Former Nebraska Senator Ernie Chambers Contemplates Political Comeback

LINCOLN — The self-proclaimed “Defender of the Downtrodden” is keeping voters guessing about whether he might seek to reclaim his North Omaha seat in the Nebraska Legislature.

In a recent interview with the Examiner, former State Senator Ernie Chambers—the longest-serving legislator in state history—said he’s “thinking about” running against incumbent Sen. Terrell McKinney.

‘Thinking’ different than ‘planning’ However, Chambers, now 86, added that thinking about it is different than planning or intending to.

The final deadline to file as a candidate for the Nebraska Legislature is March 1 at 5 p.m.

The filing deadline for incumbents came and went on Thursday with one big surprise: State Senator Julie Slama of Dunbar declined to seek another term, setting off a storm of speculation about who might seek her seat in southeast Nebraska.

Sixteen of the 25 seats up for election in 2024 are “open” seats—seats lacking an incumbent—and three other races feature appointees making their first run to retain their post. Appointees, as history has shown, aren’t a shoo-in for re-election.

Big turnover coming A significant turnover is ahead for the 49-seat, nonpartisan Unicameral.

As of Friday, only one legislative district in the state lacked a candidate: Fremont’s District 15, where two-term Sen. Lynne Walz is barred from running again due to term limits.

One remaining mystery as the deadline looms is whether Chambers—who served 46 years in the Unicameral—might seek a return to the Legislature, where he often dominated floor debate and listed his occupation as “Defender of the Downtrodden.”

Chambers has “returned” once before, reclaiming his seat in 2012 after being term-limited in 2008.

‘People won’t let me be’ After leaving office in 2021—again, due to term limits—the veteran senator said he’d consider running again in 2024 if his health was good and his mind was “clear.”

Chambers said both of those boxes are checked, but “people won’t let me be.”

He said that those people believe he could block some of the “bad things” that have happened in recent sessions, and that he has a “magic wand” to do that.

“But there’s only so much one person can do,” Chambers said. “Even Jesus would end up on the cross.”

Still, he described what’s been coming out of Lincoln as “crazy” and “pathetic.”

“It’s like a throwback to all those years ago when you had nutty people bringing backward stuff,” Chambers said.

Yet, the former senator said, it’s hard to imagine driving back and forth to Lincoln, amid the cold, snow, and slush of winter, to serve again.

“To be completely honest, I’m thinking about it, but I can’t really say if I’ll do it,” Chambers said.

Here are the candidates who have filed as of Friday. Incumbents noted with *:

District 1

  • Mike Powers of Palmyra. A former school board member, he ran unsuccessfully for the Legislature in 2000, 2004, and in 2020.

District 3

  • Ben “Felix” Ungerman of Papillion. A retired Air Force colonel, he serves as deputy chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Don Bacon.

District 5

  • Flint Harkness of Omaha. He serves as a resource teacher for special education.
  • Margo Juarez of Omaha. A member of the Omaha School Board, she is a retired federal tax examiner.
  • Gilbert Ayala of Omaha. He ran unsuccessfully for the seat in 2016 and 2020, and for Omaha City Council in 2021.

District 7

  • Dunixi Guereca of Omaha. He is the executive director of Stand for Schools, which supports public schools and opposes school choice laws.
  • Christopher Geary of Omaha. A martial arts instructor/studio owner and former Marine, he ran unsuccessfully for Omaha mayor in 2017 and the Nebraska Legislature in 2012.

District 9

  • *John Cavanaugh of Omaha. A lawyer and member of a widely known political family.
  • Julia Palzer of Omaha. Also a lawyer, she previously served as dean of admissions at Creighton University School of Law.

District 11

  • *Terrell McKinney of Omaha. A law student at Creighton School of Law.

District 13

  • Tracy Hightower Henne of Omaha. A lawyer who serves as executive director of the Nebraska Innocence Project.

District 15

  • None

District 17

  • Glen Meyer of Pender. Chairman of the Thurston County Board, he has farmed and worked as a sales manager for a seed company.

District 19

  • *Rob Dover of Norfolk. Real estate manager/owner of a real estate firm. He was appointed to the Legislature in July 2022 by then-Gov. Pete Ricketts.
  • Jeanne Reigle of Madison. A farmer, she is a member of the governing board of the Northeast Community College.

