Among the six candidates in Nebraska’s Republican primary for governor are two Omaha businessmen: Pete Ricketts and Bryan Slone. In this first of three NET News Campaign Connection 2014 Signature Stories on the race, Fred Knapp caught up with Ricketts and Slone on the campaign trail as they talked to regular folks in a Columbus coffee shop and an Omaha retirement community.
It’s a busy workday morning at Grandma’s Kitchen in downtown Columbus. At a long table surrounded by a dozen people eating pie and drinking coffee, Pete Ricketts is talking about the state’s troubled effort at privatizing child welfare a few years ago.
“I talk about database management, that was one of the mistakes we made. So one of the things we did, is when we privatized it’’ -- all a sudden, another person shows up, and Ricketts switches gears midsentence. “Hi, I’m Pete,” he says, as the woman introduces herself. “Beth, how are you? Thanks for coming out.” Then just as quickly, he switches back. “When we privatized child welfare, one of the things we did was we negotiated fixed-price contracts with these private providers, and then we just kept dumping more kids on them.”
Pete Ricketts talks with diners at Grandma's Kitchen in Columbus. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
Ricketts – a University of Chicago business school graduate, former executive at the online brokerage TD Ameritrade, founded by his father, and now a board member for the family-owned Chicago Cubs – continues. He talks about how his business experience would enable him, as governor, to run state government more efficiently and lower taxes. “What we did at Ameritrade, leveraging technology to drive down costs, we can do the same thing in state government,” he declares.
Ricketts says that will save money, make tax cuts possible, and deliver better services, for example, to kids in the child welfare system.
Ricketts wraps up his talk with a pitch for himself. “You know, we haven’t had somebody with business experience in the governor’s office in 20 years. So we need to have that and it’s time to have that business experience to bring those lessons and help us make those changes in state government.”
There’s a pause. Then one of his listeners asks, “Have you given up on getting the Cubs to Omaha?”
Ricketts laughs harder than anyone else, then pivots to make a point. He says his family is trying to change the Cubs from lovable losers by building up the team’s farm system. And he says he’d bring the same approach of building on fundamentals to state government.
Another listener asks about the dynamics of the race in which he and attorney general Jon Bruning, as presumed frontrunners, have been targeted in negative ads. The man wants to know if Ricketts is worried that might open up the race for someone else.
“Well, if you look at all the ads I’ve been running, they’ve all been positive,” Ricketts says.
Bruning’s campaign has accused Ricketts of being behind the anti-Bruning ads run by groups who don’t disclose their donors. Ricketts denies the charge, while adding, “Politics is a full contact sport.”
One of the candidates who could move up if the frontrunners beat each other down is Bryan Slone. Like Ricketts, Slone, a retired accountant and lawyer, is hoping his private sector experience gives him an advantage in the race. On a recent morning at Omaha’s Sunridge Village retirement community, Slone introduces himself to residents, and asks about the food being served to the people who have come to see him. “How are the cinnamon rolls this morning?”
“Fine,” one woman replies. “You notice we’re not paying a lot of attention to you,” she adds, promising though, “We will.”
When Slone does get people’s attention, he gives them a brief bio: growing up as the son of a school superintendent, living in small towns and cities from Wayne to Gering. College and law school in Lincoln. Working for former Omaha Congressman Hal Daub, helping draft and implement the Reagan tax cuts. Opening a law firm in Berlin, managing the Deloitte accounting office in Omaha before retiring to run for governor.
Bryan Slone talks to residents of Omaha's Sunridge Village retirement community. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
“The reason I left business to run in this race is basically because government’s not working. It seems we can’t get anything done. We can’t deal with any of the big issues,” he says. “I saw we got the mountain lions debated (in the Legislature) this year. But we really didn’t do as much as we should have around taxes and spending.”
With all the Republican candidates sounding similar themes, one listener asks, how voters should choose. “How can we judge somebody on how their leadership’s going to be – not just if they’re cute or have a cute family?”
“Well, I hope we’re not voting on cute, because I don’t think I’d win," Slone replies.
To differentiate himself, Slone talks about the importance of his experience, including as a certified public accountant. “We’ve never had a governor who was a numbers guy. I’m not saying we should have a CPA every time for governor. But I think given the fact that taxes and spending are our biggest issues right now, probably a CPA makes sense,” he says.
One number Slone wants to change is the state’s top income tax rate on corporations and individuals, which he wants to reduce from about 7 percent to 4 percent. To do that, he’s willing to end tax incentives popular with the business community, like the Nebraska Advantage Act. “We pay companies to come. It affects a very small number of companies,” A 4 percent top income tax rate for everyone “makes us more competitive than the Advantage Act over a broader base of companies. So that’s a tradeoff I would make.”
Slone says one thing he won’t do is run negative ads. “I don’t have any desire to go on tv and say bad things about other candidates. There are some things I will not do to win. It’s not worth it,” he declares.
To see what Ricketts has reported spending and collecting for his campaign, click here.
To see what Slone has reported spending and collecting for his campaign, click here.