Kleeb was raised in Plantation, Florida, near Fort Lauderdale, her father was a local Chamber of Commerce leader who owned a few Burger Kings, and her mother was president of the Broward County Right to Life. “I was raised to respect Republicans,” she says. “I was a Republican.”
She started realizing she might walk another path when she heard President Bill Clinton give a speech about AmeriCorps, a program that helps mentor at-risk youth in low-performing schools., “He was talking about what I cared about in my life,” she says. After college, Kleeb joined the national service program in Tallahassee, Florida.
Then came the Iraq War. Kleeb “couldn’t fathom why we were sending young people to the Middle East to fight this war for something we weren’t even sure was true.” Around the same time, Florida Governor Jeb Bush was fighting to keep a brain-dead young woman on life support. “He never talked about why she was on life support,” Kleeb says. ”She was bulimic and didn’t have access to health care.“
Kleeb herself had recovered from an eating disorder, and found this especially callous: “I felt like the Republican Party was a bunch of corporate rich people who didn’t care.” She rose to become national executive director of the Young Democrats of America, where she promoted new forms of outreach to address a major decline in the youth vote.
“I said you need the punk voters in here,” she recalls. “You need LGBT voters, black voters.”
She used some of these tactics to campaign for Hillary Clinton after the former Secretary of State beat Sanders for the Democratic nomination. Kleeb organized events in bars, an unconventional location by some standards, and wrote a memo to the Clinton campaign on how to mobilize Sanders voters, which she says was ignored. “There were strong Bernie people, learning politics by themselves. I said, ‘You should hire them as organizers, have them knock on doors, do peer-to-peer organizing,’ something I did as head of Young Democrats of America.”
- Studied International Education and Training at American University
- Studied Religious Studies at Stetson University
- Worked at MTV Networks
- Former Board of directors at Hastings Public Schools
- Former Executive Director at Young Democrats of America
Jane Kleeb is an experienced grassroots organizer, manger, political strategist and nonprofit entrepreneur. Dubbed the “Keystone Killer” by Rolling Stone, Jane was featured in the NY Times Magazine for her commitment to rural farmers and ranchers and unique organizing style. Jane is the Founder and President of the national Bold Alliance and manages the staff of the Bold states organizing in rural communities.
In 2010, Jane Kleeb founded Bold Nebraska after successfully working on health care reform. She saw during the work on ObamaCare that Nebraskans in rural and urban Nebraska shared values and the “divide” that is often used by many as an excuse to not organize on progressive and populist issues in rural communities was not based in reality. Jane saw a political landscape dominated by one conservative voice that was not representing the diverse people of Nebraska.
A few short months after Bold Nebraska opened their doors, Jane received phone calls about a pipeline that would cross the Sandhills and the Ogallala Aquifer. She went to work organizing an unlikely alliance of farmers, ranchers, environmentalists and Native Americans as “Pipeline Fighters.” Protecting the land and water touched a deep nerve with Nebraskans whose family roots are tied to the pioneers and homesteaders that built the state of rich prairie and was at-risk with the Keystone XL tarsands pipeline. In 2016, Jane expanded Bold into a national network called the Bold Alliance which has state offices in Nebraska, Iowa, Oklahoma and Louisiana. The Bold Alliance works nationally on ending eminent domain for private gain and ensuring landowners are at the table during the clean energy transition.
Kleeb has deep experience in communications and working in communities from literacy programs with AmeriCorps, to young voters in her role as the head of Young Democrats of America, to ensuring eating disorders was included in the Mental Health Parity bill and bringing politics to MTV in her role as a Street Team Reporter. She was the lead consultant on the award-winning HBO film “Thin” and a pundit on FOX and MSNBC.
Jane has the ability to bring an issue to the people for grassroots action. She is responsible for such large actions like the Reject and Protect week where 12 tipis were placed on the National Mall, building a barn inside the proposed KXL route as an act of civil disobedience and hosting Nebraska’s largest concert, Harvest the Hope, in a corn field with Willie Nelson and Neil Young.
Kleeb served in office both as a Commissioner for National and Community Service and an elected Hastings School Board Member. She is the current Chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party and board member of Our Revolution.
Jane Kleeb’s fighting spirit was burning bright on Labor Day weekend 2011, when she and members of her group, Bold Nebraska, stood outside the White House to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. While Kleeb held onto the bail money, police arrested her companions, who were silently protesting the $5.3 billion project, which would have transported dirty tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, through Nebraska.
