Nebraska lawmaker faces calls to resign after invoking colleague’s name in book’s rape scene passage

Republican Nebraska state Sen. Steve Halloran is facing calls to resign after he inserted a colleague’s name into a passage he read during a floor debate from a book’s rape scene that included graphic detail.

Halloran apologized on the Senate floor Tuesday morning, defending his decision to read the passage but saying it was a “mistake” to reference his colleagues.

“I apologize for interjecting the senators’ names in the middle of reading a transcription, transcribed testimony in a public hearing, in reference to a book that is in some schools, and in some schools, required reading,” he said. “It was a hard thing to read. And no, I was not trivializing rape. I was reading from a book that’s required reading for some students. Should I have interjected the senators’ names? No. Sometimes we do things on the floor in the midst of making a statement that we shouldn’t have done.”

The remarks under scrutiny came during a debate Monday over a proposed bill, Legislative Bill 441, targeting obscenity and pornography in K-12 schools.

Halloran was reading from Alice Sebold’s memoir, “Lucky,” in which she described being raped in college, and he repeatedly invoked “Sen. Cavanaugh” as he read directly from the passage describing the incident of sexual violence. He didn’t specify if he was referring to Nebraska state Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh or her brother, Nebraska state Sen. John Cavanaugh, both Democrats. In his apology Tuesday, he said his comments were initially directed at John Cavanaugh, who had spoken before him.

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh lashed out at Halloran later Monday in emotional comments on the floor. “You don’t know anything about anyone else’s life. And I can tell you that women in this body have been subjected to sexual violence,” she said.

Halloran and both Sen. Cavanaughs did not return requests for comment Tuesday.

On Tuesday morning, Speaker John Arch, a Republican, said he wanted to apologize to Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh and all members of the legislature — especially the female senators. He also made it clear that he plans to vote in favor of the measure.

“I do not condone the reading of the graphic rape scene on the floor of the legislature nor do I condone personally directing that passage to another member or members of this legislature even if it is to make a point,” he said. “Despite R-rated warning, we do not know who was on the other side of the television screen, watching and listening, certainly children that this bill is directed to protect, not to mention survivors of sexual assault.”

Sen. Julie Slama, a Republican and the youngest member of the chamber, spoke on the floor following Halloran’s apology. She said Halloran’s remarks Monday were “wholly inappropriate” and called on the legislature to take stronger action to prevent similar incidents.

“I don’t care if it was John Cavanaugh, I don’t care if it was Machaela Cavanaugh,” she said. “It doesn’t matter the gender of the person you are trying to sexually harass.”

Sen. Wendy DeBoer, a Democrat, said in floor remarks Tuesday that she hopes Halloran will apologize and members shouldn’t dismiss his remarks.

“If you have not been in a situation to experience harassment, sexual violence, you maybe don’t understand the ways in which those memories can be triggered,” she said. “And when describing the reading from the transcript, and then inserting the senator’s name in there, already, that’s a problem. But the additional, I think it was meant to be perhaps some sort of maybe a gotcha moment, or a moment of something, but there is aggression in it and that’s where the danger lies.”

The sponsor of the bill, Republican Sen. Joni Albrecht, apologized to her colleagues on Monday. “I’m so sorry that your name was injected into it,” she said. “That is absolutely, I will be the first to stand up and say I’m sorry. This is in our schools. This is what’s going on. And I don’t want to see this elevated to any level.”

Sen. Megan Hunt, an independent, adjourned the session early on Monday because of Halloran’s remarks.

“Honestly, I think Halloran should resign. How dare he even form his mouth to say the words “Give me a blow job Senator Cavanaugh,” she wrote in a post on X. “He said that because he wanted to say it. It was beyond the pale. Pure aggression to read a rape scene out loud and put it like that. Broken brain.”

“The problem isn’t that graphic language exists in books,” she added in another post. “The problem isn’t that rape survivors have written about their experiences. The problem is standing on a platform as a state senator, and fixing your mouth to tell one of your colleagues to give you a blow job.”

GOP Nebraska state Sen. Julie Slama also wrote on X that Halloran should resign.

“Nope. Hell nope,” she wrote in a post on Monday. “I’m out of words, but y’all can be damn sure I’ll find them by morning session.”

In Sebold’s memoir from 1999, she recounted surviving being raped in college. The man she accused, Anthony J. Broadwater, was wrongfully convicted and served 16 years in prison. He was exonerated in 2021, and Sebold said she was “truly sorry” for playing a role in his conviction.