Crossing the line

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The tone of debate hit a disturbing level recently in Lincoln, where the Unicameral’s most controversial figure went too far in making a point.
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha has long been known for his emotional outbursts and frequent angry rants. It’s part of his demeanor, colleagues learned long ago, as well as an intimidation factor for anyone who dares go toe to toe on a given issue.
That’s all fine and good, and in fact most would admit that Chambers has raised the bar on legislative debate over the years. Anyone who questions his logic, whether it be a fellow senator, lobbyist, or member of the media, better do their homework before questioning his facts, figures or logic. He’s a brilliant lawyer and lawmaker, not doubt about it, who brings passion to his work on behalf of his north Omaha constituents.
Chambers likes to push the envelop, which can at times be enlightening if not entertaining, but his comments likening the police to the Islamic State group clearly crossed a line. The controversy erupted after comments Chambers made during a committee hearing on gun legislation, where he was quoted as saying “my ISIS is the police.” He alleged that Omaha police officers are licensed to kill and pose a threat to his neighborhood, later refusing to apologize or back off his comments in any way.
As a state senator, Chambers’ speech is fully protected when he is on the floor, which means nothing he can say can be used to remove him from the Legislature. The only people he must answer to are his Omaha constituents, and they are apparently pleased with the job he’s doing.
There is a potential problem brewing, however, with Chambers’ arrogant approach. He seems not to care what others think about him, which is his own prerogative. But when he steers the debate down a hateful path like he did on the gun issue, he’s taking the entire body right along with him, which is counterproductive and grossly unfair to his colleagues.
Criticism from the governor, fellow senators and editorials like this one may not sway a man who seems to enjoy the polarizing spotlight, but he needs to be aware that he’s flirting with the line of becoming more of a distraction in Lincoln than the fiery foe most people have come to respect.
Kurt Johnson

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