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.
“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.
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