Civic Engagement Published

Jeff Fortenberry’s Abuse of Power: Episode Number We Lost Count

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry held two town halls this week, one in Bellevue and one in Lincoln. We posted a guide to maximizing town hall opportunities by making a sign to keep on your lap in the front row, and one constituent, Brian Reitz, did just that.

Brian Reitz holds a sign pointing out Fortenberry’s pungent Trump support at the Bellevue town hall on July 31. Fortenberry has now officially done more to prevent signs like this from entering his town halls than he has to prevent gun violence.

As you might have imagined, this did not sit well with the Congressman. So today at his town hall at North Star High School, a public school in Lincoln, his staff implemented a new rule: no signs at his town halls. And who was on hand to enforce the rule? Lincoln Police.

Several uniformed officers patrolled the crowd, checking bags as people entered. When one Lincoln couple arrived with signs made from poster paper, a Lincoln Police officer said he needed to see the pair’s signs. Two more officers stepped up, and according to the women, a second officer said they would not be allowed in with the signs. One of the women said that this was a First Amendment issue. The officer acknowledged that it was a First Amendment issue but said that they had been instructed by the “people in charge” to block anyone with signs from entering. The women say they responded that their signs were not obscene and that they would stand in the very back so they wouldn’t obstruct anyone’s view. An officer said the women would have to ask permission from Nick Kennedy, a new addition to Fortenberry’s staff. Kennedy said no, they could not come in with the signs, and the police then instructed the women to leave the signs outside if they wanted to enter. The women said they didn’t want to leave their signs to be inspected or confiscated by police or Fortenberry’s staff, so they stood by the entrance to the school with their signs as people entered, then left.

Nick Kennedy, the Fortenberry staffer who told two Lincoln residents they could not enter the public school town hall with signs.
Three uniformed Lincoln Police officers block two of Jeff Fortenberry’s constituents from entering the town hall because they are carrying poster board signs.
A sign that was kept from Fortenberry’s town hall.

When the town hall got started things weren’t much better. Fortenberry was asked a range of questions, many of which challenged the congressman to stand up to Trump’s racism and poor treatment of immigrants. As he offered indirect answers, people in the crowd responded by insisting he answer the question or do more to condemn the president’s white supremacy. A few of Fortenberry’s supporters resented the attitude of the crowd and shouted back. One of these was a man in the front row who carried a cane and became increasingly agitated during the meeting, initially banging his cane on the floor when people criticized Fortenberry, but escalating to pointing the cane in people’s faces and shouting at them. Eventually he told Lincoln resident Judy King, who was seated next to me, that he was going to shove his cane “up your ass.”

We have put together a video of the worst of these interactions here, including the entire questions and answers that led to the outbursts:

King called an officer’s attention to this threat but nobody intervened to remove the man. The man himself yelled “Get her out of here” and “Take out the garbage” when Lincoln resident Carol Flora of pro-immigrant Stand In for Lincoln pressed Fortenberry to respond to her question and a letter that she and her group hand delivered to him weeks ago.

After the event was over, the man approached Fortenberry and spoke to him briefly, then stopped to chat with the officer who had declined to intervene after he threatened Judy King, and the officer patted him on the back before they parted company.

Agitated man pointing his cane at one of Fortenberry’s critics.
The same man pointing his cane in the faces of two women to his left as one of the several Lincoln Police officers observes.
The same man chatting with a police officer as he was leaving the event.

As a single event, this may not warrant too much concern, but it’s part of a pattern of Fortenberry enlisting the powers of his office and the Lincoln Police in particular to punish his critics. In 2018 his chief of staff tried to get Ari Kohen fired for liking a photo of an altered campaign sign that we posted on Seeing Red’s Facebook page. Months later, he instructed Lincoln Police to have Patricia Wonch Hill charged for allegedly putting the googly eyes on his campaign sign. Then in June, Lincoln Police ran an honest-to-god Crime Stoppers segment trying to track down some of the people present when I put removable googly eye stickers on his office, which I publicly announced I would be doing ahead of time and have publicly acknowledged several times since (and which did not cause any damage to anything but Fortenberry’s fragile ego).

In Fortenberry’s world, there’s nothing wrong with detaining children at the border, and Trump’s disgusting racism and predatory comments are just a wash with accusations of racism themselves, all of which is just a sea of undifferentiated incivility to him. Anything that challenges Fortenberry’s self-importance, however, is a crime that demands police intervention. Is this what we expect from our representatives or police department?