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What would George Norris think? Legislative nonpartisanship being tested more

If there is a slide, however subtle or gradual, away from the carefully designed nonpartisan spirit and nature of Nebraska's unique one-house Legislature, George Norris and John Peter Senning might have been the first to spot it.

And object to it.

Norris was the father, the steward, the leader and the guide who convinced his fellow Nebraskans to venture out alone into uncharted political territory more than 80 years ago.

In 1934, they said yes to a one-house, nonpartisan legislature, small and compact, highly visible and amazingly accessible, out in the open in full view and without the two-house conference committees.

There is no move underway to wipe out the nonpartisan election of state legislators in Nebraska, but attempts to inject partisan influence have become far less subtle recently.

Incumbent senators are targeted, partisans are recruited and funded to conduct increasingly partisan races; legislative scorecards are compiled by political parties and transformed into a bill of charges.

And in 2017, legislative leadership posts were methodically filled by election of a predetermined slate of candidates.

Leadership now is almost entirely composed of Republicans, although some senators suggest the more accurate and important description of that slate of chosen leaders would be "dependably conservative," a characteristic that was far more valued than seniority or experience a year and a half ago.

Today's Legislature is composed of 31 Republicans, 16 Democrats, one Libertarian and one registered nonpartisan.

While Republicans comprise an overwhelming majority, they will tell you that it is the Democrats who more often vote together as a bloc.

And now the Republican governor is becoming more actively engaged in nonpartisan legislative races, recruiting candidates in selected contests and helping fund them.

But his primary targets not only are Democrats but also incumbent Republicans — or, this year, a former Republican — who have not supported him on key legislative issues or have voted to override his vetoes.

Meanwhile, the partisanship that used to visibly leap to the surface only during congressional redistricting battles every 10 years seems to come bubbling up more often now as senators essentially divide more along party lines. Perhaps especially on proposed election reform.

Did the founders of Nebraska's unique one-house, nonpartisan legislature see this coming?

Clues found in Box One

Let's take a peek inside Box One to see if there are any clues.

This is University of Nebraska political science Professor John Peter Senning's records, housed on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus in the archives of History Nebraska, formerly known as the Nebraska State Historical Society.

Senning was an important ally and key supporter of the single-house system championed by Norris in the 1934 election and instituted by Nebraska voters through passage of a constitutional amendment.

The German-born Nebraska academic later became the go-to guy for students from across the country and legislators from more than a dozen states who became interested in following Nebraska's lead; their letters fill some bulging folders in Box One.

"No one is opposed to the system except the professional politicians and some of the lobbyists," Senning responded to John Ohles of Minneapolis on July 14, 1937, following adjournment of the first session of the one-house legislature.

Box One contains plenty of evidence the nonpartisan nature of the new legislative experiment was critically important to Norris after his experience in the U.S. Congress.

Senators should vote their convictions and represent their districts without regard for, or dictates from, political parties, Norris argued.

Lincoln Journal Star file photo  

Nebraska Sen. George W. Norris, the father of the one-house Legislature, retired in 1943 after serving more than 40 years in Congress.

"Men in legislatures, elected on a partisan platform, are inclined to follow the bidding and dictates of party machines and party bosses," Norris said.

"Senator Norris, while making concessions on other points, was adamant on this," Senning wrote.

"In the light of our experience so far, these same objections strongly favor the nonpartisan choice as one of the factors that produced the unusually high average personnel of our first unicameral," he wrote following that first legislative session.

On March 14, 1938, Senning highlighted what still is a startlingly open legislative process where all bills receive public hearings, committee executive sessions are open to the news media and legislative action is centered in a single arena.

"It brought the whole process of legislation into the open where the press could record the actual proceedings step by step and where the public was able to follow the acts of the representatives," Senning wrote E.W. Patten of Denver on March 14, 1938.

Much later, on Dec. 26, 1945, Senning would write C.B. Rudow of the Detroit News that a survey of 200 Nebraskans found only 5 percent would want to return to a partisan legislature.

