Mighty Malcontent

For nearly 40 years, Ernie Chambers has made his colleagues mad--and made them listen.
by | October 2007

Ever since his arrival in 1971, Ernie Chambers has taken exactly the opposite approach from most members of the Nebraska legislature--or any legislature, for that matter. He has never cared whether anyone liked him. In fact, he has ridiculed those who compromised to become popular. "I can get better spines out of Jell-O than you've got," he has been known to tell them. What he wanted was to be respected and feared--and he was. In fact, the one-time barber from Omaha made himself into the single most powerful lawmaker in the state.

The senior member and the only African-American legislator in Nebraska, Chambers is being forced out of office at age 70 by term limits. Not everyone will be sorry to see him depart. Most of his colleagues in the legislature can recall having a favorite bill derailed by a Chambers filibuster. And yet even those who find him most annoying tend to agree that the unicameral institution will be diminished by his absence.

"It will be a different institution without Senator Chambers," says state Senator Bill Avery. "He uses the rules to stop the legislature from doing a lot of things it ought not to be doing. In that sense, he is the functional equivalent of a second chamber." Avery offers those compliments even though, just this year, Chambers blocked his funding proposal for a new convention center and arena in Lincoln.

Chambers has always been willing to filibuster virtually any legislation he didn't like. If other senators couldn't get his support, either through persuasion or making concessions, there was little chance a bill would be brought to the floor by leaders, especially during the crowded final days of a session. "My job is to do it alone," he once said. "If Ali Baba can handle 40 thieves, certainly I should be able to handle 48 white people in the legislature."

Chambers' tactics have left him without much support for many of his own initiatives, and the legislature has never granted its most senior member a committee chair. But Chambers hasn't always played defense. He managed to change Omaha's method for selecting city council members and split his home city's school district into three parts, in both cases helping to ensure minority representation.

But Chambers' major concern has been the death penalty. He has introduced bills to abolish it in every session since 1976. He got one approved in 1979, but it fell victim to a gubernatorial veto. This year, he was one vote short of passage. In the meantime, he has succeeded in banning the death penalty for minors and the mentally retarded.

Nebraska is the only state in the country that uses the electric chair as its sole method of execution. The legislature has tried to switch to lethal injection--but Chambers has blocked every attempt. He wants to keep the law unchanged because he believes it will be ruled unconstitutional--the state Supreme Court heard just such a challenge last month--and then Nebraska will be left without a legally acceptable method. "The thing that I fought the hardest in my career for will be achieved," he says. "Not through legislative action, but I will have played a part."