J. James Exon, 83; Ex-Neb. Governor, Senator
J. James Exon, a Nebraska Democratic Party leader whose first bid for public office landed him in the governor’s chair, has died. He was 83.
Exon, who served two terms as governor and three as a U.S. senator, died Friday of natural causes at the Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln, Neb., his family announced.
After retiring from the Senate in 1996, Exon served on the Deutch Committee, which was created by Congress to study the threat of weapons of mass destruction.
He warned of terrorism in the committee’s 1999 report and recommended the creation of a federal agency like the new Department of Homeland Security.
The broad-shouldered senator known as “Big Jim” started in the party as a precinct worker. He was chairman of the state Democratic Party when he first won election as governor in 1970, defeating incumbent Republican Norbert T. Tiemann.
Following his landslide 1974 reelection, Exon became the first Nebraska governor to serve eight years. The term of office changed from two years to four the year he was elected.
Exon was elected to the Senate in 1978 and served through 1996.
He is the only Nebraskan besides George Norris, the architect of the state’s one-house Legislature, to win five consecutive statewide elections.
“Jim Exon was a common man who dearly loved the state of Nebraska, and that’s why the people loved him,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). “He was one of them, and they knew it and were proud of it.”
Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, who followed Exon into the Senate from Nebraska, said he talked with Exon on many subjects and respected his judgment. “He will be missed by the Nebraskans he served so well and loved so much,” Hagel said.
Norm Otto, who served as Exon’s chief of staff during his eight years as governor, said Exon should be “remembered as just a down-to-earth, common-sense governor who wasn’t a bunch of fanfare.”
The gravel-voiced businessman was known for his direct approach in political and business matters. As governor, his perennial rallying cry on taxes was “Hold the line!” He regularly criticized state lawmakers, sometimes referring to them as “wild-eyed spenders.”
During Exon’s governorship, from 1971 to 1979, his repeated vetoes of spending plans earned him a reputation as a fiscal conservative. State records indicate he vetoed 141 bills during his last seven years in office, an average of 20 per year.
After two terms as governor, Exon rode his popularity to the Senate. He was elected in 1978 with 68% of the vote. In 1984, he came within 25,000 votes of defeat. He ran for a third term in 1990, fending off rumors that he was a heavy drinker.
Exon worked well with both parties in Washington, and often sided with Republicans on military and budget issues.
Serving on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Exon helped shape military policy during the final years of the Cold War. He was also a stalwart defender of the controversial B-2 stealth bomber.
Exon said his proudest achievement was helping to secure passage of a spending reduction of $13 billion in 1994. Two years later, his Communication Decency Act was Congress’ first attempt at protecting children from Internet pornography. It later was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Exon was born in Geddes, S.D., in 1921, and attended Omaha University.
After volunteering for the Army Signal Corps during World War II and serving in the Pacific, he returned to Nebraska and founded Exon Office Supplies in Lincoln.
When the secretary of state declined to license petroleum giant Exxon Corp. in Nebraska because of its similar name, the company paid Exon to grant approval. It was registered in 1972 -- while Exon was governor. He never revealed how much the company paid him.
Survivors include his wife of 61 years, Patricia; three children; eight grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.