In the face of anti-trans hate, this Nebraska lawmaker wants to be a "bully for good"
A conversation with Nebraska State Senator Machaela Cavanaugh about her filibuster in defense of trans kids -- and her unexpected faith in changing colleagues' minds
Do you sometimes feel that, in a moment of strident and often violent attack on fundamental values of dignity, freedom, and democracy, leaders who purport to stand for those things don’t stand firmly enough? That they hold the right values but somehow lack the ferocity and chutzpah adequate to the task? I often do.
Many of us do. Which is why, from time to time, when a leader steps up and steps out and shows some teeth and isn’t afraid to mix it up, millions of people react with huge feeling. This is what happened Michigan State Senator Mallory McMorrow went viral last year. Similar moments can be attributed to Tim Ryan, the former Ohio congressman, and Gavin Newsom, the governor of California. And, of course, the bright rising star of Nebraska, State Senator Machaela Cavanaugh.
As Republicans in her state sought to crack down on transgender people, Cavanaugh refused to be polite. She threatened to filibuster, and then began to filibuster, all but shutting down the state’s ability to pass laws. In my favorite moment from the clip that exploded across the country, she addresses the criticism that she is threatening Republicans by holding bills hostage:
“If people are like, ‘Is she threatening us?’ Let me be clear: Yes, I am threatening you.”
For once. A bully for good, as a little girl who lives in my building puts it.
The other day, I spoke with Cavanaugh about her powerful stand — and her story.
Below is an abridged and shortened edit of our conversation. For the audio of our full conversation, click on the play button above. It’s available exclusively to paying subscribers. Become one day if you haven’t yet! You will be supporting work that we hope makes you think.
“Nothing is more important”: a conversation with State Senator Machaela Cavanaugh
Every now and then, someone creates a moment that the whole country pays attention to. And often these moments are not moments people necessarily plan or have any foresight that they're going to happen, but they happen. And you recently had one of these moments where you really captured the country's imagination with your defense of trans kids and, I would say, human rights more generally. Can you take us into the backstory of your decision to speak up, and speak up in the particular way that you did?
Well, I think a moment is probably an accurate description, because there wasn't a lot of planning or forethought about it. I am on the committee, the Health and Human Services Committee, where this bill, this anti-gender-affirming care for youth bill, was heard and our committee was taking action on it. I was obviously opposing moving it out of the committee to the body for full debate. And I told my committee members that this was going to be a problem if they wanted to move this to the floor, that it was going to be extremely problematic and I was going to make it problematic.
That was at, I don't even know, 7 or 8 o'clock at night on a Wednesday, and there was an ice storm. So I ended up having to stay in Lincoln, the capital city, that night. The next morning, I showed up feeling very not well at all. Turned out that I had strep throat that I didn't know of.
And I thought, "Well, I told them this was going to be problematic, so I’ve got to make it a problem, and I’ve got to do it right now, starting today." And so I just got on the mic and started talking. That was pretty much the beginning, middle, and end of my thinking. I said I was going to do it, and I'm a woman of my word, so here I am. I, oftentimes when I'm speaking on the floor, speak from my head and my heart at the same time. I don't have written remarks very often. I have general themes that I want to discuss. And so that's what happened. I just said what I was thinking. I said how I felt about it all, and somebody made a clip and put it on the internet.
You first of all challenged and opposed this attempt to crack down on or criminalize trans and non-binary kids getting the care they need. But I think what really captured the imagination of a lot of Democrats around the country is that there was a kind of benign threat in there. And you named this issue of threatening: If folks are going to say that I'm threatening to shut down this legislature, you're right, I am. I will say as someone who watches politics a lot, who often longs for Democrats to have a little more tooth and a little more nail in their politics, it was such an unusual moment. Can you talk about that notion of what a little girl who lives in my building refers to being “a bully for good”?
I haven't thought of it that way, though some of my colleagues have been calling me a bully. So I like thinking that, if I am a bully, it's for good. I appreciate that how I'm talking about what I am doing is not necessarily typical. It's typical for me. I am brutally honest about my intentions most of the time. And so, for me, this is not an unusual way. I am always very clear and transparent with my colleagues about what I'm doing and why I am doing it. I am not really a political games person. I'm very direct. And since the start of this legislative session, when we saw across the country a lot of really anti-LGBTQ, transphobic bills being introduced, anti-women reproductive healthcare bills being introduced, myself and several colleagues have been talking on the mic about how we are going to slow the session down.
