Chambers is the longest-serving state senator in the history of Nebraska. He is the only African-American to have run for governor and the US Senate in Nebraska's history.
Chambers was born in the Near North Side neighborhood of Omaha, Nebraska, to father Malcolm Chambers, a local minister, and mother Lillian Chambers. Chambers' father's family originally comes from Mississippi, while his mother's family originally comes from Louisiana. He has six siblings who were all born in Omaha.
In 1955, Chambers graduated from Omaha Tech High School. In 1959, he graduated from Creighton University with a B.A. in history, with minors in Spanish and philosophy. He attended Creighton University School of Law in the early 1960s and completed his degree in 1979.
He refused to join the Nebraska State Bar Association, so was unable to practice law; in 2015, he explained his refusal on the grounds that he had earned the right to practice by passing law school, and should not have to pay the Bar Association dues as well.
In 1963, when Chambers was 25 years old, he worked for the Omaha Post Office. Chambers said he was fired for insubordination because he spoke out against the management at the Post Office referring to the black staff as “boys.” He picketed the Postmaster General's speech in Omaha with a sign that read, “I spoke against discrimination in the Omaha Post Office and was fired.”
During a series of heat waves in the summer of 1966, there were two disturbances in Omaha: In July, the Nebraska National Guard was summoned to restore order after police and black teenagers clashed three nights in a row. In early August, a series of riots occurred over three nights. Chambers worked as a spokesperson for the community during both conflicts, meeting with Mayor A.V. Sorenson, helping to end the riots.
During this period, Chambers emerged as a prominent leader in the North Omaha community where he successfully negotiated concessions from the city's leaders on behalf of the African-American youths of North Omaha. Chambers headed a committee of the Near North Side Police-Community Relations Council collated information and presented numerous complaints about the police to city officials. The African-American community had previously been led by more established organizations like Omaha Urban League and the local chapter of the NAACP, not an emerging young anti-establishment leader like Chambers.
Chambers was working as a barber at the time, and appeared in the Oscar-nominated 1966 documentary film A Time for Burning, where he talked about race relations in Omaha.
Chambers ran for a position on the Omaha School Board, but did not get elected. He also failed as a write-in candidate for the City Council.
In 1970, he was elected to represent North Omaha's 11th District, replacing George W. Althouse, who had been appointed to replace Senator Edward Danner, who had died in office. During the election, a policeman was killed in a deserted house by a bomb. Two Black Panthers, David Rice and Edward Poindexter, were charged in the death. Chambers protested, as he thought the men had been framed by COINTELPRO.
First elected to represent North Omaha's 11th District in the Nebraska State Legislature in 1970, Chambers was successfully re-elected in every ensuing election through 2004. On April 25, 2005, Chambers became Nebraska's longest-serving state senator, having served for more than 35 years. He was not allowed to seek re-election in 2008 because of a constitutional amendment passed by Nebraska voters in 2000 which limits Nebraska state legislators to two consecutive four-year terms.
The constitutional amendment, however, permits senators to seek re-election to their office after sitting out for four years. Chambers ran against incumbent Brenda Council in 2012, winning election by a "landslide".
Chambers also ran for the United States Senate in 1988 as a New Alliance Party candidate. He petitioned to be included on the 1974 ballot for Governor of the state of Nebraska and also ran for Governor in 1994, receiving 0.44% of the vote.
Chambers initiated a lawsuit in 1980 attempting to end the Legislature's practice of beginning its session with a prayer offered by a state-supported chaplain, arguing that such practice was forbidden by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The district court held that the prayer did not violate the Constitution, but that state support for the chaplain did. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals held that both practices violated the Constitution. However, in Marsh v. Chambers (1983), the Supreme Court held by a 6–3 vote that both practices were constitutional because of the "unique history" of the United States.
Chambers has promoted recognizing NCAA student athletes as state employees since the 1980s, arguing that the athletes are generating revenue for their universities without any legal benefits for doing so, which encourages illegal payments and gifts. A bill on this issue too was once passed by the Legislature and again it was unable to overcome the governor's veto. After it was revealed that requiring student athletes to be recognized as state employees would jeopardize any university's NCAA standing, the language of the bill was changed such that a university could allow for players to be paid a stipend, a change that allowed for the bill's passage and signature of governor approval in 2003.
