Convention speech — Sen. Megan Hunt: ‘An opportunity to make a difference’
This is the speech by Nebraska state Sen. Megan Hunt, given on Oct. 29, 2022, at FFRF’s national convention in San Antonio. She was introduced by FFRF Board Member Jeremiah Camara, an author and filmmaker. To watch the speech, go to ffrf.us/convention-2022.
Jeremiah Camara: I’d like to introduce our next speaker, Megan Hunt. She’s a Nebraska state senator, and is a most unusual public official because she publicly identifies as an atheist. She was first elected to the unicameral Nebraska Senate in 2013 to represent District 8 and is committed to uplifting the voices of the marginalized and forgotten. In April, she led dramatic filibusters against an anti-abortion trigger bill that would have banned abortion care in that state once the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Her impassioned remarks and filibuster were credited with killing the bill in early April. Thanks to her activism, abortion is still legal in Nebraska.
Megan Hunt is an entrepreneur, activist and parent. She has worked with other senators to tackle food stamp reform, ban the harmful practice of conversion therapy, improve affordable housing, and ensure that caregivers during the pandemic were eligible for unemployment benefits. She currently sits on five committees in the Legislature. Megan’s work has been covered by major publications and she has received numerous awards. We’re very pleased she’s here today to accept this Champion of the First Amendment award.
By Megan Hunt
Thank you. It’s incredible to receive this honor. It is really difficult to follow people like Anthea Butler, who I admire so much. And Amy Hagstrom Miller, who’s coming up next. I met her in Washington, D.C. She probably doesn’t remember, but I thought she was the coolest person ever. I’m in this room with all these fantastic people and figures in the movement, and I just feel like this regular person, and I don’t know how I got into this mess. I don’t say that to put myself down or anything, just to say that, isn’t it incredible in life how one choice leads to another, and then you’re just like, “Oh my god! I’m responsible for things! I never wanted this to happen. I’m in too deep.” But, that’s pretty much been my life.
My background is really in entrepreneurship and activism. I’m a single mom; I have a 12-year-old son who’s in seventh grade and I’ve just been a gal in the neighborhood for about the past 18 years. I’ve been a business owner in my district for about 20 years and I ran a clothing boutique for about 12 years and now I run a stationery store, so who I am at the core is a mom in the neighborhood who has a shop.
Fork in the road
But, circumstances have come into my life so many times that caused me to take a fork in the road or make a different decision, and it just shows me how you don’t have to come from privilege, you don’t have to have money, you don’t have to have the biggest, strongest network ever, you just have to try to make the next right decision as much as possible. You find yourself in these situations where you really have an opportunity to make a difference for people, and that has been truly the honor of my life.
My background is as a business owner and a parent and everything. I never saw myself getting into politics; it was never a goal of mine. I was not trying to square myself up to be in power or some big leader or anything. In 2005, Omaha public schools, which is the public school district where I lived, they were starting to consider updates to their comprehensive sex ed curriculum. At the time, the sex ed curriculum hadn’t been updated since 1971. So, in some cases, you had kids getting the same sex ed that their grandparents had gotten. And, of course, since 1971, we’ve had the AIDS epidemic, we’ve had an increasingly out and increasingly suicidal LGBTQ+ population, we have the internet and what goes on with that. There’s a lot more going on in society and we know that kids aren’t getting accurate information about their own biology and their bodies and the kinds of information they need in order to make responsible decisions for their future.
In my county in Nebraska at the time, we also had the highest rates — the highest rates — of STDs and STIs in the entire country. I was part of a group of people who knew that to make a difference in that number for public health, for the health of our kids, comprehensive sex education could go a long way.
It was as contentious as some of you probably can guess. There were public hearings, there was outcry, there were rallies on both sides. At one public school board meeting, there was physical fighting. People shouting slurs at LGBTQ kids, adults harassing children this way.
I was in this room — this overflow room, because the meeting was so big — and I’m looking around just thinking, “All we’re talking about is teaching kids medically accurate, age-appropriate research-based biological information about their bodies and their health.”
And the violence and the anger that this inspires in my neighbors, and the people around us, and our community, shows how little respect we have for ourselves, for each other, for public health, and for the researchers and scientists and people who do all the work to bring this information to us, so we can make the best decisions.
And that really concerned me. So, long story short, we did it. We ended up updating the curriculum. The school board voted to add comprehensive sex education to the curriculum. It was very difficult, it was super arduous, and I can’t believe we did it.
Running for office
I found that people were seeing me not just as a business leader, but maybe a political leader. I had organized a lot of letters to the editor, I had organized rallies, I had done a lot of work with parents and teachers, myth-busting and trying to debunk lots of things other people were saying. So, I started asking around, “If I ran for the Legislature, would you support me?” Everywhere I turned, people were like, “Yes, you should run, you should do it.” All of us have friends or cousins or neighbors where we think of them and we’re like, “They should run for office, they would be really good in city council or they would be really good in the House of Representatives, they would be really good on the school board,” but they don’t run because they don’t want to get involved in all this BS that we have to deal with. Keep pushing those people.
I’m really glad that I was asking around and trying to get people’s support because when I announced that I was running, everybody in my neighborhood and my community was right there with me. I won by a landslide and became the first queer person elected to the Legislature and the first woman elected from my district. I’m proud of that, but I also say it’s a dubious honor because it’s not great that it took until 2018 to elect an LGBTQ person. I’m like the Diet Coke of gay culture. There’s nothing challenging going on here. I feel a responsibility not just to speak for those people, but to hold the door open behind me and make sure that people from all kinds of life experiences are able to serve in public office, because we know that government works better when it actually reflects the identities of the people it serves.
