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A new face in Nebraska politics: Ben Sasse

By   /   June 14, 2013  /   21 Comments

Brianna Soukup for Nebraska Watchdog

PROSPECT: The president of Midland University in Fremont, Ben Sasse, is exploring a possible run for the U.S. Senate in Nebraska.


By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

FREMONT — Ben Sasse hasn’t even decided for sure whether he’s going to run for the U.S. Senate in Nebraska.

Already, the chairman of the state Democratic Party has called him a carpetbagger — tit-for-tat for all the Republicans who put the label on Democrat Bob Kerrey.

Like Kerrey, Sasse is a Nebraska native. Unlike Kerrey, he lives and works in Nebraska now, after taking jobs around the country before coming home about four years ago.

His roots run deep here at Midland University, a private Christian liberal arts university tucked in the town of Fremont where he grew up. His father graduated from the college and his grandpa worked there for 33 years, retiring as chief financial officer in the 1980s. Sasse attended the local Lutheran elementary school.

“I spent a lot of fifth grade in the hall,” he said, explaining that he had too much energy, talked too much and was just plain ornery.

He went to summer basketball camps, high school dances and gave his high school graduation speech as valedictorian at Midland. He played sports, walked bean fields and detasseled corn in the Fremont area.

“I became a lifeguard so I wouldn’t have to detassel anymore,” he said. “Detasseling is the hardest job I’ve ever had.”

He was recruited to wrestle at Harvard, to be exact and attended Oxford, St. John’s and got his Ph.D. from Yale. Upon graduation, he quickly learned he was good at “fixing broken stuff.”

His first job out of college was working for the Boston Consulting Group, a global management consulting firm. After two weeks of training, he got a call on a Sunday afternoon saying he needed to get on a 6 a.m. flight to Minneapolis the next day, where he spent the next four months helping Northwest Airlines avoid bankruptcy, improving planes’ turnaround time between flights.

From 2003 to 2005, he was chief of staff for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Policy, where a lot of what he did is classified, but he will say he worked on sharing intelligence between the FBI and CIA.

Brianna Soukup for Nebraska Watchdog

LISTENING: Ben Sasse says he expects to make a decision on the Senate race by mid-July.

“I think we’ve got a major problem and we don’t tell the truth about our enemies,” he said, defining our enemy as “jihadist Islam,” or those willing to kill in the name of religion.

After that, the Bush team tried to persuade him to return with other job offers, but he didn’t bite until he was offered a job at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Unsustainable entitlement programs were irresistible challenges to Sasse, given his penchant for fixing things.

From 2007 until the day Obama was inaugurated, he served as U.S. assistant secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush — the fourth-ranking job in the department, working in policy and research.

For a time, he was charged with addressing a problem in Iraq where women were having babies at home rather than risk going to a hospital. He spent a week in the Green (protected) and Red (dangerous) Zones of Baghdad. There, he met soldiers who were serving their third 15-month tour of duty in six years.

“It was harrowing to see,” he said.

But since he’s not yet a Senate candidate, just engaged in a “listening tour” that should culminate in a decision by mid-July, he won’t say whether the war was a mistake. He does say he’s a believer in the Powell Doctrine, former Defense Secretary Colin’s Powell’s belief that nations should be reticent to go to war but do so with “unquestionable resolve” once all other political, economic and diplomatic means have been exhausted.

By 2009, his hometown college was flailing, at the edge of bankruptcy, when its board of directors turned to young Sasse for advice. He gave them hard recommendations.

Then they asked him to lead the institution out of troubled waters, and when he took the job at age 38, he became one of the youngest chief executives in higher ed.

He’d already convinced his wife, a Southerner, to buy a lake house near Fremont while teaching public policy at the University of Texas — and says the Alabama native fell in love with the state despite its “scary” winters. She has since become a one-woman chamber of commerce, trying to recruit people to move to Nebraska to raise their families.

After he arrived on campus, Sasse began eliminating tenured professors whose classes weren’t attracting enough students.

“Some (classes) literally had more professors than students,” he said.

That meant a lot of tearful conversations on the couch outside his office with “nice, well-meaning” professors about whether it made sense for them to stay at Midland. Lifetime tenure was gone, replaced by “term tenure.”

“The college doesn’t exist as a jobs program for teachers,” he said. “We raised a bunch of money and bought a lot of professors out.”

Enrollment has nearly doubled since he arrived, and was already growing at the fastest pace among Nebraska colleges when Midland recently bought Dana College in Blair, a Lutheran college that closed in 2010.

