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The Brown Political Review is a non-partisan political publication that seeks to promote ideological diversity. All of the views reflected in BPR’s content are views held by authors and not reflective of the views held by the wider organization or the Executive Board.

Redistrict Me This [Nebraska Edition: Part I] – BPR Interviews: Senator Dan Hughes

Older white man with gray hair in suit (senator Dan Hughes)

Redistrict Me This is a series of interviews with state senators from across the United States. Conducted beginning in spring 2021, they will continue through the decennial redistricting process following the 2020 census. While we hope the unusual amount of national media attention to state-level politics generated by redistricting will spark interest in this series, we intend to go beyond the process story. We ask interviewees to examine how their foundational beliefs inform their approach to redistricting and their preferred outcomes. Though these interviews use redistricting as an anchor point, they are wide-ranging, exploring numerous topics both political and personal. We hope that, as a collection, they will shed light on how the men and women who draw the lines of our franchise both shape and are shaped by American democracy.

In this installment, we meet Nebraska Senator Dan Hughes. The Senator has been a wheat farmer all his life, like his parents before him. With the help of a very understanding wife and two grown children who’ve come back to the farm, the Senator has also been able to spend his life in public service. In 2015, he entered the Nebraska Legislature. The unicameral legislature is nominally non-partisan, though the Senator would have you know that he is a member of the Republican party and does not leave his politics at home when he goes to work in the morning. Today, he is the chairman of the executive board for the legislature. But he remains a proud wheat farmer and, as the chairman of U.S. Wheat Associates, traveled around the world promoting U.S. wheat. This experience confirmed for him that he’ll always be happiest back in his little corner of paradise—the 44th district of Nebraska.

AL: Your first public service job was in your county wheat growers’ association. Is that how you caught the public service bug?

DH: I come from a farming family; my parents were very involved in the community. That’s what I grew up knowing. I was the youngest of eight children. They were terrible to me—sarcasm, of course. But I never got included in anything! As the youngest, the shortest, the smallest, I always wanted to be playing with the big kids, to be included in the decision-making process. And I guess that has just continued into my adult life.

AL: And you joined the school board because your kids were in that district?

DH: That was part of it. My dad was on the school board forever when I was growing up. So, I just followed in my father’s footsteps; when the opportunity came up and my kids were in school, it was a natural step. I felt it was my duty to give to that school and to be part of the decision-making process.

AL: How did you get involved with the Nebraska Ethanol Board?

DH: There’s the National Association of Wheat Growers, and I was with the Nebraska Wheat Board. When I got involved, we were here in Lincoln at the State Capitol working to influence legislation on ethanol. Quite frankly, in Nebraska, the wheat growers were the early supporters of the ethanol industry, not corn. And so that was kind of the area that we worked on when I was cutting my teeth, so to speak, in public service, and then I had the opportunity to get appointed by the governor to the Nebraska Ethanol board.

AL: What about with U.S. Wheat Associates?

DH: Most of the countries that compete with the United States in the wheat market have government-sponsored promotion boards. Here in the United States, we do not have federal help to promote internationally the wheat we produce. And so that’s where U.S. Wheat Associates comes into play; the farmers have organized it themselves. The National Association of Wheat Growers runs a check-off program where two or three cents are assessed from every bushel of wheat that’s produced in the United States, and that money is set aside to pay for product promotion around the world, to expand our market.

The Nebraska Wheat Board I was part of runs the check-off program within Nebraska. So, it’s part of U.S. Wheat Associates, which has something like thirteen or fifteen offices around the world. And so, when I was on the board, I had the opportunity to travel all over the world. I feel very fortunate for that, and fortunate to be able to see our wheat full circle—from the person who is actually producing the grain, to the end consumer, whether that’s in this country or in South America or Taiwan or Korea. As a farmer, it is important that the product that I produce is the best quality product available for the consumer. That’s my job, so seeing the wheat go through the consumption chain was important.

AL: So, you’ve worked as a farmer your whole life, and yet you’ve also been able to spend all that time serving your community and the public in various ways, including many that we won’t discuss today. How did you manage to pull that off?

DH: I have a very understanding spouse and grown children who have come back to the farm. That allowed me to continue in public service.

AL: How has your faith and religious affiliation influenced your career in public service?

