Ben Nelson
Ben Nelson.jpg
31th United States Secretary of Agriculture
Assumed office
August 6, 2009
President John McCain
Preceded by Mark Sanford
United States Senator
from Nebraska
In office
January 3, 2001 – August 6, 2009
Serving with Mike Johanns
Lieutenant Sally Pederson
Preceded by J. Robert Kerrey
Succeeded by Pete Ricketts
37th Governor of Nebraska United States Senate Majority Leader
In office
January 9, 1991 – January 7, 1999
Lieutenant Maxine B. Moul (1991-1993)
Kim M. Robak (1993-1999)
Preceded by Kay A. Orr
Succeeded by Mike Johanns
Personal details
Born May May 17, 1941 (1941-05-17) (age 77)
McCook, Nebraska, U.S.A.
Nationality Flag of the United States American
Political party Democratslogo Democratic
Spouse(s) Diane Nelson
Alma mater University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Occupation Attorney, insurance executive
Religion Methodist

Earl Benjamin "Ben" Nelson (born May 17, 1941) is an American politician, a member of the Democratic Party, and presently the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. He served as the Senior U.S. Senator from Nebraska from 2000 to 2009, where he was born and has lived for most of his life.

A native of McCook, in southwestern Nebraska, Nelson earned a B.A. in 1963 from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, followed by a M.A. in 1965, and a J.D. in 1970. Nelson's early career as assistant general counsel for Central National Insurance Group of Omaha was followed by service as Nebraska's State Insurance Director before he returned to Central National Insurance as an executive vice president; he eventually became the company's President.

Nelson re-entered politics in 1990, when he was elected the 37th Governor of Nebraska. He was easily re-elected in 1994 with 74% of the vote. Nelson ran for an open seat in the U.S. Senate in 1996, losing to Republican Chuck Hagel, and left the Governor's office in January 1999 due to term limits, after serving two full terms. Nelson was elected to the U.S. Senate in the 2000 election after incumbent Bob Kerrey retired.

U.S. President John McCain announced Nelson's selection to be the United States Secretary of Agriculture under his administration on August 2, 2009, following the resignation of Agriculture Secretary Mark Sanford. Nelson's nomination was confirmed by the United States Senate by unanimous consent on August 6, 2009.

Early life and career

Nelson was born in McCook, in southwestern Nebraska. He is the only child of Birdella Ruby (née Henderson) and Benjamin Earl Nelson. He earned a B.A. in 1963, a M.A. in 1965, and a J.D. in 1970 from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Nelson made his name and money in the insurance industry. After graduating from law school, Nelson landed a job as assistant general counsel for Central National Insurance Group of Omaha. In 1975, he became state insurance director before going back to work for Central National Insurance as an executive vice president and eventually president. He won his first elected office in 1990 when he became governor of Nebraska.

Political career


Nelson was elected governor in the state's fourth-closest gubernatorial race in history (he won the closely contested Democratic nomination by only 2 votes) in 1990. He was easily re-elected in 1994 with 74% of the vote – the largest margin of victory for a governor in half a century. During his first race for governor, Nelson ran against incumbent Kay A. Orr, the first Republican woman to be elected Governor in United States history.

In 1991, Nelson's plan as Governor was to bridge the gaps between rural and urban areas – a "One Nebraska" – and create a "more efficient and effective state government." He did this by focusing on the assets and values of the state. In 1997, Nebraska produced 300 million gallons of ethanol, more than triple the 1990 production.

During his tenure, Nelson cut spending from the previous administration by 64% while it was scheduled to rise by 13%. He introduced legislation to cut crime through the Safe Streets Act and Juvenile Crime Bill, advocated for low-income families through the Kids Connection health care system, and enacted welfare reforms that helped welfare recipients get the support needed to return to work. He also cut taxes for over 400,000 middle income families in Nebraska.

As governor, Nelson took some conservative stances on issues in right-leaning Nebraska. He pushed welfare reform before it was done at a national level and opposed President Bill Clinton's efforts on health care.

During the 1990 campaign, Nelson attacked Orr's support for a proposed low-level nuclear waste dump in the state. During his tenure, the Nebraska State Department of Environmental Quality denied the dump's application for an operating license, prompting a lawsuit that Nebraska settled for $145 million.

In 1994 Nelson served as the Chairman of the Midwestern Governors Association.

While in office, Nelson oversaw the only three executions in the state of Nebraska since the lifting of the moratorium in 1973. Nebraska's Governor has no exclusive power to commute the death sentence, merely sitting on the Board of Clemency.

