Home Part of States Newsroom
Nebraska Dems censure State Sen. Mike McDonnell


Nebraska Dems censure State Sen. Mike McDonnell

Mar 02, 2024 | 5:20 pm ET
By Aaron Sanderford
Nebraska Dems censure State Sen. Mike McDonnell
Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb addresses more than 50 delegates to the State Central Committee. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — The Nebraska Democratic Party on Saturday censured State Sen. Mike McDonnell of Omaha, part of a months-long push to hold him accountable for his votes enabling passage of a stricter abortion ban and limits on gender-affirming care. 

The state party resolution that was passed Saturday publicly reprimanded McDonnell after the passage last year of Legislative Bill 574, which the resolution said “has adversely affected the reproductive rights of Nebraskans and the rights of transgender individuals in the state.” 

Nebraska Dems censure State Sen. Mike McDonnell
A copy of the resolution passed by the Nebraska Democratic Party’s State Central Committee. (Courtesy of Nebraska Democratic Party)

Several people attending the State Central Committee meeting said passing the resolution was about more than McDonnell. They wanted to ensure that two of the party’s key constituencies — women and LGBTQ Nebraskans — are supported when their rights are under attack.

Tommy Blanton of Lincoln, who sponsored the resolution at the request of affected community members, said he did so because they told him they want as many institutions as possible to object to what’s happened as strongly as possible. 

“I don’t want you to think that this is as much about him as it looks,” Blanton said. “This is mostly about us. This is about showing the public where we stand.”

Worried about blowback

One person who identified as nonbinary and was assigned female at birth expressed concerns that news coverage and public reaction to the censure measure would put more trans kids at risk of experiencing public backlash and blowback. 

The person asked the committee to focus on the future, saying “I do not support a censure of Mike McDonnell. It gives him a platform. … I fear it will put a bigger target on our backs in a state that is already predominantly conservative.”

Penny Greer, representing a legislative district that covers parts of Lancaster and Gage Counties, was among a handful of delegates who argued against the resolution. She said she worried that it could harm the party’s reputation with swing voters in the 2nd Congressional District, where Democrats have a chance to win a congressional seat and a presidential electoral vote.

“We should’ve done it last summer,” she said. “This is not the time to send a strong statement.”

Most backed resolution

But most speakers advocated adopting the resolution, arguing that the party needed to draw a line. One woman, who described herself as an activist, said she wants to make sure the younger generation sees Democrats as the party that is “serious when we say we stand up for human rights” and bodily autonomy.

“Right now we have a sitting senator who has actively voted to remove our rights, and we have done nothing to show him that we are not OK with that,” she said.

Nebraska Dems censure State Sen. Mike McDonnell
An advocate for abortion rights speaks to the Nebraska Democrats about a petition drive to put abortion rights into the state constitution. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Two fathers and one mother spoke about their trans kids and how LB 574 made an already difficult situation harder for them. They talked about their concerns in seeking gender-affirming care for trans kids as they grow up.

Jessie McGrath, the vice chair of the Stonewall Democrats, the party’s LGBTQIA caucus, said she moved to southwest Omaha to be able to vote against LB 574’s sponsor, State Sen. Kathleen Kauth.  

“He violated our platform, our planks, our promises to our voters, and he needs to be held accountable,” she said of McDonnell.

The measure passed by voice vote, with only a handful of people voting nay. A total of 57 delegates were seated.

McDonnell defends his stance, faith

McDonnell, a former Omaha firefighter who led the fire union and now leads the Omaha Federation of Labor, has defended his votes. He has said he told voters where he stood when he ran for office. He has emphasized his Catholic faith.

Nebraska Dems censure State Sen. Mike McDonnell
State Sen. Mike McDonnell of Omaha testifies before the Urban Affairs Committee on Sept. 26, 2023, in Lincoln. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

“I am a Christian!” he said by text message, in response to a reporter’s question. “I am a lifelong member of the Roman Catholic Church! I am Pro-Life! The (censure) of me from the Nebraska Democratic Party, will not change my Pro-Life vote!”