But when this particular bill was voted out of committee and it was clear that it was going to get more time than other things that are impacting people's lives, I wanted to make this a choice that the body had to make. Do they want to legislate hate, or do they want to do the business of government? And so that's really what has been driving me. I mean, yeah, I guess I'm a bully. I'm comfortable with that, though.
Do you share the view that too often in the defense of these issues Democrats are too nice?
I don't know. I haven't seen a lot of defense of these issues.
There you go.
Part of why these moments happen — and you remember the moment with the Michigan State Senator Mallory McMorrow last year — I think there's a hunger for a more full-throated defense of us. One of the ways I sometimes think about this is that, with the rise of right-wing, hate-fueled authoritarianism in this country, a lot of Americans, if you put it in a family model, feel like there's a predator in the house or there's an abuser in the house, and then there's a good parent who's not really protecting them, who is not doing bad things to them but is slightly weak in their defense.
Making it permissible.
Yeah. So occasionally when someone is not doing that, is actually “a bully for good,” to stick with that idea from the little girl in my building, it just strikes such a chord with people because it's not just about politics. People feel really undefended right now in a lot of ways. These are not just policy issues like taxation. These are issues of, Are you safe? Can you walk down the street, move through the world, and not be kind of attacked by life? And I think a lot of people, as your moment illustrated through contrast, are feeling like, "No one's fighting for me."
And I don't want people to feel like that anywhere in this country. I don't want trans youth, LGBTQ youth, to feel like nobody is fighting for them.
So what has happened since you said you were going to shut down other legislating if they advance this?
I've been shutting it down. We are almost halfway through our legislative session. We have not passed a single bill this year. Not a one.
And you are actively filibustering each one when it's in session?
How have your Democratic colleagues felt as you not only made that statement and became well known for it, but also then in the ensuing filibustering you're doing?
I would say that most people are uncomfortable and frustrated. For the most part, however, my Democratic colleagues are understanding and supportive of what I am doing. It does come at a cost to them, just like it does to everyone else. Their legislation is not getting moved, just like everyone else's. And so this is costing the entire body their time and their priorities.
And it seems like that's an affirmative choice on your part. Explain to a skeptic why you feel like it's important for otherwise worthy pieces of legislation to be held up for this.
I don't think that anything is more worthy than protecting trans children. Nothing is. Nothing is more important to pass than protecting trans kids — period.
Tell me about your origins in politics. I know your father was in Congress.
Yes, he was.
Tell me about your introduction to the idea of politics and political styles through him and then your own journey into politics.
I think my introduction was I was born. My dad served in the state legislature in the '70s, and then he ran for Congress, and he served two terms in Congress. I am the middle of eight kids, and I was born in Washington, D.C., while my dad was serving in Congress. We moved back to Omaha, Nebraska, when I was not even two. So this is my home. This is where I grew up.
So you were not corrupted by Washington?
Wait, I'm getting there. I did live in Washington, D.C. I worked for Nebraska's U.S. senator, Ben Nelson, when I graduated from college, in 2001. I started working for Senator Nelson after September 11. My first day that I was supposed to start was the day that his office closed because of the anthrax attack. So then I had to wait to start my job until the Senate reopened, which was a few months.
I interned in Tipper Gore's office when Bill Clinton was president. So I've been around Washington a few times, and I've always been interested in politics. I have a master's in public administration, and I'm a very much a public policy nerd. I love public policy. And the political side of things I've always viewed as just the thing you have to be involved in to be involved in public policy. But now it's like all I do and I don't do public policy the way that I want to. And that kind of breaks my heart a little bit because it really is my passion. But, like I said, nothing's more important than protecting these kids. Nothing.
When did you first run?
I ran in 2018, and I was just reelected in 2022.
2018, if I remember right, was an enormous wave of first-time women running for office.
Yes, I think that it was. The legislature in my freshman year had the largest class of women in the Nebraska legislature. And then we went down in numbers the next election and we are back up in numbers again. We have more women than Democrats.
That sounds like it could be a state slogan: “Nebraska, more women than Democrats.”
That would be a fact. And it would be a better state slogan than “Not for everyone.” Our current state slogan is: “Honestly, it's not for everyone.”
