NYT: An Irascible Firebrand, Quieted by Term Limits
April 29, 2008
An Irascible Firebrand, Quieted by Term Limits
By SUSAN SAULNY
LINCOLN, Neb. The senior senator of Nebraska's unicameral
Legislature is going out just the way he came in nearly four decades
ago: obstinately, and with a whole lot to say in his T-shirt and jeans.
It is time to retire from lawmaking, or so the new rules about term
"I have to remind people as they show great sadness that I'm not
dying, I'm just getting out of the Legislature," said the senator,
Ernie Chambers, 70. "But a lot of people are going to be very happy
when my absolute last day arrives. In fact, there will probably be so
much joy in this corner of the world that it will be picked up on the
Richter scale. I'm not liked at all."
Liked or not, Mr. Chambers, a black, divorced, agnostic former barber
from Omaha with posters of Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass decorating
his office, managed to rise to an ultimate level of power in a mostly
rural, white conservative state on little more than sheer
determination to do so.
In many ways, he could be the model of the antipolitician: he does not
like coalition-building, negotiating or even socializing. He belittles
and berates his colleagues. His office does not use call waiting. His
name is not on his locked door in the majestic Capitol building here,
and visitors have been known to pound their fists numb trying to get
And he refuses to wear anything more formal than his Levi's.
Yet, from the office of Gov. Dave Heineman, a Republican, on down,
there is praise for Mr. Chambers as being one of the most effective
elected officials in the state one who is already a part of history
books in the Nebraska schools. First elected in 1971 to represent the
north side of Omaha, a minority district, he is the state's only black
senator and widely regarded as the dean of the body. That is, until now.
He is packing up, largely against his will. He firmly believes that
term limits came about in an effort to end his admittedly pesky tenure.
"They mentioned my name and said we've got to get rid of him," Mr.
Chambers said in an interview, referring to the proponents of a
petition drive for term limits. But on second thought, he added: "I
wouldn't have wanted to die on the floor. That would have given my
enemies too much pleasure."
Nonetheless, friends and beleaguered colleagues agree that the
Nebraska Legislature is not going to be the same without him. An
occasional opponent on the issues, Senator Don Priester, addressed Mr.
Chambers in front of the entire body. "You taught me a lot of life
lessons on this floor over my last 16 years," Mr. Priester said,
adding, "You have continually challenged, cajoled, and used stories to
bring us out and to think, and to question whether or not we have
practiced what we preach."
Mr. Chambers is regarded as a master of process, procedure and the
filibuster, and his power derived from being as much a bill-killer as
law-maker. Some thought him a bully. He would filibuster anything he
did not like unless concessions were made to appease him, or he might
nitpick at the details of a bill until it fell apart under the weight
of his scrutiny.
His tenure made him the senior member by a wide margin; the
next-longest-serving senator has been in office about half as many years.
He took special interest in American Indians, poor urban blacks, small
farmers and women's rights. He was unbending in his opposition to the
death penalty, nibbling away at it over the years and managing to
secure bans for minors and those with mental difficulties.
In perhaps his biggest strategic victory, he opposed the Legislature's
switching from the electric chair to lethal injection as a means of
execution, leaving Nebraska as the sole state with the chair as its
only method of execution. In February, the Nebraska Supreme Court
ruled electrocution unconstitutional, effectively suspending
executions in the state.
Whether Mr. Chambers is correct or not in his assessment of how term
limits came to be, supporters of the law frequently mentioned him as a
reason to vote for the state constitutional amendment. But he is not
the only casualty. A large group of senators were forced out two years
ago. By early next year, 15 other veterans will be gone, including Mr.
"There's nobody else they feared enough to get term limits for," he
said. "They'd get rid of everybody else to get rid of me."
Regardless, it is a huge turnover in a body known for its slow
deliberation and consistency. It is probably also one of the most
intimate institutions, being the only one-house, nonpartisan
legislature in the nation, and also the smallest with only 49 members.
The Nebraska limits, which were approved by voters in 2000, bar
senators from serving more than two consecutive four-year terms, but
they can return after sitting out one term.
In the last days, any disapproval of Mr. Chambers or his tactics is
well hidden. There was nothing but effusive praise everywhere.
There were flowers, even tears.
A lot of the memorializing and back-slapping was directed toward the
one man who wanted none of it, Mr. Chambers.
"I feel no sentimentality, no nostalgia," he said.
He fled the floor before the customary goodbyes began. He was not
there when the body voted unanimously to name the judicial conference
room in his honor or as more than a dozen of his colleagues offered
personal testimonials about why he deserved the rare tribute.
On one of Mr. Chambers's last days actually legislating, Mr.
Heineman's office called to invite him to be part of the governor's
escort procession onto the floor of the Legislature. Mr. Chambers's
answer was a resounding no.
"I don't do things like that," Mr. Chambers grumbled after the call.
"No ceremonies. That's not what I'm here about. I tell you, I'm a loner."