Nebraska's Most Controversial Woman
Jun 06, 2015 10:07AM
By Doug Meigs
The founder of Bold Nebraska— Jane Fleming Kleeb—travels to Omaha once a week. Although the Nebraska transplant lives in Hastings, she has grown accustomed to the five-hour round-trip drive on I-80. “I call it my windshield time. It’s quiet,” says the liberal firebrand who has gained national notoriety fighting construction of the Keystone XL, a 1,179-mile pipeline slated to transport daily 830,000 barrels of diluted crude bitumen from Canadian tar sands across central Nebraska to gulf coast processing facilities.
“The Lakota call the proposed Keystone XL the Black Snake Pipeline,” says Greg Grey Cloud, a pipeline opponent who describes himself as an indigenous defender. For the Lakota, the black snake represents nothing less than a reset button on the creation clock. “For over a thousand years, our spiritual leaders have prophesied that a great black snake will one day wind through the land, bringing doom by robbing us of our natural resources as Grandmother Earth remakes herself and introduces a new coming.”
For years, TransCanada has been planning to build the Keystone XL across Nebraska’s fragile Sandhills ecosystem and the deep-underground Ogallala Aquifer. Eminent domain lawsuits have plagued the pipeline’s route across much of the United States, and courts have ruled against taxpaying landowners in favor of the foreign corporation. Thanks to Kleeb’s activism with Bold Nebraska, the Keystone XL has stalled outside of the Cornhusker State.
Kleeb is a pipeline-fighting road warrior. She has visited the stripped boreal forests of Alberta where the tar sand oil originates. She has seen TransCanada seize lands in Texas and South Dakota. Her regular trips across rural Nebraska to meet with landowners and frequent cross-country speaking engagements make her Omaha commute time seem insignificant.
The Keystone XL has consumed Bold Nebraska’s attention since its inception five years ago. Kleeb says her agenda is all about progressive and populist politics. According to the Bold Nebraska website, the organization’s mission is to “mobilize new energy to restore political balance” in a state “dominated by one political voice” and “dominated by far-right ideas and policies.” Focus will shift once courts confirm the pipeline’s fate. Bold Nebraska is already preparing, surveying supporters on the next social and legislative battles to prioritize.
Omaha’s liberal (by Nebraska standards) political atmosphere has fostered an important support base for Bold Nebraska. Out of approximately 25,500 Facebook fans and 40,000 email subscribers, 25 percent hail from the metro area, says Mark Hefflinger, Bold Nebraska’s communications director.
A local Omaha brewpub was the logical place for Kleeb to launch Bold’s latest initiative: a statewide network map of local businesses branded “In the Neb.” She arrives early in the afternoon. Bumper stickers on the back of her minivan—a beige Honda Odyssey—reveal her double-life. The 42-year-old activist is also a soccer mom with three daughters. A flaming soccer ball decal represents her eldest (age 14) daughter’s team alongside a slew of anti-pipeline and environmental slogans.
She steps onto Farnam Street in midtown wearing a white dress, suit jacket, and custom red leather cowboy boots (the boots are covered with grey leather crane silhouettes, a nod to the Sandhills where her husbands’ ancestors had homesteaded). Her hair is a short, no-fuss style symbolic of her life’s always-on-the-go pace. Hoops of turquoise beadwork, made by members of the Omaha Tribe, hang from her ears, matching the turquoise rings on her fingers, gifts from husband Scott Kleeb.
She walks into Archetype Coffee with a burst of friendly energy and an armful of promotional material. She has one hour before introducing her “In the Neb.” concept at Farnam House Brewing Company a few blocks away.
“In the Neb.” consists of an interactive online map and mobile app promoting small and local businesses: family farms, breweries, boutiques, clean energy vendors, farmers markets, etc. Omaha and Lincoln residents are the primary target users—“because in small towns, you know who sells eggs,” Kleeb says—but rural communities could also use the effort to source urban Nebraska-made products.
