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• Election guide: See side-by-side comparisons of the candidates and more 2012 election coverage.
If re-elected, Lee Terry would relish role as party power broker
WASHINGTON — Rep. Lee Terry had an early lesson in just how little consideration is given to rookies on Capitol Hill when he arrived for his first congressional hearing.
The Omaha Republican found himself seated not behind the regal wooden desks you've seen on television, the ones with the comfy, plush leather seats, but at a folding table.
Those big chairs were for members with seniority.
Thirteen years later, Terry is in line to take a seat as a subcommittee chairman and wield the legislative influence that brings — if voters send him back for an eighth term and the GOP holds on to the House.
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“I've finally reached that point where I'm eligible,” Terry said. “Now it comes to talent and being able to do the job.”
Terry is being challenged by John Ewing, a Democrat.
Terry was elected to Congress in 1998 after pledging to serve only six years, but he abandoned that limit quickly as he realized the importance of seniority.
He successfully angled for a spot on the House Energy and Commerce Committee — a committee coveted, in part, because of its wide-ranging jurisdiction over matters from health care to consumer protection.
Also, its impact on telecommunications and energy means members can count on healthy campaign contributions from those sectors.
The Center for Responsive Politics lists electric utilities as the top industry donating to Terry's campaign this cycle, with $87,000. It also shows him receiving $60,000 from the oil and gas industry, $65,000 from telecom services and $60,000 from telephone utilities.
Terry has used his spot on the committee to focus on energy and telecommunications matters, recently leading attempts to force approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and continuing a push to use the Universal Service Fund to improve broadband access in rural areas.
He has had his share of missteps along the way, including legislation he introduced last year to make it easier for robocalls to reach cellphones. Terry abandoned that bill after it was widely panned by constituents, consumer advocates and politicians from both parties.
Critics deride Terry's time in office as light on accomplishment, often saying that his only successful legislation named a post office.
It's a charge that clearly irks Terry, who brings it up on his campaign website under the heading of “Congressman Lee Terry: A Substantial Record of Accomplishment.” He even makes a point of defending the naming of the post office.
“U.S. Rep. Lee Terry will always be proud of the fact that legislation he authored to rename a post office in North Omaha for the late Rev. J.C. Wade became law in 2000,” the site says. “Rev. Wade was an outstanding individual who contributed decades of service to the community. ...”
But Terry has seen other proposals signed into law.
For example, he successfully pushed to allow homeowners to qualify for federal flood insurance coverage as long as the slow-moving Missouri River flood had not yet reached their homes 30 days after the coverage was purchased.
Terry also cites proposals that were included in the 2007 energy bill, including language promoting the federal government's use of geothermal energy devices and the high-ethanol fuel blend known as E-85.
He also takes credit for the increases in fuel efficiency standards included in that bill. His proposal to raise those standards was known as Hill-Terry, co-authored with Rep. Baron Hill, D-Ind. That proposal was less aggressive than what was ultimately signed into law.
His campaign's television ads and mailings on that subject have quoted the Union of Concerned Scientists as supportive of Hill-Terry. The group was not.
Ewing's campaign says Terry was really working on behalf of the auto industry to slow down mileage standards' inevitable increase.
Terry says that all legislative negotiations include compromise and that he and Hill were merely trying to ensure the standards enacted would be technologically feasible.
Terry has been a generally reliable vote for fellow Republicans over the years. His Congressional Quarterly “party unity” score has ranged from 90 percent to 97 percent. It was 93 percent last year.
Although President Barack Obama carried Nebraska's 2nd District in 2008, Terry opposed Obama 80 percent of the time on votes last year, according to Congressional Quarterly.
In fact, he has voted against just about every signature Obama administration proposal: the stimulus package, the health care overhaul and climate change legislation.
Despite that, Terry said he still has constituents tell him they're voting for him and Obama. Terry credits his availability to constituents and his care not to personally demean the president.
Terry concedes that his party lost its way on fiscal discipline when it was last in charge, but he has been talking up recent Republican efforts to slash government spending and points to a number of cuts the House has approved that were not taken up by the Senate. Those include budget plans crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., which Democrats say would end Medicare as we know it. Terry defends that plan, saying something has to be done.
“If we just keep it as the same system it is today, it will go broke, and then the government has no choice but to cut payments to hospitals and doctors — which will, in turn, decrease access — so this issue has to be dealt with,” Terry said.
