Saturday, July 01, 2006

Nebraska Legislature's Democratic Defectors

by Kyle Michaelis
As much as I try to be enthusiastic about the strides being made by the Nebraska Democratic Party in 2006, there's nothing to be gained by blinding yourself to the occasional step backwards. Hence, I need to correct my failure to note the recent defections of two Democratic state senators to the Republican Party.

On June 14th, the Omaha World-Herald reported:
The Republican Party has tightened its hold on the Nebraska Legislature, with two Democratic lawmakers switching to the GOP.

Party switches by State Sens. Abbie Cornett of Bellevue and Pat Engel of South Sioux City come at a pivotal time for the state's one-house, and officially nonpartisan, Legislature.

Term limits and turnover will bring 22 newcomers to the State Capitol next year, nearly half of the Legislature's 49 members. Party affiliation historically has been only one factor in the organizing of the Legislature. Leaders and committee chairmen were chosen because of their expertise, track record and personal relationships with other lawmakers.

But in an organization with so many new lawmakers, partisanship could become more important.....

The defections of Cornett and Engel give the GOP a current 34-13 edge in the Legislature. There are two independents....

Since 1994, when the Legislature was split 24-24 between the parties, GOP control of the body has grown steadily....

Engel and Cornett said their decisions to become Republicans were motivated by political philosophy, not by any desire to gain an edge in leadership elections.

Engel is said to be considering running for speaker....

Engel, who changed parties in January, said he did it to help Gov. Dave Heineman in the primary race for the GOP nomination for governor against U.S. Rep. Tom Osborne....

"The Democratic Party has just gone so far to the left," Engel said. "They left me; I didn't leave them."

Cornett, who will seek the chairmanship of the Revenue Committee, said she also switched so she could vote for Heineman in the primary. She stayed because the GOP was a better fit for her philosophically.

"I noticed last year that my voting and my positions fell way more in line with the Republican Party than the Democratic Party," she said.

"I still support labor and unions, but the pro-life and gun issues, and on some of the tax issues I faced in the Revenue Committee, made it obvious I was more Republican than Democrat."

These are hardly tragic losses, but they are unfortunate and certainly serve to stem some of the perceived momentum on the part of Nebraska Democrats.

Of course, I'm personally enamored with the idea of our non-partisan legislature, so I like to imagine these changes won't mean a thing. Still, there does seem to be something to the idea that these Senators feel forced to switch teams if they hope to get ahead in Nebraska politics. With the advent of term limits, that mentality even seems to have found its way into our sacred statehouse. And, no doubt, we will be worse off for it.

Ultimately, I have a hard time taking seriously any justification besides personal ambition for these party switches. If either Engel or Cornett really just felt out of place as Democrats, I would have respected their becoming Independents. This idea, however, that they just woke up one morning and realized they were Republicans doesn't hold water. I mean, seriously, the Republican agenda for America has left this nation at its weakest and least respected position in 100 years. And, statewide, one party domination seems to have had pretty much the same effect on Nebraska, particularly its economy. If that's a legacy Engel and Cornett really want to claim as their own, they're welcome to it.

Still, there's no excusing Engel's suggestion that the Democratic Party has moved too far to the left, leaving him rather than the other way around. I would love to hear Engel even try to explain such a ridiculous assertion. Seriously, how has the Democratic Party - nationally or in Nebraska - really changed since Engel's being a Democrat first got him appointed to the state legislature in 1993? If anything, the party's weakness is that it hasn't changed enough and has yet to retailor its undying message to the needs and aspirations of 21st Century voters.

Democrats are not the ones claiming to be budget hawks while running up record defecits. Democrats are not the ones claiming to believe in a smaller federal government while overseeing its largest expansion in 70 years. If its sojourn in the political wilderness has not left the Democratic Party sufficiently hypocritical for Engel's tastes, then - again - he's welcome to his newfound Republicanism and all the hypocrisy that goes with it.


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