Civic Engagement Nebraska Politics

In Her Boots: Behind the Scenes with Jane Kleeb

With a primary election on the immediate horizon, I thought it would be useful to sit down with Jane Kleeb, the head of Nebraska’s Democratic Party, to ask her some questions. In particular, I wanted to shed some additional light on what exactly the state party does, what its goals are, and what Kleeb—who recently published a book on engaging rural voters with Democratic Party policies—is hoping to accomplish in this election year.

Ari: These are in no particular order, but I wonder if you can talk a little bit about how the state party works to identify candidates for races because I know that you are really active across the board in all sorts of races. How do you – how does the party work to identify candidates?

Jane: So the state party has kind of an already established structure of party officers and so those folks are elected on a statewide basis. Some positions are two year, some positions are four. We are actually pushing reforms at our state convention in June to make them all four year terms, but it’s the Chair, the Associate Chair, Second Associate Chair, DNC Committeeman and DNC Committewoman, those are our 5 statewide officers. They are the core of the recruitment team and we get together with our Executive Director and our other staff members and start initially essentially about a year out and start mapping out, ok, what are the Leg races up, what are the NPPD races, you know, do we have gubernatorial, mayor, etc, and we start identifying people who have already self-identified, so those go on the map first as people have already told us two years ago they plan on running for Mayor, or we even have people that are telling us they are running for Leg 3 years from now, so some are long-term planners, and some are spur of the moment candidates. If we don’t already have kind of a candidate who has already kind of announced and self-described and strong and a chance of winning, we start looking at lower offices so for example for state legislature we often look at in that district, who is on City Council, who might be the Mayor, who is on school boards, who is running maybe a non-profit in the area that might be well-known, who are Teachers of the Year in the area, so we go to those to try to start to identify and then we go to meet the people and we create a recruitment committee and we have a staff member who is the lead of that and they hold conference calls like once a month and as we get closer to filing deadlines like twice a week to go over who do we have who has file who do we have who hasn’t filed, who is having trouble raising money, do they need a campaign manager, all these kind of candidate services that happen obviously behind the scenes. And then there are strong partners like the teacher’s union, that’s probably the one that’s most engaged, as well as the state AFL/CIO, they have candidates who they are recruiting as well, and we really work kind of hand in hand with those two unions in particular to make sure that we are not duplicating efforts.

Ari: That’s great, so tying into that, you said do they have a campaign manager, so the next logical question is, how does the state party help train staff, and then once you train them, once they have experience, is there an effort to keep them in state?

Jane: So when I started, when I became chair, we started a program called Blue Bench where we do at least one really in-depth professional training a year that has three tracks – one for candidates or for people who think they might be candidates one day, one for campaign staff, and one for volunteers and party activists. And we bring in outside trainers as well as well as inside trainers and we train those three tracks on the nuts and bolts categories of fundraising, communications, field, social media, and kind of nuts and bolts of filing, reporting to the FEC or NEDC. Those happen once a year so like we had ours during the Big Blue Weekend in Omaha when Nancy Pelosi was here, we will do another one at state convention in June, and then we hold smaller trainings around the state where we kind of take that material and then do smaller trainings as needed or if a county party requests one. Our Candidate Services Director also does a lot of one on one trainings with candidates who are terrified about filing with the NADC or don’t realize that they have to file with the Secretary of State and just need help figuring out what their vocals should be, you know just kind of numeric mathing, there’s a formula into it so we help with all those initial steps. We do have a list of campaign managers and finance people who have done work in the state before, but that list isn’t long enough and oftentimes as soon as somebody as been through two campaign cycles, which is kind of the average, they get a job with a state Senator or with a Mayor or with a City Council member because they don’t want to do the ridiculous hours for low pay. So it is a real problem, not just in Nebraska, but nationwide that we don’t have a good system to maintain campaign staff and I think that a lot of that is around pay, they are non-union and get very little pay and very little sleep um and then for Nebraska it’s hard to keep our talent here because it’s been such a one-party rule for statewide offices and federal offices that they don’t see a way that is essentially oftentimes the kind of you know beacon for campaign staff is that they then get to work on Capitol Hill as a Chief of Staff and there’s not really that path here. So we often lose good campaign staff because of that.

