By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN – After marrying Scott Kleeb and moving to Nebraska, Jane helped run her husband’s U.S. Senate campaign in 2008 (he lost to former Gov. Mike Johanns) but by 2010, she was running her own campaign.
She ran for the Hastings School Board. This dual threat did not go unnoticed by the Nebraska Republican Party – which took the unusual step of getting involved in the Hastings race, robocalling voters to tell them “East Coast liberal Jane Kleeb is using your children to further her political agenda. Her values are not our values. Jane Kleeb is more concerned about organic school lunches and rewarding big labor unions with your tax dollars than providing our children with a quality education.”
She won the seat — but was later fined $50 by the state for not properly filing her campaign contribution reports.
She ran for the school board on a “healthy lunches, wise minds” campaign — and got school lunches on a new program within months of her election. Her interest in healthy eating stemmed back to her own lengthy battle with an eating disorder. She gained weight in the fifth grade, and was teased by classmates in her small Catholic school. She began dieting, and it spiraled out of control for the next eight years. She was in and out of treatment and her family – who owned a couple of Burger Kings where she’d chop vegetables on weekends – struggled to pay the medical bills. Her weight dropped to about 70 pounds when she was 16 years old. One day, her heart stopped. She nearly died.
She says her father was an alcoholic and she was always trying to control the situation, organize the house and “make things good and peaceful.” He died when she was 19.
After seeing her family struggle to get health insurance to cover mental health the same as physical health, she became a fierce advocate for medical reform. She saw other patients who couldn’t stay in treatment because their insurers wouldn’t pay for it.
She says she got her activist spirit from her mother, who was president of the Broward County Right to Life and always helping teen moms or volunteering at events while caring for Jane, her sister and two brothers.
“I feel it’s only natural that I would have kids and be raising a family and be outspoken,” Jane says.
She’s also hard-wired to organize: As a child, she’d go into organizing mode when a game of hide-and-seek would break out – suggesting her team come up with a name like the Butterfly Club and make membership cards.
“I was not a fun kid to play with,” she says, laughing.
One of the first things Jane noticed after moving to Nebraska was that while most people professed to be Republicans, when they’d start talking issues, they were actually quite progressive. Especially farmers and ranchers.
By 2008, she had concluded there was no “good progressive voice in the state not attached to either party.” For a couple of years, she kicked around the idea of starting an independent group to work on issues – but didn’t want it to be a “shadow for the Democratic Party.” The Democratic Party disappointed her.
“For too long in Nebraska, Dems have just kind of thrown up their hands and said, ‘We’re never gonna get any traction,’ ” she says.
Some Democrats viewed her with suspicion, too – wondering if she would try to take over the party or its donors. And she did consider running for chair of the party. Vic Covalt, chairman of the state Democratic Party, says while he and Jane don’t always agree, they talk to each other; they email each other.
“You’re just trying to start a fight,” he said after being asked about past tension between the two. “I’m not a god or a demigod. I love anybody who’s… trying to help find solutions.”
Ultimately, Jane says she decided not to run for the position because she wouldn’t like sending out nasty press releases and torching Republicans at every turn.
“I didn’t want to be that person,” she says. “I don’t find that fun. It’s lame and people see right through it. It doesn’t move people.”
She says people need to be engaged on core values. So instead, she, Scott and a few others launched Bold Nebraska in early 2010. Jane is comfortable with the media – she did her first TV interview with Fox in 2004 as head of the Young Democrats and has been a frequent talking head on cable ever since.
“They liked me – I think because I kept interrupting the host,” she said of FOX. “They just kept asking me back.”
She was also hired as a “street reporter” for MTV in 2008.
Bold Nebraska launched a blog and Facebook page that quickly added a new voice to the political chatter in Nebraska. Its first year, Bold Nebraska ran the pipeline campaign on a shoestring budget of $4,000 a month, Scott says.
Now, less than two years later, Bold Nebraska has 15,000 names on its email list, three full-time staffers, three paid interns and a $250,000 budget – paid for by 287 small donors, $48,000 from the National Wildlife Federation and $75,000 from Omaha philanthropist Dick Holland, a retired insurance executive. Jane says she earns $4,000 a month — about half what she made working for the labor-affiliated Change that Works in 2009.
Within a few months of starting Bold Nebraska, Jane attended a meeting about the Keystone XL pipeline in York. She says about 150 people showed up and everybody was opposed to the pipeline except for a welder from Arkansas.
She saw the opportunity to organize and galvanize.
