In eight years in the Nebraska Legislature, Sen. Steve Lathrop, by virtue of where he lives, was the recipient of the sometimes fraught tag of “an Omaha senator.”
But a closer look at the issues in which Lathrop involved himself before being obliged to step aside as a result of term limits last week, shows that while Lathrop was nominally a legislator from the state’s largest city, his work transcended boundaries or labels.
Look even at the relatively thin strip of geography comprising Lathrop’s District 12, and it’s written in black and white, somewhere between 72nd Street in the east, 156th Street in the west, the industrial parks in the north and Harrison Street on the south, the slight little interruption of Omaha that is Ralston.
“I watch small-town senators and Omaha senators,” Lathrop ruminated Monday as he sat overlooking the auxiliary ice sheet at the Ralston Arena, a facility his Legislative Bill 779 helped build when it passed back in 2010. It was the beginning of his first week of life after the Unicameral. “I’m lucky to have been both. I like to think I was responsive to what my small-town constituents in Ralston wanted, while also being able to serve the folks in Omaha. This building, this idea, it came from Ralston City Hall and exists because of the relationships between (Ralston Mayor) Don Groesser and myself, because of the work we shared with the Ralston City Council.”
Had the arena been the only line on Lathrop’s legislative resume, it would have likely been enough to merit him a prominent place in Ralston history.
For nearly the entire 2010 session, Lathrop worked tirelessly to build consensus on what eventually became known as the Ralston bill, Legislative Bill 779, which created a turnback tax allowing municipalities to dream big in creating sports facilities they could build with bonds and repay on the strength of borrowing a portion of state sales tax for a time.
The bill worked its way through committee and onto select file and eventually to a hot May day on the Legislature floor where Lathrop, his shirtsleeves rolled to the elbows and his hair darkened with sweat, argued the bill right into unanimous passage.
But Lathrop’s career was defined by big ideas and the forging of crucial policy that had echoes not only in his home district, but across the state.
As an encore to the legislation making the arena possible, Lathrop spent much of the 2011 session brokering a deal to improve the transparency and predictability of the Commission of Industrial Relations, the state body handling disputes between public entities and their employees.
The bill’s passage in the 11th hour of the 2011 session, Lathrop said at the time, may just have staved off the kind of state government lockouts that were seen that year in Wisconsin and Indiana.
In his tenure, Lathrop also took on major labor issues, sought much-needed changes at the Beatrice State Developmental Center, developed the state’s policies on embryonic stem cell research, helped launch the state’s first foray into wind energy and, most recently, took on the challenges of water policy as they relate to the Ogallala Aquifer.
“They’re sort of like your children, the bills and the issues you work on,” Lathrop said. “It’s really hard to look back and say, ‘This one is my favorite.’”
What Lathrop gained a reputation for, in his work, was consensus-building, a meeting in the middle on some of the most divisive issues.
One man who learned quickly about the senator’s knack for negotiation was Groesser.
During Lathrop’s first campaign for the Legislature, the five-term Ralston mayor supported Lathrop’s opponent in the District 12 race, Jean Stothert, now Omaha’s mayor.
“He and I sit on different sides of the fence on a few issues,” said Groesser, a Republican, of the Democrat Lathrop. “But none of that ever mattered. When I threw my support to Stothert and he won, it didn’t matter. He still came to me and said, ‘What can we do?’ And we got to work. That’s the kind of guy he is. There’s a lot of respect here in Ralston for everything he’s done, and I’m proud to say he’s a friend of mine.”
Lathrop himself said the tag of Omaha senator or Democrat or Republican never much mattered to him, either.
In the nonpartisan Unicameral, Lathrop took that label to heart. He said he’s also been wary, in the last two sessions of the Legislature, of a group of senators who mock or openly deride the de jure nonpartisanship on the floor.
“That group will be standing up debating and say, ‘Yeah, we’re nonpartisan, ha, ha, it’s a joke to us,’” Lathrop said. “Well, it’s not a joke to me. When you look at issues of water or getting the turnback for Ralston, those aren’t ‘R’ and ‘D’ issues. Those are state issues, everybody issues. What I see happening in the Legislature today is that we’re starting to develop tribes in the Legislature, and those tribes are made down party lines.
“And when you start voting along party lines, there’s partisanship, and it doesn’t belong there.”
Departing under the two consecutive term limit is also something concerning to Lathrop.
Among the 16 other senators who are also on the forced march out of the Unicameral, Lathrop cited several who would just as soon stay on and who could still make a difference, and the examples of good legislators who have fallen victim to the law continue to mount.
“Term limits, in general, have been bad for the state,” he said. “That’s in general, that’s not just me. We’ve lost people like Mike Flood, Chris Langemeier, Lavon Heidemann, Abbie Cornett. We’re moving more talent out the door than dead wood and that’s what has me worried. That, and the fact that term limits just invite people not to pay attention to what’s going on.
“Nobody has to keep tabs on their senator because, well, term limits will correct the problem. That’s just not the case.”
As to his future in politics, Lathrop bowed out of a potential run at the governorship last year.
He said he hasn’t ruled out a return to public office, but he said he’s going to use this break to concentrate on his law practice — he’s a partner at the Omaha firm of Hauptman, O’Brien, Wolf and Lathrop — and to think about his next move. He won’t be far from the arena, however, as he said he’ll keep an eye on his brother Matt Lathrop’s run for Legislature from District 20.
“I have really enjoyed being a state senator,” he said. “I love lawmaking, I love debating, I love crafting policy. After eight years, it can wear on you, but I know in a little while, I’m going to miss it.
“I’m so grateful to the people of my district, to the people of Ralston, who have allowed me to serve. It’s these kinds of things that bring meaning to your life.”