Ted Carter, president of the University of Nebraska system, testified earlier this year at the Nebraska Legislature. (Todd Gottula/University of Nebraska at Kearney)
LINCOLN — A contentious race for a seat on the University of Nebraska Board of Regents is being marked by claims that the top issue is whether the NU leadership is “too liberal” and must be replaced.
One candidate for the post, State Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg, said recent attacks against his campaign from a PAC funded by Gov. Pete Ricketts are ultimately aimed at replacing Ronnie Green, the chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, as well as his boss, NU President Ted Carter, two leaders he supports.
“They want to stack the board and get rid of them,” Williams said.
His opponent, Kathy Wilmot of Beaver City, a past member of the State Board of Education, called that “crazy.”
Wilmot said she had yet to work with Carter or Green to determine if they should be replaced. But, she said, there are some courses at NU that are “liberal leaning.”
“That’s the kind of indoctrination I hear about, that kids go off to the university and come back with liberal ideas,” Wilmot said. “(But) to me this isn’t about an individual, or a couple of individuals.”
Williams and Wilmot, both registered Republicans, are squaring off to
represent the western two-thirds of Nebraska on the eight-member Board of Regents, which determines university policy and NU leadership.
Phares declined another run
They are running for a seat vacated by Bob Phares of North Platte, who opted against seeking a fourth term on the board.
Williams, a 73-year-old banker who earned undergraduate and law degrees from UNL, outpolled Wilmot, a 72-year-old former training officer at a Kansas state prison, by about 1,800 in a three-way primary race for the nonpartisan post.
Both Williams and Wilmot are registered Republicans, and both consider themselves “conservatives,” though the state GOP — which was recently taken over by a more conservative faction of the party — has endorsed Wilmot.
Ricketts, Pillen disagree
Two top GOP leaders, Ricketts and the gubernatorial candidate he has funded and endorsed to succeed him, Jim Pillen, are divided on the race.
Ricketts, who cannot run again for governor because of term limits, has endorsed Wilmot and has contributed $20,000 to her campaign, while Pillen, a current member of the Board of Regents, has endorsed Williams and donated $5,000 to his effort.
The race heated up even more this week after it was reported that Ricketts, whose family owns the Chicago Cubs, poured $314,000 into a political action committee that has funded a series of advertisements attacking Williams. Among other things, the ads claim he is a “Republican in Name Only (RINO).”
Ricketts, whose family are major GOP donors nationwide, has never been shy about using his wealth to oppose or support political causes. In 2016, he donated $300,000 to the campaign to restore the death penalty and financially backed three candidates who ousted a trio of legislative incumbents who had disagreed with him.
‘Lost all faith’ in Green
Ricketts has made no bones about his dislike of Green. Eleven months
ago, the governor said he had “lost all faith” in the UNL chancellor, who Ricketts said had blindsided him about the university’s plan to address racial inequities.
The plan had won the vocal support of Carter, a retired Navy vice admiral who has led the NU system for almost two years. Green, who previously was head of UNL’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, has held the top job at the state’s flagship university since 2016.
Ricketts, in an email response, did not address whether the governor’s support was about electing Regents that would replace Green and Carter, but he stated that he supported Wilmot because “she’s a trusted conservative.”
“And I know Kathy will take those values to the Board of Regents,” the governor said. “Matt Williams’ record in the Legislature proves he’s not a conservative.”
Ricketts noted that he disagrees with his wife, Susanne Shore, a registered Democrat, on whom to back in political races.
Ricketts’ ads aided Pillen
Pillen, who was endorsed by Ricketts and aided by more than $1 million in ads attacking his primary opponents, said he’s known Williams for years.
“He’s a conservative who has done a good job for his community and state,” said Pillen in a text.
It’s not the first time that Pillen, a pork producer from Columbus, has disagreed with Ricketts in a political campaign. In 2014, Pillen backed former Attorney General Jon Bruning in the GOP gubernatorial primary instead of Ricketts. In 2006, Pillen supported U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson when he was challenged by Ricketts.
Endorsements for both candidates
In the Regents race, both Williams and Wilmot have impressive lists of endorsements.
Besides Pillen, Williams is backed by five other NU regents — Phares, Paul Kenney, Barb Weitz, Rob Schafer and Tim Clare — as well as former Regent Howard Hawks. Williams was also endorsed by former NU football coach and U.S. Rep. Tom Osborne, State Treasurer John Murante and five state senators: Mike Hilgers, John Stinner, Myron Dorn, Tim Gragert and Mark Kolterman.
“There’s no comparison on their credentials,” said Kolterman, who called Wilmot a “single-issue candidate.”
Kolterman noted that Williams has been on the board at UNL’s Innovation Campus since it was launched and served as national president of the American Bankers Association.
Williams, who has raised about $96,000 for his race, touted his accomplishments in the Legislature, including obtaining $25 million in funding for a USDA facility at Innovation Campus in Lincoln, which he called a “game changer,” and getting legislation passed to increase workforce housing in rural communities, which is a barrier to hiring new employees.
DACA recipients ‘not illegal’
He defended his votes to override Ricketts’ vetoes on bills concerning drivers licenses for participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA participants are here legally, Williams said) and an increase in the state’s fuel tax. While Ricketts opposed the tax hike, he has used the extra funding to accelerate highway improvements in the state.
“In eight years in the Legislature, I voted to reduce property taxes, reduce income taxes, reduce taxes on Social Security and was hard-line pro-life and on the Second Amendment,” Williams said. “Tell me that’s not conservative.”
Biggest issue is NU leadership
The biggest issue in the race has become whether to maintain the current NU leadership or to elect Wilmot, whom Williams suggested wanted both Green and Carter replaced.
Wilmot, who has raised about $50,000 for her campaign, has been endorsed by two former governors, Kay Orr and Dave Heineman, as well as five state senators: Rita Sanders, Joni Albrecht, Steve Erdman, Dave Murman and Steve Halloran.
Wilmot said that she has a proven record as a “true conservative” and that Williams rated a modest, 60% approval rating from the American Conservative Union two years ago.
She said she sees “shortcomings” in the preparation of students at NU to enter the workforce and wants to assure that teachers are ready to teach when they graduate.
“The thing I hear when I talk to people in the district is that they want education, not an indoctrination,” Wilmot said.
She said one of her main objections to Williams is that he didn’t sign onto a letter, signed by 30 other state lawmakers, objecting to new sex education standards proposed by the State Board of Education — standards that Wilmot testified against and were that eventually dropped amid controversy.
CRT ‘divides’ people
Williams, she said, also declined to sign a letter opposing the teaching of critical race theory at NU, which Wilmot said “divides” and “tore down” people instead of uniting them.
Williams said he didn’t sign the two letters because he doesn’t think it’s right for one elected body, the Legislature, to tell another elected board, the State Ed Board, what to do.
Regardless, the senator said, he made his objections known directly to the university about CRT and about the sex-ed standards to State Education Board members.
“I was in the same place,” Williams said. “I was taking my own action,”
Nebraska Examiner political reporter Aaron Sanderford contributed to this report.
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