Chambers' return spurs expectations, questions

Sen. Ernie Chambers in 2008 (photo courtesy of Nebraska Legislature)
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November 27, 2012 - 6:30am

Four years after being forced out of the Nebraska Legislature by term limits, Senator Ernie Chambers of Omaha is coming back. And the return of the veteran legislator known for his rhetorical flourishes and mastery of legislative procedure is producing both anticipation and some trepidation.

The Legislature is often a courtly body, where ideas are debated between representatives who agree to disagree, without being disagreeable. But then, there have been moments like when Chambers was excoriating his legislative colleagues about five years ago.

“You couldn’t pass an English examination at the 10th grade level in terms of difficulty. And you’re writing laws, and don’t know what you’re talking about,” he declared angrily. Then he laughed, adding, “You know, if there is a God, he, she or they had better have a sense of humor, or you all would have been struck dead so long ago. But that God would know what it is that he, she or they created, for his, her, or their amusement.”

That was vintage Ernie Chambers, and there has been little like it since his departure. Chambers was succeeded in his north Omaha district by Sen. Brenda Council.

Sen. Brenda Council

Supporters argued her less-flamboyant approach produced more bread-and-butter accomplishments for the largely black, poor district.

But Council’s reelection hopes were hurt when she pled guilty to false reporting after using campaign money for gambling. With Nebraska’s term limits law merely prohibiting senators from serving more than two consecutive four year terms, Chambers defeated Council. The independent lawmaker, who’s 74 years old, is now poised to resume his 38-year career in the Unicameral.

The impending return of the anti-death penalty, pro-choice, often-at-odds-with-the-majority Chambers has drawn praise from some unexpected quarters.

Gov. Dave Heineman

In a Capitol news conference the day after the election, Gov. Dave Heineman said,   “I may be one of the few in this building who would say this, but I’m glad Sen. Ernie Chambers is coming back. It’ll be good for the Legislature, and it’ll be good for the state of Nebraska.”

Heineman said while he might disagree with Chambers on most issues, that would be outweighed by the benefit of having someone around with Chambers’ attention to detail. “He will challenge the Legislature to do their homework. And he will challenge relative to the issues of why they’re supporting a particular bill or why they’re opposing it. And he will make sure that they read every bill they introduce,” the governor said.

Sen. Greg Adams

Senator Greg Adams of York, who served with Chambers in 2007 and 2008, acknowledged people who disagree with Chambers will have a fight on their hands. But Adams added if they’ve done their homework, “he may come at you…but still respect you because you’ve done your work ahead of time and you were thoughtful.” However, Adams said,  “If you just shoot from the hip, look out.”

Adams and others predict one thing that will definitely happen is the pace of lawmaking will slow down. In the past, Chambers was famous for filibustering against bills he didn’t like, or stalling other bills to prevent lawmakers from even getting to measures he opposed. State Auditor Mike Foley, who served in the Legislature with Chambers for six years, often clashed with Chambers over his own support of abortion restrictions.

State Auditor Mike Foley

“Ernie Chambers is a formidable adversary when you take a position that’s contrary to something that he holds very dear,” Foley said. “And there are certain hot-button issues – abortion, gay rights, gun issues, death penalty, and so forth – that he has great passion for. And if you cross swords with him on these issues you’ll find that he has great resolve. He’s very tenacious. And he will pull out all the stops to try to advance his agenda or stop your agenda.”

On the other hand, Foley said, Chambers can be extremely charming when he wants to be.

Sen. Annette Dubas

Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton, who served with Chambers during his last two years, said there’s a side to him that gets obscured by his headline-grabbing attacks. “I often tell people ‘I wish you could see the Sen. Chambers that we get to see behind the scenes.’”

Dubas said Chambers is “a staunch supporter in the institution of the Legislature. And he will do whatever it takes to make sure that that institution is protected and used in the manner that it should be.”

Foley said people should not necessarily expect Chambers to perform in the antagonistic way they remember. “I think when he was leaving, those last couple of years, what I saw was kind of a mellowing out of Ernie,” Foley said. “He was trying to be helpful to the new senators – teach them the ropes – realizing that he was on the way out due to term limits. It was a friendlier – a kinder and friendlier – Ernie.

“But what’s coming in in January, I don’t know.  It could be back to business, trying to advance his agenda or stop the conservative agenda,” Foley added.

Dubas doesn’t have much doubt about what Chambers will do. “I think Sen. Chambers will pick up right where he left off,” she said. “I’m already starting to hear comments from people as they’re working on various pieces of legislation for the upcoming session, ‘Well I wonder what Sen. Chambers will think of this idea?’ So that definitely is, if it’s not in the back of people’s minds, it’s in the forefront of their minds, as to okay, how is his presence going to impact the issues that they’re working on?”

Obviously, the person who knows best how Chambers plans to approach his job this time around is Chambers himself. But when asked for details by NET News, Chambers stonewalled.

“I do have plans,” he said. “But in the words of (Confederate General) Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, ‘If the sleeves of my coat knew my plans, I should have to burn my coat.’”






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