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Nebraska Governor: From Rural Town to Statehouse

November 7, 1990

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) _ From his rural roots in southern Nebraska, Earl Benjamin ″Ben″ Nelson branched out on a career that led him to the Statehouse.

Nelson grew up in the small town of McCook, the son of a lineman for a power company. He became an attorney specializing in insurance issues and worked both for a private insurance company and in state government before deciding to campaign for the governor’s office.

At 49, he made it. He narrowly defeated Republican Gov. Kay Orr, but his margin of victory was so slim that the absentee ballots could force a recount.

Nelson had thought about the governor’s race in 1982 but said he changed his mind after one of his children’s teachers said it might not be a good time to put his family in the spotlight.

At the time, Nelson and his second wife, Diane, had been married two years. Both were widowed and each had two young children.

″It just wasn’t my time,″ he said.

Nelson has learned to be patient.

He had to wait 42 days after the May 15 Democratic gubernatorial primary before being named the party’s nominee in one of the closest races in Nebraska history. After a recount, the state Board of Canvassers declared Nelson the nominee by a 42-vote margin over Bill Hoppner of Lincoln.

Nelson has said he doesn’t believe it’s a hindrance that he has never held an elected office.

″It may be an advantage to come in from a business approach,″ he has said.

But his business ties to First Executive Corp. of California, an insurance holding company criticized for its involvement in high-risk securities known as junk bonds, became an issue in the campaign.

Nelson, who served on First Executive’s board of directors, said he was not responsible for the company’s management and its investment policy.

Nelson graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1963, then received a master’s degree in philosophy in 1966.

He worked for seven years for the Consumer Division of the Nebraska Insurance Division, eventually becoming supervisor of compliance and enforcement.

After he earned a law degree in 1970, he worked for the Central National Insurance Group of Omaha until 1980, except for two years when he was state insurance director in then-Gov. Jim Exon’s cabinet.

He re-entered private law practice in 1981 and in 1982 became executive vice president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, an organization of state insurance commissioners.

He joined an Omaha law firm in 1985.

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