Questions revived about whether Nebraska lawmaker lives in his district

State Sen. Tom Brewer serves northwest Nebraska but registered to vote in eastern Nebraska

By: - January 25, 2023 5:45 am

State Sen. Tom Brewer checks his phone during announcements in the Nebraska Legislature. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Nebraska State Sen. Tom Brewer faced questions in 2014 and 2016 over whether he lived in the Sandhills district he aimed to serve.

State Sen. Tom Brewer
State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon. (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office

He won election and re-election despite those concerns. Now one of his constituents in Cherry County has filed a complaint with the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office and the Clerk of the Legislature.

Years of public records obtained in light of the complaint raise new questions about his residency.

Constitutional concerns

Chief among them: Did Brewer really make his main home in the three-bedroom, two-bathroom Sheridan County cabin built inside a machine shed in Gordon, Nebraska?

Or did he, as the records suggest, live primarily in his Cass County house, 300 miles southeast of District 43, which he was elected to represent?

If the Legislature determines that Brewer violated residency requirements in the Nebraska Constitution, he could forfeit his seat.

At issue is Article III, Section 8. It says “no person elected (to the Legislature) … shall hold his office after he shall have removed (sic) from such district.”

Citizen complaint

Valentine resident Sherri Bacon (no relation to U.S. Rep. Don Bacon), said she wants the Legislature to investigate whether Brewer is violating the requirements.

Bacon, who said she has gotten more active recently in local GOP politics, said she has struggled to get people in authority to take her complaint seriously.

Brewer is widely known in the state and well-liked among his conservative peers. He is known for stressing his military service.

Tom Brewer
Among the stops State Sen. Tom Brewer made during a summer trip to Ukraine was at the funeral procession for a number of soldiers killed in the war with Russia. (Courtesy of State Sen. Tom Brewer)

But Bacon said Brewer made a legal mistake last summer when he registered to vote in Murdock, Nebraska, which is in Cass County in southeast Nebraska.

“If those who make the laws and rules are exempt from following them, the citizens are nothing more than subjects, serfs,” Bacon said. “If law-abiding citizens remain silent, aren’t we making a mockery of the law?”

Records raise issues

Brewer, asked to explain, said he was accidentally and automatically re-registered last year when he signed the Voter ID petition using his Cass County address.

However, records indicate that is not the case. Brewer signed a Voter ID petition for Sheridan County in April and listed his Sheridan County address. The state found no second signature.

Brewer’s voter registration shifted to Cass County on July 26, 2022, the Examiner confirmed, the same day he renewed his driver’s license using his Cass County address.

He and his wife, Kelli, re-registered to vote in Sheridan County on Dec. 8, eight days after the Examiner contacted the Secretary of State’s Office to verify his registration in Cass County.

Brewer, who was told of the reporter’s inquiry, said he learned about the Cass County registration when he tried to vote in Sheridan County last fall and wasn’t allowed.

A public record of the page of the Voter ID petition State Sen. Tom Brewer signed and said automatically re-registered him in Cass County. It did not.

Election records show he did not vote in the general election or request a provisional ballot, which is typically offered when someone tries to vote but can’t.

Brewer had been registered to vote in Cass County from at least 1996 to 2013. He re-registered in Sheridan County before running for the U.S. House in 2013.

He is not the first state senator to be questioned about living outside of his or her district. Others include former Sens. Ernie Chambers and Tyson Larson.

But unlike them, Brewer registered to vote in a legislative district he does not represent.

Homestead exemption

Case law regarding the residency of political candidates have often hinged on a candidate’s  “domicile,” the place where a person intends to return home.

The factors in such cases include voter registration records, driver’s license records and real estate records.

Brewer received a homestead exemption for 100% of the property taxes on his Cass County house in 2022, the county assessor’s office confirmed.

Brewer had not applied for a similar homestead exemption on the Sheridan County property as of early January, a Sheridan County official verified.

The instructions for the homestead exemption application form say the applicant must verify that the exemption is for the person’s “primary home,” meaning where the person lived from Jan. 1 to Aug. 15 that year.

Other records point to Cass

Most of the other types of public records that courts have used to verify residency in related cases point to Brewer living in Cass County.

For instance, his driver’s license listed a Cass County address from at least 2012 to January 2023, the Examiner confirmed.

The majority of motor vehicles registered each year in Brewer’s name have listed Cass County addresses from 2011 through 2022. Midway through the decade, he registered some of those vehicles in Sheridan.

Shown is the complaint a Cherry County constituent filed against State Sen. Tom Brewer challenging his residency with the Clerk of the Legislature. The office said she lacked standing.

Brewer’s donations to federal political candidates in the Federal Election Commission database, including to former President Donald Trump, list the Cass County address.

Brewer says he splits time

Brewer, in an interview, acknowledged that he has spent less time in Sheridan County over the past year than normal, maybe two months.

He said he and his wife have spent more time in the Cass County home than in Sheridan over the past year, because he spent five months in Ukraine.

Asked where he makes his primary residence, Brewer said, “It depends.” He said he lives primarily in Sheridan County in years with short legislative sessions.

He said he lives primarily in Cass County in years with long legislative sessions, like this year.

He said he couldn’t remember if he applied for a homestead exemption, but he said if he had, he would have sought it for the Cass County property because property taxes are higher there.

He said he grew up in the Sandhills and most of his family still lives in the area.

“I wish I was there all the time,” Brewer said of Gordon, in Sheridan County. “Every weekend we have a three- or four-day weekend, I’m out there, including this last one.”

Legislature could act

Bacon has asked the Attorney General’s Office to investigate Brewer. The AG’s office told her in September that only the Legislature can expel a member, based on the Constitution.

She wrote this month to the Clerk of the Legislature, who replied that she lacked standing to challenge Brewer’s residency and that only a losing candidate for the legislative district could file a formal complaint.

Brewer is term-limited from running again in 2024. He said last week he might run for a seat on the Nebraska Public Power District board.

That utility serves Gordon. The Omaha Public Power District serves Murdock. Under state law, he would need to live in a subdistrict he seeks to represent.

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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also spent several years as an assignment editor and worked two stints as an editorial writer. From 2005 to 2007, he served as communications director for then-Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman. Aaron most recently was the lead investigative reporter for KMTV 3 in Omaha, focusing on holding public officials accountable. His work has received awards from the Associated Press, Great Plains Journalism and more.

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