Nebraska Legislature as reality TV, featuring filibuster and culture war drama

Jun 9, 2023, 10:05 PM

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Mention televised legislative debates, and what may come to mind are stuffy, policy-wonk discussions broadcast by C-SPAN. This year’s Nebraska Legislature was more like a reality TV show, with culture-war rhetoric, open hostility among lawmakers, name-calling, yelling and more.

Many Nebraskans couldn’t get enough of it.

“It was addictive,” said Jamie Bonkiewicz, 41, of Omaha. “If I wasn’t there, I was streaming it every day, just to hear what would come out of those senators’ mouths.”

Watching on television, streaming on computers and phones, following along in their cars, Nebraskans seemed captivated by what was easily one of the body’s most acrimonious sessions on record.

“Watching the Nebraska Legislature is like watching the worst train wreck that won’t end and the hits just keep coming,” Megan Moslander of Omaha tweeted when lawmakers triggered a constitutional challenge by combining restrictions on abortion and trangender health care into a single bill.

Many viewers tuned in as national media attention focused on a filibuster by Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh. They stayed for the surrounding turmoil.

Cavanaugh, 44, and a handful of other progressive lawmakers vowed to block every bill — even ones they supported — in an attempt to derail a proposed ban on gender-affirming care for minors. Conservative lawmakers dug in on other hot-button bills to private school scholarships.

So much for Nebraska nice: Again and again during the 90-day session, lawmakers called each other “trash” and “garbage,” accused each other of unethical behavior and angrily swore retribution for various offenses. Cavanaugh amplified the protesters’ chants and accused fellow lawmakers of pursuing genocide against trans kids.

There were silly moments, too: To hold the floor, she offered a recipe for pesto and deliberated over her favorite Girl Scout cookies and Omaha’s best doughnuts.

Art and Carolyn Wagner, retirees in Pleasant Dale, tuned in constantly.

“When we heard about the filibuster, that’s when we started watching it on TV,” he said. “We had it on almost every day, probably for four to six hours a day. Some days, we watched it all day until the end — 10 hours or more.”

As with most state legislatures, Nebraska’s floor debate can been viewed live on public television or streamed online. But unlike most others, it doesn’t make an archive available. A group following the Legislature began posting debates to its YouTube channel, but it hasn’t been widely publicized and the footage can take more than a day to appear.

That wasn’t soon enough for many who wanted to catch what would happen next.

Bonkiewicz had little interest in the legislative process until she discovered last year that a family member had founded the far-right Nebraskans for Founders’ Values group. She vowed to become more involved in confronting what she sees as growing extremism and, when she wasn’t protesting or meeting with lawmakers, she streamed the action live.

“It was chaos. It was like reality TV,” she said. “I’ve watched ‘Real Housewives’ and other reality shows, and it’s addictive like that, the drama of it.”

Nebraska Public Media, which televises and streams the debates, said technology privacy policies make gauging viewership difficult, but it appeared to be up based on how many people called seeking help to tune in.

Nebraska lawmakers took notice as citizens weighed in on both sides.

“I mean, you should see our emails,” said Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, a conservative who authored the successful scholarship bill. “We’ve gotten thousands and thousands of people commenting on legislation and debate. And they say they’re watching it all.”

Cavanaugh said family members and friends in New York, Los Angeles, St. Louis and Nashville, Tennessee, told her their friends and family were watching after her filibuster made national news. She’s been overwhelmed with the response.

“The number of people reaching out saying they’ve been watching is astounding,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s been thousands of people. I’ve been in the Legislature five years now, and stayed pretty anonymous for four of them. Now I have people stopping me at the grocery store. People stop me at Lowe’s. They stop me at my kids’ games.”

For years on the chamber floor, lawmakers mostly ignored the stationary cameras. This year, many began looking directly into the lenses and appealing to “those watching live.”

The Legislature has seen its share of drama in years past, but much of it came before livestreaming was available, said Ari Kohen, a professor of political theory and philosophy at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The pandemic changed the dynamic, with people turning to streaming to combat boredom. Then came the filibuster, as conservatives nationwide pushed culture war attacks on abortion rights and transgender identity, Kohen said.

