There was no blood on the floor of The Omaha Bakery on Saturday morning after Nebraska State Sen. John McCollister spoke.
This was a victory for civility and my gurgling, empty stomach.
I had come to the bakery at 608 S. 72nd St. to hear the Republican senator whose tweetstorm earlier this month turned heads when he called out President Donald Trump for stoking racist fears and the Republican Party for being complicit in its silence. McCollister’s criticism made him a national media darling and a scourge of the Nebraska GOP, which invited him to become a Democrat.
I was curious but also cautious: What passes for political discourse these days is usually sickening. I figured the bakery’s for-rent meeting room, which hosts monthly political events organized by a group called Free Speech Nebraska, would be packed. It was. I figured there would be political opposites in the room. There were. I figured I might lose my appetite. I did not.
Organizers Rick Galusha, an associate political science professor at Bellevue University, and Joe Sacco, an advertising consultant, set the tone and some ground rules: Free Speech Society isn’t a free-for-all. Comments must be brief; questions must be direct. No prattling on. The point is a respectful exchange of ideas, not a to-the-death gladiator contest.
This didn’t make the following 90 minutes boring. The resulting discussion led by McCollister and former State Sen. Theresa Thibodeau, now chairwoman of the Douglas County Republican Party, was interesting, pointed and, in the question-and-answer period, testy at times, particularly on the subject of race.
Radio hosts Michael Scott and Michelle Troxclair were among the few people of color in a mostly white room. Scott and Troxclair said the Republican Party ignored north Omaha. And they challenged the idea that Trump’s policies were benefiting all people, saying they were “an assault,” as Troxclair put it, “on me, my children and my community.” Scott said that outside of McCollister, whom he praised as a modern-day Martin Luther publishing his theses, no Nebraska Republican has strongly condemned the president’s rhetoric.
McCollister said Trump speaks in code, stoking his base.
Thibodeau said she’s trying to grow the county GOP and show people that “we are people of empathy and kindness.” She said the party must be “big tent” and welcoming of people with core conservative beliefs with a full-stop on bigotry.
“As soon as you’re a bigot, you’re gone. Not accepted,” she said.
She said she’d love to come on the show and challenged Scott and Troxclair about their own openness to Republicans or conservatives.
McCollister kicked off his portion of the event by reading the head-turning tweets he issued Aug. 4, in the wake of back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton that killed 31 people and injured dozens more. McCollister tweeted that the Republican Party is enabling white supremacy. He tweeted that doesn’t mean Republicans are white supremacists or that the average Republican is a racist. He tweeted that Trump “continually stokes racist fears,” that Nebraska has “Republican senators and representatives who look the other way and say nothing.” He tweeted it was time for Republicans “to be honest with what is happening inside our party.”
The Republican Party is enabling white supremacy in our country. As a lifelong Republican, it pains me to say this, but it’s the truth.— Senator McCollister (@SenMcCollister) August 5, 2019
I of course am not suggesting that all Republicans are white supremacists nor am I saying that the average Republican is even racist.
The 72-year-old told the bakery crowd Saturday that the tweets weren’t some off-the-cuff reaction, which is Twitter’s bread and butter. McCollister did something few tweeters do: He actually took the time to write out his ideas first. To think about them. To vet them with his family, editing — editing! Before tweeting!
Then, when he was satisfied with the message, he pushed the words out into the ether.
And the ether went a bit nuts. Kara Eastman playfully pointed this out Saturday.
The Democratic candidate for Congress who narrowly lost to Rep. Don Bacon, a Republican, in 2018, and is running against Democrat Ann Ashford to be the Democratic candidate in 2020, told McCollister that she has 6,000 Twitter followers to McCollister’s 40,000.
“Why do you have all the attention right now?” she asked.
“I’ll tell you why. I’m a voice in the wilderness,” he said.
That can be a lonely position, as Fox 42 commentator Tom Becka suggested.
Becka, who streamed Saturday’s discussion on Facebook Live, complained that walls go up with political parties and race but that even within seemingly like groups, walls go up.
“You talk about the ‘big-tent party,’ ” he said to Thibodeau. “Yet if someone criticizes the Republican or challenges (a Republican idea), they’re called a ‘RINO.’ They’re ostracized.” That’s RINO, as in Republican In Name Only.
Thibodeau said the Douglas County Republican Party includes people who might not agree with Trump but share in common conservative beliefs.
Galusha said not everyone seems to want that big tent — that some are pushing for “a smaller and smaller tent.”
Other topics that came up Saturday morning included guns. One questioner, noting that McCollister’s tweets were inspired by the mass shootings, asked what might happen on a state level to study gun use and gun violence, noting that federal law generally prohibits the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from doing that kind of study.
McCollister didn’t answer the question but said the state would never make a move to take people’s weapons.
He did say to expect gun-related legislation coming up. McCollister and Thibodeau raised the issue of “red-flag” legislation, in which gun owners deemed dangerous get their weapons taken away. Thibodeau said this can work only with due process. She noted her support for the Second Amendment and called mass shootings “a product of pure evil.”
The event ended with thank-yous and Thibodeau’s observation that “there’s no blood on the floor.”
“This is where civility begins. In rooms like these,” she said.
There is a real hunger to talk through thorny problems in productive ways. And social media, while it provides the platform, is all empty calories. This bakery discussion, however, seems to have potential to draw people together, in person, for a less reactionary and more thoughtful meal of ideas. Plus, let’s get literal: It’s a bakery. I took the feta and spinach bread thingy to go and ate it in the car.
Galusha invited everyone back next month. On the menu? Immigration.