Sen. DiAnna Schimek’s legislative career may have been a twist of fate — a lucky one for the beneficiaries of her five terms in office.
Schimek ran for state treasurer in 1986, losing to her opponent by a 2 percent margin.
“She almost won,” said Julie Erickson, President of American Communications Group Inc., the firm that ran all of Schimek’s campaigns. “If she had, she would’ve never been in the Legislature, and I see that as a bad thing.”
Schimek said the upshot of the tough loss was that she won 70 percent of the votes in her legislative district.
She and Erickson derived her campaign slogan based on Schimek’s direct approach to government — “Open Door Policy.”
This year, Schimek will leave the Unicameral after 20 years of applying this straightforward style to legislating.
“It’s very important to me that people who don’t have a voice have people in the Legislature to speak on their behalf,” Schimek said.
Though she said she “stumbled and bumbled” her way through her work much of the time, those who’ve worked with her disagree.
“When I entered the Democratic primary for governor in 1982, I was as green as a spring clover,” said Bob Kerrey, former governor and U.S. senator.
“I viewed DiAnna as someone I could trust and someone who knew a lot more than I did about elections and politics. She was a very patient, understanding and kind teacher. I was an unruly student,” he said.
Schimek’s colleagues in the Democratic Party say her work as chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party in the early 1980s was a harbinger of her approach as a legislator.
Schimek hired Marg Badura in 1980 to help organize the Democratic Party in Nebraska. Badura understands why the senator’s grassroots-building efforts remain legendary in Democratic Party circles.
“She was a road warrior during that time,” said Badura, now an attorney in Omaha. “She got in the car, put on the miles and held organizational meetings. She had 80-plus counties organized. It wasn’t magic; it was all-out, hard organizational work.”
Once Schimek joined the Legislature, some people expected her to work in a partisan manner because of her history as a Democratic Party leader, but it wasn’t an issue, she said.
“I had no difficulty,” Schimek said. “Preserving the Legislature’s nonpartisan nature is exceedingly important.”
Former state senator and speaker of the Legislature Ron Withem served with Schimek until 1997. He said her intention to preserve the body’s integrity was clear from her first days as a senator.
“DiAnna came to the body with a textbook expectation of how government should operate, I mean that as an extreme compliment ,” said Withem, now a lobbyist for the University of Nebraska.
“She maintained an undying sense that people, in the democratic sense, will do the right thing. She hasn’t lost any of her sense that the democratic system will ultimately prevail,” he said.
Schimek has supported a number of controversial issues during her tenure, such as in-state tuition for children of undocumented immigrants, voting rights for felons and gaming on Native reservations.
“When you believe something is right, it’s your responsibility to work on it,” she said.
Her stances on hot button issues have not gone unnoticed by critics.
Parents who homeschool their children said a bill introduced by Schimek this year to require yearly testing was a waste of time, effort and money. The bill failed to advance from the Education Committee.
“Her work has often been difficult,” said Maxine Moul, former lieutenant governor and fellow Democrat. “She has probably been vetoed more times than any other senator.”
While Schimek hesitated to talk about her “legacy,” she did identify some of the work of which she is most proud: funding mammography for low-income women, mandating insurance coverage for mammography, revamping the state’s electoral college system and sponsoring an election rewrite law as chairwoman of the Government, Military and Veteran’s Affairs Committee.
Much of Schimek’s legislation has focused on making government more accessible.
“The more the public participates, the better government works,” Schimek said. “We’re so accustomed to brevity; we don’t give the public as much information as they could process and use. There needs to be more attention to serious issues of the day. I know it’s difficult; people have busy lives, but it’s important.”
To see her goals translate into legislation, Schimek has worked within the confines of a nonpartisan legislature, even though her party has been in the minority during all 20 years of her service.
“Some issues do divide down party lines,” said Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford, a Republican. “I don’t think the fact she is a Democrat makes any difference. She defends the little guy. And has a history of doing that.”
Though Schimek said policymaking is her true passion as a legislator, she said individual work with constituents also has been rewarding.
“We’ve bent over backward to help constituents navigate through state agencies,” she said. “Sometimes we can help, sometimes we’ll introduce a bill, even if we know it probably won’t move, to get the issue out there.”
That’s what happened when Cliff Carlson met with his senator to ask her to introduce a bill to require insurance companies to cover cochlear implants.
Though the bill did not emerge from committee, Carlson said he was glad he went through the process.
“She is an advocate for her constituents. She believes in education,” he said. “Education for constituents and education for senators and Nebraskans on the issues.”
As Schimek looks back on her constituent and policy work during her career, she said she doesn’t have regrets.
“I didn’t have an agenda when I came in,” she said. “I wanted to serve my district and to do a conscientious job.”
For now, Schimek said she isn’t looking beyond December, when she will co-host the Council of State Governments’ annual meeting in Omaha, with Speaker Mike Flood.
Whatever she chooses to do, Schimek will abide by her principles, said David Landis, who served as a senator with Schimek until he, too, was term-limited two years ago.
“If you were to find a theme in her legislation: She has been true to her constituency’s interests and those whose voices have been marginalized, those who don’t have a lobbyist out in the (Capitol) rotunda,” Landis said. “Those who are well-organized do well in the system. DiAnna Schimek was saying, ‘Who is not at the table? What do they think?’”
Reach Lisa Munger at firstname.lastname@example.org.