Ernie Chambers

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Ernie Chambers
Member of the Nebraska Legislature
from the 11th district
Assumed office
Preceded by Brenda Council
In office
Preceded by George W Althouse
Succeeded by Brenda Council
Personal details
Born Ernest William Chambers
(1937-07-10) July 10, 1937 (age 78)
Omaha, Nebraska US
Political party Independent
Residence Omaha, Nebraska US
Alma mater Creighton University
Creighton University School of Law
Profession State Legislator

Ernest William "Ernie" Chambers (born July 10, 1937)[1] is an American politician who represents North Omaha's 11th District in the Nebraska State Legislature. He is the longest-serving state senator in the history of Nebraska.[2] Chambers is the only African-American to have run for governor and the US Senate in Nebraska's history.[3][4]

Early life[edit]

Chambers was born in the Near North Side neighborhood[3] of Omaha, Nebraska,[5] to father Malcolm Chambers,[6] a local minister,[3] and mother Lillian Chambers.[7] Chambers' father's family originally comes from Mississippi, while his mother's family originally comes from Louisiana.[5] He has six siblings[8] who were all born in Omaha.[5]

In 1955, Chambers graduated from Omaha Tech High School. In 1959, he graduated from Creighton University with a B.A. in history, with minors in Spanish and philosophy. He attended Creighton University School of Law in the early 1960s and completed his degree in 1979. His refusal to join the Nebraska State Bar Association meant he could not practice law.[8]


Omaha Post Office[edit]

In 1963, when Chambers was 25 years old, he worked for the Omaha Post Office. Chambers said he was fired for insubordination because he spoke out against the management at the Post Office referring to the black staff as “boys.” He picketed the Postmaster General’s speech in Omaha with a sign that read, “I spoke against discrimination in the Omaha Post Office and was fired.”[3][9]

Summer 1966 riots[edit]

During a series of heat waves in the summer of 1966, there were two disturbances in Omaha: In July, the Nebraska National Guard was summoned to restore order after police and black teenagers clashed three nights in a row.[10] And in early August, a series of riots occurred over three nights. Chambers worked as a spokesperson for the community during both conflicts, meeting with Mayor A.V. Sorenson, helping to end the riots.[10] During this period, Chambers emerged as a prominent leader in the North Omaha community where he successfully negotiated concessions from the city's leaders on behalf of the African-American youths of North Omaha.[10] Chambers headed a committee of the Near North Side Police-Community Relations Council collated information and presented numerous complaints about the police to city officials.[10] Previously the African-American community was led by more established organizations like Omaha Urban League and the local chapter of the NAACP, not an emerging young anti-establishment leader like Chambers.[10]

Chambers was also working as a barber at the time, and appeared in the Oscar-nominated 1966 documentary film A Time for Burning, where he talked about race relations in Omaha.

Nebraska Legislature[edit]

Chambers ran for a position on the Omaha School Board, but did not get elected. He also failed as a write-in candidate for the City Council.[3]

In 1970, he was elected to represent North Omaha's 11th District, replacing George W. Althouse, who had been appointed to replace Edward Danner, who had died in office.[3] During the election, a policeman was killed in a deserted house by a bomb. Two Black Panthers members, David Rice and Edward Poindexter, were charged in the death. Chambers protested, as he thought the men had been framed by COINTELPRO.[3]

First elected to represent North Omaha's 11th District in the Nebraska State Legislature in 1970, Chambers was successfully re-elected in every ensuing election through 2004. On April 25, 2005, Chambers became Nebraska's longest-serving state senator, having served for more than 35 years.[11] He was not allowed to seek re-election in 2008 because of a constitutional amendment passed by Nebraska voters in 2000 which limits Nebraska state legislators to two consecutive four-year terms. The constitutional amendment, however, permits senators to seek re-election to their office after sitting out for four years. Chambers ran against incumbent Brenda Council in 2012, winning election by a "landslide".[12]

Sen. Chambers also ran for the United States Senate in 1988 as a New Alliance Party candidate. He petitioned to be included on the 1974 ballot for Governor of the state of Nebraska and also ran for Governor in 1994, receiving 0.44% of the vote.