DH: I was one of eight kids, so I was born and raised Catholic. Judeo-Christian values were pretty prevalent in our family. My wife was a different faith, but we certainly wanted to pass our Judeo-Christian values on to our children; the Methodist Church was our compromise because it was most convenient to go to the church in the town where our kids went to school.

But in this job as a senator, I do not inject my faith into my decisions—well let me take that back. I do not project my faith in this job. I do base my decisions off of the Judeo-Christian values that I was raised with. I am a compilation of my life’s experiences, and those are the values that I brought with me to the legislature. I don’t leave those values at home in the morning when I come to work. They’re with me all the time.

AL: Shifting gears a bit, my understanding is that you consider illegal immigration to be a problem in Nebraska. Is that correct?

DH: Well, the problem is it’s illegal. I have no problem with immigration. But I think the path to immigrate into this country needs to be streamlined. Letting people come willy-nilly across the border overwhelms our infrastructure and creates all kinds of problems. But I do think we need individuals who are willing to come here and work. The meatpacking industry is huge in Nebraska, and we need those laborers to do the work that Americans won’t do. And we do have a tremendous amount of foreign labor that comes to work. They send money home; they work as long as they can, and then they go home. They don’t want to live in this country.

On the other hand though, there’s a Central American population now that seems to be wanting to come across the border for a better life. I certainly don’t begrudge them that. You know, my family on both sides immigrated to the United States at some point. But they came into this country legally. There does have to be some sort of a structure to it. What I have a problem with is just opening up the doors and letting people come in; telling them to come back in a month and we’ll review your case. And then they never show back up and there’s no follow up.

AL: Given your baseline view on immigration policy, how is it you came to vote in favor of a 2015 bill to let DACA recipients get driver’s licenses in Nebraska?

DH: One of the towns in my district has a lot of Hispanic labor; there’s big feedlots, plus a fairly sizable potato and fresh produce operation. They’re a very progressive community that has reached out to the Hispanic population. When you are a welcoming community, more people come, so there were more Hispanics in that community than most of the other communities in the district that I represent. For the DACA vote, I had several city leaders and prominent citizens in my district contact me. They were very adamant. The DACA kids had grown up in the community and gone to college and assimilated into our society; they were here through no fault of their own. So, it was my constituents—people whom I respected and who came in no small number—that dictated my vote on that issue.

AL: If you had voted based only on your own assessment of the issue, would you have voted the same way?

DH: You know, I don’t know. That was a vote that I did struggle with. Illegal is illegal. But when you come as a child, well, the sins of the father are not necessarily the sins of the son. I did have help from my constituents to make that choice. But I like to think I would have come to the same decision on my own.

AL: So how did you feel about former president Trump’s attempt to have non-citizens, particularly illegal immigrants, excluded from the census count?

DH: Well, like I said, it’s the illegal issue. When something is illegal, it’s illegal. Now, we need to try and reform our immigration system—and that’s part of the DACA thing—but even when we don’t agree with the law, or it’s not convenient for us, it’s still the law. Quite frankly, that’s why a lot of the people coming want to come to this country in the first place. Because we are a country of laws. The rule of law still means something in this country. In a lot of the Latin American countries, there’s a real concern about police protection, about public corruption at the expense of the citizenry; there’s very little rule of law. There are problems everywhere, but those problems aren’t rampant in this country, at least I hope not. Certainly not in my little corner of paradise.

AL: I certainly agree with you; rule of law is at the heart of American society. But isn’t the bedrock of that rule of law the Constitution, from which our institutions derive the authority to enact laws and to which those laws must conform? Would you agree the 14th Amendment states that we must count the number of whole persons and says nothing about immigration status? Aren’t we bound to follow the law, even when we disagree with it or it is inconvenient for us?

DH: I guess that’s one interpretation of what the 14th Amendment means. But I think the Americans are the ones who should be counted because we are the ones who have followed the process correctly. I don’t think we should kick everybody out. But, to put it bluntly, when it comes to representation, those who have played by the rules are the ones who should make the rules.

AL: But being counted in the census doesn’t give anyone access to the political process, right? Wouldn’t being counted only mean a more accurate allocation of federal resources, with which illegal immigrants could at least receive a baseline of support?

