NCSL is launching a new podcast called Across the Aisle to explore how bipartisanship is working in state capitols. We’ll hear how state legislators connect across party lines to get things done, sometimes in unlikely ways, and how they build relationships that allow them to work together on common goals. Sometimes that collaboration starts on a mountain. Our first episode covers a bipartisan group of Nebraska senators who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro together--while one was battling cancer--and built connections that serve them back at the statehouse. We’ll have new stories every month and we hope we can include your experiences with working across the aisle. NCSL’s Kelley Griffin is the host and producer. She has 28 years experience as a reporter and editor in public radio, and she invites you to share your stories of bipartisanship at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Kelley Griffin at email@example.com.
This is “Across the Aisle,” a new podcast from the National Conference of State Legislatures. I’m Kelley Griffin
It is so easy right now to find examples of a big divide in this country. It can seem like everyone is in some pitched battle, not giving an inch, especially everyone in elected office. But at NCSL, we work with state legislators and their staffs all the time, and we know how much work is getting done across the aisle. We started this podcast to share those stories of lawmakers from different backgrounds who build camaraderie and common bonds, who disagree without being disagreeable and who get things done because of it.
Today’s story is about forging those bonds. . . on a mountain. A very big mountain, Kilimanjaro. Very far from the Nebraska statehouse, where the story starts. It was the beginning of the session in 2021. Sen. Tom Brewer, a Republican from Gordon picks up the story
Tom Brewer: It was right after we started into session, I was sitting at my desk on the floor and actually scrolling through information And a story on Kilimanjaro came up and I had been intrigued about Kilimanjaro for a long I thought man that'd be cool and I thought I'm going to put that on my to do list and I'm going to do it this year. Well, I happen to mention it to the senator, to my left, which was Ben Hansen. And he goes, “Hey, I would like to go.” And I thought, you know what if you're gonna go do something like that, it's nice to have someone along. And I said, well, you know what? That's good. Let's do that. Well. Senator Wayne happened to be coming over to talk about a bill and, and he saw it on my screen and he goes, ‘Oh man, someday I want to climb that.” And I go, well, I'm gonna do it in the fall.
He goes, “can I go along”? And I'm like, yeah, what the heck we'll make a party of it.
Senator Anna Wishart, a Lincoln Democrat, wanted in too.
Anna Wishart: I cannot remember who I heard it from, but through the rumblings that Senator Brewer was going to achieve a bucket list item that he had always wanted to do and climb Mount Kilimanjaro. And immediately when I heard that I absolutely love climbing anything, trees, mountains, you name it. And so I was like, oh my gosh, I, I have to do this.
So just like that, Brewer’s idea to climb the tallest mountain in Africa very quickly turned into a plan with three of his colleagues. It would take a week to trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro, a dormant volcano in Tanzania. It’s just over 19,000 feet high, and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. And they’d need all the time they had to be ready for the September trip.
By the end of the session, one more Senator approached Brewer, 68-year-old farmer Dave Murman, a Glenvil Republican. Brewer was a little surprised, Murman kind of was too - he’d only ever camped in his backyard with his kids, and hadn’t been on a mountain since he’d skied 20 years earlier.
But he was drawn to the challenge, and to Brewer’s leadership.
Murman: Of course he's been in Afghanistan. And you know, he’s been, severely injured and, two Purple Hearts. So that's another reason I wanted to go on the trip just to, to be around a person that served our country like that. And, you know, to get to know him better.
Some staffers and others joined too, then a film crew got wind of it and made arrangements to document the trek.
If any of Brewer’s colleagues thought this was in any way a pipe dream, he quickly made sure they understood the reality. He was a colonel who’d served six tours in Afghanistan after all.
Brewer laid out the kind of training they’d need to do, the gear they’d need, right down to the lip balm and sunscreen.
Brewer: I mean, I was kind of driving all this because I didn't want it to fail. I didn't want anybody to not make it because they forgot something or they didn't know, understand what they needed to do. I wanted everything perfectly clear. I was maybe a little domineering in some of the things there, but I just knew that this was potentially the opportunity of a lifetime.
The training climbs began gearing up after the session.