Marsh v. Chambers[edit]

Senator Chambers initiated a lawsuit in 1980 attempting to end the Legislature's practice of beginning its session with a prayer offered by a state-supported chaplain, arguing that such practice was forbidden by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The district court held that the prayer did not violate the Constitution, but that state support for the chaplain did. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals held that both practices violated the Constitution. However, in Marsh v. Chambers (1983), the Supreme Court held by a 6–3 vote that both practices were constitutional because of the "unique history" of the United States.

1986 NCAA student athletes as state employees[edit]

Senator Chambers has promoted recognizing NCAA student athletes as state employees since the 1980s, arguing that the athletes are generating revenue for their universities without any legal benefits for doing so, which encourages illegal payments and gifts. A bill on this issue too was once passed by the Legislature and again it was unable to overcome the governor's veto. After it was revealed that requiring student athletes to be recognized as state employees would jeopardize any university's NCAA standing, the language of the bill was changed such that a university could allow for players to be paid a stipend, a change that allowed for the bill's passage and signature of governor approval in 2003.[13]

1989 Franklin scandal[edit]

According to an article that appeared in the December 18, 1988, edition of The New York Times, unidentified people present at a closed meeting reported that Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers claimed he heard credible reports of "boys and girls, some of them from foster homes, who had been transported around the country by airplane to provide sexual favors, for which they were rewarded."[14] Investigating what became known as the Franklin child prostitution ring allegations, a Nebraska grand jury was convened to investigate the allegations and possibly return indictments. Eventually, the grand jury ruled the entire matter was "a carefully crafted hoax," although they failed to identify the perpetrators of said hoax.[15]

2006 Omaha Public Schools controversy[edit]

In April 2006, Senator Chambers introduced LB 1024, an amendment to a bill that would divide the Omaha Public Schools district into three different districts.[16] The bill and its amendment were created in response to an effort by the Omaha schools district to "absorb a string of largely white schools that were within the Omaha city limits but were controlled by suburban or independent districts."[17] Omaha Schools claimed that the usurpation was necessary to avoid financial and racial inequity, but supporters of LB 1024 contested the district's expansion, favoring more localized control, especially along racial and ethnic lines. The bill has received national attention and some critics have referred to it as "state-sponsored segregation".[18]

A bill passed in 2007 repealed LB 1024, restoring pre-2006 Omaha-area school district boundaries, after which a "learning community" was created to equalize student achievement in Douglas and Sarpy counties.

2007 Lawsuit against God[edit]

On September 14, 2007, Chambers filed a lawsuit against God, seeking a permanent injunction ordering God to "cease certain harmful activities and the making of terroristic threats...of grave harm to innumerable persons, including constituents of Plaintiff who Plaintiff has the duty to represent".

Chambers said his action was in response to another lawsuit filed in the state court that he considers to be frivolous and inappropriate. In that case a woman was taking Lancaster County Judge Jeffre Cheuvront to federal court for ruling that the words "rape", "sexual assault kit", "victim", and "assailant" could not be used in her testimony.[19]

Senator Chambers (a member of the Judiciary Committee)[20] stated that the case "is inappropriate because the Nebraska Supreme Court has already considered the case and federal courts follow the decisions of state supreme courts on state matters." He went on to announce his lawsuit against God and said "This lawsuit [against Judge Cheuvront] having been filed and being of such questionable merit creates a circumstance where my lawsuit is appropriately filed. People might call it frivolous but if they read it they’ll see there are very serious issues I have raised."

Chambers' lawsuit drew even more media attention than the lawsuit that had inspired him to take the action to prove his point. Many media outlets covering the story made no mention that Chambers' case was intended to show that the courts were currently required to hear cases, regardless of how frivolous they were. The confusion was furthered by Chambers himself who, apparently tongue-in-cheek, told reporters that his case was not to protest frivolous lawsuits, but to insure them saying his action was "in response to bills brought forth by other state senators to try and stop lawsuits from being filed. 'The Constitution requires that the courthouse doors be open, so you cannot prohibit the filing of suits, Anyone can sue anyone they choose, even God.'"