Sasse has also worked to “reinvent freshman year” to help students make the transition from high school – where they “have to get permission to pee” – to college.

“We decided not to waste a crisis,” he said, quoting Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff and now mayor of Chicago, recently dubbed “Chicago Bull” by Time magazine. Yes, that Rahm.

Sasse may be a self-described right-wing conservative – pro-guns and pro-life – but he isn’t afraid to credit Emanuel with being “incredibly effective” at things such as reducing crime.

He also admits he’s never run for public office before, and so is probably breaking some of the cardinal rules with such comments.

He considers his time at the helm of Midland his most interesting job experience so far, because “this is home … and this sector is so necessary to the American Dream.”

He said he loves his job at Midland, but that he’s worried about the kind of world he’ll leave his children before launching into a critique of Obamacare.

“Anything that takes 2,700 pages to write and 20,000 pages to regulate shouldn’t pass,” he said.

He said the national health program will set up more IRS-type scandals where the federal bureaucracy infringes on people’s rights.

If he enters the U.S. Senate race, it’s clear he’ll be a formidable candidate. What he lacks in name recognition he makes up for with Kennedy-esque looks and polished speaking skills. He’s on a national speaking circuit. He’s one of the top half-dozen listed by the Worldwide Speakers Group under health care, just a few notches below former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. That has him in front of audiences about twice a month.

He often brings one of his three children on his trips, and assigns them with playing the role of a cub reporter who reports back to the family at home. The kids have learned that the best headlines around the dinner table are the ones that poke fun at his screw-ups. Like the time he gave a whole speech in ALL CAPS, according to his reporter-child.

One health group that hosted him called Sasse one of the leading minds in health care, and he’s debated former Vermont governor and presidential contender Howard Dean on Obamacare several times. He calls Dean his “debate partner” and gives Dean credit for being open about his support for a European-style, government-run health care program.

Sasse spoke to a crowd of about 20 Friday at a Rotary Club meeting at the Knolls Country Club in Lincoln, and it was clear he knows Obamacare inside and out, as well as other government programs. He is, after all, a Harvard graduate – even though he sometimes merely says he went to college “in Boston.”

So why leave home and head to Congress – a place so broken that one senator is unlikely to fix it? Sasse said he’s not naïve about how hard it would be to make a difference, but he’s optimistic that “thoughtful people” can improve it.

“I’m the policy nerd and I care about national solutions,” he said.

Contact Deena Winter at [email protected].

Editor’s note: to subscribe to News Updates from Nebraska Watchdog at no cost, click here.


Deena formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.

  • racefish

    One Senate seat at a time and one Senate seat saved. Whatever it takes to get the country back on the rails.

  • Jason3

    He’s a repuglican…in Nebraska you can be a serial killer and be elected…!

  • Keenan

    So far, he’s intriguing. Yes, Rahm can be effective, but how much freedom should we give up to be ‘effective’ like he is?
    Wouldn’t be nice to just fix the education system to actually teach kids? Perhaps home schooling is the only thing that will fix it.

  • Integrity Matters

    Why won’t Ben Sasse address how low the insurance premium rates that California, Washington, and Oregon, have released a few weeks ago. Why won’t he address the success of Romneycare in Massachusetts? I’m glad his wife has access to the multiple sclerosis treatment she needs, it’s unfortunate he’s adamant about scrapping Obamacare and leaving millions of other Americans without treatment indefinitely.

  • Bam

    You’re thinking of Bob Kerrey in Vietnam.

  • James F

    Assuming that is an accurate report of those three (very liberal) states, the national average for healthcare premiums has already sky-rocketed (~150%) and is projected to climb further (>200%) due to Obamacare. Success of Romneycare? My wife and I each pay about $2000 annually for our health insurance here in NE, we’re moving to MA next month where we’ll be paying almost $8000 combined on the same household income. Millions of employees across this country are being reduced from full-time jobs to part-time and losing employer provided health coverage (another one of Obama’s empty promises). I fail to see the success of Obama- or Romneycare unless the goal was to punish middle-class Americans with significantly higher taxes and healthcare premiums; in that case… well done, Socialists.

  • Joe L

    Bam did you lose a limb serving your country? NO enough said.

