LINCOLN — State Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha took less than six months to assert his political independence after being appointed to the Nebraska Legislature.
At issue was a politically explosive proposal to cover prenatal care for the unborn children of illegal immigrants.
Then-Gov. Dave Heineman fought the idea vigorously, saying taxpayer dollars should never be used for illegal immigrants.
Krist, despite owing his seat to Heineman, spoke out for the 2010 proposal, calling it “the right thing to do for the human condition” and the babies who would be born as United States citizens. He later voted to approve the coverage over Heineman’s veto.
The clash epitomized the retired military officer-turned-lawmaker who is battling to unseat Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts in November.
In the words of supporters, Krist is passionate and independent, a hard worker with a firm sense of right and wrong and a commitment to putting people first.
“Bob is a true man of integrity,” said State Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont, Krist’s running mate. “I’m happy to be running with a man who is so passionate about his country, his family and his state.”
But opponents label the Democratic gubernatorial challenger a flip-flopper who can’t be trusted. They point to his recent switch from Republican to Democrat , along with issues on which he has changed his position over the years.
“He’s not a person I could work with,” said State Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, who has clashed with Krist repeatedly.
Krist grew up in blue-collar South Omaha, the oldest child of a union electrician and a nurse. His grandfather on his mother’s side was a German immigrant whose parents sent him to the United States to keep him out of the camps intended to turn young German boys into Nazi soldiers. His parents taught him to value education and their Roman Catholic faith.
“That was a foundation that I appreciated,” Krist said. “It taught me that you have to prioritize the funds that you have and have to prioritize the life that you want.”
Krist decided early on that his life had to include aviation. His love of flight began at age 8, when a family friend first took him up in an airplane. Now 61, he recently passed 15,000 hours of flying time as a pilot.
“Flying, once it gets in your blood, you tend not to get too far away from it,” he said. “There is something to that feeling of being able to control your environment.”
His love led him into ROTC during college, then into a 21-year Air Force career. He retired in 2000 as a lieutenant colonel. In his first assignment, he was based in Keflavik, Iceland, where he piloted a combat rescue helicopter over Arctic waters.
During the following years, he flew more than 20 fixed and rotary wing aircraft, including the Looking Glass EC-135 aircraft out of Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue. He also instructed aviators, served in both Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm, commanded a squadron flying combat reconnaissance sorties and became chief of plans and programs for the 55th Wing at Offutt.
His superiors lauded his abilities, both in the air and as a commander on the ground. “Absolutely at ease in a high-stress, short-fuse environment,” one wrote in an evaluation. “A born leader and diplomat,” another said.
Mark Spadaro, an Air Force veteran who flew reconnaissance missions with Krist, said the Omaha native had a reputation as a “rock-solid and safe pilot.”
“I trusted Bob explicitly with the lives of our crew members,” he said.
Krist also was known for being able to work and talk with everyone, Spadaro said. When his squadron and Krist’s squadron shared a building at Offutt, he said, few people crossed the invisible boundary that separated the two. Krist was one of those few.
Retiring from the Air Force left Krist at loose ends. He found work with a family friend, then as vice president of Spadaro’s small business, Dyna-Tech Aviation Services.
But he didn’t discover a new mission until he got involved with advocating for his daughter, Courtney, now 34, and other children with disabilities.
He eventually ended up at the Legislature, testifying about a bill to let public school systems contract to provide special education services to students attending private schools. He stayed to listen to the rest of the testimony that day, then continued to follow and work on legislation, especially concerning special education.
“I got hooked,” Krist said. “I thought how cool this is to be sitting in a place where policy and law is analyzed and changed on an hourly basis.”
So when then-State Sen. Mike Friend resigned midterm, Krist applied for the District 10 seat, which represents north-central Omaha. He was appointed in September 2009, then won a squeaker of an election in 2010 and easy re-election in 2014. Term limits bar him from running again this year.
