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Ernie at 80: Chambers reflects on eve of milestone birthday

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Ernie Chambers

State Sen. Ernie Chambers in his Capitol office, piled high with filing boxes.

Ernie Chambers turns 80 on Monday, a milestone Nebraska's longest-serving lawmaker hopes to ignore. 

Some women from the Capitol ambushed the Omaha state senator with a party at the end of this year's legislative session, and the anonymous organizers behind a Facebook fan page dedicated to Chambers posted a call for people to flood his mailbox with birthday cards.

As for Chambers' own plans, he says, "I don't celebrate days."

Here's more from a recent, hourlong interview:

On turning 80

"It doesn't feel any different. It's something like birds that fly will cross all kinds of political boundaries, whether it's a county, a city or even that of a country, and it takes no note because the air is all the same through which it flies. And so nothing in my life changes because a certain day or date arrives."

Has he changed over the years?

"I hope that I'm smarter than I was. I hope I'm wiser than I was. If I'm not that means I have not learned, and at whatever age I stop — let's say that at 40, I stop — then now, I would just be an 80-year-old 40-year-old person. So I hope that I'm growing intellectually."

Favorite place in the Capitol

"I spend a lot of time in the (Legislative) Research Office, not nearly as much up in the law library as I used to because I get trapped in there. There are so many directions I want to go, so many books are available, and you can read something about a case and then you can go right to the book where that case is, and you get caught up. At least I do. I get trapped in a different world.

Why he doesn't use the internet

"I do not mess with what I call the gadget because frankly I don't trust myself to be able to enter that world and exit it to do the things that really I have an obligation to do. I even have to be careful when I'm looking up words in the dictionary. ... Well now, if I can be distracted when I'm looking up a word in the dictionary, I can be led astray when I'm reading a case in the law library, that gadget is like entering a world where there are a thousand doors across a path that you're walking, and if you enter any one of those doors, behind it would be a numberless group of doors, and the farther I would get from where I started or where I want to go. And it's not to say I wouldn't learn things, but it would take me from what I need to focus on."

On his legacy

"When I first was term-limited out (of the Legislature) and people were talking about a legacy, I said no, I can't even talk about an ankle-acy, maybe we could talk about a foot-acy or a sole-acy but certainly not that high on the anatomy that it would be referred to as a legacy.

"After I croak, there might be things people wish I had addressed while I was alive, but from my point of view, I won't know anything. ... The thought might go through my mind — How will I be remembered? — but since I won't be here, it doesn't matter.

"I know that there are things that I've done that other people will credit as having value, but there are other things that I would rather have accomplished with the years that I've spent down here in this Legislature. But that's life."

On life choices

"The split that develops in my mind, when I allow it to, is: Should I be in this white organization, in effect wasting time, or should I be somewhere else doing what a conscious, offended black man ought to be doing? All of us are going to die sometime — at least that's what we all believe, and we haven't seen anything else to the contrary — so should I let my life drain out of me as I've done all these decades, battling with these white people when I know they're not going to change? I know they have no respect for me. They have no respect for the people of whom I am a part. Yet somebody has to confront them. Somebody has to be in their face. Somebody has to be unrelenting, unafraid, undaunted every single day and never be weak no matter what the circumstances are. So I've got a foot in the world where I live as a black man and probably should be spending my existence, and a foot in the white world, where I really have no business being given the kind of person that I am. So that's the split in my mind."

Ernie Chambers

State Sen. Ernie Chambers in his Capitol office, piled high with filing boxes. 

More on that subject

"There are certain experiences all of us (black people) have had and so we understand things. There are some ideas that we don't even have to express in words and we have a total and complete understanding of each other. And that won't happen with me and any group of white people or any white person — it cannot. 

"I could never understand thoroughly a shark. I'd have to be able to live where the shark lives, do what the shark does and experience what the shark experiences."

On the Legislature

"I actually diminish myself whenever I'm functioning in that Legislature. I'm like a bird whose wings have been clipped. ... Who could you talk to up there about anything like that? They won't even read the bills that we're supposed to deal with. And how is a legacy going to be built in an environment like that? It'd be like me being in an insane asylum trying to talk philosophy to the inmates — who are what they are and where they are through no fault of their own, and certainly not by choice — but it's a waste of my time to try to speak to them about things when they lack the capacity to understand.

"I know I'm not going to change these people. That's what I know intellectually. But I don't know everything, just like I didn't know that the death penalty bill would pass when it did. So I have to work as though things will be achieved."

Ernie Chambers

State Sen. Ernie Chambers in his Capitol office, piled high with filing boxes. 

On getting the ball rolling

"We have to do what we think ought to be done, we have to say what we think ought to be said, because we don't know whether or not something we do or say will inspire somebody who can take it and do more with it than we could do with it. ...

"The one who really does the job is the one who can create tools that make tools. No man or woman could build some of the types of machines that exist now without the assistance of other machines. ... So the machines that make machines are almost magical, but one who makes the machines that make the machines is the magician."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7234 or

On Twitter @zachami.


Assistant city editor

Zach Pluhacek is an assistant city editor.

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