Bill Avery: still not satisfied
Sen. Billl Avery of the 28th Legislative District.
Story and photos by Kelly Mosier
There’s something telling about the choice. In better times the area was affluent, a past it still clings to with its historic homes. Some are converted apartments for young hipsters, others house couples who have lived their entire lives here. There’s a local restaurant, an ethnic convenience store and the coffee shop chosen for this meeting.
It’s a perfect picture of Nebraska’s 28th District and the man who represents it in the Unicameral a few blocks away, Bill Avery. The district runs through the geographic heart of Lincoln; the man runs through the political heart of the capital city – a moderate Democrat seeking re-election. The coffee shop, diverse as the district itself, was Avery’s choice.
“My father was a minister, and ministers live their lives to help other people.”
Avery pauses to measure the reaction from his coffee cup. “He always taught his three sons that you need to make your life count.” His wry smile hides the 68 years of wisdom within his words.
There is little denying that Avery made his first term count as a Nebraska State Senator. His landmark legislation provided first time health-care to almost 6,000 children. In the two years leading up to his re-election Avery saw 29 bills and important amendments passed.Not bad considering the legislature is only active 90 days or less, depending on the year.
“It’s very important that you have well informed senators,” Avery says. His previous role teaching political science for more than 30 years at the University of Nebraska-LIncoln more than prepared him for his first term in 2006.
An Avery yard sign in the 28th district.
“He can go from discussing the most obscure fact about the history of the Unicameral to the hottest issue dominating the national news cycle without missing a beat,” said Logan Seacrest from Avery’s office.
Born in North Carolina, Avery received his bacherlor’s degree and Masters degree from the University of Tennessee before receiving his doctorate at Tulane. Lincoln was the first stop on his professional career as a researcher, but he was enamored with the city he says is “relentlessly family friendly.” He’s lived in the district he now represents for more than 20 years and thanks local schools for his three children’s successes.
His soft voice overpowers the whine of the espresso machine fighting a losing battle for attention. Talk returns to his first run in the legislature and Avery falls into the comfortable role of teacher.
As term limits went into effect in the Unicameral, a number of experienced Senators went out. One of them was Chris Beutler, current Lincoln mayor, who had served the 28th District for nearly 20 years. At the same time Avery was nearing retirement. He was one of the few in the political science department actively involved outside of the classroom; he worked with the government transparency group Common Cause (government transparency being another of his key issues). It seemed like a perfect match.
He won with 57 percent of the vote.
“People know me when I go to the door, people call me by name, and I like that,” he says fondly. “That gives you kind of a connection to the district, to the precinct. ” .
The 2006 election was not entirely pleasant, but that connection paid off.
“They put out a piece that hit me on what they said were anti-family values,” Avery recalls, “they said Avery is pro-Gay Marriage, which is not true.” In fact, the senator’s position is supportive of civil-unions for homosexual couples. “They showed two male figures on a wedding cake.” The smile returns. “That was brilliant,” Avery explodes with a cackle.
The negative imagery received Avery’s professional admiration but missed its intended target. Avery, who had been actively going door to door meeting with as many constituents as possible, had already spoken with numerous gay couples and they knew his stance quite well. The message backfired. “It was better than if I had sent out a piece myself.”
On one occasion Avery brought up the negative campaigning with a group of elderly women at a neighborhood meeting. “They looked at me and said, ‘oh Bill we don’t pay any attention to that. We know you.”
This time has been different. Avery no longer is juggling his role as a professor and even though his legislative duties keep him busy he still tries to be visible in the neighborhood. He has stronger name recognition than in 2006, a solid record and an opponent, Nancy Russel, who says she entered the race simply because “No one was on the ballot against Senator Avery.” He thinks he’ll do quite well, getting around 60 percent of the vote. His campaign manager Nicole is betting he’ll reach 70 Percent.
“My father died in 2003 and my mother who is now 90 says to me so often. ‘If your father could just be alive to see what you’re doing he would be so proud,’’ Avery says with a different kind of wry smile.
“He always stressed the importance of making your life count.” He says he’s satisfied with what he’s accomplished, but his words share a theme with his empty coffee cup. “I think that people who enter public life, they are making their lives count.”
Regardless of what Avery does in or out of the legislature, or beyond, he won’t be satisfied with sitting still.