And on July 15, 1947, Senning wrote a letter to the Christian Science Monitor stating the only objections to the nonpartisan nature of the new legislature after its first decade came in the form of "rumblings from the direction of congenital party men."

The nonpartisan feature was "most stoutly insisted upon by Norris," he stated.

'Too much credit'

Norris served in the U.S. Congress for 40 years and experienced the domination of party and partisanship. He was elected to the House five times as a Republican, then elected to four terms in the Senate as a Republican before abandoning his party to support Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Courtesy Photo / Homestead National Monument of America  

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was seated in the back seat of a car when he signed legislation March 19, 1936, creating Homestead National Monument of America as a national park site. Looking on are U.S. Sen. George Norris of Nebraska (center), who promoted the legislation, and U.S. Rep. Henry Carl Luckey of Nebraska.

After leaving the GOP, Norris was able to win a fifth Senate term from Nebraska as an independent, or nonpartisan, candidate in 1936 before losing his final re-election battle as an independent in 1942.

Eleven years after his death in 1944, the power and sway of partisanship was on full display as his Nebraska successors in the Senate essentially made his case for him.

When the Senate established a special committee in 1955 to select five outstanding former senators whose portraits would be permanently displayed in the Senate Reception Room, the committee solicited recommendations from 160 American historians and biographers.

Norris was recommended by more of those scholars than any of the other 41 names that were submitted.

But the committee dropped Norris from consideration "under threat of a filibuster" by Nebraska's two conservative Republican senators, Roman Hruska and Carl Curtis, according to the historic account on the U.S. Senate website.

There is a letter from Norris to Senning tucked into a folder in Box One, dated Nov. 10, 1934, and mailed from McCook.

And it gives credit for this nonpartisan, one-house experiment to the people of Nebraska.

"I am of the opinion that the workers for this amendment are inclined to give me too much credit," Norris wrote.

"This victory for better government has been made possible by the intelligence and patriotism of the voters."

Royal retreat of Windsor ready to party

WINDSOR, England — Few towns are as quintessentially English as Windsor, the bucolic riverside locale where Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle will get married on May 19.

And few towns are as pleasing when a warm spring sun bakes off the morning mist. Even the plump white swans on the Thames River seem relieved that the winter is over.

Most of the swans belong to Queen Elizabeth II and must be counted each year by Her Majesty's Swan Marker, a ritual that reflects the dominant role the Windsors play in the town whose name the royal family adopted as a surname a century ago.

All roads seem to lead to Windsor Castle, a magnificent fortress perched high on a hill topped by the royal standard when the queen is in residence. It is here — a favored royal playground since William the Conqueror built the first structure in 1070 — that the royal wedding will take place.

Harry, one of the least traditional young royals, has chosen the most traditional of venues.

Fevered preparations are underway: Many roads have been repaved, street signs are being repainted, storefronts are decked out with life-size cutouts of Harry and Markle, and shoppers are being lured by souvenirs of all kinds.

Windsor is getting a bit of a makeover, just like the monarchy, which is rebranding itself with attention focused on the new, younger generation of princes as the 92-year-old queen slowly reduces her public duties.

"Everything is now in place, we're 99.9 percent of the way there," said town councilor Phillip Bicknell, who expects more than 100,000 people on the royal wedding day if the weather is good. "We believe this is going to be the biggest number of people fitting into Windsor for any event. It's going to be quite tight, but the atmosphere will be electric."

There's already a party feel in Windsor well in advance of the actual party. Tourists from around the world arrive daily by train and walk through the royal shopping arcade to the castle. No one, it seems, can resist the impulse to take a selfie in front of the castle.

The royal wedding itself is a party on a grand scale, with 600 guests invited to the ceremony in St. George's Chapel, another 2,640 invited to the castle's grounds, and tens of thousands more expected to throng the town's narrow streets hoping for a glimpse of the newlyweds.