2015 death penalty repeal[edit]

Senator Chambers' politics are liberal and have been described as militant.[3] He is a firm opponent of the death penalty, and introduced a bill to repeal Nebraska's capital punishment law at the start of each legislative session, 36 previous times over 40 years.[21][22] The bill, LB268,[23] was passed by the Legislature in 1979 but could not overcome Governor Charles Thone's veto; the issue remained as a primary focus of his while in office.[24]

In 2015, a repeal measure passed the Legislature; it was vetoed by Governor Pete Ricketts, but the Legislature overrode the veto.[25][26] The vote was won with the minimum number of votes, 30, and was an effort Chambers let with a diverse coalition of legislators, many of whom were newly elected conservatives.[22][27] The 10 inmates on Nebraska's death row will now serve life sentences, as the mechanism with which to carry out the death penalty has been removed by this bill.[28] The veto was cited as notable in Nebraska, as it is an overwhelmingly conservative and Republican state.[29] For this and other reasons, Chambers was named to POLITICO's 50 2015 list which ranks influential and important figures in American politics, putting him at number 40. [30][31]

Assorted legislation[edit]

  • Chambers has long advocated on behalf of David Rice and Ed Poindexter, who were convicted of the murder of an Omaha police officer; Amnesty International considers the men political prisoners.
  • Often clashing with fellow senators, Senator Chambers has taken on several issues of concern to rural Nebraskans during his tenure, such as a bill requiring landowners to manage the population of black-tailed prairie dogs on their property and a proposed constitutional amendment to preserve the right to fish, trap and hunt in the state. Chambers described the latter measure as one of the most "asinine, simple-minded pieces of trash" ever to be considered by the Legislature.[32] In 2004 Chambers co-authored an opinion piece with U.S. Rep. Tom Osborne opposing a set of initiatives that would allow casino gambling and slot machines in Nebraska.[33] Chambers also opposed proposed funding of the state's ethanol plant incentive programs, declaring them "a boondoggle".[34]
  • In the spring of 2006, Chambers withdrew support from two tax incentive bills which would have provided funding for Omaha and Lincoln civic building projects. Chambers claimed that he withdrew support because Omaha business leaders had insulted the Legislature and the North Omaha community which he represents by criticizing the passage of LB 1024. He was also insulted by the Omaha City Council's refusal to name a North Omaha park after him despite another request by that neighborhood to do so.[35]
  • In March 2015, Chambers introduced LB473 in opposition of the Keystone XL pipeline.[36]

Outreach activities[edit]

  • On November 4, 2008, Chambers was elected to be a member of the new Douglas and Sarpy County, NE, Learning Community board. Chambers was sworn in early 2009
  • Chambers hosted a weekly call-in Public-access television cable TV show on Omaha's Community Telecast, Inc. (CTI22), broadcast on Cox Channel 22[37]
  • In 2014, after ending his regular Omaha Star column, Chambers said he was going to write a blog[38]


"My ISIS is the police"[edit]

On March 20, 2015, during a Judiciary Committee Hearing on Allowing Guns in Bars (LB 635), Chambers said as part of the conversation that "My ISIS is the police."[39][40] Chambers said his comments were intended to criticize the failure to prosecute Alvin Lugod, the Omaha police officer who had fatally shot Danny Elrod on February 23.[41] Although fellow senators did not react to his comments during the hearing,[42] there was backlash. Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer responded to Chambers: "The comments that Senator Ernie Chambers made today at the Nebraska Unicameral are not only reprehensible but are completely without merit.”[41] Mayor Jean Stothert also criticized Chambers, saying in a press release that he should be looking for ways to improve public safety instead of “comparing police officers to terrorists.”[41][43]

