Photo by Joe Chitwood
Photo by Joe Chitwood
Jim Jenkins, a Callaway rancher and businessman, believes his ideas can make a big difference in Washington.
Jenkins, 56, plans to become Nebraska's next U.S. Senator as an independent.
He grew up on a Custer County ranch, learning the importance of hard work, overcoming adversity and working together, he proclaims on his website.
Jenkins is a fifth-generation cattle rancher. He said his father Wayne taught him to think for himself and warned against following the herd.
He started his first business, JJ & SE Jenkins cattle company, with his brother Stuart in 1969 and still operates it today.
In the 1980s, he worked on President Ronald Reagan’s transition team as an assistant to domestic policy advisor Edwin Harper, who served as Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget and Assistant to the President.
Jenkins founded the Whiskey Creek chain of steakhouses in 1996, where he helped develop and market the flat iron steak – adding value to a cut of roast by handling it like a steak. After selling Whiskey Creek five years later, he and his management team founded Skeeter Barnes, a steakhouse and barbeque that operates two locations in Nebraska.
Jenkins has also served on the Nebraska Ethanol Board, including two stints as chairman, and been a member of the Custer County Planning Commission. He worked with the Nebraska Public Power District to establish wind farms and served on the board of the Nebraska Grazing Lands Coalition.
Now he’s gunning for the biggest job in the country – to join the gridlocked, divisive Congress.
Jenkins believes the U.S. needs a true centrist who can work with both major parties to end the stalemate of federal legislation.
“I am running as a citizen rather than as a party member,” he said. He encourages other independents to do the same. "I am the only candidate that I know of who has said I will run as a non-partisan independent and will not caucus with either party.”
"Think what would happen if we had 5-10 true independents in the Senate,” he said. “I don't care if they are a little right or left of center, so long as they are in there, not for the party, but for the people.”
Jenkins said candidates promoted by special interest groups can't work for the good of the people.
Jenkins said Republican opponent Ben Sasse made a pledge to donor Grover Norquist, the founder of American's for Tax Reform, that he will not support raising taxes.
But people don't realize that a tax pledge means you can't close loopholes, he said, and more than $1.3 trillion worth of tax loopholes make our tax system very complicated.
"Any groups that are unwilling to engage in bipartisan discussions, I don't have any use for, because that isn't how a country is formed and isn't how legislation gets done," he said.
When bipartisan bills are written, the current leadership on both sides refuse to bring them up or have open debate.
"The parties are more interested in getting elected, winning the mid-terms, then turning around and trying to win the presidency,” he said. “So my point is not whether you are right or left, but are you willing to come and join a discussion, or is it going to be "my way or the high way?"
Jenkins is not against groups, “whether you label them liberals, conservatives, tea party or left-wing socialists. The country needs people of all perspectives when debating.”
But he said our political system currently has an "eye for an eye" mentality.
"Democrats jam Obamacare through with no Republican support, then Republicans want to repeal it,” he said. “How about both sides sitting down and addressing health care issues, problems and challenges that are with us, whether we have the health bill or not?"
He believes stalemates will continue if voters support any highly partisan candidate and Congress lacks statesmen.
“Throughout our political history, great things were accomplished by senators and congressmen who laid aside their party’s political agenda and worked together to pass meaningful legislation," he said.
Jenkins said he would vote for 1,000 Howard Baker Republicans or 1,000 Daniel Moynihan Democrats because they were fair.
He said the first constitutional convention was effective because of fair leaders. Even though George Washington disagreed with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison on many issues, Jefferson and Madison knew Washington would give them a fair hearing to express their views.
He said, "Reagan worked with Tip O’Neill. Lincoln worked with a team of rivals, but tell me where is the one, whether it be the President, McConnell, Pelosi, or Reid -- who is going to be an igniter? We need bridge builders.”
He hopes voters will trust him to work to pull people together.
"I am committed first to the country and then Nebraska, ahead of partisan special interests," he said.
And, when government leaders or groups make mistakes, fair hearings should be held and those responsible should pay the price.
"For example, on IRS, I am not in the fight as a Republican or Democrat, but as a citizen looking to protect taxpayer dollars and make sure our government does the right thing," he said. "I am a guy who is interested in the truth, so if there was targeting, officials who were responsible should be held accountable. It is nothing more than what we would do on a school board or a town council."
Immigration is a Democrat and a Republican problem, Jenkins says.
"The last four or five decades, both parties, regardless of the administration, have basically allowed people into the country,” he said. “Even though we have the biggest military and we could have, had we chosen, stopped them and defended the border, neither party made an effort.”
He said we must come up with a solution, even though it will not necessarily make everyone happy.
"We need to figure out a way to actually defend the border, modernize programs and document workers so they start paying taxes and come out from shadows," he said.
Is challenging, but Jenkins said our country has faced big controversies throughout history. Slave owners were against those opposed to slavery. Big government supporters were against those who believe in limited government.
"They faced controversial issues,” he said. “The difference was; back then, they actually stayed with it, and eventually reached some middle ground."
Jenkins also said the election process needs to be changed to respect people who do not follow a party.
"We have freedom to choose where we live and go to college,” he said. “In every area of life we are free. Then, we get to our political system. We narrow it down and say the only thing you can do is join two parties."
That takes away the rights of 25 percent of the public who are independent, he said.
Leaving out people who don't join those parties diminishes the election process, he said.
“Are they actually suggesting the two parties have all the answers?” he asked.
Jenkins said history demonstrates four major principles that nations need to succeed and prosper.
"You have to have commitment to 1) the rule of law, 2) democratic institutions, 3) property rights and 4) a free enterprise system,” he said.
He is concerned with government's low approval rating.
"When Congress has a 10 percent approval rating, it undermines one of the basic principles, as this is where we decide all our laws," Jenkins said.
Politicians who ignore the approval rate will find themselves in trouble.
"It will come back to bite them,” he said. “We cannot continue to have the American people have no faith in Congress.”
When he was asked to pick the best Nebraska senator of all time, he said the best unquestionably, was George Norris. He took on the special interests of the party and that is why he became an independent, Jenkins said.
"He created, developed and lobbied for bi-partisan legislature because he was so worried about all the partisanship hurting his country," he said.
"All around the state, I hear more and more people say they are tired of how things are going in Washington," Jenkins said. “I can change things, but it will take resources and hard work to win the election.”
This report was first published in the Bulletin's July 16 print edition.