Bob Kerrey 114

"I'm not Hamlet": Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey says his career reassessment "is a life decision I need to make" in January 2000. (TED KIRK/Lincoln Journal Star)

Ted Kirk

Bob Kerrey jumped into the 2012 Senate race Wednesday, igniting fireworks in both parties and immediately turning Nebraska into a battleground for control of the Senate.

Kerrey's green-light announcement, which came three weeks after he decided not to enter the contest, represented a change of heart that he said was prompted by a conversation with his wife, Sarah Paley, while they were watching the Oscars on TV Sunday night.

Aware that he was not happy with his original decision, his wife urged him to enter the race, Kerrey said. 

"Doing things the conventional way has never been my strong suit," he said in a written statement that accompanied the announcement he made early Wednesday afternoon during a telephone conference call with Nebraska print media writers.

"This afternoon, I will file to become a candidate for the United States Senate in Nebraska," he said.

"I came to realize that my previous decision was the easy one, not the right one. My commitment to serve Nebraska and America and to be part of the debate about the challenges we face was too strong to dismiss."

Kerrey, who represented Nebraska in the Senate from 1989 to 2001, will seek the Democratic nomination for the seat being vacated by Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson at the end of the year.

University of Nebraska Regent Chuck Hassebrook of Lyons, who withdrew as a candidate for re-election to enter the Senate contest after Kerrey said he would not run, has vowed to remain in the Democratic race.  

"Chuck is a friend. I like him very much. He's a good man," Kerrey said Wednesday, offering an apology for changing his mind after Hassebrook made his move.

It's too late now for Hassebrook to file as a candidate for re-election to the Board of Regents.

In a wide-ranging conference call, Kerrey identified entitlement reform as a key issue in his campaign and confirmed he has received some assurances from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that would position him to be an effective member of the Senate if he is elected.

Kerrey presumably sought an opportunity to leverage his prior 12 years of Senate seniority to acquire key committee assignments. Nelson holds seats on the Appropriations Committee and the Armed Services Committee.

"I have assurances," Kerrey said. "They have work to do to get that done, but I trust them."

He said he believes Republican efforts already under way to paint him as a liberal New York City carpetbagger who no longer is connected to or in touch with Nebraskans will be a minor issue that voters quickly will reject.

"I went to New York to take a job," said Kerrey, who was president of New School University. "People leave Nebraska and come back all the time. We recruit people from New York, (and we) don't attack them as carpetbaggers."

Kerrey was named New School president in 2001 after completing his second term in the Senate. He grew up in Lincoln, graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, still owns businesses in Lincoln and Omaha, and was governor of Nebraska from 1983 to 1987.

In preparation for his Senate bid, Kerrey registered to vote in Douglas County this week and acquired a residence in Omaha. His filing beats the deadline by one day.

He identified entitlement reform, which he tackled as a senator and has continued to address through the Concord Coalition, as a critical issue that needs to be addressed immediately.

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The "looming liability" in Medicare and Social Security not only represents a critical budget issue, it also threatens to confront younger generations with higher taxes and reduced benefits, Kerrey said.

He said he stands willing to work with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to reach a bipartisan solution to address the issue.

"I think it is the most compelling economic problem," he said. 

Kerrey said he and his wife have resolved their earlier concerns about how a Senate race would affect their family life. They have a 10-year-old son, Henry.

"My wife has reached the conclusion we can manage it," he said.

Asked to describe their conversation on Oscar night, Kerrey attempted to repeat what she said: "You're not happy. I can see it. And I want you to be happy. I know you feel strongly that this should be done and that if you're elected, you'd be good at it. So you should do it."

He flew to Nebraska after conducting business in Chicago the next day.

"This is a very difficult decision," Kerrey said.  "We have a very good life. It took time to get here."

He said he'd have dinner Wednesday night with his daughter, Lindsey, who lives in Omaha, before returning to New York for the weekend.

"The campaign begins Monday," he said. 

Reach Don Walton at 402-473-7248 or at


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