In the second installment of a series introducing readers to the people who represent them in Lincoln, student reporter Emily White tells the story of Sara Howard, state senator for Omaha-area District 9.
When Senator Gwen Howard was term-limited out of the legislature following the 2012 election, it seemed natural that her daughter, Sara, should step up to take her place in the Unicameral. This, however, was not always the plan.
“I actually had no intention of running for the legislature,” Howard said. now-Senator Sara Howard said.
Howard had moved away for law school and secured a job in her new home. A month later, her sister, Carrie, passed away from an opioid overdose. It brought her back to Omaha—back into the community that her mother served.
“I started following my mom around to all these different events,” Howard said. “And without fail, whether it was a neighborhood association meeting or a union meeting, people would come up to me.”
Whether it was “Tim” who walked her mother’s dogs while she was spending late nights in the session, “Roberta” who brought former Sen. Howard hot dishes, or “Buff” who took her to church on Sundays, these constituents made an indelible impression on Howard.
“I could feel how much this community had taken care of my mom when I couldn’t be there,” Howard said. “So, when I decided to run, it was really about giving back to a community that has been remarkable to my family.”
“My job is I have 37,000 bosses and they don’t always agree, but I know that it’s my job to make sure they feel heard and that the things that are important to them are important to me,” Howard said.
In her two and a half terms serving District 9, which covers part of midtown Omaha—including UNO’s campus—Howard has worked with colleagues on a variety of legislation. The policy she is most proud of is her work fighting the opioid crisis, which her sister’s death brought close to home.
“I will be honest, the first two years, I didn’t want to talk about what happened with Carrie,” Howard said. “But by my third year I realized that if I didn’t, the state of Nebraska wasn’t going to do anything about it. There were going to be more families who went through exactly what mom and I went through. They will suffer in silence. They will feel that shame. And I didn’t want anyone to have that experience, so, started talking about it.”
These pieces of legislation, and the results stemming from them, have prompted policy makers from other states to ask Sen. Howard: “How did you do it?”
“I really think it all started with me having the bravery to talk about Carrie and to talk about our experience with her,” Howard said.
One of the things she wants to tackle in this year’s session of the Legislature is the “epidemic of rape on college campuses.” Howard hopes to increase safety and security on campuses by putting Title IX protections into state statutes as well as eliminating the statute of limitations for civil rape cases.
Rape and sexual assault on campus is just one of the issues affecting not only students, but Howard as well. Students living on-campus at UNO and off-campus nearby are part of her voting constituency. What is the best way to connect with these young people—to get them civically engaged and out to vote?
Howard thinks that students need to pay attention to issues that affect them and watch how legislators treat those issues. She points, in particular, to the Unicameral’s cuts to the university.
“When we think about President Bounds sending emails saying the Legislature isn’t supporting you and I’m going to have to raise tuition, it is a direct result of elections,” Howard said.
Serving since 2013, Howard will be term-limited after the 2020 election. She has no concrete plans for what comes next, but knows she wants to continue her work in policy.
“I love helping people and being of service,” Howard said. “Whatever my next steps are, I can only hope that they involve all of those things.”