LINCOLN — Even as a high school kid, State Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk was interested in bigger matters.
When he learned the student council's main responsibility was to plan prom and homecoming, he mounted an effort to revamp the council into a body that dealt with weightier concerns.
When a city ordinance was introduced to bar high school-age kids from working in the city's grocery stores, Flood founded the Norfolk Youth Leadership Council to defeat the proposal.
"I like being part of the discussion on the big issues. That's what I enjoy," said Flood, 36, who holds the top leadership spot, speaker, in the Nebraska Legislature.
In that role, the Republican lawmaker found himself in the middle of a white-hot issue this month: the controversy over the Keystone XL pipeline and its path across the pristine Sand Hills.
A skilled deal-maker, Flood pulled off what some observers said was his most amazing compromise: persuading a Canadian company to reroute its $7 billion, 1,700-mile-long pipeline in exchange for an expedited state review of the route.
There were serious doubts at the beginning of the special session that the Legislature could legally do anything to force a new route. Flood, a lawyer, personally issued a legal opinion saying the state risked great legal liability.
But things quickly changed when the U.S. State Department ordered a delay in its review until 2013. The action was prompted by concern that leaks from the pipeline could contaminate groundwater in the Sand Hills.
Flood seized on the possibility that if the pipeline route were moved, Nebraska could conduct its own, quicker environmental review. That would allow the project to proceed while the main concern of crossing the Sand Hills was addressed.
At 10 a.m. Monday, an all-out filibuster that would have blocked any action on the pipeline appeared likely.
By 1:10 p.m., the State Department had confirmed that Flood's plan could work.
Pipeline company TransCanada, seeking to salvage its project, agreed to the deal and promised a new route. Also getting on board were leading opponents, the Sierra Club and Bold Nebraska, as well as pro-pipeline unions and others.
"This was a Hail Mary pass that actually worked," Flood said.
The latest deal has prompted talk that the lawyer, lawmaker and broadcaster — he started his own radio station while still in law school — should run for governor in 2014.
"Mike is absolutely uniquely qualified for the job," said Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha. "He's kind of in a class by himself on the Republican side."
Omaha business leader Ken Stinson said he has encouraged Flood — a fellow graduate of the University of Notre Dame — to think about higher office.
"He's certainly capable and becoming well-prepared," said Stinson, chairman of the board for Peter Kiewit Sons' Inc. "When that is and what that is would be up to Mike. But I would not be reluctant to say that five to 10 years from now, he'll be one of the top elected officials in our state, whether it be governor or senator or whatever."
Flood downplays such talk.
He said he still has 13 months to serve in the Legislature, where hard work is admired and overt political ambition is not.
But the talk is getting louder.
As of January, Flood reported nearly $170,000 in campaign contributions — a huge amount for someone who cannot, because of term limits, run again for the Legislature in 2012.
He raised more money throughout the year, including an August fundraiser in his hometown that drew nearly 300 people. And Flood has talked to people who run campaigns and those, like Stinson, who are major contributors and who can persuade others to write campaign checks.
"I'm interested in doing something," Flood said.
What that "something" is he wouldn't say, pointing out that he must run a 60-day legislative session next year that will be filled with many difficult issues, like the state's troubled child-welfare system and long-range budget problems.
"I'm a long ways from making concrete plans or an announcement," he said.
Those who work with Flood call him talented and tenacious, someone who listens, works overtime to get something accomplished and doesn't care who gets the credit.
"He really seems to do these things and work this hard for the citizens of Nebraska and not for the glory of it," said Lincoln attorney Steve Mossman, an active Republican. "I've seen few political figures who seem less interested in that. It's almost freakish."
Others say Flood is down-to-earth and can relate to a Sand Hills rancher as well as a big-city CEO.
Observers say he brings differing parties together, discerns opportunities for agreement and assembles a team to push the compromise to approval.
Tam Allan, a Lincoln businessman and member of the Nebraska State Fair Board, said Flood was instrumental in working out the final sticky financial details of moving the fair from Lincoln to Grand Island.
"He was relentless. As it was with the pipeline, failure was not an option," Allan said.
Detractors, who are few, point out that his deals don't always work. His proposal to locate a methamphetamine treatment center at the former Norfolk Regional Center didn't pan out.
A compromise for state aid to community colleges fell apart because of discord among the schools, though Flood said he still is working on it.
Others wonder if he's too cozy with the state's top Republican, Gov. Dave Heineman. On the pipeline deal, however, it is clear that Flood and the Legislature — not Heineman — took the lead in crafting the final compromise.
The common perception in Lincoln is that Flood is an attorney general in waiting and that he would be appointed to the post if current Attorney General Jon Bruning is elected to the U.S. Senate.
At Flood's age, and with two young sons, he could wait to run for governor.
Lt. Gov. Rick Sheehy, a former Hastings mayor, has announced his candidacy for governor, and Heineman already has said he'll support Sheehy.
Nevertheless, Mark Fahleson, executive director of the Nebraska GOP, said he knows "many people" are encouraging Flood to consider the governor's race.
"Which is not to say anything negative about Rick Sheehy. He's an outstanding candidate," Fahleson said.
But in his legislative leadership position, Flood has met more people, Fahleson said.
It's still early to decide about 2014, and GOP insiders point out that there's a big stable of potential candidates, including State Auditor Mike Foley and U.S. Rep. Lee Terry.
Still, Flood supporters like Stinson think he should keep an open mind. Attorney general would be just an "interim step," Stinson said.
"His leadership skills would be better utilized as governor, senator or congressman," Stinson said. "He would influence more people in those roles."
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