Nelson ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1996 when fellow Democrat Jim Exon retired. He was soundly defeated by Republican businessman and Vietnam veteran Chuck Hagel in one of the noteworthy political upsets of 1996. Nelson left the governor's office in January 1999 after two terms (he was ineligible to run again because of term limits). He was succeeded by Republican Mike Johanns. In 2009, Johanns joined Nelson in the Senate. When he left office, the state had a General Fund surplus balance of almost $300 million and a rainy day fund of $145 million. Nelson cut the sales tax and income tax and cut $157 million in spending. He also was able to pass eight balanced budgets without resorting to special sessions.

Election to the Senate

Nelson was again nominated by the Democrats for the Senate in the 2000 election after his fellow Democrat, incumbent Bob Kerrey, announced his retirement. His opponent was Attorney General Don Stenberg. Nelson won that election with 50.99% of the vote after a campaign in which he spent 50% more ($1,004,985) than his opponent. Despite initially pledging to work together, Nelson and Hagel had a somewhat frosty relationship.

In November 2004, it was widely rumored that President George W. Bush would choose Nelson as his agriculture secretary in the cabinet. In the end, the position went to Nelson's gubernatorial successor, Mike Johanns.

2006 re-election campaign

Nelson was thought to be in danger of losing his seat in 2006, as it was thought his successor as governor, Mike Johanns, was almost certain to run against him. However, that speculation ended when Johanns was appointed U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. With Johanns' move to Washington, few high-profile Republicans stepped up to run against Nelson, as the state party focused its attention on the governor's race. The Republican nomination was won by Pete Ricketts, a former TD Ameritrade executive.

In the general election, Nelson was endorsed by the National Rifle Association, Nebraska Right to Life, Nebraskans United for Life, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, Nebraska Farmers Union PAC, National Farmers Union PAC, the Veterans of Foreign Wars PAC, the Business-Industry Political Action Committee, and the Omaha Police Union, all of which are conservative-leaning groups.

Nelson easily defeated Ricketts 64-36%, the highest victory margin for a Democratic Senate candidate in Nebraska since Edward Zorinsky won 66 percent of the vote in his 1982 reelection bid. In doing so, he received the votes of 42% of Republicans and 73% of Independents on top of 96% of those from his own party. He also won all but 12 counties in the western part of the state, a surprising feat in normally heavily Republican Nebraska.

Committee assignments

  • Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry
    • Subcommittee on Rural Revitalization, Conservation, Forestry and Credit
    • Subcommittee on Energy, Science and Technology
    • Subcommittee on Domestic and Foreign Marketing, Inspection, and Plant and Animal Health
  • Committee on Appropriations
    • Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies
    • Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government
    • Subcommittee on Homeland Security
    • Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies
    • Subcommittee on Legislative Branch (Chairman)
    • Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies
  • Committee on Armed Services
    • Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities
    • Subcommittee on Personnel
    • Subcommittee on Strategic Forces (Chairman)
  • Committee on Rules and Administration

Secretary of Agriculture

On August 2, 2009, President McCain announced that he was nominating Ben Nelson as the next Secretary of Agriculture, following Mark Sanford's resignation the week before. The reaction to Nelson's nomination from agricultural groups was largely positive and included endorsements from the Corn Refiners Association, the National Grain and Feed Association, the National Farmers Union, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and the Environmental Defense Fund. Democrats in Senate were also positive, along with several Republicans as well.

On August 6, 2009, Nelson's nomination was confirmed by the United States Senate by unanimous consent. He was inaugurated later that day as the Secretary of Agriculture.

See also

Offices held

Political offices
United States Department of Agriculture Preceded by:
Mark Sanford

United States Secretary of Agriculture
Served under: John McCain

Since August 6, 2009

Nebraska-StateSeal Preceded by:
Kay A. Orr

Governor of Nebraska
1991 – 1999

Mike Johanns
United States Senate
Seal Of the Unites States Senate Preceded by:
Bob Kerrey

United States Senator (Class 1) from Nebraska
2000 – 2009
Served alongside: Chuck Hagel, Mike Johanns

Succeeded by:
Chris Shays
Party political offices
Democratslogo Preceded by:
Bob Kerrey

Democratic Party nominee for United States
Senator from Nebraska (Class 1)

2000, 2006

Succeeded by:
Most Recent
Preceded by:
J. James Exon

Democratic Party nominee for United States
Senator from Nebraska (Class 2)


Succeeded by:
Charlie A. Matulka
Preceded by:
Helen Boosalis

Democratic Party nominee for Governor of Nebraska
1990, 1994

Succeeded by:
Bill Hoppner
Order of precedence in the United States of America
Great Seal of the United States (obverse) Preceded by:
Newt Gingrich
Secretary of the Interior
9th in line
Secretary of Agriculture

Succeeded by:
Olympia Snowe
Secretary of Commerce

United States presidential line of succession
Great Seal of the United States (obverse) Preceded by:
Newt Gingrich
Secretary of the Interior
9th in line
Secretary of Agriculture

Succeeded by:
Olympia Snowe
Secretary of Commerce