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

Republican Nebraska state Sen. Steve Halloran later defended reading the graphic text but apologized for adding his colleague's name to it.
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Republican Nebraska state Sen. Steve Halloran faces 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, which 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 refer to 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."

Halloran made the remarks under scrutiny during a debate Monday over Legislative Bill 441, which targets 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 whether he was referring to state Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh or her brother, state Sen. John Cavanaugh, both Democrats. In his apology Tuesday, Halloran said his comments were initially directed at John Cavanaugh, who had spoken before him.

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. She said Tuesday that she did not believe he was referring to her brother.

Reached for comment Tuesday, Machaela Cavanaugh's office responded with a statement from the senator that said Halloran "violated the integrity of our non-partisan legislative body by reading excerpts from a book written about a sexual assault victim."

"But he didn’t stop there," she said. "He verbally spat in the face of sexual assault victims across the state and the country by inserting my name in between phrases of obscenity. It’s beneath him. It’s beneath his title. So let me say this: Senator Steve Halloran should be held accountable.”

Halloran did not respond to a request for comment.

Sen. Megan Hunt, an independent, adjourned the session early 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 b--- j-- Senator Cavanaugh,'” she wrote 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 b--- j--.”

Republican Sen. Julie Slama, the youngest member of the chamber, spoke on the floor after Halloran apologized. She said Halloran’s remarks Monday were “wholly inappropriate” and called on him to resign. She also called on the chamber to implement stronger protections for lawmakers against misconduct.

“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. Brad von Gillern, a Republican, denounced Halloran's remarks and his "conditional apology" in an emotional speech on the floor Tuesday. Through tears, he said that as both a man and the father of a rape victim, he felt it was important to speak up. "I could not help but take it personally," he said.

The sponsor of the bill, Republican Sen. Joni Albrecht, apologized to her colleagues 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."

In memoir from 1999, Sebold 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.

John Cavanaugh, in a statement Tuesday, said that Halloran "misses the point" and that advocates "for book banning would benefit from reading the books they seek to ban."

"Books that tell stories different from our own experiences teach us empathy and help us understand the experiences of other people," he said. “If he actually read this book he maybe would understand how his conduct has affected his colleges and fellow Nebraskans."