The state party’s action came a month after a 60% vote by the Douglas County Democratic Party’s central committee on Jan. 31 to “rescind, withhold and cease” supporting McDonnell. That resolution stressed his “failure to advocate for and support human rights.”

Karin Waggoner, vice chair of the Douglas County Democrats, told the delegates on Saturday they would feel relieved after voting. She called McDonnell a “wound on our party” who has been covered with a Band-Aid for too long. The group needs healing, she said.

Six prominent Democrats in recent months have said there is still room for anti-abortion Democrats in the party. However, there is less patience for anti-abortion Democratic candidates and officeholders since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022.

Line in sand

Several LGBTQ Nebraskans and their allies have said there is little excuse for elected Democrats adding a bigger target to the backs of marginalized groups already at risk of being bullied and becoming suicidal. 

McDonnell is among a handful of Democrats considering bids for Omaha mayor, a decision that could depend on whether three-term Republican incumbent Jean Stothert decides to run again.

Nebraska Dems censure State Sen. Mike McDonnell
Precious McKesson, executive director of the Nebraska Democratic Party, addresses the State Central Committee. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Additionally, organized labor is one of the top suppliers of funding and foot soldiers for Nebraska Democrats. McDonnell has said he wants to stay a Democrat, although Nebraska Republicans are recruiting him to switch sides.

Democrats are at a disadvantage in the officially nonpartisan Nebraska Legislature. Republicans outnumber Democrats 32-16. State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, a progressive, left the Democratic Party last year, but still often sides with them. Officially she is nonpartisan.

Unlike the Douglas County decision, which restricted the county party from supporting McDonnell’s candidacy for any office, the state party censure is largely symbolic. 

Still, it is rare for a major political party in Nebraska to censure a high-profile elected official. The Nebraska Republican Party drew national attention in 2021 for considering censuring then-U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb. 

The party ended up rebuking him for not being loyal enough to former President Donald Trump and some of his actions while in office. But the GOP stopped short of formally censuring him. Sasse won 63% of the vote in his last race in 2020. 

The Nebraska Democrats’ Platform and Resolutions Committee recommended passage of the censure resolution. In previous meetings, the larger State Central Committee had struggled to attract a quorum to pass measures targeting McDonnell.

Kleeb, party respond

Jane Kleeb, chair of the state party, said that the party stands “firmly” by the LGBTQ community and continues to support reproductive freedom — and that it is doing so with its words and actions.

Nebraska Dems censure State Sen. Mike McDonnell
Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb addresses the state party’s State Central Committee on Saturday in Grand Island. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

She said some Democrats want to kick out McDonnell and people who share his beliefs. But Kleeb said she remains committed to keeping the “big tent” of the Nebraska Democratic Party. She said she also dealt with pushback during the 2016 election cycle because of her support as a progressive for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

“High-ranking Democrats literally pounded their fists on a table, questioning if I was a ‘real Democrat’ and saying I was not working in the best interest of the party because I was pushing reforms of national party resources along with … property rights and climate change,” she said.

Kleeb said the party is not questioning McDonnell’s party affiliation but says the party can criticize a Democrat’s position as out of step with the party platform while hoping to change “hearts and minds.” She said the party’s base has changed and candidates and officials will, too. 

Other changes possible

The state party issued a statement Saturday saying it would consider proposals from delegates for clarifying the rules on which Democrats should receive the party’s support at its June 7-9 state convention in Hastings. The most valuable tools most state parties offer are access to discounted bulk mail postage rates for direct mail from campaigns and access to voter data.

The state party also passed resolutions of support this weekend for the 16 senators who opposed LB 574 and one opposing LB 575, a bill McDonnell also supports that would restrict trans youths to high school sports teams and locker rooms based on their sex at birth.

Much of the weekend meeting at College Park involved organizing county parties, conventions, committees and groups within the party.

Committee members considered endorsing some registered nonpartisans for the Legislature. They did not formally discuss whether to endorse nonpartisan Omaha union leader Dan Osborn in the U.S. Senate race for the seat held by Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb. 

Kleeb has said the party will take that up soon. Osborn, who helped lead the strike against Kellogg’s in 2021, attended a Libertarian Party meeting on Saturday in Bellevue.