During those years, Krist played a key role in juvenile justice system reforms aimed at keeping youngsters out of detention and institutions. He worked on efforts to turn around the state’s troubled corrections system and to get the child welfare system back on track after a disastrous attempt at statewide privatization.
He also got laws passed to create a buffer zone around funeral services, revamp the Foster Care Review Office, establish online voter registration and set limits on local occupation taxes.
He served on two legislative oversight committees, one concerned with the Beatrice State Developmental Center and developmental disability services and another that probed problems within the state’s prison system.
As a lawmaker, colleagues said, Krist was known for doing his homework and pouring himself into the issues. He worked frequently behind the scenes, talking with senators, laying out information and urging them to “measure, weigh and judge” the evidence.
At times, the same process persuaded Krist to change his positions on issues, which some have labeled flip-flopping.
One year, he introduced legislation to require that students pass a test using questions drawn from the naturalization test given to people seeking U.S. citizenship. The next year, he offered a broader update of the state’s Americanism statutes but no civics exam.
His position on bills to ban job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity evolved from opposition to conditional support to support.
“On the issues that I have changed course or direction, it has not been without evidence-based information,” Krist said. “It certainly has not been without a great deal of soul-searching and, in some cases, a lot of prayer.”
Krist’s approach to lawmaking brought him into repeated conflict with Heineman and his successor, Ricketts.
Krist opposed Heineman on the prenatal care issue and was critical of the administration’s handling of child welfare, corrections and human services.
During Ricketts’ term, Krist has voted to override the governor’s vetoes of measures repealing the death penalty, providing driver’s and occupational licenses to young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children and raising the gas tax to fund highway construction.
Krist’s positions put him at odds with Republican Party leaders, who asked him more than once to leave the party. In 2015, they sought to censure him for refusing to follow the party line on legislative leadership votes.
Ricketts, too, called him out at a state GOP convention. Krist refused to back down.
“I did whatever I thought was the right thing to do to support 1.9 million people in the state and the 40,000 people that I represent,” he said. “That hasn’t always been easy.”
His frustration has boiled over at times in emotional speeches and pointed comments. Krist said his temperament reflects his conviction and passion about issues, particularly those involving the treatment of women, people with disabilities, religious groups and others.
“I was taught the way you treat people is how you are measured,” he said. “So cross that line, and you will see, from me, a very passionate person.”
Krist paid a price for his independence in 2017.
Two years earlier, he had been elected chairman of the Legislature’s Executive Board. In that position, he worked on improving safety and security at the Capitol and led the investigation into then-State Sen. Bill Kintner’s use of a state computer for cybersex.
But Krist was defeated in his re-election bid for the position when a block of conservative GOP senators ousted Democrats and moderate Republicans from virtually all legislative leadership posts.
The leadership votes marked a change in tone and process for the officially nonpartisan Legislature, one that Krist said he would work to reverse if elected governor.
“Probably my biggest disappointment is the way the Legislature in general has deteriorated into a partisan body,” he said.
Krist said his political views fall “someplace between a Kennedy Democrat and a Reagan Republican.” That means that he doesn’t quite fit the official platforms of either party, especially at the national level.
He left the GOP after deciding to run for governor, changing his registration first to nonpartisan, then to Democrat. He said he wanted to find the best path to success in the current two-party system.
He got into the race, he said, “because I think the state of the state is not as good as it can be or should be.” He faults Ricketts for many of those shortcomings, including the level of property taxes and problems in child welfare and the correctional system.
Becoming governor would be an uphill battle for Krist. His fundraising lags far behind the Ricketts campaign.
But he expressed confidence about his ability to win, noting endorsements by a wide variety of groups, including the newly formed Republican Farmers and Ranchers for Krist, numerous labor unions and professional organizations, and by Latino, African-American and Native leaders.
“When you see that something needs to be done, you only have two choices,” Krist said. “You can walk away or you can re-engage, and I chose to re-engage.”