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VALENTINE, Neb. — She drove alone down a deserted dirt road near Mason City, Neb., south of nowhere, on a weeknight, screwing up the courage to turn right at the next ranch and go inside.
Come on, Deb, she said to herself a decade ago. Come on, Deb. Come on.
She slowed and steered her Oldsmobile Bravada into a driveway three hours from her home in Valentine, because she was working to win a seat in the Nebraska Legislature, and that seat happened to be in a north-central Nebraska district that was roughly the size of New Jersey.
She parked and slammed the driver's door shut and approached the house for good reason: Not many people this far from Valentine had the foggiest idea who she was.
She had helped brand cattle, packed lunches for the men on her family's ranch and served on a series of local boards and committees.
She had not yet struck fear in the hearts of state senators and been nicknamed “The General” for her tough — and usually triumphant — legislative tactics.
She had not yet come seemingly from nowhere to pull off one of the largest political upsets in Nebraska history.
She was searching for a single vote on an empty road in the Sand Hills, nearly as far from the U.S. Senate as a politician can get. She wasn't anybody. Not yet.
She knocked on the ranch house door and — half relief, half disappointment — no one answered.
But as she walked back to her car, she saw an old rancher and his grandson standing by the shed, wondering what the regal-looking lady with the brown hair wanted.
So she walked up and shook the old rancher's hand and introduced herself to a man named Harry Ray Boyles. They chatted for a half-hour, and as she went to leave, he told her she could put up a big campaign sign on his property. He promised her his vote.
|7 P.M. MONDAY: NEBRASKA SENATE DEBATE|
|Nebraska's candidates for U.S. Senate – Democrat Bob Kerrey and Republican Deb Fischer – will meet Monday in a debate sponsored by NET News. It will broadcast live at 7 p.m. on NET Television and NET Radio. Click here for live coverage of the debate.|
As she climbed back in her Oldsmobile and drove away, Deb Fischer remembers being unusually happy.
She would go on to win by 125 votes on Election Day, squeaking past a better-known opponent and into the Legislature on the strength of hundreds of house calls and conversations with countless Harry Ray Boyleses.
But that's not why she was smiling. Friends and foes alike will tell you that Fischer had already decided she would win. If there is one true thing about Deb Fischer, it's this: When she decides she will win, she nearly always does.
No, she was smiling because she had experienced a brief and fleeting moment of fear. And if there is a second true thing about Fischer, it is this: When she encounters this emotion, she puts on work boots and stomps it into dust.
That is what made Deb Fischer unusually happy as she pulled away from Harry Ray Boyles' ranch and drove west into a Sand Hills sunset toward home. That is what made her smile.
“Deb is as tough as barbed wire,” says Joyce Simmons, a longtime friend who was recently elected national committeewoman for the Nebraska Republican Party. “She can be warm and friendly, but at her core she's made of steel. People used to underestimate her. They used to underestimate her toughness.
“They don't do that so much any more.”
For most of the past year, the conversation about Deb Fischer has focused largely on who she is not.
She is not Jon Bruning, the once-upon-a-time, solid-gold lock to be the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate, if only conventional wisdom had held.
And she is not Bob Kerrey, a once-beloved Nebraska politician who retired from the Senate, spent a decade in New York City and then decided to jump back into the ring for an epic title bout against Bruning ... only to have Fischer win the primary election instead.
So let's spend some time poking around Fischer's two very different natural habitats in search of a politician still relatively unknown, despite the fact that she is now favored to topple her second political heavyweight this year and become the first woman in state history elected to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate.
Drive the open roads of the Sand Hills. Visit the cramped corridors of the State Capitol.
What you find is a 61-year-old who has known since junior high that she wanted to go into politics, and then took the unlikeliest of routes up the mountaintop — a meandering path that included dropping out of college, getting married, moving to a ranch a half-hour from the nearest gas station, raising three boys and then kicking off her political career by getting elected to the board of a rural school with a total enrollment of 22.
What you find is a woman who impresses but from time to time also scares the pressed suit pants off her colleagues in the Nebraska Legislature. This includes Republicans who generally agree with her. This includes some of her closest friends.
What you find is that being tough as barbed wire means she will outwork other candidates, outprepare other politicians and, during one memorable semester, accept what's possibly the longest commute in college history.
What you also find is that barbed wire inevitably hurts a few people, shreds some friendships along the way.
