Legislative candidates James Michael Bowers and Danielle Conrad smile for portraits on separate days on Centennial Mall outside the Nebraska State Capitol.
Legislative candidates James Michael Bowers (left) and Danielle Conrad (right) are vying for the District 46 seat for North Lincoln in the Legislature to succeed term-limited State Sen. Adam Morfeld. (Photo by Zach Wendling/NNS)

Ahead of the general election on Nov. 8, two candidates vying for the District 46 legislative seat are making last pitches to voters who will decide their new state senator.

Danielle Conrad, a former state senator and former executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska, is running to return to her seat. She served from 2007 to 2015 before being term limited from running again. James Michael Bowers, a current Lincoln City Council member, social worker and therapist, is looking to bring new ideas to the open seat.

North Lincoln voters elected term-limited State Sen. Adam Morfeld to the Lincoln seat in 2014. The district includes the University of Nebraska-Lincoln City Campus.

Most candidates for the Legislature have official party registrations, but the legislative body is officially nonpartisan and senators don’t formally organize by party. While Conrad and Bowers share similar views — the District 46 seat is the only race this cycle between two Democrats — they each detailed key differences.

Goals and ambitions

Conrad pointed to her continued 16 years of service divided between the Legislature and the ACLU of Nebraska, where she served as its executive director before stepping down in March to run for the seat. There, she said she remained involved in key policy work and litigation around civil rights.

She celebrated her work on increasing Nebraska’s minimum wage and prioritizing working families through expanded Medicaid while a state senator. 

Conrad said she would again seek an assignment to the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, where she served for eight years previously. There, she said she was able to focus on balanced budgets and how to determine taxes and investments.

“It really provides just rocket fuel to this campaign to show that I’m a proven leader for North Lincoln,” Conrad said. “I’m ready to lead on day one, and I’m really excited to get back to work for North Lincoln in the Legislature.”

Some of Conrad’s goals include marketing appropriations to best benefit the University of Nebraska and education, championing reproductive rights and protecting the traditions and nonpartisan nature of the Legislature.

Bowers said as a social worker and therapist on the frontlines of the child welfare system and in public health, he’s ready for a new system of governance.

He highlighted three accomplishments on the City Council: approving funding for universal home visitation for families of newborns, banning conversion therapy that attempts to make LGBTQ children straight and securing funding for more inclusive playground equipment for children of different levels of ability.

Bowers said he would like to take some of these accomplishments to the state level, including a statewide ban on conversion therapy, increased funding for public health departments and expanded mental health care coverage.

“We need to make sure that we are creating a state that removes those challenges for folks to get access to mental health care and physical health and also becoming a state that is provider friendly, that draws more health care professionals into our state,” Bowers said.

Since elected to the council in 2019, Bowers said he has hosted a monthly town hall with constituents and would continue to do so as a state senator.

Both Bowers and Conrad said they would work directly with students, including those at UNL, to bring their ideas to the Legislature.

New political environment

The pair of senators each remarked that politics generally has changed in recent years, though each feels they are best posited to tackle new challenges.

Bowers said as one of those targeted in a recall effort during the COVID-19 pandemic for supporting Health Director Pat Lopez and other medical professionals, he understands that by doing what is right, the community will take care of one another.

“Even in this increasing era where people are kind of going to their corners more, I’ve been able to get things done, and I’ve been able to get things done with a broad base of support from folks by getting them to agree and see our vision for our city and in our community,” Bowers said.

Conrad noted she had been watching “storm clouds” gather in Nebraska politics and was concerned about what was happening in the Legislature.

In an era of term limits and key retirements, there’s a significant loss in institutional knowledge, which has led to increased partisanship, she said. Some groups want to make the Legislature partisan or split it into two houses, and Conrad said Nebraskans don’t want legislators to “mirror the dysfunction and partisan bickering” that other states have suffered.

“I thought if I could, by chance, utilize my unique experiences and expertise to try and make a broader positive difference, I have to try,” Conrad said.

Each candidate said they would work across the aisle to find solutions for their constituents.

Leveraging past experiences

Though neither candidate mentioned the other by name, each said they would be a better option for North Lincoln, with Conrad emphasizing her previous service and Bowers stating his fresh ideas would free him from any “preconceived notion” on the environment.

Conrad said she wished Bowers lived in a different district and that because they have similar views, the distinguishing factor is she’s been in the Legislature before.

“I don’t need that on-the-job training. I have that experience,” Conrad said. “That’s why I am positioned to be a day-one leader in the Legislature, not only for North Lincoln but for Nebraska, and that’s why I entered this race.”

“I wish my opponent the best of luck, I’m glad to have worked with him on a lot of issues over the years and still consider him a friend, but I think what’s really important to remember is the experience is distinguishing,” Conrad added.

Bowers said he has personal experience as well as knowledge from the stories of children and families he works with, who are often missing in policymaking.

“We need to have more people who have had that, working on the frontlines and in the trenches,” Bowers said. “And we need less people that have spent a career as a politician.”

“We need someone who’s going to be able to go in with no preconceived notion of what the environment is going to look like,” Bowers added. “To be able to still hit the ground running and not be caught up in the traditions or the thoughts and notions of the past of how things were 10 years ago.”

Listen to a short part of each interview from Bowers and Conrad below heard first on Nebraska Nightly. Rebecca Heckel contributed to the reporting of this article.