LINCOLN — Dave Heineman spent nearly 30 years working his way to his political dream.
And now he hands it over to those who would judge it, for better or worse.
Although it’s not quite “in the books” and won’t be until he passes the mantle to Pete Ricketts on Jan. 8, close history will show the longest-serving Nebraska governor at 10 years was popular — at times wildly so — with a large segment of Nebraskans, particularly conservative ones. But he has also been roundly criticized by some members of the Legislature — and less publicly by others — for his lack of leadership on crucial state responsibilities and policies that affected the health and safety of Nebraskans.
He started his ascent in about 1976 — six years out of West Point and one year out of the Army, volunteering at the Douglas County Republican headquarters. His climb progressed through stints of managing campaigns of other politicians, serving as their aides, advisers and consultants and running the state Republican Party. He launched his own political career as an officeholder in 1990, elected to the Fremont City Council.
It took 15 years then to claim the leather chair in the elegant second-floor, northeast corner office of the Capitol, handed over when then-Gov. Mike Johanns resigned to become U.S. secretary of agriculture.
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After defeating Tom Osborne, the state’s iconic Husker football coach turned Congressman, in the 2006 primary and then sailing past Democrat David Hahn, he settled in and didn't look back. Observers said he would combine the knowledge he gained as a state government insider — state treasurer and lieutenant governor for 10 years — with his military training to aggressively take the state in the direction he wanted it to go.
His reputation is that of a savvy political orchestrator.
As the executive director of the state Republican Party, he was known for vigorously recruiting Republican political candidates and attacking Democrats the GOP wanted to unseat.
In his role as executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party from 1979-81 and again in 1990, he doubled the margin of registered Republicans over Democrats from 19,000 to 50,000, won three congressional races and boosted the number of Republicans in the Legislature.
By the 2014 November election, the margin of registered Republicans over Democrats was 201,595.
Heineman also has been credited with — or blamed for — the increasing importance placed on party affiliation in the officially nonpartisan Legislature.
As governor, Heineman appointed eight senators — all Republicans and most with his conservative philosophies, although the last one, David Schnoor of Scribner, actually was selected by Gov.-elect Pete Ricketts.
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Heineman’s first State of the State address set the theme he would stick by for his long tenure.
"You can expect to find these four priorities — education, economic vitality, efficiency in government and the protection of families — woven into my decisions as governor,” he said. “They will serve as my compass as I work with you to chart a future course for our state."
He also has pressed hard for tax cuts, working with the Legislature in 2007 and again in this session, to enact the largest tax cuts the state has seen.
In 2013, he coordinated with senators to introduce two bold tax reform measures that flopped and that he withdrew after a howl of opposition. But, he said, if he hadn’t made that bold move, the state wouldn’t have ended up with the tax cuts it did.
Nebraska education leaders have praised him for his leadership on education issues, including his push for improving student success in preschool through college through Nebraska’s P-16 initiative.
The governor had a mostly good relationship with former University of Nebraska President J.B. Milliken, working together on adequate funding for the university, higher standards for admission and stabilizing tuition.
“We acknowledged early on that we would focus on the vast majority of areas where we agreed, but that of course there would be areas of disagreement,” Milliken said via email.
One of those disagreements came in 2012, when Heineman blasted NU leaders for a university report that described the benefits the state would receive if it implemented Medicaid expansion, an option of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. In a letter to Milliken, Heineman said he was shocked the university would support an initiative that would result in less funding for higher education.
Milliken answered that faculty were expected and encouraged to participate in policy discussions. But the report, he said, did not necessarily reflect the university’s position on the Affordable Care Act.
Overall, however, the partnership between Heineman and the university proved effective, Milliken said, even in tough economic times.
“He always said publicly that education was among his highest priorities and I think he worked throughout his tenure to deliver on that commitment,” Milliken said.
Public school superintendents, including Lincoln Public Schools’ Steve Joel, also complimented the governor’s leadership on education.
He hasn’t always agreed with the governor, Joel said, but he appreciated Heineman’s goals to improve the graduation rate, college attendance and student success.
Funding was fair, he said, given all the state's competing needs. And he came really close on his goal of a 90 percent graduation rate.
“In the last 10 years ... where we were and where we are now, wow. I mean, that’s pretty dramatic improvement,” he said.
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Heineman also put his heart into economic development and was able to announce this month that Nebraska employment would reach an all-time high in 2015, topping 1.1 million.
He's received credit for guiding the state through a major nationwide recession by conscientious budgeting and spending practices, coupled with cooperation and strong leadership from the Legislature.
Throughout his tenure, he refused to raise taxes, and called repeatedly for tax cuts, a challenge that lawmakers accepted. The state’s cash reserve is now at a historically high level, which Heineman believes should be used to provide additional tax relief.
Economic development leaders across the state appreciated his emphasis on increasing jobs, including both business recruitment and job retention and expansion.
Nicole Sedlacek, director of Holt County Economic Development, said Heineman was accessible and valued businesses.
“I think he’s really helped put Nebraska into the national spotlight and make us a place that companies want to invest in,” she said.
Heineman continually challenged Lincoln and Omaha to grow for the benefit of the entire state, said Lincoln Chamber of Commerce President Wendy Birdsall.
