©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
President Barack Obama’s announcement the U.S. is moving to normalize relations with Cuba holds promise for healing between conflicting nations that were once friends.
Since breaking diplomatic relations in 1961, the United States and Cuba have tread a cycle of acrimony and treachery. These Cold War antagonists became distant enemies despite their close proximity. In response to perceived human rights abuses, America enacted economic sanctions that blocked commerce. Cuba retaliated by jailing dissidents and expelling “undesirables.”
An American embargo cut-off a much-prized Cuban export to the U.S. – cigars (except those smuggled in) – and denied Cubans U.S. goods and investments. Cuban exiles bitter over losing land and businesses to Fidel Castro’s communist regime generally oppose U.S. concessions. However, most Cuban-Americans support the countries doing business together, says University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado. Neb.’s small exile community reflects the idealogical-generational divide among this population, with many younger, liberal Cubans favoring restored relations and many older, conservative Cubans resisting it.
Stalemate critics have long contended the countries share too many mutual interests to not have full relations. Benjamin-Alvarado lauded the intermediary role Pope Francis and the Vatican played in bringing the two sides together for diplomatic talks that broke the impasse.
Renewal of natural geopolitical-cultural-historic ties may signal a move past angry rhetoric and punitive policy to find conditional avenues for resuming free travel and trade. It won’t come easy, though.
“The fact is we didn’t have to become the type of enemies we were, but we have been, and so that’s going to take some work,” Benjamin-Alvarado says. “This is a clear indicator to me it’s always been possible and that it’s been a choice we’ve made as opposed to something we couldn’t avoid.”
He echoes Obama in saying this new approach is an admission that America’s policy of isolating and economically strangling Cuba failed and that Cuba’s made positive changes.
“Cuba’s changed remarkably in the last 20 years. They’ve transitioned from Fidel to Raul, they’ve reintroduced private property and the ability of individuals to serve as owners of small businesses, they’ve given people more economic independence. Does that mean they’re going to have more political freedoms and liberties? I’m not exactly sure…but the fact is change is afoot, and I think by making changes in tandem with the Cubans we’ll begin to see that happening.”
Nebraska Latino American Commission executive director Lazaro Spindola is a skeptic.
“Diplomacy will obviously have a better chance with this new approach,” says Spindola, who was born in Cuba and fled with his family in 1961 at age 9. “On the other hand, free trade is a very arbitrary definition, and all I see is free flow of American dollars to Cuba – by way of remittances or purchasing Cuban goods. As far as free travel, I see the same one-sided approach of free travel from the United States to Cuba but not from Cuba to the U.S.”
He’s willing to support restored relations “provided there is a mutual concession of benefits that favor the Cuban people,” adding, “”If the Cuban government is willing to yield some ground, I would be willing to meet halfway. Compromise is the base of democracy.”
Some view Cuba’s recent release of political prisoners as a sign it is serious about doing the right thing. Spindola cautions that regimes like Cuba’s “have a knack for softening or hardening relations with other countries depending on their political convenience.” He fears renewed trade might provide Cuba “with an injection of resources and energy that could further delay positive reforms.”
He and Benjamin-Alvarado agree renewed trade with Cuba could benefit the Neb. ag industry, though Spindola questions Cuba’s capacity to live up to its end of any deals.
What happens going forward, Benjamin-Alvarado says, “is a dance” where each side looks to the other for concessions.
“At the end of the day it’s going to have play out through Congress, The Cuban government, in order to have full normalization of relations with the United States, has to right now subject itself, unless the law changes, to certain provisions of U.S. law contained in the Helms-Burton Act. It says essentially the Castro brothers have to be out of the government, there have to be free and fair elections, there must be a free and open market economy and other requirements must be met.
“I don’t see this law being overturned anytime soon and so that will slow the process of a full normalization, but there is still a lot of room the Cubans could operate under in order to facilitate trade.”
Meanwhile, Obama may use executive action to speed things along as ambassadors lay the groundwork for more exchanges.
“The president will have the ability to kind of tailor certain interactions,” he says, “Having embassies where we can have an actual voice and opportunity to directly interact on an ongoing basis will help to establish a baseline and foundation for better relations across the board.”
Finding a new normal falls to new leadership in 2017, when Raul Castro is to step down and Obama’s elected successor takes office. Benjamin-Alvarado says whoever inherits this reunification needs to proceed in a fair and bilateral way.
“It’s going to take a lot more for them to trust us. I mean, we’ve been trying to screw them for the last 54 years and now all of a sudden we’re friends. I think that trust is a combination of confidence and reliability. But it will take time. They have to have confidence in us we’re going to be an honest broker with them, that just as they’re going to be transparent we’re going to be transparent, and that we’re going to be above board and open in our objectives and not try to undermine and engage in subterfuge as we have.
“It has to be an organic process generated by both sides so there isn’t one dictating to the other. It’s going to have to be a measured, step-by-step process that allows both sides to become comfortable with how they function and operate and to develop confidence over time.”
Benjamin-Alvarado, who’s traveled extensively in Cuba and plans going again in the spring, says he will measure progress “by the extent to which the Cubans begin engaging formal U.S. government bodies like the Department of Commerce and the Department of State,” adding, “It’s going to depend on how do we get each other on board and accustomed to how each of us does business, not only in terms of actual trade, but the areas in which we begin to relate to one another as regional partners and neighbors.”
Sports fans like Benjamin-Alvarado also can’t help but wonder what thawed relations might mean for the deep pool of baseball, boxing and track talent in Cuba, many of whose best athletes have defected.
