadership positions and Republican members cast party-line votes.
“I did not see a nonpartisan Legislature,” he says.
White has responded by helping raise money for a political action committee formed to support “progressive and centrist” legislative candidates. All, or nearly all, of them are more than likely to be Democrats.
In addition, he’s made $1,000 personal contributions to three candidates.
“It’s fair to say I’m not a pacifist,” White says.
“I won’t go quietly into the good night.”
This year’s legislative elections are critical, White says, both in determining the agenda and opening up the debate.
With independent Sen. Ernie Chambers term-limited out of the Legislature next year, White says, Gov. Dave Heineman and special interests are preparing to have their way.
“We are at peril,” he says.
Instead of “an honest, vigorous, open debate” about issues, White says, the Legislature could be transformed into “a secretive rubber-stamp society” for Republican and major-business interests.
Chambers, the master of legislative filibuster, no longer will be there to stand in the way, he says.
That’s why it’s important to reach a cloture-proof threshold of Democratic senators who could block the most egregious proposals, White says.
Democrats now hold 15 of the Legislature’s 49 seats.
Seventeen senators can maintain a filibuster if they stand together. An effective minority bloc probably requires more.
Both political parties have flooded the legislative campaign battlefield this year and Heineman has answered White’s challenge by forming a PAC of his own in concert with Attorney General Jon Bruning.
Ian Russell is on leave as White’s legislative assistant and has contracted with the Democratic Party to serve as chief strategist for its coordinated campaign. Russell is treasurer and controlling officer of the legislative PAC.
Instead of enacting tax cuts that disproportionately favor the wealthy, White says, the Legislature should provide “much more direct property tax relief for homeowners.”
The state should “take proper care of our most vulnerable citizens,” he says.
And, he says, the state should require more transparency in how political subdivisions, including schools, spend huge allotments of state aid dollars.
White identifies himself as a progressive and holds positions that separate himself from the doctrinaire liberal.
A Catholic, he is pro-life.
White favors retention of the death penalty for “people out there who are too dangerous to be incarcerated.”
“I am very much a fiscal conservative,” he says. “I support efforts to control state spending.”
How does he define his progressive views?
“I believe in helping folks through judicious use of government, but not burdening them with crushing economic pressure.
“As a civil rights attorney, I am inherently suspicious of government power because I have seen it abused.
“But I believe it is absolutely essential to have effective government to help people achieve their maximum freedom.”
White says he’s willing to “work with anybody from any party on any issue.”
Although he often is in combat with the governor, White says: “Personally, I like him a lot. I just disagree with much of his agenda.”
As a civil rights attorney, White has represented major banks and executives discharged from major corporations as well as women and minority citizens who believe their civil rights have been violated.
“I am extraordinarily proud of my country because the biggest nightmare in its political landscape has diminished,” he says.
“It is one of the most wonderful achievements ever in the American political process.
“My children don’t see race,” he says.
White, 51, who holds a law degree from Creighton University, lists former truck driver, painter and construction worker on his resume.
“My father,” he says, “shoveled coal.”
White’s father, C. Thomas White, later served as chief justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court.
“We have a long family commitment to the importance of physical labor in our younger years.”
Later this month, White will be in Denver to serve on the platform committee at the Democratic national convention.
And sometime down the road he might consider a bid for higher office.
It wouldn’t be easy, he acknowledges, not unlike the challenge of competing in a Legislature dominated by Republicans during the administration of a politically skilled Republican governor.
“You can’t be a Democrat in this state without accepting the fact that you’re going to get beat a lot.”
Reach Don Walton at 473-7248 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.