LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A top Republican candidate for Nebraska governor faced an onslaught of criticism Thursday after several women, including a GOP state lawmaker, alleged that he groped them at public events and forcibly kissed one woman.
The accusations drew widespread condemnation from Charles W. Herbster’s primary opponents, Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, and the 13 women from both parties who serve in the Legislature.
“This is beyond horrible,” said Ricketts, who has clashed publicly with Herbster. “Charles W. Herbster should beg forgiveness of the women he has preyed upon and seek treatment. Sexual assault is criminal behavior and should disqualify anyone from elected leadership.”
The allegations were first reported by the Nebraska Examiner. The online news outlet interviewed six women who claimed that the 67-year-old Herbster groped their buttocks, outside of their clothes, during political events or beauty pageants. A seventh woman said Herbster once cornered her privately and kissed her forcibly.
The Nebraska Examiner did not identify any of the women except for state Sen. Julie Slama. It reported that it corroborated six of the women’s accounts with at least one witness to each incident. And it said all of the incidents happened between 2017 and this year, and each woman was in her late teens or early 20s.
Herbster fervently denied the allegations, calling them a “dirty political trick” orchestrated by Ricketts and his preferred GOP candidate, University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen. Ricketts cannot run for reelection because of term limits and has backed Pillen as his replacement while painting Herbster as unqualified for the job.
“It’s only after I’ve threatened the stranglehold the establishment has on this state (that) they stoop to lies this large,” Herbster said in a statement. “This story is a ridiculous, unfounded dirty political trick being carried out by Pete Ricketts and Jim Pillen.”
John Gage, a spokesman for Pillen, called Herbster’s statement “unhinged.” And a spokeswoman for Ricketts referred back to his original statement, saying the women should be commended for coming forward. In a statement, Pillen said: “Sexually assaulting women should be disqualifying for anyone seeking to serve as a leader. Suzanne and I are praying for the women targeted by Charles W. Herbster.”
Herbster is widely viewed as a top contender for governor and has won the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, a close ally who remains popular in Republican-dominated Nebraska. He has cast himself as a political outsider with experience as the owner of major farming and agribusiness operations.
Slama, a conservative Republican, said Herbster sexually assaulted her in 2019, when she was 22 years old. Slama said Herbster reached up her skirt and touched her inappropriately as she walked past him at the Douglas County Republican Party’s annual Elephant Remembers dinner.
Slama briefly recounted the experience in a February floor speech after another Republican senator was accused of inappropriate behavior, but she didn’t mention Herbster by name. She said at the time that she didn’t want to relive the trauma or have the incident define her career.
“I am not seeking media attention or any other gain, I simply was not going to lie and say it did not occur,” Slama said in a statement Thursday, asking for privacy.
Jane Kleeb, the chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, said the allegations show there’s a need to change who gets elected.
“Reprehensible behavior seems to have become commonplace in the Republican Party,” said Kleeb, urging voters to support Democratic state Sen. Carol Blood in the governor’s race.
Slama’s female counterparts in the Legislature also issued a joint statement condemning Herbster.
“Sexual assault is despicable and damaging,” said the statement, signed by all 13 senators. “This is not a question of politics — it is an issue of character and basic human decency.”
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