Nebraska military members are now a key constituency in competitive 1st Congressional District race

Oct. 12, 2022, 6 a.m. ·

Woman waves at arriving RC-135 at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska
At the ceremony celebrating the reopening of the runway, a woman waves at arriving RC-135 at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. (Photo: Bill Kelly, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Redrawn boundaries in Nebraska's Congressional Districts mean thousands of additional voters with ties to Offutt Air Force Base will cast ballots in the 1st District this November.

Residents in central and western Sarpy County will join neighbors in Bellevue in selecting Republican Mike Flood or Democrat Patty Pansing Brooks as their representative in Washington.

Airman stand at attention while attending a ceremony at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.
Airman stand at attention while attending a ceremony at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. (Photo: BIll Kelly, Nebraska Public Media News)
State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln and State Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk
State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln and U.S. Rep. Mike Flood of Norfolk. (Photos courtesy campaigns)

For the candidates, Nebraska's 1st Congressional District is a large and important constituency interested in the base's impact on jobs and daily lives, defense issues, and veterans' affairs.

At a time when the president of Russia revived threats of using nuclear weapons, STRATCOM's missionof command and control of American nuclear forces is back in the news.

Both candidates support the need for that deterrent force.

Republican Mike Flood has toured base operations twice as the recently elected Congressman. He calls representing the home of STRATCOM "a pretty solemn responsibility."

"There are a lot of very important missions that they have on that base that most Americans don't know about, but we go to bed at night praying that they're doing the stuff that they're doing to keep us safe."

He's also concerned about reports of Chinese technology used by American businesses that may have the capability to eavesdrop "on cell towers located closer to the base and missile silos in Nebraska because we have such an important mission and sensitive information."

Asked about STRATCOM's role in planning for nuclear attacks, Democrat Patty Pansing Brooks hopes the nations continue to seek agreements to limit the weapons. However, she added, "as long as Russia and Iran, and China all have nuclear weapons," she doubted that the U.S. would "back off of them and destroy our nuclear weapons."

"Unfortunately, sadly, we must continue at this horrible pace," she said.

For voters, this year's election is a matter of selecting a candidate they see as protecting not only the policy interests but also the economic and quality-of-life issues that can enhance or disrupt a community that is just a commute away from their front door.

For those with businesses linked to the health of the base, "it's their bread and butter," according to Matthew Ritter, the coordinator of military programs at Bellevue University. "Each one of those companies is based upon Offutt's success or failure. They're going to probably lean more towards the candidate (helping) bring in new commands or new business towards Offutt."

According to an annual report issued by the base's 55th Wing Comptroller Squadron, Offutt has "a $2.6 billion influence on the local economy."

The base provides work for 6,000 military personnel and almost 4,000 civilian employees, making it one of the state's largest employers. The payroll exceeds $895 million.

Local office of defense contractor Northrup Grumman in Bellevue, Nebraska. (Photo: Bill Kelly/Nebraska Public Media News)
Local office of defense contractor Northrup Grumman in Bellevue, Nebraska. (Photo: Bill Kelly/Nebraska Public Media News)

On a drive into the base, a visitor sees evidence of thousands of jobs relying on military paychecks: giant defense contractors like Northrup Grumman to fast food outlets serving airmen after their shifts. Tom Deall, manager of Bellevue's Chick-fil-A franchise, says, "the level of commitment and support of the community is very high."

Deall, a retired Air Force Colonel, discussed understanding life "on both sides of the fence" in communities hosting military installations. If he had a chance to meet with the candidates, "I would say to them, make sure you understand all of the aspects that the military community brings to them."

When redistricting changed the boundaries of the 1st District, it doubled the number of Sarpy County registered voters working on the base or having jobs benefiting from Offutt.

Bellevue and Papillion are towns where Pentagon policy directly impacts local government.

Michelle Andahl, director of the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce, cites a current example. The Department of Defense (DoD) is pushing military facilities nationally to move more service members out of residences on base. In Sarpy County, that impacts the already tight housing market.

For Andahl, it illustrates how a representative might help with problem-solving within their District.

