HYANNIS, Neb. — In a tiny village, in a small community center filled with folding chairs and broad-brimmed cowboy hats, all seven of the state's gubernatorial candidates gathered Monday to woo a roomful of farmers and ranchers.
It was the first time all seven sat at the same folding table together, in front of a moderator with pointed questions.
They all talked up their résumés. They all promised to lower property taxes. And they all said they supported the state's hunting season on mountain lions.
And — for the most part — they all distanced themselves from Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman's failed tax package last year, saying they opposed putting a sales tax on farm equipment, seed and other agricultural products.
It was — for the most part — a low-key and cordial affair. Few, if any, barbs were thrown.
Democrat Chuck Hassebrook repeatedly emphasized his years as an advocate for rural Nebraska, noting that he spent 30 years at the Center for Rural Affairs fighting for economic development in small-town Nebraska.
As the lone Democrat on the panel, Hassebrook also was the only one who supported expanding Medicaid in Nebraska under President Barack Obama's health care law.
He said it's wrong that Nebraskans are paying federal taxes to expand Medicaid in other states but not in Nebraska, where Heineman, a Republican, opposes it.
Republican Pete Ricketts used the forum to repeatedly tout his business experience. Ricketts is the former chief operating officer of TD Ameritrade, a company founded by his father.
At one point, he said his years at TD Ameritrade would help him bridge the gap between eastern and western Nebraska, saying the skills he used to unite a “diverse” work group could also bring rural and urban Nebraskans together.
“To make a company work you have to bring all those diverse talents together,” Ricketts said.
Republican Charlie Janssen touted his “fighting” spirit as a fierce opponent of illegal immigration on the Fremont City Council and his support of gun rights in the Nebraska Legislature.
“When the federal government tried to take our gun rights away, I fought back,” Janssen said. “I will continue to fight for you and push back against our federal government as our next governor.”
Republican Mike Foley talked repeatedly about his years as state auditor, saying he would use the knowledge he has acquired auditing state agencies to reduce state spending and make state government more efficient.
“I have worked tirelessly to dig and dig again in these state agencies to expose millions of dollars in fraud, waste and abuse,” he said.
“We have people in prison today because of our work,” Foley said.
Bryan Slone, who is the newest candidate in the race, argued that his years as a tax attorney, including working for the IRS commissioner under former President Ronald Reagan, made him the perfect candidate to conduct an overhaul of the state's tax code.
He called for an “adult discussion” on taxes.
Republican Beau McCoy emphasized his western roots, saying he grew up “west of Benkelman” on the Nebraska-Colorado border. (For the record, McCoy was raised on a ranch in eastern Colorado.)
McCoy was the only one in the forum who took a little heat, specifically for introducing a pair of tax bills in the last legislative session at the request of Heineman. One of those bills would have expanded the sales tax base by placing a sales tax on agricultural equipment.
Several candidates dinged McCoy for introducing the bills, but he stood firm. He noted that he eventually helped to kill the bills, but he argued that they were needed to spur a “tough” discussion needed on taxes.
“For the first time in a generation, we're having the most serious discussion about tax reform,” McCoy said.
The final candidate in the race, Republican Tom Carlson, emphasized his years in the Legislature, saying he earned the respect of his colleagues.
“I've demonstrated leadership, being elected chairman of the Agriculture Committee and the Natural Resources Committee,” Carlson said.
It was a different sort of governor's debate, held in this tiny village of 182 people.
This was no big-city affair. There were no big-time television personalities serving as moderators. And no one much cared about starting or stopping the debate on time.
It was a village affair, with ranchers and veterinarians mingling with politicians dressed in suits and sweaters, while a local ladies group served up trays of quiche and tarts.
The crowd of about 200 stood and said the Pledge of Allegiance before the debate started, while members of the local FHA chapter served as official timekeepers.
“You know you're in Hyannis when the veterinarians outnumber the doctors,” quipped one local organizer.
The debate was the brainchild of Rosemary Anderson, a local rancher.
A regional vice chairman of the Nebraska Cattlemen, Anderson decided earlier this year that she wanted the candidates to come to her neck of the prairie and mingle with the men and women who work the cattle and the land.
“A lot of the time we feel forgotten, and a lot of time people in the eastern end of the state think the state stops at York,” Anderson said.
She persuaded three farm organizations to sponsor the event: the Nebraska Farm Bureau, Nebraska Cattlemen and the Independent Cattlemen of Nebraska.
She then persuaded the candidates — one by one — to attend.
“A few of them said 'yes' right away. Others waited to see what everyone else was doing,” Anderson said.
Initially, she thought about holding the event in the local high school auditorium, but she nixed the idea. She didn't want the candidates on a stage. She wanted them on the “same level” as her neighbors.
And so they were, sitting at a white folding table and chairs.