2nd District Congressional race gives voters two distinct styles in incumbent Lee Terry and challenger Brad Ashford
I rarely write about politics. Here is an exception. It’s a cover story for The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/) about the two men vying for Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional seat in the U.S. House of Representatives: Republican incumbent Lee Terry and Democratic challenger Brad Ashford.
2nd District Congressional race gives voters two distinct styles in incumbent Lee Terry and challenger Brad Ashford
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)
Lee Terry and Brad Ashford
At the end of the day, voters want a choice. If nothing else, the tight Nebraska 2nd Congressional District race pitting incumbent Lee Terry against challenger Brad Ashford gives voters a distinct option.
Pre-election surveys indicate a neck-and-neck battle between these local boys made good from high profile Omaha families. Politicos have long viewed Terry as a vulnerable target. He nearly lost to John Ewing in 2012. The GOP poured millions into his campaign and even though the national Democratic Party declined to support Ewing, the challenger lost by only two percent of the popular vote. Ashford is getting some support from his national party headquarters in this race but his campaign’s still being outspent thanks to the Terry camp’s deep coffers and the GOP sinking big money into the race.
Terry is the 52-year-old hard-line Republican whose eight terms in the U.S. House of Representatives give voters a 16-year resume to consider. This Boomer weaned on the right wing philosophies of his father, former Omaha television anchor and commentator, Lee Terry Sr., and shaped by the doctrine of his political hero, Ronald Reagan, tows the traditional Republican Party line.
“I have a basic pro business, job creation conservative view and I’ve always stayed pretty loyal to that philosophy,” says Terry, who worked as a private practice attorney and served on the Omaha City Council before entering Congress in 1998.
Terry, with endorsements from law enforcement and veterans groups, is a staunch law and order guy and big military advocate. Given his father’s strong GOP leanings, Terry doesn’t have to look far for influences.
“My father’s a huge influence. But for my father I wouldn’t be in Congress or probably even care about politics,” he says. “As a kid my parents were very active in political work. I remember handing our fliers at polling places probably in the first grade and getting political lectures from my dad about how Ted Kennedy was going to hurt small businesses with his whatever legislation. That was our dinner table talk,”
“My dad knows his stuff, he does his research and he develops very strong opinions. When I was growing up he would tape his Sunday morning political show on Saturday and I would always go down to the station when they would film it.”
At one taping Terry met Sen. Roman Hruska, R-Neb. Hruska’s autograph went up next to Evil Knievel’s on his bedroom door at home.
Meeting Hruska, under whom Ashford served as an intern, was big but Terry says “someone that is legendary to me is Ronald Reagan.” Though he never met the two-term President he says the 1984 Reagan presidential campaign offered him a job but he turned it down to pursue a law degree at Creighton University.
Like Terry, the 64-year-old Ashford is a CU law grad. His wife, Omaha attorney and businesswoman Ann Ferlic Ashford, was a law classmate of Terry’s. The two men go back and they once shared the same party in common, though in sharp contrast to Terry, Ashford’s unbound by party affiliation. For this race though he’s a Democrat after previous forays as a Republican and Independent.
Where Terry was steeped in conservative Republican values, Ashford was immersed in his Republican family’s’ progressive social views. His grandfather Otto Swanson started the now defunct family business, Nebraska Clothing Company, and co-founded the National Conference of Christians and Jews (now known as Inclusive Communities) to counteract a boycott of local Jewish businesses. This social justice legacy became more than an anecdote for Ashford.
“It was a big part of how we were brought up,” he says. “We were tutored on how to watch for discrimination and intolerance. We didn’t live it in the sense that we suffered from it but we certainly were schooled in it and told that was a high value proposition – that when you see it you should try to find out what’s causing it and try to eradicate it.”
He grew up in Augustana Lutheran Church, which moved from conservative to liberal in the aftermath of the documentary A Time for Burning that focused on the rupture within the congregation when its new pastor attempted interracial fellowship there.
Ashford’s rising-tide-lifts-all-ships attitude formed from his family’s principles and business practices.
“For everybody to do well everybody has to have a bite at the apple. The economic growth of the country after World War II did pervade in society and today it’s not the case. You have very few people gaining economic power and most everybody else kind of struggling along. That’s really what’s happening. People have to have a better shot at success and there’s all sorts of obstacles to that, like student loans that are higher than mortgages and the banks getting bailed out while the middle class didn’t.
“Government has a role in evening out the inequality a little bit, making sure the middle class isn’t left out. If they’re left out than you can’t buy a tie and shirt from the clothing store and then the clothing store goes out of business and all the people that work there are unemployed.”
His 16-year record in the nonpartisan Nebraska Unicameral includes building coalitions that created tax credits for corporations when Omaha was at-risk of losing big business, advocating for intervention resources to help at-risk youth and crafting juvenile justice reforms.
Ashford’s prison reform work, including expansion of mental health programs and vocational training and finding community-based alternatives for nonviolent offenders, has been a target of Terry and his supporters. Pro-Terry ads by the National Republican Congressional Committee have raised ire for linking Ashford’s support of the good time law with the murders Nikko Jenkins was convicted of committing shortly after his early prison release in 2013. The tattooed face of Jenkins, an African-American, and blunt references to his horrific crimes strike many as exploitative. The ad’s been sharply criticized as being in poor taste, even by some prominent Republicans.
