David Kramer helps Tunisia rebuild
Omaha World-Herald
By Cindy Gonzalez

David Kramer has had some pretty hefty assignments.

A former head of the Nebraska Republican Party, the Omaha lawyer has stamped out plenty of political fires and propelled newbies into public office. He’s led hot-potato bond issues that helped changed the culture and face of Omaha. He even took a stab at a U.S. Senate seat.

His latest assignment puts him in one of the world’s current political hotbeds, Tunisia.

For six days that began Saturday, he’ll do his part to help transform the North African nation into a multiparty democracy.

More specifically, he’ll confer with a range of personalities — from ingrained political figures to wannabe presidents and neophytes — to teach them how to form political parties.

The job is not a paid one. And it takes Kramer away from his Baird Holm law practice, his wife, Beth, and three sons, Joshua, Benjamin and Nathaniel.

Still, he is stoked about the invitation from the International Republican Institute, as it allows him to be on the ground level of historic foreign policy shifts.

“It’s very, very exciting,” Kramer said. “We’ll watch the evolution of Tunisia in the next weeks, months and years and see whether they embrace democracy or not.”

What makes the assignment more thrilling, he said, is that Tunisia started the “domino effect” that now has people in Egypt, Libya and some Middle Eastern countries demanding more freedom.

“The activities today in the region appear not to be religiously motivated,” Kramer said. “They appear to be genuine human desire for freedom.”

Kramer sees a powerful message in that the movement was sparked by the actions of one man.

Mohamed Bouazizi, an unlicensed fruit seller, set off the Tunisian revolution Dec. 17 by setting himself on fire in protest of bleak opportunities and national poverty. Government police earlier had seized the college-educated vendor’s wares.

What followed was an explosive series of street demonstrations that ousted the country’s president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The repressive ruler of 23 years fled Jan. 14, bringing hope to a country of 10 million people in a nation the size of Missouri.

“We often believe one person can’t make a difference,” Kramer said. “This young man galvanized an entire region. This is being felt as far as China.”

The Tunisian revolution, however, left a power vacuum without political institutions.

While the country has a sizable and robust middle class, Kramer said, its election system was designed to ensure one-party rule. Compounding the challenge is the uncertainty of what’s next in rebuilding the political system.

Tunisians thus far have been unable to agree whether to change the current constitution or elect an assembly to write a new one. They are unsure of whether the election of a president is next or the election of a constitutional convention.

For his part, Kramer said he won’t be imparting any philosophical ideas, just technical and practical assistance on how to form political parties. He expects he’ll help groups develop electoral strategies, platforms, communications plans.

“Imagine the daunting task if I said to someone in Omaha ‘Let’s start a new political party.’ And we know all the rules.”

Kramer has had practice. From 1996 to 1998 he was in Angola to promote democracy in that war-torn African nation. He worked full-time to strengthen government institutions and try to unite sides that had been engaged in a three-decade civil war.

Like Tunisia, the Angola project was under the International Republican Institute, a federally funded organization that backs democracy movements abroad.

Kramer left Angola after fighting resumed and the institute was forced to close there.

He said he’d been involved in similar but shorter efforts in a half-dozen other countries, including Zimbabwe, South Africa, Nigeria and Ukraine.

After returning from Angola, Kramer was asked to head the Omaha campaign for voter approval of a $250 million bond issue for the Omaha Public Schools. It was the biggest bond issue in state history and also was controversial because it was tied to a plan to end desegregation-focused busing and return to neighborhood schools.

Afterward Kramer was asked to head the bond issue for a new convention center and arena. He then plunged into state politics.

Kramer said his activities have given him insight.

The Tunisia project also was attractive because it was a week long.

His wife gave him the thumb’s up when he got the call Monday.

Eldest son Joshua was psyched because Kramer promised to speak about the project, through Skype, to his class at Omaha’s St. Margaret Mary grade school.

“On many levels this is so exciting,” Kramer said. “To people who have said … democracy does not work in these regions, they’re wrong.”

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