Well, it wasn’t all climbs. This is Nebraska after all. Senator Murman.
Murman: I live on the completely flat ground, good fertile farm ground in Nebraska. I did walk on some gravel roads around here, but, uh, you know I felt a little strange. The neighbors would stop and ask me, oh, you need a ride? Did you break down?
They each did a lot of their own training and in groups as they could. Senator Ben Hansen said he got advice from a seasoned mountain climber:
Hansen: And he's like, you know, go to your gym, get on the stair climber. And if you can do 300 flights of stairs in one hour, you're good to go. So you just keep working until you can do that. I'm like, okay. And so I just slowly kind of got on there and kept doing it. And man, that's tough. That is tough. And he was right. That's what a lot of it is, you know? I mean, it’s a lot of the leg work and endurance and, and so I did that. That was the most out of all the workouts that I did. That was it.
He didn’t ever quite make the goal of 300 flights of stairs in an hour, but worked hard enough to lose 20 pounds in training. Senator Wishart even learned some Swahili. Together the group hiked Mt. Bomber in Wyoming one weekend toward the end of summer. It was a chance to gain elevation - 13,000 feet – and make sure they were geared up for camping.
Brewer: These test runs were, were a great way to do that. Plus we got closer, we would sit in the evenings and talk and in the mornings we'd cook pancakes and, and joked about all the issues of the world. And, and so by the time we got to Kilimanjaro, it was a pretty tight-knit group.
Then they found out they’d be in session in September on redistricting, but were able to reschedule the climb for November. It would be the rainy season on Kilimanjaro, but everybody was still in.
For all his effort to get everyone trained up, Brewer himself missed most of it. He was engaged in his own difficult challenge - fighting cancer. He’d been diagnosed with a form of leukemia in the spring, wound up in the hospital for most of June and too weak to climb most of the summer. He crammed in as much hiking as he could and worked with a personal trainer. His doctors were not sold on the trip, to say the least.
Brewer: I wasn't physically ready for it. The doctors had talked to me in October and said, listen, your numbers, aren't great We’re making some progress on the cancer, but it's a blood cancer and it takes a while to beat it. You have a very unique type and you know you're somewhat at risk. And I said, you know, doc, I've lived a good life. I've seen the world, I’m gonna do it.
So his doctors did everything they could to support him, and they scheduled him for a round of chemo the day before he left for the trip.
It was a seven day trek up the mountain, and as Brewer said, each day was like spending 8 hours on a stair stepper.
They shared tents, ate every meal together, and sat by a fire each night under a stunning display of stars - it didn’t rain once.
Senator Hansen said the guides prepared tasty meals of things like soups and chicken and rice.
Hansen: It's amazing how much better you feel after you have like a warm meal after, you know, you know, hiking and going for like eight plus hours, uh, especially once you get towards the top and it's, and it's a lot colder.
Even the grubby side of camping didn’t seem to matter.
Wishart: I’ve never been so dirty in my life, and smelly. It was very rugged but I soaked up every, absolutely every single moment of the trip.
They even got a little legislative work done. Senator Justin Wayne, an Omaha Democrat and Sen. Hansen, a Blair Republican, hatched a bill together on the mountain to set end dates on new programs so they could be thoroughly reviewed before receiving funding again.
Hansen: You know, when you're hiking slash trekking for eight plus hours, we're just talking and we both had kind of similar philosophies about how sometimes government can kind get out of control, you know, we just spend money, but there's not a whole lot of accountability.
It must be the only piece of Nebraska legislation conceived at such a high elevation.
Hansen: laughing Yeah, we weren't too delirious at the time. This is actually good idea.
The final ascent began a little after midnight.
Brewer said as they gathered their packs, it was very cold and he wondered how much colder it would be another few thousand feet higher up.
The other group on the mountain, a women’s volleyball team from the Netherlands, had left a bit earlier so things wouldn’t pile up, and he remembers how their headlamps showed him just how steep the last climb would be.
Brewer: So as you look up the mountain you see this snake of white lights going up, it looks like they're going straight up into the sky.
