By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN, Neb. — State Sen. Sen. Ernie Chambers isn’t backing down.
The state lawmaker froma Omaha defiantly stood Thursday on the floor of the Nebraska Legislature and rejected many of his colleagues’ calls for him to apologize — or even resign — for comparing cops to ISIS terrorists and suggesting he’d shoot a cop if he weren’t nonviolent and had a gun.
“I meant what I said and I said what I meant,” Chambers said.
He said the irony is that lawmakers were discussing freedom of expression on Wednesday, and said it was ignorant and “idle talk” to suggest taking any kind of legal action, since lawmakers are immune from civil or criminal liability in connection with anything they say in the Legislature.
“I’m not going to resign,” he said. “I’m not going to apologize. Why do you think I would apologize?”
For two hours, senators took to the microphone to talk about what they thought of Chambers’ comments, which were made last week during a legislative hearing on a gun bill that would allow people to carry concealed guns in bars.
State Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha led the charge, saying he’ll stand up every day and demand a “strong denouncement” and apology, noting Thursday morning that two police officers were killed in other states in the past 48 hours.
“What he’s said is a public safety risk to the people of Nebraska and those who wear a uniform,” McCoy said.
He has said lawmakers are considering their options — censure, admonishment or expulsion for the rest of the session, which would require 33 votes out of 49.
However, what McCoy is suggesting is not civil or criminal action, but a provision in the state constitution and Legislative rules that allows for censure, for example, by a simple majority of lawmakers.
Chambers said he doubted anyone had read the transcript of last week’s hearing, but he was mistaken. It was released Wednesday afternoon, unusually quickly, and a copy was on every lawmakers’ desk.
State Sen. David Schnoor said he doesn’t pay attention to talk radio — where Chambers’ comments first were replayed — but he read the transcript of the Judiciary hearing, and asked Chambers to resign by day’s end.
“I’m demanding accountability,” he said.
State Sen. Lydia Brasch said she was dismayed, saddened and confused after reading the transcript.
“It is not right to compare police to ISIS and what has happened,” she said. “The horror internationally — the threat to our people.”
The kerfuffle began last week when Chambers asked the gun bill sponsor, Sen. Tommy Garrett, why people felt they needed to carry guns in such bars. Garrett cited the ISIS, causing Chambers to erupt.
Chambers said an “ISIS mentality” can be found in America, where police terrorize and shoot people.
ISIS is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which has beheaded journalists and brutally executed Westerners and others.
“My ISIS is the police,” Chambers said last week. “I would tell young people: If you tell somebody to go across the world to fight for ISIS, they can put you in jail if you just talk about it. If you want to fight injustice, don’t — you don’t have to go around the world to find the ISIS mentality, your ISIS is in America. And you’re likely to die over there, one way or the other. So if you’re going to die, die making your home safe. My home is not threatened by ISIS, mine is threatened by the police. The police are licensed to kill us: Children, old people.”
Chambers – who represents north Omaha, which has a high crime rate and is sometimes the scene of clashes between police and citizens — talked about cases of police brutality and the Nebraska State Patrol’s hiring a Lincoln police officers who were found guilty of using excessive force.
State Sen. Jim Smith said regardless of whether Chambers’ comments were reported “in context,” lawmakers have an obligation to strengthen communities and show gratitude to those who protect them.
“There are simply no comparisons in our society to the barbaric attacks by ISIS,” he said.
Sen. Joni Craighead and about a dozen senators showed their support for law enforcement during the noon break, by holding up “#SupportBlue” signs.
Others were uncomfortable with what they saw as piling on Chambers. State Sen. Dave Bloomfield said Chambers has the right to free speech.
“I do not condone what Senator Chambers said,” he said. “Senator Chambers has done a great service to this body for 40 years. Whether you like what he said or not, he has the right to say it.”
One lawmaker withdrew his support for Chambers’ bill to repeal the death penalty. State Sen. Brett Lindstrom was a cosponsor of the bill, and said he still supports it, but in light of Chambers’ refusal to apologize, he was pulling his name from the bill.
“I no longer want my name associated with a senator who would make such comments,” he said.
Other lawmakers who were in the hearing when Chambers made the comments said they were embarrassed they said nothing at the time. Indeed, some people in the audience laughed.
State Sen. Bob Krist said he was disappointed in himself for not speaking up over the past six years when Chambers’ calls lawmakers racists or blasts the Catholic church. However, he said, he’d be equally condemning the next time “someone calls someone a retard.”
“It stops here for me,” he said.
Another senator on the committee also said he regretted saying nothing when Chambers made the comments. Sen. Matt Williams, a first-year lawmaker, said that won’t happen again, noting that a State Patrol officer who was in the hearing room is from his hometown. He said it hurts when Chambers calls people bigots, racists or hypocritical Christians, but it’s irrelevant.
Chambers can be bombastic, but also very caring and kind, some noted. State Sen. Rick Kolowoski said he’s worked with Chambers for seven years, and learned a lot from him.
“He’s passionate about what he believes in,” he said. “I’m not here to judge Senator Chambers.”
A frequent foe of Chambers’, conservative state Sen. Bill Kintner, also struck a diplomatic tone, saying he often gets flack for things he says.
“We have the right to say whatever we want, in hearings, on this floor,” Kintner said. “I think I know what he was trying to say. I don’t think he said it as well as he could’ve.”
But if he were in Chambers’ shoes, he would clarify what he said — “that I don’t think policemen should be shot.”
“I think that clarification would go along way toward fixing this thing,” Kintner said. “And I think you probably need to say I’m sorry for saying it in a way that upset people.”
One lawmaker said he was having a resolution drafted to express support for law enforcement.
“I do find Senator Chambers’ comments highly inappropriate,”Sen. Jeremy Nordquist said. “Any insinuation that there should be an act of aggression toward law enforcement is highly inappropriate.”
Sen. Heath Mello said he doesn’t condone Chambers’ comments, but it’s his right to say them and he questioned where lawmakers will draw the line on objectionable statements.
But Chambers didn’t back down, even angrily leaving the floor at one point, saying, “brave white guy just got through screaming at Cindy in my office and I’m gonna do what I need to do right this minute.”
Speaker Galen Hadley reminded lawmakers that they have “absolute privilege of speech” in hearings and on the floor.
“Senator Chambers had the right to say what he said. We also have right to say we think it wrong,” he said. “If we’re g do our work we have to have freedom of expression.”
Gov. Pete Ricketts and others joined the calls for Chambers to publicly apologize.
“No one should ever suggest the use of violence against law enforcement officials,” Ricketts said in a media release. “I have reviewed the transcript from the Judiciary Committee hearing in question, and Senator Chambers’ comments were out of line. Words matter. At a time when we need to develop better relationships between law enforcement and our communities, Senator Chambers’ comments are irresponsible and only promote distrust and the potential for violence. I urge Senator Chambers to issue a full apology for his remarks and to condemn all violence against law enforcement.”
But that only angered Chambers more, as he suggested a mob mentality had taken over.
“And you think that your opposition to me is going to do anything other than inflame me?” he said. “I will stand alone and I don’t mind it. I’m accustomed to it.”
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