Democrat Bob Kerrey ratcheted up his criticism of Republican Deb Fischer on Saturday, accusing her of being a “welfare rancher” who dislikes big government except when it's subsidizing her own family and its ranching operation.
Kerrey questioned how Fischer could talk about cutting the federal budget if she couldn't commit to cutting the federal grazing program that has saved her family and its Valentine ranching operation more than $100,000 a year.
“If we're not willing to give up things personally, it's going to be hard to ask others to give up things,” said Kerrey, who is running against Fischer for the U.S. Senate.
Kerrey is considered the undisputed underdog in a race that many national observers and others believe is Fischer's to lose.
The Fischer camp accused Kerrey of going negative in an effort to boost his campaign.
“It's clear that Bob Kerrey is trailing badly in the polls and is now resorting to negative personal attacks that Nebraskans will see right through,” said Aaron Trost, Fischer's campaign manager.
Kerrey and others have been hammering Fischer for more than a week on the grazing fees controversy. Last week, Democratic U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska introduced a bill to cut the program, a not-so-subtle jab at Fischer, who is portraying herself as a fiscal hawk.
Fischer and her husband, Bruce Fischer, lease nearly 12,000 acres of federal land in north-central Nebraska for about $4,700 for seven months, which is at least $110,000 less than the market rate to lease private land.
Nelson and others argue that the federal government is subsidizing ranchers such as the Fischers by charging minimal grazing fees, while gouging taxpayers with the cost of managing the land. A 2005 federal report shows the government collects $21 million in grazing fees for land that costs about $144 million a year to manage.
Fischer, a state senator, has said she would study the program if elected but has declined to specifically endorse raising grazing fees.
“Throughout this campaign, Sen. Fischer has constantly stated that all possible federal spending cuts need to be on the table,” Trost said.
Kerrey's criticism of Fischer came as he gave a rousing defense of his candidacy to the gathering of party faithful at the Nebraska Democratic Party's state convention. About 400 met at the Ramada Plaza Hotel in Omaha to elect delegates to the national convention in Charlotte, N.C., in September.
Democrats also elected their next state chairman, choosing Vince Powers, a Lincoln attorney and the party's current national committeeman. Powers, chosen in one ballot, will succeed outgoing chairman Vic Covalt of Lincoln.
Kerrey responded in his remarks to those who call him a “carpetbagger” because he returned to Nebraska from New York City to run for U.S. Senate. He called that characterization a “lie.” While he may have lived in New York for the past 12 years, Kerrey said, he remained a Nebraskan.
“I never left Nebraska. I have business here. My family's here. My friends are here,” Kerrey said.
He noted that he and his wife, Sarah Paley, recently purchased a home in Omaha and that they plan to enroll their son, Henry, 10, in an Omaha school in August. The family is still deciding on a school and have visited at least one in central Omaha, Kerrey said.
Kerrey's wife and son will join him in Nebraska after their new home is remodeled.
“I want him (Henry) to see this campaign. I want them to be here,” he said.
The former Nebraska governor and two-term U.S. senator got several standing ovations as he defended his choice to be a Democrat. It would be easier, Kerrey said, to be a registered independent in a state like Nebraska.
But, he said, he believes Democrats are the party that believes in “social and economic justice.”
It was the Democratic Party, he said, that supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawing racial discrimination and the federal law known as Title IX in 1972, which requires gender equity for boys and girls in every educational program that receives federal funding.
“I'm a member of the Democratic Party because I believe in social and economic justice,” Kerrey said.
“It's almost never true we're fighting for the rights of the majority. We're almost always fighting for the rights of the minority.”
Contact the writer: