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Nebraska Senator Calls For Censure Of Republican Colleague Who Used Her Name In Rape Scene

Nebraska state Sen. Steve Halloran (R) repeatedly used his Democratic female colleague's name while reading a violent account of rape on the legislature floor.
Nebraska state Sen. Steve Halloran (R) repeatedly used his Democratic female colleague's name while reading a violent account of rape on the legislature floor. AP Photo/Nati Harnik

Nebraska state Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh (D) sat down in front of a panel of 10 of her fellow colleagues on Thursday afternoon and asked them to hold a Republican senator accountable for sexually harassing her on the legislature floor last week. 

The panel is tasked with deciding whether to censure their colleague state Sen. Steve Halloran (R) after he repeatedly inserted Cavanaugh’s name into a violent account of rape on the legislature floor. Halloran read the passage, taken from the bestselling memoir “Lucky” by Alice Sebold, during a debate last week over a bill that seeks to hold librarians and teachers criminally responsible for providing obscene materials to students. 

“The events that happened on Monday evening demand forceful condemnation of Sen. Halloran’s actions, which were profoundly offensive and fundamentally disrespectful to this institution and its members,” Cavanaugh told the executive board committee, composed of nine men and one woman, which will decide whether or not to adopt the censure motion. 

In the most egregious part of Halloran’s reading, he added “Sen. Cavanaugh” after a line where the rapist demands oral sex. Halloran apologized in a floor statement a day later, claiming he was simply trying to get her attention because he did not believe she was listening. He also said that, on first reference, he was referring to Cavanaugh’s brother, state Sen. John Cavanaugh (D), who also serves in the legislature.

“In the middle of that reading, it was clear to me that some people were not paying attention so I called their names out and I shouldn’t have,” Halloran said in his apology. “It was a mistake to do that.” 

The experience described in the video below may be triggering to some viewers. 

Cavanaugh, who is a survivor of sexual violence, told HuffPost both her and her brother were sitting in their chairs listening to Halloran speak, although she was not facing him because she sits a few rows in front of the Republican. 

Halloran’s explanation that he was referring to Cavanaugh’s brother did little to alleviate her anger. During the censure hearing, Cavanaugh said that it’s “irrelevant” whether Halloran was referring to her or her brother when reading the excerpt, because “it should never have happened.” 

She told HuffPost that before Halloran read the excerpt on the floor, the legislature took a dinner break during which Halloran approached her and another female lawmaker. Halloran started reading the passage to them, but Cavanaugh walked away because she did not think it was appropriate. “He clearly didn’t appreciate that I wasn’t going to stand there and listen to him,” she said. 

When asked what she thought of Halloran’s apology, Cavanaugh said: “I don’t think Sen. Halloran has apologized. I don’t think he’s apologized at all.”

Halloran did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment. 

“For me, it showed a complete lack of understanding of what it means to have experienced any sort of sexual violence,” Cavanaugh said.  

“He took the trauma [of Sebold’s memoir] and tried to politicize it and sensationalize it without context,” she said. “When we’re talking about if something is obscene or not, the context of it matters. Just like the context of what he did matters and the context of her memoir matters — it matters to the people who read it so that they don’t feel alone. And he missed every point possible.”

Nebraska state Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh (D) speaks to reporters following a hearing on her motion to censure state Sen. Steve Halloran (R).
Nebraska state Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh (D) speaks to reporters following a hearing on her motion to censure state Sen. Steve Halloran (R). via Associated Press

The incident has gained national attention, and Halloran is facing calls for his resignation from at least two senators. But Cavanaugh, who is at the center of the firestorm, simply wants her Republican colleague to be held accountable for his actions. She filed a motion to censure last week, which if adopted by the legislature does not remove Halloran from any committee assignments or limit his ability to speak. It doesn’t censor Halloran in any way, but is rather a collective statement from the legislature that says what he did was wrong.

Cavanaugh, who was elected to office in 2018, described to the censure panel how hard the past week has been for her. She’s had trouble sleeping and hasn’t been present with her children, she said. Her husband, brothers and father are all hurting, frustrated they can’t do more to protect her, and she said it’s hurting her to see them so angry. She slept at the legislature the night before the censure hearing because she didn’t want to bring her stress and anxiety home to her kids.

“I just want this to be over,” she said through tears on Thursday afternoon.

State Sen. Julie Slama (R), a conservative Republican, has been an unlikely ally for Cavanaugh in the Democrat’s fight to get a censure motion heard. The Republican has openly supported Cavanaugh and called for Halloran’s resignation. 

Slama was the target of sexual harassment in 2020 when then-state Sen. Ernie Chambers (D) suggested that Slama was appointed to her seat in exchange for sexual favors. Slama was also among several women to accuse the 2022 Nebraska Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster of groping her. 

“A staffer who goes through the exact same thing is going to be pressured to stay silent and they don’t have the microphone you do,” Slama, the only woman on the censure panel, told Cavanaugh during the hearing. “So thank you for going through this, it’s going to improve lives. It might save lives.” 

Cavanaugh hopes her motion to censure will be adopted, telling her colleagues that she wants to “send a clear message that the voices of survivors [of sexual violence] will not be silenced.” She urged the committee and Chairman state Sen. Ray Aguilar (R) to act immediately.

“The longer this takes, the more harm you are causing, not only to me but to other victims of sexual violence,” she said. “So I ask you to act. Don’t sit on this, Chairman Aguilar. Take action. If you are not going to advance it, I deserve to know that and the people deserve to know that.”

If the censure motion is adopted, Halloran will be the first Nebraska state lawmaker to be censured since 1955. The panel is expected to announce their decision on Tuesday.