Mostly what you find is this: Who Deb Fischer is turns out to be far more fascinating than who she isn't.
When Mike Flood answered his cellphone, Deb Fischer was already yelling at him.
“I need the Norfolk Fire Department to get up here now! Get those things on the road!”
It was 2006, and Flood, then a rising state senator, tried to process the yelling without yanking his car off the road.
“What?” he asked.
Fischer, a fellow state senator, was calling from Valentine, where wildfires were threatening the north end of town. Fischer and her husband live on the north end of town.
Rather then evacuate, she was helping to coordinate the response. The city needed all the firetrucks it could get, she said.
So send yours, she repeated. Now.
Mike Flood doesn't control the Norfolk Fire Department, a fact that the city administrator reminded him of when he called.
“You damn well better get those trucks to Valentine,” Flood remembers saying. “If Deb's house burns down, I'm in big trouble.”
Fischer also placed a call to Gov. Dave Heineman, who soon declared a state emergency.
Firetrucks from Norfolk and across the state rumbled toward Valentine.
The town didn't burn.
Make no mistake: Flood and other Republican senators and longtime friends who served on the Valentine school board with Deb Fischer respect her, and in most cases they genuinely like her.
But they also will describe her as a shorter, less-rumpled version of Lyndon Baines Johnson. They will flat-out admit: Fischer sometimes intimidates them.
Flood, who became speaker of the Legislature and is now a potential candidate for governor, remembers looking out from his speaker's chair and watching her walk the floor of the Legislature. She would put her arm around a state senator and lean in close to make her point. Then she would put her arm around another, and another.
As the up-close-and-personal conversations multiplied, Flood knew which way the next vote would go on road funding, water issues or rural judgeships. Fischer's way.
Duane Kime, a rancher from Valentine, served for a decade with a younger Fischer on the Valentine school board. She quickly ascended to board president.
He remembers speaking to a group of state education officials, looking over at Fischer and suddenly knowing he should wrap it up.
Why? Because Fischer was staring at him, giving him what Kime calls “The Look.”
“The thing about Deb is, she doesn't back down from anything or anyone,” he says.
Fischer's particular brand of persuasion seems to work, allies say, because she's generally well-versed on the issue she's leaning on you to vote for or against.
As board president, she would meet with the superintendent at least once during the week, study the board agenda carefully and decide her position on each item. Then, at the meeting, she would tell the other board members — many of whom hadn't done any homework — which way they should vote and why, Kime says.
Her brand of persuasion also works because Deb Fischer has another side, Fischer herself thinks.
She can work a room, decide how each senator is feeling — whether they need to be coddled or shoved — and react accordingly.
She can yell at Flood because she also eats lunch weekly with him and several other Republican state senators. Because he knows she cares.
Because she bought Mike Flood's eldest son a gift when he was born.
A toy firetruck.
“I don't know why anybody would think that I'm intimidating,” Fischer says. She grins. She's being half-playful and half-something else.
“Personally, I think I'm charming.”
They used to divvy up the world, Cory and Jim and Deb. They used to battle for global supremacy between bike rides and games of tag.
She was the youngest of the three Strobel kids and the smallest, which kept her from winning many games of tetherball, or dodge ball, or football for that matter.
Board games became the great equalizer, and she loved them from the very beginning.
Monopoly. Sorry. And Risk. She loved Risk.
“By golly, she hated to lose,” says Dr. Cory Strobel, a gastroenterologist in Knoxville, Tenn., and Deb Fischer's eldest brother. “When she did, she wouldn't cry. She would just want to play again right away.”
The Risk grudge matches took place during a childhood seemingly ripped straight from a Norman Rockwell painting.
The Strobel kids lived with their mom, a teacher, and their dad, a longtime Nebraska Department of Roads official, near 47th and A Streets in Lincoln. They rode bikes to Antelope Park. They played games on the lawn of a nearby Methodist church. The boys got shoulder pads and helmets for Christmas, the old-school kind without a face mask.
Deb Fischer got her own Christmas helmet. She wasn't about to sit on the sidelines.
It was this constant quest for competition that may have sparked Fischer's first interest in politics.
As a teenager, she browsed three newspapers every day — the Lincoln Journal, the Lincoln Star and the Omaha World-Herald — and watched Walter Cronkite each night. The Vietnam War was raging, and she sat glued to the television as the men in suits argued for or against it.