“In order to get on the map, you have to agree on some values, things like we want to see 25 percent of our energy coming from renewables by 2025, and that the Ogallala aquifer should be a protected water source,” Kleeb says. The network of businesses would also provide a pool of supporters for Bold Nebraska when pushing bills of interest to small farms or clean energy interests in the state legislature.
The local bar meet-up for debuting the project might also become a regular thing. Kleeb hopes it will be the first in a series of political talks called “Politics and Pints.”
The business map and barroom talks are indicative of Kleeb’s innovative approach to activism. “Creative actions are super important to us; we draw a lot of inspiration from the Omaha creative community,” says Kleeb, noting that Omaha native Justin Kemerling is Bold Nebraska’s main designer.
Kleeb’s lifestyle bridges Nebraska’s urban-rural disconnect. She and Scott are renovating a farm in Ayr and hope to move in by next year. The property is located en route to Red Cloud, Willa Cather’s hometown south of Hastings. They named their youngest “Willa,” (age 4) after the iconic Nebraska author.
To manage their chaotic schedules, the couple sit together once a month to block off their shared Google calendar. Her husband, once an aspiring Nebraska politician, is now the president and CEO of Omaha-based Pioneer Energy Solutions and its 50 employees. He makes the long Hastings-to-Omaha commute even more frequently than his wife. “I keep trying to twist his arm to get a loft apartment in Omaha or Lincoln,” she says.
“When we started Bold, one of the things we wanted to do was to connect our rural communities—often rooted in agriculture, small family farms, and ranches—to the creative class in Omaha,” she says.
“There is a lot that we can learn from each other, and, from my perspective, there isn’t this ridiculous divide that everyone tries to say there is when you start visiting with people (rural vs. urban Nebraskans).”
Bold Nebraska organized a Neil Young and Willie Nelson concert last September. “Harvest the Hope” was situated in a cornfield near Neligh on the pipeline route. The event drew roughly 1,700 Omahans out of 8,500 spectators. A winter season passed, and Kleeb just completed a new creative action on the same cornfield where concertgoers had parked their vehicles.
Bold created a 15-acre crop art message for the White House, a replica of the presidential seal that reads “Climate Legacy #NOKXL.” “My body is still sore,” she says, recalling the previous week’s work of placing flags for the image’s tractor and laying landscape mulch fabric. “It was our way to tell the White House that the president’s climate legacy, which we know he cares deeply about, is directly tied to the rejection of the Keystone XL.”
Whenever Kleeb talks about Bold Nebraska’s progressive and populist mission for the state, she uses the first-person plural possessive: “our state.” Though not originally from Nebraska, she made it her permanent home in early 2007.
She grew up in south Florida. Both parents were staunch Republicans. Her stay-at-home mother led Broward County Right to Life. As a child, Kleeb often made posters, sat in the back of community meetings, or simply watched mom lead rallies. That was the beginning of her political awareness. Her father owned several Burger King franchises. The whole family would help during the weekends to slice pickles (they didn’t used to come pre-cut) and other chores. “I thought all families did that,” she says with a laugh.
She went to school in northern Florida then headed to Philadelphia and D.C. for the next decade. Despite voting for Bill Clinton and running an AmeriCorps program, she claims to have remained a registered Republican up until taking a job with Young Democrats of America. She became executive director in 2003 and worked with “Rock the Vote.”
A chance encounter at the 2005 Democratic Convention in Phoenix would eventually tie her fate to Nebraska. That’s where she met Scott. The handsome Yale graduate, a bull-riding grandson of a Western Nebraska rancher, was considering a bid for the state’s third congressional district.
“I thought he couldn’t get out of the Republican primary so he ran as a Democrat,” she says with a laugh, recalling her first impression of the man who would become her husband. Her admitted “very stereotypical view of Nebraska” changed after she became involved with Scott’s campaign. Her life changed when she first visited the Sandhills.
“I had this really fundamental shift when I came to visit Scott on the ranch,” she says. “Just talking with young and old ranchers, they have this beautiful view of family and the land—they know every blade of grass on their property, and they know the weather cycles, and they can name every cow that’s on their property.”
