If you’re like me, you read about Nebraska repealing the death penalty and said, “How the hell did that happen?”
It was, indeed, a head scratcher, at least on the surface.
Nebraska is one of the most conservative states in the union. You can always count on U.S. senators from Nebraska and Oklahoma, another regressive state, to take some eye-rollingly ridiculous positions.
For example, Deb Fischer, one of Nebraska’s two Republican (of course) senators, has signed the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, promising not to raise taxes on individual and businesses. I guess that means no new taxes ever.
She is also unrelentingly “pro-life” — except, of course, for those people who kill other people and should be put to death right away. (Because, you know, the Bible says that’s the way it should be.)
Also, in her 2012 campaign materials, she declared, “The EPA must be reformed and possibly eliminated.”
So, out of a state that elected a person with views like that came a successful drive to repeal the death penalty.
How did it happen, then?
The answer is rooted in a decision that Nebraska residents made 81 years ago, in 1934, when they voted overwhelmingly to switch from a bicameral (two-house), partisan state legislature to a unicameral, nonpartisan Legislature.
The state now has a 49-member Legislature whose members do not run under party labels. In that way, it is like the Kansas City, Missouri, City Council, which has 13 members, including the mayor, who also do not run under party banners. That system, by the way, is a big reason that Kansas City has had relatively good government (except for the crooks) over the years: The elected officials do not get caught up in liberal/conservative standoffs.
(In the last 50 years, our decidedly Democratic city has had at least two excellent mayors who are/were Republican — Ilus W. Davis and Richard Berkley. They might not have gotten elected with partisan municipal elections.)
Nebraska is the only state in the union that has a unicameral, nonpartisan Legislature. With 49 members, the Nebraska Legislature is also the smallest state legislature.
Nebraska has just shown the country that it is easier to get things done — to make a radical policy change — when the conservative/liberal and Republican/Democratic labels are out of the picture and when the body is nimble enough to effect a major policy change on the power of 30 votes, which is exactly the number of legislators who voted to repeal.
Gov. Pete Ricketts, who, like other statewide officeholders, does run on a party label, said he was “appalled” (he sounded even apoplectic) at Wednesday’s override.
With the action, Nebraska became the 19th state, plus the District of Columbia, to ban the death penalty.
A front-page story in today’s New York Times said death-penalty opponents in Nebraska “were able to build a coalition that spanned the ideological spectrum by winning the support of Republican legislators who said they believed capital punishment was inefficient, expensive and out of place with their party’s values.”
State Sen. (the legislators are called senators) Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who introduced the repeal bill, said: ‘There has been a confluence of individuals groups and circumstances that have put Nebraska on the threshold of stepping into history, on the right side of history.”
In my opinion, however, Nebraska would not have ended up on the right side of history if the “Republican legislators” The Times referred to had to run for re-election under party labels. the party leadership, including the governor, would have pilloried them. Ricketts might end up campaigning against those who voted to override, but it just won’t carry the weight that it would in a partisan situation.
In addition to its front-page story, The Times also had an editorial about the development in Nebraska. I thought the editorial was right on target when it said:
“The Nebraska vote — passed by a coalition of Republicans, Democrats and independents, many newly elected — is an acknowledgment by reasonable people of all political ideologies that capital punishment is an abhorrent and indefensible practice.”
The sentence immediately following, however, gave me pause.
It read, “If that realization can happen in the deep-red heart of America, it can happen anywhere.”
That’s a stretch. Do you see any chance of that happening in Missouri or Kansas, for example?
No way…Populated by people with entrenched, partisan philosophies, Republican majorities in the Missouri General Assembly and the Kansas Legislature wouldn’t give 10 seconds’ consideration to bills banning the death penalty.
Hell, even the Democratic governor in Missouri, rural-rooted Jay Nixon is for the death penalty! What a state…