Hassebrook looks to future as regent term comes to close

Chuck Hassebrook

University of Nebraska Regent Chuck Hassebrook talks with attendees of the launch on the Rural Futures Institute Sept. 27 in Columbus.

Story and photos by Brandon Olson, NewsNetNebraska

The last time most Nebraskans saw Chuck Hassebrook, the University of Nebraska regent was at a press conference. It was March 8 when Hassebrook withdrew from the race for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination and endorsed former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey.

Kerrey initially said he wasn’t going to run for retiring Sen. Ben Nelson’s seat. So Hassebrook stepped into the void for the Democrats. Less than a month later, Kerrey reversed course and decided to enter the race after all.

“I was frustrated,” Hassebrook said. “But I’m not one to hold a grudge. So I endorsed him.”

Because the filing deadline for incumbents had passed, Hassebrook couldn’t run for another Board of Regents term. Instead, he returned to the Center for Rural Affairs where he served for 35 years, including as executive director.

Hassebrook admits it wasn’t easy to do. The center had already set up a succession plan to replace him as executive director. Dropping out of the Senate race for Kerrey after putting his career on the line was no small task either.

Hassebrook’s now back as executive director for the Center for Rural Affairs. He still wears the same rounded glasses and his usual cowboy boots. He has made one small change.

“Chuck’s retired now, so he’s growing out his beard,” University of Nebraska President J.B. Milliken joked at the launch of NU’s Rural Futures Institute in Columbus on Sept. 27. Milliken said Hassebrook  is very involved in rural affairs and played a large part in the formation of the institute.

Chuck Hassebrook

Chuck Hassebrook, left, speaks at the launch of the Rural Futures Institute at Pinnacle Bank in Columbus on Sept. 27.

The Rural Futures Institute is an initiative to support rural communities facing social and economic challenges. It will do so through research and collaboration among the university’s four campuses. For example, Hassebrook said the effects of climate change have magnified problems such as this summer’s drought, and the institute can help with that.

“It’s farming practices,” Hassebrook said. “How we build healthier soils so that when we get the increasingly heavy downpours followed by long droughts that we have a soil that is able to quickly absorb more water faster and hold more water.”

Hassebrook isn’t actually retired. He said he may even run for office again in Nebraska.

Michael Wagner, political scientist and professor at the University of Wisconsin’s College of Journalism and Mass Communication, said Hassebrook has positioned himself well for a possible future run for office, especially for a Democrat in typically Republican Nebraska.

“He’s proven himself to be somebody who can get on the ballot, raise money and win an election,” Wagner said. “That puts him ahead of most people.”

Hassebrook won three consecutive terms as regent before deciding to run for the Senate this year. Wagner added that the way Hassebrook handled the situation with Kerrey entering the race likely endeared the regent to Nebraska Democrats.

“He’d be taken seriously by the party and the press because he’s someone who’s won elected office before,” Wagner said.

Wagner said Hassebrook’s agricultural roots should help him because successful Nebraska Democrats like Kerrey and current U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson also have agricultural ties.

“Most Democrats in Nebraska who have been statewide candidates have had some experience with rural voters,” Wagner said.

This is, of course, if he decides to enter another race, such as the one for governor in 2014. Hassebrook said he won’t make any future political decisions until after the November election.

Hoffschneider, Harthoorn and Hassebrook

Kerry Hoffschneider, Haley Harthoorn and Chuck Hassebrook pose for a picture. The three were part of a panel speaking at the launch of the Rural Futures Institute.

For now, he is focused on finishing out his term as regent. The Rural Futures Institute comes before the Board of Regents for approval on Oct. 26, one of Hassebrook’s final meetings in his 18 years on the board.

“I actually sent an email a few weeks ago to (NU Vice President) Ronnie Green to ask him when it would come before the board, because I was hoping that I would be able to vote on it,” Hassebrook said. “I was very pleased that I got a chance to vote on it.”

He said it will be one of the accomplishments he’s most proud of as a regent. That, and making college more affordable for middle-income families through scholarships and other opportunities.

“At the end of the day, if you’re doing politics right, it’s all about public service,” Hassebrook said. “It’s about trying to help people. It’s trying to help make America better; our communities better; our state better.”

Hassebrook said he doesn’t hold any ill will toward Kerrey or the Democratic Party for what happened with the Senate race.

“I’m going to vote for Bob Kerrey,” Hassebrook said. “I believe he’s the best candidate to serve the needs of Nebraska.”

Hassebrook doesn’t know what his own future holds, but he does know one thing.

“The only thing I know for sure is I want to make a difference,” Hassebrook said. “It’s really important to me to be doing something that has meaning to it; that I feel like I’m making things better in some fashion. … I’m not anxious to retire at all.”

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