Halloran rape comments draw fire in Legislature and outside

March 19, 2024, 5 p.m. ·

Senator Steve Halloran during debate Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Senator Steve Halloran during debate Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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In the Nebraska Legislature, Sen. Steve Halloran’s insertion of his colleagues’ names into a description of rape produced condemnation and a call to resign Tuesday.

Monday night, senators were debating a bill its supporters say would remove obscene materials from Nebraska school libraries. Sen. Steve Halloran read testimony from a supporter of the bill, that quoted from the book “Lucky,” by Alice Sebold. In the middle of reading graphic testimony about the rape, he several times interrupted his reading and said “Senator Cavanaugh.”

Sister and brother Machaela and John Cavanaugh are registered Democrats in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, and were opposing the obscenity bill supported by Halloran, a Republican. Machaela Cavanaugh reacted soon afterwards, saying Halloran should stick to defending the bill he supports.

“Let's have a real conversation. Don't start reading rape scenes and saying my name over and over again, Senator Halloran,” Cavanaugh said, her voice straining with emotion.

The exchange produced a social media firestorm overnight, including calls for Halloran to resign.

Tuesday morning, Halloran said he’d made a mistake trying to get his point across as he was reading.

“In the middle of that -- reading of that (passage) --, it was clear to me that some people were not paying attention. And so I called their name out, and I shouldn't have it was. It was a mistake to do that,” Halloran said.

Sen. Julie Slama, like Halloran a conservative Republican in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, said that wasn’t enough. Slama said the senators need to stop tolerating outrageous statements justified on the the basis that the Legislature is a “special place.”

“This place is ‘special’ because it's the one place in the state of Nebraska where you can get up and talk about raping a colleague and not have any professional consequences. We have to do better. We can't just let this go. We owe it to the little girls who are watching at home, wanting to be something like this when they grow up. We owe it to every Nebraskan, because we're the most public workplace in the state and we deserve for it to be a professional workplace," Slama said.

"Senator Halloran, you should be ashamed of yourself for being incapable of apologizing. There is no justification for your actions and you should resign,” she added.

But Sen. Danielle Conrad, a Democrat, urged her colleagues not to overreact to the public outrage.

“Over the last 12 hours I, like many of you, have received dozens, if not hundreds, of calls and emails and texts and social media messages about what happened here last night. It is our job to take into consideration the voices of the members of our second house (the public). But it is our job to temper the toxicity in our politics, to take down the temperature, not turn it up, to not react to the apoplectic nature of social media,” Conrad said.

Nebraska has no law allowing the recall of senators. Conrad said the Legislature could censure or expel Halloran, but she said he should not be punished for his speech. For his part, Halloran, who represents the Hastings area, said he does not intend to resign. He will be forced out of office by term limits after the end of this year.

Sen. John Cavanaugh said Halloran was missing the point of the book he was quoting.

“The value of reading about somebody's traumatic experience, to someone who went through a traumatic experience, is that it helps them cope. It helps them move on. It helps those of us who have not experienced a traumatic experience to empathize with them,” Cavanaugh said.

Sen. Carol Blood, a Democrat, said Halloran’s remarks had triggered intense reactions.

“There are women here who have been violated – violently violated…And so I speak out on behalf of the victims, on behalf of the survivors, many that I'm sure have contacted you, people who were calling me in the middle of night crying about their loved ones who watched it, and were in despair. That should not happen when you watch a legislative session,” Blood said.

Halloran noted he prefaced his remarks by referring to Sen. John Cavanaugh. But Sen. Brad von Gillern, another Republican, said whichever Cavanaugh Halloran was referring to, it was hurtful.

“Men are impacted by sexual assault. I'm grateful that that's never happened to me personally, but it's happened to two family members. And with apologies for sharing a story that isn't completely mine, I'll just say that being the father of a rape victim is a very hard thing,” von Gillern said, his voice shaking.

Sen. Wendy DeBoer, a Democrat, said senators need to take Tuesday’s discussion to heart.

“This is serious. It's very serious. It's serious because it matters, not just to the people in this room, but the people outside of this room for whom we are supposed to be leaders. We are supposed to be examples. Yeah. We are all human. So we will fail at that, and when we do, we just need to do better. So we need to do better. I commit right now, I will do better. I will try harder. I will try to find a way to make sure that we do better,” DeBoer said.

With that, senators moved on the next order of business, discussing the state budget.