OWH profiles Bold’s Jane Kleeb in Sunday’s paper. If you are visiting us because of the article, welcome! Bold Nebraska is focused on various bills in our state legislature, which you can read all about in our “Bold Bill Guide.”
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Full OWH article, written by Robynn Tysver below.
Newcomer is thorn for state GOP
HASTINGS, Neb. — The Nebraska Republican Party evokes her name to demonize all things leftist in Democratic politics.
She is often mentioned — and rarely in a flattering light — on conservative political blogs.
Her name can easily set off the executive director of Nebraska’s largest anti-abortion group, who says this particular Democrat, the newest school board member in Hastings, has the ability to rankle.
Jane Fleming Kleeb is fast becoming a favored foil of state Republicans — lambasted as Nebraska’s own Nancy Pelosi.
Kleeb’s detractors label her an “East Coast liberal” who cares more about self-promotion than a cause. They also resent the idea that Kleeb is a frequent Fox News guest, going on air to discuss everything from younger voters to abortion.
“On one hand she’s talking about healthy school lunches. On the other hand she’s defending Planned Parenthood. She’s all over the map,” said Julie Schmit-Albin, executive director of Nebraska Right to Life.
Though Kleeb’s may not be a household name in Nebraska, it is clear she has become a player in the state’s political realm, albeit on the minority team. That’s evident by the fact that Nebraska Republicans are so focused on the Florida native just four years after she moved to Nebraska from Washington, D.C.
She has rapidly risen from newcomer to key Democratic agitator, frequently criticizing GOP stalwarts like Gov. Dave Heineman and leading an effort to garner support for President Barack Obama’s health care bill.
Republicans say they cannot ignore Kleeb, who runs a progressive political website that takes aim at the state’s GOP elected officials.
“She’s become the voice of the opposition party in our state,” said Jordan McGrain, executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party.
Though she occasionally clashes with members of her own party, Kleeb is described by Democrats as a “fantastic lightning rod.”
“The more voices we have out there, the stronger the Democratic Party will be,” said Jim Rogers, executive director of the Nebraska Democratic Party.
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Aggressive, dogged and clearly someone who enjoys the spotlight, Kleeb yearns to become the voice of a progressive movement in predominantly Republican Nebraska.
She also says she is bewildered by the wrath she engenders from some Republicans.
“It’s a little surreal and bizarre,” Kleeb said on a chilly afternoon at home. “There are other strong, politically active women … and they don’t attack them.”
Kleeb has held a variety of roles since moving to Nebraska in 2007. In one of her first positions, she signed on with a group funded by the Service Employees International Union to gain support for the federal health care bill in 2009.
She aggressively lobbied U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and others to support the bill.
Most recently she worked to unite people and groups opposed to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would cross Nebraska as it carried crude oil from Canada to Texas. Her work is in conjunction with the National Wildlife Federation.
In addition, Kleeb runs a political website, Bold Nebraska, which she started in 2009 to counter the state’s conservative political websites. “You cannot have balance in state government if only one voice is the dominant voice,” she said.
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Kleeb, 38, came to Nebraska by way of a fast-track romance.
She entered the political world in 2003 when she agreed to take over the national Democratic effort to energize the youth vote. As executive director of Young Democrats of America, she worked with “Rock the Vote.”
She quickly discovered she had a knack for television.
Since Kleeb’s first national appearance on Fox News to discuss the youth vote, she has made frequent appearances.
In 2005, then-Jane Fleming met a handsome Yale graduate at a Democratic convention in Phoenix. His name was Scott Kleeb. She was intrigued. At the time, he was mulling a bid for Congress in Nebraska — the home of his parents and grandparents.
The two didn’t cross paths again until September 2006, when she came out to help Kleeb organize the youth vote in his failed House bid against Republican Adrian Smith. She was enamored with the prairie. “I fell in love with the Sand Hills way before I fell in love with Scott.”