Terry has worked with Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., to land projects for the area, including a new headquarters for U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base and a new veterans cemetery. He also helped secure millions in earmarks for the district before the current moratorium.
If Terry is re-elected, he will be at least sixth in seniority on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has six subcommittees. Terry said his preference would be to take over the subcommittee on telecommunications, although he could end up heading the subcommittee on oversight and investigations, the watchdog panel that recently investigated the Solyndra controversy.
He said he hopes to delve into various issues, including how to free up more broadcast spectrum. The Defense Department, for example, holds a lot of spectrum it isn't using, and Terry suggested it could lease that out.
“The movement of data ... is really important to the economy, and frankly, it's important to Omaha's economy,” Terry said.
One issue he swears he won't bring up again is robocalls.
“Zero,” Terry said of the chances he would resurrect that bill. “Elvis Costello — less than zero.” He still explains that bill as an effort to clean up outdated language.
“It made people uncomfortable that — even though it was never the intent — that it could be the slippery slope to unsolicited solicitations,” Terry said. “And because of that ... I listened to them and pulled the bill and I ain't going there again.”
After years of toiling among the rank and file, Terry says he relishes the prospect of more power. “It'll be nice to get into that position where I get to push part of the agenda, I get to write those bills myself,” Terry said.
Lee Terry at a glance
Occupation: member, U.S. House of Representatives
Party affiliation: Republican
Education: bachelor's degree, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 1984; law degree, Creighton University, 1987
Offices held: U.S. House, 1999-present; Omaha City Council, 1991-98; City Council president, 1995-96
Family: married, three children
– Joseph Morton
Terry discusses his plans, goals
John Ewing touts his budgeting skills that led to $1 million savings
When John Ewing was elected Douglas County treasurer, he promised to shorten lines and protect taxpayer money in an office that had recently seen a top employee embezzle $120,000.
But as Ewing was moving services online and instituting audits, the recession hit.
Soon, the Douglas County Board started asking county agencies for consecutive yearly cuts. With a budget that is about 85 percent salary — and with salaries controlled by the board — Ewing had to get creative.
The treasurer's focus shifted to trying to protect public services while trimming as much as possible. In short, his budgeting agility was tested.
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Ewing, elected in 2006, is fond of telling voters that he saved taxpayers more than $1 million a year as treasurer, and that he did so without laying off employees.
For the treasurer's office, that's meant holding onto aging equipment and not hiring replacements for the people who took other jobs or retired.
“That's what has to happen for government to become more efficient.” said Ewing, a Democrat.
Ewing, 51, says his decision-making in the treasurer's office and previously at the Omaha Police Department means he's more qualified than Republican U.S. Rep. Lee Terry to serve Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District.
Ewing cites the cuts he carried out as proof of his ability to save taxpayers money. But Ewing's critics, including Terry, say he's no fiscal conservative — they say he wouldn't have made those cuts without being forced to do so by the County Board.
Republican County Board member Clare Duda said the treasurer shouldn't get too much credit.
“The County Board is the ones who made the budget cuts,” Duda said. “He had no choice.”
But board member Mike Boyle, a Democrat, said Ewing and other county officials should be commended for cutting in a way that minimized the impact on the public.
“This group of officeholders,” Boyle said, “have really been put to the test.”
Ewing agrees that he didn't decide to make the cuts — but says the reductions he chose should tell voters that he knows how to make purposeful trims.
“Smart cuts and tough decisions,” he said. “That's what leadership is about.”
The office now has 94 full-time and three part-time employees, down from a high of 115.
Eventually, the treasurer's office became too short-staffed to keep open all six branches.
Ewing decided to close the downtown location, though he knew it would be inconvenient for some taxpayers.
“I'm willing to make those tough decisions and accept the consequences,” he said.
Those office closures are possible because Ewing's changes allowed Douglas County residents to pay their property and vehicle taxes online, by mail or by phone, for a fee.
Ewing said that's shortened lines by thousands of people each year.
As taxpayers increasingly pay online, he thinks the treasurer's office will need fewer physical locations. Eventually he'd like the treasurer to provide services at just two offices, “supercenters” with longer hours and more employees.
Ewing often points to the cuts in staff and the branch closing as proof of a healthy respect for taxpayer funds. He often references the $1 million figure, which he arrived at by adding the salaries and benefits of unfilled jobs. (Health insurance and other benefits are not part of the treasurer's budget but are paid for with tax dollars.)
