Pete Festersen to vie for Lee Terry's congressional seat in 2014 - Omaha.com
Published Monday, October 14, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 2:38 pm
Pete Festersen to vie for Lee Terry's congressional seat in 2014

Democrat Pete Festersen is in.

The Omaha city councilman says he will seek Republican Lee Terry's congressional seat in 2014, after initially saying he would not run. His entry into the race all but guarantees a tough re-election battle for Terry, who is acknowledged as vulnerable even by Republicans.

In August, Festersen had said it was the wrong time for his family to take on a political campaign. He has two young children.

But since then, he said, more people have encouraged him to run and his family has been supportive.

Festersen said the partial government shutdown — and not Terry's controversial comments about his paycheck during the shutdown — was the tipping point.

“Like most people, my frustration has grown by the day over the last month, with the government shutdown and the brinkmanship on the debt ceiling,” Festersen said. “Change is needed. And I felt it was my responsibility to be that change.”

Festersen, 42, had been aggressively wooed by national Democrats to reconsider his August decision. They view the Omaha-based 2nd Congressional District as fertile ground to pick up a seat in the U.S. House.

It is considered Nebraska's only swing district. Republicans have an edge in voter registration, but Democrats have a proven ability to win in Omaha, including four of seven seats on the City Council.

Even Vice President Joe Biden waded into Omaha's political waters, according to one source, by calling Festersen and urging him to reconsider.

The Democrats' desire for Festersen to run was fueled by the idea that the Democrat is a good fit for the district, coupled with the belief that Terry is beatable, especially in light of the eight-term incumbent's recent verbal misstep.

Terry angered many earlier this month when he initially refused to forgo his salary during the shutdown, saying he had a child in college and a mortgage to pay on a “nice house.” Terry has since apologized, saying he was “ashamed” of his comments.

“It was not leadership. It is not how I was raised. It is not the nature of my character. It is not what I want to teach my sons,” Terry said.

Terry has been a favorite Democratic target for the past four elections but has always managed to pull out a win. In 2010, Democrats thought they had found the candidate to unseat Terry when they recruited former State Sen. Tom White.

In the end, Terry pummeled White, winning 61 percent of the vote.

Last year, however, Douglas County Treasurer John Ewing came within 2 percentage points of toppling Terry.

Each bruising election cycle, and every controversial vote that Terry has cast over the years, takes a toll, said Randy Adkins, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

“Any time an incumbent wins by less than 5 percentage points, we in political science consider him vulnerable,” Adkins said.

Republicans agree.

Earlier this summer, the National Republican Congressional Committee placed Terry on a list of incumbents considered to be in danger. Terry's addition to the so-called Patriots Program is intended to help embattled GOP incumbents raise money.

Democrats view Festersen as a strong challenger, considering him a moderate, pro-business candidate with strong ties to Omaha's business community.

Republicans hold a 13,500-voter edge in the 2nd District, but the real power may rest with independent voters, who account for 23 percent of registered voters.

Festersen worked for several years with the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and Alegent Health before starting his own business consulting company in 2010. Earlier, he had been an aide to then-Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey.

Four years ago Festersen won a seat on the City Council, where he often joined forces with Jean Stothert — now the city's Republican mayor — in opposing Democratic Mayor Jim Suttle's budget proposals.

For example, Festersen voted against Suttle proposals to impose a restaurant tax and raise property taxes.

Festersen said if he's elected, he will make it a priority to work with both political parties in Congress.

“I think my moderate, pro-business track record is the right background. And taking a reasonable and practical approach to get a consensus, regardless of party, is what we need,” he said.

Festersen declined to talk about federal issues, including his view on President Barack Obama's controversial health care law. He said he planned to outline his stance on the issues after he formally unveils his campaign.

“When we have a formal announcement later, we'll be discussing our priorities and issues,” he said.

Contact the writer: Robynn Tysver

robynn.tysver@owh.com    |   402-444-1309    |  

Robynn is Omaha.com's elections writer. She's covered presidential politics in Iowa's caucuses, and gubernatorial and Senate races in Nebraska.

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