According to an article that appeared in the December 18, 1988, edition of The New York Times, unidentified people present at a closed meeting reported that Chambers claimed he heard credible reports of "boys and girls, some of them from foster homes, who had been transported around the country by airplane to provide sexual favors, for which they were rewarded."
Investigating what became known as the Franklin child prostitution ring allegations, a Nebraska grand jury was convened to investigate the allegations and possibly return indictments. Eventually, the grand jury ruled the entire matter was "a carefully crafted hoax," although they failed to identify the perpetrators of said hoax.
In April 2006, Chambers introduced LB 1024, an amendment to a bill that would divide the Omaha Public Schools district into three different districts. The bill and its amendment were created in response to an effort by the Omaha schools district to "absorb a string of largely white schools that were within the Omaha city limits but were controlled by suburban or independent districts." Omaha Schools claimed that the usurpation was necessary to avoid financial and racial inequity, but supporters of LB 1024 contested the district's expansion, favoring more localized control. The bill has received national attention and some critics have referred to it as "state-sponsored segregation".
A bill passed in 2007 repealed LB 1024, restoring pre-2006 Omaha-area school district boundaries, after which a "learning community" was created to equalize student achievement in Douglas and Sarpy counties.
On September 14, 2007, Chambers filed a lawsuit against God, seeking a permanent injunction ordering God to "cease certain harmful activities and the making of terroristic threats...of grave harm to innumerable persons, including constituents of Plaintiff who Plaintiff has the duty to represent".
Chambers said his action was in response to another lawsuit filed in the state court that he considers to be frivolous and inappropriate. In that case a woman was taking Lancaster County Judge Jeffre Cheuvront to federal court for ruling that the words "rape", "sexual assault kit", "victim", and "assailant" could not be used in her testimony.
Chambers (a member of the Judiciary Committee) stated that the case "is inappropriate because the Nebraska Supreme Court has already considered the case and federal courts follow the decisions of state supreme courts on state matters." He went on to announce his lawsuit against God and said "This lawsuit[against Judge Cheuvront]having been filed and being of such questionable merit creates a circumstance where my lawsuit is appropriately filed. People might call it frivolous but if they read it they’ll see there are very serious issues I have raised."
Chambers' lawsuit drew even more media attention than the lawsuit that had inspired him to take the action to prove his point. Many media outlets covering the story made no mention that Chambers' case was intended to show that the courts were currently required to hear cases, regardless of how frivolous they were. The confusion was furthered by Chambers himself who, apparently tongue-in-cheek, told reporters that his case was not to protest frivolous lawsuits, but to insure them saying his action was "in response to bills brought forth by other state senators to try and stop lawsuits from being filed. 'The Constitution requires that the courthouse doors be open, so you cannot prohibit the filing of suits, Anyone can sue anyone they choose, even God.'"
Chambers is a firm opponent of the death penalty, and introduced a bill to repeal Nebraska's capital punishment law at the start of each legislative session, 36 previous times over 40 years. The bill, LB268, was passed by the Legislature in 1979 but could not overcome Governor Charles Thone's veto; the issue remained as a primary focus of his while in office.
In 2015, Chambers introduced LB268, repealing the state's death penalty. The measure passed the Legislature over a veto by governor Pete Ricketts. Following the veto, a petition drive was undertaken to reject the bill and maintain capital punishment. Enough signatures were secured to suspend LB268 until the November 2016 general election; in the election, 60% of the votes cast favored rejecting the repeal and keeping the death penalty.Chambers has long advocated on behalf of David Rice and Ed Poindexter, who were convicted of the murder of an Omaha police officer; Amnesty International considers the men political prisoners.
Often clashing with fellow senators, Chambers has taken on several issues of concern to rural Nebraskans during his tenure, such as a bill requiring landowners to manage the population of black-tailed prairie dogs on their property and a proposed constitutional amendment to preserve the right to fish, trap and hunt in the state. Chambers described the latter measure as one of the most "asinine, simple-minded pieces of trash" ever to be considered by the Legislature. In 2004 Chambers co-authored an opinion piece with U.S. Rep. Tom Osborne opposing a set of initiatives that would allow casino gambling and slot machines in Nebraska. Chambers also opposed proposed funding of the state's ethanol plant incentive programs, declaring them "a boondoggle".
