LINCOLN — When asked how Wayne Ziebarth survived politically as a Democrat in a state dominated by Republicans, his son had a simple answer.

“He basically felt that the right wing and the left wing were connected to the same bird, and if they didn’t get along, that bird was in trouble,” said Jim Ziebarth of Wilcox.

Wayne Ziebarth, who will be remembered for being on the losing end of one of the closest congressional elections in state history, died Friday at his daughter’s home in Wilcox. He was 98.

Ziebarth, a Marine veteran who earned a master’s degree from Columbia University, served in the Nebraska Legislature from 1969-73. A farmer, he was an early advocate for corn-based ethanol, and championed the bill that merged the state’s technical colleges with its junior colleges, creating the state community college system.

“He was a visionary,” said Terry Moore, a friend and retired president of the Omaha Federation of Labor. He called Ziebarth “a mentor.”

“He was a model citizen,” said Bob Kerrey, a former Nebraska governor and U.S. senator.

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Ziebarth had a great sense of humor, Kerrey added, and served his country in both World War II and the Korean War, as well as in public service.

During Ziebarth’s 1974 bid for the 3rd Congressional District seat, Ziebarth was leading the race by a wide margin over Republican Virginia Smith until the GOP dispatched an intern named Karl Rove to aid the ailing Smith campaign. That led to an ad campaign that claimed, mistakenly according to Moore, that Ziebarth had said that “a woman’s place was in the home.”

The ad turned the tide, leading to a narrow victory by Smith by 767 votes.

“That’s a number my family remembers quite well,” said Jim Ziebarth.

He said what his father actually said was that he and wife Renee had decided that she would remain home to raise their children. But Rove, who went on to become a top aide to President George W. Bush, used the comment to turn the election, the younger Ziebarth said.

Wayne Ziebarth later served on the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. He chaired the Nebraska Bicentennial Commission and was president of the South Platte United Chambers of Commerce.

He was preceded in death by his wife and by son Billy. In addition to son Jim, he is survived by daughters Jennifer Kinerk and Jane Ziebarth-Bovill, six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

A visitation was scheduled from 4 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Bauer-Torrey & Mach Funeral Home in Wilcox. A celebration of life service will be held Friday at 11 a.m. at the Trinity Lutheran Church in Axtell.

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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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