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Dan Osborn Looks to Unseat Nebraska GOP Incumbent Backed by Defense Contractors

Osborn is backed by small donors and labor, and according to polling is leading the race by 2 points.

The Nebraska State Capitol.

Recent studies of lawmakers in the United States have found that less than 2% of those serving on Capitol Hill held blue-collar jobs before they were elected. That percentage drops even further among the nearly 7,300 state legislators across all 50 states, according to researchers at Duke University and Loyola University Chicago, who found that only 81 of those legislators were previously employed in working-class jobs. Dan Osborn, a 48-year-old building trades worker, is a rare example of a candidate working to increase those numbers.

Osborn is running a labor-backed independent bid for U.S. Senate this year in Nebraska. His opponent, Sen. Deb Fischer, the 73-year-old Republican incumbent first elected in 2012, pledged to serve only two terms, but is now seeking a third. Fischer has built a $2.7 million re-election war chest with support from defense contractors, Senate Republican colleagues and AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee).

Osborn, a married father of three children, first rose to prominence in his home state four years ago as president of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union Local 50G, after he led a successful 11-week strike by 500 union members at an Omaha Kellogg cereal factory. Before working in that plant for 18 years, Osborn had dropped out of college and followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the Navy. He has also served in two Nebraska National Guard units and is now employed as a steamfitter for a contractor that maintains the heating system at Boys Town, an iconic institution located in Omaha.

At his campaign kick-off last fall, Osborn denounced “the monopolistic corporations… that actually run this country” and pledged to “bring together workers, farmers, ranchers and small business owners across Nebraska around bread-and-butter issues that appeal across party lines.” So far, he has raised nearly $400,000 among mostly small donors. Osborn and his volunteers have collected the 4,000 signatures needed to get him on the ballot this November (they’re still collecting signatures to have a safe buffer). His labor endorsements include the International Union of Elevator Constructors Local 28, Plumbers Local 16, Sprinkler Fitters Local 699, Steamfitters Local 664, the Office and Professional Employees International Union and Osborn’s former BCTGM Local 50G.

Osborn’s unusual effort in a Republican dominated state has drawn national publicity. In December, The Intercept reported on a poll conducted by Change Research, which found Osborn leading Fischer by a margin of 2 points (some have questioned the poll’s methodology). A January profile of Osborn in the New York Times framed his “long shot bid” as one test of whether “the rising power of an energized union movement can translate to high elective office during an election year when working class voters will decide the next president and the direction of the country.”

In his interview with Barn Raiser, Osborn talks about why he decided to run, how his platform is different from other candidates for public office and why what the Times described as his narrow “appeal to blue collar wallets” is reaching voters on the campaign trail.

Steve Early: You’re running for the U.S. Senate from Nebraska. You’ve served in the military, you’ve been active in the labor movement. What part of your biography most motivated you to run for office at this time?

Dan Osborn: We’re all a product of our past, the good, the bad and the ugly. So, I suppose the short answer would be all of it. But, in particular, the labor movement. The strike at Kellogg’s really opened my eyes to the fact that I could help make a difference in people’s lives. I saw politicians, on both sides of the aisle, come out and support the strikers.

Our U.S. Senate is a country club. It’s full of millionaires, business execs and lawyers. Working-class people just aren’t represented. I think it’s time to change that. It should be “we the people” representing us, not just the country club politicians.

I imagine that one obstacle for any candidate from a blue-collar background is getting time off to build and run your campaign. If you’re not a lawyer running a big business or have family wealth, how do you take time off from a job like yours to, to run for office?

I think that’s part of the reason why people like me don’t do it, because it takes a tremendous amount of time and energy. To date, I have not taken any time off from work. I can try to sneak in a lunch meeting here or there, but most of my business is conducted during the week, after I get off from my (at minimum) eight-hour shift, and all weekend long.

I understood the sacrifice that I was going to have to make to do this, but at the end of the day, I still feel like it has to be done. And it has to be done now. This year. Like, I can’t continue to wait, or hope somebody else will run in the next cycle.

