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A mostly male board will decide whether a Nebraska lawmaker faces censure for sexual harassment

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A Nebraska lawmaker implored the Legislature’s Executive Board on Thursday to hold a colleague accountable for invoking her name in a graphic reading on the legislative floor, which some say constitutes sexual harassment.

The decision of whether Republican state Sen. Steve Halloran will face a censure vote of the full Legislature now rests with a group of their colleagues who are mostly men.

“If we don’t move this forward, we are in fact condoning this kind of speech,” Democratic state Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh said at a hearing on her resolution. “This has traumatized the public. It has traumatized my family.”

The Executive Board consists of eight men and one woman. All but one are Republican in the officially nonpartisan Nebraska Legislature.

The hearing was held 10 days after Halloran took to the mic on the floor and repeatedly called out the name “Sen. Cavanaugh” while reading a graphic account of rape from a best-selling memoir, making it appear as if that lawmaker was the subject of the assault. His embellished reading from the memoir “Lucky” by Alice Sebold came during debate of a bill that would have held school librarians and teachers criminally responsible for providing what it considers to be “obscene material” to students in grades K-12.

Most people in the chamber at the time — including Cavanaugh — understood the graphic comments to be directed at her, and she was visibly shaken immediately after Halloran’s remarks. Halloran insisted later that he was invoking the name of her brother and fellow Democratic Nebraska lawmaker, state Sen. John Cavanaugh, as a way to get him to pay attention to the remarks.

On Thursday, Machaela Cavanaugh tearfully begged the board not to wait any longer to make a decision about whether Halloran will face censure, noting it made no difference whether Halloran was targeting a woman or a man in his graphic reading — either constitutes sexual harassment.

The board must vote on whether to advance Machaela Cavanaugh’s censure resolution to the full Legislature for a vote. A vote to censure Halloran would only repudiate his remarks and have no effect on his ability to legislate, speak during debate or serve on legislative committees.

In the hearing, Machaela Cavanaugh also cast doubt on Halloran’s explanation that he was seeking her brother’s attention, noting that Halloran had approached her privately before making the public remarks to recite the scene about sexual violence, which had been read by a supporter of the obscenity bill during a public hearing.

“I said something to the effect of, ‘OK, Steve. I’m going to walk away now,’” she recounted.

This week, Halloran was accused of joking privately with other lawmakers inside the legislative chamber that Machaela Cavanaugh likes to view pornography. Speaker of the Legislature Sen. John Arch — who is a member of the Executive Board — confirmed to The Associated Press on Thursday that he confronted Halloran about those remarks and that Halloran acknowledged he had made them.

Machaela Cavanaugh was the only person to testify at Thursday’s hearing, although her brother and another Democratic lawmaker, state Sen. George Dungan, whom Halloran addressed after his graphic reading, were invited to speak.

Halloran declined to appear for the hearing, but submitted written testimony in which he railed against it as a violation of legislative rules that protect lawmakers from being censured for words spoken in debate. He also blasted the decision to make the hearing public, saying the complaints against him are “a legislative internal matter.”

“An accusation of sexual harassment is one of the most significant accusations that can be made in our modern world,” he wrote. “Look at the last decade for evidence of this. Even a false accusation — even if made just once — can be the death knell to somebody’s career and livelihood.”

The only woman on the Executive Board, Republican state Sen. Julie Slama, reiterated her support for the Cavanaugh siblings and brought up her own struggle years earlier when then-Sen. Ernie Chambers, a Democrat, implied she was appointed to her seat in exchange for sexual favors. Chambers, the Nebraska Legislature’s longest serving lawmaker and the state’s first Black legislator, also invoked Slama’s name on the mic in 2020 while denouncing U.S. President Andrew Jackson for being a slaveholder.

“Suppose I enslaved Sen. Slama and used her the way I wanted to?” Chambers said. Slama was 23 at the time.

Slama said at the hearing Thursday that she wished she had done more at the time to try to hold Chambers accountable for his remarks.

“The same people that are trying to silence you now are the ones who pressured me not to act in 2020,” Slama said to Cavanaugh. “You’ve had so much courage in this that I didn’t have.”

Cavanaugh apologized to Slama for not doing more to come to her defense four years earlier.

“You had the courage,” Cavanaugh said. “You just didn’t have the support.”

Republican Sen. Ray Aguilar, chair of the Executive Board, praised Cavanaugh for her testimony, but said the board would not make a decision until after the Easter holiday weekend.

By MARGERY A. BECK
Associated Press

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