District 21

  • *Beau Ballard of Lincoln. A small-business owner, he was appointed to the Legislature in December 2022 by then-Gov. Ricketts.
  • Seth Derner of Lincoln. He is co-founder of a business that designs instructional programs, curriculum, and online learning modules.

District 23

  • Jacob Wolff of Colon. A Navy veteran who recently moved into the district after living in Omaha.
  • Dennis Fujan of Prague. A farmer and a Navy veteran, he is a past president of the Nebraska Soybean Association.
  • Alan Zavodny of David City. A farmer and former David City mayor.
  • Jared Storm of David City. A small-business owner and pilot.
  • Allie French of Prague. The co-owner of a bait shop and head of Nebraskans Against Government Overreach.

District 25

  • *Carolyn Bosn of Lincoln. A former county prosecutor, she was appointed to the Legislature in April by Gov. Jim Pillen.
  • Nicki Behmer Popp of Lincoln. A small-business owner, Realtor, and member of the Lincoln Airport Authority.
  • Maher Aurang Zeb of Lincoln. A small business owner, he ran unsuccessfully for the Lincoln City Council in 2021 and the Lincoln Airport Authority in 2019.

District 27

  • Jason Prokop of Lincoln. The director of an early childhood care and education nonprofit, he once served as an adviser to then-U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson.

District 29

  • *Eliot Bostar of Lincoln. The executive director of the Nebraska Conservation Voters and Conservation Nebraska.
  • Phil Bruce of Lincoln. A cybersecurity analyst who launched a nonprofit that works on community building.

District 31

  • *Kathleen Kauth of Omaha. A professional mediator, she was appointed to the Legislature in June 2022 by then-Gov. Ricketts, then elected later that year.
  • Mary Ann Folchert of Omaha. A former teacher.

District 33

  • Michelle Smith of Hastings. A mental health practitioner.
  • Dan Lonowski of Hastings. An Army veteran and retired teacher, now a manager for a substance and alcohol abuse prevention program.
  • Paul Hamelink of Hastings. A former member of the Hastings City Council and owner of a cigar lounge.

District 35

  • *Ray Aguilar of Grand Island. The retired owner of a janitorial service, he served in the Legislature from 1999 to 2008, then was re-elected to the post in 2020.
  • Dan Quick of Grand Island. A former state senator, who has served as president of a labor union, he was defeated for re-election in 2020 by Aguilar.

District 37

  • Stanley Clouse of Kearney. The mayor of Kearney, he is an account manager for Nebraska Public Power District.
  • Lana Peister of Kearney. A nurse and small business partner.

District 39

  • Tony Sorrentino of Omaha. A lawyer and certified public accountant, he is president/founder of a firm that helps health plans comply with federal law. Sorrentino ran unsuccessfully for the Legislature in 2006.
  • Allison Heimes of Omaha. A lawyer, she ran unsuccessfully for the Legislature in 2020.

District 41

  • Ethan Clark of Ord. He works in marketing for an agriculture implement company.
  • Nadine Diane Bane of Scotia. A retiree with experience in farming, nursing, and trucking.
  • Daniel McKeon of Amherst. An Army National Guard veteran, he works as an agronomy consultant.

District 43

  • Tanya Storer of Whitman. A rancher and former member of the Cherry County Board, she ran unsuccessfully for the Legislature in 2020.
  • Tony Tangwall of Whitney. A rancher and senior pastor at his church.

District 45

  • *Rita Sanders of Bellevue. A former mayor of Bellevue and a commercial real estate developer.
  • Sarah Centineo of Bellevue. A nurse and attorney, she is a member of the Bellevue School Board.

District 47

  • Paul Strommen of Sidney. A member of the Sidney City Council and the Nebraska Oil and Gas Commission, he is an executive with an ethanol plant.
  • Larry Bolinger of Alliance. A property manager and Air Force veteran, he ran unsuccessfully for Nebraska attorney general in 2022 and for U.S. Congress in 2018 and 2020.

District 49

  • *Jen Day of Omaha. A small-business owner and fitness coach.
  • Caleb Muhs, Omaha. A financial consultant, he has degrees in law and finance.
  • Bob Anderson of Papillion. An Air Force veteran, he and his wife own child care businesses, and he formed a nonprofit geared toward defense-related research.

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