Senator Wayne said that last leg of the climb was tough, with harsh winds and so cold the water in their camelbacks froze. He laughed when he explained he would not want to share his Go Pro recording, there might be a few expletives sprinkled in there,
But with Senator Brewer moving steadily at the head of the line, Wayne knew he wouldn’t stop.
Wayne: It’s hard to complain when you got a guy going through chemo. So it's like, well, I guess I better keep walking if the guy going through chemo can keep walking.
Senator Murman said his feet felt like blocks of concrete, even in gloves his hands on his trekking poles were freezing. He admits he might have given up, but he too thought about what Brewer was up against, and it kept him going. He also didn’t particularly like his option for getting rescued down the mountain.
Murman: They had like gurneys that looked like giant wheel wheelbarrows that I think they took some people down on and I thought it's easier to keep going than to try and ride when those things down. That didn't look like fun at all.
Murman said it helped when the guides sang a song in Swahili, a call and response.
Murman: And, I think a lot of the reason for singing that, Swahili tribal chant was to keep you focused and your mind on something else besides the misery, I guess, you could call it a misery of a climb at that time.
By about 7 a.m. they neared the summit. Brewer could see the sign about 100 yards off, but he hit a wall. His vision narrowed like he might pass out from lack of oxygen.
They’d all been pulling together the whole trip, but in the final yards it was truly a team effort, no one was going to let Brewer miss the summit if they could help it.
Wishart: We'd been hiking since midnight and it was seven in the morning and you know, we're at 19,000 feet and Tom, his body was just done. I mean he was taking 20 pills every day, you know, chemotherapy. I mean his body was just done and all of us and the guides, and, and all of us just surrounded him and encouraged him and we made it to the top and it was just like watching his level of strength is just so incredible and inspiring.
By January they were back in session, telling lots of stories about the trek. And that bill Senators Wayne and Hansen came up with on the mountain? They got it introduced and had a hearing, and they expect to make some revisions to bring it in next session.
These colleagues had their political differences - and similarities - before they made this trek together and that’s still true, of course. But they each said they also have a new way of hearing each other’s ideas.
Wishart: Oftentimes when you know why someone cares about something, you're actually able to get to a solution that works for everyone, because you know, a little bit more about the underlying goals that somebody has. And I think that's the kind of conversations that come about when you give yourself time outside of the legislative chamber to build those relationships and get to know each other on a deeper level and what drives each of us.
Senator Brewer agrees with that. He noted one example - connection made a difference in how he understood one of Senator Wayne’s proposals to allow felons to vote as soon as they finish serving their sentence. Brewer said he and other conservatives dismissed the idea when Wayne had brought it up before.
Brewer : And then after he sat down and explained to me how, you know, we need to give those that have done wrong, but now are out in society, they paid their dues, back some of these privileges or it's a never ending cycle ending back in prison. And I said, you know, I think that's a good point. We're gonna, we're gonna take that bill and we're gonna push it out.
And Sen. Wishart says lawmakers don’t have to agree exactly to make progress.
Wishart: So I've always felt like progress happens at the speed of trust. And when you build really strong, foundational friendships with people, you are more likely to be curious, not offended when they challenge you, open to new ideas and trusting that that person is not looking when they're challenging you to at all hurt you in any way. They just have a different perspective. And so that's, you know, that Kilimanjaro trip that really built a lot of that trust.
The Senators each say the trip up the mountain was invaluable.
Hansen: I think really helps in the communication and kind of drives down some of the animosity, I think that can occur in politics because you don't get to know each other very much. And so you just judge each other fast and, you know, based on there’s an R or a D behind their name. Um, uh, but I think when you kinda do something different, I think that helps in the whole process and cuts down on a lot of this negativity that a lot of people hate in politics now.
But they definitely don’t think their colleagues need to climb a huge mountain to develop trust and friendships that will serve them well as legislators.
I’m Kelley Griffin, and that’s our Across the Aisle story for this episode.
What’s your story of working across a political divide in your statehouse, whether you are staff or a legislator? How did you come to agreement on something that didn’t seem possible at first? What have you done to connect with your fellow lawmakers and staffers? Those are the kind of stories we want to share on Across the Aisle, so please, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with your story. Thank you for listening.