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A lesson in coalition building via the death penalty

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Ordinarily, I'm a person who sees many sides to an issue, a positive but sometimes frustrating trait I call an "on the other hand" perspective. But as I examine the death penalty, I see not one viable reason for execution as public policy.

Effie
Caldarola

In late May, the Nebraska legislature abolished the death penalty. I'm still digesting those words: Nebraska has abolished the death penalty.

For nearly three years, I've been a field organizer for Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. It's a part-time job, but one I've seldom put completely out of mind. Being a foot soldier for this cause, I've met some of the greatest people.

My home office closet is crammed with countless fliers to hand out at events. My computer is full of PowerPoint presentations I've given at various venues. I've entertained people who have been spared from death row, exonerated from a crime they didn't commit, in my home, and our guest bedroom has hosted Sister Helen Prejean, the great death penalty opponent, who regaled my husband and me with late-night New Orleans humor over glasses of wine.

I've sustained bedbug bites in the line of duty, at a small-town motel before a religious education conference. I've quarreled with my errant GPS navigation system on a dark country road finding my way home from an evening event. There were times I complained about my job, but every day of it stretched me.

A poster hangs in my office with the faces of each member of our legislature. Nebraska is the only state in the nation with a unicameral legislature, meaning it has a single-house system. We have 49 legislators for the whole state, a small number, but not necessarily an easy number to sway. Each face became an important target, but also a unique individual.

As a Nebraska native who spent a good many years in Alaska, I returned here a few years ago wanting a job that would satisfy my thirst for social justice. I will always be so grateful that I was hired for this one.

Ordinarily, I'm a person who sees many sides to an issue, a positive but sometimes frustrating trait I call an "on the other hand" perspective. But as I examine the death penalty, I see not one viable reason for execution as public policy.

As we spoke to people around the state who supported the death penalty because "it's the way we've always done it," it was heartening that most people became repeal supporters when they heard the facts.

I'm not going to recount those facts here. That's for another day, another battle.

Instead, I'll express happiness at how much our hierarchical, well-organized Catholic Church did in the battle for repeal when it set its mind to it. Kudos to the Nebraska Catholic Conference and our bishops who stepped up, and to the nuns who helped us. Who in America is more committed to doing the right thing than American nuns?

But we also had Jewish rabbis and Lutherans bishops and the United Methodist Church. We had conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats.

A simple lesson learned: If you want to see change, get involved. I'll never be able to sit quietly while someone complains about Congress or the state legislature without asking them how many letters they've written, what phone calls they've made. Do you know who your state legislator is, your congressman, your city council representative?

Nebraska's repeal effort became a coalition of the committed, and I was really lucky to be part of it.

EFFIE CALDAROLA IS A COLUMNIST WITH THE CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE.

Effie Caldarola is a columnist with the Catholic News Service.

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