Terry’s own campaign is running ads with Jenkins’ image that suggest Ashford’s prison reform actions lead to “assault, robbery and murder.” Ashford is deeply offended the Terry camp has taken a reactionary approach playing on people’s emotions.
“I don’t understand how he cannot disavow such racially-charged ads,” Ashford says. “I mean, he’s really taken us back to the Bush-Dukakis race and the Willie Horton ads. In a town like Omaha that’s trying so hard to overcome decades of racial issues, he’s trying to mine the fears of people. That’s a hard one for me to accept. Why would we want to revisit those days? And that’s what he’s doing.
“I can’t imagine ever doing an ad that would cause people to be fearful
or I would never stand for such a thing.”
Terry says he does disapprove of the NRCC ad: “That’s a horrible ad, I hate it, I wouldn’t have done that. I totally disown that Nikko Jenkins ad.” Despite calls from outside his campaign for it to be removed, it’s kept running. Terry offers no apology for his own ads that use similar loaded images and language that blame Ashford for violent crime.
“Everything I’ve brought up in my commercials has been about his record. We’ve used good time but if you go back and look at my ads that I paid to produce and put on the air, we never mention Jenkins’ name and we never talk about that crime, and that’s out of respect for the victims’ families as well as the fact I didn’t want to glorify a mass murderer.
“But we always talk about how he (Ashford) bottled up good time and bad consequences occurred. That’s fair to talk about.”
Ashford believes it’s a crass strategy to distract voters.
“He’s trying to divert attention away from his lack of productiveness into trying to create fear among the electorate with his ads. He’s trying to convey that the laws of Neb. allow violent criminals to walk out willy nilly, which is absolutely not true. That’s a complex issue. It’s hard to answer that in a 30-second ad, so what we’re trying to say is we do have a good record on public safety.”
Ashford, who often uses “we’ to mean “I,” defends his own record.
“Certainly prison reform, the one issue they’re criticizing me on, is probably one of our greatest successes. We took an issue the governor had literally turned his back on and created a series of bills that will I think for a generation set the course for a prison system that’s smarter on crime and that will keep the public safer. That was very hard to do in the wake of Nikko Jenkins but we had actually started prior to that.
“When someone says you’re soft on crime it really doesn’t matter if you are or aren’t because if they have enough money to say you’re soft on crime than people will say, “He’s soft on crime.’ We’ve had a very balanced approach in the Legislature, we’ve been tough on gang crimes and sexual predators but we’re trying to find a way to get non-violent offenders into community-based services so they won’t get further into the system.”
When it comes to their respective records in public office, Ashford feels his achievements as a Neb. lawmaker far surpass anything Terry’s done as a congressman, saying of his opponent. “He can’t touch me.”
“Lee is not an effective representative. He has a very slim record.”
Ashford gained an unusually strong endorsement from the Omaha World-Herald that could have been written by his campaign.
“Well, they’ve been watching me,” he says of the paper. “One thing about the Legislature, we’re under the microscope of the press every day. We’re a very open, transparent kind of place unlike Congress where so much is done behind the scenes. So my record’s pretty much out there. I enjoy working on issues and I stick with issues. I don’t like taking partisan votes unless the partisan vote is something I believe in.
“Terry doesn’t have a record of any real consequence. The only thing he has is to attack. He’s a party guy. That’s the game he plays. I think that’s the main difference – I don’t care about parties. I don’t care really at all about parties other than I realize it’s a mechanism to get elected. I agree with the Democrats on lots of issues, certainly social issues, gay rights, immigration, but I’m sure I won’t agree with them on everything.”
Ashford almost goes so far to say Terry is a Republican mouthpiece.
“You can take a guy like Lee Terry who’s totally ineffective and get him elected simply by dumping $3 or 4 million into a place like Omaha and trashing the opponent. That’s what he’s done for two or three elections that I’ve followed closely.”
Terry takes exception to suggestions he’s done little in office and is strictly a party man.
“I handed an 18-page paper to the Omaha World-Herald showing all the things I’ve been able to accomplish, including pass six bills out of the House this year. Sometimes being effective means not letting a bill go forward. There’s two instances in the last session where the leadership wanted to bring up a bill and when I went in and educated them on how bad each bill really was they pulled the language out. One was Medicare supplemental and the other one was cyber security.
“Sixteen years ago I wouldn’t have had the credibility or the relationship or the knowledge to be able to just walk into the Speaker’s office or the Majority Leader’s office and say, ‘Here’s where you’re wrong.’ Not only did I walk in, but I also brought it up in conference in front of everybody and took on the Majority Leader in front of all my colleagues. Now I didn’t run to the press and brag about that because I also believe in Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment – Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”
In terms of crafting legislation Terry, who’s chairman of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, says much of what he’s done “started as a bill but ended up an amendment to a different bill or to a bigger bill of the same theme.” As committee chair he and Democrat Jan Schakowsy from Chicago pushed through the Global Investment in American Jobs Act of 2013. The bill tasks the Department of Commerce to lead an interagency review and make recommendations to Congress on ways to make the U.S. more competitive in attracting foreign investment.
“When people say I don’t get along with the other side, well I worked with the most partisan, liberal person on our committee and got a bill done, negotiated, passed through committee, passed through the House. It’s sitting on (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid’s desk right now.”
Ashford has pledged to be led by what his local constituents say rather than be swayed by special interests and to build coalitions with colleagues from both parties as a wedge to help break gridlock.
“What I’m trying to tell people is that it is possible to make change by making government more responsive. That linkage between people and their government has been interrupted by special interests on all sides of the political spectrum. It’s really cut off individuals from their government.”
