LINCOLN — Newly named Lt. Gov. Lavon Heidemann was praised Wednesday as someone who might help the governor mend fences with state lawmakers.
Heidemann, a 54-year-old farmer and member of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, was Gov. Dave Heineman's surprise pick to replace Rick Sheehy, who resigned 12 days ago.
The governor said he asked Heidemann, a fellow Republican, to take the job because he was “looking for the best Nebraskan possible.”
“This is a man I respect. I know him very, very well,” Heineman said. “People know him, especially in this building.”
The governor called Heidemann a “common-sense fiscal conservative” who would “absolutely” help him push his agenda in the Nebraska Legislature.
The nonpartisan body has departed from the governor on some controversial issues in recent years. Some lawmakers remain upset that Heineman publicly opposed a pay raise for state senators last year and singled out for criticism the Legislature's former leader, Speaker of the Legislature Sen. Mike Flood, for supporting government-paid, prenatal care for children of illegal immigrants.
Heidemann represented southeast Nebraska's District 1 for eight years in the Legislature until being barred by term limits from seeking re-election last year. Six of those years were spent heading the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, where he earned a reputation as a steady and patient leader during tough financial times.
Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nord-quist said his former colleague could become a great liaison between the Legislature and the governor, just as Vice President Joe Biden, a former U.S. senator, has aided President Obama in dealing with Congress.
Heidemann, Nordquist said, knows “the inside game” of the Legislature and still has relationships there.
“This is a great pick for the State of Nebraska,” said Nord-quist, a Democrat who heads the Legislature's Retirement Systems Committee and who served under Heidemann on the Appropriations Committee.
Two other key lawmakers, Kearney Sen. Galen Hadley and Fullerton Sen. Annette Dubas, joined Nordquist in expressing pleasant surprise that Heidemann was picked for the $75,000-a-year post.
Video: Heineman introduces Heidemann as new lieutenant governor
A trio of other state senators had been mentioned as possible candidates, but not Heidemann, perhaps because he had been elected in November to an unpaid post on the Board of Regents.
“He understands the Legislature, he understands the state and he understands fiscal issues,” Hadley said. “Great choice.”
Sheehy abruptly resigned on Feb. 2 after The World-Herald presented the results of a monthlong investigation revealing more than 2,300 calls he made on a state-issued cellphone to four women.
The governor said the “extraordinary situation” moved him to ask Heidemann, despite his recent election to the NU Board of Regents.
“I wanted the best Nebraskan possible standing at my side,” Heineman said.
Heidemann was sworn in Wednesday by Secretary of State John Gale.
The governor will appoint a regent to fill Heidemann's seat on the Board of Regents. Heidemann's letter of resignation was submitted just minutes before the press conference.
As chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Heidemann led the drafting of the state's budget, which included budget cuts needed to navigate Nebraska through the Great Recession. He also worked closely with the governor, who said he always felt comfortable calling Heidemann during the evening.
The new lieutenant governor said that it was a tough decision to leave the Board of Regents. But he said he was honored to be asked to serve and felt he could do more to help the state as the governor's No. 2 man.
“The governor and I might not always travel down the same path, but our destination is always the same,” Heidemann said. “We want to make Nebraska a good place to live and do business, and better for future generations.”
He joked that because his name is so similar to “Heineman,” he's often been mistakenly called “governor.” That is closer to the truth now, Gov. Heineman responded.
When Heidemann was asked if he could advocate for the governor's tax plans, which were unanimously opposed by the state's farm groups, he deferred, saying he had to “get up to speed” on the proposals.
“Give me a little bit of time,” he said.
The job of lieutenant governor includes presiding over the Legislature and heading the state's Homeland Security efforts, as well as making appearances and speeches across the state.
Heineman said he wanted to pick someone who would not seek election as governor in 2014, and Heidemann said he had agreed to that stipulation. Heineman cannot seek re-election as governor because of term limits.
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