Once upon a time, the Lege was filled with old farts. Their yearly group photo was a tribute to the wonders of Geritol, Bengay and support hose.
Every so often, a young upstart under the age of 50 would successfully run for the prestigious office that pays $12,000 a year (up from $2,400 in 1965), but when they found out how really, really hard it is to be a state senator and how really, really wise and experienced some of the old farts were, they often did not run again, and the Lege reverted to old fart-dom.
The bad thing about having a bunch of old farts in the Lege was they were very set in their ways and if they didn’t want to pass a bill to protect breast-feeding mothers against prosecution for indecent exposure in 1948, they sure as heck weren’t going to do it 60 years later!
Nebraska is the only state besides Idaho (Idaho: We Grow Potatoes and Neanderthals) that does not have a law to protect young mothers who nurse their hungry infants in a public place. I am happy to report the breast-feeding bill (LB197) is on the fast-track to passing this year, mainly due to the persistence of Senator Annette Dubas and a number of health care provider associations who have been trying to get the bill passed for a mere ten years. The main objection in previous years: we might see a gander of a boobie besides the ones on that big, giant Victoria’s Secret poster in the mall!
But I digress.
The good thing about having old farts in the Lege for all of those years is they came to realize that they were there to serve the best interests of the collective people of the state, not to serve a political party, or party bosses, or party poopers. They didn’t have to suck up to a particular political party because after twenty years of being in the Lege, they didn’t need the money or the support of the Big Dogs … they were Big Dogs in their own right.
It was a good thing the old farts did not need party bosses, because the Lege is officially non-partisan (See: About the Lege). The candidates back in the day did not run on a party ticket; they did not obtain giant bucketloads of money with strings attached from political party machines; they did not caucus in little party huddles to plot against the opposite party; and they rarely, if ever, voted along party lines. It was an amazing thing to see, and it was a political experiment that worked for years. But then:
We got Term limits, right here in River City.
That’s a capital T, that rhymes with P, and that stands for Partisan.
With term limits, the old farts who had the best interests of the state at heart are gone. Young guns who are looking ahead to bigger political aspirations than the $1,000-per-month Lege job got elected with the help of those giant bucketloads of money with strings attached, and now they are beholden to the Party, and they are voting accordingly.
Why, you ask, did we end up with term limits if the old-fart, nonpartisan system was working so well?
Two words: Ernie Chambers
Senator Ernie Chambers is probably the most brilliant statesman in Nebraska history. He served in the Lege for 38 years. He knew the rules, knew how to manipulate the rules, and knew what buttons to push to drive the younger, less experienced senators stark raving nuts. He was a registered Independent, beholden to nobody and seeking nothing but good government. He could single-handedly kill a really stupid bill that the majority of the senators wanted to pass, and he did it year after year.
The kicker was, Ernie Chambers was the only black senator in the Lege, so here was this one black independent senator beating up regularly on 48 white dudes and winning. It was a beautiful thing to see, but boy, did it chap the hides of a lot of people, to see the tables turned like that.
So they voted in term limits, with the help of a bucketload of money with strings attached, in a blatantly obvious ploy to get rid of the one black guy in the Lege.
Be careful what you wish for.
Now we have term limits, the elder statesman and the experienced old farts are gone, partisan politics is gaining momentum and Party Machine operatives are pulling on the puppet strings of people they put in office.
Last week the head of the state’s Republican party machine, Mark Fahleson, said the Party is going to cut off support to any Republican state senator who does not tow the party line. “Our state central committee has indicated that failure to support (Republican bills) could affect Republican Party endorsements and support in future races.”
Today in the Lege, Senator Scott Lautenbaugh said, “If you’re not being a team player, we know what to do with you. I hope that’s clear enough.”
It’s so clear an errant bluebird would smack right into it.
You gotta hand it to Fahleson and Lautenbaugh, they shoot straight. Probably pack heat and practice regularly at the local shooting range, setting up cardboard likenesses of union organizers, health care advocates, and EPA inspectors.
But if ever there is Divine Justice, it is this: They got rid of the one black guy, Ernie Chambers, but now there are two black women who serve as state senators, so the black caucus in the Lege has doubled. Frankly, that’s one funny piece of irony in the mess that is term limits.
You go, girls!