Legislative Candidates Balance Life on the Campaign Trail

Campaigns are already in full swing for next year's legislative elections.
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November 26, 2019 - 6:45am

Nebraska’s next elections for the unicameral are still almost a year away, but campaigns are in full swing.


Candidates for the Nebraska Legislature usually aren’t career politicians. They’re regular people taking time away from their jobs and families for a chance to serve at the Capitol. Some are completely new to politics, while others have served behind the scenes.

Neal Clayburn is running for the Legislature in southeast Lincoln’s District 29. Senator Kate Bolz, who currently holds the seat, is term-limited and running for Congress. Clayburn retired from a career with the Nebraska State Education Association, where he worked as a negotiator and lobbyist. His experience is proving useful on the campaign trail.

“I don’t have a campaign manager at the moment because what I used to do for NSEA was manage campaigns, so I have a lot of volunteers and I delegate a lot of stuff, but I don’t have a manager per se," Clayburn said. "I will probably hire one as we get further down the road, because I know as a candidate you can’t manage your own campaign.”

Clayburn isn’t the only District 29 candidate who took a step back from work to focus on campaigning.

Lisa Lee has long considered a run for office, and decided this year she knows the area well enough to run. She’s fitting her campaign around her work with the Lincoln Council for International Visitors.

“I’m very fortunate because we don’t rely on my income, nor do I make a lot of money at what I do. I’ve always been able to work as what I would call on demand," Lee said. "I did step back from it for about a month and a half when I was launching the campaign. I now am back doing a little bit, but I’m very cautious. I’m only taking on about one project a month. It is a lot of work to run a campaign.”

A lot of that work is going door to door, sometimes using data provided to state parties to find residents who have voted in past elections, or those friendly to the candidate’s party.

Jennifer Carter works in the Legislature, but her campaign in District 29 is her first as a candidate. At first, she found going door to door scary.

“And now it has become one of the things I like the most. Because when you go up to a door and you really engage in a conversation with someone and they sometimes are really sharing something personal or something they’re really worried about, there are moments where I feel like this is a real privilege,” Carter said.

Knocking on doors is a time consuming part of the campaign, and as winter sets in, there’s less time to do it before dark.

For candidates like Jacob Campbell, who has a 14-month-old daughter, going door to door also has to be balanced with family life.

“What I used to do is I would go home and I would change and I would go out and knock doors," Campbell said. "And then when it came time for Addison to go to bed, I would come home, hold her, and put her to bed, and then I’d go back out and knock doors.”

Campbell also works at the Legislature. He’s one of two registered Republicans in the officially non-partisan race, along with Lee. Clayburn and Carter are both Democrats, along with Eliot Bostar, who did not respond to interview requests.

These candidates are running in an urban district, where neighborhoods are fairly compact, and party registration is fairly even. Things are a little different in rural District 1 in the far southeast corner of the state. All three candidates there are Republicans.

Julie Slama was appointed to the seat last December, and is the youngest member of the Legislature at 23. The District 1 seat was open after Dan Watermeier was elected to the public service commission. Slama is trying to reach all parts of her district, and emphasize her experience in the Legislature.

“In structuring this campaign and in scheduling my interim, I’ve really focused on covering the entire district, all 2,400 square miles, and not just putting my focus on the larger cities that some people may want to put an emphasis on," Slama said. "I want to travel to small cities, travel out in the country and knock doors as well because that’s my background. I’m from a town of a few hundred people and I’ve lived out in the country my whole life.”

Along with reaching out to constituents, candidates have to raise money. Dennis Schaart has served in various local elected offices, and for those elections, he says he spent around $200. For this campaign, he expects to need about $100,000. He’s balancing the campaign with his day-job running Den’s Country Meats in Table Rock.

“Everybody’s worried what’s gonna happen to my business. I have family that’s gonna come in and step in and help take over things, so I don’t think we need to worry about that," Schaart said. "I’m a go-getter. I’m used to working 15 hours a day. I try to run my business during the day, do different interviews through the day, and at night I try to go out and campaign, hit up constituents, shake hands, and try to raise money. It’s what we’re doing now.”

Schaart has the help of his grown children on more than his business. They’ve helped put together some of his campaign materials.

Many candidates said their best advice for people considering a run for office is to consult friends and family.

Janet Palmtag is a real estate agent in Nebraska City and made sure her family was OK with a run for the Legislature.

“Politics is quite ugly these days, and unfortunately Washington politics have found their way to Lincoln. So your family’s always worried about going into a relatively higher profile stage, how that’s going to affect the family, but everyone was very supportive,” Palmtag said.

Palmtag, like all the candidates, hopes the support of family, friends, and volunteers can propel her through the primary next May and into the general election in November, and maybe then to the statehouse.

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