PLAINVIEW — In Nebraska’s vast Third Congressional District, like other parts of the country, many people are struggling.
Fewer people live in the district, which results in it getting bigger after each census. Some small towns have lost large employers, which translates into school consolidations and closed stored fronts.
After young people graduate from high school, many leave for college and don’t return. They can’t find jobs back home.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government keeps spending money it doesn’t have. And the people who make the decisions don’t seem to be accountable.
Those were some of Bob Lingenfelter’s thoughts last February when he read that U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith of Gering didn’t have anyone running against him in the Third District.
The Plainview native and commodities broker said he couldn’t understand how Smith — or anyone else in Congress — could run unopposed.
“None of those (politicians) should run unopposed,” Lingenfelter said. “That makes them think what they’re doing is quite acceptable.”
Lingenfelter is not a typical Congressional candidate. Growing up on a farm where he started driving tractor at 5, he saw firsthand how farms got bigger and families got smaller.
Unlike most candidates at the national level, Lingenfelter said, he was never groomed to be a politician.
“If you’ve never gone out and gotten your hands dirty, how do you know how to govern business?” he asked.
Lingenfelter — a Republican as is incumbent Smith — said he believes some of the problems the nation faces occur because the politicians are not prepared to lead.
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After graduating from Plainview High School, Lingenfelter was a three-year letterman as a tackle at Nebraska. He earned All-Big Eight honors in 1976 and helped the Huskers capture Coach Tom Osborne's first Big Eight title in 1975.
He was a seventh-round NFL draft pick of the Cleveland Browns, spent one season with the Browns and then played for the Minnesota Vikings in 1978 and 1979.
Before announcing his intentions to run, he called Tom Osborne and scheduled a visit. As a former congressman from the same district, Lingenfelter said he naturally wanted to hear what advice Osborne might offer.
Among other things, Osborne told him he faces long odds against an incumbent. But he also told him that he does have name recognition and people would remember him once they’ve met him, Lingenfelter said.
Osborne also cautioned him that if he was elected, he would be expected to follow the political hierarchy. Lingenfelter said he told his old coach in response, “I’ve never been very good at that.”
Osborne just smiled and nodded, Lingenfelter said.
Lingenfelter, 58, said he knows he faces some long odds in trying to unseat Smith in May’s Republican primary.
Lingenfelter’s only other try at politics was when he tried to unseat M.L. “Cap” Dierks of Ewing for a seat in the Nebraska Legislature more than 20 years ago.
In addition to Lingenfelter’s football career, many people may be familiar with his booming voice on the radio when he gives price updates and market analysis, sprinkled with some country wit.
He and and his wife, Julie, have four children. Their youngest child, Jacob, is about half of the age as their next youngest, Harrison, who is 24.
The youngest child has Lingenfelter doing some young father duties, such as coaching sports like soccer.
“I’ve gotten taller because the ball’s gotten a lot farther down than it used to be,” Lingenfelter said with a smile.
Lingenfelter’s concern for the nation that his children will face is what motivates him.
One of the things he read was that each child’s share of the national debt has grown $6,000 a year in each of the last three years.
“(Jacob) is $18,000 more in the hole,” Lingenfelter said. “One of these days, there’s going to be people who come knocking who want that money. And I’m getting old enough it won’t be me they’ll be after.”
When President Obama took office, the national debt was $8 trillion. It’s now approaching $15 trillion and there’s no realistic plans to reduce it, Lingenfelter said.
Since Obama took office, Congress has never put forth a budget. Lingenfelter blames all of Congress for that, not just Democrats.
“There has to be a meeting of the minds here,” Lingenfelter said. “We’ve got to put something together here to address this.”
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Lingenfelter said he doesn’t have a lot of money to spend on his campaign, so he got a large motor home. He had some signs made that announce his intention to run for Congress.
Whenever there’s a public event, he tries to drive to it. And while there, he wants to visit with constituents and find out what they think needs to happen.
Last week, for example, Lingenfelter traveled to western Nebraska via Highway 20. Among the stops he made were Scottsbluff, Bridgeport and Ainsworth.
He’s found that others share his concern over the national debt.
“We’re all in this together,” Lingenfelter said.
He sometimes jokes that as a commodities broker, his ag economics degree helps, but a degree in psychology to understand the nature of people’s behavior — especially when it comes to buying and selling — would have served him better.
His grandfather, Bob Harrison, was a congressman from Nebraska in the mid-1950s. Lingenfelter has a photograph of him shaking hands with President Eisenhower.
“He was a good friend and liked Richard Nixon,” Lingenfelter said. “He had a very, very hard time believing that he (Nixon) got in the trouble that he got into. He was what they called an Eisenhower Republican and they were a pretty conservative group.”
While Lingenfelter said he probably is cut from the same cloth as his grandfather in some ways, it isn’t the only similarity he has with him.
Harrison started his political career later in life, started as a farmer and never expected to be in politics for the rest of his life, Lingenfelter said.
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Lingenfelter said he met Rep. Smith for the first time at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in O’Neill on March 17
Smith came up to him and asked him what he didn’t like, Lingenfelter said. At first, Lingenfelter said, he didn’t know for sure it was Smith because he had never seen him out in the district.
Their meeting prompted a conversation about ethanol.
Before the Husker Ag ethanol plant near Plainview opened, Lingenfelter said, he sold corn for $1.37 a bushel. About two or three weeks ago, he sold corn for $6.40 a bushel.
“That’s a tremendous cash flow, he said.
But now, the blender’s credit for ethanol has been eliminated. It is up to the Nebraska congressmen to help the urban congressmen understand that ethanol is not causing the food supply to be burned up as they mistakenly believe, Lingenfelter said.
Smith told him the blender’s credit wasn’t going to the farmers but the oil companies, Lingenfelter said.
And while that is true, Lingenfelter said, taking away that 50 cents a bushel made the oil companies just push it off. Without the blender’s credit, some ethanol plants are losing money.
“Now they’re only going to be grinding the corn they have contracts for,” Lingenfelter said.
The oil companies will cause many of the smaller ethanol companies to go broke so they can capture a bigger share of that means of production, he said.
Lingenfelter said if the country wants to balance the budget, it should tax some of the goods that are being imported.
In 1991 when President Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, it enabled U.S. industries to move across the border, steal cheap foreign labor and then ship the products back to America, Lingenfelter said.
A tariff would end that, or at least cause those companies to pay some taxes, he said.
Smith disagreed, saying tariffs “hurt the little guy,” Lingenfelter said.
This discussion at St. Patrick’s Day started to attract a crowd, Lingenfelter said. That’s when Smith’s aides told him that he had to go, Lingenfelter said.
Lingenfelter said he would like to debate Smith any time and any place he wants. Being a congressman isn’t just about how a person votes, it’s about providing leadership, he said.
“I don’t know what good I can do, but I know I can’t do any good if I don’t try,” he said.
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Editor’s note: In Saturday’s Daily News, Bob Lingenfelter’s son, Harrison, engages in farming while still contemplating giving pro football a try.