More than one person called Friday's session of the Nebraska Legislature a group therapy session. Or it might have been a Festivus moment with the airing of grievances. 

When senators hit their buttons to speak, the talk was about partisanship and sexism. It came at the end of a hard week that included debate on the death penalty filled with passionate speeches and peevish comments, and as senators looked toward next week's start of late nights and upcoming debates on a tight state budget and contentious property tax proposals.

The session got underway with Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue responding to a news release issued after Thursday's adjournment with comments from Ryan Hamilton, executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party.

Blood called her speech "a point of privilege for the greater good of the body."

Hamilton chastised Blood and Sens. Lynne Walz and Dan Quick, all Democrats, for being excused and not voting on the death penalty repeal bill, sponsored by Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers. Hamilton said they lacked strength of conviction, and their constituents deserved better representation than that. He noted they face reelection in 2020.

He did not mention the Republicans who were either excused or present not voting: Sens. Tom Brewer (excused), Robert Hilkemann (present), Mark Kolterman (present) and Brett Lindstrom (present).

Blood explained she had already told Chambers she wouldn't support his bill. Then she got caught in her office on a phone call in which she was trying to arrange transportation for her adult son who has a disability, and then another call from her daughter, whose duplex neighbor died suddenly. 

Partisanship has to end, Blood said, adding she represents her district, not a party. 

Blood also talked about the "conservative shock jocks," including former Sen. Chip Maxwell, who last year had called her use of the term "vagina-gate" vulgar. 

"I used anatomically correct words on this floor that I will use again in the future," she said. 

Another "shock jock" allowed people to make comments about her breasts, how much makeup she wears, and the size of her body.

"Shame on you guys that aren't bold enough to come and speak to me, that use social media to tell me what's wrong with me physically. Because right now, I think my body is serving me well," she said. 

When men are taken to task, people aren't talking about their bodies, she said. 

Senators can pretend this kind of thing is not going on, she said, but it is. 

"I am sick and tired of the backstabbing," she said. "I am sick and tired of you looking the other way while particular parties and people who are your minions tear people apart on this floor."

Blood said she had heard from people in seven districts outside of her own asking her to continue to speak on behalf of women in the Legislature, because they need to be heard. The battle women face is much different than the ones men face in the Legislature, she said. 

"I know it's tough to be a woman in this body right now," Blood said. "It's probably tough in every state." 

Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh noted that systemic sexism exists in the Legislature. Telling female colleagues not to share thoughts and feelings is sexist. 

"Our constituents know who we are. And if we get emotional, or we're not emotional at all, that's our prerogative," she said. "It would be great if everyone could treat the women with the respect that we have earned from our constituents, just as you have earned it from yours." 

Men in the Legislature aren't criticized for putting on a few pounds during the session, because it's stressful, or for what their hair looks like, or what outfit they are wearing.

Omaha Sen. Sara Howard, as she has talked to at least a couple of her male colleagues this session in her role as chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, has observed how they behave with her as a female leader as opposed to how they would behave with a male chair. Like bullying her when they disagree with a decision or explaining what doesn't need to be explained.

"I'm really trying to make sure those boundaries are clear," she said. "Everyone that I've talked to about it has apologized."

Howard takes an old-school approach to how senators conduct themselves in the Legislature. 

"I rest very heavily on civility. I rest very heavily on transparency, on talking to every single person," she said.

Knowing about what's going on in people's lives will help senators remember they are working with people not parties, because parties don't belong there, she said. 

"So whenever we feel like we have those moments where it's like, 'I want to get on the mic and I want to do a gotcha and I want to make you look foolish,' try to remember that everyone here is fighting battles that we don't understand and we maybe don't know about," Howard said. 

Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks warned of what happens when parties get involved inside the chamber. 

"We're fighting tooth and nail to make sure we remain independent," Pansing Brooks said. "Nebraska, I hope you're hearing this, because you have an opportunity to continue to force, and advocate for, your senator to remain as independent as possible." 

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.


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