LINCOLN — Some past Nebraska governors have been cagey when asked about their political futures. Pete Ricketts has opted for the direct approach.
The first-term Republican governor says questions about where he will office, at least until 2023, may cease.
“If the people of Nebraska will vote me in for a second term, I’m staying,” he said in a recent interview with The World-Herald. “All four years.”
Of course, it might be easier to dodge robocalls in October than squelch conjecture about a ultra-wealthy 54-year-old politician who a dozen years ago mounted a run for the U.S. Senate. But Ricketts attached no qualifiers to “all four years.” Instead, he said he very much wants to continue working on goals laid out in his first term.
The governor counts as achievements increases in the property tax credit fund, reductions in the growth of state spending, more efficient delivery of social services and the resumption of the death penalty.
Critics say he hasn’t done enough to address the state’s severely overcrowded prisons while slashing funding for services for people with developmental disabilities and mental health problems. Some conservatives have been frustrated by the lack of a major fix to a tax system that lands heavily on agricultural landowners.
Along the way, the former corporate executive has used his personal fortune to advance his political and policy agendas to a degree Nebraska has never seen before.
He grew up the oldest of four children in a middle-class Omaha family. The wealth came with the success of TD Ameritrade, a discount brokerage founded by his father and where Pete Ricketts attained the position of chief operating officer. Although he left the company to run for the Senate, in 2009 Ricketts and his siblings became the majority owners of the Chicago Cubs, a major league team valued at an estimated $2.9 billion.
He arrived in state government never having held political office, but his outsider status was viewed by many as a plus. He promised to apply lessons from the corporate boardroom to state government and make it operate more like a business.
In the years since, Ricketts has established himself as a core fiscal conservative, rigidly opposed to anything resembling a new or increased tax. He also has constrained the size and reach of government by shrinking budget increases, trimming the workforce by about 2,000 positions and streamlining regulations on business and agriculture.
And most notably, he led a petition effort to reverse a repeal of capital punishment, and his administration carried out Nebraska’s first execution in more than two decades.
The governor’s critics point out that he has failed to solve the myriad of problems plaguing the prison system, most of which stem from overcrowding.
And while the governor has improved response times for those seeking food stamp benefits and modestly reduced the number of abused or neglected children removed from their homes by the state, opponents call attention to his 2017 line-item vetoes of nearly $40 million for the care of low-income Nebraskans and people with developmental disabilities and mental health problems.
And last year, massive controversy erupted at the Nebraska State Patrol involving internal affairs investigations, which prompted the governor to fire the agency’s commander and take disciplinary action against several patrol officers and troopers. The controversy then morphed into a collective bargaining dispute with the 400-member troopers union, which recently endorsed the governor’s Democratic challenger.
What most defines Ricketts within the walls of the State Capitol, however, is a willingness to tap his $50 million fortune to help win legislative races, and in the case of the death penalty, a public policy debate.
Ricketts has given at least $190,000 to legislative candidates since 2015, according to Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission filings tracked in a World-Herald database. Over the same period, he’s donated $187,000 to the Nebraska Republican Party, which in turn backs legislative candidates, plus another $300,000 to help reverse the 2015 repeal of capital punishment that lawmakers passed over his veto.
In addition, the governor’s parents have given tens of millions of dollars to federal GOP candidates and conservative super PACs. And his brother, Todd Ricketts, is the finance chairman of the Republican National Committee. Those familial connections fuel suspicions about untraceable funds that have bought attack ads aimed at the governor’s targets in the Legislature.
Ricketts, as he has in the past, denied giving to “dark money” groups, which don’t have to reveal the identities of their donors. “The checks that I write are all transparent,” he said. “The money that I give is all reported.”
The governor also justified his spending as a counter to campaign contributions by the political action committee for the Nebraska State Education Association, the 28,000-member statewide teachers union.
“Frankly, the dollars I spend are a fraction of what the teachers union has spent through their (organization) and through their shell organizations,” he said.
A check of state disclosure records shows the teachers PAC has given about $348,000 to candidates between 2015 and this year. In addition, the teachers union has given at least $135,000 more to a group called Citizens for a Better Tomorrow, which has bought ads in support of Democrats and targeting Republicans.
The teachers PAC also has given close to $100,000 to state and county political parties in Nebraska over the same period. While Democratic candidates have received most of the contributions, the teachers have given to Republicans as well, including a $1,000 donation to Ricketts himself.
Karen Kilgarin, spokeswoman for NSEA, said of the 26 candidates the association has recommended for the current election cycle, 12 are Republicans, 13 are Democrats and one is a Libertarian. Every contribution by the group’s PAC is reported, she added.
Given the governor’s ready access to campaign cash and his family’s status as conservative mega-donors, Kilgarin scoffed at the governor’s criticism of the NSEA.