He says he’s interested in “developing policies around what’s going to help the entire society.” Even though he feels the Democrats were wrong “to push the Affordable Care Act through the way they did” he advocates fixing glaring problems with Obamacare and knocks Terry for repeatedly voting to repeal the law, which he says “only perpetuates the problem.” Terry, who like Ashford favors universal access, concedes he’s voted for ACA’s repeal but he says most of his votes concerning the law have been to amend it.
Ashford considers immigration reform an issue that will help the entire society “because it will bring more dollars into circulation,” adding, “Immigrants are hard workers, they’ll pay taxes, they’ll lend their efforts to the general prosperity of the country.”
He favors a stepped approach to immigration reform.
“You have to build a bill from the ground up in a bipartisan way, like the Senate bill on immigration reform, which identifies different classes of immigrants. Each class of immigrant would have certain legal status and with that status comes certain rights and responsibilities. So a DREAMer would have certain rights and obligations that are different from adults, for example, that would clearly show what they have to do to gain legal status. The same with adults and with people that just want to get work permits. I think it has to be very carefully constructed.”
Terry says his own view has evolved from forced expulsion to a more stepped approach that leads to citizenship for some and work permits for others, for example.
“In the last year or two since there’s been a lot of discussion and we now realize there’s a great deal of overlap and it’s not as divided as it appears or appeared in the past.”
On the other hand Terry says “there are four or five issues where it is really tough” to find bipartisan consensus on “because we are principally completely different. Like raising taxes just so you can bring up more revenue so you can spend more. I’m not going to support that. Now if you say, OK. let’s find a way to a balanced budget and let’s put everything on the table,’ then we could probably come up with a plan to get us to a balanced budget. But when you sit there and say we need more revenue and we need to increase taxes, you’re right, I’m going to differ with that and I’m just going to say no.”
The 2nd District foes agree that movement on big issues will only come when elected officials stay out of their ideological silos long enough to hear what the other side says and make necessary concessions.
Terry says, “We have to be able to get together on these. Reasonable people from both sides of the aisle can sit down and come to an agreement on these big deals, and the only way to get us to a balanced budget and really secure Medicare and Social Security for the future is if both parties are at the table.”
“In any of these issues in order to make change you have to convince your colleagues of the basic assumptions and if you can’t get people to do that you’re not going to be effective in making legislation,” says Ashford, who feels global warming is a good example. It turns out he and Terry share similar views on the subject.
“It does exist and we in Neb. should be extremely worried about it,” Ashford says, “because our economic driver is ag and agriculture relies on the environment and as the environment changes our ability to produce products, crops, whatever it is, also is impacted. There’s so much to learn about it. You have to be open-minded about it and
understand there is no one answer.”
Terry says, “I’m not the naysayer, I do believe there is climate change.
I do believe mankind has responsibility in this. I will not go to man-is- 100-percent” responsible. Now I am not in the camp that says we should just shut off fossil fuels. I do think we should be more energy efficient. I think we should use less of our resources and use resources like natural gas which have less emissions than gasoline.”
With the Nov. 4 election looming large each candidate is dealing with campaign fatigue, his own and voters’.
Ashford is upbeat, encouraged by a surge of Democrats who voted early. “It’s a close election, it’s expensive, my opponent has more resources than we do. But I think our message is getting out there. We have a chance to win, I’m hopeful we’re going to win, I believe we’re going to win.”
Meanwhile, Terry isn’t even considering the possibility he won’t be returned to office by voters. “I refuse to even think about it. The reality is my gut’s telling me things are going our way. When I’m out and about there’ an urgency in the feedback I’m getting of you’ve got to get out there and do this. The last three weeks I’ve really felt a shift.”
Should he not win re-election, does he have any plans? “No, there is no plan. My plan is to work my ass off and win.”
Nebraska State Sen. Tanya Cook made history some years ago when she and Brenda Council became the first African-American women to serve in the Nebraksa Legislature. Council is no longer in office but Cook is still there, fighting the good fight for her District 13 constituents. A well-traveled woman in terms of politics and geography, she served as an official observer of the May 25 Ukrainian presidential election. Her reflections about that experience are the core content of this short story for Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/).
Have curiosity-will travel spirit brought Tanya Cook to Ukraine©by Leo Adam BigaOriginally appeared in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)
An abiding curiosity led Neb. State Sen. Tanya Cook (District 13) to serve as an official observer at the May 25 Ukrainian presidential election.
Joining a Ukrainian Congress Committee of America delegation, she witnessed candy czar Petro Poroshenko’s landslide victory in an election monitoring organizations declared free and fair.
Cook often travels abroad to feed her wanderlust. Her week-long stay in the former Soviet satellite state provided an opportunity for enlightenment and service. With Ukraine’s fragile union threatened by separatist uprisings and Russian expansionism, the election was a moratorium on democracy and autonomy.
“I met a lot of great people who had grown up as part of the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada and the United States,” she says. “I learned a lot about how they kept their language and culture alive and more about the circumstances that led to their leaving. They were very warm, very welcoming.”
The lifelong Democrat has worked with municipalities as a public relations consultant and for eletcted officials as a campaign and administrative staffer. In 2008 she and Brenda Council became the Unicameral’s first black women legislators.
Born in Guam to an Air Force family, Cook grew up in Omaha in the 1960s and ’70s. Her parents were from the South, where she says “the ability to take part in elections was something they didn’t take for granted.” Despite being a teacher, her mother was forced to take a literacy test in order to vote. Her father became a teacher following his retirement as a military civil engineer.