"We do hope that whoever ends up representing us after November 8th will definitely be proactive in thinking about those kinds of things," she said, hoping for "a little bit more creative thinking about what's coming down the pike that we haven't had to deal with before."

Jeff Fortenberry represented the 1st District for over a decade, but he resigned in disgrace after being convicted of lying about campaign finance fraud.

In a special election held to fill the vacancy in July, Flood defeated Pansing Brooks.

In interviews with Nebraska Public Media News, the candidates talked about enhancing the state's economic boost by hosting the facility.

Pansing Brooks cited a program she supported while in the state legislature providing tax breaks to those leaving military service to keep them in the Nebraska workforce because "they were all being wooed to Iowa."

She said it's important to find appropriate methods to keep and attract those retiring from the military, who "are incredible people that have had many years of serving the country doing really important things, including security, cybersecurity."

Flood hopes Congress will consider additional federally backed Small Business Administration (SBA) loans for entrepreneurial veterans.

"There are a lot of men and women that served their country very admirably that remain in Sarpy County, and they should have access to the SBA in a very special way so that they can start businesses."

The refurbished runway at Offutt Air Force Base, Bellevue Nebraska.
The refurbished runway at Offutt Air Force Base, Bellevue Nebraska. (Photo: Bill Kelly, Nebraska Public Media News)
Commander of the 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force Base is presented the ceremonial ribbon dedicating the refurbished runway.
Col. Kristen Thompson, commander of the 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force Base, is presented the ceremonial ribbon dedicating the refurbished runway.
2nd District Cong. Don Bacon of Nebraska speaks with reporters.
2nd District Cong. Don Bacon of Nebraska speaks with reporters at the Offutt ceremony. (Photo by Bill Kelly, Nebraska Public Media News)

An example of Congressional persistence in support of Offutt appeared this month when the base reopened the runway damaged by flood waters in 2019. It was a $165 Million construction project for a base where major repairs along the flight line had been neglected by the Pentagon for decades.

It did not originate with the First Congressional District.

During the ceremony, it was Congressman Don Bacon of the neighboring 2nd Congressional District who drew the spotlight and the applause. The base hasn't been in Bacon's Omaha-centered District since 2011.

Bacon, a former Wing Commander at Offutt, had the clout to bend the ear of the Secretary of the Air Force, convincing him the runway didn't just need repairs but a 165-million-dollar overhaul. People sometimes mistakenly assume the base resides in his Congressional District because of his high-profile advocacy.

"I've had some people say it's not your district, and I really just don't care," Bacon said in an interview after the jets returned to the base. "I'm sorry for my language, but I don't really give a shit if you don't like it or not. I'm going to help this base out because when I'm 80, 90 years old, I want to know we had a good impact at Offutt Air Force Base."

Former representative Fortenberry was never mentioned by the dignitaries on hand that day. Current Congressman Flood did not attend the festivities.

Offutt Air Force Base supports the 55th Wing, providing surveillance and reconnaissance for defense missions. In recent years, the base lost out on military programs that could have brought hundreds of additional high-end positions to the base: the Space Force headquarters and a new wing controlling remote drone fights.

There's hope Congress will continue to fund, and perhaps expand, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, the program using DNA to identify the remains of fallen military personnel over the decades.

Working with members of Congress to protect the missions already in place is a priority of Chamber president Andahl.

"If we were to lose anything at Offutt Air Force Base, it would have an impact with ripple effects throughout the community, as far as employment and investments that these organizations have made to come here."

The candidates are spending a fair amount of time in Sarpy County, asking for votes and raising funds in the shadow of the airbase.

Ritter of Bellevue University says candidates shouldn't play to stereotypes when considering the political outlook of current and former armed forces members.

"Those that work underneath the DoD umbrella are going to be more right-leaning," he conceded but quickly added he's found "people will be shocked at how split the military is going down the aisle evenly because we do have a younger generation coming in."

Data released by the Sarpy County Election Commissioner tallied voter registrations filed by the first week in October in the First Congressional District.

Sarpy County Republicans outnumbered Democrats by about 12 thousand registered voters.

Map of Nebraska's 1st Congressional District
Map of Nebraska's 1st Congressional District