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Remembering Senator David Karnes

News | October 25, 2020

It is with deep sadness that Kutak Rock LLP announces the passing of our dear colleague and friend, former United States Senator David Karnes. 

Sen. Karnes passed away on October 25, 2020 at the age of 71 after a courageous battle with cancer. An Omaha native, Sen. Karnes was a 31-year veteran of Kutak Rock, most recently serving 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," said Jay Selanders, Chair of Kutak Rock. "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." 

David Kemp Karnes was born in Omaha, Nebraska. He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and his law degree from University of Nebraska College of Law. In 1981 David served as a White House Fellow. Following his tenure at the White House, he became executive assistant to the Under Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Ronald Reagan and subsequently served as special counsel for the Federal Home Loan Bank Board. In 1983 David became chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Topeka Board of Directors, serving in that capacity from 1983–1987. 

On March 11, 1987 Nebraska’s Republican Governor Kay Orr appointed David to the United States Senate to fill the vacancy due to the death of Senator Edward Zorinsky. While in the Senate, David served on the Banking Committee, including its Securities and Consumer Credit subcommittees, as well as the Agriculture Committee and Small Business Committees. David joined Kutak Rock immediately following his tenure as a U.S. Senator representing Nebraska and served as the firm’s principal federal legislative and executive branch lobbyist for over 28 years.

Following news of his passing, long-time friends and colleagues shared remembrances of David, whom they usually addressed as Senator Karnes.

Kutak Rock partner John Schembari joined the firm in 1998 and 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. 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."

"Senator Karnes has been a leader and good friend to his colleagues," said Seth Kirshenberg, partner in the firm’s Washington, D.C. office. "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. He always asked, ‘How can I assist you?’ Senator Karnes will be missed by his friends in Washington, D.C."

"David Karnes was a mentor, colleague and friend, and he played a pivotal role in my career many times," said David Bracht, former Nebraska Director of Energy and Kutak Rock Of Counsel. "It was because of Dave that I worked in Washington, D.C., became a lawyer and joined Kutak Rock (two times in fact.)  I owe much to his guidance and friendship and I will miss him greatly."

David Karnes is survived by his wife of 12 years, Kristine Dorn Karnes, Senior Of Counsel at Kutak Rock; six daughters; and nine grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Liz Karnes, an Omaha community leader and advocate for cancer research.