LINCOLN — Republican Deb Fischer mounted an aggressive counterattack against Democrat Bob Kerrey on Tuesday, accusing him of relying on “distortions” and “character assassinations” to attack her and her family over an old legal dispute with a neighbor.
Fischer fired back with the help of nearly 40 ranchers, neighbors and high-profile political friends who stood behind the Senate candidate and helped her to denounce Kerrey who — the day before — had accused Fischer of being a bad neighbor.
“When they're attacking the Fischer family, they're attacking a lot of us in Cherry County,” said Jerry Adamson, a Valentine rancher who attended the Fischer press conference wearing a light-tan cowboy hat, western shirt and jeans.
“If they're saying they're not a good neighbor, they need to look up the definition of neighbor, because that is the Fischer family,” Adamson added.
The latest political rumble in Nebraska's U.S. Senate race arose after Kerrey launched a biting television ad this week that questioned Fischer's character. In the ad, three Cherry County residents criticized Fischer for trying to claim ownership of part of an elderly ranch couple's land with a legal maneuver closely related to the concept known as squatter's rights.
Kerrey doubled down on his criticism Tuesday, saying Fischer only filed the lawsuit after the late Les and Betty Kime refused to either sell or swap land.
“She tried to take the land she couldn't buy,” said Kerrey. “Rather than increase the offer — a more generous offer — she went to court.”
“It's a character issue to sue a neighbor,” he added.
Fischer and Kerrey are battling for the seat held by retiring Sen. Ben Nelson.
Polls have consistently shown that Fischer is the frontrunner, although Kerrey and his campaign maintain that they are gaining ground.
Fischer alleged Tuesday that Kerrey's latest criticism was an act of “desperation,” from a candidate who has failed to gain traction.
“We've found out in many campaigns — in this one in particular — someone will do and say anything to win,” Fischer said.
In addition to friends and neighbors, Fischer was joined at the press conference by high-profile Republicans, including Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman and former Gov. Kay Orr.
Heineman accused Kerrey of trying to muddy the waters.
“Bob Kerrey is engaged in a deliberate distraction to try to keep Nebraska and the media from focusing on the issues. Bob Kerrey is using one of the oldest political tricks when you're losing,” said Heineman.
The land dispute between the Kimes and Fischers has a long history. The two ranching families shared land next to each other that was difficult to fence, because of a river and canyons. That meant the fence that separated their land was not on the legal property line. Parcels of the Fischer property were within the Kimes' fence, while parts of the Kime's family land was within the Fischers' fence line.
For years, the two families allowed each other to use each other's land. But in the 1990s, Fischer and her husband, Bruce Fischer, tried to clarify the boundary. They offered several times to swap land with the Kimes or to buy the disputed property.
The Kimes then offered to buy the Fischers' land. The Fischers refused.
In 1995, the Fischers filed a lawsuit, using a legal doctrine known as adverse possession. They essentially argued that they owned the Kimes' land because they had cared for it for more than a decade.
The Fischers lost and a fence was erected along the proper boundary line.
Adamson and other ranchers said that fence has been hard to maintain, because it crosses a river several times. They also backed Fischer's assertion that such disputes are common because of the region's topography.
But, in most cases, they acknowledged, neighbors can usually settle such disputes outside of court, usually by swapping land.
Fischer and others have called such disputes “common.”
The Kerrey camp rejected that argument Tuesday, calling the legal maneuver the Fischers used uncommon.
Chris Triebsch, a Kerrey spokesman, said the campaign's legal research found only 17 lawsuits filed in Nebraska over the last five years in which the legal argument of adverse possession was used.
Fischer argued that she and her husband, Bruce, went to court because they intended to sell some property, and needed the boundary issues resolved.
And, she said, they filed the lawsuit at the urging of their attorney.
Kerrey took exception with Fischer's argument. He said the advice of an attorney was not a “sufficient” reason to sue a neighbor.
Several times during her press conference, Fischer criticized Kerrey for going after “her family.” She also lamented how “tough” it was to be a candidate.
“When I first considered running for the Legislature, I had a number of family and friends say, ‘Why do you want to do this? It's going to get ugly,” Fischer said.
Kerrey seemed especially upset by those comments, saying Fischer appeared to be painting herself as a “victim.”
“If you think this is hard,” he said, “wait until you get into the Senate.”
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