Cook inherited a passion for learning that complements her desire to experience new cultures. The Georgetown University international business graduate has visited 20 countries, but Ukraine was her first eastern European visit. Besides fulfilling her poll watching duties, the inquisitive Cook says, “I learned a lot about the country, its history, its culture…That’s what I love about travel in general.”
Ukraine’s strategic importance in a region where borders and allegiances are in flux appealed to her geo-political focus.
“The United States has an interest in the Ukraine remaining sovereign
and in (Russian premier Vladimir) Putin not reconvening the USSR,” she says.
Assigned to seven polling places in Kiev, Cook witnessed large voter turnout and typical election snafus (long waits) but saw nothing amiss.
“You’re an observer, you’re not there to intervene or advocate or have a point of view. You observe what you observe and you record it.”
The “earnestness” of election officials and voters impressed her.
She says the popular Poroshenko clearly “emerged as a leader who would stand up to” Putin’s interventionism.
Half-way through her second legislative term, it won’t be long before she gets the itch to travel again,
“There’s a lot bigger world out there.”
Freddie Gray Stands Fast on Her Handling of Sebring Scandal, OPS School Board President Survives Vote to Continue Her Mission
By definition, news happens without warning, which can make it tough for media periodicals that only come out once a month or once week. I recently wrote a dual profile of an Omaha power couple – Omaha School Board President Freddie Gray and Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray – for the August issue of the New Horizons, a monthly newspaper I regularly contribute to. That issue was put to bed when all hell broke loose concerning Freddie’s handling of the already controversial Nancy Sebring incident that saw Sebring resign shortly after being hired as Omaha Public Schools superintendent when sexually charged emails she exchanged with her lover came to light. Newspaper reports revealed that Gray and school board counsel didn’t share some information they had about the emails with the rest of the board. Gray suddenly found herself the target of allegations that she’d breached the public trust and some even called for her to resign or to be removed. Her side of the story is that she didn’t know the full extent of Sebring’s communications and, besides, this was a personnel issue that there’s a whole set of protocols for handling. Also, Gray didn’t want to prejudice the board should they have had to convene a termination hearing over Sebring’s employment. Sebring’s resignation saved herself and the district futther embarassment. The timing of this brouhaha meant there was no chance to update or revise my story. So be it. But I did get the opportunity to do a new interview with Freddie after she was retained by the board in a special vote. The result is this story for The Reader that tries to lay out what it was like for her to be on the receiving end of vitriol and rancor. Through it all, she kept her composure and never engaged in the kind of name calling and reputation bashing that others subjected her to. You can find my earlier, dual profile on Freddie and Ben Gray on this blog, under the title Gray Matters or in the Omaha Public Schools or Education categories.
Freddie Gray Stands Fast on Her Handling of Sebring Scandal, OPS School Board President Survives Vote to Continue Her Mission
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Freddie Gray knows being second-guessed and scrutinized comes with the job of Omaha Public School Board President. But when she came under fire over her handling of the Nancy Sebring scandal she got more than she bargained for, including allegations she’d violated the public trust and calls for her resignation or removal.
Sebring is the former Des Moines Public Schools superintendent OPS hired in the spring only to resign after sexually charged emails she exchanged with her lover became public.
The controversy about what Gray did and didn’t do in response to the scandal culminated at an August 6 school board meeting where a special vote retained her by an 8 to 4 count.
Until the blow up Gray slipped under the radar as a veteran but low profile public servant. She certainly never found herself on the hot seat quite like this. Often overshadowed by her husband, Omaha city councilman and former television journalist Ben Gray, she endured a public referendum on her character despite a seven month record as board president even her detractors don’t fault.
Gray was appointed to the board in February 2008 to replace Karen Shepard and ran unopposed that fall to retain the seat. She serves on local, state and national education initiative boards. Her Omaha school board peers thought enough of her to name her president at the start of 2012. Amidst the recent storm that led to Gray facing removal she refused to say she erred and balked at apologizing.
“Whatever the pleasure of the board was going to be that night it was something I needed to live with,” she says, “but I was not going to compromise my integrity and myself and say I was wrong when that’s not true.
“You can’t buy me that way. I did the right thing, I know I did the right thing.”
Gray asserts she and OPS board counsel Elizabeth Eynon-Korkda acted properly based on what they knew at the time about the nature of Sebring’s emails. Gray says she and Eynon-Korkda treated the matter as a personnel issue and therefore outside the board’s purview because Sebring was already a district employee when the emails surfaced as an issue.
“The personnel issue was the context of what was done and why it was done the way it was done,” says Gray, adding she “didn’t want to poison the well” and risk biasing the board should Sebring come before a termination hearing
When the full extent of the sexually charged emails came to light, Sebring stepped aside.
Gray can live with the “differing views” critics voice but she describes as “troubling” and “disturbing” the anonymous, expletive-filled postal letters and phone messages she says she’s received at home.
“There are people who took advantage of the situation. They didn’t talk about what the issue was, it was just name calling, ugliness. I have grandchildren that were exposed to language totally inappropriate for them to hear.
“I just find those people to be real cowards. You know, if you’ve got something to say to me then man up or woman up and say it to me.”
The negativity was counterbalanced by expressions of support, including her mate’s presence at the July 30 and August 6 school board meetings.