Ari: Yeah, makes sense. Okay so that kind of leads me into something else which is the, you know, county party. What is the relationship between the state party and the various county parties? How does that work?

Jane: So we really do work hand in hand except in Douglas County, that is probably not a secret or a surprise to anybody, there have been plenty of newspaper articles written about it, so other than Douglas County the state party works hand in hand with all of our counties to coordinate a campaign. So for example in Lancaster County we have the Lincoln race and city council races, we worked hand in hand on raising money for vote by mail which sounds really small, but vote by mail is really how Democrats win in our state because we can get votes banked a month early before the election starts, before those independent and swing voters start to get all that negative mail that makes our candidates sound like they are the Anti-Christ. So we worked hand in hand with the Lancaster party with that as well as on field and volunteer programs and messaging, and the state party is unique because we have, not only do we have the voter file which has all the data for the voters and volunteers and historical IDs of other campaigns and we run our own issue campaigns where we ID voters at the door and we get data from the DNC and other party committees so it’s unique, it’s the best voter file out there. You can buy voter files kind of on the market but it doesn’t have all this data on it. But the other thing the state party has is essentially if a lit piece would cost you a dollar, the state party has a special postage permit, the state party is the only one who has it, same with the Republican party, where we pay 30 cents on the dollar. So we can send out three times the amount of mail, three times the vote by mail applications, etc etc, so really that infrastructure piece alone is really worth a ton to candidates in the county parties.

Ari: That makes good sense. What else do I want to know? Oh, we were just talking about this – fundraising. So, obviously it’s a challenge, it’s always a challenge. What are some of the biggest challenges from the perspective of the state party when it comes to fundraising, and then, where does the money go?

Jane: So because people, both major donors, and grassroots activists, and grassroots donors, because those three categories of people are where you normally get money for political activity, because they don’t understand state parties, because state parties seem like they are kind of this, you know, dark castle that nobody understands how to get into or be a part of, people don’t think if I want to elect Democrats I’m going to get to the state party, right, even though that is the best bang for your buck, you help all Democrats on the ballot, etc etc, people don’t think that. So, state parties have a huge kind of fundraising hill to climb and then it’s even twice as bad because we are in a red state where a lot of our historical donors are getting older and they haven’t seen a statewide win since Senator Ben Nelson in 2006, so that is a major problem for state parties. Now we have started to turn that ship around um we’ve really been able to show not only are we recruiting more county chairs which are the backbone of local elections, so we have 73 county chairs now out of 93 counties and when I came on board we had like 40, um, we have a block captain program now with 600 volunteer block captains across the state, we want to get to 1000, we had 850 Democrats run across the state and really in 2018 was the first time we documented actually how many Democrats we had which was a whole task in and of itself because you have to go to each county and match it to the voter file and see who is Democrats and not, so we’ve been able to prove that we’re winning. We are winning at the local level, the kind of regional level, state Board of Education seats, etc., but we are not winning Federal, and we are not winning statewide. And the reason is very clear, if you look at the numbers, is, when Ben Nelson won statewide, he was able to close the rural vote to be 60% Republicans and 40% Democrats and our Democrats now are winning only 30% of the vote. You simply, there’s just not enough votes to run up the margins in Lincoln and Omaha which unfortunately some people think, but there’s just not enough, you’ve gotta close the gap again in these rural towns, um, reaching Independents and reaching Democrats who essentially stopped voting. So it’s certainly a challenge, but we’re doing it so you know in 2018 we raised over a million dollars, in 2019 we raised over $600,000, in 2020 we hope to raise $1.3 million, um, that’s why it’s frustrating for state chairs like myself and in Montana and South Dakota and all the other kind of red and rural states where they see a Michael Bloomberg or a Tom Steyer spending, you know, combined they spent $200 million in the last couple months on TV ads when if you were to give small states like Nebraska a million dollars we literally would flip all those state Legislative seats. But because there are no rural leaders at the table in Washington DC, so if you go to the DNC, or the D Trip, the D Trip is the Congressional Campaign Committee that oversees all our Democratic politics, if you go and look at their leadership, there are no rural leaders there. So when they’re in the room looking at the map, they look at what every political professional looks at – where are the 10% and below vote margins that we think we could make that up. And really they look at 3% and below which is really what the prefer, but they sometimes go up to 10%. If you don’t have somebody like myself or any of the other rural chairs out there at the table saying wait a second, CD1 looks totally unwinnable on paper but let me tell you what’s happening, then they don’t even think about it, it’s not even on their radar screen, so structurally that is a problem too, that we have no rural voices at the table.

