Former Sen. Ben Nelson sees a ‘moment’ for Pansing Brooks to win open seat

Nelson says Democrats need to be ready to vote in primary, special election and general

By: - April 21, 2022 4:03 pm

State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks chats with former U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, who endorsed her Democratic bid for Congress in Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

LA VISTA — Former U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., typically waits until after Nebraska Democrats select a nominee before deciding whether to endorse a candidate for Congress. 

But Nelson said Thursday he sees a “moment” for State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks headed into the state’s May 10 primary election and the June 28 special election in Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District.

Nelson endorsed Pansing Brooks on Thursday during a news conference at the La Vista Conference Center. He said Democrats and all Nebraskans want someone who can do the work, and “she can.”

“I have been reluctant to endorse in primaries, and I haven’t given a lot of endorsements since I left the Senate,” said Nelson, who served in the Senate from 2001 to 2013. “This is a special situation with a special election.”

Eastern Nebraska has a rare open U.S. House seat, representing the district that encompasses Lincoln, Bellevue, Fremont, Norfolk and more. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry resigned March 31 after being convicted of three felonies.

The unusual situation of holding three elections for the same race in the same year means Pansing Brooks needs to motivate Democrats to vote all three times, Nelson said.

She faces photographer Jazari Kual in the Democratic primary race and former Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood, a Republican, in the special election. The winners of the May 10 primary will advance to November’s general election.

Nelson praised Pansing Brooks’ ability to forge compromise and said it reminded him of former Rep. Brad Ashford (who died this week from brain cancer). Nelson said he knows a problem-solver when he sees one.

“I’ve watched her for eight years in the Legislature do what I think needs to be done in Washington, D.C.,” Nelson said of Pansing Brooks. “She can reach across the aisle.”

Pansing Brooks highlighted bills she has helped pass, including work on human trafficking, juvenile justice and prison reform.

She called Nelson’s endorsement a “gift.” She said his backing helps her speak with voters and donors who want Congress to function and help find solutions to problems.

“He’s always been known for … caring about people over politics,” Pansing Brooks said of Nelson. “People trust and admire and respect him.”

The last time Nebraska had an open-seat race in the 1st District was 2004, when Fortenberry beat then-State Sen. Matt Connealy 54% to 43%. Fortenberry went on to serve nine terms.

Nebraska’s last special election for the House was in 1951, according to the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office. Third District Rep. Karl Stefan died Oct. 2, 1951, in Washington. Robert D. Harrison won a special election Dec. 4, 1951.

Vacated seats in the House must be filled by special election, unlike in the U.S. Senate, where Nebraska allows the governor to appoint replacements.

Nelson said Nebraskans who want something better out of Congress than sound bites and division need to send people who know how to work with politicians they disagree with.

Too many candidates, he said, head to Washington to block things from passing. Sending people who instead want to break through the logjam, Nelson said, “makes a difference.”

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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also spent several years as an assignment editor and worked two stints as an editorial writer. From 2005 to 2007, he served as communications director for then-Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman. Aaron most recently was the lead investigative reporter for KMTV 3 in Omaha, focusing on holding public officials accountable. His work has received awards from the Associated Press, Great Plains Journalism and more.

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