Governor Pete Ricketts called Chambers' comments "irresponsible" and asked for an apology.[44] Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer and Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson were also critical, and the hashtag #supportblue was organized in response to Chambers' comments. Senator David Schnoor of Scribner called for his resignation.[44] Senator Bob Krist of Omaha said he regretted that he had not immediately protested the remark.[45] There were a number of senators who disagreed with his opinion but defended his right to express it.[45] Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins remarked in Chambers' defense: "It's a wonderful opportunity to pile onto Sen. Chambers."[45] Chambers said he will continue to be vocal in his criticism of the police and will not apologize.[42]


Chambers is a long-term civil rights activist and is the most prominent and outspoken African-American leader in the state.[2] He has been characterized as "the Maverick of Omaha," the "angriest black man in Nebraska,"[2] and is self-described as a "Defender of the Downtrodden."[20]

Term limit law[edit]

In 2000, a term-limit amendment was passed that essentially forced Chambers—as well as half of Nebraska’s state senators[46]—out of office in 2008.[47][48][49] The amendment required legislators sit out one term, after which time they could run for election. On November 6, 2012, Chambers was once again elected to represent north Omaha's 11th district in the Nebraska Unicameral, defeating Brenda Council by a "landslide."[12]

Personal life[edit]

Other than a stint in the US Army, Chambers has lived in Nebraska all his life.[3][50] and is known for his casual attire of blue jeans and T-shirts, even when in session at the Nebraska Legislature in the West Chambers of the Nebraska State Capitol.[51][52] He would often bring his dog with him to work.[47] Chambers is a sketch artist, a therapeutic activity he adopted during long legislative sessions.[53]

Chambers is an atheist, and introduced a bill which would have imposed property taxes upon churches[54][55] (the bill was not passed).[56] Despite the fact he is not religious, Chambers obtained credentials in January 2009 as a non-denominational minister so he could officiate at weddings.[51]

In the 1990s, the apartment complex originally called Strehlow Terrace was renamed the Ernie Chambers Court.[57]

