At the end of the day, voters want a choice. If nothing else, the tight Nebraska 2nd Congressional District race pitting incumbent Lee Terry against challenger Brad Ashford gives voters a distinct option.
Pre-election surveys indicate a neck-and-neck battle between these local boys made good from high-profile Omaha families. Politicos have long viewed Terry as a vulnerable target. He nearly lost to John Ewing in 2012. The GOP poured millions into his campaign and even though the national Democratic Party declined to support Ewing, the challenger lost by only two percent of the popular vote. Ashford is getting some support from his national party headquarters in this race but his campaign's still being outspent thanks to the Terry camp's deep coffers and the GOP sinking big money into the race.
Terry is the 52-year-old hard-line Republican whose eight terms in the U.S. House of Representatives give voters a 16-year resume to consider. This Boomer weaned on the right wing philosophies of his father, former Omaha television anchor and commentator, Lee Terry Sr., and shaped by the doctrine of his political hero, Ronald Reagan, tows the traditional Republican Party line.
"I have a basic pro business, job creation conservative view and I've always stayed pretty loyal to that philosophy," says Terry, who worked as a private practice attorney and served on the Omaha City Council before entering Congress in 1998.
Terry, with endorsements from law enforcement and veterans groups, is a staunch law and order guy and big military advocate. Given his father's strong GOP leanings, Terry doesn't have to look far for influences.
"My father's a huge influence. But for my father I wouldn't be in Congress or probably even care about politics," he says. "As a kid my parents were very active in political work. I remember handing our fliers at polling places probably in the first grade and getting political lectures from my dad about how Ted Kennedy was going to hurt small businesses with his whatever legislation. That was our dinner table talk,"
"My dad knows his stuff, he does his research and he develops very strong opinions. When I was growing up he would tape his Sunday morning political show on Saturday and I would always go down to the station when they would film it."
At one taping Terry met Sen. Roman Hruska, R-Neb. Hruska's autograph went up next to Evil Knievel's on his bedroom door at home.
Meeting Hruska, under whom Ashford served as an intern, was big but Terry says "someone that is legendary to me is Ronald Reagan." Though he never met the two-term President he says the 1984 Reagan presidential campaign offered him a job but he turned it down to pursue a law degree at Creighton University.
Like Terry, the 64-year-old Ashford is a CU law grad. His wife, Omaha attorney and businesswoman Ann Ferlic Ashford, was a law classmate of Terry's. The two men go back and they once shared the same party in common, though in sharp contrast to Terry, Ashford's unbound by party affiliation. For this race though he's a Democrat after previous forays as a Republican and Independent.
Where Terry was steeped in conservative Republican values, Ashford was immersed in his Republican family's' progressive social views. His grandfather Otto Swanson started the now defunct family business, Nebraska Clothing Company, and co-founded the National Conference of Christians and Jews (now known as Inclusive Communities) to counteract a boycott of local Jewish businesses. This social justice legacy became more than an anecdote for Ashford.
"It was a big part of how we were brought up," he says. "We were tutored on how to watch for discrimination and intolerance. We didn't live it in the sense that we suffered from it but we certainly were schooled in it and told that was a high value proposition – that when you see it you should try to find out what's causing it and try to eradicate it."
He grew up in Augustana Lutheran Church, which moved from conservative to liberal in the aftermath of the documentary A Time for Burning that focused on the rupture within the congregation when its new pastor attempted interracial fellowship there.
Ashford's rising-tide-lifts-all-ships attitude formed from his family's principles and business practices.
"For everybody to do well everybody has to have a bite at the apple. The economic growth of the country after World War II did pervade in society and today it's not the case. You have very few people gaining economic power and most everybody else kind of struggling along. That's really what's happening. People have to have a better shot at success and there's all sorts of obstacles to that, like student loans that are higher than mortgages and the banks getting bailed out while the middle class didn't.
"Government has a role in evening out the inequality a little bit, making sure the middle class isn't left out. If they're left out than you can't buy a tie and shirt from the clothing store and then the clothing store goes out of business and all the people that work there are unemployed."
His 16-year record in the nonpartisan Nebraska Unicameral includes building coalitions that created tax credits for corporations when Omaha was at-risk of losing big business, advocating for intervention resources to help at-risk youth and crafting juvenile justice reforms.
Ashford's prison reform work, including expansion of mental health programs and vocational training and finding community-based alternatives for nonviolent offenders, has been a target of Terry and his supporters. Pro-Terry ads by the National Republican Congressional Committee have raised ire for linking Ashford's support of the good time law with the murders Nikko Jenkins was convicted of committing shortly after his early prison release in 2013. The tattooed face of Jenkins, an African-American, and blunt references to his horrific crimes strike many as exploitative. The ad's been sharply criticized as being in poor taste, even by some prominent Republicans.
