Kutak Rock’s David Karnes, Briefly a U.S. Senator, Dies at 71

Scott Stewart
The Daily Record

David Karnes, an Omaha civic leader and attorney who was briefly a U.S. senator, died Sunday of cancer at age 71.

Karnes was a 31-year veteran of Kutak Rock LLP, most recently working as senior of counsel and chair of the firm’s government relations practice group.

“Dave was a phenomenal, thorough attorney, a fearless advocate for his clients, an invaluable mentor, and friend,” Jay Selanders, chair of Kutak Rock, said in a statement. “To spend any time with Dave was to know his commitment to excellence, honesty and public service. He will be greatly missed and his memory will live on in the hearts of everyone who knew him. Our heartfelt prayers and deepest sympathy are with his family, loved ones and friends.”

In March 1987, then-Gov. Kay Orr shocked Nebraska Republicans by appointing Karnes to fill the unexpired terms of Democrat Ed Zorinsky, who had died of a heart attack. Karnes was 38 at the time and had never run for office.

He served on the Senate Banking and Agricultural committees. He sought a full term in 1988 but lost to Democrat Bob Kerrey and never again sought political office, instead joining Kutak Rock, where he served as the firm’s principal federal legislative and executive branch lobbyist for over 28 years.

He also served on numerous civic organizations and founded Liz’s Legacy, a charity for cancer research to honor of his first wife, who died of cancer in 2003.

Most recently, he helped Omaha negotiate for a portion of federal coronavirus funding that was appropriated to Douglas County.

Kutak Rock partner John Schembari joined the firm in 1998 and said that he knew only three people in Omaha at the time.

“Senator Karnes introduced himself to me my first day in the office and spent over an hour making me feel at home,” Schembari said. “A few years later, Dave spent hundreds of hours helping a client build his business simply because I asked for a little help. I fondly recall the many times I poked my head in his office just to say hi, and then sheepishly walked out of his office an hour or so later after enjoying his time, stories and guidance. Dave has been one of the most important mentors in my life. I think of him often and am blessed to have had him as a part of my life.”

Seth Kirshenberg, partner in the firm’s Washington, D.C. office, said in a release that Karnes was a good friend and leader.

“He took pride in public service, from serving in the Senate representing Nebraska and working in the White House to assisting his clients which included local governments, healthcare organizations and nonprofits,” Kirshenberg said. “He always asked, ‘How can I assist you?’ Senator Karnes will be missed by his friends in Washington, D.C.”

David Bracht, former Nebraska director of energy and Kutak Rock of counsel, said Karnes was a mentor who played a pivotal role in her career many times.

“It was because of Dave that I worked in Washington, D.C., became a lawyer and joined Kutak Rock,” Bracht said. “I owe much to his guidance and friendship and I will miss him greatly.”

Numerous political figures issued statements praising Karnes for his lifetime of public service.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts called Karnes a “great Nebraskan, a public servant, and a devoted father and husband.”

“We ask that all Nebraskans keep the Karnes family in their prayers as we remember his legacy and celebrate his life,” he said.

Sen. Ben Sasse called word of Karnes’ death “heartbreaking news.”

“Dave was a great man who tirelessly served Nebraskans. His work in Washington and here at home helped so many folks across our state,” Sasse said. “His selflessness and hard work made Nebraska proud.”

Sen. Deb Fischer said she admired him.

“I always appreciated his support and was honored to have him escort me on the floor of the U.S. Senate when I was sworn in for my first term,” Fischer said. “I will miss conversations with my good friend. My condolences go out to his wife Kris, his children, and his family as they mourn this difficult loss.”

Karnes is survived by wife of 12 years, Dorn Karnes, who is also senior of counsel at Kutak Rock, along with six daughters and nine grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Liz Karnes. Funeral services are pending through Heafey Hoffmann Dworak Cutler.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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