Douglas County Treasurer John Ewing found his drive for public service in the management training program at Sears.
It was the summer of 1981, and Ewing, then 20, worked at the Crossroads Mall store. He got to know two part-time security guards who worked full time for the Omaha Police Department.
The two prodded him for months to join the force. He eventually did, rising to the rank of deputy chief. He eventually oversaw the department's $90 million budget, retiring the year he was elected treasurer, 2006.
Ewing, 50, now oversees a budget of $5.4 million for an office that primarily handles motor vehicle registrations and renewals, plus property tax payments.
His next step in public service comes May 15, when he's up for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. House seat held by Rep. Lee Terry, a Republican and fellow graduate of Omaha Northwest High School.
He faces State Sen. Gwen Howard in the primary.
"I am a leader," Ewing said. "Leaders need to be able to get things done at the end of the day, and I get things done."
At recent debates, Ewing and Howard have appeared to agree on most of the election season's hot-button issues for Democrats: health care, spending, job creation and Social Security.
Ewing cites his executive experience as a key difference.
Faced with budget cuts since his election, Ewing has reduced his full-time workforce through attrition to 96 from 115. He plans to decrease the number of office locations to two from five by 2015, a decision expected to save the county $300,000 a year.
Figures show his office budget has decreased in recent years by several hundred thousand dollars, said Joe Lorenz, the county's finance director.
Ewing describes as his signature accomplishment in office the implementation of online services that allow residents to renew vehicle registrations and pay property taxes from home. That change helped reduce lines and made possible the eventual consolidation of offices.
Republicans contacted about him, including those who worked with him at the city and county levels, said they had no real complaints. County Board member Mary Ann Borgeson said she and Ewing have "had a good relationship over the years. He's an elected official who has been cooperative to us."
His former boss, then-Police Chief Thomas Warren, described Ewing in glowing terms: "He demonstrated the highest level of integrity, leadership and character. I considered him one of my most trusted advisers."
Ewing earns $107,404 as county treasurer. If elected to Congress, he would be eligible for a partial county pension of about $2,100 a year, Lorenz said. Ewing's annual police pension is $89,617, making him one of the department's highest-paid retirees.
Ewing did face some legal trouble in 2009, when a bench warrant was issued for his arrest after he failed to appear in a Colorado court following a misdemeanor ticket for allegedly refusing to follow the order of an Aurora, Colo., police officer. His sister, who had been stopped for a broken headlight, drove back to where he was staying. The officer says Ewing did not follow an order to go back inside the home.
Ewing contests the officer's report and said his sister may have "poisoned" the officer against him by talking about his former role with Omaha police, but Ewing eventually pleaded no contest to a reduced charge of disturbing the peace and paid a fine.
Ewing has said he didn't know there was a warrant out for his arrest until he did a background check before kicking off his congressional campaign.
As the campaign moves forward, Ewing says he's prepared to compare his record with Howard's and with Terry's.
For example, he said, when he was lieutenant of the police department's special victims unit in 2004, he successfully lobbied state lawmakers to strengthen a handful of laws, including the penalty for improperly rubbing up against a child.
If he makes it through the primary and is elected this fall, he says he'd cross party lines for legislation to help Nebraskans.
He's running in part because of Terry's previous support for legislation to privatize Social Security. Terry has since taken his name off legislation allowing people to opt out of Social Security and abandoned his support of a proposal by former President George W. Bush to overhaul the retirement benefit program.
Persistent unemployment is one of the issues he says should be a focus in this election. He says government could do more to help create jobs, including spending on new infrastructure projects, such as high-speed rail.
Ewing says he's willing to leave a comfortable county position for the chance to shake up a "do-nothing" Congress.
"America is the greatest country in the world," Ewing said. "It's about time we started acting like it."
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