During the Obama Administration, Kleeb and her comrades brought together farmers and ranchers, native tribes and city folk, to stop TransCanada from building the pipeline through their lands and over the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest aquifer in North America and a vital water source in her state. The Obama State Department denied TransCanada a permit, a huge victory against the multinational corporation and its government-sanctioned expropriation of private lands. Kleeb, it seemed, had helped revive the prairie populism that once powered reform on the Great Plains.
Donald Trump is working to reverse that victory. In his first week in office, he signed an executive order reviving the pipeline. In a phone conference about this, Kleeb said Trump will be met by local resistance and legal challenges. “Everyone counted us out when we took on [the pipeline] before,” she said. “With our brothers and sisters in Nebraska, we will rise up again—and this time we have millions of women in the streets with us.”
Now forty-three, Kleeb is bringing her fighting spirit not just to the pipeline fights but to the effort to rebuild her state’s Democratic Party after stinging defeats in November’s election. Brad Ashford, who represented the Omaha area as Nebraska’s only Democratic congressman, was defeated after only one term. Even Hillary Clinton could not win Omaha, Nebraska’s famous “Blue Dot” in a sea of red. Yet it was Omaha-area voters who gave Barack Obama key electoral votes from Nebraska, one of only two states, with Maine, that allocate votes based on congressional district majorities rather than winner-take-all.
Kleeb, an early and ardent supporter of Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders, was elected chair of Nebraska’s Democratic Party in June 2016, and took office in December. She also is on the board of Our Revolution, the organization Sanders launched to continue mobilizing for a more egalitarian economy and social justice.
Local papers called Kleeb’s election a “shakeup.” Can her mix of advocacy and party politics turn the Democrats into a fighting force that can stop Nebraska’s rightwing governor Pete Ricketts, heir to the Ameritrade fortune, from turning their state of almost 1.9 million people into another Kansas? In the process, can she change the Democrats’ fortunes in a state that prides itself on its nonpartisan, unicameral legislature, but is red, red, red?
Despite her activist reputation, Kleeb has deep roots in the Democratic Party. She is on the DNC’s “Unity Commission,” charged with examining how or whether to reform the superdelegate system. For three years, from 2004 to 2007, she served as national executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Young Democrats of America. From 2007 to 2010, she was co-chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Youth Council.
“Nobody knows if it’s going to work,” Kleeb tells The Progressive. “I’m bringing to the party political components I did at Young Democrats, blending that traditional and nontraditional model.”
Part of this, she explains, involves showing up: “I showed up at a Black Lives Matter rally and people were surprised.” But, she adds, “You can’t just dismiss the grassroots part of the party.” On the other hand, “A lot of us strong progressive leaders have ignored the party. The internal structures have gotten weak. We have to get inside the party.”
As Nebraska’s Democratic Party chair, Kleeb has created a new position: grassroots outreach and organizing director. This is someone who “will go county to county, training how to phone bank, how to go door-to-door.” The party’s new Blue Bench Project has begun holding trainings on the nuts and bolts of politics in counties across the state. In announcing the project, the state party said:
“Staying home and posting on Facebook isn’t enough anymore . . . . Every meeting will be hands-on and action-oriented. We will learn from one another and prepare a new and old generation on how to take action in a new age.”
This approach can also nurture a greater number of potential candidates to run. One of Nebraska’s Republican Congressmen ran unopposed in November. While Democrats added three of their own to the forty-nine member state legislature, that raised the total to only fifteen, with one Democratic-leaning independent. Kleeb wants to increase that dramatically. The party will also play a role this May in a mayor’s race in Omaha and city council races in Lincoln, where the first Blue Bench training will take place.
Nebraska is a heavily white state. Latinos, at 9 percent of the population, are the largest minority. It holds one of the world’s largest Sudanese populations outside of Sudan. One of the first NAACP chapters was formed in Omaha, the birthplace of Malcolm X. Native Americans are small in number but they are visible and vital in the life of the state and the party. Prominent Winnebago activist Frank LaMere, another pipeline fighter and former American Indian Movement activist, is the first associate chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party.
Reenergizing rural outreach is a big part of Kleeb’s agenda as party leader—going beyond the core leader functions of raising money and getting candidates elected. In many rural counties, people don’t broadcast that they are Democrats. Kleeb is now a rural voter herself. She lives with her husband, Scott Kleeb, a rancher, energy-efficient business owner, and onetime Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, and their three daughters in rural Hastings.
