Gwen Howard's public life provided some comfort when she was faced with a personal tragedy.
Her eldest daughter, Carrie Howard, died in 2009 due to a prescription drug overdose. She was only 33.
The word was barely out before many of Gwen Howard's central Omaha constituents were calling the state senator, bringing over food and offering support.
That kindness helped Howard cope. She continued to work in Lincoln on issues she is passionate about, especially child welfare.
"We were on a journey," Howard said. "And I had to continue."
Howard, 66, takes her next step May 15, seeking the Democratic nomination for the U.S. House seat held by Republican Rep. Lee Terry, a 13-year incumbent.
She faces Democrat John Ewing in the primary. Ewing, a former Omaha police officer, is the Douglas County treasurer.
Howard, a retired social worker, is among the senior class of term-limited lawmakers in Lincoln. She's one of three in the nine-member class to never have headed a committee. The others are Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood and Sen. Tony Fulton of Lincoln.
Colleagues view her as a player on issues involving the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, and she serves as vice chairwoman of the Legislature's Education Committee.
She earns $12,000 a year as a lawmaker, which she lists as her current full-time job.
Howard spent 34 years as a social worker for HHS and draws a state pension of about $18,500 annually for 10 years. The pension runs through 2015.
She says her experience legislating makes her a stronger candidate than Ewing. She says she's put forward more legislation in Nebraska — six to eight bills a year — than Terry has on Capitol Hill.
She also said she's helped steer ideas that eventually got folded into legislation others sponsored, or that were tweaked before they were eventually passed.
"People can talk the talk, but it's about what you've accomplished," Howard said. "It goes back to what I've done."
Howard pushed through a law in 2008 that requires school districts to establish anti-bullying policies.
She sponsored a bill passed in 2005 that pushed for stronger child abuse prevention services.
For the past few years, she has fought a state initiative to privatize child welfare services, maintaining that Nebraska should take back full responsibility for ensuring the safety of abused and neglected children.
In this year's legislative session, which ends Wednesday, Howard said she helped secure passage of four bills that addressed child welfare reform in Nebraska, including the foster care system.
She also passed a bill to better monitor the use of psychotropic medications among foster children. Howard was concerned that such children were being overly medicated.
"It was important, in my last term, to make sure things were put into place that would help the kids in the foster care system," Howard said. "They don't need to have any further difficulties than they already have."
Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha called Howard a "capable lawmaker."
"She leans on her experience as a social worker," Mello said. "She has been a passionate advocate for children, for seniors and for all vulnerable citizens in the state."
Howard considers one of her biggest successes the removal of a much-criticized sales tax on home repairs. She pushed that through in her second year in office.
Supporters of the bill, which included Gov. Dave Heineman, said it encouraged homeowners to fix up older homes and that it eliminated bookkeeping headaches for contractors.
"Everybody who owns a home has got to get repairs at some point," Howard said. "I've saved people money."
Scott Peterson, chairman of the Douglas County Republicans, described Howard's record on balance as "pretty liberal."
Howard says she is concerned about unemployment — that it "makes no sense" to offer federal tax incentives to companies that take U.S. jobs offshore. And she is concerned about rising student loan debt.
She draws a bright line against privatizing either Social Security or Medicare.
State Sen. Jeremy Nordquist, also of Omaha, said the soft-spoken Howard doesn't play partisan politics to get things done, a trait that benefited her in the nonpartisan Legislature.
"She's very thoughtful when it comes to the issues," he said.
Howard has been considering a congressional run for four years. She said she was asked to run in both 2008 and 2010, but had already decided to finish her two terms as a state senator before making the leap.
Howard said she's ready for Washington now. And someone she's close to wants to fill her shoes in the Legislature — daughter Sara Howard is seeking her mother's seat.
Gwen Howard said her daughters are always in the back of her mind.
She noted that she passed a bill last year to establish a statewide system to alert physicians, hospitals and pharmacists when someone tries to get prescription drugs from multiple providers. Carrie Howard became dependent after she was injured in a serious auto accident in 2003 and was getting prescriptions for a powerful painkiller, Darvocet, from multiple providers.
Today, green campaign signs include a blue star by Gwen Howard's name. The star honors Carrie, who had encouraged her mom to seek higher office.
"Carrie had really believed we could do great things," said Howard, a 1963 graduate of Omaha Benson High. "In remembering that about her, I really felt that we should not give up."
Contact the writer: