January 13, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Dave Heineman won’t be remembered as a charismatic governor: Kempt, but not much to look at; personable, engaged, and professional, but often deliberate, starchy, guarded, and political. (Heck: He wouldn’t even loosen his tie when our photographer suggested a more casual shot).

His resume and backstory suggest a stalwart, driven, ship-shape, sharp-as-a-tack West Point striver who any mom would embrace and any literary agent would reject. He has none of the sizzle and story of Bob Kerrey, Chuck Hagel, or Ben Sasse. In a couple years, Nebraskans may have forgotten who it was they anointed as the longest-serving and most approved-of governor in state history.

Consider this: In his last term of a decade-long run, Dave Heineman’s approval ratings, which danced around the 80 percent mark, were as high as or higher than any governor in the United States. While three-fourths of his approval might come from his party affiliation, it is Heineman who may be most instrumental in helping galvanize this environment in which a mannequin (R-Neb.) could have succeeded him.

Ben Sasse would likely not be in Washington right now had Heineman run for U.S. Senate. And don’t forget one of the biggest “Man, Woman, and Child!” moments in Nebraska political history: An almost no-name Dave Heineman beat Tom Osborne in the 2006 Republican primary.

Tom friggin’ Osborne!

Conversely, with his numbers and conservative stripes, Heineman should be a darling of conservative media outlets and the national Republican scouts, but he is not. Dave Heineman has something people like, but it ain’t star power.

As far as his actual legacy, any worthwhile denouement will have to come later. Nebraska is pretty dang healthy by most gauges. But, under his watch, Nebraska arguably has become less tolerant and less willing to help those in need or crisis. Also, he has left a mess with his plan to privatize the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. His office pressured prison officials to ease prison over-crowding without new spending, which, at the least, helped foster the environment that led to the early-release scandal within the Department of Corrections. Will these late-blossoming bungles be remembered amid the successes? History will tell, if History, which bores easily, cares to bother.

Pressing the Flesh
It is just after the election in November, the first arctic front is sweeping past The Sower, and I am sitting in the governor’s office trying to figure out why this guy I’m interviewing is so dang popular. My mind drifts to “like versus love” issues as he talks about the joy of speaking at some library opening in some town out by McCook. Is “popularity” the same as “approval?” Do approval ratings translate into memorable legacies? There are people I approve of because I believe they are competent executing policies with which I agree. But I don’t necessarily admire them, emulate them, revel in their anecdotes and wit, or secretly want friends to think I’m friends with them. Some people have that “it” factor, and “it” isn’t here today.

I’m a little bored, but I’m comfortable. Heineman seems genuinely excited to be talking about Benkelman, McCook, and my hometown of Falls City. His voice quickens as he talks about international trade offices and corn and then corn again and Nebraska being tops nationally in feeding cattle and the growth in both rural and urban businesses that take those raw agricultural products, mix in bushels of economy-stimulating “value adding,” and put them on your table. “We did these things without raising taxes,” he says. He didn’t say it, but he did: It’s about the economy, stupid.

And education. He argues that he has made schools better. He has numbers to back his argument (if you agree those numbers translate to better educated kids). “Providing good jobs and a great education,” he says. “That’s what Nebraskans care about.” I look at my watch. Thirty minutes? It feels like I’ve been here an hour.

But, he’s talking to the wrong crowd here—an Omaha guy who, for one, doesn’t own a business, especially a feed lot. Heineman plays best to business and rural interests. Here are his greatest successes, here are his deepest connections. And here is a major reason, he says, that he and other Republicans now dominate statewide elections: “We have worked very hard to know what Nebraskans want and to reflect Nebraska values. The Democrats have tried to carry that national Democratic message. They’re too much in sync with the national party to be effective here.”

Oh, but then I do perk up and re-engage talking about the fact that he was born in Falls City and that his dad was a manager at the very JCPenney store in which my mom bought me my first running shoes. Dave’s brother lived in Falls City and I tell Dave that his brother reminded me every time I saw him about the junior-high wrestling tournament in Kansas in which I lost to a girl. I begin to call him by his first name. Dave and I have a connection.

And I am not alone in that fact, or at least in that perception. If you’re from most any town in Nebraska, he probably has some two-degrees-of-separation conversation starter for you. “I grew up in Benkelman, Wahoo, I lived in Fremont, and I think that background has really helped me,” he says. “Especially now, having travelled in the state so much, there’s an immediate connection with people. ‘Hey, this guy is one of us.’ It changes the conversation immediately.”

