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LINCOLN — Nebraska's most expensive legislative race is shaping up as a battle over experience and priorities.
Incumbent State Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm says he's more familiar with his Lincoln district and is willing to fight for what's right, citing his call — the first by a state lawmaker — for a special session to reroute the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.
“If people look at my record, I have demonstrated leadership, important accomplishments and a vision for the future,” said Haar, who served eight years on the Lincoln City Council and is a former executive director of the state Democratic Party. “I have a history of service and accomplishments, and he has promises.”
Haar's opponent, Republican Mike Hilgers of Lincoln, says he would concentrate on the issue he hears most often from voters in District 21: creating new jobs.
“I am focused on the concerns of the people in the district,” Hilgers said. “That's an absolute difference in the two candidates.”
The highly partisan race shapes up as one with clear differences on issues and backgrounds, and one that is attracting a record-setting pace of contributions.
Haar, a 69-year-old retiree, supports abortion rights and is the leading voice on environmental issues in the Nebraska Legislature.
His last campaign finance statement showed that he had raised $170,609 through Oct. 2. His fundraising would set a new record for the $12,000-a-year job.
The four-decade resident of the Lincoln area said he knows a lot of people and had to step up his fundraising after Hilgers reported $63,000 in contributions prior to Jan. 1.
Haar's largest contribution is from University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor and entrepreneur John A. Woollam, who gave $40,000 through a trust fund in his name. Haar's other top donors were the Nebraska State Education Association ($20,500) and retired Omaha businessman Dick Holland ($10,000), a major backer of Bold Nebraska, an environmental group that opposes the Keystone XL pipeline.
Hilgers, a 33-year-old attorney, grew up in Omaha, then worked at a Dallas law firm before moving back to Nebraska a couple of years ago.
Hilgers questioned why Haar had introduced bills to protect freedom of speech rights for high school students and how to allocate the state's electoral college votes during one of the worst economic downturns in history.
“I don't care how long you've lived here, if you're not focused on the needs of your district, I don't think it matters,” he said.
Hilgers opposes abortion and has pledged to give up his legislative salary if he doesn't fulfill three promises: a town hall meeting in each of the district's 23 voting precincts every year; at least two, self-paid trips a year to recruit new businesses; and introduction of a bill every session to cut taxes or reduce government regulations.
Hilgers' latest campaign statement showed that he had raised $93,388 and spent $110,944. His largest contributors listed were winery owner Jim Jeffers ($5,000), who lost the District 21 race to Haar by 20 votes in 2008, the Nebraska Bankers Association ($3,000) and the Nebraska Telecommunications Association ($2,500).
“For a challenger to get their name out there takes money,” Hilgers said.
With nearly a month of campaigning left, it appears that both candidates will eclipse the record set by former Sen. John DeCamp of Neligh, who spent $114,236 on his unsuccessful 1986 re-election campaign.
Haar edged Hilgers by 233 votes in the primary. Both candidates have knocked on hundreds of doors seeking votes and have blanketed the district with campaign signs. Haar has already run some radio ads. Hilgers has opened a campaign office, which is unusual for a state legislative race, and has Gov. Dave Heineman's endorsement.
Both candidates said they oppose negative campaigning, but there's already been one spat over a negative flier distributed by the Nebraska Republican Party, calling on voters to “Call 9-1-1” to protest Haar's politics.
The party agreed to stop distributing the flier after a citizen complained to police that people might actually call the emergency number, harming response to real emergencies and possibly violating the law.
Haar, who serves on the Education and Natural Resources Committees of the Legislature, said his No. 1 issue is adequate funding for schools. He said his bills to increase state aid to schools and ease creation of wind energy farms have retained and created jobs.
He opposes capital punishment, because of its high cost and the possibility of executing an innocent person, and was a supporter of restoring state-funded prenatal care for children of illegal immigrants. Haar said that providing the care will save money by preventing more expensive birth defects and developmental problems for kids who become U.S. citizens upon birth.
Haar rejected the idea that his focus is not on the district, pointing to his work in helping install a safer school crossing on Nebraska Highway 34 and a recent community meeting seeking a tornado shelter for a local trailer court.
Hilgers, meanwhile, said voters tell him that the economy, jobs and the cost of living are their top concerns. As a state senator, Hilgers said he would “dig in” and find ways to “modernize” state government and save money for taxpayers.
The GOP challenger supports the death penalty, opposes the prenatal law, and — unlike Haar — is a backer of Legislative Bill 84. That law earmarks one-fourth cent of the state's sales tax, about $70 million a year, to build new state highways and expressways.
Good roads, Hilgers said, are essential to the survival of rural areas. Haar said he opposes such earmarks because they reduce flexibility in responding to a budget crisis.
Contact the writer: 402-473-9584, email@example.com
Occupation: Retired teacher and computer programmer/analyst
Offices held: State Legislature, 2009 to present; Lincoln City Council, 1989 to '97; Lincoln/Lancaster County Board of Health
Education: University of Nebraska-Lincoln, bachelor's degree in education, master's degree in educational administration
Family: Married, two children
Offices held: None
Education: Baylor University, bachelor's degree in economics; University of Chicago, law degree
Family: Married, one child