Mary Anne Andrei
Jane Fleming Kleeb at the Solar Barn built inside the Keystone XL pipeline route.
Jane Fleming Kleeb’s fighting spirit was burning bright on Labor Day weekend 2011, when she and members of her group, Bold Nebraska, stood outside the White House to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. While Kleeb held onto the bail money, police arrested her companions, who were silently protesting the $5.3 billion project, which would have transported dirty tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, through Nebraska.
During the Obama Administration, Kleeb and her comrades brought together farmers and ranchers, native tribes and city folk, to stop TransCanada from building the pipeline through their lands and over the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest aquifer in North America and a vital water source in her state. The Obama State Department denied TransCanada a permit, a huge victory against the multinational corporation and its government-sanctioned expropriation of private lands. Kleeb, it seemed, had helped revive the prairie populism that once powered reform on the Great Plains.
Donald Trump is working to reverse that victory. In his first week in office, he signed an executive order reviving the pipeline. In a phone conference about this, Kleeb said Trump will be met by local resistance and legal challenges. “Everyone counted us out when we took on [the pipeline] before,” she said. “With our brothers and sisters in Nebraska, we will rise up again—and this time we have millions of women in the streets with us.”
Now forty-three, Kleeb (pronounced kleb) is bringing her fighting spirit not just to the pipeline fights but to the effort to rebuild her state’s Democratic Party after stinging defeats in November’s election. Brad Ashford, who represented the Omaha area as Nebraska’s only Democratic congressman, was defeated after only one term. Even Hillary Clinton could not win Omaha, Nebraska’s famous “Blue Dot” in a sea of red. Yet it was Omaha-area voters who gave Barack Obama key electoral votes from Nebraska, one of only two states, with Maine, that allocate votes based on congressional district majorities rather than winner-take-all.
Kleeb, an early and ardent supporter of Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders, was elected chair of Nebraska’s Democratic Party in June, and took office in December. She also is on the board of Our Revolution, the organization Sanders launched to continue mobilizing for a more egalitarian economy and social justice. Bernie won Nebraska in a contentious Democratic caucus in March 2016.
Local papers called Kleeb’s election a “shakeup.” Can her mix of advocacy and party politics turn the Democrats into a fighting force that can stop Nebraska’s rightwing governor Pete Ricketts, heir to the Ameritrade fortune, from turning their state of almost 1.9 million people into another Kansas? In the process, can she change the Democrats’ fortunes in a state that prides itself on its nonpartisan, unicameral legislature, but is red, red, red?
Jane Fleming Kleeb with Cowboy Indian Alliance at the People’s Climate March in New York City, in September 2014.
Despite her activist reputation, Kleeb has deep roots in the Democratic Party. She is on the DNC’s “Unity Commission,” charged with examining how or whether to reform the superdelegate system. For three years, from 2004 to 2007, she served as national executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Young Democrats of America. From 2007 to 2010, she was co-chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Youth Council.
“Nobody knows if it’s going to work,” Kleeb tells The Progressive. “I’m bringing to the party political components I did at Young Democrats, blending that traditional and nontraditional model.”
Part of this, she explains, involves showing up: “I showed up at a Black Lives Matter rally and people were surprised.” But, she adds, “You can’t just dismiss the grassroots part of the party.” On the other hand, “A lot of us strong progressive leaders have ignored the party. The internal structures have gotten weak. We have to get inside the party.”
That means building unity between party newcomers and stalwarts. “All the people who’ve been holding up the Nebraska Democratic Party all these years deserve our respect because they didn’t turn their backs on the party when it’s weak,” she says. “It’s no fun.”
Kleeb didn’t start out as a progressive Democrat, or even as a Nebraskan. Raised in Plantation, Florida, near Fort Lauderdale, her father was a local Chamber of Commerce leader who owned a few Burger Kings, and her mother was president of the Broward County Right to Life. “I was raised to respect Republicans,” she says. “I was a Republican.”
