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Nebraska's Legislature is the nonpartisan outlier in an increasingly political fistfight
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Nebraska's Legislature is the nonpartisan outlier in an increasingly political fistfight

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At a troubled moment when partisan division is dominating government and splitting Americans into warring tribes shaped and defined by political party affiliation, Nebraska stands alone as the outlier. 

Not that there isn't partisan divide and political warfare in the state, but it is not institutionalized in Nebraska's legislative branch as it is in Washington and in the 49 other states where senators and representatives or assemblymen and women divide and organize along party lines.

In Washington, party is dominant.

In Lincoln, it is shut out of the legislative chamber and, even prior to that, barred from the ballot on which legislative candidates seek election as nonpartisan candidates with no listing of their party affiliation.

It's not that party and partisan politics are not present in terms of philosophy and agenda and party affiliation and even as a reflection of votes cast; it's that party does not rule, organize, direct, order, reward and punish, or dominate. 

Newly elected senators often are surprised to see how free and independent they really are once they enter the Legislature.  

If you sift through the box at History Nebraska that houses former Lincoln Star editor James E. Lawrence's correspondence in 1934 with the hope that you might discover some communications with George Norris during the year that Nebraskans voted on the constitutional amendment proposing a one-house, nonpartisan legislature, you will discover that, yes, letters from Norris are there.

"It is evident that the politicians are against it," Norris wrote in a copy of a May 12 letter also sent to Donald Gallagher, who apparently directed the One-House Legislative Amendment Committee that would advocate for the proposal championed by Norris. 

A leading Democratic figure told him to "take the nonpartisanship out of it," Norris wrote.

"A prominent Republican said he opposes (the proposed constitutional amendment) for that reason," Norris stated.

That apparently was all the confirmation that Norris needed. 

"I think this is one of the strongest features in its favor," the senator wrote.

"I will not give it up."

And that settled it. The nonpartisan feature remained as a major piece of the proposed single-house legislative reform. 

Earlier in that same letter, Norris wrote that the proposal "is first a proposition to reduce taxes and second a proposition to improve government."

No doubt, the opportunity to reduce government costs by erasing one of the two houses played a large role in gaining voter approval that November. The 1930s were marked by Dust Bowl drought on top of the Great Depression, a double-hit imposed on the Plains states.

And, in fact, the change immediately cut legislative costs in half when the first unicameral session was held in 1937. 

And so today you have 49 -- it began as 43 -- nonpartisan state senators instead of the 133 legislators who filled the two houses during the final bicameral legislative session.        

Norris noted in his letter to Gallagher that he already had contributed $1,400 to the constitutional amendment drive and he offered another $1,000 immediately.  

That was big money then; adjusted for inflation, $1,000 in 1934 is equal to nearly $19,000 today.  

"I am not going to stop," Norris wrote. "I would rather be a pauper the balance of my life than to have this proposition fail.

"It is the last thing I am going to ask.  

"I am asking it in the interest of the people of Nebraska."

In later correspondence, Lawrence would tell Norris that he would "assume responsibility" for circulating petitions to acquire signatures for the proposition in Lincoln.

"I think the amendment is more important in the long run than the success or defeat of any candidate or candidates," Norris subsequently replied.

On Nov. 6, 1934, Nebraska voters approved the one-house proposal.

And, on the following day, Norris wrote Lawrence that "this victory for better government has been made possible by the intelligence and patriotism of the voters."

Norris, a Republican at the time, subsequently would leave the party to seek and win re-election to his fifth United States Senate term in 1936 as a nonpartisan independent. He was ultimately defeated for re-election in 1942. 

Lawrence, in turn, would become a close political associate of the senator, helping direct his 1936 and 1942 independent campaigns and later collaborating with Norris when the senator wrote his autobiography.

A recent study by NET News demonstrates a gradual, but steady, trend toward nonpartisanship among registered voters in Nebraska. 

In 1990, some 7.3 percent of registered voters in Nebraska were nonpartisans. By 2000, it had climbed to 13.8 percent. In 2018, it was 21.1 percent.

"In Nebraska, the growth of registered nonpartisans has happened almost entirely at the expense of the Democratic Party," the NET News report noted, with the Republican share of registered voters remaining steady while the Democratic share has been in decline. 

"It seems like people, as time goes on, are becoming more and more disgusted with the political parties, the traditional political parties," Paul Landow, University of Nebraska at Omaha political science assistant professor, told NET.

"A large number of my political science students are registered nonpartisans," he said.

"They just don't want anything to do with the political parties. They don't see the political parties as representing their interests."

Although Nebraska governors wield influence in the Legislature, they do not command the kind of control that Republican President Donald Trump appears to hold over current GOP members of Congress or that other governors may have in partisan legislatures.  

Perhaps the most dramatic example of nonpartisan legislative independence during Gov. Pete Ricketts' first term was the high-profile override of the Republican governor's veto of legislation repealing the death penalty in Nebraska. 

Sixteen Republicans voted to override the governor's objections, joining 13 Democrats and Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, a registered nonpartisan, in an extraordinary expression of the Legislature's nonpartisan nature. 

Ricketts subsequently helped fund a referendum petition drive that ultimately overturned the Legislature's action. 

The 2019 Legislature that convenes on Wednesday will be composed of 30 registered Republicans, 18 registered Democrats and one registered nonpartisan, all elected and serving as state senators free from party whips.

In Nebraska, political party pressure shows up virtually unmasked every 10 years when senators tackle congressional and legislative redistricting following conclusion of a federal census. It would be hard to argue that those are nonpartisan legislative decisions.

But George Norris probably would be content with what he might have seen most of the rest of the time. 

What's ahead in the Legislature this year

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or

On Twitter @LJSDon.


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