  • Anonymous

    Great, another Religious Fanatic that cares more about guns than making sure low income Citizens have adequate healthcare. I’ve read thru the posts here and I agree with Jason3. I see another Good Christian practicing everything but Christianity. It doesn’t puzzle any of you that NE hasn’t moved an inch in 30 yrs of republican control, unless you count moving backwards progress. We can’t have Casinos because it leads to Gambling addiction which NE. will have to pay for, but we can have the Powerball, Pick 3, Pick 5, Pickle cards, Horse Racing, and above all else KENO! so the Gambling Addicts living in NE. drive 50 miles to Council Bluffs, So. Dakota, Missouri and NE. still gets to pay for they’re Tx. We just don’t get the income from the Gambling Profits to pay for it! We can’t get an Amended Helmet law passed so we lose millions every year in revenue when Sturgis and other bike rallies roll around despite the fact that the last Bill introduced to amend the Helmet Law included a good deal of $$$ for driver education that would have benefited all Nebraskans greatly and driven down the # of Motorcycle/car accidents. What we can do is build more and more useless and unneeded bike Paths, Auditoriums, Arenas, and other Pork barrel BS in Lincoln and Omaha since keeping up with the Jones is the way of the future while we bleed jobs, sacrifice infrastructure and watch as school after school is closed. My guess is Sasse would have voted for the Patriot Act without giving it 2 thoughts even though it was more lengthy than Obamacare.
    The only good Republican this state ever had is now working for Obama.
    Piss off Sasse Frass.

  • Bam

    Did you lose your brain making blog posts? Yes? That explains it.

  • L.A.

    Mr. Sasse can ill afford to burn daylight in getting his name and brand on the lips of voters electrified by his message. More and more registered voters are sitting the dance out while candidates raise more and more money for less return on their buck. Hope he hears what the silence is telling him.

  • Anonymous

    James, your numbers are pure fiction. What is the weather like on your planet?

  • suehimel

    Oh, I don’t know that he has to campaign just yet. This early in the 2012 elections NO ONE knew who Deb Fischer was. She beat opponents in the primary who outspent her anywhere from 3:1 to 8:1. There is lot’s of time and if Ben Sasse is a real conservative he will have an army on the ground knocking on doors, making phone calls and spreading the word to all their friends and family who he is and what he stands for. That’s how Senator Fischer got elected.

  • L.A.

    Disagree. He needs an early start. Senator Fischer was known in the third district which she won, Bruning won the second district and barely lost the first. Fischer had name recognition from being in the legislature which led to an effective ground game. Sasse doesn’t enjoy the same name recognition or network so he starts from a different position. He needs to establish his own brand unique to his own positive qualities with an early start.

  • Hall County Hal

    Nebraska needs a fresh conservative voice. I’m tired of these politicians who hold office, do nothing, and look for the next office to run for. Shane Osborn is the Jon Bruning of the 2014 election. I’m looking forward to hearing more about and from Ben Sasse if he runs, and hope more new conservative voices join the conservative cause here in Nebraska.

  • Watching_From_Lincoln

    Funny, I thought Deb Fischer got elected on Joe Ricketts’ checkbook and David and Charles Koch’s ideology.

  • Watching_From_Lincoln

    So when will he change Midland from a Liberal Arts College to a Conservative Arts College?? Next on the agenda: Official school uniforms. White robes and hoods on even days, brown shirts with armbands and black knee boots on odd days.

  • ex fc

    Sounds like a winner the country could use a lot more of.

  • Gary

    Yeah he wants to strip the poor and medically needy of getting healthcare. What a guy

  • Bonapartist01

    Yes, Nebraska hasd moved — ubder Heineman, we are now the northwest outpost of the Deep Confederacy, considering how more and more we move in the direction of Alabama, Mississippi, Lousiana — winner states all.

  • Bonapartist01

    Same old song on ACA: slam, slam, and no alternative; the alternative may not have to be government, but one should be offered. Same old on education: fire the professors, it’s about the money. Altogether: the current governor simply slciked up for Sunday go to meeting.

  • NoLongerSupportMidland

    To clarify – from someone that has personal knowledge – tenured professors weren’t “bought out”. They were given nothing. The contracts they had were worthless. How do you “buy out” a tenured professor and replace it with “term tenure” when the tenure contract is totally ignored? The contracts aren’t worth the paper they are written on. Also, it is not true that many of these professors did not have very many students! Most were vocal, long term members of the faculty that actually took pay cuts for the good of the college and went without pension contributions from the college when times were tough because they cared deeply about Midland. This is how that devotion is rewarded in the new workplace.
    Of course, if you don’t want anyone to question the authority of the administration, you just get rid of them. Now they have a revolving door on teachers at Midland.