As the country’s only officially nonpartisan, single-chamber legislative body, the unique makeup of the Nebraska Legislature also helped viewers track what was going on. There are only 49 seats, all held by part-time, citizen-lawmakers who tend to use everyday language in their debates, Kohen said.

“There are the characters you’re rooting for and the characters you don’t like,” he said.

The drama peaked when Sen. Julie Slama of Dunbar, who at 27 has become one of the body’s most conservative members, hobbled in from a hospital, two other lawmakers keeping her vertical, to cast the final vote needed to pass the abortion-transgender bill. The chamber echoed with the howls of protesters in the rotunda, just outside the doors.

Kohen compared it to watching a reality cooking show — you don’t need to know your way around the kitchen to get hooked.

Nebraskans now have to wait until January 2024 for the next installment, featuring conservatives pushing for more abortion restrictions and progressives vowing to thwart them, along with rule changes to stymie another epic filibuster.

“They very clearly told people they would be back for season two,” Kohen said.

United States News

Associated Press

3 falcon chicks hatch atop the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge in New York City

NEW YORK (AP) — Three peregrine falcon chicks have hatched in a nest built at the top of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge in New York City, officials said. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority Bridges and Tunnels said Friday that the chicks hatched in a nesting box set up by the agency atop a 693-foot-tall (211-meter-tall) tower on […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

Baltimore police fatally shoot a man who pulls gun during questioning; detective injured

BALTIMORE (AP) — Police officers in Baltimore fatally shot a man who pulled a gun while they questioned him in a different shooting, authorities said. A detective was shot in the chest, and his protective vest likely saved his life, Police Commissioner Richard Worley told reporters. Police were on the city’s south side investigating a […]

3 hours ago

Associated Press

California teenager arrested after violent swarm pounded and kicked a deputy’s car

HIGHLAND, Calif. (AP) — A teenager was taken into custody after a crowd of young people swarmed a deputy’s patrol car earlier this month, kicking and punching the vehicle before the deputy could drive away, a California sheriff’s office said this week. The 15-year-old male allegedly opened the driver’s door of the San Bernardino Sheriff’s […]

3 hours ago

Travelers walk through Salt Lake City International Airport Friday, May 24, 2024, in Salt Lake City...

Associated Press

Record broken for most travelers screened at US airports on Friday, according to TSA

A record was broken ahead of the Memorial Day weekend for the number of airline travelers screened at U.S. airports.

5 hours ago

Associated Press

Biden’s message to West Point graduates: You’re being asked to tackle threats ‘like none before’

WEST POINT, N.Y. (AP) — President Joe Biden on Saturday told graduates of the U.S. Military Academy that their class is being called upon to tackle threats across the globe and preserve the country’s ideals at home “like none before.” Biden said the phrase, the class motto, was apt for the sorts of challenges they […]

7 hours ago

Associated Press

Forecasters warn Oklahoma may see tornadoes; Texas could bake in triple-digit temperatures

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Forecasters are warning of another day of heightened risk of dangerous tornadoes in the Midwest on Saturday and telling people in south Texas they may experience triple-digit temperatures — and that’s with four weeks to go before summer starts. The weather service in Oklahoma compared the day to “a gasoline-soaked brush […]

9 hours ago

Sponsored Articles


Collins Comfort Masters

Here’s how to be worry-free when your A/C goes out in the middle of summer

PHOENIX -- As Arizona approaches another hot summer, Phoenix residents are likely to spend more time indoors.


Midwestern University

Midwestern University Clinics: transforming health care in the valley

Midwestern University, long a fixture of comprehensive health care education in the West Valley, is also a recognized leader in community health care.


DISC Desert Institute for Spine Care

Sciatica pain is treatable but surgery may be required

Sciatica pain is one of the most common ailments a person can face, and if not taken seriously, it could become one of the most harmful.

Nebraska Legislature as reality TV, featuring filibuster and culture war drama