And that’s some old rich white men, there are some of you out there, you should have some representation, but there’s too much, right? And in Nebraska, we’ve never had a Jewish state senator, we’ve never had a Muslim state senator. We don’t have a lot of representation from people of different nationalities or different abilities, and all of these things denigrate government to me. I’m happy to be a nonbeliever and I can represent that group as well as I can, as an individual, but I don’t represent the scope of experiences of the people of Nebraska or the people around the country who our work affects.
That’s a big mission that I’ve had. I know that I’m speaking to an extremely friendly room, and a lot of you have been very active in this movement for decades, but how many of you know Sen. Ernie Chambers? For those who don’t, Sen. Ernie Chambers is the longest-serving state senator in Nebraska history. He served for 46 years. They implemented term limits because of him. He was often the only Black senator in the Legislature. For many, many years, he was the only person of color and the only Black man elected in the Legislature. He has been an extremely important mentor and friend to me, so receiving this award is even more meaningful, because he received this award in 2005, and I know that this organization means a lot to him. And when I got into the Legislature, we sat next to each other, by chance, and we really, really hit it off. It wasn’t because we’re both nonbelievers, it wasn’t just that. I think that we both understand what it feels like when you think the government doesn’t notice you or care about you or work for you.
It’s so important that young people, especially, as they’re starting to get involved in civic engagement and voting and things like that, that they understand that the government is literally for you. It’s not above you. It’s not better than you. It’s not for people smarter than you. It’s made up of people just like you, and it exists for you. So, I really try to encourage people to get involved, whether that’s deciding to run for office, or being engaged with the nonprofit community where you live. All of these things are so important for our civic health and all of you already know because I’m preaching to the choir, is that civic health is really bad right now, and the more we can react positively to that and get people involved in a positive way, maybe we can keep it on life support. It’s a difficult time, for sure, and it’s a difficult time to be elected.
Using the filibuster
Here’s one of my favorite stories about Sen. Chambers. He was really well known for his filibusters. He could talk for hours and hours and hours. All the senators are like, “Ernie’s talking. I’m going back to my office and get some things done, because I know it’s going to be hours before we get to anything.” And that’s a skill. That’s a skill that I really have tried to learn from him — how to use the rules, how to use procedures, motions, amendments, to hold things up.
Because in conservative states, like Nebraska or Texas, when we don’t have the votes to stop something terrible, or we don’t have the numbers that we need to get something done that needs to be done, we do have time. The gift that he gave me is just understanding how to use these procedures so that we can take up as much time as possible. We were debating an abortion restriction bill in 2019, and he traditionally would be leading a filibuster on something like that. He’s an old timer, he’s experienced, he’s teaching the rest of us because now in the era of term limits, we have less of an idea of what’s going on. So, his mentorship was really important. But, as we’re debating this abortion restriction bill, he’s in his office downstairs the entire time. I’m filing motions, I’m keeping my light on so I can keep talking, I’m filing amendments, going off on these little tangents, doing my best. But, the whole time, he never came upstairs to help. I was a little perturbed by this. I’m like, “I gotta to do all this stuff myself now? What’s going on?” At the end of the bill when we had the vote, it was 16 hours or something of talking, he came upstairs for the vote and we lost, of course, but we didn’t make it easy.
That’s the other thing that I’ve learned is that another tool that you have in the toolbox, even if you’re not going to win the day, even if you’re not going to win the war or the battle that day, you cannot make it easy for them. You have to make them go home at the end of the night, sad and tired and exhausted, in a bad mood, regretting the day they brought that bill, because it was no fun to pass it. That’s what I feel like I’ve been able to do with every abortion restriction that has come through Nebraska. Even though we can’t always hold them off, they regret it because we made it so painful for them and that’s what gives me pleasure.
And I do think that’s a deterrent. I think that makes people think twice about introducing some little thing, they go, “Ugh, Megan is going to make it too tough, so let’s not.” That day that we had that vote and Ernie came upstairs, he came over to talk to me and I was sad, because of course, we lost the vote because we’re never going to have the numbers for this kind of thing, and he put his hands on my shoulders like this and he said, “Did you do everything you could?” I said “Yes, I did everything I could.” He said, “Well, then how can anyone ask any more of you?” I think about that all the time when it feels like a loss is inevitable, especially as a progressive in a conservative state. If you’ve done your best, how could anybody ask any more of you? And I asked him, “But where were you? Were you just in your office the whole time? Why didn’t you come up?” He said, “Because I needed to know when I’m not here anymore, that you can do that.” I still tear up thinking about that moment.
A special place
But the Nebraska Legislature is a very special place. It’s the only nonpartisan legislature in the country. It’s the only one-house legislature in the country, so we don’t have a House and a Senate, and it’s also the smallest in the country, with just 49 members, so we don’t have any majority, minority leaders. All of our leadership is elected by the whole body with a secret ballot. So, there’s no overt party pressure to vote for the right person or anything. And for that reason, even though Democrats are in the minority, we actually have an outsized majority of committee chairmen, because when the ballot is secret and you’re able to vote for the person who’s best for the job, progressives tend to take those positions. So, it’s a very special place. My view is just if I get to serve eight years in the Legislature, but in the pie chart in my life, the small time that I get to be in the Legislature, wear my little pin, have people call me “senator” in the hallway, that’s such a small slice of my life and it’s really a gift to have this time to talk for 16 hours a day, to frustrate conservatives as much as possible. But to get the death threats, to get the rape threats, to get doxed, to get my child threatened at school, to get all the things that come with, as Dr. Anthea Butler said, the danger that sometimes we need to put ourselves in to make a meaningful difference and ask yourself, “What more are you willing to do to make the change you want to see in the world?” I’m very mindful that I don’t want to waste that gift, that I won’t have this platform forever.
It’s very nice to meet all of you and receive this recognition. Thank you.