“The organizer in me immediately saw that: the raw grit of farmers and ranchers and moms and grandmas who were talking about water and native prairie grass,” she says.
Bold Nebraska had found a cause.
The pipeline is thorny for the Democratic Party because unions want the jobs building the pipeline and environmentalists don’t want America to use the “dirty” tar sands oil from Canada.
Bold Nebraska began working with the National Wildlife and Sierra Club to oppose the pipeline path, pushing Keystone XL onto the front pages in Nebraska and eventually, the nation.
Other groups – chiefly, Tar Sands Action – sprang up to join the fight, which became a cause célèbre for environmentalists, who threatened to pull support for President Obama if he granted TransCanada a permit to build the pipeline. Actors Robert Redford and Julia Louis- Dreyfus and Daryl Hannah publicly opposed the pipeline in videos and White House protests.
TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard says while many portray the Keystone XL debate as Big Oil versus little landowners, Bold Nebraska helped orchestrate a sophisticated campaign.
“This is a very well-funded, well-coordinated, anti-oil campaign,” Howard said. “And that’s what it’s about.”
As for Jane, he said, “This isn’t the first cause that she’s taken on. Once Keystone is approved I’m sure she’ll find another one.”
As Jane’s profile has increased, so has criticism – she is routinely trashed on an anonymous blog called Insane Jane and the anonymously-authored-but-clearly-well-connected Republican blog called LeavenworthStreet.com
In fact, Leavenworth Street began picking on Jane before she even moved to Nebraska, when she was Scott’s fiancé. Leavenworth calls Bold Nebraska members “Boldies” or “marchies” and regularly critiques Jane’s clothing, resume, lobbying tactics and motivation – saying she’s more interested in self-promotion than her causes.
Leavenworth is particularly perturbed by Bold Nebraska’s stance on the pipeline, accusing the group of opposing fossil fuels, not the pipeline path and using sophomoric tactics like “beanie babies, foam fingers and trick-or-treaters.”
Nebraska Watchdog asked the Leavenworth Street blogger why she/he dislikes Bold Nebraska and Jane so much, and she/he replied: “They routinely misrepresent facts, manipulate people’s feelings, and generally pose as something they are not in order to achieve their political goal. … On the Leavenworth Street blog, we comment on politics in Nebraska. Jane has given us much on which to comment.”
Jane says her opponents have taken to tracking her – following her and taking pictures of her, sometimes with her daughters. Leavenworth Street went nuts when she wore a Future Farmers of America jacket to a pipeline hearing, because she’s not a member of the FFA.
She says strangers sometimes come up behind her at public events and whisper things in her ear – like who she blocked on Facebook or Twitter, or where she was the day before. She says people in suits will come up to her at events and say, “Hi Jane” – without properly introducing themselves. She ignores them, but she also doesn’t walk to her car alone at night anymore. She thinks they are largely “college Republicans.”
Scott says law enforcement officers have escorted Jane to her car after hearing comments in a crowd that concern them.
“It’s deeply troubling,” Scott says. “It’s sad when people take a conversation and turn it into something very threatening. Sadly, it’s a different time.”
He says her detractors quickly saw her as a threat because she’s been successful at everything she’s done.
“It’s giving voice to the voiceless,” he says. “It’s disruptive to the status quo.”
Jane is not deterred; asked whether she has designs on running for higher office, she says she’s happy being on the school board and running Bold Nebraska, but also sees a need for more “openly progressive” people in the Legislature.
“I think running for state Senate is something that I might consider years down the road,” she says.
As for Scott, she hopes he runs for office again because he’d be “an amazing politician on any level” but he says he’s happy running Energy Pioneer Solutions, a company he started two-and-a-half years ago to do energy audits and upgrades that are paid for through savings on utility bills. He says he’s creating jobs and saving money on energy.
“I love what I’m doing,” he says.
Jane’s immediate concern is continuing to have Bold Nebraska be an “independent, moderate” voice on issues – she’d like to do work on energy issues, eminent domain and helping save family farms. But for now, the pipeline is squarely in her crosshairs – and every day seems to bring a new revelation that puts the project’s future in doubt, the latest being the State Department decision to consider rerouting the pipeline around the Ogallala and Sandhills.
Scott says Jane is a lightning rod because she’s shaking things up in Nebraska.
“In an off-year, people are coming together more than in an election year,” he says. “It’s one of the greatest ‘small d’ of Democratic forces in our state over the last year-and-a-half.”
Reported by Deena Winter, firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note: to subscribe to News Updates from Nebraska Watchdog at no cost, click here