From his office's spending peak of about $5.8 million in 2008-09, Ewing has cut more than 4 percent.
But viewed in totality, the treasurer's office spent about $600,000 more last year than it did the year Ewing took over. He says most of those increases came from raises set by the County Board.
Ewing's right-hand man in the treasurer's office has been Tim Cavanaugh, a former police captain who serves on the Metropolitan Utilities District board as a Republican.
Despite their differences, Cavanaugh said he's been impressed with the treasurer's ability to see a problem, solicit solutions and implement them quickly.
“A lot of people are not willing to take on issues if the road is bumpy,” Cavanaugh said. “John has a vision. ... He will not accept anything short of success.”
Ewing said he found ideas for the treasurer's office the same way he says he would brainstorm changes in Congress — he asked constituents and employees.
As treasurer, he sent out a survey almost every year. The results told him that people wanted online bill paying, and that Douglas County residents would rather see the people who used the service pay a fee than everyone share in higher taxes.
When it came time to make cuts, he said, it was longtime employees who suggested closing the downtown branch.
During his time in the treasurer's office, Ewing saw law enforcement from the other side. He was ticketed in Colorado after a police officer who had pulled over his sister told Ewing to go inside, and Ewing allegedly refused.
A bench warrant was issued after he failed to appear in court for the misdemeanor. Ewing eventually paid the ticket, saying a lawyer friend had forgotten to take care of the matter.
Ewing developed his management style in the Police Department, where he oversaw the special victims unit and eventually the entire police services bureau, which includes most of the department's civilian employees.
Childhood friend and then-Police Chief Thomas Warren promoted Ewing to deputy chief in 2004. Warren said he trusted Ewing because of his willingness to speak up when he disagreed.
“He's a very intelligent person,” said Warren. “He's very hardworking.”
In that job, Ewing found ways to reduce costs. He sold back parts of old helicopters, allowing the department to buy safer, quieter ones.
He also negotiated a price that allowed the city to buy property so officers could move out of an office where the sewage sometimes backed up into a locker room.
Paul Landow, chief of staff to then-Mayor Mike Fahey, said the administration often asked Ewing which budget items were absolutely essential and which could be trimmed, and he gave them straight answers.
“He knew every last nook and cranny of the police department budget,” said Landow, now a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
As a lieutenant, Ewing engaged the legislative process in Lincoln. He pushed to close loopholes that had made it hard to prosecute some child molesters and spousal abusers.
Still, Ewing's campaign faces steep challenges in the Nov. 6 election.
Terry has far outraised Ewing, allowing the incumbent two months to define his opponent with television attacks. Ewing hadn't been able to respond in kind until last week.
In The World-Herald Poll last month, Ewing trailed Terry by 13 percentage points.
Cavanaugh, however, offered a story for the doubters: Ewing asked Cavanaugh, then a police captain, to serve as his top treasurer's deputy before he even won the election. Cavanaugh was dubious.
Ewing prevailed, worked and eventually decided to run for Congress. Once again, Cavanaugh was skeptical.
But “a light bulb went off in my head,” Cavanaugh said. “And I said I shouldn't underestimate him.”
John Ewing at a glance
Party affiliation: Democratic
Occupation: Douglas County treasurer, elected 2006
Education: Bachelor's degree, business administration/criminal justice, University of Nebraska at Omaha, 1984; master's degree, urban studies, UNO, 1985
Family: Married, two children
– Roseann Moring
Ewing discusses his plans, goals
Candidates to go head-to-head in two debates
After a week of controversy over political ads, voters in Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District will have the chance to hear directly from their congressional candidates this week.
Republican U.S. Rep. Lee Terry and his Democratic challenger, Douglas County Treasurer John Ewing, will go head-to-head in two debates.
The first, sponsored by The World-Herald, will be at 7 p.m. Monday at the University of Nebraska at Omaha television studio. The debate will be broadcast on Nebraska Educational Television (NET2) and streamed on Omaha.com.
“I'm going to think like an informed voter and ask the questions that will help the public make an informed choice,” said moderator Mike Reilly, executive editor of The World-Herald.
The second debate will be from noon to 1 p.m. Thursday at the Omaha Press Club. Tickets are $15 and include lunch. To make a reservation, call 402-345-8008.
Moderator Gary Kerr, a former Omaha newscaster, said Cox Cable and radio station KIOS will be recording the debate.
He said the questions will be prepared by a committee made up of the sponsors, the Omaha Press Club and the League of Women Voters.