“I have a fabulous husband. He was very supportive. My family of course, not just my children but my sisters, my nieces and nephews. my extended family in Cleveland. The prayer chains people had going on. I had so many emails, phone messages, Facebook posts from people saying they had my back.”
She says her “trust and belief in a Supreme Being was never shaken” though “there was that question of why me and why now.”
Encouraging words too came, she says, from other school district leaders and from peers at the state and national levels. The morning that decided her school board presidency fate she spoke before an assembly of district principals who gave her a standing ovation upon her introduction.
“That blew my mind. I had no clue what to expect when I walked in that room. It was quite moving and a great way to start the day.”
She says perhaps the most hurtful thing in this episode was that her “very long line of public service,” including the Douglas County Board of Health, the African-American Achievement Council and years of mentoring, became obscured.
‘”In a very long history of being actively engaged with the community my detractors tried to define me by one thing. It was heartbreaking that people would do that. It was like everything else I had done in my life was valueless.”
She says she regrets the imbrogolio distracted from the “great progress the board’s been making” and to the “gains” the district’s made in graduation and truancy rates. Her overriding concern now, she says, is moving the district forward, something she expects to still be doing after this fall’s district elections. She’s running against fellow Democrat James M. English, a former OPS teacher and administrator .
Gray says no one can legitimately question her devotion to the district.
“My reason to be there is nothing more than pure academic success for all students . If you look at what I’ve done, the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met, the messages I’ve carried through the community, statewide and nationally you’ll see I’m working very hard for the children of Nebraska and specifically for children in my district.”
Gray oversaw the board’s recent hiring of interim superintendent Virginia Moon and will oversee its search to find a permanent replacement for the retiring John Mackiel. Though she concedes repair needs to be made to a divided board, particularly among members who wanted her out, she foresees no problem getting the work of the district done.
- Gray Matters: Ben and Freddie Gray Fight the Good Fight Helping Young Men and Women Find Pathways to Success (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha school board votes to retain president (sfgate.com)
I rarely do stories involving any aspect of law or justice and if I do it’s generally a profile like the following one I did a few years ago for the Jewish Press on Norman Krivosha, who at one time served as chief justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court. As you might expect from someone who has enjoyed a distinguished career on the bench and as an attorney Krivosha is a thoughtful, well-spoken individual. He’s well aware how fortunate he is to have found a profession and vocation that has engaged him for so long. He’s one of those blessed persons who proves that attitude can be everything. He’s definitely of the glass half-full fraternity.
Norman Krivosha’s Life in Law
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
Norman Krivosha’s life is a classic case of the adage that behind every great man is a woman. The noted attorney and one time Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice and corporate counsel may not have been any of those things if the Detroit, Mich. native had not met a certain woman at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln when he arrived as a brash but undisciplined undergrad in the early 1950s.
Krivosha came to UNL at the urging of a cousin who taught microbiology there. The professor saw his cousin’s potential. The young Krivosha was bright. He’d done well at a select college prepatory public school in Detroit. He’d shown industry as a top notch sales clerk for the Mary Jane Shoe Store. He’d displayed an avid interest in politics, handing out pamphlets on the street for a cousin running for public office.
Only when Krivosha got to Lincoln — having never been further west than Chicago — he was the proverbial big city boy let loose in the sticks.
“I had to get out a map to see where Nebraska was. I vividly recall walking downtown the first Sunday I was there and I was the only person on the street. It was such a great transition for me coming from Detroit, but a very valuable one.”
Studying was not a priority. The former Helene Sherman changed all that. The studious young woman from a tradition-rich Lincoln family eventually became Mrs. Helene Krivosha, but long before marrying him she got him on track.
“The truth of the matter is had I not met my wife Helene when I did I would probably have retired as the general manager of the Mary Jane Shoe Store in Miami, Fla.” said Krivosha, who with his wife retired to Naples. Fla. three years ago.
“When I got to the university I was not very interested in worrying about studies.
But I met her and I’d go over to the library to take her for coffee and she’d say, ‘Well, we can go at 10 o’clock.’ And I’d say, ‘It’s 7 now — what do I do for three hours?’ She’d say, ‘Bring some books.’ So I started studying. Then I started taking some classes she was in so I could see her during the day. And before I knew it I got a Regent’s Scholarship and I was on my way to law school.”
There would be more mentors in his life. Before any of these guided him, however, his immigrant parents, neither of whom completed high school, stressed the importance of education to their only child. His mother was a homemaker and his father one in a long line of dry cleaners.
“Neither of them were well-educated.” Krivosha said. “Both of them were terribly literate. Going to college in my neighborhood was not a common sort of thing to do but my parents were determined that I should. We always talked about me going.”
The dutiful son attended Wayne University in Detroit but didn’t exactly buckle down. Between going to school by day and working for the post office at night, he said, “I was running with my friends.” That’s when he took up his egghead cousin’s offer to live with him in Lincoln and go to school there.
Krivosha carried his family’s hopes and dreams for a better life and finally aplied himself. With the help of Helene, some veteran lawyers and an ambitious newcomer to the political scene, Krivosha enjoyed a fast ride up the political-legal ladder. He readily acknowledges the aid he received along the way.
“I’m a great believer that nobody gets where they get on their own. That they all have help. Quite frankly, I resent when people seem to want to take claim for having made it ‘on their own.’”
From a macro perspective, he knows the opportunities given him resulted from the sacrifices and generosity of folks, some of whom he’ll never meet. He views his achievements as the return on an investment that others made in him.
