A Nebraska lawmaker faces backlash for invoking a colleague's name in a graphic account of rape

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A Nebraska lawmaker is facing calls to resign after reading a graphic account of rape from a best-selling memoir on the floor of the Legislature in which he repeatedly invoked the name of a fellow lawmaker, making it appear as if that lawmaker was the subject of the assault.

Republican Sen. Steve Halloran, who is known for making audacious remarks on the mic, read an excerpt Monday night from the memoir “Lucky” by Alice Sebold. The book recounts Sebold's experience of sexual violence when she was 18 years old. While reading a graphic excerpt about rape, Halloran said the name “Sen. Cavanaugh” several times, which appeared to reference Democratic state Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, a female colleague.

The reading came during debate of a bill that would seek to hold school librarians and teachers criminally responsible for providing what it considers to be “obscene material” to students in grades K-12. Supporters say the bill closes a “loophole” in the state's existing obscenity laws that prohibit adults from giving such material to minors. Critics say it's a way for a vocal minority to ban books they don't like — such as “Lucky” — from school library shelves.

Book bans and attempted bans soared last year in the U.S. Almost half of the challenged books are about communities of color, LGBTQ+ people and other marginalized groups, according to a recent report from the American Library Association. Among the books frequently challenged is Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.”

Halloran on Tuesday morning apologized for repeatedly saying “Sen. Cavanaugh” in his reading the night before, but insisted he was not referring to Machaela Cavanaugh. Instead, he said he sought the attention of Democratic state Sen. John Cavanaugh — Machaela Cavanaugh's brother who also serves in the Legislature. That explanation did little to temper the firestorm of criticism and calls for his resignation, including from at least one fellow Republican.

Halloran's remarks drew an immediate emotional response from Machaela Cavanaugh, who was visibly shaking in the immediate aftermath of the Monday night session. That led Speaker of the Legislature Sen. John Arch to cut debate short and adjourn for the night.

“That was beyond the pale,” Machaela Cavanaugh said through tears, noting that there were people in the chamber during Halloran's remarks who experienced sexual violence. “That was so out of line and unnecessary and disgusting to say my name over and over again like that.”

She has often been at odds with Republicans in the Nebraska Legislature, a unique one-chamber statehouse that is officially nonpartisan. Last year, she led an epic filibuster of nearly every bill in the session — even ones she supported — to stymie a measure limiting gender-affirming care for minors. That measure was eventually combined with a 12-week abortion ban to create a hybrid bill that lawmakers passed.

By Tuesday morning, video recordings of Halloran's speech had made the rounds on social media and a handful of protesters appeared outside Halloran's office before debate began Tuesday, calling for him to step down.

Lawmakers began the day by addressing Halloran's reading. Arch apologized “to all the female lawmakers in the body," and said he was not in the chamber when Halloran read the excerpt. Had he know Halloran planned to do so, Arch said he would have sought to dissuade him.

The most powerful remarks came from fellow Republican Sen. Julie Slama, one of the body’s youngest members at 27. She has been the target of sexualized speech on the legislative floor and accused a one-time Republican candidate for governor of assaulting her when she was just 22.

In 2020, Slama was the target of comments from then-Sen. Ernie Chambers, a Democrat, who implied she was appointed to her seat in exchange for sexual favors. In 2022, she was among several women — but the only one to come out publicly — to accuse then Nebraska Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster of groping her. Herbster, who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump, denied the accusations but lost the primary election to current Gov. Jim Pillen.

Slama said Tuesday it made no difference whether Halloran was invoking the name of Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh or her brother.

“It doesn’t matter the gender of the person you were trying to sexually harass,” she said.

If Halloran had interjected the name of a colleague into a graphic description of sexual assault in a business setting, she asked, “Do you think you would have your job the next day?”

“We can’t just let this go,” Slama said. “We owe it to the little girls who are watching at home wanting to be something like this when they grow up. We owe it to every Nebraskan because we are the most public workplace in the state, and we deserve for it to be a professional workplace."

Speaking in the chamber Tuesday, she condemned the lawmaker's remarks. “Sen. Halloran, you should be ashamed of yourself for being incapable of apologizing. There is no justification for your actions, and you should resign," she said, drawing rare applause.

This isn't the first time Halloran has made offensive and confusing remarks while trying to make a point. Last session, he argued that the legalization of abortion in the U.S. had its roots not in choice for women, but in a plot to “kill off the Black race.” He also attempted to highlight an exemption for rape and incest in a bill last year to limit abortions to about six weeks by stating that “no one’s forcing anyone to be pregnant. Pregnancy’s a voluntary act between two consenting adults.”

Halloran said he has no plans to resign and defended his reading of the “Lucky” excerpt by saying he was highlighting an example of a book he believes should be banned. He is in his eighth and final year as a lawmaker and unable to seek reelection due to term limits, meaning his remarks Monday night will be among the last floor speeches of his tenure.

“I didn’t come down here for a legacy,” Halloran told The Associated Press. “I came down here to represent my district, and my district overwhelmingly has a sensitivity towards what is taught in school.”