And I feel that way because I think the majority of people are feeling that way. There’s an invisible, intangible type of gut feeling that this is one of the most important elections of all time. I imagine that every candidate who has ever run for office would call their own race the most important. But I do feel that, because I think it’s provable and tangible, given the fact that so many people are registering as independents — it’s the fastest growing demographic for registered voters in Nebraska. There’s 270,000 in Nebraska, and nearly 440,000 in Iowa. That’s because we’re seeing the divide that has been created in the polarization of politics, which makes every single issue about getting reelected and not about doing the right thing or getting things done.

People are fed up, they’re frustrated, they’re pissed off — whatever terminology you want to use. And I’m one of them.

So, part of what influenced your decision to avoid a party label and to run as an independent was to tap into that growing electorate demographic?

I’m an independent, and I’ve been an independent since 2016. I was a Democrat before, but I feel like both parties have stopped listening to working people and have stopped working for them. They’re all more aligned with corporate interests, especially my opponent, Deb Fischer. She takes a tremendous amount of money from the railroad industry, from pharmaceutical companies, and she votes accordingly. If people don’t already know that, then they need to be informed of it. This is why I say that Washington is broken, and we need to roll up our sleeves and fix it.

One of the things about your campaign, which was profiled recently by Jonathan Weisman in the New York Times, was your focus on labor issues. You’re somebody that’s supporting paid leave time, minimum wage increases, strengthening rail safety and you’re talking about the right to organize for people misclassified as “independent contractors.” The Times described that agenda as appealing “narrowly to blue-collar wallets.” It doesn’t sound like a narrow range of issues to me. What kind of response have you been getting about your platform?

The response is tremendous. It resonates with people because it’s about issues that we all deal with on a daily basis, not the wedge-type issues that divide us. These issues can unite us. That’s what I want to focus on, not creating more division.

One of the things that the Times didn’t mention is that my platform calls for lowering taxation of overtime wages. In my field we try to work overtime in order to get ahead in life. But without overtime wages, a lot of people are only able to tread water financially. But with guaranteed overtime pay, if you’re willing to sacrifice the time — and, you know, we are only awarded so many minutes in this life — and choose to use that time to help your company, you should get paid accordingly. But it throws you into a higher tax bracket the more overtime you work. And that’s something I want to fight. If you’re willing to sacrifice for your family, you shouldn’t be punished for it.

Another unusual issue on your agenda is the right-to-repair. What does it mean and why are you raising this as an issue?

I’ve always worked in an industrial setting, but doing a lot of things that you could compare to farming jobs. One of them is wrenching on equipment.

I’ve been to many farms and have seen the tractors and equipment that farmers use. They are some of the most handy people on the planet. But when the farm equipment manufacturers take away their ability to repair their own equipment, that’s going to cut into their bottom line big-time. And it’s spilling over into other sectors as well. Subaru has fought the right-to-repair law in Massachusetts, and other companies aren’t far behind. They want to take away your ability away to repair your own car.

Last summer my car broke down on the side of the road. My alternator went out. Luckily, my wife was able to take me to work. On my way back from work, I stopped at an AutoZone with a buddy of mine who has a truck full of tools, and we replaced the alternator on the side of the road. I was able to purchase a refurbished alternator for $150. If I would have bought the original manufacturer’s version, it would have been closer to $350. So, that takes money out of people’s pockets if you take away their ability to repair their own vehicle. You probably remember when you could take the back of your cellphone off and replace your own battery. You can’t do that anymore! Now you gotta take it to the Apple Store where you have to wait in line for two hours, and hopefully you have enough money to cover it.

John Deere was one of the original farm equipment manufacturers to require farmers to get their equipment fixed at a licensed dealership.

I wanted to stress the importance of the issue for those who might think it’s not that big of a deal. Okay, so I would have had to pay $200 more dollars for an alternator. But what if I had to pay $500 more because I had to take it into a dealership to buy one? That’s just an added cost onto an already inflated economy. And it’s nickel-and-diming everybody. It all adds up.

You’ve been critical of some meatpacking industry practices, which you believe favor the interests of Big Ag over small farmers and ranchers. What got you interested in this issue? Was it growing up in Nebraska and knowing people who try to survive as farmers?

