Geography quite naturally plays a vital role in politics. When it came time for the respective campaigns to suggest site selections for The Reader to interview Nebraska State Senator Gwen Howard and Douglas County Treasurer John Ewing as they prepare to face off in a May 15 primary for the nod to challenge 13-year incumbent Republican Lee Terry in the 2nd Congressional District House race, matters of geography were equally as telling.
And that special sense of “placeness” also contributed to each interview having a somewhat tardy start.
Gwen Howard first had to share a hug and chat about issues with constituent Gerda Bailey, owner of Gerda’s German Restaurant and Bakery, before coffee could be poured and notebooks could be opened. It was the day after the term-limited State Senator helped close the 2012 session — her last — with a victory in overturning Governor Dave Heineman’s veto of LB 599, the bill that will now restore taxpayer-funded prenatal benefits regardless of a woman’s immigration status.
Over in the shell of her opponent’s campaign headquarters that will open April 26 near 76th and Dodge streets, a pile of intertwined chairs had to be unsnarled just to provide a place to sit in the very same space that was then-Senator Barak Obama’s 2008 headquarters. It’s familiar turf to Ewing; he spent countless hours there as 2nd District campaign co-chair of the President’s historic drive to win a blue electoral notch in this, the red-redder-reddest of states.
The primary pits Howard, a retired social worker with 34 years of experience in Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services who went on be elected to the Unicameral in 2004, against Ewing, a former police officer who rose to the rank of deputy chief before being sworn is as Douglas County Treasurer in 2007.
The candidates are in accord on the most issues and defeating Terry tops that list.
“I passed more legislation in my first seven years than Lee Terry did in seven terms,” Howard said. “I passed legislation yesterday.”
A tireless advocate for working families, women’s health issues and the protection of children, Howard is particularly struck by “the war on women.”
“There is a concerted effort to push back on women’s rights and women’s issues, things that we thought were settled decades ago,” Howard said. “Decisions on women’s health choices are just that, women’s choices. None of us should be able to make such decisions for our sisters, our mothers, our daughters.”
“We have a divided, do-nothing Congress and Lee Terry is a big part of that,” Ewing said. “We must get back to work for the American people. Terry has been in office since 1999 and has been totally ineffective. Washington has enough legislators, enough attorneys. What Nebraskans and what the country needs now is strong executive leadership.”
In a recent debate Ewing had stated his support for “the sanctity of life,” perhaps clouding his stance on abortion and other women’s health issues.
In his interview with The Reader, the man who is also an associate minister at Omaha’s Salem Baptist Church clarified his position. He does not support the overturning of Roe v. Wade, he said, and instead prefers to frame the discussion in terms of attacking the problem at its root with efforts to inform, educate and support young women in preventing unplanned pregnancies. He points to his longtime service to such organizations as Girls Inc. and the YCA (formerly the YWCA), among others, as leaving little doubt on where he stands on women’s issues.
Daughters played a role in each candidate’s political calling and both became emotional in talking about it.
“My daughter Alexandria — then 19 and now 20 — challenged me as I considered a House run,” Ewing explained. “If you don’t run for Congress, she said, what are you going to tell the kids in all those classrooms you visit? What happens when you tell them to go for the gusto and you didn’t do the same? I didn’t have an answer for her.”
Howard, whose daughter Sarah is running to succeed her in serving the 9th District , relayed a story of her other, eldest daughter, a story tinged with the bittersweet. The star on Howard’s campaign sign represents Carrie, who was only 33 when she died of a prescription drug overdose in 2009.
“She taught me to dream,” the candidate said of the young woman whose troubles followed being introduced to pain medications after an auto accident. “She taught me to trust that I could take all that experience in Health and Human Services and step it up to a broader level, the policy level. The people of District 9 gave me their trust in sending me to Lincoln and now the people of the 2nd Congressional District will do the same in sending me to Washington.”