Education, prisons, and expectations distinguish Nebraska's candidates for governor

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October 23, 2014 - 6:30am

In Nebraska’s race for governor, the candidates face questions like how to improve education, what to do about the state’s prison system, and how they think they’ll do on Election Day.


Democrat Chuck Hassebrook, Republican Pete Ricketts, and Libertarian Mark Elworth Jr. have different educational priorities.

For Hassebrook, its early childhood education. “I believe the best long-term investment we can make in the future of this state is in expanding early childhood education to give every child at least a chance to start kindergarten prepared to succeed,” Hassebrook said.

Chuck Hassebrook (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Hassebrook added the state needs to act. “We have a lot of kids in Nebraska right now who aren’t getting what they need at home, and so they start kindergarten so far behind that the odds are against them ever succeeding in school,” he said.

“I believe we all have a stake in fixing that because if those kids don’t succeed in school they’re not going to contribute to the prosperity of the state. It’s going to cost us in prisons, in public assistance, and in other ways,” Hassebrook added.

Ricketts offers a different priority. “I think that when it comes to how do we make sure kids get a great education -- because that’s what we want to do is improve those educational outcomes for all of our kids…my top priority is going to be career and vocational training,” Ricketts said.

Pete Ricketts (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

On early childhood education, Ricketts downplays the state’s role. “The education of the child really belongs with the parent. There are some things we can do at the state to help with that if it comes to reading programs and so forth. But ultimately, if we have other civic organizations that would like to get involved in doing that, that’s something that I think will be more effective,” he said.

Elworth promotes a voucher system for education. “Every year you get a voucher. You can go pick your school it could be private, public homeschooling whatever. That voucher would go to that, and that would bring competition within the schools and that right there would produce a better education,” he said.

When it comes to Nebraska’s troubled prison system, Ricketts says he’d bring in someone to change it. “It seems to me as an outsider we need a culture change. And to bring about a culture change you need new leadership. And that’s what we’ll do. We’ll do a national job search to find that transformational leader to come into the department of corrections and help bring about that culture change,” Ricketts said. “We can’t have a department where, it seems to me, you’ve got people who are afraid to give bad news to the boss.”

Mark Elworth Jr. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Hassebrook says he would begin by tightening enforcement of the state’s current good time law for prisoners. “On day one I’m going to start the process of changing that. It takes a regulatory process, where you’ve to propose new rules, new prison rules on good time. But I’m going to start that process on day one,” Hassebrook said. “We’re going to stop turning loose people who, on good time, demonstrate by their behavior in prison that they are a threat to public safety.”

Both Ricketts and Hassebrook support more drug courts, veterans courts and probation officers to keep people out of prison.

For his part, Elworth says improving the economy is key. “We can get these people out and get ‘em real jobs and real careers. Without an economy to support people getting out of jail and out of prisons they’re just going to go back on the streets. They’re going to have no job. I want them to be able to make a life and start earning right away,” Elworth said.

Not surpisingly, the candidates also differ in their assessment of how well they’ll do on Election Day – Nov. 4.

Ricketts, the Republican nominee in a state where registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats by more than 200,000, exudes confidence. “Well certainly I’m expecting to win – planning on winning,” he said, laughing heartily. “But …we’ve got to keep running through the tape. We’ve got a lot of work to do in the next two and a half weeks. And if I’m successful, we’ll worry about what comes after that on Nov. 5.”

Meanwhile, Hassebrook is hopeful. “The campaign’s going very well. We’ve built the strongest Democratic campaign for Nebraska governor in a generation,” he said. “We’ve raised sufficient funds to get out our message. We have close to 6,000 volunteers right now so we will run a ground game to get out our supporters and campaign neighbor-to-neighbor the likes of which this state has never seen. So it’s  a very competitive race.”

And Elworth, who’s hoping to appeal to independents and people who don’t usually vote, says the votes he draws could help sway the election between the two major party candidates. “What if these guys are two points or three points apart from each other in the end, and I’m sitting here with 10 or 12 percent. I made a difference, right?”

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