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Former Ricketts campaign staffer tied to racist posts; governor says he's 'shocked and horrified'

Former Ricketts campaign staffer tied to racist posts; governor says he's 'shocked and horrified'

LINCOLN — For the second time in a month, Nebraska’s Republican governor issued a statement condemning racist comments made by someone associated with him.

On Monday, Gov. Pete Ricketts said he was “shocked and horrified” by anti-Jewish, homophobic and racist posts attributed to Bennett Bressman, a former campaign worker.

More than 3,000 posts by Bressman were made public Sunday night by an anti-fascist website. The posts were made on a private chat room operated by a white nationalist.

“I had no idea he harbored these feelings. He never expressed these views to me,” Ricketts said. “I condemn these statements and this hateful world view, which do not reflect my beliefs or the beliefs of Nebraskans.”

Last month, the two-term governor denounced racist comments shared by his father, Joe Ricketts, in personal emails that were leaked to an online news outlet.

The posts by Bressman, as reported by the website Anti-Fascist Action Nebraska, joked about the Holocaust and about turning Israel into “a crater.” Other posts stated that “gays are scum of the earth” and that he “probably would” drive his car into a crowd of people at a Black Lives Matter rally for the “lulz” (laughs).

“I have more compassion for small dogs than illegals ... and journalists,” he wrote in another post.

Anti-Fascist Action Nebraska said it obtained the posts from a media collective called “Unicorn Riot,” which investigates the far right. “Antifa Nebraska” has posted stories sporadically in the past, focusing on anti-Semitic figures in Nebraska, including Gerhard Lauck, who has been active in the neo-Nazi movement, and a philosophy student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who declared, on flyers, that he was a “proud racist.”

Several phone and email messages left with Bressman on Monday by The World-Herald were not returned. But he told the Lincoln Journal Star that he regretted the comments.

“I’m not denying it. I understand how they look really bad and are really bad on their face,” Bressman told the Lincoln newspaper.

His father, Charles Bressman, an Omaha attorney, told The World-Herald that his 22-year-old son’s actions were “very foolish” and the product of his youth. He said the family is dealing with the matter.

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“It was a foolish, stupid thing he has done,” Charles Bressman said. “He knows better and now he’s going to pay.”

The elder Bressman said his son will stand up and take responsibility for his actions.

In a statement on its website, the Anti-Fascist Action Nebraska website called for “swift and decisive action” by the governor and the Nebraska Republican Party.

“The only acceptable course of action is for Governor Ricketts to fire everyone on his staff, repatriate this land to the indigenous people it was stolen from, then resign in disgrace,” the statement said.

Jane Kleeb, state chair for the Nebraska Democratic Party, also condemned the posts and raised questions about a pattern of comments coming from people associated with the governor.

Bressman began as a campaign volunteer who was subsequently paid as a staffer for seven months on the governor’s re-election campaign. His paid job involved overseeing interns who made phone calls, walked neighborhoods and put up yard signs for the Ricketts campaign. His employment with the governor’s campaign committee ended in December, according to the Ricketts campaign.

Bressman could not be located via social media, and it appears that some of his accounts have been taken down.

The Nebraska Republican Party, which employed Bressman as an unpaid intern in the spring of 2018, said he would have never been allowed to volunteer if the party had been aware of his opinions.

“The views expressed by Mr. Bressman online are abhorrent and have no place in the Nebraska Republican Party or civil society,” said Ryan Hamilton, the party’s executive director, who pledged efforts to better screen campaign volunteers.

But the posts also reveal that the GOP had concerns about Bressman as far back as June. That’s when Bressman, according to the website, posted a screenshot of a request from then-GOP Executive Director Kenny Zoeller to take down a tweet. The tweet stated that all U.S. aid to Israel should be halted for their “illegal nuclear arsenal, their aggressive spying operations and them selling our military technology.”

“I got triggered,” the post said.

Zoeller, when reached Monday night, said he told Bressman that the tweet was inappropriate and conflicted with the Nebraska GOP congressional delegation's support of Israel.

The N-word is used in some posts. In others, Bressman says he threw eggs at an LGBT rally and discusses whether to yell at a group of homeless people. Ricketts is mentioned in more than one chat room post, including one talking about a brunch he had with the governor, stating that Ricketts is good on economics but is not focused on social issues beyond abortion and guns.

“But I plant seeds,” the post states.

A UNL political science professor who had Bressman as a student in the spring of 2017 and was mentioned in some of the posts said he was surprised and fearful after reading about the posts.

Ari Kohen, who is Jewish, taught Bressman in a class about modern political philosophy. Kohen said he contacted campus security Monday morning out of an abundance of caution, but he added that the student never expressed anti-Semitic views in class.

“It’s a little bit frightening to be honest,” Kohen said of the posts. “It’s sad that people feel this way in 2019.”

Bressman, according to the professor, reached out to him in an email and also left him a phone message Monday morning.

“He does not feel good about what happened,” Kohen said. Bressman asked to talk with his former instructor, but Kohen said campus security advised him not to do that.

“I don’t know what I can do to make it better for him,” Kohen said. “Eight months and 3,500 messages on a hate chat board? I can’t offer some kind of absolution for that. It was like a who’s who of hate rhetoric.”

Bressman is listed as an enrolled student at UNL, according to officials there. The university said campus police were aware of the posts and would take “all appropriate action based on the identification of a potential threat.”

A former UNL classmate and co-worker at state GOP headquarters, Caitlin Holman, said she had no inkling that Bressman held such opinions.

The director of the Anti- Defamation League-Plains States chapter, Mary-Beth Muskin, said she appreciated Ricketts’ prompt condemnation of the “deeply disturbing” posts but said the situation points to the need for better vetting of campaign workers.

Bressman’s posts were taken from a chat room operated by Nicholas Fuentes, a white supremacist who made an appearance Wednesday night at Iowa State University. The event was marred by confusion and shouting between supporters and a larger group of protesters, according to an account in the campus newspaper. Fuentes also attended the August 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a protester was killed when a man veered his car into a crowd of protesters.

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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-670-2402

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