She started realizing she might walk another path when she heard President Bill Clinton give a speech about AmeriCorps, a program that helps mentor at-risk youth in low-performing schools., “He was talking about what I cared about in my life,” she says. After college, Kleeb joined the national service program in Tallahassee, Florida.
Then came the Iraq War. Kleeb “couldn’t fathom why we were sending young people to the Middle East to fight this war for something we weren’t even sure was true.” Around the same time, Florida Governor Jeb Bush was fighting to keep a brain-dead young woman on life support. “He never talked about why she was on life support,” Kleeb says. ”She was bulimic and didn’t have access to health care.“
Kleeb herself had recovered from an eating disorder, and found this especially callous: “I felt like the Republican Party was a bunch of corporate rich people who didn’t care.” She rose to become national executive director of the Young Democrats of America, where she promoted new forms of outreach to address a major decline in the youth vote.
“I said you need the punk voters in here,” she recalls. “You need LGBT voters, black voters.”
She used some of these tactics to campaign for Hillary Clinton after the former Secretary of State beat Sanders for the Democratic nomination. Kleeb organized events in bars, an unconventional location by some standards, and wrote a memo to the Clinton campaign on how to mobilize Sanders voters, which she says was ignored. “There were strong Bernie people, learning politics by themselves. I said, ‘You should hire them as organizers, have them knock on doors, do peer-to-peer organizing,’ something I did as head of Young Democrats of America.”
Now, as Nebraska’s Democratic Party chair, Kleeb has created a new position: grassroots outreach and organizing director. This is someone who “will go county to county, training how to phone bank, how to go door-to-door.” The party’s new Blue Bench Project has begun holding trainings on the nuts and bolts of politics in counties across the state. In announcing the project, the state party said:
“Staying home and posting on Facebook isn’t enough anymore . . . . Every meeting will be hands-on and action-oriented. We will learn from one another and prepare a new and old generation on how to take action in a new age.”
This approach can also nurture a greater number of potential candidates to run. One of Nebraska’s Republican Congressmen ran unopposed in November. While Democrats added three of their own to the forty-nine member state legislature, that raised the total to only fifteen, with one Democratic-leaning independent. Kleeb wants to increase that dramatically. The party will also play a role this May in a mayor’s race in Omaha and city council races in Lincoln, where the first Blue Bench training will take place.
Omaha World Herald
Kleeb at Standing Rock
Nebraska is a heavily white state. Latinos, at 9 percent of the population, are the largest minority. It holds one of the world’s largest Sudanese populations outside of Sudan. One of the first NAACP chapters was formed in Omaha, the birthplace of Malcolm X. Native Americans are small in number but they are visible and vital in the life of the state and the party. Prominent Winnebago activist Frank LaMere, another pipeline fighter and former American Indian Movement activist, is the first associate chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party.
The state suffers from rural flight, putting pressure on local schools and property taxes, while its cities (and the state as a whole) are growing. Not only is agribusiness taking over more of rural Nebraska, farmers and ranchers are suffering from a global glut depressing the prices of corn, wheat, and beef; many teeter in debt, taking bridge loans until prices recover.
Reenergizing rural outreach is a big part of Kleeb’s agenda as party leader—going beyond the core leader functions of raising money and getting candidates elected. In many rural counties, people don’t broadcast that they are Democrats. Kleeb is now a rural voter herself. She lives with her husband, Scott, a rancher, energy-efficient business owner, and onetime Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, and their three daughters in rural Hastings.
Kleeb knows the pressure people feel to keep a low profile—even though she seems constitutionally unable to do so herself. This has won her some unlikely admirers. Scott Voorhees, a conservative talk radio host, told PBS, “We’ve never had anyone like her in Democrat politics. People have always been too afraid to tick off the Republicans around here.”
