State Sen. Mike McDonnell of Omaha speaks to the Legislature. (Courtesy of the Unicameral Information Office)

This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner.

OMAHA — The Douglas County Democratic Party this week soundly rejected the leadership bid by a Democratic state senator who could cast the decisive vote to effectively ban elective abortions in Nebraska.

The county party’s steering group voted 17-3 Wednesday against a push by State Sen. Mike McDonnell of Omaha to join the central committee of the county party that is home to the state’s largest pocket of Democrats.

Several Omaha abortion rights advocates, women, LGBTQ Nebraskans and allies spoke out against McDonnell’s bid during the meeting, including former Omaha City Councilwoman Brenda Council, who said he should know better.

Some said they wanted to express their displeasure with his position on abortion by defeating his bid. They said they hope the vote helps him reconsider his support for and co-sponsorship of new abortion restrictions and anti-trans legislation.

Women fired up

Karin Waggoner, who voted against McDonnell’s bid, said Democratic women are furious about his boosting the bill that would further restrict abortions, and she said people who care about LGBTQ teens are angry, too.

“This vote was about sending a strong message that we don’t support elected officials who support the legislation of law that directly hurts vulnerable humans,” Waggoner told the Nebraska Examiner.

Douglas County Democratic Party Chairman C.J. King, reached Thursday, said the Democrats who objected to McDonnell joining the central committee argued he is acting against some of the party’s core beliefs.

“For many of our members, sponsoring the ‘heartbeat bill’ and the trans legislation was a step too far,” said King, a longtime friend of McDonnell’s. 

Sponsoring bills

McDonnell is the sole Democratic co-sponsor of Republican Sen. Joni Albrecht’s Legislative Bill 626, which would ban abortions after an ultrasound detects embryonic cardiac activity, typically at about six weeks.

He also is the only Democratic co-sponsor of GOP Sen. Kathleen Kauth’s Legislative Bills 574 and 575, which would prohibit gender-affirming care for trans people under age 19 and require trans student-athletes to play high school sports based on their gender at birth.

His votes matter more this session than in previous ones because while the Legislature remains divided on the most controversial legislation, it has tilted more conservative. McDonnell could cast the pivotal 33rd vote for cloture that would enable the abortion bill to pass.

Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb said she has had conversations with McDonnell about where the party stands. She said she explained that the party fundamentally disagrees with his stances on those issues.

“We feel really strongly about these bills that they will do harm,” Kleeb said.

However, she said, he remains a Democrat, and there is room in the party for him.

McDonnell says he’s been ‘consistent’

McDonnell, in an interview Thursday at the Capitol, said he was upfront when he ran for the Legislature in 2016 about being anti-abortion and about his Catholic faith. He said he has been a Democrat since 1984.

“I’ve been consistent and made that statement from Day One,” he said. “If people weren’t aware of that, if they didn’t realize what that meant, then I understand that they have questions and try to answer them.”

McDonnell said his support of the “heartbeat bill” would remain the same whether he was the bill’s 15th vote, 49th vote or 33rd vote. He backed legislation last year that would have banned abortion outright. That legislation failed to pass.

He did not directly address his co-sponsorship of the trans bills.

But he said he understood the county party’s vote on Wednesday.

“There’s people that didn’t want me to be part of that,” he said of the county central committee. “If they want to invite me there in the future to talk to them, I will.”

Possible run for Omaha mayor

During the interview, McDonnell acknowledged the persistent rumor that he has been considering a bid for Omaha mayor as a Democrat. He is.

He declined to discuss potential similarities between his anti-abortion stance and that of the last high-profile Democrat to run for Omaha mayor:  former State Sen. Heath Mello. Mello lost a close race to incumbent Mayor Jean Stothert in 2017.

Data analysis after the election showed that Mello’s anti-abortion stance was a factor in his loss. He was hampered by lower-than-expected voter turnout among Democratic and nonpartisan women, groups who described abortion rights as important. 

For example, about 4,000 fewer Democratic women voted in the 2017 mayor’s race than in the 2013 mayor’s race.

“Whatever I decide to do in the future, if that helps me or hurts me, I’m not making decisions down here on what I possibly could do in the future,” McDonnell said.

Labor leader

In his day job, McDonnell helps lead the Omaha Federation of Labor, an umbrella group of local labor unions that make up a major slice of the financial support for the Douglas County Democrats.

He is the former head of the Omaha firefighters union. He dismissed concerns that the county party might lose union support for bucking him. Separately, his legislative political committee gave the Douglas County Democrats $2,000 in 2021-22.

Political observers have questioned whether McDonnell might follow Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine and switch his voter registration to Republican.

He would not answer when asked Thursday whether he might consider running as part of another party — or no party at all.

“This mayor’s race is nonpartisan,” McDonnell said. “Have I been a registered Democrat since 1984? Yes. Right now if I decide to run for any office, I’m currently a registered Democrat.”

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