But Kleeb sees rural Nebraska as key to turning the party’s fortunes around. “Without rural Nebraska,” she says, “the Keystone XL would be in the ground.” Her strategy for organizing includes “going to the farmer shows, going to the cattle auctions.” Or having a booth at the state fair, as one rural party member suggested recently. In short: Don’t treat rural folks as stupid. Listen to their concerns and strategies. And talk about issues, not party.
“Democrats do stand with rural folks on the majority of issues, but they never talk to them, so they never knew,” she says.
Progressive taxation is one issue on which Kleeb thinks urban and rural people can agree, as the state faces a billion-dollar deficit. “Farmers and ranchers are terrified they’ll face more property taxes,” she says. “There has to be a fundamental change in how we fund government and Nebraska has been backward.”
Don’t treat rural folks as stupid. Listen to their concerns and strategies. And talk about issues, not party.
David Alan Domina, a lawyer based in Omaha who worked pro bono for the pipeline fighters and ran as the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in 2014, is looking forward to a politics that appreciates the sophistication and interests of farmers and ranchers.
“You don’t bombard them with 300 emails a day like they’re stupid, and don’t treat them as insignificant,” he says. “Beyond that, the message has to be what can be delivered for their benefit. That message has been ignored by national Democrats.” He sounds exasperated that Democrats didn’t even fight for issues facing independent rural cattle and hog producers against the big processors. Even worse, the party did not insist on aggressively prosecuting Wall Street criminals, he says, calling it “the biggest political mistake of all.”
Domina is rooting for Kleeb but says her success in Nebraska “depends on how successful she is in recruiting people [to run] who seem nonpartisan.” As he puts it, “The progressive movement doesn’t have to be about party labels.”
Kleeb is a master communicator across multiple mediums. She plans to hire a communication director who will “love to drive and go out to visit the staff of these weekly papers.” Kleeb wants to start a podcast. She will focus on TV news, which many Nebraskans continue to rely upon. And of course, she will mobilize social media.
“I’m super comfortable on Twitter and Facebook and know how to use those to communicate with folks,” she said. “Without Facebook, I would never have been able to organize farmers and ranchers. A lot of rural weeklies have gone out of business or are owned by big outlets.”
Kleeb vows that under her leadership, the party will play more of a role in promoting and opposing legislation. In the past, she says, the party has relied on nonprofits including the Nebraska Farmers Union, Food and Water Watch, and the NAACP to carry much of the load. She broadcast a rebuttal to the governor’s State of the State address on YouTube. As at Bold Nebraska, she will strive to keep the party in “constant action.”
This strategy has some Democrats excited.
“I’m really interested in keeping young people engaged who stepped forward during the election,” says Dunixi Guereca, a Los Angeles native who was elected head of Nebraska’s Young Democrats in 2016. “The best way to do that is through grassroots organizing, talking to your neighbors, using media. Jane has shown she is a master at these skills and I’m really looking forward to working with her.”
Americans for Financial Reform
Netroots Nation 2011
Jane Kleeb was a speaker at Netroots Nation 2011.
People’s Climate March
In Spring 2017, Kleeb was back in the spotlight. She joined the board of Our Revolution, the organization that grew out of the Sanders campaign, which endorsed Heath Mello, a progressive Nebraska state legislator who ran for mayor of Omaha. The Wall Street Journal falsely reported that Mello had cosponsored a bill “requiring women to look at an ultrasound image of their fetus before receiving an abortion.” Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America and a big Clinton supporter, ran with the story, lambasting Sanders and Thomas Perez for kicking off the Democrats’ Unity Tour with an endorsement of Mello. Perez subsequently waffled on his support of Mello, who lost in a city that Clinton had carried. Kleeb, however, was a vocal defender of Mello and remains so. 
Unity Reform Commission
In 2017 the Democratic National Committee's 21-member Unity Reform Commission included nine members selected by Hillary Clinton, seven members picked by Bernie Sanders, three picked by Thomas Perez, and the chair and vice chair ― selected by Clinton and Sanders, respectively.
Aside from Chair Jen O’Malley Dillon, a Clinton pick, the breakdown of the members selected by Perez and Clinton is not public.
Sanders named his selections to the commission. They were Larry Cohen, the vice chair; former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner; former Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver; former Sanders New York delegate Nomiki Konst; James Zogby, founder of the Arab American Institute; former Berkeley, California Mayor Gus Newport; former Nevada Assemblywoman Lucy Flores; and Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb.
The DNC declined to name the three members Perez picked and a spokesman for Clinton did not respond to a request for information on her appointments.