But Kleeb sees rural Nebraska as key to turning the party’s fortunes around. “Without rural Nebraska,” she says, “the Keystone XL would be in the ground.” Her strategy for organizing includes “going to the farmer shows, going to the cattle auctions.” Or having a booth at the state fair, as one rural party member suggested recently. In short: Don’t treat rural folks as stupid. Listen to their concerns and strategies. And talk about issues, not party.
“Democrats do stand with rural folks on the majority of issues, but they never talk to them, so they never knew,” she says.
Progressive taxation is one issue on which Kleeb thinks urban and rural people can agree, as the state faces a billion-dollar deficit. “Farmers and ranchers are terrified they’ll face more property taxes,” she says. “There has to be a fundamental change in how we fund government and Nebraska has been backward.”
Don’t treat rural folks as stupid. Listen to their concerns and strategies. And talk about issues, not party.
David Alan Domina, a lawyer based in Omaha who worked pro bono for the pipeline fighters and ran as the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in 2014, is looking forward to a politics that appreciates the sophistication and interests of farmers and ranchers.
“You don’t bombard them with 300 emails a day like they’re stupid, and don’t treat them as insignificant,” he says. “Beyond that, the message has to be what can be delivered for their benefit. That message has been ignored by national Democrats.” He sounds exasperated that Democrats didn’t even fight for issues facing independent rural cattle and hog producers against the big processors. Even worse, the party did not insist on aggressively prosecuting Wall Street criminals, he says, calling it “the biggest political mistake of all.”
Domina is rooting for Kleeb but says her success in Nebraska “depends on how successful she is in recruiting people [to run] who seem nonpartisan.” As he puts it, “The progressive movement doesn’t have to be about party labels.”
Kleeb is a master communicator across multiple mediums. She plans to hire a communication director who will “love to drive and go out to visit the staff of these weekly papers.” Kleeb wants to start a podcast. She will focus on TV news, which many Nebraskans continue to rely upon. And of course, she will mobilize social media.
“I’m super comfortable on Twitter and Facebook and know how to use those to communicate with folks,” she said. “Without Facebook, I would never have been able to organize farmers and ranchers. A lot of rural weeklies have gone out of business or are owned by big outlets.”
Kleeb vows that under her leadership, the party will play more of a role in promoting and opposing legislation. In the past, she says, the party has relied on nonprofits including the Nebraska Farmers Union, Food and Water Watch, and the NAACP to carry much of the load. She broadcast a rebuttal to the governor’s State of the State address on YouTube. As at Bold Nebraska, she will strive to keep the party in “constant action.”
This strategy has some Democrats excited.
“I’m really interested in keeping young people engaged who stepped forward during the election,” says Dunixi Guereca, a Los Angeles native who was elected head of Nebraska’s Young Democrats in 2016. “The best way to do that is through grassroots organizing, talking to your neighbors, using media. Jane has shown she is a master at these skills and I’m really looking forward to working with her.”
But Kleeb’s outspokenness could create problems for her. She faced heat in December for dismissing the candidacy of President Obama’s Labor Secretary Tom Perez for national Democratic Party chair. “Tom Perez is another suit, and we don’t need another suit running the party,” Kleeb told The Washington Post. “We need someone from Middle America who knows how to organize and respects the grassroots.”
She criticized him not just for his style but on the issues. “He could have used his position as secretary to bring together labor and environmentalists to talk about jobs. We were crying out for that type of leadership, and he failed.”
On Facebook, where there is a lively Nebraska Democratic Party page, one commenter pushed back. “Do we really need a party chair cutting down fellow Democrats as ‘another suit’?” he asked. “This party doesn’t need to continue a struggle between moderates who can attract votes and the far leftwing ideologues who turn off mainstream America.”
But Kleeb holds firm to her assessment, noting that Perez campaigned for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal “which progressives, union members, enviros, and communities of color were all against.”
Other party members rushed to thank her. One wrote: “Thank you Ms. Kleeb, for standing up to the same entrenched establishment players that have dragged this once-proud party so far to the right that it is unrecognizable. Keep up the good work.”