It hit him on Friday, he said, when he was supposed to be three places at once and the place he most longed to be had nothing to do with running for Congress.
So Pete Festersen tossed aside his list of fundraising calls and drove to Dundee Elementary School, where 11-year-old Anna, the eldest of his two daughters, was competing in a spelling bee.
He sat there on a folding chair in the school gym and listened as fifth-grade Anna correctly spelled “strawberry” and “oxygen.” Then after the bee, he headed out to one more campaign event, attending a holiday party.
Festersen spent the weekend reflecting on that day's tug of war for his time and how his congressional bid — a campaign that the vice president and other national Democrats had lobbied him to enter — had completely upended his life in just two months.
By Monday morning, he was out.
Festersen said he came to the conclusion that he wouldn't be able to juggle his campaign duties, his job as a business consultant, his role as Omaha City Council president, and his family.
“It became clear that balancing all those things was becoming too challenging,” he told me. “It would only intensify over the next 11 months for sure.”
Festersen met me at Blue Line coffee shop in Dundee, in the center of his council district. He talked in depth in the aftermath of this week's bombshell, which left Democrats without a candidate to challenge eight-term GOP incumbent Lee Terry.
Since Festersen left the race, some national Democrats have told The World-Herald and other publications that his campaign money was coming in slower than anticipated. They said there were concerns that he lacked the time or the willingness to commit to fundraising — a candidate's primary task in the early stages of a campaign.
But Rep. Steve Israel of New York, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that helped recruit Festersen, said he thought Festersen was going full-bore on raising money.
“It was going well,” said Festersen, saying that he had topped $200,000 in commitments in just two months.
At the same time, however, he faced a candidate with a proven ability to raise money. Terry raised and spent more than $2 million in his 2012 re-election bid, and he already had $558,000 in the bank as of Sept. 30.
Festersen says the problem wasn't the amount of money he was raising. It was the amount of time it took.
He thought he had stretched the clock as much as he could. He rose at 4 a.m. and crashed at midnight. The campaign forced him to pare back his consulting work, work around his council duties and limit his time with wife Paige and daughters Anna and Caroline, 8.
Festersen now had a personal assistant called a scheduler. His wife now had to go through this scheduler.
The national spotlight gleamed hard and fast. The New York Times featured his campaign. NBC Nightly News showed him at Blue Line. Once-personal events like his 43rd birthday last week were now fundraising fetes, and he needed a lot more of those over the next year to keep on track with the money game.
“Every day you're raising money and on the phone,” he said.
But ... wait a minute!
Festersen is no political rookie. He knows about the demands of campaign life.
Wasn't he the No. 2 press guy for candidate Ben Nelson during Nelson's first bid for the U.S. Senate? Wasn't he one of Mayor Mike Fahey's key staffers, an up-and-comer Jedi knight to Paul Landow's Obi-Wan? Wasn't he elected twice to the Omaha City Council and doesn't he now serve as council president?
What part of running for Congress and not seeing your family did Pete Festersen just not get?
“I went into it eyes wide open,” he said. “I knew it would be challenging.”
Which is why he said no in August after being approached earlier.
But then the government shut down in October, and Terry gave Democrats an early Christmas present in the form of a let-them-eat-cake gaffe, and the pressure was on Festersen to enter.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
Vice President Joe Biden left him a voice mail, one former councilman to another (message: Look where you can land!). Party officials pressed him.
And Festersen, who has public service in his genetic makeup — his great-grandmother once ran for Nebraska secretary of state, his uncle is a retired four-star admiral once considered for the CIA directorship — decided the time was right.
The stars seemed to align. They seemed to spell: “NOW. RIGHT NOW.”
So he said yes, and it was off to the races.
His family had backed his decision. Paige, who works part time as a preschool teacher and volunteers elsewhere, had told her husband to go for it. She said she could hold down the fort. They would be fine. Caroline gave him a thumbs-up one night at the dinner table.
But by last week's spelling bee, Festersen had come to doubt his decision to run.
Girls should have their father around, thought Festersen, whose own father died when he was 25. Plus, he didn't want to miss out. He wanted the school drop-offs and the piano practices and the tween-hood of Anna and Caroline.
“I wanted to be there for the eye-rolls,” he said this week. “I'd rather regret not running for Congress in 2014 than missing a good part of my girls' lives for the next two years.”
Israel, the DCCC head, told The World-Herald that he can't get involved in Festersen's personal life. Party officials tell potential candidates that their first obligation is to make sure their families are comfortable with the demands of a campaign.
“He told us that he had talked extensively with his family,” Israel said. “Sometimes, once they get in it, their families realize this may not be for them.”
A day after he left the race, Festersen was at an evening meeting, explaining the difference between tax-increment financing and a business improvement district to a small, dedicated group of longtime Florence boosters trying to improve the area.
“He's doing the right thing,” a man named Doug Rose whispered to me. “He's a young guy. He's got time.”
A half-hour later, Festersen's phone buzzed. He hopped up and apologized to the Florence folks for leaving early.
There was a daughter to pick up from volleyball practice.
World-Herald staff writers Joseph Morton and Robynn Tysver contributed to this report.