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Robert Hilkemann

Sen. Robert Hilkemann listens in 2015 as the legislative debate on a motion to override Gov. Pete Ricketts' veto of a law repealing the death penalty in Nebraska. Hilkemann's vote to override the veto was considered pivotal.

Suddenly he was in the eye of the storm.

Gov. Pete Ricketts walked into his first-floor office in the Capitol just before the climactic debate was about to begin.

Not much later, as senators arose one by one to declare their intentions in solemn tones, his cellphone buzzed on the floor of the Legislature with a call from the Douglas County sheriff's office.

And in the crowded Rotunda outside the legislative chamber, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert's chief-of-staff, Marty Bilek, wanted to talk.

Meanwhile, on his desk in the legislative chamber a written statement of the remarks he had prepared waited.

When Sen. Joni Craighead of Omaha asked if he'd go out to the Rotunda to talk with Bilek, Sen. Robert Hilkemann of Omaha said yes.

"The city of Omaha very much wanted me to not support the veto override," Hilkemann said Friday as he recalled Wednesday's frenetic events.

"They were lobbying me very hard to change my vote."

Hilkemann had supported the bill to repeal the death penalty as it cleared barrier after barrier on its way to enactment. Six votes, including cloture motions to break filibusters, all yes votes.

Now would come the final vote on a motion to override the governor's veto.

The Rotunda was a frenzy of emotion and energy and Hilkemann walked into the vortex with people approaching him from all sides. 

Lauren Kintner, the governor's policy director, reached out to rescue him.

At the same time, a band of senators supporting the bill came out of the legislative chamber to extricate him.

Back in the chamber it had become clear that Hilkemann could be a critical vote if, as it appeared, he truly was in play. Eyes focused on him. Sen. Merv Riepe of Ralston, a friend and opponent of the bill, crouched down near him.

Then, in an unusual scene, Hilkemann's two legislative staff assistants came down the center aisle to stand near him, providing what they later would describe as their support until they had to leave the floor for the climactic vote.

All the time, Hilkemann did not stand to speak, his written text sitting untouched on his desk. As the roll call began, you could see him swallow hard.

"To be very honest with you, this has been a spiritual journey for me from the very beginning, one that reached the very depths of my soul," Hilkemann said Friday as he sat in his office in Room 1115.

"All the way through, I decided I could not not push green. There was a voice in me, particularly on final reading."

On the night before the veto override vote, Hilkemann heard from Mayor Stothert and a Republican Party official with a message that included "Pete needs a win."

And a political opponent texted him on the floor just before the vote.

Hilkemann had studied the issue, talked with family members of murder victims and with a man wrongly imprisoned for a murder he did not commit.

He had talked with Ricketts three times, visited with constituents, met with supporters of the bill at Paradise Bakery in his neighborhood, been chewed out at a Memorial Day service in Omaha.

"I really like Pete as a person," Hilkemann said. "I want him to have a successful governorship."

But that's not what this was about.

At Sunday church services on May 17 -- Hilkemann is a Presbyterian -- he heard a young pastor close his message with the words: "Always remember Jesus has got your back."

Hilkemann voted yes to override the governor. The motion required 30 votes. It was adopted, 30-19.

He did not speak on the floor.

Hilkemann did not reach for his prepared one-page text that began: "I believe we desperately need a cooling-off period in this death penalty debate. And because of that I will be voting to sustain the governor's veto of LB268."

The text was there, he said, in case he changed his mind. 

"I could not," Hilkemann said.

That night, he said, "I didn't sleep; maybe an hour."

"I slept like a log last night," Hilkemann said.

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

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Political reporter

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

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