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Jane Kleeb
Jane Kleeb, state director of Change That Works (William Lauer / Lincoln Journal Star)

This is about more than health care reform.

Day by day, week after week, Jane Kleeb heads out her door to rally public support in Nebraska behind a strong health insurance reform package and influence Sen. Ben Nelson's uncertain vote.

But her goal is deeper and broader, more transformational, far more challenging than that.

This is about a game-changer.

Changing a state.

Now, hold on. This is no starry-eyed, impractical political dreamer who doesn't understand how hard that will be.

"It took Colorado six to eight years," says Kleeb, 36.

"I have no illusions that it would take less than that in Nebraska."

And don't misunderstand now. This is not about an unrealistic reach for a 180-degree political flip.

This is about moving beyond singular political philosophy and dogma.

Broadening the debate.

"We are building a progressive infrastructure," Kleeb says. "We've had a fundamentally narrow and one-sided view of issues here."

One-party dominance and a conservative news media speak essentially with the same voice, she says.

"It's about time Nebraska has more political conversations. "It's time we had a more balanced view."

***

OK, she's ready for critics to play the L-card now.

They always turn to the baggage-laden, politically reflexive L-word to dismiss a competing point of view, Kleeb says.

"Progressive doesn't mean liberal," she says. "It means moving Nebraska forward."

If Nebraska continues to hunker down in the comfort of the status quo, Kleeb says, it won't move forward in energy development, making up for what already is lost time.

"In that case, we lose jobs, when we could create jobs."

Nebraska already should be leading in wind and solar energy, Kleeb says.

"That would create economic progress."

There's that word.

The P-word.

The status quo means accepting a mental health and developmentally disabled system that Kleeb says is falling apart.

And a Medicaid system that is shaped in Nebraska to "save money rather than take care of kids."

***

It started at home.

Jane Fleming grew up in a Florida household with an activist mom.

When her mother saw a problem, Kleeb says, she decided to do something about it.

Kleeb learned by watching.

At American University, she studied advocacy, grassroots activism, community organization.

Earlier, as an undergraduate at Stetson University in Florida, she focused on religious and leadership studies.

In Tallahassee, Kleeb managed an AmeriCorps program for six years and "saw politics matter."

As a person who herself struggled with, and ultimately recovered from, an eating disorder, Kleeb stepped into the media world as a consultant for "Thin," an award-winning HBO documentary.

In 2003, she became executive director of Young Democrats of America.

Her message to party leaders: "You guys should invest in young voters."

In 2004, she developed a pilot program targeting young voters in six states.

Four years later, Barack Obama's campaign would successfully attract young voters nationwide, ignoring scoffers who said they'd attend rallies but never bother to vote.

Kleeb's national ties have given her connections and a media presence.

For a time, she was a pundit on Fox News. Last year, she appeared on MTV as a "Street Team" reporter covering the 2008 election campaign.

In 2006, she met Scott Kleeb, the Democratic congressional nominee in western and central Nebraska's ruby-red 3rd Congressional District.

They were married in 2007 and live in Hastings with their two daughters.

***

Now, her focus is Nebraska.

Jane Kleeb is the state director of Change That Works, originally funded by SEIU, the Service Employees International Union.

The organization chose to target 12 states with members of Congress who "often determine legislative outcomes."

That would be Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson in spades.

But there's more.

In a move reminiscent of the Obama campaign's unorthodox decision to defy conventional wisdom and consider virtually every state in play in 2008, Change That Works included three that traditionally have not had a progressive infrastructure: Arkansas, North Dakota and Nebraska.

Three months ago, Change That Works morphed into a broader organization with a more diversified funding base.

The Nebraska arm counts 10 full-time salaried staff workers.

It has offices in Lincoln and Omaha.

It has planted roots.

This is something brand-new in Nebraska: a progressive movement with resources.

***

Already, initial signs of a political dialogue are emerging.

Change That Works, acting in conjunction with an umbrella organization called Health Care for America Now, recently mounted a TV ad campaign skewering Republican Sen. Mike Johanns for his vote to prevent the Senate from debating the health care reform bill.

That represented return fire for a deluge of TV commercials pressuring and hammering Nelson, who voted to allow the debate.

Now comes a Health Care for America ad praising Nelson and nudging him toward a cloture vote that would clear the way for an up or down vote on health care reform legislation.

Nelson's indecision on whether he'll vote to end the Republican filibuster has opened the floodgates, subjecting Nebraskans to the kind of political TV ad overload Iowans experience during the presidential caucus season.

Change That Works is in that mix.

Not only with TV ads, but statewide radio messages.

And a recent full-page newspaper ad in which Lincoln small businessman Rick Poore declares: "I think we have a right to a fair up or down vote on important issues that affect us all."

***

Now, there's a spinoff progressive Web site called Bold Nebraska.

It will focus on community involvement.

The site will have a blog and a communications component using Facebook and Twitter.

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It may add a think tank to counter a flurry of conservative think tanks that dominate policy conversations in Nebraska, Kleeb says.

Nebraska has not been entirely devoid of progressive voices, she says.

Among them are the Nebraska Appleseed Center in Lincoln and the Center for Rural Affairs in northeastern Nebraska, Kleeb says.

Kyle Michaelis of Lincoln launched a progressive blog called New Nebraska Network in 2005 when he was 23.

In 2007, W. Don Nelson of Lincoln set sail with Prairie Fire, a monthly newspaper that bills itself as "the progressive voice of the Great Plains."

But Change That Works wants to build a movement, Kleeb says.

"I know some Republicans will push back and think this is fruitless and naive," she says. "But Republicans need to know there are good Democrats, and vice versa.

"Most Nebraskans could care less about party. "They're independent and populist by nature. They just want you to do the right thing."

***

There's a base to build upon, Kleeb says.

Last November, voters in Omaha and Lincoln chose Obama and his message of progressive change over Republican presidential nominee John McCain.

Those are the two big cities in Nebraska, the metropolitan areas in which the state's growth is centered.

Gradually, they will represent a larger percentage of Nebraska's population.

And that means a larger share of the state's voters.

"Lincoln and Omaha are a lot more blue than the Republican Party would like to admit," Kleeb says.

"But I know how difficult it will be to organize in the 3rd District," she acknowledges.

"It is deep red."

However, that isn't the end of the story, she suggests.

People in central and western Nebraska are "rooted in their communities and their families," she says.

Independent-minded and open to debate and dialogue.

***

Health care reform is the overriding issue now, Kleeb says.

Financial, labor and student loan reforms take a back seat.

Change That Works approaches Nelson with gentle persuasion rather than confrontation as it seeks his vote on the climactic cloture motion to end a filibuster and allow an up or down vote.

The challenge, Kleeb says, is this: "How do we make sure he knows Nebraskans want health care reform?"

Seventy-three percent believe the bill deserves a final vote, whether they support it or not, according to a poll commissioned in November by Change That Works.

Forty percent of likely voters said they're more likely to vote for Nelson -- who faces re-election in 2012 -- if he allows a floor vote.

Thirty-five percent said they would be less likely to vote for him.

The telephone survey of 500 Nebraskans was conducted by Lake Research Partners.

"We see Nelson as a possible vote," Kleeb says.

"We are not so naive as to think we get Johanns on key issues, but we need to hold him accountable."

Looking ahead, Kleeb says, the goal will be to attract qualified progressive candidates in Nebraska and offer voters a clear choice.

"We will not get them unless there's a base they can win on," she said.

"It is going to take awhile."

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

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