Chambers is divorced.[48]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Ernest Chambers – United States Public Records". FamilySearch. Retrieved March 26, 2015. 
  2. ^ a b c Beckel, Michael (January 5, 2006). "The Maverick of Omaha: Sen. Ernie Chambers talks race and politics.". Mother Jones. Retrieved March 26, 2015. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Steed, Camille; Aylward, Pat; Valentine, Julie (1997). "Ernie Chambers: Still Militant After All These Years" (Video interview, 59 min.). Lincoln: Nebraska ETV Network. OCLC 46454011. 
  4. ^ Huggins, Rachel (May 28, 2015). "The eccentric lawmaker who helped end Nebraska's death penalty once sued God and compared cops to ISIS". Vox. Retrieved May 29, 2015. 
  5. ^ a b c "Ernest Chambers – United States Census, 1940". FamilySearch. Retrieved March 26, 2015. 
  6. ^ "Malcolm Chambers (1907–1995)". Find A Grave. Retrieved March 26, 2015. 
  7. ^ "Lillian D Chambers (1910–1998)". Find A Grave. Retrieved March 26, 2015. 
  8. ^ a b "The Life and Times of Ernie Chambers". Omaha World-Herald. Retrieved March 26, 2015. 
  9. ^ Biga, Leo Adam (2006). "Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barber Shop: We Cut Heads and Broaden Minds, Too". The Reader (Omaha). Retrieved March 26, 2015. 
  10. ^ a b c d e Taylor, Jr., Dr. Quintard. "Manual – Chapter 9 The Civil Rights Movement in the West". History 313: The History of African Americans in the West. University of Washington. Retrieved March 26, 2015. Online resource, see Larsen in Further reading, pp. 272-274. 
  11. ^ "For the Record, 4/25". Lincoln Journal Star. Associated Press. April 24, 2005. Retrieved March 26, 2015. 
  12. ^ a b Burbach, Christopher (November 7, 2012). "Chambers' return to Lincoln follows strange campaign season". Omaha World-Herald. Retrieved November 7, 2012. 
  13. ^ Dopirak, Dustin (February 17, 2004). "Debate rages over paying college athletes". The Daily Collegian (Penn State). Retrieved March 26, 2015. 
  14. ^ Robbins, William (December 18, 1988). "A Lurid, Mysterious Scandal Begins Taking Shape in Omaha". The New York Times. Retrieved March 26, 2015. 
  15. ^ Robbins, Williams (July 29, 1990). "Omaha Grand Jury Sees Hoax in Lurid Tales". The New York Times. Retrieved March 26, 2015. 
  16. ^ Keyes, Allison (April 24, 2006). "NAACP Threatens Suit Over Omaha Redistricting". News & Notes (NPR). Retrieved March 26, 2015. 
  17. ^ Montgomery, Rick (April 27, 2006). "Omaha schools: Divide and conquer?". Seattle Times (Knight Ridder Newspapers). Retrieved March 26, 2015. 
  18. ^ Dillon, Sam (April 15, 2006). "Law to Segregate Omaha Schools Divides Nebraska". The New York Times. Retrieved May 24, 2006. 
  19. ^ Mabin, Clarence (June 17, 2007). "Banned words debated in sex assault case". Lincoln Journal Star. Retrieved October 16, 2008. 
  20. ^ a b "Sen. Ernie Chambers: District 11 – Biography". Nebraska Legislature. Retrieved March 26, 2015. Official Nebraska Legislature lists 'Occupation: Defender of the Downtrodden.' 
  21. ^ Associated Press (May 27, 2015). "Nebraska abolishes death penalty in landmark override vote". KETV. Retrieved May 29, 2015. 
  22. ^ a b Genoways, Ted (May 28, 2015). "Inside the Unlikely Coalition That Just Got the Death Penalty Banned in Nebraska". Mother Jones. Retrieved May 29, 2015. 
  23. ^ Chambers, Ernie (January 14, 2015). "LB268 – Eliminate the death penalty and change and eliminate provisions relating to sentencing". Nebraska Legislature. Retrieved May 29, 2015. 
  24. ^ Walton, Don (May 20, 2015). "Death penalty repeal passes Legislature, awaits veto". Lincoln Journal-Star. Retrieved May 29, 2015. 
  25. ^ Duggan, Joe; Cooper, Todd (May 27, 2015). "Nebraska senators override governor's veto, repeal death penalty". Omaha World-Herald. Retrieved May 27, 2015. 
  26. ^ Glenza, Jessica (May 27, 2015). "Nebraska legislature narrowly votes to repeal death penalty". The Guardian. Retrieved May 29, 2015. 
  27. ^ Muskal, Michael (May 28, 2015). "Why conservative Nebraska seems determined to repeal the death penalty". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved May 29, 2015. 
  28. ^ Bosman, Julie (May 27, 2015). "Nebraska Bans Death Penalty, Defying a Veto". The New York Times. Retrieved May 29, 2015. 
