How This Former Quarterback Is Disrupting Nebraskan Politics
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he’s an unconventional Republican in the nation’s most unconventional legislature.
Brett Lindstrom has taken his hits. After all, the former quarterback was a walk-on at the University of Nebraska, not exactly a program for powder puffs. There is no glory there for benchwarmers, who usually serve as tackling dummies for future NFL players. Even in a 2002 Rose Bowl appearance, Lindstrom was subjected to humiliation: watching from the sidelines while Miami, as he puts it now, “kicked their asses,” in a 37-14 beatdown. About half of his fellow freshmen walk-ons hung up their cleats before their senior year, says Lindstrom, but he stuck it out, graduating after five years with snaps in just five games. “There was a rule in the Lindstrom household: You finish what you started.”
In some ways, the 36-year-old politico hasn’t left his playing days behind. “I don’t mind getting beat up and knocked down,” he smiles, still boasting quarterback good looks when we meet at Proof, a posh whiskey bar in Omaha. The work-casual financial adviser has just come from his father’s company, a division of the UBS Financial Services Group, where he’s worked since right after college.
Together, football and family have proven a Nebraska perfect cocktail for elected office — one that has the state senator rocketing up the Republican roster. At a recent beefsteak dinner fundraiser, he attracted a diverse (and moneyed) crowd: startup techies, traditional CEOs, industry advocates and rank-and-file constituents, says Rochelle Mallett, a leading GOP lobbyist who has worked with him on issues from health insurance to tax reform. “He’s comfortable with all of them,” adds Mallett, who, in a not-so-surprising nod to Omaha’s close-knit political scene, attended high school with the hometown golden boy. “It’s easy to see why people view him as an emerging conservative star.”
Even in a state known for its unconventional politicians — Nebraska has a nonpartisan legislature and the nation’s only unicameral body— Lindstrom stands out. A bona-fide Reaganite on taxes, he has nonetheless taken unexpected turns for a conservative. He’s supported workplace protections for LGBT employees and, as a freshman legislator, cast the deciding vote to repeal Nebraska’s death penalty law, a stance that drew ire from his party (and a death threat from a constituent). But far from holding him back, Lindstrom’s bold moves have burnished his credibility in a state where party labels play well on bumper stickers but don’t guarantee influence in the halls of power. “I don’t always agree with him on a lot of issues — but I can always work with him, and that’s more than I can say with some people,” says Democrat Adam Morfeld, a fellow state senator. This year, Lindstrom cochaired Next Generation Nebraska, a new task force addressing millennial issues and retention, and he was named to the 2017 GOPAC Class of Emerging Leaders, which targets Republicans “ready to run for higher office,” says its chairman, David Avella.
It’s prime time for Lindstrom, whose game is one part aw-shucks charm, another part intellectual do-gooder. Yet his principled stances sometimes fall apart under the game tape. Yes, he’s defied fellow Republicans, such as Gov. Pete Ricketts — in one case voting to overturn a veto against a gas tax he believed necessary for raising revenue. His death penalty vote — based both on his faith and research that convinced him it was too costly and too error-prone — rankled the rank-and-file. But in a 2012 run for Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district, he criticized incumbent Lee Terry for voting to increase the U.S. debt ceiling — an easy but intellectually dishonest attack on a legislative move that keeps government from defaulting on its loans. In that same campaign, his first foray into politics, he also accused Terry of being “unequivocally beholden to corporate lobbyists and special interests” by fast-tracking a Keystone XL pipeline proposal. Today Lindstrom suggests the assault was more posturing than principle: “It was one of those hot topics at the time, where we could take him to task,” he says.
Call it bravado or bluster from a first-term lawmaker, but Lindstrom has never been afraid to step up into the pocket.
As he moves the goalposts on his ambitions, Lindstrom, representing a south Omaha district, will have to contend with rural Cornhusker distrust of urban Republicans. “In Nebraska, there’s a larger divide between urban and rural on tax policy than there is between Republican and Democrat,” says Jim Smith, the state senator who chairs the revenue committee that Lindstrom also sits on. “I don’t feel like I’m pigeonholed in that urban, city-type deal. I’ve sorted hogs, mended fences,” says Lindstrom, whose family had farms in Oakland, an hour from Omaha. And make no mistake: Lindstrom plans to run for statewide office one day. “Best job, in my opinion, would be governor,” he says. “You get to stay in Nebraska, and I feel like you could make a big difference there.”
Call it bravado or bluster from a first-term lawmaker, but Lindstrom has never been afraid to step up into the pocket. During his first election, he attended his opponent’s town hall, waiting by the door and trying to pick off voters as they exited. Reporters who covered the event, he recalls, “equated it to me showing up to prom without a date and stealing a prom date.” Next time around, the crown could be the keys to the Cornhusker state — after all, it wouldn’t be the first time a high school quarterback was named prom king.