“We had a really great working relationship with the governor,” who was always willing to clear his schedule, sometimes on short notice, and meet with businesses or clients on projects or expansions, she said.
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Heineman frequently proclaimed he knew what the majority of Nebraskans wanted, and that dictated the directions he would take. He knew, he said, how they felt about same sex marriage, giving state benefits to undocumented residents and workers, and so-called Obamacare.
He knew because he traveled to their communities for ribbon cuttings, award dinners and parades, and listened to their stories, he said.
He also participated in a monthly statewide call-in show, hosted by Nebraska broadcasters, that allowed Nebraskans to skip the middle man and speak directly to their governor. Sometimes they scolded, sometimes told him heartbreaking stories. But mostly they asked who to contact when they had problems with state agencies, roads, state benefits or hunting permits.
In 119 shows, and about 2,300 calls, he never turned down one.
“The questions were really always unpredictable,” said host Rick Alloway. “I was always sort of caught off guard, too, by what the questions were that came out of the woodwork.”
The first caller for nearly every show was James from Blue Springs.
“The thing that stands out is the passion of the callers. We don’t get passive people that call. We get people that are very emotional, people that are very concerned, people that are struggling to try to get through the day sometimes,” Alloway said.
Alloway appreciated that Heineman never used the show for a political forum, although he could have.
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While Heineman said he knew what Nebraskans wanted, it was clear all were not included. His policies and views were conservative, which a fair share of Nebraskans’ were not.
He stood solidly behind a same-sex marriage ban, to the dismay of gay and transgender Nebraskans, and many straight residents — especially younger ones.
Abbigail Swatsworth, president of Outlinc, a nonprofit organization of Lincoln’s LGBT community, said her governor has many times conveyed hurtful messages to her, her family and friends that her beloved state didn’t love or care about her.
“Those aren’t the values on which I was raised, and that have also kept me in Nebraska,” she said.
A number of Nebraskans over the years have reported they left the state because of its policies and attitudes toward the LGBT community.
Latino community activist Marty Ramirez said that while the governor has been receptive to him, and always willing to sit down and talk, his 10 years lacked compassion. And initiatives and policies were missing that could have helped Latino residents — 9 percent of the state’s population.
His actions sometimes stung the state’s minority population, especially when he so vehemently opposed benefits for pregnant, undocumented Latino mothers who would give birth to future Nebraska citizens. The aid, he said, should come from nonpublic sources.
A 2006 state version of the DREAM Act, which gives undocumented university students in-state tuition if they graduate from a Nebraska high school and lived here at least three years prior, had to pass over Heineman’s veto.
And he refused to allow the state to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, many of them brought to the state as children and many who can work legally under the policies of the Obama administration.
Heineman says he values education, Ramirez said, but his policy places a burden on young immigrants who need to drive to schools and libraries, or to jobs to support their educations.
Heineman has said: “They shouldn’t be here if they’re not here legally.”
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The problems Heineman has seen with agencies he oversees have been well documented, particularly those that have risen to the level of crises in the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Correctional Services. Critics — especially those in the Legislature — blame Heineman for a lack of leadership.
As a result, the Legislature has stepped in to oversee the Beatrice State Developmental Center, privatization of child welfare, a troubled new public assistance application and management process — ACCESSNebraska — and Nebraska’s Department of Correctional Services, because of prison crowding and miscalculation of prison sentences that resulted in the premature release of hundreds of prisoners.
Paul Landow, political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said those problems developed over a period of time and all were a direct result of the governor thinking he knew how to do things better.
“It turns out he didn’t know how to do it better,” Landow told the Journal Star in September.
Heineman spent the second half of his tenure working to resolve those problems in his agencies. But as he leaves, some of them — prison crowding, ACCESSNebraska, and other HHS missteps — are being handed off to Ricketts.
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Rex Fisher, a senior vice president with architecture-engineering-consulting firm HDR and a commissioner with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission courtesy of Heineman, is a friend who watched him rise in the political ranks over the past 20 years.
"When you get your dream job, it's a pretty special thing," Fisher said. "While people can disagree on this or that, I think it's pretty indisputable that he put everything into it, and he loved every minute of it. He really did."
"He just kind of understood the soul of this state,” Fisher said.
Heineman’s love for Nebraska is what kept him from seeking Mike Johanns’ U.S. Senate seat this year when Johanns decided not to run again, Fisher said.
People were sure Heineman wouldn’t be able to resist what was thought to be an easy run for the office, Fisher said. "I said, 'Well then, you don't know him. He's not interested in leaving Nebraska. He's just not."
Heineman applied, but failed to become a finalist for the University of Nebraska president’s job, and now says he’s not sure what he’ll do next.
He will come for the last time to his Capitol office on the morning of Jan. 7, turn in his state ID card, and sign any last-minute documents.
"I'll try to be out of here by noon so the new governor can start moving in," he said.
Heineman’s dad taught him: Do the job you have and do it well, and everything will take care of itself.
Jean Heineman died during his son’s term in 2007, but Heineman thinks he would have been proud of the job he did.
He’ll stay active, he said, and wants to continue to help the state.
“And I’ll find a way to do that,” he said.