The Nebraska State Capitol (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — Nebraska’s governor, a former governor and all 13 women senators in the State Legislature issued statements Thursday expressing horror at allegations of groping aimed at Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster.
Gov. Pete Ricketts, former Gov. Kay Orr and the state senators also expressed support for the eight women who came forward, including Republican State Sen. Julie Slama, who confirmed witness accounts that Herbster had reached up her skirt at a GOP event. Ricketts and Orr are also Republicans.
Six women told the Nebraska Examiner that the now-67-year-old candidate had groped them on their buttocks, outside of their clothes, during political events or beauty pageants.
One woman said she was cornered in a private setting and kissed forcibly by Herbster.
Slama said in a statement Thursday that she was 22 when the incident with Herbster took place. She had previously confirmed to the Examiner that Herbster had reached under her skirt and touched her inappropriately at a GOP event.
In the statement, Slama said she had referred to the incident, without naming Herbster, in a February floor speech at the Legislature and had prayed that she would not have to “relive this trauma.”
“I am not seeking media attention or any other gain,” she wrote. “I simply was not going to lie and say it did not occur.”
Each woman interviewed for the article said she was grabbed, not inadvertently grazed, by Herbster.
Herbster’s campaign denied the allegations when confronted with them Wednesday.
‘False and baseless’
A campaign spokeswoman called the article “a political hit-piece built on 100% false and baseless claims” and an attack by the “political establishment.”
On Thursday, Herbster put out his own statement that again said the accusations were 100% false. “For over thirty years, I’ve employed hundreds of people. I’ve respected and empowered women to run my company, my farm and now my campaign. Not once has my integrity EVER been challenged in this manner,” he said in the statement. Herbster again said the article was politically motivated.
Ricketts called the accounts of the women “beyond horrible.”
“Charles W. Herbster should beg forgiveness of the women he has preyed upon and seek treatment. Sexual assault is criminal behavior and should disqualify anyone from elected leadership,” Ricketts said in a statement.
Orr, who was governor from 1987 to 1991, called on men who have witnessed such behavior to feel responsible to come forward, as well.
‘An issue of character’
Both Ricketts and Orr are supporting another GOP candidate, University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen, in the spring governor’s primary. Slama served as a press secretary for Ricketts’ 2018 campaign before being named by the governor in December of that year to fill a vacancy in the State Legislature.
The statement from the female state senators — both Republicans and Democrats — said the allegations go beyond politics.
“Sexual assault is despicable and damaging. This is not a question of politics — it is an issue of character and basic human decency,” the statement said. “Charles Herbster’s behavior is completely unacceptable for anyone, especially someone seeking a public office of authority and trust.”
Pillen said in a statement, “All Nebraskans are called to be examples to our families, and Nebraska leaders are called to be exampes to our families, communities and the state of Nebraska.”
State Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha, another candidate seeking the GOP nomination for governor, called on Nebraskans to “listen to and stand with the victims.”
Jane Kleeb, the chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, called the allegations “reprehensible” and called on voters to back the Democrat in the gubernatorial race, State Sen. Carol Blood.
One supporter of Herbster, former Omaha Mayor and U.S. Rep. Hal Daub, criticized the Examiner’s report, saying journalists should be “drilling down” on the “origins of the story,” suggesting that it was Ricketts and his camp who pushed for the story.
Then, Daub added, “Maybe ask Sen. Slama what she was wearing. Was she nude? Was she wearing a one-piece or two-piece?”
Slama, upon hearing Daub’s comments, posted a picture of the dress she wore at the GOP event.
During an interview on KFAB radio Thursday afternoon, Slama said it was comments like Daub’s that “keeps women from coming forward.”
“Clothes don’t equal consent,” Slama added.
Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert defended Slama against Daub’s “demeaning” attack. She said both Daub and Herbster should be “embarrassed by their conduct.”
“The allegations by eight women against Charles Herbster are deeply troubling,” Stothert said. “If the allegations of sexual assault are true, they are actions that disqualify Mr. Herbster from serving as governor of Nebraska.”
Nebraska Examiner political reporter Aaron Sanderford contributed to this report.
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