DH: Well, I think that baseline is something that is drawing a pretty significant number of these individuals here. And at some point, we need to decide on our future. I see our national debt skyrocketing—and I do think the Covid pandemic we are in, well the government is designed for that, to take extraordinary measures in extraordinary circumstances—at some point that national debt has got to be paid back. And if it isn’t, then the government collapses, and we don’t have the rule of law anymore. And the piece of paper that says I own my house or the piece of paper you get that says you have a degree from Brown University, well that paper is no longer worth anything. It becomes worthless because there is no rule of law to back it up. So, which do you want? There’s a price to be paid by everyone, one way or the other. I would certainly rather do my part to pay off the debt, to live more conservatively, to provide a better lifestyle for my children, my grandchildren—hopefully great grandchildren at some point—rather than at some point experience the chaos of the collapse of a government.

AL: Moving now from how census data is collected to how it will be applied, let’s talk about redistricting. On an abstract level, what is the ultimate goal of redistricting for you?

DH: Well, it’s representation. The representation for the people, the population. We are seeing a fairly significant population shift here in Nebraska from West to East. The population centers are here in Lincoln and in Omaha. The rural population is migrating because of technology which allows agriculture to be less labor-intensive and so there are not as many jobs in rural parts of the state. So, in order to find jobs, the population is moving, and so that’s the way it is.

AL: What is it that troubles you about this shift from rural to urban?

DH: Rural life is a different lifestyle from city life, I guess. I think it’s a slower lifestyle; I figure the city can be just as satisfying, but it depends on what you’re used to. When I was with U.S. Wheat Associates, and we were traveling—I don’t enjoy travelling; I like going out my back door and not worrying about the neighbor across seeing what I’m doing—when we were travelling, in the evening we would sometimes have a cocktail with the staff. And I would ask, how many of your neighbours do you know?

One of the guys lived in a thirty-story apartment complex; he knew the people next door and the lady down the hall and the family on the first floor. And that sort of thing was a pretty universal answer.  When you live in the city, you don’t know your neighbours very well. Well, I know all my neighbours who live within one hundred square miles of my house. But of course, five miles in any direction live maybe thirty people. When folks come out here some of them are worried somebody is going to sneak up and kill them in their farm home. Well, I have that same fear when I go into the city that someone is going to break into my apartment and kill me. Because we all know drugs and gangs and you know where I’m going with that. Like I said, we are going to be comfortable where we grew up. And one’s not better than the other, it’s just different.

AL: I can’t disagree, but are you saying that the differing lifestyles between urban and rural are directly related to redistricting?

DH: Not directly to redistricting. But it is a question of the population moving, so it is about representation and urban and rural. I don’t necessarily like it, but one man one vote is the rule, the Supreme Court has ruled that, so that’s what it is.

AL: With that in mind, I understand you’re in charge of setting up the redistricting committee. From what I hear, a seat on the committee is a hot ticket. Is that true?

DH: Well, I didn’t want to be on there. I thought about it long and hard, but no, I’m still a farmer. I have a job in the summertime, so spending more time in Lincoln is not a goal of mine. But as chairman of the executive board—that’s the board that appoints the members to the committee, so I’m in charge of that—I hope that I will have their ear when it comes to drawing those lines. But yes, I tend to have some pull with them, though I’m not on the committee.

AL: My understanding is that the nine-person committee has to have a specific balance of Democrats and Republicans. But at the same time your legislature is at least nominally bipartisan, people aren’t elected as a candidate for any particular party. So how does that work?

DH: A lot is made of the non-partisan aspect of the legislature. And you know, as a theory and in most practices it’s a good idea—I have no doubt about that. But as I told my colleagues, my constituents elected me because they identify with me, so that does not mean that I leave my politics at the door when I leave home in the morning. The non-partisan thing it’s great when it works in your favour, and then you decry it when it doesn’t. You know, when all those evil Republicans do this or those crazy democrats do that. It sells newspapers, quite frankly.

AL: And so how does your view of the partisanship of the legislative process interact with your view of the redistricting process?