Is it really?
Yes. It's horrible.
Who came up with this?
Some marketing firm in Colorado. Why we would have another state develop our slogan and why we would select it is beyond me, but that is our current U.S. Senator Pete Ricketts’ doing.
I mean, it's an accurate description, especially currently — that Nebraska, we're not for everyone. We are actively trying to legislate hate. So, yeah, I'd like to do away with this legislation, and I'd like to do away with that slogan.
Well, maybe after the trans fight you can get involved with the state slogan reform.
That'll be my next issue to champion.
Before we get back to the trans issue, I want to ask you about some of the other issues you were known for before that.
Paid leave. I also know you were a pioneer at breastfeeding on the floor of the legislature. Talk to me about some of the fights and issues that you were interested in in the run-up to taking on this fight for trans kids.
When I was running for office, I was also pregnant. My son was born between my primary election and my general election. When I was elected, I had a baby with me, and it's Nebraska and we have blizzards. So there would be times where he would come with me to Lincoln because I'd have to stay overnight and I was breastfeeding. And, obviously, I would pump and things like that, but I didn't — many women will understand the struggle — have a great milk supply. And he refused to take formula. So I always said he was a gentleman of discerning taste. He really just liked breast milk.
So he would come with me, and he's the youngest of three kids. And when you are the youngest of three kids, it's kind of like — there's joke commercials about it, how parents are just whatever with that kid. That's how I was with him. I would throw him in a Bjorn sling, take him wherever, feed him wherever. Didn't really give it much thought. And I was sitting on the floor listening to floor debate, and I was nursing him, and one of my staffers just took a picture and posted it on Twitter, and it blew up.
Just like the speech I made recently, I was just doing what I'm doing. And it really resonated with people, which I'm happy for, that people need to see that reflection of who they are, that it is OK to be a working mom and to take care of your kid and your job because you can do that. My first year in the legislature, though, I did come to realize that we did not have a mother's room in the building. So that became my first thing to make sure we got. And we did. I had to raise outside funds to make it happen. Forty thousand dollars from an outside group to help pay for the plumbing and furniture and all of those things.
So the Nebraska state government will not finance a lactation room for women in the legislature?
It wasn't just for women in the legislature; it was for everyone that comes to the building. But no, no, they will not, they will not. Or they wouldn't at that time at least.
It's like a private problem that must be addressed privately.
Yes. So we did. We got it done. I got it done. That was kind of a crazy whirlwind experience. And I was like, "Wow, look at this. I did this." They put a lot of obstacles in front of me. They couldn't find a room. And then when they found a room: "Well, it doesn't have plumbing." And then: "Well, it's very expensive. We can't do that." And so it was about a year of meetings, lots of meetings about just one room with a sink. But we got there. And now it is a lovely room with a sink and a microwave and a changing table and a refrigerator. And four different types of chairs, recliners, non-recliners, wide chairs, foot stools, so that when people come in there, they have a comfortable place to sit, and they can have their baby there or they can use it to pump. So, yeah, now we have a mother's room or a lactation room.
I want to come back to the issue of the trans kids. From my point of view, living in Brooklyn, New York, it's sometimes hard to understand the level of animus out there in other parts of the country. It's hard, when I look at someone like Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, for me to understand, based on where I live and what I see around me, the amount of purchase and emotive force that this anti-trans politics has. And the fact that very smart, savvy, dangerous right-wing authoritarians are not viewing this as a top 10 issue for them but a top 3 issue for them.
Something is happening where this issue is being weaponized and really being viewed, I think, as the ticket to ride for a lot of folks on the far right. Can you talk about, from your vantage point in Nebraska, what it is about this issue? Because it's a small number of kids, it's clearly an agenda of fear that has exploded across the country. What is going on to make this the fight it is?
I think what you just said: fear. It's about exploding fear around an issue and exploiting that for political gain. And part of the reason, in my view, that that is able to happen, is that people become complicit in it by not speaking out against it and not speaking out about it very firmly. And I think this in some ways applies to the entire LGBTQ movement over decades but also abortion and reproductive healthcare. In Nebraska, our former governor, Pete Ricketts, constantly would say that we're a pro-life state. And the reality is that like 59 percent of Nebraskans support access to abortion care. So we're a pro-reproductive health state, but nobody ever would talk about that because everybody was scared of being maligned as a baby killer or something. And so we allowed the conversation to be driven by a loud minority. And I think the same thing is happening when it comes to trans youth. We are allowing the conversation to be driven by a loud, hate-mongering, fear-mongering minority, and we need to stop doing that.
