LINCOLN — Newly elected Speaker of the Legislature Greg Adams is trying to give up his whiteboard and markers.
In his new post, he won't need to be drawing arrows and buckets and graphs to explain the complexities of the state school aid formula.
But he doesn't rule out borrowing the board when a visual aid might help make some point with a colleague or illustrate a compromise that could bring differing sides together.
“If I find that I need it, I can go chase it down,” he said.
Adams left his York High School classroom when he was elected to the Nebraska Legislature six years ago.
Yet the trim 60-year-old, who was chosen by his peers last week to fill the Legislature's top post, remains a teacher at heart.
“He is the consummate teacher and educator,” said State Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids, who succeeded Adams as chairwoman of the Education Committee. “He strives to help people understand.”
Fellow lawmakers describe him in glowing terms.
They call him thoughtful, patient, reliable and accessible. They say he excels at building consensus and has great respect for the legislative process.
“He is bright, he works hard, he's a fast study, he's fair-minded, and I think he'll be a fine speaker,” said Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, an Education Committee member.
Adams, who drew no opposition in his bid for speaker, calls himself a politically moderate conservative.
He is a registered Republican who generally votes with conservatives on budgets, taxes, abortion and guns.
But he has parted ways with Gov. Dave Heineman at times, including last year when state senators overrode Heineman's veto on providing publicly funded prenatal care for the unborn babies of illegal immigrants.
Adams also was skeptical of Heineman's plan to cut income taxes last year, when state revenue was just beginning to rebound from the recession. He ended up voting for a scaled-down cut.
“I consider myself open-minded and thoughtful,” he said.
Growing up, Adams never planned on becoming a teacher — or an elected official, for that matter.
He was raised in York, the eastern Nebraska county seat where he still lives. His father worked for the gas company, then owned a construction firm. Adams ran a shovel for his father when not in school. His mother did secretarial work.
After high school, Adams went to Wayne State College, where he concentrated at first on social science courses. He wound up in education, he said, because his father kept pushing him to pick a field with some job potential.
Adams landed his first teaching position back in York. Three decades later, he was still there, schooling teenagers about American government and economics.
His political career began, in part, to demonstrate the kind of civic engagement he encouraged in his students. He started by running for York City Council.
He spent 10 years on the council, than ran for mayor of York and won in 1996.
York's current mayor, Chuck Harris, said Adams' biggest accomplishment as mayor was putting the city back on its feet financially.
Harris said Adams inspired public trust, which made it possible to win voter approval of a local sales tax in 1998. Three previous attempts had failed.
The resulting revenue, which includes taxes on sales made to travelers stopping along Interstate 80, pushed the city property tax rate down from one of the state's highest to one of the lowest.
“He's just so capable and so knowledgeable,” Harris said. “He's really good at helping opposing parties come together.”
In 2006, Adams set his sights on the legislative seat being vacated by term-limited Sen. Elaine Stuhr of Bradshaw.
Being in city government had made him realize the critical role of state laws and policies in local success, he said. He also was at a point in his teaching career when he could retire.
“I'm not the kind of person who likes to look over my shoulder and say, 'I should have ...'” he said.
Adams said he didn't start out in the Legislature aiming to become speaker or even a committee chairman.
But his experience in education and his thoughtful, calm approach to working with colleagues gained him enough respect to be elected Education Committee chairman.
He became the go-to guy for anyone wanting to understand the school aid formula. He helped work out and pass formula revisions that staved off a potential lawsuit by the state's larger school districts.
Later, he built support for painful changes that reined in growth of school aid and helped the state close major budget shortfalls.
Adams also helped resolve a funding feud between Metropolitan Community College and the other five community colleges.
He said he hasn't left teaching behind while working to get legislation passed. “It's just that I have a class of 48 that won't sit down and be quiet,” he jokes.
As speaker, he has promised an agenda of fairness and good policymaking. He also promised to help colleagues be the best senators they can be.
In his first few days as speaker, that has meant dealing with issues large and small.
Tougher decisions loom on setting the legislative agenda and keeping debate moving when lawmakers begin tackling the big issues of the session.
To decompress, Adams heads out for a run. A high school football player and track athlete, he has completed a marathon and a few half-marathons but says he mostly runs for “therapy.”
At home, he keeps busy with yard work and fix-it projects. A perennial project is his trademark red 1995 Nissan pickup with 192,000 miles on it.
“I like working with my hands,” Adams said. “Sometimes I do my best thinking when I'm sitting on the lawn mower.”
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