Political Hardball in Play Ahead of Nebraska’s May 10th Primary

By The Cornhusker Guardian’s Editorial Board

Although The Cornhusker Guardian has not yet issued candidate endorsements in the upcoming primary election, it has found perplexing the almost visceral opposition of Gov. Pete Ricketts to the gubernatorial candidacy of Charles W. Herbster, an apparent front-runner for the 2022 Republican nomination as Governor.

Gov. Ricketts’ hostility seemed strangely disproportionate, and his arguments against Mr. Herbster appeared to be quite weak.  The Herbster campaign in fact offered very effective counter-arguments to all the charges raised by the Ricketts political machine, which is masterminded by Jessica Flanagain, a highly capable behind-the-scenes operative.

As many of our readers know, the Ricketts family has had business interests in Chicago for quite a long time.  One member of our Editorial Board spent seven years living just 90 miles from Chicago. During those years, he read the Chicago newspapers every day. Let us assure you: politicians in Chicago play hardball. And Jessica Flanagain has demonstrated a mastery of those Chicago political techniques.

These techniques are now on display with the Herbster “story” alleging his inappropriate touching of Sen. Julie Slama and seven unnamed women — all broken by a liberal news source after local mainstream papers reportedly would not publish the narrative. Neither would The Cornhusker Guardian, which found the story both thinly sourced and suspiciously timed.

Things came into focus, however, at the recent Lancaster County Republican convention, where Gov. Ricketts spoke at length.  During his speech, the Governor mentioned in passing that he had been traveling the country speaking to Republican gatherings in various states.

When he said this, a light came on and our political antennae immediately went up. Why would a person — soon to exit the Governor’s office into a very comfortable private life — be speaking so often to Republican groups in other states?

What could frustrate Gov. Ricketts’ future political plans more effectively than another uber-wealthy Cornhusker with outstanding oratorical skills — someone with vibrant, creative ideas, and from outside the tired Republican political “Establishment,” who already has the endorsement of President Trump and who could arguably compete for national office after six years as a successful Nebraska governor?

Well, Pete Ricketts comes from a billionaire family. He is an articulate and able man.  He also has enormous resources to put into a political race. And it is no secret that Gov. Ricketts is open to or has ambitions for national office. If President Donald J. Trump runs again and wins in 2024, Gov. Ricketts would be the logical choice for a Cabinet position. And he is also a plausible candidate for the Presidency in his own right, either in 2024 if President Trump declines to run, or in 2028 if he does.

What could frustrate Gov. Ricketts’ future political plans more effectively than another uber-wealthy Cornhusker with outstanding oratorical skills — someone with vibrant, creative ideas, and from outside the tired Republican political “Establishment,” who already has the endorsement of President Trump and who could arguably compete for national office after six years as a successful Nebraska governor? The only person who fits that bill amidst the current crop of Republican gubernatorial candidates is Charles W. Herbster.

We believe this is one reason why Pete Ricketts endorsed Jim Pillen for Governor. Although wealthy in his own right, Jim Pillen poses no threat to Pete Ricketts’ national aspirations. Dr. Pillen has many talents.  Oratorical and debating skills are not high among them, however, which is why he shuns all debate formats.  

Dr. Pillen’s persona is in deep contrast to that of Charles W. Herbster, who is quick on his feet and demonstrates a high level of comfort when speaking before thousands of people — a skill honed for decades as the head of Conklin Company, Inc., where he talks off-the-cuff at conventions before large crowds, and for extended periods of time.

Mr. Herbster is also a person with national connections, both politically and economically.  He understands branding, and his stated intention is to harness his ideas in a way that will promote Nebraska world-wide — and protect its citizens when our national government fails to do so.  If elected this year, he could quickly become a leader among the nation’s governors.

Recent polls have shown Charles Herbster in the lead.  Early voting has started.  And Pete Ricketts, Jessica Flanagain, along with their train of “Republican Establishment” allies, are increasingly desperate to block Charles W. Herbster from election as Governor.  

If elected, Mr. Herbster will disrupt the Republican Establishment’s cozy arrangement with Democrats that has frustrated comprehensive tax reform and blocked passage in the Unicameral of a pro-life bill that would essentially restore Nebraska’s pre-1973 anti-abortion laws.  Democrats and “RINOs” (“Republicans in Name Only”), a distinct minority in the Unicameral, have actually chaired committees and blocked progress on those reforms. None of this could have happened without Republican connivance.

