Sen. Colby Coash

Sen. Colby Coash listens to debate in 2015 on a motion to override Gov. Pete Ricketts' veto of a law repealing the death penalty in Nebraska. Before the vote, Coash talked individually with fellow Republicans and conservatives, trying to appeal to each one based on their beliefs, he said.

Quietly, patiently, during the last three months, Colby Coash of Lincoln gathered votes to repeal the death penalty from fellow conservatives, Republicans and faith-based state senators.

"I decided to do this on my own," Coash said Wednesday before the Legislature confronted the climactic moment in this year's dramatic death penalty debate.

"I've always voted to support repeal, but this year was something different," Coash said.

"I thought this was an opportunity with a lot of new faces.

"This class of freshmen senators is composed of thoughtful, pragmatic people who are open-minded and comfortable reaching their own judgment.

"Timing is everything around here, and I wanted to help get this done before I got out of here."

So Coash, who will leave the Legislature at the conclusion of his second term following one more legislative session, set out on his mission.

Coash talked individually with senators, "framing the issue differently to align with their values," whether they be tied to a pro-life, faith-based commitment, focused on "efficient government" or centered on concern for the victims of capital crimes.

"I tried to reach each senator where they were," he said.

Eight hours later, Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, sponsor of LB268, had a remarkable legislative accomplishment, so unexpected in politically conservative Nebraska that it immediately commanded national attention, so dramatic that it came down to the final vote cast in a roll call of senators, touching off cheers in the visitors gallery.

For Chambers, it was a destination he had attempted to reach on a journey that began more than four decades ago, one he pursued doggedly, relentlessly, never giving up.

Achievement: Chambers.

Assist: Coash.

Sixteen senators who are Republicans voted to override Gov. Pete Ricketts' veto, joining 13 Democrats and Chambers, a registered non-partisan.

Seven of those Republicans were freshman senators.

Chambers stepped over to Coash to thank him after it was done.

"I'm just relieved to have it behind us," Coash said moments later. "I worked as hard as I could on this bill. It was a group effort, for sure."

Later, Chambers told a news media gathering: "Colby Coash is due a tremendous amount of credit for what happened. I hate term limits even more now."

Eight hours before the drama unfolded on the floor, Coash said: "I've been where they are." 

"I've made tough votes during the last seven years when people look at you and say I'll never vote for you again.

"But just because people are loud doesn't mean there are a lot of them," Coash said.

Chambers became aware of what Coash was doing when he began approaching his Omaha colleagues with requests from other senators to add their names to the bill as co-sponsors.

"You can't rally support without the person who's sponsoring the bill knowing it," Coash said as he sat in his second floor office in the Capitol in the early-morning hush prior to the beginning of the day's legislative session.

"He certainly was aware I was working on behalf of the bill, and I think he was happy to let me play that role."

Coash said he became committed to abolishing the death penalty years before he came to the Legislature.

"Faith-based belief is part of it. I'm Catholic. I try to listen to faith," he said.

"This is consistent with my pro-life views, but it's also consistent with trying to make government more efficient. With the death penalty, taxpayers are not getting what they're paying for.

"If any other programs were as costly or inefficient as this, we would have gotten rid of them."

Last week, Coash mobilized legislative support for Sen. Mike Gloor of Grand Island after he changed his vote to support passage of the death penalty bill and immediately stepped into a buzzsaw of criticism in his legislative district.

Coash gathered the signatures of 13 senators, all Republicans, on a letter defending Gloor and he was prepared to lead a caravan of senators to Grand Island to defend Gloor at a planned emergency meeting of the Hall County Board, that had been threatened to put pressure on or censure Gloor.

On Sunday, Coash presented the Republican, conservative, pro-life argument for abolishment of the death penalty nationally on ABC's "This Week."

On Wednesday, he brought his grandfather's rosary to the final debate.

It had been with him on every previous vote.

As Wednesday's debate droned on and tension mounted, Coash holed up for a time in "Number Three," he said. 

That's an old phone booth in the back of the legislative chamber.

But Coash wasn't using the phone.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSDon.


Political reporter

Don Walton, a Husker and Yankee fan, is a longtime Journal Star political and government reporter.

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