In 2008, Jim Esch was riding a political high.
The Omaha attorney with a knack for energizing young voters was within striking distance of unseating Republican U.S. Rep. Lee Terry in the Omaha-based congressional race.
Life looked good.
For a while.
Esch wound up losing the race to Terry by 4 percentage points. Afterward, he said he went through mood swings that included bouts of “intense depression.”
Two years later, he bounced a $1,000 check at Horseshoe Casino, prompting a civil lawsuit. He was sued by Nebraska Furniture Mart that same year for failing to repay an $1,800 debt.
Today, Esch, 38, acknowledges he's made some “dumb mistakes” but emphasizes that both debts have been paid and says he no longer goes to casinos.
He also says he has gotten his life back on a positive track. In a short written statement to The World-Herald, he said he has gotten help for his depression.
“I do want to assure the voters this sort of behavior is not indicative of who I am today or I will be as a leader. Following the 2008 elections, I experienced periods of extreme confidence and intense depression. During those highs and lows, I made some bad decisions that I sincerely regret. But, since then, I have dealt with these issues and feel I am on a good path personally and professionally,” Esch writes in the statement.
“I feel I am ready to serve the people of Omaha and the state in this capacity and hope they will elect me to do so.”
Esch is one of two Democrats who have declared a bid for the Omaha seat on the Nebraska Public Service Commission, while a third is considering a run.
The other declared candidate in the race, Crystal Rhoades, 35, has had her own trouble with a bounced check and bad debt. Fifteen years ago, a then-19-year-old Rhoades was taken to court for bouncing a $70 check at a convenience store. A year later, she was sued for $534 by Nebraska Furniture Mart.
“I was a single mother, and they were hard times for me. I've obviously grown up,” said Rhoades, who is a member of the Metropolitian Community College Board of Governors.
The district that Rhoades and Esch are running in is heavily Democratic and arguably one of the party's best hopes of securing a full-time elected office in the November election.
Esch would be a front-runner. He has good name recognition after two high-profile bids for Congress.
His first run came in 2006 when, as a little-known Omaha attorney, Esch stunned the Omaha political world by surging in the final days of the campaign. In fact, at some points during that election night, it looked as if Esch would pull off a stunning upset.
In the end, he lost by 10 percentage points. But in the process, Esch made a name for himself with Omaha Democrats.
Two years later, he returned for a rematch with hopes of riding the coattails of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.
This time, Terry's camp gave Esch their full attention.
They quickly labeled him a “trust fund baby,” taking him to task for having a weak professional résumé.
In 2007, Esch earned just $14,000 from a paying job. In large part, he was living off investment income from a family-owned real estate venture that was set up by his father for Esch and his five siblings.
Esch received $78,000 from that partnership in 2007. His share in the family-owned enterprise, called JBDHSK, was valued between $217,000 and $530,000, according to financial disclosure reports that Esch filed with the Federal Election Commission in 2008.
Esch, who is a graduate of Creighton University, has held a variety of jobs over the years but has never stayed in any place for very long. Most notably, he worked for two years as the director of economic development partnership for the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce before quitting to run for Congress in 2006.
He also worked briefly as development director at Omaha Creighton Prep after the 2006 campaign, but he left after several months. He said at the time it was not a “good fit.”
Most recently, he worked at the Kinney Law Firm in Omaha. He started in early 2013 but left in September. He said he made the decision to leave shortly after deciding that he wanted to run for the Public Service Commission.
“At the end of the day, it wasn't fair for them to keep me on the payroll, when I'm actively working my way out of a job,” Esch said in an interview.
He currently runs his own small law practice out of a downtown Omaha office. Esch said it's going well. He handles a variety of cases, including misdemeanor criminal law.
As for the casino debt, Esch said he may have been “given a line of credit” at the casino, during which he was allowed to cash a check that then bounced.
“It was a pretty dumb mistake and something I'm not proud of,” Esch said.
He had paid off nearly $600 of the debt before the casino's credit-collection company took him to court for the remaining $400.
He also says he no longer goes to the casinos.
“I've had some ups and downs and, luckily, I think I've righted the ship for myself, including personal stuff and career stuff,” Esch said.