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April 29, 2008

What's the matter with Nebraska? Turfing Ernie Chambers

The most senior senator in Nebraska's unicameral legislature is being forced out by a new term limits law after nearly forty years in office:

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. [NYT]

Mr. Chambers needs to get on the national lecture circuit to explain the secrets of his success to progressive politicians.

How does a working class, agnostic, African American become the longest-serving and most powerful legislator in a white, conservative state like Nebraska without compromising his strong liberal principles? 

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. [NYT]

I have to admit, I'd never heard of Chambers until I read the NYT profile. I want to know more.

Democratic politicians and strategists could learn a lot from this guy. He's like the Bernie Sanders of Nebraska. 

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The link would be here.

Democratic politicians and strategists could learn a lot from this guy.

Right. No compromise. No mealy-mouthed triangulation bullshit.

If you never heard of him until you read the Times profile, how do you know he never compromised his srong liberal principles?

"...how do you know he never compromised his strong liberal principles?"

"Without" compromising one's principles implies something different that "never" compromising one's principles. And this man certainly seems entitled to the looser statement.

Sounds like a man who really understood that the only people who have to like you(or want you in office) in a democracy are the voters. I really hope that he gets put on a training circuit for younger politicians about what serving your constituencies is all about in the pit called the legislature.

"Without" compromising one's principles implies something different that "never" compromising one's principles. And this man certainly seems entitled to the looser statement.

Again, I'm not sure how secure you can be in that judgment based on a single New York Times article.

While he did get a lot done for his constituents, he also managed to get a lot not done for others'. It is very clear to anyone following the Unicameral that a chamber full of Chambers would never accomplish a thing.

That being said, having one was a great way to keep the senators honest. I would not be so quick to declare him the model for future politicians. I bet if you asked him, neither would he.

The Unicameral - http://unicameral.hivefire.com

While I agree that having a whole room full working at cross purposes is unhelpful, I would also argue that not having any is also unhelpful. The current political scions need some help in understanding the need to balance the needs of your constituencies with the eventual passage of legislation.

"It's more important for a politician to be respected than loved, And it's yet more important again that s/he be feared than respected."

That's a paraphrase but you get the idea.

more important again that s/he be feared than respected

'oderint dum metuant' - let them hate as long as they fear.
Yeah, yeah, it was a favorite maxim of Caligula, but really, isn't it time Democrats aspire to being something more than putty?

With respect to the wingnuts; again: no compromise.

I remember the episode in which Rep. Chambers, who received criticism for not wearing a tie during legislative sessions, brought in a three piece suit on a hanger and set it next to his desk. He told his critics that they could negitiate with his suit or with him. Clothes were one of his ways of maintaining familiarity with his Omaha voters and the hanger-stunt was his way of poking fun at unproductive norms.
Comparing Omaha to the rest of Nebraska is not unlike comparing NYC to the rest of NY State; you need only shrink the scale (considerably). Similiarly, then, having a strong liberal like Rep. Chambers in the Unicameral is only a little more odd than having liberals in Albany.
I seem to remember that Rep. Chambers was approachable. If you choose to write him, he'll probably write back.

As a displaced West Coaster living in NE, working in the political realm, Ernie Chambers was always a joy to watch in the legislature- usually the only dissenting voice where there should've been a group- spouting stories and poetry--beautifully using every loophole in the law to make his point--All in all an amazing force-whether you agreed with his politics or not

Ernie is an outspoken atheist, not an agnostic, but then again that's the quality fact checking journalism you get from a "freelance journalist" blogger.

Ernie is an outspoken atheist, not an agnostic, but then again that's the quality fact checking journalism you get from a "freelance journalist" blogger.

Actually, that's the level of fact-checking you get from the New York Times. It's a direct quote.

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