“He points his finger at teachers? Seriously?” she said. “Talk about an attempt at misdirection. Let’s educate him and set the record straight: NSEA does not give to ‘dark money’ groups.”
Others argue that the governor’s money has an amplified effect in a 49-member, single-house Legislature where senators are term-limited after eight years. And some have been offended by the governor’s willingness to support more conservative candidates over moderate Republican incumbents who have parted ways with Ricketts on one key issue or another.
“When he uses his wealth to get other people elected, it takes away from democracy,” said Jack Gould, issues chairman for Common Cause Nebraska, a government watchdog group.
Ricketts disputed the idea that his approach is fundamentally different from his predecessors, particularly former Republican Gov. Dave Heineman. While Heineman directed donations from his campaign coffer and political action committees, he gave less than Ricketts despite having held the Governor’s Office for a record 10 years.
Ricketts argued that the Republican senators who voted to repeal the death penalty, raise gas taxes and help “illegals” were “out of touch” with their constituents. The governor said it’s logical that he would back more conservative challengers who emerged to take on those incumbents.
And he rejected the idea that he controls lawmakers, pointing out how the Legislature failed to adopt his priority package of tax cuts in the 2018 session. Furthermore, he said he’s demonstrated a willingness to compromise with senators on certain issues, highlighting his signature on bills to toughen penalties for sex traffickers, combat opioid addiction and test autonomous vehicles, all sponsored by Democrats.
It’s clear the governor’s money doesn’t guarantee a candidate will win at the ballot box. But, judging by veto overrides alone, his strategy has produced results in the legislative chamber.
During his first two years in office, lawmakers overrode the governor’s vetoes on the death penalty, an increase in the gas tax and two bills aimed at helping teenagers and young adults who were brought to the United States illegally when they were children.
In the past two years, the Legislature has upheld the governor’s vetoes, including on a bill that would have allowed felons to vote more quickly. The governor also vetoed a bill that would have placed social workers in educational service units to help students with behavioral health problems. However, because the veto occurred at the end of the session, the Legislature didn’t have a chance to attempt an override.
“If you take thousands of dollars from someone, you owe them a vote,” said State Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus, a moderate Republican who in January will leave the officially nonpartisan Legislature because of term limits.
Republican Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte disagreed with that premise. He said while he agrees with the governor on most things, he hasn’t paid a price when the two have parted ways on an issue.
“If he wants to go out and support people who think the way he does and who want to accomplish the things he does, he has every reason in the world to do that,” Groene said.
[Read more: 2018 election guide]
Regardless of the outcome on Election Day, the issue of property tax reform will loom large over the governor and the Legislature. When he’s out in public, Ricketts said he gets far more questions about property taxes than he does about the Cubs’ chances to win the World Series.
Confronted by a double-whammy of higher taxes and stagnant commodity prices, farmers have grown impatient. One of the governor’s campaign events in York generated some heat last month when several farmers demanded action by Ricketts on the issue.
The governor said he has tried, but couldn’t get enough support for proposals intended to address the issue. He decried the legislative rule that requires a supermajority vote of 33 senators to overcome a filibuster.
Some argue that it’s a losing issue for any governor to take on because property taxes are set and collected by local governments rather than the state. Ricketts disagreed.
“Hey, when you’re in business, you listen to your customers,” he said. “This is one of the things Nebraskans have told me they want me to address. That’s why I’ve made it a priority every year.”
Asked to identify the greatest challenge to being governor, Ricketts said the time away from his wife, Susanne Shore, and their three children. The couple opted to keep the family home in Omaha so the children could stay in their schools, although the two oldest are now in college.
As for his proudest achievement, Ricketts mentioned the reduction in wait times for people who call the Access Nebraska hotline to get help with social services. The Department of Health and Human Services also is faster about providing responses to applicants for food stamps and developmentally disabled services. The governor said he gets “geeked out” by making system improvements that make state government easier to navigate and more responsive to citizens.
If he wins a second term, Ricketts said he wants to continue working on his mission to “grow Nebraska.” He defined the mantra of his administration as more private investment, more jobs and more young people staying to pursue careers in the state.
“I’ve got the best job in the world,” he said. “I absolutely love what we do to serve the people of Nebraska.”
As for his future, a common theory is that Ricketts will try again for the Senate in two years if current GOP Sen. Ben Sasse does not seek a second term. Others think Ricketts might even challenge an incumbent Sasse, who has angered right-wing Republicans with his criticism of President Donald Trump.
And there’s this one: If Ricketts is offered agriculture secretary or some other post in a Trump Cabinet, the governor will surely heed the call of a president he routinely praises in press releases and public comments.
And what does Ricketts say?
“I’d be happy to consider that when I’m done with my four-year term.”