Terry's own campaign is running ads with Jenkins' image that suggest Ashford's prison reform actions lead to "assault, robbery and murder." Ashford is deeply offended the Terry camp has taken a reactionary approach playing on people's emotions.
"I don't understand how he cannot disavow such racially-charged ads," Ashford says. "I mean, he's really taken us back to the Bush-Dukakis race and the Willie Horton ads. In a town like Omaha that's trying so hard to overcome decades of racial issues, he's trying to mine the fears of people. That's a hard one for me to accept. Why would we want to revisit those days? And that's what he's doing.
"I can't imagine ever doing an ad that would cause people to be fearful or I would never stand for such a thing."
Terry says he does disapprove of the NRCC ad: "That's a horrible ad, I hate it, I wouldn't have done that. I totally disown that Nikko Jenkins ad." Despite calls from outside his campaign for it to be removed, it's kept running. Terry offers no apology for his own ads that use similar loaded images and language that blame Ashford for violent crime.
"Everything I've brought up in my commercials has been about his record. We've used good time but if you go back and look at my ads that I paid to produce and put on the air, we never mention Jenkins' name and we never talk about that crime, and that's out of respect for the victims' families as well as the fact I didn't want to glorify a mass murderer.
"But we always talk about how he (Ashford) bottled up good time and bad consequences occurred. That's fair to talk about."
Ashford believes it's a crass strategy to distract voters.
"He's trying to divert attention away from his lack of productiveness into trying to create fear among the electorate with his ads. He's trying to convey that the laws of Neb. allow violent criminals to walk out willy nilly, which is absolutely not true. That's a complex issue. It's hard to answer that in a 30-second ad, so what we're trying to say is we do have a good record on public safety."
Ashford, who often uses "we' to mean "I," defends his own record.
"Certainly prison reform, the one issue they're criticizing me on, is probably one of our greatest successes. We took an issue the governor had literally turned his back on and created a series of bills that will I think for a generation set the course for a prison system that's smarter on crime and that will keep the public safer. That was very hard to do in the wake of Nikko Jenkins but we had actually started prior to that.
"When someone says you're soft on crime it really doesn't matter if you are or aren't because if they have enough money to say you're soft on crime than people will say, "He's soft on crime.' We've had a very balanced approach in the Legislature, we've been tough on gang crimes and sexual predators but we're trying to find a way to get non-violent offenders into community-based services so they won't get further into the system."
When it comes to their respective records in public office, Ashford feels his achievements as a Neb. lawmaker far surpass anything Terry's done as a congressman, saying of his opponent. "He can't touch me."
"Lee is not an effective representative. He has a very slim record."
Ashford gained an unusually strong endorsement from the Omaha World-Herald that could have been written by his campaign.
"Well, they've been watching me," he says of the paper. "One thing about the Legislature, we're under the microscope of the press every day. We're a very open, transparent kind of place unlike Congress where so much is done behind the scenes. So my record's pretty much out there. I enjoy working on issues and I stick with issues. I don't like taking partisan votes unless the partisan vote is something I believe in.
"Terry doesn't have a record of any real consequence. The only thing he has is to attack. He's a party guy. That's the game he plays. I think that's the main difference – I don't care about parties. I don't care really at all about parties other than I realize it's a mechanism to get elected. I agree with the Democrats on lots of issues, certainly social issues, gay rights, immigration, but I'm sure I won't agree with them on everything."
Ashford almost goes so far to say Terry is a Republican mouthpiece.
"You can take a guy like Lee Terry who's totally ineffective and get him elected simply by dumping $3 or 4 million into a place like Omaha and trashing the opponent. That's what he's done for two or three elections that I've followed closely."
Terry takes exception to suggestions he's done little in office and is strictly a party man.
"I handed an 18-page paper to the Omaha World-Herald showing all the things I've been able to accomplish, including pass six bills out of the House this year. Sometimes being effective means not letting a bill go forward. There's two instances in the last session where the leadership wanted to bring up a bill and when I went in and educated them on how bad each bill really was they pulled the language out. One was Medicare supplemental and the other one was cyber security.
"Sixteen years ago I wouldn't have had the credibility or the relationship or the knowledge to be able to just walk into the Speaker's office or the Majority Leader's office and say, 'Here's where you're wrong.' Not only did I walk in, but I also brought it up in conference in front of everybody and took on the Majority Leader in front of all my colleagues. Now I didn't run to the press and brag about that because I also believe in Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment – Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican."
