Legislature's Executive Board condemns Halloran rape comments

April 3, 2024, 5 p.m. ·

Senator Steve Halloran listens as colleagues criticize him Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Senator Steve Halloran listens as colleagues criticize him Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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The Legislature’s Executive board condemned Sen. Steve Halloran Wednesday for injecting colleagues’ names when he read a rape scene during a debate on obscenity. But some senators said that wasn’t enough. The action came as the Legislature considered important school finance legislation, as time dwindles on chances for significant action this year.

Wednesday morning, the Legislature’s internal governing Executive Board voted to reprimand Sen. Steve Halloran for comments he made two weeks ago. That was when, reading from testimony at a committee hearing, Halloran described a rape scene from a book he said is available in some school libraries, inserting the names of several colleagues in his recitation. Clerk of the Legislature Brandon Metzler read the letter of reprimand into the record, including this passage:

“It is hereby declared that the undersigned condemn the conduct of Senator Halloran when he interjected the names of fellow members of the Legislature in a sexually explicit passage. This letter of reprimand shall stand in the permanent record as intent of this Executive Board of the 108th Legislature that conduct and comments such as those by Senator Halloran should never be tolerated, and that the Nebraska Legislature should seek to foster a future work environment that respects the dignity of all members of the Legislature and restores the confidence of the people that state in the Legislature,” Metzler read.

Halloran had inserted the names Cavanaugh and Dungan into his reading. Siblings John and Machaela Cavanaugh, and George Dungan, are colleagues of his in the Legislature. Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh had requested a formal censure, but Sen. Ray Aguilar, chair of the Executive Board, said he thought the letter was an appropriate response.

“I think she's actually got what she wanted to accomplish as far as the statement that the board is making, and coming out --what they've had to say. Pretty powerful, actually,” Aguilar said.

But in a speech on the legislative floor, Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh disagreed, condemning her colleagues who haven’t said anything.

“You have failed me. You have failed Senator Dungun. You have failed Senator (John) Cavanaugh. You failed all victims,” she said.

Sen. John Cavanaugh reinforced the point.

“There's a saying that all that has to happen for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. I'm not saying this place is full of good people, but I'm saying if you think of yourself as such, you are doing nothing,” he said.

Dungan said all senators, including himself, need to do better.

“We can't just say that we're upset about things when we get caught. We have to say we're upset about them when they happen in the hallways, in the offices, in the back rooms and the senators’ lounge. We need to make sure that we're saying to each other, ‘These things are unacceptable.’ And whether it's implicit sexism, whether it's implicit racism, whether it's implicit classism, homophobia, transphobia, whatever it may be, we owe it to Nebraskans to always stand up and say ‘That's not right,’ Dungan said.

Sen. Julie Slama said she has received many messages from victims who said Halloran’s remarks made them feel revictimized. She counted herself among them.

“I can't sleep because my nightmares are coming back. And these aren't just like, oh, unpleasant dreams. It's -- I am literally frozen when I wake up and I cannot do anything. I cannot move. And that's because once again, we have a senator on the floor who thinks it's okay to talk about raping a colleague,” Slama said.

In 2022, Slama accused Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster of having sexually assaulted her. Herbster sued, Slama countersued, but both eventually dropped their lawsuits. Two years earlier, in a legislative speech about racial double standards, former Sen. Ernie Chambers speculated about what would happen if he enslaved and raped Slama.

Sen. Megan Hunt said Halloran had a right to say what he did, while condemning it.

“We need to have a system that we can be sure won't be abused to silence the voices of the minority, to silence the kinds of speech that we don't like. But nobody in this body -- no single person in Nebraska listening -- should think that what Senator Halloran said was okay,” Hunt said.

In an interview, Halloran defended his speech, saying he was trying to get senators’ attention, while conceding he could have done better.

“What we're hearing out here is ‘Kill the messenger and hope the message goes away.’ That was my message on the floor that night. And that's the message that I've received (in) hundreds of emails from constituents saying ‘Thank you. We had no idea that this kind of material was in our schools and available to some of our students.’ So I'm glad for that message. Was I very artful in presenting it? No, I wasn't,” Halloran said.

The controversy comes with only seven business days remaining in the legislative session. Also Wednesday, senators voted 45-0 to advance a bill which would double the current $1 billion in state aid to schools, in an effort to reduce property taxes. But Wednesday’s vote comes one day after a major funding mechanism, a proposed increase in the state sales tax, failed to overcome a filibuster. Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, chair of the Revenue Committee, said half of the increase could still be covered by redirecting an existing property tax credit. And she many people are still supporting ending certain sales tax exemptions, which could provide additional funds.