The writer, of Omaha, is a state senator representing District 8 in the Nebraska Legislature.
Many Nebraskans have asked me to offer my view on the recent exchange between State Sen. Ernie Chambers and State Sen. Julie Slama. The contention between my two colleagues is ostensibly about a racist mailer targeting Chambers sent on behalf of Slama’s campaign, and comments made about Slama by Chambers on the floor of the Legislature. The conflict elevated into the public conversation after several news articles and, most recently, a Public Pulse letter from First Lady Susanne Shore. For that reason, I would like to contribute to the public dialogue.
Using sexist tropes to attack women is always inappropriate, and what Sen. Chambers said deserves criticism. Using Sen. Slama’s name in an oversexualized example to make a point about race and power was not right. In an important broader context, the two senators need to be judged by their actions. Sen. Chambers’s record of voting in the interest of women, people experiencing poverty, and people of color is without parallel. Sen. Slama has time and again failed to use her power to advance policies that would support these individuals.
I believe in calling out misogyny and racism, while also putting weight on the actions people take and making space for people to learn. In this instance, Sen. Slama is taking a feminist position only to criticize misogyny against her personally, while abandoning it when it actually matters for her constituents. Health care, reproductive rights, family and sick leave, affordable child care, increasing the minimum wage, reducing food insecurity — on each of these issues, Sen. Slama’s voting record shows that she has not been there for all women when it counts.
Sen. Chambers was right to stand up for himself when his image was used in a racist mailer to attack Sen. Slama’s political opponent. Sen. Slama was appointed by the governor at age 22 after she had worked on his campaign staff. It is valid for Nebraskans to consider what her experience or qualifications were for her appointment. It is also valid for Nebraskans to consider Sen. Slama’s outrage in the broader context of her voting record. I view Sen. Slama’s outrage and claims of misogyny as a distraction from her dismal voting record on women’s issues, her racist campaign mailer that she continues to defend, and the cronyism behind her appointment by the governor.
This is the root of the deeply ingrained structural problem of sexism. All men benefit from the ways our culture enforces sexist norms. Of course, we also see women uphold sexist institutions. I understand from experience that many women believe that to get ahead, they have to run with the boys — the ones with the keys to the club. Women sometimes align themselves with men in power to benefit from a system that would otherwise keep them out. Then they get to hold power and say they earned what they have, but they don’t have to do anything to actually support opportunities for other women.
I’ve been consistent in my willingness to call out those who target women, whether that’s Chris Janicek, the U.S. Senate Democratic nominee who sexually harassed his staff, or Sen. Ernie Chambers. But Sen. Slama doesn’t get to use the mantle of feminism to hide her record of not extending rights or civilities to other women, especially Black women who bear the greatest burden of structural racism which Sen.Slama refuses to denounce.
I share First Lady Susanne Shore’s goal of growing a state that embraces and supports young women of all experiences and backgrounds. That’s why it’s important to put actions behind our words, put petty partisan tricks aside and focus on advancing policy around reproductive justice, racial equity and protections for LGBTQ+ individuals. If we want Nebraska to be safe for women, we must ensure that includes all women.