Ernie Chambers took off his sun hat, set down his garden hose and walked into his north Omaha home, re-emerging a couple of minutes later with a pile of paper at least 2 inches thick.
It was his handwritten log, going back months, of telephone calls to his home number, the one that's in the phone book next to his address, 1825 Binney St. Chambers had noted several calls each day; on some days, more than 20.
In the log, the names of a few Nebraska state and university officials mingled with the names of those whom Chambers said typically call him for help: jail and prison inmates; parents who believe their children were mistreated by police; relatives of juveniles with life prison sentences; and people who have problems with landlords, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, the Omaha Housing Authority or even, on occasion, evil spirits.
It appears people still know of Chambers and how to find him, four years after term limits ended his 38-year tenure in the Nebraska Legislature. He is seeking to regain north Omaha's District 11 seat from incumbent Sen. Brenda Council.
Chambers brought out the phone log during an interview in the front yard of his Binney Street home about whether he lives in the district he seeks to represent and about how in touch he is with the district. The questions came up after a rumor that has long circulated in the State Capitol made it into the The World-Herald — a rumor that Chambers lives in Bellevue, not north Omaha.
Chambers said he lives at 1825 Binney St. He declined to say how much time he spends in Bellevue, except to say, “I don't live there.”
Told that people had posted comments on websites that they've seen him at a Bellevue supermarket and gas stations, Chambers — one of the most recognizable public figures in Nebraska — said he travels around much of the Omaha metropolitan area.
“I don't account for my comings and goings to anybody,” he said.
Council lives around the corner from Chambers' house, about two blocks away. She said his residency is not an issue for her campaign.
“Our campaign is focused on the issues important to the residents of north Omaha, and the fact that we're in the best position to address those issues,” Council said.
No one has challenged Chambers' voter registration or election filings in which he has listed 1825 Binney St. as his residence.
“Anybody who thinks I don't live at the address that I registered to vote from, let them initiate legal action,” Chambers said.
He offered such residency-establishing documents for the house as utility bills; insurance records; official mail from the Learning Community Coordinating Council, of which Chambers is an elected member; and World-Herald morning, afternoon and Sunday home-delivery records going back years.
As for the phone log, Chambers records calls, jots notes about them and catalogues them for future reference. He said he often follows up on the callers' concerns by placing calls, making personal visits or writing letters to public officials such as Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, U.S. Attorney Deborah Gilg and Omaha City Prosecutor Marty Conboy. They confirmed receiving such calls.
“I just heard from him last week,” Conboy said. “He gets calls all the time. He doesn't call me often, but if people come to him for what he thinks are legitimate problems, he calls and I try to help sort them out.”
In addition to calls to Chambers' house, people frequently telephone Goodwin's Spencer Street Barber Shop and ask for Chambers, though he hasn't cut hair there for years. Owner Dan Goodwin, a friend and political supporter, said the calls come from all over Nebraska and beyond, but many are from north Omaha.
He takes messages. He gives callers Chambers' home number.
The scheduled interview in Chambers' yard followed earlier impromptu interviews of his neighbors.
Council said she doesn't “make it a point to drive by Chambers' house to see if he's there,” but she has noticed him working in the yard.
People who live in six houses on Chambers' block or one block over all said they frequently see him at the Binney Street house, often working outside.
“All we know is he's in touch with his yard,” one neighbor woman said. “He's a yardwork-aholic.”
Another neighbor, Deborah McCants, said she had seen the 75-year-old Chambers edge his grass with scissors, and once watched him exit the house and defuse a tense situation in the street between young women and police officers. She said Chambers usually keeps conversations with adults short, but talks with children for as long as they wish.
“He comes over and helps my husband when it snows,” McCants said. “They shovel and help each other.”
Thomas Curry, who lives next door to Chambers, said he frequently chats with him over the fence, and recently managed to engage the former lawmaker in a lengthy discussion about child custody laws.
Chambers purchased 1825 Binney St. for $20,000 in 2006, according to Douglas County property records. He previously had rented the house with an option to purchase it after the owner died.
In his yard in late July, Chambers had the garden hose out in an ongoing struggle to keep grass growing in a problem spot. As the interview ended, he demonstrated what he said is further evidence of his residency: that the neighborhood squirrels know him.
A squirrel skittered around Chambers' Honda Civic, stopped, and stood on its hind legs, as if looking for something. Chambers reached into the car, took out a cracker and extended it toward the creature. The squirrel hopped toward him and waited until Chambers tossed the cracker, then took it and began nibbling away.
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