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Loner on a mission to make conservative Nebraska ditch the death penalty

Nebraska state senator Ernie Chambers (center, standing)
Nebraska state senator Ernie Chambers (center, standing)
Ernie Chambers, a champion of the voiceless, has introduced a bill to ban capital punishment in each of his 36 years in the legislature. This time it might succeed

"White people, they don't have a high opinion of me," says Ernie Chambers, Nebraska's long-serving legislator. "They thought I was uppity and arrogant - they didn't like my attitude."

They may not like Chambers' attitude in the super-conservative cornhusker state, but they are certainly listening to him now. At his 38th attempt, the state senator this week saw his bill to abolish the death penalty pass the legislature, in a move that should it be enacted would make Nebraska the 1st dyed-in-the-wool conservative state in the country to scrap the ultimate punishment.

It's an extraordinary turn of events, spearheaded by an extraordinary politician. For 38 years Chambers, 77, was the only African American member of Nebraska's uni-chamber legislature (there are now 2), and since he was first elected in 1970 to represent the north of Omaha he has been making it his business to take up causes that nobody else would champion.

"Conservatives probably think I'm crazy," he tells the Guardian in the wake of the historic vote to abolish capital punishment. "Not institutionally crazy. But so far out I couldn't belong to any party, or church or club."

When asked how he would describe his personal politics in a state that has a non-partisan assembly in which parties are not represented, he said: "First, I'm a loner. That doesn't mean I'm anti-social. But I don't have a lot in common with other people. Most of the things that I do, I will do virtually alone."

He says he sees his politics as standing up for the "poor, the voiceless, the marginal, the un-people - anybody who is set upon or mistrusted and who needs help. I'm not comfortable in the presence of other people's suffering, and if I can do something about it, I will."

One of the actions of which he is most proud was to have made Nebraska in the 1980s the 1st state in the US officially to divest from companies doing business with apartheid South Africa. From there the idea caught on, spreading to other states and eventually the federal government.

"Despite the very backward image that might attach to Nebraska, we led the country and to some degree the world over South Africa. And now we can do it again."

"I believe the state shouldn't kill anybody. I don't think anybody should kill anybody."

His mission to end the death penalty in his state emanates from a conviction that he says he has had since he was a teenager. He puts that conviction in bold, simple terms: "I believe the state shouldn't kill anybody. I don't think anybody should kill anybody. If we tell people that as individuals they can't kill anybody, then how can we kill somebody as a society? Just multiplying the number of people involved in the decision doesn't make it right - whether it's a mob or a state or anything else."

Armed with that moral determination, Chambers has introduced a bill to repeal the death penalty every year that he has served as a state legislator. 36 times the bill was voted down. In 1979 it passed the legislature, only to be vetoed by the then governor Charles Thone.

And this week it passed a 2nd time - on this occasion by a majority of 32 to 15. Crucially, that's more votes than would be needed to overturn a veto from the current governor, Pete Ricketts, who has made clear that he intends to do everything in his power to keep the death penalty alive in Nebraska. On his Facebook page, Ricketts has said "the Legislature is out of touch with Nebraskans ... the overwhelming majority of Nebraskans support the death penalty because they understand that it is an important tool for public safety."

The governor has until next Tuesday to decide whether or not to wield his veto. Until then, and until sufficient numbers can be mustered to overturn any veto, Chambers is not counting his chickens.

"The work isn't done yet - if the governor overrides the bill it will be back to us, and you never know if someone will crumble or stumble. There are so many ways for politicians to avoid committing themselves," he says.

But whatever the final outcome, Chambers has the satisfaction of knowing that he has yet again given Nebraska's normally staid politics an almighty shake. When asked how he managed to bring so many hardline conservatives on board with the bill, he replies: "Maybe the moon was in its 7th house and Jupiter lined up with Mars."

Pressed to give a less astronomical analysis, Chambers says that he believes that the conservatives who voted to abolish the death penalty were merely being true to their fundamental principles. "Conservatives have vowed that whenever they find a government program that isn't working, they will scrap it. And if there is a government program that doesn't achieve its goals, it's the death penalty."

He adds: "The irony is that the so-called conservatives are now giving the same arguments against the death penalty that the abolitionists have always given."

Though he finds himself in the unfamiliar position of having a lot of fellow senators actually agreeing with him, he has no delusions about his sudden popularity. Hence his statement about his standing in the eyes of white people - a reference to the rest of his legislator peers.

"If you were part of a group that's supposed to be dominant and somebody in that group fights you tooth and nail, you would have problems with that person because he reminds you of all the wrongs that you have done," he says.

For once, though, there's a chance that they will emerge united. "That's what I've told them. I've told my colleagues that if we abolish the death penalty we will be making history, and not only that, this time we'll be on the right side of history."

Source: The Guardian, May 23, 2015

YOU can help abolish the death penalty in Nebraska!

Right now, it is vital that Nebraskans weigh in with their Senators, telling them to hold firm and override the Governor's veto of death penalty repeal. Senators are getting the hardest pressure from the other side than they have gotten thus far. The veto override could happen as soon as Tuesday and will be the hardest vote for us to win.

Sample Tweets (please keep posting these until the override happens)

- Tell your friends in Nebraska - Contact Senators & ask them to see #deathpenalty repeal through to the end: http://ejusa.org/act/nadp #NERepeal

- Have friends from #Nebraska? Ask them to go here and thank Senators for passing #deathpenalty repeal: http://ejusa.org/act/NADP #NERepeal

- Please pass this on to EVERYONE in Nebraska: http://ejusa.org/act/NADP End the #deathpenalty in NE & the here in [YOUR-STATE] #NERepeal

Sample Facebook post
Know anyone in Nebraska? Share this link with them so they can tell lawmakers to see repeal through to the end. Make Nebraska the 19th state to end the death penalty!

Stacy Anderson
Executive Director
Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty
941 'O' Street, Suite 725 | Lincoln, NE 68508
Office: 402.477.7787 | Cell: 402.525.4679
Email:stacy@nadp.net | Website: www.nadp.net

Report an error, an omission: deathpenaltynews@gmail.com

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