You can imagine all kinds of extremist pushes on all kinds of issues, but at different moments in time, they have more or less resonance with people, more or less salience with people. I’m always interested in the question of what are the underlying political emotions out there that give exploitation like this the kind of power and resonance it has right now. Do you think it's the wider change in gender roles in the society, the anxiety people have about their kids in the modern world? What do you understand, as a parent but also a legislator, as the emotional undercurrent that these political leaders are exploiting?
I think it's the lack of knowledge, really. Being in the position that I'm in, being on the committee that I'm on, the interaction that I have had with this gender-affirming care bill, I have learned so much about trans care, trans healthcare, and things that I didn't understand or know. I was broadly supportive of the LGBTQ community and always want to uplift people in their autonomy and choices, but I didn't really know that much about it. I didn't really know what gender-affirming care even meant. I had to learn about it. And so I can see how it can easily be exploited. And I don't know how it intersects with all of the things that you were just saying beyond just a complete lack of understanding and education.
I will say that, in the last two weeks, I have seen a great deal of growth in my colleagues, my Republican colleagues. So many of them have started engaging in this and learning about it and educating themselves and talking to their constituents and coming to a greater place of understanding and compassion that they didn't have previously.
Really? I feel like that's a plot twist.
Yeah, it is. There's one conversation I had with one of my colleagues, who was discussing about how his constituent reached out and said that they had a trans child and that person took them through what their journey has been. And it helps that it's a white conservative Republican parent that's doing this. But having these messengers, having these parents, these families, reach out and they present the same way as the person they're talking to, so they automatically have more standing with that person and sharing their life with them.
People might not like this, but politicians are people. And they do tend to have souls. And if we continue to treat politicians as though they are people who have a soul and try and engage with them in a real and human way, I think we can make progress. And I am seeing that in some of my colleagues.
At the start of all this, my Republican colleagues would say to me, "Well, I have to vote for it." No, you don't actually have to do anything you don't want to do. They're like, "Well, I mean, it's the thing everybody's doing. We have to vote for it. We have to vote for it." And you start unpacking it a little bit more. And it's like, this is actually against the entire platform of the GOP, which is individual rights. You're taking away parental medical choice. You don't have to agree with what the medical choice is, but imagine if this bill was about vaccines. Imagine if this bill was requiring every parent to get specific vaccines for their children no matter what. There'd be outrage.
I'm so interested in that kind of reframing. We saw it in Kansas last summer with the abortion referendum. There were these libertarian arguments made for abortion. And almost somewhat cynically, like invoking the fight against mask mandates, even though the campaigners themselves favored the mask mandates, but they whipped up some of that feeling of "Do you remember when you didn't want the government to tell you to put something on your face? Well, you probably don't want the government forcing more decisions about your body." And it worked. And I think a lot of Democrats I know often are reluctant to reframe those things in more moderate- or right-wing-sounding frames and values. But I actually think that's incredibly necessary. How do you think about that playing out on an issue like trans rights?
I really do think that, for most of my colleagues, it does come down to taking away parental rights in medical decision-making. That is a terrifying concept to them. And focusing on that is helpful. Having them be faced with people in their community whom they represent who are trans, and making it real for them and not just abstract mutilation of children, is very helpful. It's very hard to vilify a human in front of you. I know, because there's a lot of people who are in front of me every single day that I could easily vilify if I didn't sit in a chamber with them. So it's hard. It's hard to view somebody as a villain when you have a personal connection with them. And I think that's what more Republicans and conservatives writ large need. You shouldn't have to know somebody to care about an issue, but it helps.
I feel like one way to understand your political project is to take that Nebraska slogan of “Not for everyone” and try to make it a little less true every day.
Yes. I want it to be a fallacy, entirely. Our state slogan used to be “The good life,” and that's what it is to me. I want it to be the good life. I want it to be a good life for everyone and for all the people I love who don't fit into some box of "normalcy." Because I love living here, and I want my kids to want to live here when they're adults.
If you enjoyed this post, will you share it with someone who might also?
Listen to this episode with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The.Ink to listen to this episode and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.