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Omaha Magazine

That Damn Ernie Chambers!

Jul 03, 2015 01:01PM ● By Robert Nelson
This article appears in July/August 2015 Omaha Magazine.

My 88-year-old mother-in-law had never visited the Nebraska State Capitol in her 40 years of living in the state. She mentioned this often during a long visit to our home this spring. “I don’t feel like a real Nebraskan,” she joked.

Her visit to our house was extended because we have had trouble finding her the assisted-living home she now needs. She mentioned the Capitol daily because rapidly progressing dementia is quickly erasing her memory of even the most recent conversations.

So I drove her to that masterpiece of architecture and art, that message to the world that this little state can do big, bold things. I’m a cynic to a great fault, but I still walk the second floor there with pride and childlike wonder.

How magnificent. And there’s the bust of my hero, Loren Eiseley (I can feel the graceful, melancholy rhythms of All the Strange Hours every time I see this likeness). There are the doors of the second chamber of the Legislature so boldly sealed. Appropriately, the bust of George Norris is just down the hall.

As we stood in the rotunda amid spastic gaggles of school children, my mother-in-law asked if we could walk over to the legislative chamber that wasn’t shuttered. She heard a voice over the Nebraska Legislature’s public address system that drew her to the glass doors of the chamber. “I know that voice,” she said. “That’s Ernie Chambers.”

Her visit to the second floor of the Nebraska State Capitol was complete. She got to see Ernie Chambers filibustering in the Unicameral.

There are few people about whom I have a more conflicted opinion. At that moment, the hallway outside the chamber was full of people waiting to get on with the business of the state. But, Ernie was inside mucking things up with a diatribe defending his now-infamous earlier comments about Omaha police being more a threat to him and other Omaha black men than ISIS.

Fine, I thought. Stand your ground. But get in and get out. You’re on the clock here, Senator. At that point, I felt like my taxes were paying for him to once again pleasure himself with the sound of his own voice. Who else in this state is this self-absorbed, this rude?

“He’s the check,” my mother-in-law said as she listened.

“What do you mean?” I assumed her mind was elsewhere.

“The balance,” she said. “He balances things out. Makes people reconsider things. I’ve always respected that.”

And so I reconsidered. I always do with Ernie. I considered the times over the last 20 years that I’ve spoken with him about faulty legislation and likely injustices. He always seemed to be present when something needed questioning. And it wasn’t just about north Omaha and African-American issues. He once called me to ask if I knew anything about a shady arrest in my hometown of Falls City. Some white woman may have been wronged 100 miles from his district and he cared enough to make a call to a reporter.

That Unicameral moves more smoothly than any state legislature in the country. But sometimes things run too smoothly—comity isn’t always the ideal. Ernie sometimes serves as the brakeman to a middle-class white-guy locomotive that occasionally barrels through the better angels of our nature.

And, how important has he been to many Nebraskans? Well, for one, my 88-year-old mother-in-law from Hastings suffering from a form of dementia that makes her forget she’s from Hastings immediately remembered the lyrical voice of Ernie Chambers and immediately remembered what that voice has meant to her and her state.

Ernie’s voice echoed through the Nebraska Hall of Fame that day. As my mother-in-law stood there intently watching Ernie incessantly vamp, I imagined these halls on a late night long past closing time sometime in the future. I saw all the busts come to life. And there was Ernie arguing to the contrary with them all.

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