Outspoken Nebraska lawmaker Ernie Chambers successfully spearheaded an effort to abolish the state’s death penalty, overriding Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto. (© Walter Bibikow/JAI/Corbis photo)
One strident, red state lawmaker has made it the mission of his work to disallow shedding the blood of citizens.
Over the veto of its Republican governor, an outspoken Nebraska legislator has successfully spearheaded an effort to abolish the state’s death penalty. Spurred by the passion of its sponsor, state Sen. Ernie Chambers (I-Omaha), Nebraska’s unicameral legislature voted 30-19 on Wednesday to override Gov. Pete Ricketts’ objection.
The conservative state — as classified by the Death Penalty Information Center because it voted Republican in the past two presidential elections — is the first to repeal capital punishment since North Dakota did in 1973. Nebraska joins 18 other states and Washington, D.C. that have outlawed the ultimate punishment. Since 2007, six states — Maryland, Connecticut, Illinois, New Mexico and New Jersey — have voted to abolish the death penalty.
Ricketts claimed the vote was an example of the legislature being out of touch with public position on the issue. However, lawmakers have remained steadfast in their policy, voting to repeal the death penalty by veto-proof majorities three separate times this year before sending the bill to Ricketts’ desk.
The bill replaces capital punishment with life behind bars for the state’s worst criminals. It will immediately apply to 10 inmates who were facing execution. An 11th inmate, who had been on death row since 1986, died in prison of natural causes on May 24. Nebraska has not executed any inmate since 1997.
The vote came one day after Ricketts’ signed a veto of the death penalty bill. At a press conference in front of the state capitol in Lincoln, two family members of a woman who was killed during a violent bank robbery in the city of Norfolk in 2002 flanked the governer.
“My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical tool to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families,” Ricketts said in a statement. “While the Legislature has lost touch with the citizens of Nebraska, I will continue to stand with Nebraskans and law enforcement on this important issue.”
One reason capital punishment continues to be repealed in several states — aside from moral objections and legal arguments that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and violates the Eighth Amendment — is because lethal injection drugs are expensive and difficult to secure in sufficient quantities. In the Nebraska legislature, which is Republican dominated, lawmakers were able to build a successful coition of support opposing the governor based on religious beliefs, grounds that the practice is inefficient and expensive and because it is not in line with the party’s values.
Chambers is one of just two African-American members of the legislature and quite the iconoclast in this red state. He strolls the floor without the standard-lawmaker coat and tie and keeps a full, wispy white beard. Since first being elected to office in 1971, Chambers has served the state in the same position with only one break when he was term-limited between 2009 and 2013.
Chambers has also been very outspoken on issues of race, policing and gun control. To some, it may seem he courts controversy with some or his comments. He was unmoved that news of both his actions and the repeal were covered around the country.
“Because of the nature and reputation of the state, I was not surprised,” Chambers told TheBlot Magazine last week. “ It’s a controversial issue, so I understood why it became a national story.”
Adding to the old-school chops of a man who walks to his own tune, Chambers’ office does not have a direct e-mail address, his legislative director does not take messages, and there is no voicemail set up. He’s said this is in response to people calling his office to make racist, profane comments.
In March, Chambers took much flack for supposedly comparing ISIS terrorists to police. He said that though he is nonviolent and does not own a gun, if he did, it would be to protect himself from law enforcement because an “ISIS mentality” exists in America. “The police are licensed to kill us: Children, old people,” he said.
ISIS is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and infamous worldwide for beheading journalists and fighting an ongoing and bloody guerrilla war in the name of installing a Muslim caliphate across the region.
Legislators called for Chambers to resign or to be censured by the body, but he did not back down from the statement. He made the provocative comments during a legislative hearing on a gun bill that would allow residents to carry concealed firearms into bars.
Chambers also made news with controversial comments he made in January when he said all white people were racists. This was sparked by a state education official’s refusal to resign after calling President Obama a “half breed” on a blog. Both of the state’s U.S. senators, its two largest newspapers, Ricketts, congressmen, the state teacher’s union, Omaha City Council, Omaha School Board and state education board all called on the board member to resign.
Depending on who he’s offended, writers, bloggers, commentators, editorialists and others will still react and continue to say what they will about Chambers. But this is a man who has been in public service for 40 years and eschewed other job opportunities to continue serving citizens. Disagree with Chambers’ methods, fine, but he is a person who stands with true conviction.
And that is something that is sorely lacking in the fiber of many lawmakers, regardless of influence, across this country.
Noah Zuss is a reporter for TheBlot Magazine.