In terms of crafting legislation Terry, who's chairman of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, says much of what he's done "started as a bill but ended up an amendment to a different bill or to a bigger bill of the same theme." As committee chair he and Democrat Jan Schakowsy from Chicago pushed through the Global Investment in American Jobs Act of 2013. The bill tasks the Department of Commerce to lead an interagency review and make recommendations to Congress on ways to make the U.S. more competitive in attracting foreign investment.
"When people say I don't get along with the other side, well I worked with the most partisan, liberal person on our committee and got a bill done, negotiated, passed through committee, passed through the House. It's sitting on (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid's desk right now."
Ashford has pledged to be led by what his local constituents say rather than be swayed by special interests and to build coalitions with colleagues from both parties as a wedge to help break gridlock.
"What I'm trying to tell people is that it is possible to make change by making government more responsive. That linkage between people and their government has been interrupted by special interests on all sides of the political spectrum. It's really cut off individuals from their government."
He says he's interested in "developing policies around what's going to help the entire society." Even though he feels the Democrats were wrong "to push the Affordable Care Act through the way they did" he advocates fixing glaring problems with Obamacare and knocks Terry for repeatedly voting to repeal the law, which he says "only perpetuates the problem." Terry, who like Ashford favors universal access, concedes he's voted for ACA's repeal but he says most of his votes concerning the law have been to amend it.
Ashford considers immigration reform an issue that will help the entire society "because it will bring more dollars into circulation," adding, "Immigrants are hard workers, they'll pay taxes, they'll lend their efforts to the general prosperity of the country."
He favors a stepped approach to immigration reform.
"You have to build a bill from the ground up in a bipartisan way, like the Senate bill on immigration reform, which identifies different classes of immigrants. Each class of immigrant would have certain legal status and with that status comes certain rights and responsibilities. So a DREAMer would have certain rights and obligations that are different from adults, for example, that would clearly show what they have to do to gain legal status. The same with adults and with people that just want to get work permits. I think it has to be very carefully constructed."
Terry says his own view has evolved from forced expulsion to a more stepped approach that leads to citizenship for some and work permits for others, for example.
"In the last year or two since there's been a lot of discussion and we now realize there's a great deal of overlap and it's not as divided as it appears or appeared in the past."
On the other hand Terry says "there are four or five issues where it is really tough" to find bipartisan consensus on "because we are principally completely different. Like raising taxes just so you can bring up more revenue so you can spend more. I'm not going to support that. Now if you say, OK. let's find a way to a balanced budget and let's put everything on the table,' then we could probably come up with a plan to get us to a balanced budget. But when you sit there and say we need more revenue and we need to increase taxes, you're right, I'm going to differ with that and I'm just going to say no."
The 2nd District foes agree that movement on big issues will only come when elected officials stay out of their ideological silos long enough to hear what the other side says and make necessary concessions.
Terry says, "We have to be able to get together on these. Reasonable people from both sides of the aisle can sit down and come to an agreement on these big deals, and the only way to get us to a balanced budget and really secure Medicare and Social Security for the future is if both parties are at the table."
"In any of these issues in order to make change you have to convince your colleagues of the basic assumptions and if you can't get people to do that you're not going to be effective in making legislation," says Ashford, who feels global warming is a good example. It turns out he and Terry share similar views on the subject.
"It does exist and we in Neb. should be extremely worried about it," Ashford says, "because our economic driver is ag and agriculture relies on the environment and as the environment changes our ability to produce products, crops, whatever it is, also is impacted. There's so much to learn about it. You have to be open-minded about it and understand there is no one answer."
Terry says, "I'm not the naysayer, I do believe there is climate change. I do believe mankind has responsibility in this. I will not go to man-is- 100-percent" responsible. Now I am not in the camp that says we should just shut off fossil fuels. I do think we should be more energy efficient. I think we should use less of our resources and use resources like natural gas which have less emissions than gasoline."
With the Nov. 4 election looming large each candidate is dealing with campaign fatigue, his own and voters'.
Ashford is upbeat, encouraged by a surge of Democrats who voted early. "It's a close election, it's expensive, my opponent has more resources than we do. But I think our message is getting out there. We have a chance to win, I'm hopeful we're going to win, I believe we're going to win."
Meanwhile, Terry isn't even considering the possibility he won't be returned to office by voters. "I refuse to even think about it. The reality is my gut's telling me things are going our way. When I'm out and about there' an urgency in the feedback I'm getting of you've got to get out there and do this. The last three weeks I've really felt a shift."
Should he not win re-election, does he have any plans? "No, there is no plan. My plan is to work my ass off and win."
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.