A single mother, Fleming returned in November to spend Thanksgiving with Kleeb.
“That’s when he and I realized we really liked each other,” she said.
By March, they were married and looking for a home.
* * *
If there is one thing Kleeb wants you to understand about her, it’s that she is a survivor. She says she believes her strength and energy come from an eight-year battle with anorexia.
As a child growing up in Plantation, Fla., Kleeb endured taunts and abuse from classmates because of her weight.
She began dieting in sixth grade, funneling her efforts into remaining thin.
“She was driven there and committed to ensuring she perfected that. She was compulsive about that and we struggled as a family,” said Marsha Friedman, her mother, who lives in Tamarac, Fla.
When Kleeb was 15 she dropped to about 70 pounds, fainted and was rushed to the emergency room, said Friedman. The teenager went into cardiac arrest at the hospital.
At the time, her family did all it could, including inpatient and outpatient treatment.
Eventually Kleeb focused her compulsive drive on recovery, ending therapy after eight years. Her weight has been stable since.
Her fight against anorexia sparked her interest in politics, Kleeb said. While she was receiving care, her family’s medical insurance reached its maximum cap. The only way she was allowed to remain in a treatment facility was with the financial help of her grandmother.
Kleeb found it unfair that she was allowed to remain in treatment while other girls could stay for only 30 days.
“It didn’t make sense to me.”
It’s one of the reasons she supported Obama’s health care overhaul, because it ended insurance caps.
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Kleeb adamantly denies that she is a “lefty.”
She said her political views are more nuanced and issue-focused. She prefers the label “progressive,” and said she is much more driven by issues, such as health care, than by political campaigns.
She also said she holds some conservative values. For example, she was disappointed in Obama’s inability to connect with the business community.
Kleeb is the daughter of two Republicans. Her mother was president of Broward County Right to Life in the early 1980s and her father was president of the North Dade Chamber of Commerce.
Kleeb does not share her mother’s views on abortion, saying she believes life begins at conception but that more women would be hurt if abortions were illegal. She also denounces what she calls the politicization of abortion.
Kleeb’s mother stands by her daughter’s right to disagree. “She is a force of nature. And she formulates her own opinions,” Friedman said.
* * *
Kleeb and her husband decided after their marriage that they wanted to remain in Nebraska. They looked around and settled on Hastings. They love the city’s downtown district and its old homes, Kleeb said.
The couple bought a 1930s house and moved in with their two children, 10 and 3.
“My friends in D.C. said ‘You guys are going to move back. … You’ll be there for six months and be ready for urban living,” Kleeb said, laughing.
One reason she loves Hastings, Kleeb said, is that a person can get involved quickly.
Last year she successfully ran for a seat on the Hastings school board, despite robocalls from the state GOP urging people to vote against her.
* * *
Kleeb wasted little time becoming active in state politics.
She is a regular at state party functions and last year considered running for head of the state Democratic Party.
Most recently Kleeb organized the anti-pipeline effort, despite crossing swords with Democratic-leaning unions that back the pipeline. She calls the project an environmental risk, especially in the Sand Hills, where it would cross one of the nation’s largest freshwater deposits.
Even pipeline supporters tip their hat to Kleeb’s ability to turn up the heat on the issue.
“She is a force of nature,” said Barry Rubin, a Democratic strategist and lawyer who represents the pro-pipeline effort.
* * *
When it comes to Kleeb, Republicans are watching.
In a recent press release, state GOP Chairman Mark Fahleson called her an “extremist,” pointing to her support of the health care law and “far-left unions” such as the SEIU.
Schmit-Albin of Nebraska Right to Life resents that Kleeb presumes to speak for her new state. “She rolled into Nebraska in, what, 2007 and now she knows better than native Nebraskans what needs to be done in this state?” Schmit-Albin said.
Kleeb said she has every right to claim her place as a Nebraskan.
“They will always use that against Scott, and they’ll always use that against me,” Kleeb said. “To paint us as outsiders.”
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