Nebraska Democrats miffed that plum political positions have not been filled

Federal courthouse
Posted at 2:39 PM, Jul 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-11 15:39:53-04

LINCOLN, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) — Prominent Nebraska Democrats are expressing dismay that the Biden administration hasn’t taken steps — 18 months after taking office — to appoint Democrats to two, plum political jobs: U.S. attorney and U.S. marshal.

Former U.S. Sen. and Gov. Bob Kerrey said he has heard nothing but “radio silence” from the administration after he and others pushed the candidacy of former State Sen. Burke Harr for the U.S. attorney’s post shortly after Biden’s election in November 2020.

Kerrey had also advocated for the appointment of Greg Gonzalez, a former deputy Omaha police chief, to the U.S. marshal’s post. But Gonzalez, after hearing nothing about his application for the job, opted instead to run for Douglas County sheriff.

Kerrey called the lack of appointments “a failure.”

“I’m afraid this adds to people’s concerns about whether this administration is sufficiently competent,” he said. “This is not difficult.”

State that ‘time forgot’

Former U.S. Attorney Deb Gilg, who served during the Obama administration, said the lack of a permanent presidential appointee means that Nebraska is losing out on having influence in Department of Justice policy and obtaining law enforcement grants.

“It’s like Nebraska is the state that time forgot,” said the veteran prosecutor.

To be sure, Nebraska is not alone, and it’s unclear who to blame.

A check of a website of U.S. attorneys shows that at least 41 U.S. attorney posts, out of 94 judicial districts across the country, have not been permanently filled. That includes the Nebraska and northern Iowa districts with “acting” U.S. attorneys. 

Thirty-five of the unappointed positions are in states that voted for former President Donald Trump. However, Nebraska, one of those states, provided one electoral vote to Biden in 2020 from the Omaha-based 2nd Congressional District — something that strikes some Nebraska Democrats as ungrateful.

“It’s very important if you want to build a political party that you don’t ignore these positions,” said Vince Powers, a former state chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party.

Usually filled quickly

“The Republican Party immediately takes care of business. That’s important,” Powers said.

Typically, work to fill these kinds of positions happens quickly after a new administration is elected. The White House works with each state’s U.S. senators to screen and select candidates. There are also weeks of vetting. If the Senate is busy on other matters, a confirmation vote can be delayed. But an 18-month delay is excessive, those interviewed said.

U.S. attorneys and U.S. marshals serve at the pleasure of the president, and it’s expected that if the administration changes, they will lose their job.

Tim Becker, a former chief of staff to then-U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, said Nelson’s office set up a committee to interview applicants shortly after Obama was elected president. That committee then forwarded its recommendations to Nebraska’s U.S. senators and the White House for approval.

‘Light a fire’

Sometimes, Becker said, it’s necessary to “light a fire” with the White House to get the process going.

“This is going to sound political,” he said, “but this is why it’s never good to not have representatives of both parties (in Washington), because you don’t have someone picking up the phone and saying, ‘What’s going on?’”

One Capitol Hill source, who spoke on the condition of not being named, said that the holdup isn’t with Nebraska’s two Republican U.S. senators and that Nebraska law enforcement officials seem satisfied with the current occupants of the U.S. Attorney’s Office and U.S. Marshal’s Office.

But there are some indications that Senate Republicans aren’t playing ball with the administration’s attempts to get positions filled. Bloomberg Law reported in December that Republicans broke with tradition by requiring a cloture vote to clear the way for the appointment of a federal prosecutor in the Boston area.

‘Interim’ to ‘acting’ attorney

Messages sent to the White House for comment were not returned.

Veteran Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Russell became “acting” U.S. attorney for Nebraska in May, replacing Jan Sharp, who had been the “interim” U.S. attorney.

Nebraska’s U.S. marshal is Scott Kracl, who was appointed by then-President Donald Trump in 2018.

The U.S. attorney is the top federal law enforcement officer in the state, and the office plays a major role in gang and drug crimes, as well as white-collar thefts. Similarly, the U.S. marshal leads federal law enforcement efforts that include drug task forces.

‘Working on it’

Jane Kleeb, the current chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said Friday that she could not explain why it’s taken so long to make the appointments and that when she talks to the White House, she’s told “they’re working on it.”

Kleeb said she had one bit of news: Chief Deputy Douglas County Sheriff Wayne Hudson, who lost to Gonzalez in the May primary for the Democratic nomination for Douglas County sheriff, recently submitted an application to become U.S. marshal.

Powers, a Lincoln attorney and former chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said it’s inexcusable that the positions remain unfilled, 18 months after Biden took office. There are plenty of qualified Democrats for the posts, he said.

Such a delay, Powers said, makes it less likely that qualified candidates would want to interrupt careers for a job that might last only two years.

Gilg, who is now retired, said she served on an advisory committee to the U.S. attorney general, which she said gave her, and Nebraska, a voice on policy decisions. It also helped lead to a federal grant to address domestic violence, she said.

Can’t serve on advisory council

An acting U.S. attorney cannot serve on such advisory councils, she said.

Gilg said it may take a push from U.S. Sens. Deb Fischer and Ben Sasse to get candidates appointed. But, she said, they could “probably care less if someone is appointed.”

Sasse did not respond to a query sent to his office. A spokeswoman for Fischer didn’t respond directly to a question about why it’s taken so long.

“Senator Fischer is grateful for the current U.S. marshal and acting U.S. attorney, who have stepped up and are doing good work in these roles,” the spokeswoman, Brianna Puccini, said. “She and our staff continue to stay in touch with law enforcement and follow this closely.”

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Cate Folsom for questions: Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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