The small family farmers that I talk to, their issues fall right in line with small businesses in both rural and urban areas. But rural areas in particular have had a tough time competing with the Walmarts and Amazons of the world. You could drive through Main Street anywhere in the USA — not just in Nebraska — and you’re likely to see a Dollar General on one end and Walmart at the other, and all the mom-and-pop stores are closed.

And many people that work at Walmart, McDonald’s or Dollar General have to be on Medicaid because they just don’t get paid enough. That’s problematic. These huge corporations are using taxpayer’s money through the federal government to subsidize their health care, while they don’t pay their employees a livable wage.

That’s the nicest way I can put it. I was going to say something worse. So, yeah, it’s frustrating to see. And the small family farms are getting choked out, because they’re forced to settle for however much they can sell their cattle to the large meat producers or they are forced into only buying Monsanto seeds — all these are practices that only benefit the huge corporate farms.

George Norris was one of the great progressive populists who came from the Nebraska tradition of running as an independent. Does that help anybody running as an independent like you today, or is someone like him not remembered much today?

As I understand it, populism ebbs and flows throughout history, predominantly since the Industrial Revolution. The reason for this is because the people with the money are always fighting to get more of it, and to have more power and control. And they do so by buying congressmen and senators. And then the people start to realize that the government isn’t working for them, and they start to elect more populist candidates that feel their pain and struggles.

But the caveat is that the people with the money never give up fighting. They are relentless. That’s why this election is so important because what we’re seeing is a class struggle, if you will.

We live in the richest nation in the world, and we want to be able to live in relative comfort. We want to be homeowners and car owners. Like myself, I’m not trying to get money so I can buy a Corvette. I just want to live in relative peace and harmony and happiness in the richest country in the world. That’s the basis of the American dream. That’s what the American people deserve. And when 1% of the population owns 90% of the wealth, that’s problematic.

Are there particular reforms that if you were elected you would support in terms of limiting the influence of big money in politics?

Term limits, of course. Career politicians can certainly be dangerous, but I get both sides of that issue, especially if you get somebody who’s genuine and willing to do the right thing and not sell their soul to the corporations. But there’s always a flip side of that coin, which is why I’m supporting term limits. Two terms in the Senate is 12 years. If you can’t do what you set out to do in 12 years, then maybe you should step aside and let somebody else come in and try to make some changes.

I’ve been getting a lot of flack from the Times article about calling both Joe Biden and Donald Trump too old. To set the record straight, here’s where I messed up: I also called them incompetent. And saying somebody is too old and incompetent in the same sentence is not right, you know, it makes it sound like you’re being ageist, which I’m not. But I do feel that if you are running for one of the most important jobs on the planet, you can be too old for it.

If you don’t have the big independent expenditure committees, if you’re not taking PAC money, if you’re trying to raise money like you do with email blasts and other things — that’s a lot of work. Are you getting a good response from small donors?

I spend a few hours on the phone every day. I get people hanging up on me, but I’ve also had some amazing conversations with people all over Nebraska. But we live in a digital age, and we’re reaching a lot of people digitally. We just surpassed $400,000, which is nowhere near dollar-for-dollar to compete with Deb Fischer in this race. But we have to spend enough money to get our message out, and then be able to defend ourselves.

What is your relationship with the Democrats? Will they keep their ballot line open in your race?

I don’t believe they’re actively searching to run anybody against me. I think they see the path to victory. The interesting part about this campaign is that we’re building a coalition. I also have libertarians and Republicans. I want everybody’s endorsement. My whole team is just full of a hodgepodge of people who believe that there needs to be a change in our political system.

Are there any issues or referendum questions likely to make it onto the ballot this fall that you want your campaign to draw attention to?

The right to an abortion is one of them. I believe in a woman’s decision on whether or not to have an abortion is between her and her doctor, it’s not the federal government’s place to dictate those things to people. Deb Fischer believes in a complete abortion ban. I strongly disagree with that position.

Fischer has also signed on to the national right to work. That’s damaging to labor. Whether you’re in a union or not, if you’re in an industry where there are unions, they bring up your wages as well.

I’m also against voucher programs for private schools, which was introduced in the state legislature this year. Basically, the bill allows rich people to get tax credits and funding for their kids to go to private schools, while taking funding away from the public schools. It’s a clear case of the rich getting richer.

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