Forget about Risk. She wanted to fight, too. Fight for something real.
“I was utterly, totally fascinated.”
The route to a political career started normally enough. Fischer chose the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, majored in political science and thought about getting involved with state government after graduation. But then her carefully planned career path took an unexpected turn.
His name was Bruce.
They were married in 1972, and Deb soon moved with him to the Fischers' family ranch south of Valentine.
Over time, the marriage gave Fischer previously unattainable riches: her part of Sunny Slope Ranch, now owned jointly by the couple and their three boys, is likely worth several million dollars. But it also moved her more than five hours from the state's political power centers of Lincoln and Omaha.
“It's just different out here,” says John Ravenscroft, a rancher and Fischer family friend who is running for her legislative seat, which Fischer must vacate because of term limits.
“You are definitely isolated, and that affects everyone,” Ravenscroft said. “But she adapted. I think she liked it.”
Instead of volunteering for a political campaign, she gave birth to three boys, Adam, Morgan and Luke. Instead of working for a congressman, she grew a garden and joined a weekly golf league.
Instead of readying herself for her first run for office, she walked Sunny Slope Ranch.
From here she could scan golden-capped Sand Hills and watch several windmills slowly spinning. Here she could pick up two radio stations, Christian and country.
Here, if she wanted to, she could park on the paved road that connects the nearest highway to the ranch. She could lie down in the middle of this road. And she could fall asleep underneath a cloudless sky, safe in the knowledge that no cars would disturb her.
Her political dreams seemed over. But when she looked at the horizon, she could see forever.
“We were starting a family and running (the ranch),” she says of her early years in Valentine. “We were doing what everybody does. We were making a home. We were making a life.”
And that would be that ... except for the board games.
There is a story that people in Valentine tell, one that seems to capture another side of Deb Fischer.
It goes like this:
When Trivial Pursuit first came out in the 1980s, Fischer played it and lost. Infatuated with the game, she went out, bought a copy of her own and in her free time started studying the cards. Soon she couldn't be beat.
Fischer laughs when this story is repeated to her. She doesn't really know what to make of this story, she says, but she doesn't exactly deny it, either. Then she is asked if it's true that Trivial Pursuit is her favored game.
“No!” she says. “My favorite board game is Monopoly.”
Les Kime had just celebrated his 81st birthday, and his wife, Betty, her 79th, when the letter arrived in the mailbox in 1995.
For decades — generations, really — they had owned the Snake Falls Ranch near the McKelvie National Forest southwest of Valentine. For nearly that long they had gotten along just fine with the Fischer family, their neighbors to the east.
Les Kime and Bill Fischer, Bruce's father, even had a gentlemen's agreement that a piece of ground between Snake Falls and Sunny Slope could be used by each rancher on his side of the fence. They agreed to this even though both knew that the ground wasn't fenced along the actual property line because of the tough terrain.
But Bruce and Deb Fischer ran Sunny Slope Ranch now. They had repeatedly tried to buy the 100-odd acres on their side of the fence line, but the Kimes refused to sell.
And so the older couple received the news from the postman: They were being sued.
We have been taking care of the land for years, the Fischers argued through their attorney. By law, that land you think is yours is now ours.
“It shocked them,” Annie Kime says of her in-laws' reaction to the lawsuit. “Out in the country, this is just something you don't do. You don't sue your neighbor.”
The resulting two-year lawsuit — which the Fischers ultimately lost — and years of subsequent wrangling over a new fence along the stretch in question represents one instance when life on the ranch wasn't as peaceful as it appears.
There are others.
Warren Arganbright, a successful local attorney and former chairman of the Cherry County Republican Party, no longer speaks to Deb Fischer, and vice versa.
The Fischers and Arganbrights used to have homes that practically touched each other in Valentine. Then Deb Fischer and Warren Arganbright both ran in a crowded primary for the Nebraska Legislature in 2004. Bruce and Deb Fischer moved to a different house in town.
Fischer finished second in the primary — narrowly edging Arganbright, who finished third — before squeaking out a general election win. For reasons that no one will publicly share, serious animosity built between the longtime neighbors during the primary campaign.
Arganbright declined to comment for this article.
Eric Scott, the Cherry County attorney and another local Republican standout, also has a strained relationship with the Fischer family, according to numerous sources in Valentine. Scott declined to discuss these reasons or to comment for this article.
