J. James Exon, a three-term Democratic senator from Nebraska who occasionally surprised members of both parties with a stubborn independent streak, died June 10 at a hospital in Lincoln, where he had lived since retiring in 1997. According to former associates, he had cancer. He was 83.
Mr. Exon was elected to the Senate in 1978, after serving two terms as Nebraska's governor. Despite being a Democrat in a heavily Republican state, he was reelected in 1984 and 1990 and was credited with rebuilding Nebraska's Democratic Party. He was a middle-of-the road backbencher during his Senate career, known for his behind-the-scenes work at building coalitions across party lines.
When he announced that he would not run for reelection in 1996, he cited the growing partisan bickering in American political life as a primary reason. He assailed "the ever-increasing vicious polarization of the electorate, the us-against-them mentality."
"The traditional art of workable compromises for the ultimate good of all, the essence of democracy," he said, "has been demonstrably eroded."
A gregarious, physically imposing man with a deep, gruff voice, Sen. Exon was chairman of the Senate Budget Committee during his final two years in office and also served on the Armed Services Committee. He was known as a strict fiscal conservative who sponsored three bills to require a balanced federal budget. In 1995, his balanced budget bill fell one vote shy of passing in the Senate.
His core issues included agriculture, defense and fiscal restraint. During his second term in the Senate, he sponsored the Exon-Florio bill, giving the president authority to prevent the takeover of American companies, particularly defense contractors, by foreign businesses if the takeover was seen as a threat to national security. He was the author of a 1996 bill placing a moratorium on underground nuclear tests.
He sponsored the Communications Decency Act of 1995, which banned the transmission of "indecent" material over the Internet, to "assure that the information superhighway does not turn into a red-light district." The act was overturned by the Supreme Court on grounds of free speech.
In spite of his lifelong affiliation with the Democratic Party, Sen. Exon was a social conservative who voted in 1983 to reverse the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision permitting abortion. He also opposed the creation of a national holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and voted in favor of allowing prayer in schools.
In his home state, Sen. Exon remained popular throughout his career. He never lost an election and, even in his final term, had an approval rating of 60 percent.
"For the 26 years he served in office, he was the dominant political figure in Nebraska," said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), one of Sen. Exon's proteges. "He was one of the greatest leaders this state has ever known. I think he helped Nebraskans understand that this is not a partisan state but a populist state."
John James Exon Jr. was born Aug. 9, 1921, in Geddes, S.D., and grew up in Lake Andes, S.D. His grandfather helped found the Democratic Party in South Dakota, and both his parents were Democratic activists. He moved to Nebraska in 1939 to attend what is now the University of Nebraska at Omaha. During World War II, as a sergeant in the Army Signal Corps, he used his shortwave radio to pull in a World Series broadcast in the Pacific.
After the war, he worked for a finance corporation for eight years before opening an office supply store in Lincoln, Exon's Inc., in 1954. He became active in politics about the same time and, in 1960, managed the winning gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Frank Morrison.
In 1964, Sen. Exon was the Nebraska coordinator of Lyndon B. Johnson's presidential campaign, the last time a Democratic presidential candidate carried the state. The first time Sen. Exon ran for office was in 1970, when he unseated a Republican governor. He was easily reelected in 1974 and was the first person to serve eight years as Nebraska governor.
He vetoed a record 141 bills as governor and quipped, "I probably also hold the record for the number of vetoes that were overridden."
In 1978, he was the first sitting governor of Nebraska to be elected directly to the Senate, winning with 68 percent of the vote. After his retirement, he remained active in Nebraska politics, campaigning for Democratic candidates. Last year, after an appearance by President Bush in his home town of Lincoln, he criticized the president's "inept and irresponsible leadership."
Throughout his career, Sen. Exon wrote his own press releases, speeches and other statements. He retired to the same house he lived in when he was elected governor nearly 30 years earlier.
In 1972, when Standard Oil Co. changed its name to Exxon, it asked Sen. Exon (whose name rhymes with "Texan") for his permission. He received no financial remuneration from the company.
Survivors include his wife of 61 years, Patricia Exon of Lincoln; three children, Stephen James Exon of Bellevue, Neb., Pamela Bricker of Greeley, Colo., and Candace Wolf of Lincoln; eight grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.