A handful of state lawmakers criticized Sen. Mike Groene on Thursday for what they said was an offensive comment made by the North Platte senator on Wednesday.
During floor debate, Groene inadvertently called Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk, owner of a broadcasting company, a “media Mongol,” instead of a “media mogul.”
Brought to his attention later, Groene said of Flood: “I think he’s got mixed heritage, so that qualifies him as a ... mongrel and he’s aggressive so that does qualify him sometimes as a Mongol.”
On Thursday, Lincoln Sen. Matt Hansen said Groene’s comments had prompted several “deeply offended and deeply impacted” constituents in his northeast Lincoln district to contact his office and ask him to address it on the floor.
For about an hour on Thursday morning, that’s what Hansen did.
Hansen said he wasn’t criticizing Groene’s initial slip of the tongue, but rather the casual way he sought to clarify them using terms viewed as racist or ableist. He noted that Mongol was sometimes used to refer to people with Down syndrome.
He also said lawmakers needed to rebuke Groene, who he called a bully who used gaslighting to dismiss other senators’ concerns about his comments.
“I want the body to stand up and show a bit of backbone and say, hey, at a minimum, you shouldn’t be racist on the microphone,” Hansen said.
Groene defended his use of both words on Thursday, saying he did not mean them in the way Hansen said he did.
As someone who descended from Irish and German immigrants, Groene said he considered himself a mongrel, and said others in the community where he grew up proudly saw themselves that way, too.
He also said he admired the Mongols, a term he said described how aggressive someone was, because they “conquered half the earth.”
“I stand by my words ... and I’m not going to apologize,” Groene said, dismissing Hansen’s concerns as hypocritical and “mean-spirited.”
Other senators came to Groene’s defense on Wednesday.
Sen. Julie Slama of Peru said the North Platte senator’s comments “were a bit concerning,” and admitted he had “extemporaneous moments.”
But, Groene had come to her defense last year after former Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers compared her to Sally Hemings, a slave woman owned by Thomas Jefferson, who Chambers routinely reminded colleagues was raped and bore several of Jefferson’s children.
In a monologue on the floor, Chambers asked the Legislature what they would think if he owned Slama in the same way Jefferson owned Hemings, which drew calls for his expulsion by Republicans.
Sen. Mike Moser of Columbus also referenced Chambers, although not by name, saying the senator’s fiery oratory on the legislative floor for more than four decades included comments many found hurtful or personally offensive.
If Groene’s constituents in Lincoln County found his words objectionable, they would let him know, Moser added. Everyone else should “lick your wounds and move on,” he said.
But Hansen said it was the responsibility of the Legislature to denounce offensive speech from its members, particularly in light of an elevated number of attacks against Asian Americans and others of Asian descent across the country.
Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh said Hansen was right to not let “a racial slur go unchecked” on the legislative floor, and criticized senators who invoked Chambers as a reason why it was OK to say offensive things during debate.
Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld, whose bill was the target of a filibuster led by Groene on Wednesday when the statements in question were made, said his legislation was aimed at teaching students the power and the consequences of the First Amendment.
Individuals who have freedom of speech also need to accept they will be criticized for that speech, Morfeld said, even state senators like Groene, who accused other senators of trying to censor him.
After about an hour, with the speaking queue drying up, Hansen withdrew his motion and the Legislature moved on to other business.
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