Economy minor factor in Nebraska Senate race

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July 3, 2012 - 7:00pm

Maggie Smith-Hurt is in the market for her first house. On a recent afternoon in midtown Omaha, her realtor showed Maggie and her sister Kat around a number of new and old homes. After a nine-year stay in Dublin and some heavy selling from her family in the States, Smith-Hurt is moving back to the Midwest. She's ready to set some roots, and she said Omaha has lived up to the hype.

Omaha has racked up some flattering recognition the last two years. The city touts a stellar unemployment rate, a booming real estate market and powerhouse companies.

"I got a job relatively quickly (after) moving here," she said. "I feel like my costs, and my expenses, are much, much lower."

"Just the general quality of life that the economy here in Omaha is offering me is encouraging me to buy," she added. "Because I feel like it's something I can manage."

That's good news for her realtor, Tim Reeder, who specializes in midtown and historic Omaha neighborhoods.

How's business?

Fantastic," Reeder said. "I've been a real estate agent for 15 years in Omaha and this has been by far the strongest, best market I've seen in that time."

At one of Omaha's newest and most successful real estate projects, we caught up with economist and Creighton University professor Dr. Ernie Goss.

"Midtown Crossing is a development that indicates the forward thinking in Nebraska and this part of the nation," Goss said. The development includes condos, trendy restaurants and high-end retailers.

"It focuses on midtown development," Goss continued. "Overall, what it has done reverses brain drain and contributes to brain gain. Young, educated, single people are attracted to midtown and downtown."

That is the kind of labor, Goss said, that Omaha and Nebraska need. Omaha boasts an unemployment rate of 4.2 percent, slightly higher than the statewide average, but about half the national average. The city owes much of that to Nebraska's rural force.

"Agriculture's been experiencing a very, very strong rebound from the recession," Goss said, "and that's been showing up in Omaha."

Nebraska candidates for U.S. Senate would agree.

"There's a direct relationship between healthy agriculture and a healthy economy in Nebraska," said former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey, who's running for his old seat in the U.S. Senate left open by retiring Sen. Ben Nelson.

"If you took $3 off a bushel of corn, which is where we were four years ago," Kerrey said, "or if you take $5 or $6 off a bushel of soy beans, 50 cents off cattle, and Nebraska's got unemployment rates at seven percent."

Kerrey has lived in New York for the last 10 years, but has since moved back to run for Senate. His opponent said he's out of touch with Nebraska voters and Nebraska values. Kerrey insists despite his absence, he still grasps the issues rural constituents care most about.

"I know how important healthcare is to rural communities," Kerrey said. "I know how important transportation is to rural communities, and telecommunications is to rural communities."

"So my first response is: I know why our unemployment rates are low and what we have to do to keep them relatively low."

Kerrey's opponent also sees agriculture as crucial to Nebraska's economic stability. Republican state Sen. Deb Fischer said during her tenure in the Legislature, Nebraska has been "responsible" by lowering taxes and cutting spending. That, she said, can work in Congress.

"We've looked at the priorities in the state, whether that's public education, public infrastructure, public safety," Fischer said. "We're meeting those priorities and we're still able to give tax relief to our citizens. That's a model of what we can do at the federal level."

Beyond bringing Nebraska values to Washington, the Senate race between Fischer and Kerrey has national consequences. The ouster of just five Democratic seats will turn the Senate over to a Republican majority.

"Everyone in the state knows that this is a very important election, not just for Nebraska, but for the country," Fischer said. "We have an opportunity to change direction."

So, despite the local prosperity, political candidates simply can't avoid talking about national issues and a struggling national economy, even though constituents might not be entirely interested.

Back in Omaha, realtor Tim Reeder said the economy is not his top concern.

"I don't want to see the economy turn again and affect us," he said. "But I'm not seeing people lose homes, jobs; I'm just not seeing that.

"So the economy isn't one of my big priorities."




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