So the Republican Establishment, which largely favors Dr. Pillen, has developed a narrative of Mr. Herbster touching women “inappropriately,” using a political vassal who owes her entire legislative career to Pete Ricketts — Sen. Julie Slama, who actually invited Charles Herbster to her recent wedding (which doesn’t make sense had he touched her inappropriately only two years before).

This Republican Establishment-stoked narrative includes “witnesses” who are tied to the Ricketts political machine or the Republican Establishment in general.  It is also dressed up with claims by other purported victims who lack courage to emerge from the whispery shadows so that independent organizations (and the accused) can confront and cross-examine them.  

In fairness to Sen. Slama, she has publicly stated that she suffered a severe “trauma” during her college years.   Sen. Slama has not publicly disclosed the nature of that trauma, and we have no idea what treatment she received for it, or how that earlier trauma may be affecting her thinking today.  Whatever it was, we hope she fully recovers from it.  

In light of Sen. Slama’s earlier trauma, however, it behooves the voting public to treat her accusation of Mr. Herbster very cautiously.  The Cornhusker Guardian will have more to say on this in a subsequent story.

The most alarming aspect of Sen. Slama’s accusation, however, was found in her February 22nd floor speech at the Unicameral.  She made during that oration a veiled reference to what would later emerge as Sen. Slama’s accusation against Mr. Herbster.

But she also made similar accusations of inappropriate touching by other State Senators — touching that Sen. Slama alleged took place while on the floor of the Senate chamber and in at least one committee room.  If true, this is a shocking matter.

Why, however, did Sen. Slama publicly name Mr. Herbster, a private citizen, for similar conduct but not name the offending senators, who are public officials?  This is very suspicious indeed.

Mr. Herbster’s nascent political career should not be derailed on the basis of Sen. Slama’s unvetted accusation or those of unidentified women who cannot be cross-examined before the May 10th primary, which is only 12 days away.

This whole scenario of orchestrated attack against Mr. Herbster is looking suspiciously like an old page from a tired playbook. It was done to Judge Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, President Trump during his 2016 campaign, Clarence Thomas in 1991 and to others before and since then.  

It’s almost always the same: a politician or judicial appointee is cruising to victory. But then, at the last minute and in desperation, opponents throw a sexual harrassment or assault complaint over the transom in hopes of stopping the confirmation process or stirring up enough dust to derail a candidacy without enough time to investigate it fully and to refute it definitively.  

In the past, this was a standard call from the Democrat play book. But in the Herbster case, it came from his own Republican Party, the “Old Guard” of which seems desperate to prevent a Herbster victory because of what it portends for the current way of doing political business in the Cornhusker State.

Ironically, the most rational response to Sen. Slama came from Sen. Carol Blood, a Democrat candidate for Governor.  Sen. Blood’s initial public reaction was essentially that Sen. Slama’s accusations are serious allegations that should be investigated. Who could argue with that approach? Although Sen. Blood also signed a condemnatory statement by all women members of the State Senate, she did not immediately rush to judgment the way the Republican Establishment did.

The hope of this Republican Establishment is that it can throw enough confusion into the gubernatorial race during early voting so that their own lackluster candidate — who has been largely passive and ineffective in his role as a Regent for the University of Nebraska — can squeak through to victory, especially if they can formally drive Charles Herbster from the race.

Fortunately for Nebraska voters, Mr. Herbster has filed suit to repair the damage to his reputation. Aside from the political angle, Mr. Herbster said that he is a “born again Christian” and is concerned about damage to his reputation, both in the business world and at his church.  

Sen. Slama has in turn filed a response to his suit, and it contains a counterclaim against Mr. Herbster. Sen. Slama contends in her counterclaim that, due to Mr. Herbster’s alleged actions, she suffered physical illness, emotional distress and sleep disturbance, damage to her emotional and mental health (including depression, anxiety, preoccupation, fixation and fear of loss of reputation) as well as general pain and suffering, plus actual expenses for psychological care related to same.

This legal exchange has the benefit of bringing the allegations out of the newspapers and placing them where they belong:  in court, where both parties will be under oath, possess subpoena power, and can dig at the facts in an orderly way, though a final conclusion is not likely prior to the primary election on May 10th.

The Cornhusker Guardian will have more to say on this matter tomorrow.

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