LINCOLN, Neb. – Mention televised legislative debates, and what may come to mind are stuffy, policy-wonk discussions broadcast by C-SPAN. This year's Nebraska Legislature was more like a reality TV show, with culture-war rhetoric, open hostility among lawmakers, name-calling, yelling and more.
Many Nebraskans couldn't get enough of it.
“It was addictive,” said Jamie Bonkiewicz, 41, of Omaha. “If I wasn’t there, I was streaming it every day, just to hear what would come out of those senators’ mouths.”
Watching on television, streaming on computers and phones, following along in their cars, Nebraskans seemed captivated by what was easily one of the body's most acrimonious sessions on record.
“Watching the Nebraska Legislature is like watching the worst train wreck that won’t end and the hits just keep coming,” Megan Moslander of Omaha tweeted when lawmakers triggered a constitutional challenge by combining restrictions on abortion and trangender health care into a single bill.
Many viewers tuned in as national media attention focused on a filibuster by Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh. They stayed for the surrounding turmoil.
Cavanaugh, 44, and a handful of other progressive lawmakers vowed to block every bill — even ones they supported — in an attempt to derail a proposed ban on gender-affirming care for minors. Conservative lawmakers dug in on other hot-button bills to restrict abortions, loosen gun laws and divert public money to private school scholarships.
So much for Nebraska nice: Again and again during the 90-day session, lawmakers called each other “trash” and “garbage,” accused each other of unethical behavior and angrily swore retribution for various offenses. Cavanaugh amplified the protesters' chants and accused fellow lawmakers of pursuing genocide against trans kids.
There were silly moments, too: To hold the floor, she offered a recipe for pesto and deliberated over her favorite Girl Scout cookies and Omaha’s best doughnuts.
Art and Carolyn Wagner, retirees in Pleasant Dale, tuned in constantly.
“When we heard about the filibuster, that's when we started watching it on TV,” he said. “We had it on almost every day, probably for four to six hours a day. Some days, we watched it all day until the end — 10 hours or more.”
As with most state legislatures, Nebraska's floor debate can been viewed live on public television or streamed online. But unlike most others, it doesn't make an archive available. A group following the Legislature began posting debates to its YouTube channel, but it hasn't been widely publicized and the footage can take more than a day to appear.
That wasn't soon enough for many who wanted to catch what would happen next.
Bonkiewicz had little interest in the legislative process until she discovered last year that a family member had founded the far-right Nebraskans for Founders’ Values group. She vowed to become more involved in confronting what she sees as growing extremism and, when she wasn't protesting or meeting with lawmakers, she streamed the action live.
“It was chaos. It was like reality TV,” she said. “I've watched ‘Real Housewives’ and other reality shows, and it's addictive like that, the drama of it.”
Nebraska Public Media, which televises and streams the debates, said technology privacy policies make gauging viewership difficult, but it appeared to be up based on how many people called seeking help to tune in.
Nebraska lawmakers took notice as citizens weighed in on both sides.
“I mean, you should see our emails,” said Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, a conservative who authored the successful scholarship bill. “We've gotten thousands and thousands of people commenting on legislation and debate. And they say they're watching it all.”
Cavanaugh said family members and friends in New York, Los Angeles, St. Louis and Nashville, Tennessee, told her their friends and family were watching after her filibuster made national news. She's been overwhelmed with the response.
“The number of people reaching out saying they've been watching is astounding,” Cavanaugh said. “It's been thousands of people. I've been in the Legislature five years now, and stayed pretty anonymous for four of them. Now I have people stopping me at the grocery store. People stop me at Lowe's. They stop me at my kids' games.”
For years on the chamber floor, lawmakers mostly ignored the stationary cameras. This year, many began looking directly into the lenses and appealing to "those watching live.”
The Legislature has seen its share of drama in years past, but much of it came before livestreaming was available, said Ari Kohen, a professor of political theory and philosophy at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The pandemic changed the dynamic, with people turning to streaming to combat boredom. Then came the filibuster, as conservatives nationwide pushed culture war attacks on abortion rights and transgender identity, Kohen said.
As the country’s only officially nonpartisan, single-chamber legislative body, the unique makeup of the Nebraska Legislature also helped viewers track what was going on. There are only 49 seats, all held by part-time, citizen-lawmakers who tend to use everyday language in their debates, Kohen said.
“There are the characters you’re rooting for and the characters you don’t like,” he said.
The drama peaked when Sen. Julie Slama of Dunbar, who at 27 has become one of the body's most conservative members, hobbled in from a hospital, two other lawmakers keeping her vertical, to cast the final vote needed to pass the abortion-transgender bill. The chamber echoed with the howls of protesters in the rotunda, just outside the doors.
Kohen compared it to watching a reality cooking show — you don't need to know your way around the kitchen to get hooked.
Nebraskans now have to wait until January 2024 for the next installment, featuring conservatives pushing for more abortion restrictions and progressives vowing to thwart them, along with rule changes to stymie another epic filibuster.
“They very clearly told people they would be back for season two,” Kohen said.