Prominent progressive Nebraska lawmaker leaves Democratic Party

May 5, 2023, 10 a.m. ·

Senator Megan Hunt speaks Wednesday (Nebraska Public Media screenshot)
Senator Megan Hunt speaks Wednesday (Nebraska Public Media screenshot)

LINCOLN — State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, one of Nebraska’s most prominent progressive lawmakers, has changed her party registration from Democrat to nonpartisan.

Hunt, along with State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha, has drawn national attention this year for standing against proposed restrictions on abortion and gender-affirming care for minors. She said Friday that Nebraska lawmakers have not been supported by national organizations and that some coverage on the issues has included partisan descriptors.

“I’m a leftist, I want to be a part of the work to move the country and the party to the left from where it is now, and that’s not compatible with the work the Dem party is doing,” Hunt said in a text.

‘Misrepresents who I am’

Organizations such as Emily’s List or the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee have praised the work Nebraska state lawmakers are doing yet have not supported Nebraska candidates, Hunt said.

Hunt said some news outlets have also used her name in “really weird pieces with sensational partisan language, and I didn’t want to be a part of that,” even though she has explained the state’s culture with its statehouse.

“That totally misrepresents who I am, what I believe, who my colleagues are and how things work here,” Hunt texted. “I don’t want my name to be used to contribute to this problem, to continue to a narrative that is lazy and inaccurate.”

The Nebraska Legislature has only 49 lawmakers, all in one chamber, which is the smallest in the nation. Lawmakers also do not caucus based on party though the Nebraska Democratic Party and Nebraska GOP both run and support candidates.

Hunt said that she made the switch in late April but that it’s not a rebuke of local party leaders.

Instead, she said, the Democratic Party needs to be more intentional and strategic in calling out bigotry and “not taking the anti-civil rights positions of the mainstream right seriously.”

Two pieces of legislation Hunt opposes include Legislative Bill 626, a near-total abortion ban that failed by one vote last week, and LB 574, which would place restrictions on gender-affirming care for minors.

State Sens. Joni Albrecht and Kathleen Kauth, who introduced the respective legislation, have said their legislation is about protecting babies and kids.

Opponents have argued the measures are part of a nationwide effort to target women, health care professionals and LGBTQ people generally.

Issues not just red or blue

Many issues in the Legislature also do not break entirely red or blue.

State Sen. Merv Riepe, an 80-year-old conservative from Ralston, indicated about a month before the six-week abortion measure failed that he would support a 12-week limitation instead, after the first trimester of pregnancy.

State Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont, who opposed the near-total ban, indicated she would also support 12 weeks.

State Sens. Tom Brandt, Myron Dorn and Jana Hughes — all registered Republicans — voted to support or indicated support of amending the gender-affirming care bill.

Rather than banning puberty blockers, hormone therapies and genital or non-genital surgeries, one amendment would have narrowed the bill to only surgeries, which Brandt and Dorn had supported; Hughes said she hoped for a “better” amendment in explaining her vote against it.

“Listening sessions” continue on a potential amendment to the gender-affirming care bill before at least one more expected vote this year.

State Sen. Mike McDonnell of Omaha, president of the Omaha Federation of Labor, has diverged from his Democratic colleagues and joined proposed restrictions on abortion and gender-affirming care. His support has offered the 33rd vote to bring legislation over the finish line.

While changing party registration has been rare among sitting lawmakers, it did happen in 2016 with former State Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete.

Ebke at the time criticized former Gov. Pete Ricketts for splitting with Republicans in the Legislature, and she switched from the Republican to the Libertarian Party.

Hunt grew up in a conservative family and has been a registered Republican, Libertarian and Democrat at different points in her life. In early 2022, Hunt also briefly registered as a Republican to vote in the party’s primary.

“We are still both-sides-ing ourselves out of civil rights we have already fought for and won,” Hunt said of the Democratic Party, which “hasn’t come down firmly enough” on multiple issues.