By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
Updated 8:25 a.m. Thursday
LINCOLN – While filibustering a bill that would expand a prison work program, a Nebraska state senator fired verbal shots at the former lieutenant governor who resigned for using his state cell phone to make personal calls, a former senator who gambled away campaign donations, the Catholic church, the Bible, Christians and, last but not least, the governor.
Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers — famous for his bold pronouncements, oratorical flourishes and mastery of parliamentary procedure when he comes across a bill he doesn’t like — launched his full-on attack Wednesday. Chambers is back in the Legislature this year after a four-year absence due to term limits.
The subject of Chambers’ latest ire was Sen. Mark Christensen’s bill allowing a McCook prison work camp to provide labor to charitable, fraternal and nonprofit groups. Caught in the crossfire of his filibuster was the lieutenant governor who recently resigned after a newspaper found he’d made about 2,000 phone calls to several women other than his wife.
Chambers questioned why former Lt. Gov. Rick Sheehy hasn’t been charged with a crime, even though using government resources for personal use is against the law. The state auditor said since the phone was on a unlimited usage plan, there was no cost to the state.
Chambers also questioned why the senator who replaced him during his four-year hiatus and was defeated by him in November, former Sen. Brenda Council, didn’t get jail time after being fined $500 for gambling away $63,000 in campaign funds. The attorney general charged her with two misdemeanors rather than a felony, saying the penalty would likely be the same.
Chambers alleged that if “some scruffy person” like he were in their shoes, he would’ve been treated differently.
“Sheehy and Council commit crimes but aren’t charged,” Chambers said, although Council was charged with misdemeanors. “We can’t put Sheehy in jail. We can’t put Senator Council in jail.”
Then, while burning up time trying to talk Christensen’s bill to death, Chambers talked about attending a fundamentalist church where, as a child, he claimed children were terrorized and made to feel they were headed for Hell. He called Bible stories “fairy tales” that he outgrew.
Chambers sounded more like a preacher – albeit an unconventional and blasphemous one – than a senator, but he blamed the Legislature for that, too, noting that the body “invites religion into the chamber every morning” with a prayer. He said preachers who enter the legislative chambers are entering “my territory” to “do their damage.” He accused senators of not heeding those preachers’ calls to “do the right thing,” which he said “brings condemnation on you.”
While on the subject of Christianity, Chambers noted that Jesus “looked more like me than you all.” Despite his claims he doesn’t believe in God (though he sued God once), Chambers demonstrated that he knows the Bible (which he derisively calls the “Holly Bibel”) well, telling his fellow senators that you can judge a society by how it treats its children, elderly and enemies.
He eviscerated “religious people” and Republicans who “have taken people’s wives” and “shiver of shivers, engaged in homosexuality.” He then reeled off a poem about Sheehy being a lonely man who used the government’s phone to make 2,000 phone calls.
“Why shouldn’t Sheehy be sentenced to do some free labor?” he asked. “It would teach him good work habits, and it would let him know that crime of any kind doesn’t pay.”
He attacked Gov. Dave Heineman, saying it’s racist for him not to allow young immigrants, who are here illegally but allowed to work by the feds, to get driver’s licenses. The governor’s spokeswoman, Jen Rae Hein, said in response, “The governor respects Senator Chambers. The issue of drivers licenses for persons here illegally is a matter of following Nebraska law, not race.”
Finally, Chambers said the Mafia has higher standards than the Catholic Church hierarchy because if their members were “raping children, they’d off them.”
After spending about three hours filibustering the bill, Chambers was cut off when the Legislature ended its floor session at noon Wednesday.
Christensen said in an interview later that Chambers told him he doesn’t like the bill because it reminds him of “chain gang days.” Christensen said he didn’t listen to the rest of Chambers’ rant.
“He knows the Bible but he doesn’t have the relationship that it takes to be a Christian or go to Heaven,” Christensen said.
Chambers is expected pick up his filibuster Monday where he left off, talking a full eight hours before he can be cut off.
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