What's that sound? George W. Norris rolling over in his grave

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Someone who didn’t pay attention to Nebraska history in grade school, or someone who moved here from out of state, might be surprised to learn we have a unique form of government.

Anyone observing current partisan controversies in Lincoln without the appropriate background knowledge would certainly be surprised.

Yes, we have an officially nonpartisan, one-house legislature, something lost in many campaigns, where party affiliation is on prominent display.

It’s still somewhat of a mystery how the Cornhusker state came to have this sort of government.

Perhaps voters were unhappy with the mid-1930s conventional two-house Legislature; they were certainly influenced by the chance to save tax money during the Great Depression.

Others were disappointed with a two-house process that often saw conference committees meet in secret or fail to agree on and advance a single version of proposed laws from each chamber.

It might even have been passed, in 1934, because the same ballot included a measure to legalize parimutuel betting on horse races, an important issue in Omaha.

Whatever the true reason, the constitutional amendment that took effect in 1936 was a victory for McCook’s Sen. George W. Norris, who was impressed by Australia’s state of Queensland, which adopted a unicameral parliament earlier in the century. Norris argued that the bicameral system was based on the non-democratic and wasteful British system where two bodies of people did the same thing and wasted money.

But while nonpartisanship was key to Norris’ vision for the Unicameral, heaven help lawmakers who actually try to put it into practice.

State Sen. John McCollister found himself being invited to leave the Republican Party this week after accusing party officials of “enabling white supremacy” and allowing President Donald Trump to “hijack” the GOP platform.

McCollister has also faced conservative criticism for his stand on abortion rights.

Bob Krist left the party in 2017 and failed to win the governorship as a Democrat after he promised to govern as a centrist, and after Gov. Pete Ricketts called for more “platform Republicans” in 2016, former State Sen. Laura Ebke switched her registration from Republican to Libertarian.

Brat Ashford was able to win the 2nd Congressional District seat after switching from Republican to independent in 2011 and then winning as a Democrat in 2014, but only held the seat for one term.

Since their earliest days as a state, Nebraskans have always had an independent streak, voting for candidates on their own merit rather that party, race or creed.

That seems to go along with sparsely-populated states, where the individual is more important than any political affiliation.

But even the Father of the Unicameral had difficulty navigating waters controlled by the two-party system.

After serving four terms in the U.S. Senate as a Republican, he was able to serve only one term as an independent before being defeated for reelection in 1942.

Selected by a panel of 160 scholars in 1957 as the top choice of for the five best senators in U.S. history, Norris would be a good role model for any elected official who hopes to restore respect for our political system.

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