Being a senator is a lot like being a storyteller.
“A lot of what we do here, if we’re doing our job right, is articulate the stories of other people in an effort to change the law, to help those people out,” Sen. George Dungan said.
Dungan represents approximately 40,000 people in Legislative District 26, or Northeast Lincoln, and has been telling his constituents’ stories for this past year since taking office. Dungan, a 35-year-old Lincoln native, said his time as an attorney in the public defender’s office taught him valuable skills like storytelling and negotiation, both of which have made him a better senator.
“My voice, I think, can be used to amplify the stories of others here at the Capitol in a way that maybe those people are not always heard,” Dungan said.
As a public defender, his time was spent working with low-income people who couldn’t afford attorneys. Dungan worked primarily in the juvenile unit. Working in that community, he quickly realized that many of the problems his clients faced were a product of systemic issues, like substance abuse treatment, the education system, and mental health care.
“That really quickly shows you the amount of problems that our society has surrounding people who don’t have a lot of money,” Dungan said.
Dungan realized that helping people was his calling. The most important lesson he learned was how to defend clients who were guilty, which he said was guided by the notion that ‘nobody is as bad as the worst thing they’ve ever done.’ He was passionate about making a difference in people’s lives, but he also knew that these systemic issues needed to be addressed on a larger scale.
“I spent a large portion of that job trying to help people in whatever way I could but realized that oftentimes when you’re sort of boots on the ground in the trenches, you can’t make larger systemic changes that help larger swaths of people,” Dungan said.
So, he decided to campaign for public office. It was during his campaign that he met Johnny “Jay” Pitts Jr., a law enforcement officer with the Lincoln Airport authority who was running for sheriff in 2021. Pitts said they had a lot in common, and although his campaign wasn’t a success, they remain friends. Dungan will still ask for his feedback on bills.
“He’s down to earth. He gets people, he really does,” Pitts said.
His time in office hasn’t changed who he is as a person, according to Pitts. Dungan credits his campaign success to appealing to a wide range of people with “kitchen table issues,” or the issues that are important to everyone. He focused on the economy, good-paying jobs, supporting labor unions, access to healthcare, and expanding access to developmental disability services.
George Dungan will spend up to 12 hours a day at the capitol building when the legislature is in session working with other senators to pass legislation (Photo by Marissa Lindemann / College of Journalism and Mass Communications).
“I tried really, really hard during the campaign to focus on stuff that I actually think matters to everyone and isn’t just sort of divisive social issues,” Dungan said.
Dungan has stayed true to his campaign. During his first year in office he passed his priority bill which expanded the Bridge to Independence program to youth who were justice-involved. This bill prevented 50 young people from being homeless when they aged out of foster care.
“To get our priority bill passed in my first year, it felt like a real accomplishment, and it actually has a real tangible benefit for like a finite amount of kids,” Dungan said.
Similar bills had been introduced and failed before, but Dungan said that his focus on connecting with his colleagues made the bill successful this time.
“You have to be able to build relationships with people that may disagree with you or come at it from a completely different perspective than you,” Dungan said.
The other senators heard him out, not only because he had formed a connection with them, but because he brought in youth who had become homeless the day they turned 19 and allowed them to tell their stories.
“The importance of storytelling is it makes things grounded, and it makes people be able to relate to it,” Dungan said.
When the legislature is in its interim session, Dungan is able to work fewer hours and enjoy some of his hobbies, like playing music with his fiancé, biking, and spending lots of time outside. He also has maintained his own private practice and spends most days in court. Dungan’s varied interests and charismatic personality help him connect to many people, according to his Legislative Aid, Camdyn Kavan.
George Dungan reviews his notes for a juvenile court case he’s working on in his office. He still maintains a private law practice as a senator (Photo by Marissa Lindemann / College of Journalism and Mass Communications).
“He’s just really well-rounded. So it enables him to speak to anyone at any time about any topic,” Kavan said.
When the legislature session starts in January, Dungan will often spend 12 hours a day at the capitol building meeting with his colleagues, developing bills, listening to his constituents, and attending committee hearings.
In this upcoming session, Dungan wants to focus on a program that provides prenatal care to mothers with high-risk pregnancies. Dungan says that everyone should be able to agree that pregnant people who want to have babies should do so healthily.
“There are certain things that I think no matter if you’re left or right, should be agreeable and not a hot-button issue,” Dungan said.
Dungan said that if he’s lucky enough to be in office for eight years, he’d like to see a substantive change to the criminal justice system. His time as a public defender taught him that focusing on prevention through measures like access to mental health care and housing, matters much more than just punishment.
“I don’t think that makes Nebraska a better place for any of us when we invest in just punishment,” Dungan said.
George Dungan encourages 150 youth to share their perspective about climate change with their legislators at the Nebraska East Union during the Nebraska Youth Climate Summit (Photo by Marissa Lindemann / College of Journalism and Mass Communications).
Dungan also has prioritized youth involvement in politics. He said that talking to young audiences is necessary because he remembers it making a difference when elected officials did the same thing for him.
“I think it’s really important for me to take my time as an elected official and speak about these things to make sure people are heard and to make sure that there’s sort of an open dialogue between the youth and the elected officials,” Dungan said.
Dungan’s job is to tell Nebraskan’s stories in an effort to make their lives better, but the most powerful story comes when youth speak to their senator directly.