Discussions of Sexism, Racism Take Center Stage in Legislature

Jan. 28, 2019, 5:41 p.m. ·

Inscription near Capitol's north entrance (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Discussions of sexism and racism took center stage in legislative debate Monday.

On paper, lawmakers were scheduled to be debating technical bills about things like municipal population, zoning, and bridges. But as debate progressed Monday morning, bigger topics came up. It began with longtime Sen. Ernie Chambers, as he has repeatedly, praising House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for, in Chambers view, forcing President Donald Trump to back down over a border wall and the government shutdown.

Sen. Ernie Chambers (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

But then Chambers offered some advice to other women. “When women wake up and realize that they have a numerical majority in this country – that they don’t have to come whining and begging these old, stodgy, misogynistic white men for anything, but they can take over offices as they showed in this most recent congressional election, just by going to the voting booth and voting -- young women need to pay particular attention to this,” he said.

That led freshman Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh to respond. “We are awake. We’re here. There’s more of us in this body (the Legislature) than have ever been before. And we will stand up for ourselves and other women,” Cavanaugh said. “I appreciate your support, but please don’t insinuate that we’re not here and we don’t have our own voice, because we do,” she told Chambers.

Sen. Machaela Cavanaught (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

Fourteen of the 49 senators are women, up from the previous high of 13, first reached in 1997 and repeated last year. Still, Chambers pursued his argument, pointing to his legislative accomplishments, such as getting equal retirement pay for women.

“Women are not active in the numbers that they ought to be. Women are not in this Legislature in the numbers they ought to be. And when one or two, or three or four token women wind up in an assembly or in a corporation, they should not accept that as progress and say ‘There can now be some measure of contentment and acceptance,’” he said.

Cavanaugh said female senators take different approaches. “We don’t all agree with each other. We don’t have the same approaches to problems. But we’re here and we’re fighting for ourselves and we’re fighting for others. And I think we deserve respect for that, and not to be told how to manage our business,” she said.

Chambers continued his criticism. “Until I see women holding majority positions, then women are not doing what they ought to do. Let them get angry at me. Anger, when it’s properly directed, is a revolutionary sentiment. Women ought to be angry, but they shouldn’t be angry with me,” he said. “But do I care if they are? Heavens, no.”

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan thanked Cavanaugh for responding to Chambers. “Until we feel like we can stick up for ourselves, and stand our ground, without somebody holding our hand, we’re not completely seen as equal,” she said.

Senators moved on to more discussion of routine bills. But then, Sen. Justin Wayne brought up an incident last week when he was attending` the Nebraska Cattlemen’s annual legislative dinner. Wayne is biracial, with a black father and white mother.

“An individual got on the elevator with me and asked me if I was serving the party. I said ‘Serving?’ Then he went back and said ‘Well, serving or cooking?’”

Wayne said this happens frequently. “Not too many people in here get to go to these dinners we all go to, or these lunches that we all go to and are looked at as ‘the help’ and nothing more,” he told his mostly white colleagues. “But every time I walk to a dinner, even sometimes out in this rotunda, they don’t see me as a state senator. They see me as a stereotypical black or brown individual who is working.”

Sen. Justin Wayne (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

Wayne said he went and retrieved his senatorial nametag and introduced himself to the man. He said that addressed that particular situation. But Wayne said there’s a bigger lesson for senators, as they address other issues, like housing.

“Yes, he had a dumb look on his face. Yes, I walked away. But this still happens today. We as a body cannot just look at the present anymore. We have to look at the historical context in which we find ourselves today in this body, whether it’s through a female lens, or whether it’s through a black or brown person,” he said. “If we don’t understand the historical context of how we got here, and how many of us are still left behind, we are failing.”

Senators concluded their debate for the morning considering a bill by Sen. Andrew LaGrone to change how reports are handled concerning the blood alcohol content of drivers involved in fatal motor vehicle accidents.

Currently, the Department of Transportation makes rules and regulations about how that information is to be released. La Grone is proposing the procedures be spelled out in a “guidance document.” Such a document requires less in the way of formal proceedings, like a public hearing.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks wondered if the change would reduce the information made public. “It could be demographic-type of information rather than specific information that would be necessary for a law case, or for -- I’m sure there are a lot of reasons why this information needs to be public,” she said.

La Grone said it would remain public, quoting language that would remain in the law. “It says the identity of the deceased, and any such amount of alcohol – the specific identity – shall be public information,” he said.

Senators voted 36-0 first round approval for the bill.