She fell in love with the aspiring politician and his state. Four months after the campaign ended in narrow defeat, they married in March 2007. Her immersion in Nebraska politics was just beginning.
The newlywed Kleeb took a political correspondent job with MTV during the 2008 presidential election. She also helped run her husband’s 2008 Senate campaign, which ended in a general election loss to Mike Johanns. Then, after Obama took the White House, the Service Employees International Union sponsored “Change that Works” to petition support for health care reform; Kleeb was named the organization’s Nebraska director. She mobilized community support across small towns and cities. She aggressively lobbied then-Senator Ben Nelson, and she found success. Nelson would eventually provide a crucial swing vote for Obamacare in exchange for the notorious “Cornhusker Kickback.”
“I knew (Change that Works) would end as soon as the bill got passed in Congress,” she says. “I looked around, and I didn’t see a statewide organization that was using creativity, that was aggressive online, and wasn’t afraid of throwing a punch to politicians who weren’t being accountable on issues we cared about. So, I thought that’s something that we needed to start.”
The concept for Bold Nebraska was born. She met with Omaha philanthropist Dick Holland, a powerful contributor to progressive Democratic causes and candidates. Kleeb pitched her idea. Inspired, Holland offered start-up funds, and she transitioned from health care reform to her ultimate, bold ambition for Nebraska: “to change the political landscape of our state.” But she still had no idea her life was about to plunge into a pipeline-induced rabbit hole.
“About three months after we started, I got a phone call about the pipeline. It was from a friend who works at an environmental group, and he said, ‘Have you heard about this? It’s going to cut across the Sandhills,’” Kleeb says of her first introduction to the Keystone XL.
“I’d never worked on an environmental issue. I didn’t know anything about eminent domain or what the tar sands were. But I was intrigued because it was going to cross the Sandhills—and it still will—and that’s where my husband’s family all homesteaded, where I fell in love with Nebraska. So I was like, okay, I’ll go to the meeting.”
She traveled to York for a State Department meeting in May 2010. She listened to Nebraska farmers and ranchers voice concerns about threats to livestock, crops, and water supplies. She saw a clear example of “right and wrong,” and Bold Nebraska found its first big cause.
Pipeline advocates have alleged that Keystone XL opposition is linked to backing from Omaha’s Warren Buffet and Berkshire Hathaway. Some believe that oil transport by rail rather than pipeline would benefit Berkshire-owned BNSF Railway. Bold’s early key donor—Dick Holland—is a major Berkshire shareholder and made a fortune investing in Warren Buffet. But Kleeb says the critique is misleading; Buffet has expressed support for the Keystone XL.
“That’s a conspiracy theory,” she says. “I wish I had Warren Buffet money. I’ve asked. Life is not that filled with conspiracy. But the conspiracy theory about the FBI secretly taping us, that turned out to be true [and was reported by The Guardian and The New York Times].” The FBI and TransCanada had been advising law enforcement how anti-terrorism laws and tactics could be used against pipeline activists. After completing her latest crop art project, Kleeb filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out what the FBI has on file for her.
Weighing the danger of rail versus pipeline, both are risky. “But they are different risks,” she says. “There are more accidents on rail, but they spill less oil. Pipelines have fewer accidents each year, but when they spill, they spill more oil into the ground and water. So it’s not either/or for me. Both need to be made safer.”
As Kleeb’s pipeline fight drags on, Omaha continues to play an important staging ground. The locally headquartered Domina Law Group is representing landowners and Bold Nebraska. In January, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the proposed Keystone XL route could remain in place; however, attorneys with Domina are ready to file lawsuits contesting TransCanada’s eminent domain. Final say on the permit must be determined at the federal level. At the time of publication, the State Department’s analysis of the pipeline remained underway, and Kleeb anticipated that President Obama would reject the pipeline permit. “We think that we will prevail. Because it’s a very clear constitutional question,” she says.