DH: A lot of people want to make the redistricting process nonpartisan, but when you look at the amount of money that is spent to get elected to public office—legislature, Congress, and so on—it is not non-partisan. Most people want to have a say in who their representatives are. And that goes not only for the local elections, but for deciding which side of the street you’re on, what that boundary is for redistricting. Quite frankly you want to have a say-so, so that’s why I’ve never felt that creating a non-partisan committee to draw the lines is possible. Unless you go out on the street and pick random individuals, but of course the people who are going to apply for the job have an interest in it and have a reason to want to do that job. So why not let the individuals in Nebraska who have been charged with that duty for many decades—and who have been elected to those positions by the people—decide? Our system has worked very well as far as I’m concerned, so why go changing that?

AL: In 2016, you voted against setting up a citizen commission to do the redistricting entirely on their own, but how would you feel if the legislature had to approve the plans they proposed?

DH: The redistricting committee here in Nebraska does hold at least one public hearing in each congressional district and we have citizen input on the maps. So there’s nothing that prevents someone from going to the hearing with a map, whether it’s congressional or legislative or whatever they want. There is nothing that prohibits that, and we as legislators can take any information we want—whether it makes it through the process, that’s our job.

AL: And I think just recently, Senator McCollister introduced a bill that would modify some of the procedures for redistricting. Most significantly, the Director of Research for the legislature would take a sort of technocratic approach to the census information and draw up entirely nonpartisan districts. How do you feel about that proposal?

DH: I did not support that legislation. Like I said, I think the process we have in place now is just as good, and probably better, than any alternative. Because I don’t care who you are, you are going to have opinions on anything, but especially on politics, and those are going to influence your judgment. So, having one person draw the maps, well, if they do exist, I have yet to meet the apolitical person who will act without any consideration of political ramifications.

AL: I haven’t met that person either, but the search continues. So redistricting is always partisan, but I’ve heard that, for the state legislative districts, redistricting can also become something of a popularity contest. Is it true that whether a senator is liked by his colleagues can influence the shape or even the existence of his district?

DH: Funny you should mention that! Ten years ago, there was a senator who was not at all liked by his colleagues. He still had two years left in his term, but the legislature dissolved his district and moved it to eastern Nebraska. He was in the panhandle of Nebraska, a very rural district, and they dissolved it and moved it to a more populated area between Lincoln and Omaha. And he had two years left, so he had to service a district that was completely across the state. So yes, if you’re a jerk, there are ways that your colleagues will punish you. You know, this is a people business. We all come at it from a different angle; we use the skills that we think will make us most effective. But sometimes I do think to myself, ‘I don’t know how you’re going to get anything down with that type of tact.’ But we all got elected, we’re all equal, we all do what we need to do.

AL: The final topic I want to address is the way electoral college votes are distributed in Nebraska. Currently, Nebraska is one of two states that select electors by congressional district. You’ve consistently supported legislation to switch Nebraska to a winner-take-all system.

DH: Yes, and you know, that bill is up again this year, and I’ll support it again. I’m trying to think of the best way to explain how I feel. I’ll start here. If you go back and study the way the founding fathers established this country, they designed the electoral college to give protections to the states—or, if you will, the minorities. We have a popular vote that does direct a lot of elections, but for the representative republic that we are, I think the electoral college is very important. Democracy is a great word, but democracy is two lions and a lamb deciding what’s for dinner, and we have to have minority protections.

At some point we are all the minority. I don’t care if you’re a middle-aged white male Republican, you’re going to be the minority at some point. If you’re a young Black female, you’re probably in the minority more often than I am, I agree with that. But we need to remember that all of us are in the minority at some point, so minority protections are there for all of us. The electoral college was designed so that all the states are winner-take-all. If our system were a better system, someone else would have it, but it’s only Nebraska and Maine who have done it.

AL: With all due respect, I don’t think the founding fathers said anything about winner-take-all. It’s left to the legislatures to decide. Plus, if Nebraska and Maine are different from the other states, especially since they didn’t exist at the time the Constitution was ratified, then it does seem like everyone had to choose at some point. So, if winner-take-all is not intrinsic to the system the way it was set up, is it still so bad not having winner-take-all?

DH: When the country was founded, the House of Representatives was based on population. But for the Senate, each state got two seats regardless of land mass or population, and that was a very good system for helping to protect the small states from the large states. And I don’t think we should stray from that policy today, because we are a tremendously diverse country, not only in population density but in ethnicity and many other respects. So, there’s a lot of territory to cover and there’s a lot of different issues that are relevant to different parts of the country.

