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NYT: An Irascible Firebrand, Quieted by Term Limits

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  • Ram Lau
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/29/us/29nebraska.html April 29, 2008 Lincoln Journal An Irascible Firebrand, Quieted by Term Limits By SUSAN SAULNY LINCOLN,
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 29, 2008
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      April 29, 2008
      Lincoln Journal
      An Irascible Firebrand, Quieted by Term Limits

      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
      limits dictate.

      "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
      an audience.

      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."
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