Security barriers are being put in place and an elaborate police deployment plan has been mapped out. It's fairly easy to establish a secure perimeter around the castle grounds, and a no-fly, no-drone zone will be enforced to keep the airspace clear. Still, Harry and Meghan are determined to ride outside the castle in an open horse-drawn carriage, which calls for extra protective measures.

Police are using an automatic license plate recognition system to flag any known suspicious vehicles. Many roads into the town center will be blocked off to lessen the chances of a vehicle attack on the huge crowds expected at the foot of the castle.

Police with automatic weapons can already be seen on the streets of Windsor, a jarring fact reflecting that Britain's official terrorism threat level is set at "severe," indicating an attack is judged highly likely.

Before the spate of extremist attacks on Britain last year, it was common to see some royals in the streets and in the park surrounding the town. When the queen was younger it wasn't unusual to see her on horseback, walking through a park, or driving her Jaguar through the narrow streets.

That happens less frequently now, but the royal presence still permeates Windsor. Many are excited about the mantle being handed to Harry and older brother Prince William.

"You'll see them about now and again," says Dean Wright, an artist at the darkened Rogue Tattoo Windsor studio. "You'll see the Duke of Edinburgh (the queen's husband, also known as Prince Philip) riding in a carriage in the morning. I've seen her go by in a convertible, a nice one. The royals are popular. With the princes becoming more public, the people really like them."


Horse-drawn carriages make their way down the Long Walk from Windsor Castle on Friday in Windsor, England.

editor's pick topical
Blueprint Nebraska unveiled to help jump-start state's economy

When University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds was the commissioner of higher education in Mississippi, he helped spearhead an effort to move the state's economy forward.

That effort, called Blueprint Mississippi, helped create thousands of high-paying jobs in the state, Bounds said.

Bounds, along with Gov. Pete Ricketts and Nebraska Chamber of Commerce President Bryan Slone, on Friday helped kick off Nebraska's own effort to jump-start the state's economic development.

Blueprint Nebraska is described as a "comprehensive plan to invigorate Nebraska's economy and workforce."

And Bounds said Friday that he has "absolute belief that we're going to see the same levels of success in Nebraska" that he did in Mississippi.

Ricketts said the effort is led by the business community, while he and Bounds are playing a supporting role.

Lance Fritz, president and CEO of Union Pacific Corp. in Omaha, and Owen Palm, president and CEO of 21st Century Holdings in Scottsbluff, are the co-chairmen of Blueprint Nebraska.

Palm said the fact that it's being led by business leaders from the state's eastern and western edges is "symbolic of our desire to make this a statewide conversation."

Fritz and Palm oversee a steering committee of business executives from a variety of industries that will oversee 15 areas considered vital to Nebraska’s long-term economic success and quality of life. These include manufacturing; agriculture; health care; education; workforce; taxation and incentives; housing; community vitality; and technology and innovation.

Members of the steering committee include four Lincoln business leaders: David Graff, CEO of Hudl; Jeff Noordhoek, CEO of Nelnet; Kim Russel, president and CEO of Bryan Health System; and Anthony Goins, vice president of operations with Capital One.

The initiative will utilize “industry councils” made up of Nebraskans from across the state to help analyze current strengths and challenges. The coalition will also develop a process to identify Nebraska’s competitor states.

Officials also want the input of residents, and they are planning a road tour of more than 30 communities along with an online survey. Details of those efforts have yet to be worked out.

Slone said the entire process is expected to take 12 to 16 months, after which an initial report will be produced that will summarize the research gathered and detail an action plan for how to implement the findings.

The ultimate goal of the project is to identify the state's strengths and weaknesses, build on those strengths and ensure the state remains economically competitive going forward.

"Blueprint Nebraska has the potential to be a landmark statewide collaboration to help drive a new era of growth throughout our state," Slone said.


Hank Bounds


Britain's Prince Harry, right, and fiancee Meghan Markle