LINCOLN — State Auditor Mike Foley sounded like a populist Thursday as he launched his campaign for governor with a promise to respect taxpayers and to hold state employees responsible.
Foley, who has made his mark in politics as an ardent social conservative and an aggressive government watchdog who has rankled people on both sides of the aisle, became the sixth person and the fourth Republican to jump into Nebraska's wide-open 2014 governor's race.
“I shall insist that our state government respect the people who pay the bills: the taxpayers of Nebraska. And, those (people) in position with spending authority will be held fully accountable for their actions,” Foley said before about 100 supporters on hand for his gubernatorial announcement in his hometown.
He entered the race with an instant race-boosting endorsement from U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, who wasted little time in backing Foley. In fact, Fortenberry introduced Foley as the state's next governor at Foley's campaign rollout.
“I can say, without reservation, that he is perhaps the best state auditor Nebraska has ever had,” Fortenberry said.
Foley is the latest but likely not the last candidate to announce a run for governor. The race to succeed Gov. Dave Heineman is proving to be an enticing prospect for many, in large part because there are no clear front-runners.
So far two Democrats and three Republicans have entered the race. The Democrats: former University of Nebraska Regent Chuck Hassebrook of Lyons and State Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton. The Republicans: Foley and State Sens. Beau McCoy of Omaha, Tom Carlson of Holdrege and Charlie Janssen of Fremont.
In addition, Omaha businessman Pete Ricketts is expected to jump into the race soon.
Foley said he believes he has the experience to run the state, arguing that after six years in the Legislature and seven years as state auditor, he understands the “machinery” that is the state government.
“The complexity of the machinery of state government is enormous, and each day I learn more about the inner workings of that machinery,” Foley said.
Foley earned a reputation during his years in the Legislature as a strong anti-abortion activist. He introduced several bills that either sought to restrict or tighten regulations on abortions.
He noted that he has never been “shy” about his opposition to abortion or same-sex marriage. He also noted that some of his views have caused consternation for some Republicans. For example, he opposes the death penalty. More recently, he supported a bill that provided prenatal care to the children of immigrants in the country illegally. Heineman and several other Republicans strongly opposed that bill.
But Foley argued that it would be wrong for the state to withhold lifesaving services to a fetus that would be born an American citizen.
“I felt this was a pro-life matter in my heart,” Foley said.
The prenatal bill was not the first time Foley and Heineman have been on opposite sides. In fact, it is well known in the State Capitol that there is little love lost between the two Republicans.
Much of the bad blood appears to stem from critical audits that Foley's office has done on various departments under Heineman's control.
In fact, on Thursday, Foley indirectly criticized the governor's management of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, the state's largest agency.
Foley alleged that millions of taxpayer dollars were “leaking” out of state government under Heineman's watch.
“It is enormously frustrating for me to see millions of our hard-earned taxpayer dollars leaking through the HHS system every year. This will stop,” he said.
If elected, Foley vowed to overhaul HHS.
“It is my intent to take that agency apart brick by brick,” he said. “Not with an intent to damage it, but with an intent to rebuild it into an agency that all Nebraskans can be proud of.”
Heineman declined to comment on Foley's criticism of HHS.
Foley's campaign is not without risk. With his run, he is giving up an almost-sure job as state auditor. He won his last election with about 80 percent of the vote, but state law prohibits candidates from running for two offices at once.
An earlier version incorrectly stated the number of Republican candidates making a bid for governor. Tom Carlson of Holdrege also is running.