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Across the Aisle | Nebraska Senators Climb High for Harmony

By Stewart Schley  |  February 21, 2022

Six days of climbing. Steep hillside trails. One badly swollen knee. Shared toilets. A final ascent in the dark in a below-zero wind chill. Oh, and a ringleader who was recovering from leukemia.

Dave Murman Nebraska
Tom Brewer Nebraska

It was no easy adventure. But as the sun rose to light the frosty morning on Day Six, five Nebraska state senators had finally done it: Wound their way up the challenging 37-mile Machame Route to make it to the top of Africa’s tallest mountain, the majestic Mount Kilimanjaro. The lawmakers representing diverse districts and dual political parties cheered and high-fived and yanked cameras from backpacks to memorialize the moment. They were literally on top of the world.

Except they weren’t. Turns out they’d made it to Stella Point, one of three Kilimanjaro summit sites, at 18,885 feet. They quickly realized Uhuru Peak, Kilimanjaro’s ultimate summit, at 19,340 feet, was still 45 minutes away, up a steep incline. Since 12:40 a.m., they’d been slogging in freezing temperatures, headlamps lighting the dark trail. “My legs,” Sen. Dave Murman says, “felt like cement.”

Still, nobody was turning back. “The hard work had been done, all that was left was putting one foot in front of the other for a few more feet,” recounts Sen. Tom Brewer, a key trip instigator. “We had all come too far to stop short of the summit.”

Forty-some minutes later, they were there.

‘Pole Pole’

Somewhere in the story of how five legislators summitted Kilimanjaro last November is an irresistible analogy to the machinations of public policy; how getting a law enacted is not the stuff of a single brilliant burst, but a slow, unrelenting slog. “Pole pole” (pronounced “po-lay po-lay”) is what Kilimanjaro’s able guides tell their climbers, over and over. It means “slowly slowly” in Swahili. It’s the only way to preserve enough energy and will to keep climbing as the trail stretches on and the oxygen supply steadily depletes. It’s also a fair encapsulation of the legislative process, where turning ideas into law requires patience. “It’s difficult to accomplish big things,” Murman says. “And that’s kind of what the mountain is.”

“Progress really does happen at the speed of trust.”

—Sen. Anna Wishart

In both settings, getting to the finish line also requires faith in your fellow traveler. On the mountain, political allegiances and geographic divides gave way to personal relationships.

Anna Wishart Nebraska

“It’s true: Progress really does happen at the speed of trust,” says Sen. Anna Wishart, one of two Democrats on the trip and the youngest climber at 37. “Anytime you do these types of challenges together, it builds more trust. So when you’re in a circumstance where you have a challenging piece of legislation, where people come from different perspectives, at least you trust each other. You trust that what you’re telling each other is the truth.”

The self-funded Kilimanjaro adventure began as a bucket-list quest instigated by Brewer, a man colleagues simply call “the colonel.” The 63-year-old represents Nebraska’s 43rd District, a wide swath of prairie stretching mostly north of state Highway 2 and encompassing farming towns such as Chadron and Hay Springs. Brewer is a tough guy’s tough guy, a two-time Purple Heart recipient, retired U.S. Army colonel and helicopter pilot who led troops in Afghanistan. He was determined to make the Kilimanjaro climb even after undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment to battle leukemia doctors detected earlier in the year. (Brewer, who went ahead with the trip despite protests from his physicians, reports he’s doing well, health-wise.)

Brewer is a conservative Republican, although in Nebraska, where an unusual unicameral Legislature does not officially recognize political parties, that’s not supposed to matter.

Justin Wayne Nebraska
Ben Hansen Nebraska

It does, of course. Brewer’s politics—he recently introduced a bill to allow permit-free concealed carry of firearms—are a fair stretch apart from those of Kilimanjaro accomplice Sen. Justin Wayne, 42, a Democrat representing an urbanized chunk of Omaha who’s more concerned with public housing. “We’re on the opposite sides of the political spectrum,” Wayne says. But the two have a deeper connection than politics: In a state where 88% of the population is white, the two hail from outside the mainstream. Wayne is African American; Brewer is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

Early in their first terms, Wayne says, they “started having conversations about how we got to where we are.” The two men bonded during hunting trips, prowling for turkeys in Brewer’s district. When Brewer mentioned he was planning to hike up Kilimanjaro, Wayne declared himself “in” on the spot, even though he recognized he was venturing onto unfamiliar turf. “I don’t mind hunting and fishing,” Wayne says. “But climbing a mountain is what white people do. We don’t do ice hockey, and we don’t do mountain climbing.”