In the spring of 2006, Chambers withdrew support from two tax incentive bills which would have provided funding for Omaha and Lincoln civic building projects. Chambers claimed that he withdrew support because Omaha business leaders had insulted the Legislature and the North Omaha community which he represents by criticizing the passage of LB 1024. He was also insulted by the Omaha City Council's refusal to name a North Omaha park after him despite another request by that neighborhood to do so.
In March 2015, Chambers introduced LB473 in opposition of the Keystone XL pipeline.
On November 4, 2008, Chambers was elected to be a member of the new Douglas and Sarpy Counties' Learning Community Board; Chambers was sworn in early 2009.
Chambers hosted a weekly call-in Public-access television cable TV show on Omaha's Community Telecast, Inc. (CTI22), broadcast on Cox Channel 22.
In 2014, after ending his regular Omaha Star column, Chambers said he was going to write a blog.
On March 20, 2015, during a Judiciary Committee Hearing on Allowing Guns in Bars (LB 635), Chambers said as part of the conversation that "My ISIS is the police." Chambers said his comments were intended to criticize the failure to prosecute Alvin Lugod, the Omaha police officer who had fatally shot Danny Elrod on February 23. Although fellow senators did not react to his comments during the hearing, there was backlash. Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer responded to Chambers: "The comments that Senator Ernie Chambers made today at the Nebraska Unicameral are not only reprehensible but are completely without merit.” Mayor Jean Stothert also criticized Chambers, saying in a press release that he should be looking for ways to improve public safety instead of “comparing police officers to terrorists.”
Governor Pete Ricketts called Chambers' comments "irresponsible" and asked for an apology. Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer and Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson were also critical, and the hashtag #supportblue was organized in response to Chambers' comments. Senator David Schnoor of Scribner called for his resignation.
Senator Bob Krist of Omaha said he regretted that he had not immediately protested the remark. There were a number of senators who disagreed with his opinion but defended his right to express it. Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins remarked in Chambers' defense: "It's a wonderful opportunity to pile onto Sen. Chambers." Chambers said he will continue to be vocal in his criticism of the police and will not apologize.
In the November 8, 2016 elections, Chambers secured a second term by defeating his opponent, John Sciara, by a vote of 7,763 to 1,726. In January 2017, Sciara filled a protest challenge to the Legislature, claiming Chambers does not live in the district he was elected to represent, and thus is ineligible to hold office. Chambers denied the allegations, describing them as “busybody, gossipy, vengeful cud that already has been chewed.” On April 20, 2017, Nebraska state senators voted 42-0 to dismiss Sciara's challenge, following the recommendation of a special legislative committee formed to evaluate the claim.
In 2000, a term-limit amendment was passed that essentially forced Chambers—as well as half of Nebraska’s state senators—out of office in 2008. The amendment required legislators sit out one term, after which time they could run for election. On November 6, 2012, Chambers was once again elected to represent north Omaha's 11th district in the Nebraska Unicameral, defeating Brenda Council by a "landslide".
Chambers is a long-term civil rights activist and is the most prominent and outspoken African-American leader in the state. He has been characterized as "the Maverick of Omaha," the "angriest black man in Nebraska," and is self-described as a "Defender of the Downtrodden."
Aside from a stint in the United States Army, Chambers has lived in Nebraska all his life. and is known for his casual attire of blue jeans and T-shirts, even when in session at the Nebraska Legislature in the West Chambers of the Nebraska State Capitol. He would often bring his dog with him to work. Chambers is a sketch artist, a therapeutic activity he adopted during long legislative sessions.
Chambers is an atheist, and introduced a bill which would have imposed property taxes upon churches (the bill was not passed). Despite the fact he is not religious, Chambers obtained credentials in January 2009 as a non-denominational minister so he could officiate at weddings. In the 1990s, the apartment complex originally called Strehlow Terrace was renamed the Ernie Chambers Court.
Chambers was married to Jacklyn Adele (née Lee) Chambers (January 31, 1940 - July 15, 2000), with whom he had 4 children (Gayla, Mark, Ernie, and David) before they divorced.