Ari: That makes a lot of sense. I assume that is something that you are trying to do.

Jane: I am

Ari: I figured. So that brings me to my next question, which is the relationship between the national party and the state party and what kind of help the national party gives to the state, the relationship between the two, how that works.

Jane: This is such an interesting question and I talk a little bit about it, well, there are actually several chapters based in my book about this issue within the Democratic politics because I’m really trying to get people to try to understand the mechanics of the machine if you will, because you have to start to understand the mechanics to understand where there are broken levers. And the relationship between the DNC and the state party is broken, and every single state chair will tell you this, there are state chairs in blue states and swing states that get all of the resources. So, under the DNC is something called the Association of State Parties, or it is formally called the Association of State Democratic Committees, and we are the ones that advocate to the DNC for better rules, better resources, more seats at the table. Um, when Howard Dean was chair, when he was running for chair, it was a very competitive race, we had lost the White House, so when you lose the White House that is when you have very competitive races for Chair and it was very competitive, he thought he was going to lose so he made an alliance with the State Party Association and the SPA said if you commit to giving us $25,000 a month, no matter if you are red, blue, or purple, we will pool our votes together and get you over the top. That was the first time that the state association did that, they did that, they got Howard Dean over the top, and Howard Dean was credited for creating what they called the 50 state strategy, where all the state parties had a good base of funding, not fully funded, but that is a good base of funding for state parties, you can hire an Executive Director, you can open an office, you can start your fundraising program. When Obama became President, and we were winning races by the way, so under Howard Dean’s four years, winning races, state parties are winning. President Obama gets elected, he saw the DNC, which I understand why he did, as the enemy, right? They were against him going into Iowa, the DNC and all the establishment was behind Secretary, well, Senator Clinton at the time and so he had a very negative feeling toward the DNC, he didn’t see the value in the DNC because they were out there creating a whole new base of Democratic voters. So they created, they turned their campaign arm, Obama for America, into Organizing for America, OFA, and essentially shadowed the state party in every single state. So they opened up an office, they had really good staff, and they ran field programs and messaging all around to support the President’s agenda and sucked up all the volunteers and fundraising as well. He went from $25,000 a month for state parties to $2500 and we lost in Obama’s eight years in the White House, over 1200 state Legislative and other key state races. Because, one reason, is because state parties no longer had the resources to be running and organizing and being competitive in seats in kind of red and purple states. So it’s a major problem. So when Chair Perez became Chair he brought that money back up to $10,000 and that’s where it’s at now so we, so the Nebraska Democratic Party gets $10,000 a month and then we can apply for what are called Innovation Grants so we’ve gotten an Innovation Grant every year I’ve been chair and they are things on like how do expand vote by mail to rural and Native Americans or right now our constituency director and our block captain coordinator they were both part time because that’s all we could afford, so this last grant we got was to bring them both to full time. So that also then brings in resources as well. It’s probably an additional $50,000-$75,000 per year from those grants.

Ari: So in addition to the $10,000 a month and the grants, does the DNC also fund particular candidates?

Jane: No. The DNC doesn’t fund particular candidates, the D Trip funds particular candidates. Now what the DNC will do when there is like a competitive gubernatorial race they will give money to the state party to do messaging, voter registration, so that definitely does happen. So in Kentucky, Virginia, those two states in particular in 2019 they got a bunch of money from the DNC to win those races. Bloomberg actually invested almost $2 million into Virginia state party. Kentucky got less money but they were able to raise a bunch on their own because they had a really good state party chair so they raised like $6 million to win their gubernatorial race.

Ari: So does CD2 regularly see extra investment in that way?