  29. ^ Bruinius, Harry (May 28, 2015). "In Nebraska vote, sign of broader conservative backlash to death penalty (+video)". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved May 29, 2015. 
  30. ^
  31. ^
  32. ^ Jenkins, Nate (March 3, 2005). "Chambers takes aim at hunting measure". Lincoln Journal Star. Retrieved May 24, 2006. 
  33. ^ Chambers, Ernie; Osborne, Tom (July 1, 2004). "Damage from casinos would be long lasting" (PDF). Gambling With The Good Life. Archived from the original (PDF) on March 17, 2006. Retrieved May 24, 2006. 
  34. ^ Walton, Don (April 6, 2004). "Ethanol fund gap divides senators". Lincoln Journal Star. Retrieved May 24, 2006. 
  35. ^ Hicks, Nancy (April 11, 2006). "Bill that would aid Lincoln arena is dead". Lincoln Journal Star. Retrieved May 24, 2006. 
  36. ^ "Pipeline foes appeal to Nebraska lawmakers in testy hearing". The Washington Post (Associated Press). March 11, 2015. Retrieved March 26, 2015. 
  37. ^ "General Weekly Program Schedule". Community Telecast. Archived from the original on June 1, 2009. Retrieved March 26, 2015. 
  38. ^ Hammel, Paul (November 28, 2014). "Sen. Ernie Chambers quits Omaha Star column, plans blog". Omaha World-Herald. Retrieved March 26, 2015. 
  39. ^ "Judiciary Committee Hearing on Allowing Guns in Bars (LB 635), March 20, 2015" (Video of Nebraska Legislative Hearing). Nebraskans Against Gun Violence. YouTube. March 20, 2015. Retrieved March 26, 2015. Time of comment is at 51m25s 
  40. ^ Young, Joanne (March 26, 2015). "Transcript of Ernie Chambers comments on LB635" (Transcript of legislative hearing). Lincoln Journal Star. Retrieved March 26, 2015. 
  41. ^ a b c Hammel, Paul (March 25, 2015). "Ernie Chambers faces criticism for comparing police to ISIS". Omaha World-Herald. Retrieved March 26, 2015. 
  42. ^ a b Young, Joanne (March 26, 2015). "Senator calls out Chambers for comments on police". Lincoln Journal Star. Retrieved March 26, 2015. 
  43. ^ Young, Joanne (March 26, 2015). "Senator calls out Sen. Ernie Chambers for comments on police". Lincoln Journal Star. Retrieved March 26, 2015. 
  44. ^ a b Hammel, Paul; Stoddard, Martha (March 26, 2015). "List of critics grows after Ernie Chambers' 'my ISIS is the police' comments". Omaha World-Herald. Retrieved March 26, 2015. 
  45. ^ a b c Walton, Don (March 26, 2015). "Chambers' remarks stir senatorial backlash". Lincoln Journal Star. Retrieved March 26, 2015. 
  46. ^ Bauer, Scott (March 25, 2006). "Impact of term limits on state's unicameral government feared". Lincoln Journal Star. Retrieved March 26, 2015. 
  47. ^ a b Gordon, Ed (January 24, 2006). "Sen. Ernie Chambers, a Solo Act in Nebraska" (Audio interview – includes transcript). News & Notes. NPR. Retrieved March 26, 2015. 
  48. ^ a b Saulny, Susan (April 29, 2008). "Statehouse Journal: An Irascible Firebrand, Quieted by Term Limits". The New York Times. Retrieved March 26, 2015. 
  49. ^ Catania, Sara (February 2006). "The Importance of Being Ernie". Mother Jones. Retrieved May 29, 2015. 
  50. ^ Norman, Andrew; Adams, Sara (2013). "4: Making a Difference (Ernie Chambers and Christopher Rodgers)". Then and Now: A look at people in your neighborhood (iBook). Omaha Public Schools. pp. 14–16. Retrieved March 26, 2015. An iBook on a topic of Omaha and Nebraska history as it relates to African American History (3rd grade book series) 
  51. ^ a b Young, Joanne (July 10, 2010). "Ernie Chambers shows a softer, romantic side". Lincoln Journal Star. Retrieved March 26, 2015. 
  52. ^ Meyerson, Collier (May 28, 2015). "Meet Ernie Chambers, who led Nebraska’s death penalty ban and also sued God once". Fusion (Fusion Media Network). Retrieved May 29, 2015. 
  53. ^ Schulte, Grant (March 22, 2015). "Longtime Nebraska senator flexes a second skill: sketching". Fox News. Associated Press. Retrieved March 26, 2015. 
  54. ^ Ashtari, Shadee (January 24, 2014). "Atheist Senator Ernie Chambers Tells Religious Organizations: 'Pay Your Taxes'". Huffington Post. Retrieved March 26, 2015. 
  55. ^ Mehta, Hemant (January 23, 2014). "Nebraska’s Atheist State Senator Introduces Bill That Would Force Churches to Pay Property Taxes". Friendly Atheist (Patheos). Retrieved March 26, 2015. 
  56. ^
  57. ^ "Chambers Court". WOWT NBC Omaha. October 26, 2005. Retrieved March 26, 2015. 

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