Indeed it does. Nebraskans may be friendly in their greetings, but they generally need to sense a kindred spirit before they’ll open the door. In towns across Nebraska, Dave can open those doors.

Built to Govern
Paul Landow, a UNO political science professor and longtime political insider in the state, has known Heineman since the 1980s. Landow was chief of staff in Nebraska for Rep. Peter Hoagland, who, in 1992, replaced Rep. Hal Daub, for whom Heineman served as chief of staff. In Landow’s Nebraska Politics and Government class at UNO, Heineman is a recurring topic.

Landow breaks down all that is Dave: “He was the consummate politician then, he is the consummate politician now,” Landow says. “He knows exactly how to deal in the political sphere.”

“He’s good at pressing the flesh and he really, truly enjoys it,” he adds. “He knows what makes politicians popular in Nebraska. He’s careful, he’s measured, he says what he believes will work in his interests.”

Landow believes Heineman will be remembered as a “popular governor who did a good job.” But massive problems in Nebraska Health and Human Services and the state prison system “may take the luster off the view of his time as governor.

“That move to privatization in (HHS)—even calling the director the CEO—that all just proved to make things substantially worse,” Landow says. “The prison issue? It’s not a clear picture, but it all did happen under his watch.”

Outgoing U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel says he believes his friend will be remembered for his steady hand guiding the state, especially in economic matters. “His contributions to Nebraska have played a key role in our state’s growth and prosperity,” Hagel wrote in an email.

Incoming Gov. Pete Ricketts also focused on Heineman’s economic successes: “With Governor Heineman’s leadership over the last 10 years, our state has seen historic tax relief, weathered a tough national economic climate, and expanded job opportunities for Nebraska’s middle class.”

Prior to his election to Congress, Brad Ashford spent 16 years in the Nebraska Legislature, with eight years of those as a sometimes foil to Heineman. But contrary to the political division and acrimony the first-term moderate Democrat is now seeing in the U.S. Congress, Ashford says that his dealings were Heineman were generally congenial and fruitful.

Ashford says he believes one of Heineman’s greatest legacies will be his work to reform the state’s judicial system, as well as “exemplary” judicial appointments, which, he says, “will have very positive long-term implications.”

Ashford agrees with Landow and others that Heineman is an unusually political creature. “He’s a lot like Hal (Daub) in that way—they’re products of the party, they view the landscape through that prism.” Ashford says that he considers Heineman a friend, but the two aren’t close, especially after the last two years.

“Communication broke down” as the mismanagement of furlough and early-release programs in the prison system came to light. “It all became very political.”

Ashford says he believes he saw some insight into Heineman’s personality when the two would golf together. “We had fun, but it really seemed like he had a hard time just letting go for a little while. He was just more intense about that game than most people. He’s just a very focused, competitive,
driven guy.”

What’s Next?
If ghosts are the lingering spirits of those unable to move on, Dave Heineman probably is the governor most likely to haunt this office.

He argues that he hasn’t had time to think about the future because the broad administrative responsibilities of a governor will keep him occupied until inauguration day. That said, he truly seemed unable to fathom the thought of not being our governor. In short responses to recurring questions about his plans, Heineman did at least give a few indications of what he won’t be doing:

“No gardening.” On a future shot at a U.S. Senate seat: “They debate issues for 10 years that we already know the answers to. I’d be totally frustrated.”

Heineman did have one job that interested him, but late in 2014, he found out he was not a finalist to lead the University of Nebraska system. He says the job could have been a good fit because, “The president job is like the governor job. It demands the same skill set that I have.”

Then, finally, an ever-so-slight peek behind the armor:

“Honestly, I really have been so consumed with this job for so long, my thoughts are all right here—not on the future. Is that odd? It’s just who I am.

“But, will I wake up in January or February and sort of wonder about everything? How could I not? I love this job. How could there not be sadness about it being over?”

It wasn’t until after our interview that I remembered a critical detail in Nebraska’s term limit law:

A governor is limited to two consecutive, four-year terms. The key word there is “consecutive.”

Although it would be impolitic for him to say now, the truth is, in four years, Dave Heineman could once again run for the job he seemingly can’t imagine not having.

Then his legacy, whatever it might appear to be in four years, will become his resume. And, while we may not love him, and the rest of America may not know him enough to even like him, there’s a good chance that this driven homer with economic street cred could once again become the most approved-of governor in the country.

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