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Published in Print: October 2, 2002, as Nebraska Gubernatorial Hopeful Tries to Cast Off Long-Shot Label

Nebraska Gubernatorial Hopeful Tries to Cast Off Long-Shot Label

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Stormy Dean wants to make the ambitious leap from his local school board directly to the governor's office.

Realistic? Not really, some in Nebraska say. But don't suggest that he doesn't have a chance. He won't listen.

Asked if Nebraska voters are taking his candidacy seriously, the 45-year-old Democratic nominee for the state's top job replied: "Why would you say that?"

The school board president of the 3,100-student Ralston, Neb., schools outside Omaha, maintains his determination despite a recent potential snag.

Mr. Dean is the first Democrat running for governor in many years not endorsed by the Nebraska State Education Association, the state affiliate of the National Education Association. The union is not endorsing either major-party candidate.

Mr. Dean said it was a positive sign that the union hadn't backed the Republican incumbent, Gov. Mike Johanns.

"For him to not get the endorsement speaks volumes," Mr. Dean said. "Ultimately, we'll get a ton of support from the rank- and-file teachers."

Not so, political scientist John R. Hibbing contends. He says the state union's failure to support and, more importantly, marshal volunteers and money for Mr. Dean shows just how much of a stretch the Democrat faces.

"It's an uphill fight," said Mr. Hibbing, who teaches political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "It's a Republican state, and [voters] need an awfully good reason to vote Democrat."

Spurring Debate

Mr. Dean isn't convinced he's out of the picture. In fact, he's helped start some important debates about education and other issues, Mr. Hibbing said.

For starters, Mr. Dean put gambling on the table. Throwing his support behind a November ballot question that had sought approval for a constitutional amendment to allow gambling in Nebraska, Mr. Dean said there ought to be a way for the state to make money from the industry, and spend it on schools.

Unfortunately for the candidate, a judge recently threw out the referendum on a technicality.

Debate over gambling did resonate politically, prompting Gov. Johanns to say that if the state's unicameral legislature ever allowed gambling, any state taxes collected from the pastime could help raise teacher salaries.

As Ralston's school board president for the past year, Mr. Dean immediately declared himself the education candidate.

Married and the father of two children, Mr. Dean also has been a teacher. He points out that he taught accounting and business classes for four years at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha.

He pledges that as governor, he would place school spending as the state's top policy priority. He wants to raise Nebraska teachers' pay substantially. In the 2001-02 school year, according to the NEA, Nebraska's average $36,236 teacher salary ranked 43rd nationally.

"Right now, we need to fund education first," Mr. Dean said.

Republicans have found this year's race against Mr. Dean bewildering at times. "He's got a record on the school board, but that's about it," said John Barrett, the executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party.

Mr. Dean is the chief financial officer of InfoUSA, an Omaha-based marketing firm founded by Vin Gupta, a friend and supporter of former President Clinton.

Mr. Gupta helped persuade Mr. Dean to fill the empty spot on the Democratic ticket for governor.

Mr. Dean hopes the grassroots feel of his campaign will win favor with Nebraskans. He's even been known to answer the telephone at his campaign office.

Just don't ask him if he thinks he has a chance.

Vol. 22, Issue 5, Page 23

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