Jane: Typically they have, but in the last two election cycles, no. So typically what has happened is CD2, the candidate as well as the state party has normally together pooled about a million dollars from the D Trip. In fields, in air campaigns, in all sorts of things. In 2018 the D Trip gave the state party, I’d have to go back and look, but essentially we had a staff person on the ground paid for by the D Trip and that was it. No extra money for field and then that went away and we were like, we can’t do nothing, so we funded and went into debt, funded 12 canvassers for that time that Precious then managed, particularly focused on south and north Omaha and really turning out those particular voters but, and right now the D Trip has given the state party zero dollars as we don’t even have the one staff person that they had you know before so now zero dollars. They do have a person funded on the ground, his name is Jason Volandra and he has recently started working out of the NDP office in Omaha but you know he takes his marching orders from National D Trip and mostly has been doing tracking of Bacon and has been doing some volunteer recruitment but no it’s disgusting I can’t tell you the amount of times I’m in DC banging my fist on the table saying this is crazy. Not only is CD2 going to be critical for the Presidential electoral map the kind of worse case scenario that we can all see happen, um, we can win this seat, no matter who the candidate is out of the primary, it doesn’t matter, we can rally behind whoever that is. The fact that they are not investing money into this seat tells you that they don’t believe that we can win it and that’s a major problem.

Ari: But it’s a margin of error

Jane: I know.

Ari: Ok just a couple more. One is easy, one is more complicated. In thinking about, there is a state platform, so what does the party do to sort of advance the priorities that are written into the state platform?

Jane: Yeah, that’s a good question. So, its a little bit trickier in our state because we are the only state in the union that has a non partisan Unicameral. So our state senators sometimes don’t want the state party inside the Capitol building, I will say the majority of time they don’t want us in the state capitol building because they’re building very fragile bridges and coalitions with Republicans in order to get their bills over the finish line. So we really do, and I know activists they don’t understand this and they get frustrated with us about it but we don’t do a lot of lobbying or advocacy around bills. There will be bills that state Senators come to us and say can you help fill the hearing room, do press arounds, etc, and we certainly do that or when a news story happens highlighting a state senator on a bill like Senator Wishart’s sign language bill or Megan Hunt we have to profile a lot of her bills you know we publish that on our social media and our newsletters but being proactive about advocacy is a very difficult line for us to walk. And so we have an agreement with the state Senators that we get active on bills when they want us active on bills.

Ari: Ok, so that leads into my last question for you which is a big think kind of question. I wonder about structural changes that you think would be most beneficial for the Nebraska Democratic Party. So the first thing that comes to mind obviously is like the fact that the Unicam is both nonpartisan, but also nonprofessional, right? How does that impact, for example, recruiting candidates? Those are the kind, when I’m thinking about structural changes, that’s one easy example that comes to mind. But what are some of the structural changes that you can think of – how do you think that would make an impact?

Jane: I definitely think if those positions were paid more than less than a minimum wage which is what our state senators are currently getting paid you would see more diverse individuals running. Now, even with the ridiculous pay that state senators get, the Democrats that are in the state legislature really are diverse. There are a lot of women, and you know we have LGBT, an African American, Latino, so I think we’re doing a fairly good job. But still, like working class people cannot run for state legislature unless their spouse or significant other has a pretty good job that they can do cushion on or you know like they run a nonprofit like Adam Morfeld does and that type of thing, so, but it’s very difficult. So I think structurally yes, we definitely want to see state senators paid a professional wage and paid a full time wage year round. There’s no reason why PSC who attends one meeting a week is getting paid $75,000 with full benefits and our state senators are getting $12,000 and no health insurance like there is something fundamentally wrong there. So even public power board seats are getting paid more than our state Senators, so we obviously need to do a better job on that piece so that’s a big structural change. I think automatic voter registration is another structural change piece that is critical so that when someone turns 18 they are automatically registered to vote they essentially get a card in the mail, check the party, send it back. Having easier vote by mail where you can actually request to vote by mail online rather than filling out this antiquated form that the Secretary of State has and then figuring out where your county election office is you know as a party we try to make that as easy as possible and we send out our own vote by mail applications which is much easier but that’s a structural change that should be happening.