Omaha politics are rarely dull. Such is the case again this spring, with a heated race for mayor of the state’s largest city. In today’s Signature Story, Mike Tobias of NET News reports on the race, the candidates and the broader impact on Nebraska politics.
Jim Suttle (L) and Jean Stothert (R) take part in the League of Women Voters debate at the Omaha Press Club, moderated by Omaha journalist Gary Kerr. (All photos by Mike Tobias/NET News)
Mayoral candidate Jean Stothert
Mayoral candidate Jim Suttle.
The Omaha Press Club was elbow to elbow for a lunchtime debate between Omaha’s mayoral candidates. It was the last opportunity for Republican Jean Stothert and Democrat Jim Suttle to trade punches before the May 14 election, and the gloves came off quickly. A question about the city’s negotiations with the firefighters union led to a testy exchange between Suttle, the incumbent mayor, and Stothert, a member of the city council. The attacks, and the tone, continued for an hour on a variety of issues.
“I think the way I’d characterize the race right now is we’re really in a dog fight,” says Randall Adkins, chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “We’ve got two candidates who don’t necessarily have kind things to say about the other.”
Adkins says it’s a tough race with tough talk, but no more than other rough-and-tumble mayoral races in recent years. One change he sees is how campaigns are reaching supporters.
“(What) we’re seeing for the first time in this election is the use of social media both to raise money and to generate awareness in campaigns,” Adkins says, “and that is part of what’s going on nationally, not just here in Omaha.”
Politically, these are interesting times for Omaha. Adkins says the success of Barrack Obama’s presidential campaign in Omaha in 2008, when Obama claimed an electoral vote in the 2nd District, has created some momentum for other Omaha Democrats.
“I think that what we’ve seen in the last probably five years or so has been more balance in the district between the two political parties,” Adkins adds.
Dick Shugrue is watching this race from Arizona. He’s retired now, but for decades he tracked politics from his faculty office at Creighton University. Shugrue sees a different political change in Omaha, what he calls a party power shift.
“As the city has moved farther and farther west, people who were old time machine politician members in the inner core of the city have moved out to more affluent neighborhoods,” Shugrue says. “You find the loyalties to the Democratic party that used to exist in the central part of the city kind of dissolving.”
Whether Republican or Democrat, incumbent mayors in Omaha seem to have targets on their backs. Since a recall election ousted Democrat Mike Boyle from office in 1987, nine others have served as mayor in the last 26 years. Suttle himself barely survived a recall election two years ago. Republican Hal Daub lost a re-election bid in 2001. Shugrue says it’s tough for a sitting mayor because unlike some larger cities Omaha has a strong mayor system of government where the mayor is held accountable for hundreds of decisions, large and small.
“In a large city like Chicago,” Shugrue says, “you have a powerful mayor but you have aldermen of the various wards who are making local decisions on everything from garbage pick-up to street lights and so forth, and the spotlight may be on him or her within that ward or neighborhood. That’s not true in Omaha.”
It’s a race that has importance beyond Omaha’s city limits. Some say as Omaha goes, so does the rest of the state. That takes on a different political meaning now because, in the wake of Deb Fischer’s defeat of Bob Kerrey for U.S. Senate, Nebraska Republicans now hold both U.S. Senate seats, all three House of Representatives seats and the governor’s office for the first time in decades. Suttle, who finished second to Stothert in the primary, is considered the highest ranking current Democratic office holder in the state.
“When you talk about the power the Democratic party may still have in the state of Nebraska, there ain’t much,” Shugrue says. “(Losing the Omaha mayor’s race) would be a significant blow to the Democratic party in Nebraska, as if it hadn’t had enough significant blows.”
“For the Republicans, it would show that there’s quite a degree of dominance if Jean Stothert is able to win this election and it would show it throughout the state now,” Adkins says.
“Omaha, being the largest city in the state, always has a big influence on Nebraska politics, regardless of who wins,” Adkins adds.
Next Tuesday, Omaha voters will decide whether their next leader will be Suttle, a former city council member and public works director who was elected mayor in 2009, or Stothert, a city council member and former Millard School Board member. Whatever happens on election day, the results will reverberate westward from Nebraska’s largest city.