Former Nebraskan Senator Dies at 83

Jim Exon (search), a Democrat who served two terms as governor and three terms in the U.S. Senate for Nebraska, died Friday. He was 83.

Exon died of natural causes at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital (search), his family said in a statement released by the hospital. He had been treated for cancer several years ago, but declined to discuss it publicly, saying in 2003, "it's not a highly malignant type of cancer and I'm not in dire straits."

The broad-shouldered senator once dubbed "Big Jim" (search) started in the party as a precinct worker and was chairman of the state Democratic Party when he made his first bid for public office, winning the governor's seat in 1970.

Exon was elected to the Senate in 1978, serving through 1996.

The gravel-voiced businessman was known for his direct approach in political and business matters. As governor, his perennial rallying cry was "hold the line" on taxes and he regularly criticized the Legislature, sometimes referring to lawmakers as "wild-eyed spenders."

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 U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. "He was one of them and they knew it and were proud of it."

Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel (search), 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, commonsense governor that wasn't a bunch of fanfare."

Exon remained a familiar face on the campaign trail in his later years, throwing his endorsement behind his party's top candidates. "Each election I'm busier than I am otherwise," Exon during a campaign appearance in Omaha before 2002 elections.

Former Sen. Bob Kerrey, a fellow Democrat who served with Exon in the Senate, called his friend: "relentless, decent, honorable and all the things you'd want in a good friend."

In his first try for public office, Exon defeated incumbent Republican Norbert Tiemann to win the governor's race. Exon was re-elected in 1974 by a landslide, the first Nebraska governor to serve eight years. The term of office changed from two years to four years the year he was elected.

While governor from 1971 to 1979, Exon's repeated vetoes of the Legislature's spending plans earned his reputation as a fiscal conservative. State records indicate he used his veto pen on 141 bills during his last seven years in office, an average of 20 vetoes per year.

After two terms as governor, Exon rode his popularity to the Senate. He was elected in 1978 with 68 percent of the vote. In 1984, however, he came within 25,000 votes of defeat. He ran for a third term in 1990, fending off rumors 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 (search), Exon helped shape U.S. 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 author and secure passage of a spending reduction of $13 billion in 1994. Two years later, his Communication Decency Act (search) was Congress' first attempt at protecting children from Internet pornography. It later was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

After retiring, 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.

Exon was born in Geddes, S.D., and attended Omaha University. After volunteering for the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II and serving in the Pacific, he returned to Nebraska and eventually 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 and it was registered in 1972 — while Exon was governor. He never revealed how much the company paid him.