Several Omaha musicians were featured on a Stopping the Pipeline Rocks album recorded last spring in a solar barn on the Keystone XL route. Over the summer, Kleeb and Bold Nebraska’s team organized a solidarity event at the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge as climate marchers passed into Iowa on their walk from California to Washington D.C.
During the fall election season, Kleeb and the Cowboy Indian Alliance canvased Omaha neighborhoods door-to-door on horseback. They pushed hard to prevent reelection of Republican Congressman Lee Terry, a vocal advocate of the Keystone XL. His replacement, Democrat Brad Ashford, is, much to Kleeb’s dismay, also a pipeline proponent of the Keystone XL.
“Brad Ashford says he is concerned about climate change. But you can’t be concerned about climate change and then want to expand the tar sands, which is one of the dirtiest forms of oil,” she says.
Keystone XL has fractured political alliances along fascinating lines. While labor unions and corporate interests generally endorse the pipeline, many libertarians oppose it on the grounds of government taking private land while environmentalists oppose it for ecological reasons. “It is definitely an unlikely alliance,” Kleeb says, noting that some of Bold’s regular donors are conservative Republicans.
National polls by CBS News, the Pew Research Center, USA Today and the Princeton Survey Research Associates International found that between 56 and 60 percent of the American public supported the Keystone XL. Kleeb says that Bold Nebraska’s polls for Omaha specifically have found support/opposition split closer to 50-50.
In spite of her affiliation with the Democratic Party, Kleeb would like to see Bold Nebraska straddle bipartisan politics. Growing numbers of registered independent Nebraskan voters gives her hope. “My mom and dad raised me as a Republican,” says Kleeb. “That’s why when I see the majority of Republicans in our state, including Omaha, it never deters me that someone in our state with populist and progressive ideas cannot get elected.”
During the course of the one-hour interview with Omaha Magazine, Kleeb never once checks the time. She has been speaking confidently and eloquently about her life, her politics, and the Keystone XL until minutes before the start of “Politics and Pints” and the launching of “In the Neb.” The interview concludes, and Kleeb has to leave. She heads to her minivan. She picks up another pile of signs and flyers. She walks down to the Farnam House Brewing Company.
The bar is packed. Petitions, surveys, and tickets for complimentary beers float freely. Kleeb stands amid the chattering crowd and calls for attention. Silence. Her stage presence exudes the same sense of friendly, genuine sincerity that she has practiced as a pundit on Fox News and in one-on-one conversations across Nebraska.
Kleeb introduces the current status of the pipeline. Other speakers from labor unions and environmental groups take the floor: opposing the Trans Pacific Partnership, lamenting out-of-state fracking waste disposal proposals in western Nebraska, introducing Bold Nebraska’s “In the Neb.” project.
Enthusiastic clapping follows each call for change. Especially boisterous applause comes from 64-year-old Deirdre Evans of the Joslyn Castle neighborhood. A regular at Bold Nebraska events, Evans even went to Washington D.C. in 2011 to be arrested for the first time while protesting the Keystone XL outside the White House. “Jane is my hero,” says Evans after the speakers conclude.
As Kleeb chats with glowing admirers, her ascendance in regional progressive politics becomes apparent. But her compatibility with the general electorate has yet to be tested.
In 2010, she was elected as a school board member in Hastings on a platform of healthy lunches, “which prompted the GOP in Nebraska to run robocalls telling voters I wanted to make their kids vegetarians,” she says, noting that she loved serving on the school board.
An important question remains. What are Kleeb’s future political ambitions? Does she see herself elected someday to represent Nebraskan constituents in the state or national capitol? She responded to the follow-up question by e-mail without delay:
“If I run for office, it will be focused on a platform of ending eminent domain for private gain and working towards energy projects that protect our land and water. I still also deeply care and worry about the lack of residential treatment facilities in our state for eating disorders and other mental illnesses that need that type of care for folks to recover.
“So, yes, I am considering running. When, where, and for what office—that I am not sure about. Right now, I keep listening to folks to see where we can make the most impact to keep showing the rest of the country what Nebraskans are made of—grit, creativity, and the resolve to get things done.”