Senator Ernie Chambers tried 37 times during his 41 years in the Nebraska Legislature to repeal his state’s death penalty. This week, on try #38, he succeeded. Ten men the state planned to kill will now live out their lives in prison.
Senator Chambers says this fight defines his political career:
“No matter how many other things I have achieved while here, had I not gotten the death penalty repealed I would have felt it was a failure,” Sen. Ernie Chambers told reporters after a historic vote that saw 29 colleagues give just enough support to override a Republican governor’s veto of his bill (LB268) that repealed the state’s death penalty [Joanne Young, “Nebraska’s Death Penalty Is Repealed,” Lincoln Journal-Star, 2015.05.28].
Senator Chambers stuck with this single issue against his state’s political climate and persevered:
The outcome elicited a nod and a grin from the typically stoic Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who has tried for four decades to repeal the death penalty. As the controversial senator walked through the glass doors leading into the Capitol Rotunda, he was feted with chants of “Ernie! Ernie! Ernie!”
Chambers quoted from the Bible to summarize his thoughts upon the achievement of his highest political goal.
“I fought the good fight, I finished my course, I kept the faith,” he said. “And although I put it in the personal pronoun singular, it’s everybody who voted for that override. Because if any one of them had not, it wouldn’t have happened” [Joe Duggan, Paul Hammel and Martha Stoddard, “Hours of Suspense, Emotion Lead up to a Landmark Vote for Legislators on Repealing Death Penalty,” Omaha World-Herald, 2015.05.28].
Senator Chambers happens to be the highest-ranking elected open atheist in the country. He finally won the death penalty debate on the prevailing evidence that Nebraska’s death penalty is inordinately expensive and arbitrary.
There are many reasons to take heart over the fact that Senator Ernie Chambers finally convinced the Nebraska Legislature to outlaw the state’s deliberate killing of prisoners. On a personal level, I take heart to see that an atheist can fight and lose 37 times, stick to his ideals, and ultimately win in a conservative prairie state. Well done, Senator Chambers.