Term limits will silence speaker of the Senate
The most feared man in Nebraska sits on the bench where he lifts weights and starts to recite Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” holding in his lap a white toy poodle with pink ribbons in its hair.
Ernie Chambers, 70, is a former barber and black radical who through sheer force of will has become this conservative state’s most unlikely power broker. In his nearly four decades in the Legislature, the state senator has mastered the fine art of talking bills to death. “In Washington they call it a filibuster,” one legislative leader once joked. “In Lincoln they call it an Ernie.”
Chambers has done more than delay. He has an unlikely track record of accomplishments, including making Nebraska the first state to withdraw its investments from South Africa during apartheid, getting misbehaving judges disbarred and helping victims of police abuse. He lists his job in the Legislative roster as “Defender of the Downtrodden.”
He is as much a satirist as an activist. He amended a bill that would have allowed Nebraskans to carry concealed firearms so that each time the law was misused, a legislator’s trigger finger would be shot off. He filed a tongue-in-cheek lawsuit against God, but the case was thrown out because he couldn’t prove he had served the deity with legal papers. Chambers amended the suit to contend that, in Nebraska at least, God is the man who runs the University of Nebraska’s football program.
“Chambers is simultaneously the most loved and respected and the most reviled political figure in Nebraska,” said former state Sen. David Landis, who served with Chambers for 28 years.
Now Chambers’ run is coming to an end. Voters passed a term-limits initiative in 2000 that many suspected was intended partly to free Nebraska’s unusual, nonpartisan, single-house Legislature from Chambers’ iron grip. Chambers will begin his final session in the Capitol next month.
He is in a reflective mood as he finishes Poe’s poem about loss and death, but Chambers is far from ready to give in. “I’m shooting for 120 years,” he said. “I’ve only got 50 years to go.”
He releases Nicole, the toy poodle who belongs to Chambers’ longtime legislative assistant but whom Chambers dotes on. He won’t say whether he is going to challenge term limits again -- he and two other senators lost their first lawsuit against the measure -- or run for another office.
Chambers’ many foes can’t wait to see him go. They are already talking about the legislation that can pass without him around to bottle it up: stem-cell research bans, gun-rights bills and tougher drug laws.
“He’s very much detested . . . for his antics in the Legislature,” said Don Kagan, a taxpayers-rights activist who helped pass the term-limits initiative. “People laugh and say good riddance to him.”
But in the halls of the Capitol there is trepidation. Chambers has insulted and humiliated every state senator and killed some of their prized bills, but many worry what the place will be like without him. Who, they ask, will stop the bad legislation?
“We’ve never had anybody like him,” said Speaker Mike Flood, “and I can’t imagine we’ll have anybody quite like him in the future.”
Chambers grew up one of seven children in North Omaha, the only predominantly black neighborhood in a state that is 92% white. His father worked at a meatpacking plant and was a part-time preacher; his mother cleaned houses.
Chambers cut hair to support himself while attending college and starting law school. He became a neighborhood fixture and was featured in a 1966 public television documentary that focused on a white church’s outreach efforts to black neighbors. Chambers’ acerbic skepticism about the efforts -- “Your Jesus is contaminated just like everything else you’ve tried to force upon us,” he tells the progressive minister at one point -- made him a celebrity.
In 1970, North Omaha’s representative in the Legislature died, and the governor appointed George Althouse as successor. Althouse became controversial after he declared on the floor of the Legislature: “If it was God’s plan for the white man to be in command, then there is nothing we can do about it.”
North Omaha residents were incensed and urged Chambers to challenge Althouse. He did and easily won. “I ran,” Chambers said. “I got a life sentence.”
After his first reelection, Chambers, who remains a registered independent, stopped bothering to campaign. He has served nine four-year terms. (He also finished law school but didn’t take the bar exam because he considered it elitist.)
Kermit Brashear was the state Republican Party chairman when he ran for a seat in the Legislature in 1994 on a platform of stopping Chambers -- a popular campaign strategy over the decades. Brashear became chairman of the Judiciary Committee, where Chambers had long been a member. One day, Brashear recalled, Chambers made clear that he thought little of the new chairman, walked out of the meeting and didn’t come back the rest of the session.
The next year Chambers returned and persuaded Brashear to cosponsor a bill calling for a moratorium on the death penalty. Brashear, who stresses that he is a conservative Republican, said he couldn’t counter Chambers’ reasoned arguments about the unfairness of the penalty. He attributed his sponsorship to the “constant harassment from Sen. Chambers. . . . He is extraordinarily dogged.”
The governor vetoed the moratorium, but Brashear and Chambers retained a respectful relationship. Brashear would kid Chambers: I’d call you my friend, but you don’t have any friends, so you’re my colleague.
Chambers, who lives by himself, makes a point of not maintaining close relationships with other legislators. “I’m basically a loner,” he said. “I don’t need people. If you need people, you’re in trouble. They are dishonest; they are weak.”
Though the Legislature meets for only 60 days annually, Chambers makes the 60-mile drive from North Omaha to Lincoln every weekday and most weekends. He has also occasionally returned to the barber’s chair to make ends meet. Other than that, he never got a second job, surviving on the stipend for his office -- now $12,000 -- and fees from giving speeches. He didn’t have health insurance until he turned 65 and qualified for Medicare.
He shuns rallies, parades and other staples of a politician’s life, and prefers to spend his days in his five-room office suite, where every surface -- desks, shelves, chairs -- is covered with papers, files or books. Reminders of dental appointments and yellowing photocopies of 19th-century poetry are tacked to the walls.
Chambers is often asked why he stays. He replies that Nebraska is where his family -- he has four children -- and friends live. After he is termed out, Chambers said, he will remain in the state. There is speculation he will run for a seat on a board that oversees several Omaha-area school districts. Education is a longtime passion of Chambers’, and last year he pushed a bill that would have essentially split the Omaha school district along racial lines to give minority communities control over their own schools.
To critics who said that it would have resegregated already-divided schools, Chambers said, “That’s like making water wetter.” The measure was overturned by a ballot initiative.
No matter. Chambers says he will keep on fighting. “Every place,” he said, “should have somebody, or several somebodies, trying to make things better.”