The two picked up colleagues who couldn’t resist putting the Kilimanjaro notch on their life belts: Wishart, a Democrat who grew up in Lincoln; Ben Hansen, 42, a Republican whose District 16 is tucked toward the state’s northeast corner; and Murman, 68, a Republican representing District 38, edging up against the Kansas border.

Training Advised

Climbing Kilimanjaro is not for the faint of heart or the light of will. Although mountaineering guides vouch that anybody in reasonably good physical condition should be able to make the trek, the combination of some oppressive terrain and thin air, which can cause altitude sickness, sends about 1 in 3 Kilimanjaro climbers heading back down the mountain before reaching the summit.

Not so for this group. They prepped by hiking 22 miles up Wyoming’s Bomber Mountain on a trial run, and Brewer teamed with Wishart on a demanding cross-training regimen. By the time they took off for Tanzania in early November, they were primed.

When you “pole, pole” your way up a steep hillside, the terrain morphing from lush foliage to sparse, rocky clefts, you’re bound to find moments to engage with fellow climbers. Sometimes, even, legislation is conceived. During the descent, Wayne, hobbled by a knee that had swollen to the size of a cantaloupe, fell back by nearly an hour from the main group. Hansen stuck alongside him, providing company for the hike downhill. As they made their way back down the trail, the two discovered common ground around a shared policy concern: efficiency in government. Thus was conceived a bill that would require any Nebraska government agency to prove its worth on a five-year cycle or face an automatic sunset. Hansen, a self-described “individual liberty guy” with a deejay’s deep voice, likes the idea because it demands accountability in government. Ditto for Wayne.

But there was a hurdle. The two would need a nod from the lawmaker who heads the state’s General Affairs Committee. Happily, they found him just down the hill: Tom Brewer. During a water break, the two cornered the second-term senator, nudging him for approval to bring the bill to committee. On a mountainside in Africa, Brewer gave his verbal OK to consider a measure that could affect how Nebraska runs its business back home.

It’s entirely possible the same chain of events might have taken place back at the capitol in Lincoln, around a conference room table or an office desk, not on the hilly trail of a dormant volcano. But it’s not hard to conceive that something about climbing a faraway peak—sharing meals and morning tea, singing hiking songs taught by guides to keep the spirits high, trudging uphill to the count of thousands of steps every day—inspired unusual possibilities.

A Common Goal

For Brewer, Kilimanjaro lives on as a lesson about perseverance. In an email message, he likens the climb to the hard slog of legislating: “We put in the work in the summers and throughout the session to get bills across the finish line, but it is not uncommon to start to run out of gas after two rounds of debate that include long discussions with countless amendments. When these moments happen, I’ll remember the drive to reach the peak, to complete the mission, and get the legislation passed.”

There’s also a theme about working across party lines. Murman, a retired dairy farmer, says the trip cultivated relationships that might not have happened otherwise. “We all have a tendency to talk mainly to the people who agree with us,” he says. “This situation forces you to communicate more with each other.”

“We all have a tendency to talk mainly to the people who agree with us.”

—Sen. Dave Murman

It also compels the occasional demonstration of humility: Murman came perilously close to bashing his head on a bank of protruding rocks after mistakenly exiting his tent posterior-first and tumbling down a steep hillside.

For Hansen, the trip was instructive in how to operate outside of familiar environments. “You’re getting out of your gerbil cage of being in the capitol,” he says. “You see each other outside of the purview of politics a little bit. That cuts down on animosity.”

All of this lesson-learning isn’t just happy talk about bipartisanship ideals. Wayne, who was awaiting a diagnosis on his injured knee in January, identifies a more tangible takeaway: old-fashioned political capital. Before Kilimanjaro, for instance, Wayne and Murman were relative strangers, set apart both by geography and ideology. “He and I never talked before,” Wayne says. “Now after this trip, I have no problem going up and asking for his vote.”

That’s the sort of thing that happens when you’re sleeping in tents, slogging up trails, getting covered with dirt and, as Wishart recounts, having the adventure of a lifetime. Over six days, climbing toward a common goal, relationships take on a whole new dynamic. “I mean, Ben and I had to share a bathroom,” Wayne says. “There’s not a whole lot he (can’t) say to me now.”

Stewart Schley is a Denver-based freelance writer.

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