This legislative session saw many twists and turns, but none as unlikely as a legislature united in its criticism of Sen. Ernie Chambers earlier in the session, then largely following Chambers’ lead to repeal the death penalty at the end of the session.
Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha noticed.
McCoy led the legislative criticism of Sen. Chambers for statements Chambers made during a legislative committee hearing. State senator after state senator took to the floor of the legislative session to denounce the anti-police statements made by Chambers during that committee meeting. Chambers remained defiant and refused to apologize for comparing police to the Islamic State and implying that if he carried a weapon and were confronted by police, he would shoot first and ask questions later.
“In the case of Sen. Chambers, I’ve disagreed with Sen. Chamber vehemently many, many times,” McCoy tells Nebraska Radio Network. “And on the issue that he talked about my ISIS being the police and that I’d shoot first and ask questions later earlier this session, it really is remarkable if you think about what then transpired later on in the session.”
What transpired was triumph as Chambers, the veteran state senator from Omaha, won his 40-plus year battle to repeal the death penalty.
Term limits forced Chambers to sit out a legislative term before returning to the Unicameral two years ago. Once back, Chambers renewed his campaign to end capital punishment in Nebraska.
McCoy failed first to block the legislation as Chambers mustered enough votes to end a filibuster and pass LB 268 on final reading on a 32-15 vote, then failed to sustain the veto of the bill by Gov. Pete Ricketts. The legislature overrode the governor 30-19, the minimum vote needed for an override.
McCoy hasn’t given up. He co-chairs an effort to place the issue on the 2016 ballot.
The Speaker of the Legislature, Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney, acknowledges he worried the controversy could derail the legislative session.
Hadley points out when asked by Nebraska Radio Network though Chambers’ criticism of the police offended many lawmakers, Chambers didn’t break any rules.
“And I think as the debate went along, I think more people realized that,” Hadley says, adding Chambers had the legislative rules and the Constitution on his side. “I put out a press release that I disagreed entirely with what he said, but I defended that he had the right to say it.”
In fact, during the legislative debate criticizing Chambers, Hadley took to the floor to remind colleagues they enjoy extraordinary privilege for what they say both in committee and on the floor.
Hadley adds Chambers wasn’t the only senator to make a controversial statement or two during the session.
“It’s interesting that later on in the session we read where one of the senators called us, I think, what, spineless wimps,” Hadley says. “Well, I think a lot of senators probably would take offense with being called a spineless wimp.”
At one point, the controversy threatened to take over the session.
“I was worried, but I knew cooler heads would prevail and people would understand that we had things to do and you go through it, let people talk, and then you move on to the next issue,” according to Hadley.
McCoy remains critical of Chambers’ statements.
“I just believe that public servants have no place saying the kind of things that Sen. Chambers is wont to say and I think that’s tragic,” McCoy says. “I think it coarsens the dialogue here in the legislature and I find it very disheartening, frankly.”