“I did what I did because somebody in Scottsbluff, Nebraska got up at 4 o’clock in the morning and milked cows and paid his taxes so I could get a Regent Scholarship to go to law school. That’s what helped me become a lawyer and be successful.”
He believes fate has played a part in it all.
“Things work out the way they’re supposed to,” he said. “I was supposed to go to law school, I was supposed to be a lawyer, and that’s where I wound up.”
Funny thing is, he initially only studied law “because some friends were going to law school and that just seemed like something to do.” At some point law became more than a way to pass the time.
“I did well in law school. I finished high in my class. I started clerking in my second year in law school with a firm I ultimately became senior partner of.”
It was soon apparent he’d found his niche.
“I immediately enjoyed it. For me, law has always been a challenge — the ability to seek to analyze a situation, to design a solution. The practice of law was just something I loved to do. I never got up a single morning in my life not looking forward going to work.”
Past tense notwithstanding, he still practices law. This marks his 50th year in the profession. He cut his legal teeth with twin lawyers Herman and Joe Ginsburg in their Lincoln, Neb. firm. Krivosha had already clerked there three years by the time he finished law school. He became a lawyer with the firm as soon as he was admitted to the bar.
He said Herman Ginsburg “was extremely influential in my career. He was one of the best lawyers in the state if not the country — a fine, wonderful trial lawyer. He taught me a great deal.”
The Ginsburgs operated a general practice.
“In the late ‘50s-early ‘60s in Lincoln, Nebraska lawyers were probably what today would be described as country lawyers,” he said. “That is, we did everything. We did a great deal of trial litigation for other lawyers outstate who did not frequently go to court. We represented corporations, we probated estates, we did adoptions, we did divorces, we did personal injury cases. We did anything that came into the office. Our office was in Lincoln but we really practiced all over the state.”
That heavy, diverse case load made a good training ground.
“I think what it did was it made me a better lawyer and certainly made me a better judge ultimately because I had had all that experience.”
As a comparison of just how different his experience was from young lawyers starting out today, he used his daughter Terri Krivosha-Herring as an example.
“My oldest daughter is a lawyer in Minneapolis. A very fine, wonderful lawyer whose practice is limited to mergers and acquisitions. She’s great in her field but I don’t think lawyers today have the same broad background we used to have.”
Terri’s married to Rabbi Hayim Herring. Krivosha’s younger daughter, Rhonda Hauser, is married to lawyer Adam Hauser. “In our family you must either be a lawyer or marry a lawyer,” Krivosha joked. “If you’re smart you marry a lawyer, if you’re not so smart you become a lawyer.”
The Ginsburgs brought on a third partner, brother-in-law Hyman Rosenberg, before Krivosha became a partner with his name on the window. All the while he honed his legal skills he pursued a parallel interest in politics. His law partner Joe Ginsburg was active in Nebraska Democratic politics for years and became a political mentor.
“He sort of led me into it and it was sort of a natural for me. I’d been involved in Democratic politics all of my life and certainly all of my adult life in Lincoln. I was Lancaster Democratic Party County Chairman for a number of years. And I was state vice chairman. I was an alternate delegate for the 1968 National Democratic Convention in Chicago, although I never did wind up going. I was (Nebraska) campaign manager for Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson’s presidential bid.”
He also managed Clair Callan’s only successful Congressional bid — a rare instance of a Democrat being elected from the Republican stronghold 1st District.
Political engagement was another way Krivosha hoped to make a difference.
“I cared. I believed Democrats were providing the answers to the country’s needs. Being involved in Democratic politics was a way of trying to make things better. I was never interested myself in holding public office but in helping others.”
Krivosha’s political stock in the state grew when he befriended a newcomer to the arena named Jim Exon, a future governor and U.S. senator.
“I nominated him as national committee man at the state Democratic convention in Hastings (in the early ‘60s), and that was really sort of the beginning of his political career,” said Krivosha.
Exon was elected Nebraska governor in ‘71 and asked Krivosha to join his inner circle.
“When he became governor he asked me to come be his general counsel,” Krivosha explained. “I didn’t want to leave the practice. And so I made an agreement with him that I would be his general counsel at no pay and I would come to the capitol every morning, maybe till one-two o’clock, do whatever he needed done, and then I would go downtown and practice law for the rest of the day and evening. I did that for four years.
“And during all that time we (his firm) agreed not to take cases involving the state.”
No conflict of interest that way.
“I had really sort of gotten used to that because in 1969 I was loaned by my firm to be City Attorney of the City of Lincoln, and I did that for 20 months.”
By the time Krivosha’s general counsel duties for the governor ended his next entree into state government presented itself when then-Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul White “unexpectedly resigned” in 1978. Krivosha inquired if Exon would be OK if he submitted his name for the seat, which for the first time was to be appointed rather than elected.
Exon gave his blessing and Krivosha said just to avoid any hint of impropriety he didn’t speak with the governor from that moment until after he got the nod.
“There were 16 of us whose names were submitted and Jim (Exon) had an incredible way of advising you you’d been appointed. He sent a letter to everyone who had not been appointed, but you, telling them who had been appointed and thanking them for applying,” Krivosha recounted.
“I was in Judge Dale Fahrnbruch’s court on a Friday morning about to start trying a lawsuit before him. He and I had both been candidates for chief justice. He was opening his mail on the bench as we were getting ready to begin the case and he stopped suddenly and said, ‘I think we better take a recess.’ He called me into his chambers and said, ‘I suppose you’re not going to want to try your case today.’”
