Nebraska governor’s adviser outside the public box


Lincoln Journal Star

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Senior adviser to Gov. Pete Ricketts.

But not a member of the Ricketts administration or state government.

Not a publicly funded position, not working at the State Capitol, but privately paid by the governor and working out of her own strategic consulting firm.

Jessica Moenning is something new.

And that means there are questions being raised about her role and the issue of public accountability, with the Nebraska Democratic Party threatening a lawsuit to require fuller disclosure of her private transactions with the governor, the Lincoln Journal Star ( ) reported.

On the other hand, a number of current and former veterans of state government - including some Democrats - suggest that perhaps all that’s really new is that a governor is paying for advice from an identified individual in the private sector.

Other governors regularly have turned to trusted friends or counselors who are private citizens for ideas and advice on a more informal, unstructured basis without either disclosure or compensation.

OK, so who is Jessica Moenning and what does she do?

Moenning is a rock star within political circles, a Republican campaign strategist and operative who has managed campaigns and held state party office. But now she is working out of Bright Strategies, her own consulting firm, in an office barely a block from the Capitol.

In 2004, at the age of 26, Moenning managed Jeff Fortenberry’s successful bid for an open House seat, a race in which the former Lincoln city councilman came from behind in a tight primary contest to win the Republican nomination.

In 2006, she agreed to step in as campaign manager after a shakeup in Ricketts’ floundering campaign to unseat Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson even though it was clear by that time that Ricketts could not win.

In 2012, she was a volunteer adviser to Deb Fischer’s successful Senate campaign.

And in 2014, Moenning was a fully engaged consultant in Ricketts’ successful gubernatorial bid, which first had to survive a cliffhanger in the Republican primary election when Ricketts and Attorney General Jon Bruning battled neck and neck for the nomination until midnight.

At Bright Strategies, Moenning has managed legislative campaigns and worked for other clients. One that previously has been identified is Nebraskans for Jobs and Energy Independence, a group that has argued for construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

In her role with the governor, Moenning provides advice and counsel on strategic planning, messaging and events scheduling with an eye fixed on the governor’s stated priorities and goals.

Mixed in with that may be an occasional assessment of administration performance in terms of public perception.

It is candid and respectful advice, both solicited and unsolicited.

“I would be of no value if I minced words or couched things,” Moenning says. “He wants people to talk directly to him.”

What she does not do, Moenning says, is lobby state senators or try to shape the governor’s legislative agenda or manage the governor’s news releases.

“I am very careful to draw a line,” she says. “I do not engage with the Legislature on specific bills. Once the governor has his own legislative agenda, I provide some strategic insight and thought.

“When we got started, the governor told me he wants to stay focused on what drove him to run: Grow Nebraska, create jobs, encourage community leadership.

“Focus on what we are doing to keep Nebraska competitive on taxes.

“Keep expanding his circle of people. Include a cross-section to provide perspective, with some voices that cross party lines. He doesn’t want to get stuck in an echo chamber. He wants to reach beyond the people who supported him.”

Looking ahead, Moenning says, “tax relief - both property and income - is a top priority for the people,” and her role will be to help “organize an effective voice, build a coalition of support, not working inside the Rotunda.”

Moenning assisted with the gubernatorial transition leading up to Jan. 8, when Ricketts formally took the oath of office. She was heavily engaged in planning the governor’s inaugural and in the preparation and rollout of his priority-setting State of the State address to the Legislature.

A major assignment has been establishing and managing four policy advisory committees that provide the governor with broad-based information and advice.

In addition to an agricultural policy team, which largely is a holdover from the Ricketts election campaign, the governor receives information from citizen teams focusing on corrections, health and human services, and manufacturing.

The corrections team includes a police officer whose beat is North Omaha.

The manufacturing team has opened a window to the state’s job creation challenges and the need for more career education opportunities.

Ricketts will meet with the advisory groups a few times a year, while Moenning is continually engaged.

Correctional Services Director Scott Frakes has met with the corrections advisory team; Health and Human Services CEO Courtney Phillips will sit down with the HHS group sometime soon.

Part of what the advisory groups will do is “find what other states do well,” Moenning said, “(and) build a best practices inventory.”

Moenning created and organized the teams to help provide the governor with expertise and experience from citizens outside of state government. She coordinates the conversation.

“The governor tells me I’m a community organizer,” Moenning says with a smile.

Those words were a laugh line at the 2008 Republican national convention, when speaker after speaker derisively dismissed Sen. Barack Obama months before his election as president.

Most recently, Moenning has been asked to coordinate the referendum petition campaign to overturn legislation to repeal the death penalty in Nebraska, a bill that was enacted over the governor’s veto on a memorable day of suspense and drama in the Legislature.

Nebraskans would vote on the issue in 2016 if petitioners acquire sufficient signatures to place it on the general election ballot.

In addition to providing the governor with feedback and advice, Moenning coordinates activities of what still is identified as the Ricketts campaign, although it might more accurately be called the Ricketts political operation at this point.

That portion of her work, which includes some scheduling of the governor’s time and coordination with the Republican Party, will be paid by the Ricketts campaign fund. Those payments will be publicly disclosed in reports to the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission.

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