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Mike Groene really did not expect to be here.

But he's not about to miss the opportunity to try to make a difference now that he's a member of the Legislature.

"I want good government, limited government that encourages personal responsibility and doesn't intrude into people's lives more than it needs to," the conservative freshman senator from North Platte says.

Groene is not waiting to assess the lay of the land in the Legislature or bowing to seniority while biding either his tongue or his time; he strode right into the middle of the arena and he might be camped out there now.

It was Groene who spearheaded the filibuster that ultimately led last week to the shelving of a legislative bill that would have required meningitis vaccinations for students entering the seventh grade and again after they turn 16.

Groene argued parental rights and personal responsibility, individual freedom, opposition to government mandates. And he came to the battle with carefully prepared legislative staff research to buttress his arguments.

Fellow conservative Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion promptly suggested during floor debate that Groene could be a new transformational leader in the Legislature.

"I'm not a leader, just a guy who speaks up," Groene said during an interview in his Capitol office at the end of the week.

"Should I just sit there and wait?" he asked. "I'm passionate. I've got to stand up. But it's not about me."

Groene decided to seek a seat in the Legislature after he came to Lincoln for a public hearing of the Urban Affairs Committee on a tax increment financing bill and "listened to all these lawyers talking about economic development" when the purpose of that bill really was redevelopment and urban renewal.

"I went home to North Platte and said to my wife: 'If it's OK with you, I'm running.'"

His wife, Barb, said sure, but don't spend more than $2,500 of our money.

And he didn't.

Groene, who is engaged in agricultural sales, raised the rest of his campaign funding from relatively small donors as he mounted an uphill challenge against Roric Paulman of Sutherland, who had strong financial support and some big-time endorsements.

"I didn't think I'd win," Groene said.

"But I decided I'm gonna give it a shot and I'm not going to take money from special interests because if I take one dollar, then we're in the same boat."

In the end, Groene reported about $35,000 in campaign receipts compared to about $167,000 for Paulman. And much to the surprise of legislative watchers in Lincoln, Groene won.

How'd he do it? "Door-to-door," Groene said. "And I went on radio; I bought 10 to 15 minutes on a local radio talk show every week. 

"I probably knocked on 5,000 doors," he said. "I lost 30 pounds."

Now, Groene said, he is beholden to no special interests.

"I'm a free man down here. I do what I believe is correct. One day I may be on their side; one day I'm not."

Groene wanted a seat on the Legislature's Appropriations Committee, where he could have a voice and a vote in attempting to rein in government spending. 

"I'm a fiscal conservative," he said. "That's my emphasis."

In North Platte, he had organized the Western Nebraska Taxpayers Association and helped sponsor a 2006 petition drive to limit state spending. He has been a board member of the conservative, free-market Platte Institute.

But Groene also wanted the Education Committee, where the state school aid formula resides. Instead of Appropriations, that's where he is, along with holding a seat on Government, Military and Veterans Affairs.

Nothing in his first 26 legislative days has surprised him that much, Groene said, but "it's kinda scary to see some decisions made in haste."

"Omaha has a lot of power in determining state funding for education," he said, and that can be a challenge for small towns and rural school districts in central and western Nebraska where concerns about property taxes are paramount.

"It can be surprising how fast things move here, from hog farms to meningitis and back," Groene said. "The number of lobbyists is amazing."

Groene avoids much of that part of the legislative activity, eating lunch in his office and showing up at evening events about once a week.

The truth is he can't wait to get home on weekends.

"I'm an open-space guy. Call me a North Platte guy, rough around the edges. 

"That's my kind of community, with railroads, union guys, ranchers, farmers, blue-collar working people."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSDon.

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Political reporter

Don Walton, a Husker and Yankee fan, is a longtime Journal Star political and government reporter.

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