Jane Kleeb emerges as a figure, perhaps a force

2011-12-18T04:00:00Z 2011-12-20T08:45:09Z Jane Kleeb emerges as a figure, perhaps a forceBy DON WALTON / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com
December 18, 2011 4:00 am  • 

Organizer, advocate, messenger.

Lightning rod.

You're going to take some hits when you're at the center of the storm. 

Jane Kleeb emerged from last month's electric high-noon showdown over the Keystone XL pipeline's proposed path across Nebraska's storied Sandhills as a figure, and perhaps a force, to be reckoned with.

This long struggle was David versus Goliath, with Kleeb and her allies riding into battle from the west armed with a slingshot. 

Now, there were many key figures in this remarkable story that essentially pitted people power against established corporate and political power. And no one can take full credit, or perhaps even primary credit, for what ultimately transpired after the dust settled in the legislative corral.

But you could argue that while it didn't happen just because of her, it would not have happened without her.  

* * *

"Jane gets things done," says Randy Thompson, the symbolic face and voice of the landowners who opposed the pipeline's routing through Sandhills ranches and across the Ogallala Aquifer.

"I have found Jane to be a very genuine person who truly has the interest of our state at heart," he says.

"She is highly organized. With her connections and the people she knows and the organizations she works with, we were able to do this."

Kleeb puts this man simply known as Randy at the head of her list of people who made it happen.

And what happened was extraordinary: Gov. Dave Heineman, the Nebraska Legislature and TransCanada all did a 180. One by one, and in that order, they joined the $7 billion pipeline project in pursuing a different path.

Other names tumble out of Kleeb's mouth: Mary Pipher and Jane Wilson, the poet-artists; John Hansen and Ken Winston, rural and environmental spokesmen. Citizen advocates.

Would there have been a special legislative session without them?

Heineman, who reversed course when he suddenly summoned the Legislature to Lincoln, told the Farmers Union state convention this month it was because of them.

"Your input made the difference," the governor said. 

"You put the pressure on. You kept giving us advice. You kept sharing letters and emails. You showed up at two public hearings in Atkinson and Lincoln with the State Department and three days worth of legislative hearings on the issue.

"That is how we got to where we are today."

* * *

You could not see that moment coming. 

The opposition appeared to be too little and far too late. It seemed the train already had left the station -- with powerful interests aboard.

And yet, even with subtle green signals already flashing from Washington, this steamroller got derailed on its way to the station.

Something had happened in Nebraska beyond the power centers, much of it out west below the big sky.

"A breakthrough moment," Kleeb says. "Perhaps a game-changer."

Citizens banded together in common interest, spoke up, exercised power and won. There are lessons in that, Kleeb suggests. 

Progressives and rural Nebraskans, especially in western and central Nebraska's 3rd Congressional District, and particularly in the Sandhills, discovered they can work together, she says.

They've learned they have a lot more in common than they might have believed, Kleeb says.

"We're on the same page on a lot of issues."

Like sustainability of family farms, revitalization of rural communities, development of wind and solar energy.

"Obviously, we didn't plan this issue," Kleeb says. "It was one of those rare moments. An amazing opportunity."

What she learned, she says, is something she really knew already.

"In these small communities and on the farms and ranches, there are leaders with strong ideas. Fiercely independent, ready to do anything to defend their way of life.

"Especially in the Sandhills. I knew that immediately when I started dating Scott."

* * *

Jane Kleeb, 38, met Scott Kleeb in 2006 when he was the Democratic nominee for the 3rd District House seat. At the time, he was a Sandhills ranch hand with a Ph.D. from Yale.

The Kleebs were married in 2007 and live in Hastings now with three daughters ranging in age from 7 months to 10 years. 

Scott entered the private sector with a start-up residential energy efficiency business following a 2008 Senate bid. After working to support national health care reform, Jane eventually formed Bold Nebraska, a progressive online voice that now counts almost 8,000 names tied to its Facebook site while flashing a lively presence on Twitter.

"Without Facebook, it would have been very difficult for us to organize as quickly on the pipeline," she says.

The same social media that spawned the Arab Spring gave birth to a Nebraska November.

"We formed a tight-knit coalition that battled the titans of this state," Jane Kleeb says. 

"We trusted each other to stand up for one another and we shook up the established political class. I hope we have reignited our populist roots."

Omaha philanthropist Dick Holland funds Bold Nebraska to the tune of $75,000 to $100,000 a year. Kleeb says the organization counts 278 smaller donors.

The blow back sometimes has been intensely personal. Heineman once described Kleeb as "mouthing off." 

Not only her advocacy, but even her choice of clothing or hairstyle have been mocked by political opponents online.

"They have demonized us and they have villainized me," she says. "It used to bother me personally. I used to internalize it, but it rolls off now."

Republican State Chairman Mark Fahleson suggests that Kleeb has been "well-compensated for her effective promotion of her left-leaning politics and herself at the same time."

But, he says, "any short-term gain has come at the expense of long-term progress for the liberal or progressive agenda."

"Her politics are scorched earth, and her radical tactics have burned many bridges to Nebraska leaders and policymakers."

* * *

What next?

In 2012, Bold Nebraska will oppose the re-election of state Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha -- "he mistreated landowners at the hearing," Kleeb says -- and support the re-election of state Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm, who helped lead the legislative fight to scuttle the Sandhills route.

In order to focus its resources most effectively, Kleeb says, Bold Nebraska probably will limit its legislative election activity to two additional races next year.

As for issues, Bold Nebraska hopes to help sink a voter photo identification bill that is awaiting debate on the floor of the Legislature when senators return in January. 

"That's a rural issue as well as an urban one," Kleeb says. "It establishes barriers that will impact older rural residents who may not be driving anymore."

Other issues will include wind and solar energy as well as energy efficiency.

And what's in Jane Kleeb's future?

Not a Senate race if Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson decides not to seek re-election.

"I don't see running for Congress or governor. That's not who I am," Kleeb says.

"But I certainly would love to serve in the Unicameral some day."

If Nelson decides to seek re-election, Kleeb wants to help.

"I'm willing to take a hiatus from Bold to help Senator Nelson get re-elected," she says. "I believe that is critical for our state."

And what lies beyond that?

"I am very interested in going into the corporate sector (where) perhaps I could have a much larger and more structural impact on issues I care about."

Reach Don Walton at 402-473-7248 or at dwalton@journalstar.com.

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