Republican farmer and Libertarian face off in District 32 legislative race

October 6, 2018

On a recent campaign walk through a Crete neighborhood, constituent Trip Reynolds asked District 32 legislative candidate Tom Brandt a pointed question.

“Are you for the wall or against the wall?”

Brandt began to explain his views on building the southern wall between the United States and Mexico that President Donald Trump has talked about since before he was elected. Brandt told Reynolds he had worked in meatpacking for eight years, and the only way meatpacking works is with immigration.

“We need people to fill these jobs in the state … and that’s going to take immigrants to do it,” Brandt said. “Building a wall, to me, what’s that going to accomplish?”

Reynolds told him: “I’m for the wall.” He said Native people in this country are on reservations and most living in poverty. And the per capita income difference between blacks and whites is growing.

“How come illegal immigrants get to move to the head of the line?” Reynolds asked.

The campaign season exchange was an example of the interests of voters in the Southeast Nebraska legislative district comprising Jefferson, Fillmore, Thayer and Saline counties, and rural southwest Lancaster County including the communities of Denton, Hallam and Sprague.

They have an intense interest in the Legislature finding a way to lower property taxes, but their interests also extend to many of the issues that have been bandied about on the national level: immigration, gun control, abortion, even Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

And they frequently want to know: What do you think of President Donald Trump?

“That’s the litmus test with some of these people,” Brandt said.

Brandt, a registered Republican in the nonpartisan race, is challenging incumbent Sen. Laura Ebke, a Libertarian, for the District 32 seat. In the May primary election, he collected more votes than Ebke in every county except Lancaster, and won by about 900 votes.

So Ebke, 56, has had to approach the November general election race with a sense of remaking her case to constituents, she said, talking about her four years of experience, and holding up her voting record as being, for the most part, conservative.

She talks up her support of occupational licensing bills to reduce unnecessary regulation of business and tells potential voters she has an A-plus rating and is endorsed by the National Rifle Association. She believes taxes should be as low as possible, but accompanying that must be a discussion of what people expect government to do.

She’d like to return to the Legislature and continue to work on prison reform, overcrowding and understaffing, she said.

Both candidates say they are anti-abortion and support Second Amendment gun rights.

District 32 census data from 2010 showed that 91 percent of the voting-age population was white. Of the 25,182 eligible voters, 52 percent are registered Republicans, 29 percent are Democrats, 18 percent are nonpartisan and less than 1 percent are Libertarians.

Brandt identifies himself as a moderate Republican. Ebke was a Republican when she ran four years ago for the seat, but changed her registration in 2016 after Gov. Pete Ricketts called out her and other Republicans for some votes they cast. He was arguing for the need to elect “platform Republicans” to the nonpartisan Legislature.

She was not willing, she said, to bend her principles to cast a vote just for the sake of party unity.

“It was kind of my way of being a little bit independent,” she told tea party member John Schneider, 66, on her door-to-door walk last week through Denton. “But if you look at my voting record you’ll see that I want smaller government and less taxes and less regulations.”

Brandt, a 58-year-old farmer from Plymouth, said he has three priorities: cutting property taxes, fairness in school funding and better broadband service for rural residents.

He says 13 school districts are headquartered in District 32, and others extend into it. Twelve of those 13 school districts receive no equalization aid from the state, based on the existing school-funding formula, he said. As a result, the district’s property owners, through taxes, are forced to carry the weight of school funding.

One woman in Crete, who with her husband owns a farm outside of town, told Brandt that with grains price down, farmers have lost income, but they still have to pay the high taxes.

People who aren’t involved in farming don’t understand what a burden property taxes are, Brandt said.

Ebke said she understands people are frustrated that the Legislature hasn’t done anything to lower those taxes.

“My mantra is I’ll vote for property tax relief when it comes to the floor, but we haven’t had anything meaningful that’s made it to the floor,” she said.

Ebke, a former school board member, likes the idea of some sort of added state aid per student in a school district that would allow local districts to reduce their property tax levies.

Brandt said Nebraskans need substantial property tax relief. The national average for the use of property taxes to fund education is 29 percent. Nebraska’s percentage is 49 percent, with the state ranking first in agricultural property tax and seventh in residential property tax in the nation.

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