Democrat saddles up for a red-state ride

Article about Scott Kleeb in the Chicago Tribune. Watch this race, folks. It’s the heart of what I believe in.

By Jeff Zeleny, Tribune national political correspondent, recently in Nebraska
Published August 21, 2006

HASTINGS, Neb. — The man running for Congress begins by making a joke.

“I’m a Democrat and I’m a bull rider,” he says on a recent summer afternoon, talking to a few dozen folks who have taken their seats near the shuffleboard table at a tavern off Main Street. “Now which of those two things do you all think is more difficult to be in Nebraska?”

The easy answer, of course, is a Democrat. There are plenty of bull riders–or, in truth, plenty who wish they were–across the central plains and western Sandhills of Nebraska.

Scott Kleeb, a budding politician wearing Wranglers, is both.

While Hastings is known for such things as being the birthplace of Kool-Aid, it seldom draws much notice for its politics. But this year, campaigns are percolating in unlikely places, underscoring a potentially tumultuous road to November.

Across America in August, candidates for Congress have fanned out into their territories, campaigning with little fanfare or attention in the majority of the 435 districts. Only a handful of the most competitive seats ever attract much notice beyond their own boundaries.

Yet here in the largest geographical district in the nation–not counting states with just one representative such as North and South Dakota and Wyoming–Kleeb has become an intriguing curiosity as he logs thousands of miles on his White Chevrolet Silverado extended-cab pickup truck that serves as both office and bedroom when he’s on the road.

Kleeb is joining a long list of never-before-politicians taking their first stab at running for offices up and down the ballot.

Earlier this year, Democrats rushed to recruit soldiers who had just returned from Iraq to run for Congress. In Illinois’ 6th District, for example, war veteran Tammy Duckworth is vying to fill the seat of Rep. Henry Hyde, a retiring Republican. And, among others, military lawyer Patrick Murphy is challenging Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.).

Republicans also did their fair share of persuasion, persuading Hall of Fame football star Lynn Swann to run for Pennsylvania governor.

Still, for all these new names on the November ballot, Kleeb stands out.

It’s not simply that he was a bull rider on his college team at the University of Colorado.

It’s not simply that he received a doctoral degree from Yale. (That is a run-of-the-mill achievement among those who walk the halls of Congress.)

It’s not simply that he’s 31 or that he grew up in Turkey and Italy, where his parents taught English to children of U.S. military families. (He spent summers in Nebraska, living with his grandparents near Broken Bow.)

No, it is the topic of his dissertation that makes him unique.

Could he be the only congressional candidate on record to write a dissertation exploring the history of Western ranching and the cattle industry, focusing particularly on British and Scottish influences on the business during the 19th Century?

It was that subject that helped spark Kleeb’s interest in running for office. He, like so many other nascent politicians, believes he can make a difference.

“I believe government has an important role that it can and should be playing in people’s lives,” he said. “It can be a powerful, positive force for good.”

To conduct his research, he drove through 22 Western states, he said, “including each state west of the Mississippi except Louisiana.” He interviewed farmers and ranchers and spent a good deal of his time just listening to conversations in cafes and coffee shops.

Not surprisingly, he concluded that frustrations in the country are high, with an unusually heavy dose of animosity aimed at Washington. He believes the Democratic Party hasn’t held up its end of the bargain, either, which is why he moved back to the ranch and decided to run for an open seat in Nebraska’s 3rd Congressional District.

Never mind that Western Nebraska hasn’t elected a Democrat to Congress since 1958.

But is a Democratic resurgence slowly creeping across Western states?

Wyoming, Montana and Kansas–a trio of so-called red, Republican states–have Democratic governors. And Democrats there have fielded an unusually high number of competitive candidates in Senate and House races this year.

Here in Hastings, Kleeb realizes he is running upstream in a Republican district. When you ask him why he’s a Democrat, he begins by pointing to the year 1947, when his grandparents got power on their Nebraska ranch.

Then, he fast-forwards to the future.

“We need to get back to talking about finding ways of expanding wealth for more people,” Kleeb said, driving over to the Adams County Fairgrounds. “That’s what electricity was all about. That’s what all of FDR’s reforms were about.”

So how can a Democrat run for Congress in one of the reddest states in America? (He is running against Republican Adrian Smith, 36, to fill the seat being vacated by Rep. Tom Osborne, a Republican, who is leaving Congress after losing his bid for governor.)

“We’re hitting it as many times as we can that we’re a different kind of Democrat. If it’s a throwback, that’s great,” Kleeb said. “But this is a very independent-minded district. They want to look you in the eye, which is why I don’t wear sunglasses. They want to size you up and see who you are.”

At the same time, he doesn’t hesitate reminding folks of just one more thing: The other day, he suited up and went to the rodeo.

Leave a Reply