Cleve Trimble, a retired surgeon and one of the biggest early donors to Fischer's campaign, has also broken with Fischer, people in Valentine say. This breakup has to do with Fischer's support of, and Trimble's opposition to, the original route of the Keystone XL pipeline through the Sand Hills.
Trimble declined to comment for this article.
Fischer didn't respond directly to questions about broken relationships with prominent Republicans and donors in Valentine other than to say that she considered several of the people listed “still friends.”
“Listen, any time you are in a public office, when you have to make a decision on something, people on one side or the other aren't going to like that,” she said. “Every public official deals with that.”
But that doesn't explain the Kimes, a family with century-old roots in the area who recently sold Snake Falls Ranch after owning it for generations.
Fischer, in an interview, portrayed the lawsuit as a procedural matter, saying several times that the only reason the Fischers sued was on the advice of their lawyer. (Coincidentally, the Fischers' attorney in the case was Warren Arganbright, who in 1995 was still a friend and neighbor of the family.)
The Kimes looked at it much differently. They saw it as a land grab, one potentially worth several hundred thousand dollars because of the location and value of the land.
The comically thick legal file in the Cherry County Clerk's Office shows that the Fischers argued they now owned the land because of “adverse possession,” a part of property law that allows someone to claim land they have cared for and maintained for a long period of time.
But ultimately the Kimes were able to use old maps to show that the land had long been theirs and present an array of proof showing that the Fischers didn't meet many of the adverse possession requirements.
In 1997, a judge ruled in the Kimes' favor. But Les and Betty Kime remained bothered by the lawsuit until their deaths, their daughter-in-law said.
The Kimes had long allowed the Fischers to run their cattle through the Kimes' large ranch and into the McKelvie National Forest, where the Fischers have permits to graze their cattle on the federal land. After the lawsuit, Bruce Fischer asked if they could continue to drive their cattle over the Kimes' ground, according to Annie Kime.
“My father-in-law said no,” she says. Annie Kime lets out a short, sharp laugh. “Obviously.”
It was getting late, and Deb Fischer still faced a long drive home.
She was returning from Lincoln on a Friday night, navigating a killer five-hour ribbon of highway interrupted only by occasional small-town speed traps.
She had not yet squeaked into the Legislature or passed a roads funding bill that even supporters thought impossible, or toppled Nebraska's widely known attorney general in a Senate primary.
It was fall 1987, and Deb Fischer wasn't anybody, not yet, but she was driving down this road to change that.
She was going to university classes and studying during the week. She was hauling back to Valentine every Friday night to help raise three young boys and run a ranch and then turning around and driving back to Lincoln each Sunday.
She was taking 21 credit hours, an extremely heavy course load. She was tucking her sons in by telephone. She was driving 10 hours back and forth in the darkness, struggling to stay awake.
She was finishing her college degree.
“It was no big deal,” she says now. “People out there with jobs take night classes. People are out there working hard. It's no different.”
Go back to school by crisscrossing the state at the age of 36? No big deal.
Run for Legislature against six other candidates, knowing full well that the only way to win is to visit more out-of-the-way ranches than your opponents? You bet.
Announce yourself as a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, even when your own friends in Valentine give you roughly the same chance as they do a Ferrari dealership opening up on Main Street next door to Auntie D's Gift & Coffee Shop? Sure thing.
Fischer herself swears up and down that, three weeks before the primary election, she knew she would beat Jon Bruning.
And now she sits outside a west Omaha coffee shop and lays out her plans for how she will exert influence — and help mend — the U.S. Senate if she's elected.
“I plan to go and meet my colleagues, especially the other new folks, just walk in and say ‘Hello!' That's what I did in Lincoln.
“I plan to get to know them better, develop real relationships. That's missing in Washington, and it needs to start happening.”
People whisper that Deb Fischer is lucky, that she just happened to find herself in the right spot during the right campaign. She will be in over her head in the U.S. Senate, they say.
And that would be that ... except it ignores the regal-looking woman driving a deserted highway back to Lincoln and a college degree when her friends are asleep in their Valentine beds.
It ignores her pulling into an unfamiliar ranch, a complete unknown, and screwing up the courage to knock on the front door.
Deb Fischer knows what to do with this feeling.
She thinks she will lace up work boots and grind that little piece of fear into Sand Hills dust.
She thinks she will win. She thinks that because she almost always does.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1064, email@example.com