AL: But with all due respect again, it seems clear that in Nebraska, Democrats are the minority by a vast margin. If we need minority protections, then wouldn’t making sure—in redistricting, I mean—to keep the second district competitive, be essential to preserve the minority right of Democrats to have a shot at sending their candidate to Congress? And having at least one of Nebraska’s electoral college votes reflect that part of the population’s will?

DH: I think the most important issue here is the state’s minority rights. The will of the state is greater than that of any one specific congressional district , and that’s why when the founding fathers set up the electoral college, they got it right, and thank God they did, in my opinion. If we move to each congressional district getting to have their choice, that’s a step towards true democracy, one man one vote, and that would eliminate the minority protections. And that’s where I don’t want to go. There are trade-offs, and it’s not a perfect system. But the system that the US Constitution established is better than anything else out there.

AL: So if maintaining the winner-take-all system is imperative for the preservation of our republican form of government—and you said it was more important certainly than preserving the rights of the citizens of any one congressional district—does that mean you would try to, I don’t want to say “gerrymander,” but to shape the second congressional district in such a way  as to make it more difficult for it to go blue like it did in this past election?

DH: You know, I’m not on the committee—

AL: But you did say the committee listened to you sir, you said you had some pull.

DH: And quite frankly, when I chose the members of the committee, I chose members who I thought would come to a consensus. Who would design something that would pass the whole body of the legislature. Because quite frankly, I don’t want to be down here in November wasting my time; I have a full-time job. So, I chose people whose decision-making ability I trust. It’s a bipartisan committee, so there has got to be give and take. And there’s going to be aspects of the maps that they draw that I’m going to like and aspects that I’m not going to like, but I’m not going to be looking over their shoulder the whole time. I expect to have input, just like all of the other members of the legislature have input.

AL: That makes sense. But to return to the electoral college thing in the last few minutes we have, you’re saying that when you talk about minority protections, the minority that is being protected is each individual state in the context of the union?

DH: Right. You know, I saw in the paper yesterday that there are forty-three states where the population of the entire state is smaller than the population of Los Angeles county. That’s staggering, and that’s also the reason we are not a true democracy. There’s a reason we are a representative republic. And the distinction between a true democracy and a representative republic is very important. States’ rights are important in a representative republic. Because democracy is mob rule, and that’s what we don’t want.

AL: But isn’t there a way to have majority rule, minority rights, by setting up certain safeguards? We have so many Constitutional provisions that safeguard so many fundamental rights, is that not enough? You were talking about the way the two houses of Congress were set up. Each state gets two senators, even the small states, so right now, the Senate is split evenly but there are about 40 million more people who voted for the Democratic candidate than the Republican candidate in senate races. So, it seems like minority rights are protected, but almost to an extreme. If the makeup of the Senate has just no correlation at all to the way people have voted, it seems like you’re trampling over the right of a large group of people to be represented. I guess I’m using the same analogy as you between the electoral college and the composition of Congress.

DH: I don’t know quite how to answer that question. It is not a perfect system, but it has worked well for over 200 years, there’s no question about that.  And I’m a firm believer in the swing of the pendulum. We’re seeing that even more pronounced now on the national level, that as the pendulum swings too far one way, it has a tendency to swing too far the other way, and then eventually it will come back. And you know, to change the way we are doing something as significant as the electoral college—how we elect the president, I mean—in my opinion, any problems have not reached the level where it is so broken that we need to change the way we’ve done it for over 200 years. Ultimately, the minority rights of the states is the most critical issue. A lot of people want the congressional districts to be able to control their own delegates just because it fits their narrative.

AL: States’ rights is one thing, but you keep bringing up the idea that if it ain’t broken, we shouldn’t attempt to fix it. But when the Constitution was ratified, the senators from each state were chosen by the General Assembly. It was only with the 17th Amendment in 1913 that we got the direct election of senators. And that seems like one way we allowed for a bit more “true” democracy without total mob rule. So maybe there can be positive changes? You would be open to no system for electing the president than the system we currently have?

DH: I don’t want to say nothing at all. But the system that we have I think has served us well for more than two hundred years.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.