Krivosha didn’t know what the judge meant. It was left up to Fahrnbruch to inform him he was the state’s new chief justice. “That’s how I found put,” Krivosha said. He made it to the highest judicial seat without prior bench experience.
“Not unheard of,” he said. “You have to also remember I was the first appointed chief justice (of Nebraska). Up until then all the members of the Court had been elected and we had just recently changed to the merit selection system. It’s probably more common to have people come from the District Court to the Supreme Court, but not unheard of. There were people elected before and certainly there were people appointed later who had not been judges before.”
Not only was he serving his first judgeship on the state supreme court, he was perhaps the youngest member of that august and senior body.
“Some of the members of the court called me ‘Sonny,’ which they were entitled to. I mean, I was 44 years-old and some of them were in their 60s. But they were wonderful. It was a great experience.”
He’d argued many cases before the Nebraska Supreme Court prior to his appointment. After leaving the bench he argued cases before the court again, but only after all the members he’d served with had retired. from the court. While admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court he never argued before it.
He said his becoming chief justice was dependent on three key factors.
“You have to work very hard in law school and graduate at or near the top of your class. You then have to spend the next 20 years as a lawyer gaining a reputation of being a fine lawyer. And you need to become a close friend of a governor. And if you can’t do all of them, you must at least do the last one.
“The fact of the matter is I guess I can honestly say I did all three. I graduated well in my class, I think I had a reputation of being a good lawyer, and I was a close friend of Jim Exon.”
What made he and Exon click?
“We were both committed Democrats. We both felt the same way about things. I think we got along so well because we shared the same views about family, about ethics, about integrity,” Krivosha said. “He would never ask you to do anything you’d be embarrassed to tell your mother…He always did what was ethically and morally right even if it wasn’t politically right, but for him it always turned out to be politically right.
“Jim Exon in my view was one of the world‘s greatest public figures.”
Krivosha was Exon’s last appointment before he left to serve in the U.S. Senate in 1979. For Krivosha, serving on the bench was another facet of a rich legal career.
“I’ve been a practitioner, I’ve been a trial lawyer, I’ve taught, I’ve been a judge and I’ve been a corporate counsel. All of it was satisfying. I enjoyed very much the collegiality with my colleagues on the bench. I disagreed with them occasionally but nonetheless had a very close relationship with them.”
A fellow Nebraska Supreme Court justice, Judge Nick Caporale, was a classmate of Krivosha’s at UNL and remains a good friend.
Being a judge suited Krivosha.
“I enjoyed looking at the cases, trying to conclude an appropriate legal answer, but even more than that I guess as executive head of the judicial branch of government I enjoyed the administration of the court system.”
He introduced some innovations.
“We made some changes along the way,” he said, “many of which still exist today. We did away with the municipal courts in Lincoln and Omaha — merging them into the County Court system. This was a more efficient way at a financial savings. We instituted type-written briefs in the Supreme Court — doing away with printing the briefs — which certainly was a savings to litigants.”
He also instituted measures to ease the volume of cases heard.
“There was no Court of Appeals then, so the Supreme Court was a court as a matter of right. You could appeal to the Nebraska Supreme Court from Small Claims Court and we had to take the case,” he said. “So we appointed two district judges and we sat in divisions of five instead of a court of seven, which the statute allowed, in an effort to try to cut down the number of cases and to handle the volume in a more expeditious way.”
While presiding on the bench he wrote more than 600 opinions, meaning he decided far too many cases to single out just a few. Besides, he said, “once I finished a case I finished it. It’s done, it’s done. I didn’t have any second thoughts once I decided a case.”
He does take satisfaction, however, in knowing some of his dissents ultimately became the law. He was the lone dissenter when the court ruled a landowner with a ranch bisecting two states could not transfer water from Nebraska to Colorado to feed his cattle.
“I dissented on the basis it interfered with interstate commerce — that he had a perfect right to do that — and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. It was reversed based on my dissent”
He said it’s unusual the highest court in the land opted to hear this water rights case in the first place since the Nebraska Supreme Court is usually the last word.
He served eight years as Chief Justice, stepping down in 1987.
“I did not leave because of any unhappiness. I delighted in being Chief Justice. I was 53 years old, about to turn 54, and somebody made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
Bankers Life Nebraska in Lincoln hired him as senior vice president, administration, and chief counsel and when the company became Ameritas Life Insurance Company he was executive vice president, secretary and corporate general counsel. He later worked as general counsel for Kutak Rock.
He retired a couple years ago.
Reviewing his long legal career is not something that occupies much of his time.
“It’s not my style to look back,” he said.
Still, he said, “I’ve been fortunate enough to do almost everything a lawyer can do.” All his years trying and hearing cases did not sour him on the system but rather reaffirmed his faith in it.
“I’m just more convinced it’s as good a system as I always believed it to be. I believe that courts by and large do a good job. There are exceptions. The law is an art, it is not a science, and therefore the answer you get depends on the question you see. The job of the lawyer, for instance, is not to convince the court what the law is but to convince the court what the question is. Once that happens the answer becomes obvious.”
These days he does a bit of arbitration work and sometimes litigates cases. Mostly, though, he serves as an expert witness in insurance fraud suits. His keen political mind is attuned to the presidential race. He reads The New York Times and watches the Sunday public affairs programs. Barack Obama’s chances excite him.
“Obviously as a Democrat I’m a great believer that we need to move in a different direction,” he said.
Is he ever tempted to return to the bench?
“No…Remember, I never look back.”