• Video Below: Suttle's victory speech
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Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle says he has gotten the message. Suttle narrowly survived a recall effort Tuesday, less than 20 months after taking office. Victorious but chastened, he said he plans to do a better job communicating with Omahans.
Suttle said he wants to help bring the city together.
“There is no doubt we have weathered some stormy waters and engaged in spirited debate, but tonight we must begin a time of healing and reconciliation,” said Suttle, with his family and supporters gathered on the stage.
Suttle's victory wasn't a ringing endorsement of his policies and actions.
Elected in May 2009, Suttle barely avoided becoming the second Omaha mayor in 24 years to be recalled from office. Mike Boyle lost his job in 1987.
Suttle acknowledged that he owed his survival to people who might not have agreed with him but who voted against the recall because they believed it was unjustified.
Last fall, for example, The World-Herald Poll found that a majority of Omahans disapproved of Suttle's job performance. But only 39 percent were willing to remove him from office.
Suttle said he planned to “reach out” to those voters and others, and he pledged to listen to all.
One of those voters was Tom Gillette, 53, who voted near 156th Street and West Dodge Road.
“I just don't think it's the appropriate mechanism,” he said of the recall. “There have been no high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Instead, the recall was a political wildfire ignited by his tax increases and fueled by widespread anger over generous police and fire retirement benefits. And Suttle was ill-equipped to put it out.
An engineer by trade, Suttle struggled to master the art of politics. His reign started on a sour note when he negotiated an expensive new lease for a mayoral SUV and nearly doubled the salary of some members of his staff, then angered taxpayers by trying to close city swimming pools to save money.
It didn't help that he came to office at a time of severe budget woes — the same trouble that has fueled recall elections in a number of large cities in the past two years, including Miami, Kansas City, Mo., and Chattanooga, Tenn.
It also didn't help that he often came across as someone with all the answers, who didn't listen to voters.
It all came to a head last year, when he decided to raise a number of taxes to balance the budget and shore up the city's pension obligations to its police and firefighters. Too many tax hikes, his opponents argued, and not enough budget cuts.
In all, Suttle raised property tax rates by 15 percent, boosted the city's wheel tax from $35 to $50 per car, and created a new tax on restaurant, bar and catering tabs.
The tax hikes gave birth to a recall committee, which included restaurant owners upset about the dining tax and landlords upset about property taxes.
They were backed financially by a handful of businessmen who poured more than $300,000 into the recall effort.
Petition circulators hit the streets starting in late October, collecting signatures for a recall election. Many observers thought the odds were against the recall forces, but they exceeded the signature threshold and overcame Suttle's last-ditch legal challenge of the signatures.
Suttle, meanwhile, made headway by emphasizing that he hadn't done anything illegal and had made progress in shoring up the city's finances.
Then, two weeks ago, a new controversy arose — over his campaign's decision to drive busloads of homeless people to the election office, after paying them $5 each to attend a campaign training class.
Shuttlegate, as it became known in some political blogs, exasperated his supporters and motivated his opponents.
But in the end, Suttle eked out a win.
David Nabity, one of the recall leaders, said he had no regrets.
“We fought for liberty,” he said. “We fought for giving the citizens of this city an opportunity to hit the reset button and start over.”
Nabity said he was disappointed with Tuesday's results, saying he believed from the beginning that the recall would succeed.
“Of course, if we knew we would not win, we wouldn't have done it,” he said. “We thought Omahans would rise up and seize the opportunity we were giving them, but they didn't.”
Randy Adkins, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said the narrow win will undercut Suttle's position during the rest of his term.
“This is not any type of vindication for the mayor,” Adkins said. “This isn't going to change his approval rating.”
But David Kramer, a former Republican state chairman, said Suttle can take comfort in his victory, even though he needed help from people who disagreed with a recall more than they endorsed his policies.
“The bottom line is: People said they wanted him to stay on as mayor,” he said.
There's no question, Kramer said, that Suttle should feel humbled by the fact that many Omahans are unhappy with him. But Kramer dismissed the idea that the process mortally wounded Suttle's tenure as mayor.
Instead, Suttle now has an opportunity to make a fresh start, Kramer said. He said the mayor can try to improve the way he communicates with the public and do a better job building a consensus for his policy choices.
“The challenge that any elected person has is to learn from all the events that happen around him,” Kramer said. “There is an opportunity for him to demonstrate that he's learned from this experience.”
Loree Bykerk, another UNO political scientist, said Suttle now has two years to push an agenda without having his “opponents hanging over his head.”
“It gives him the opportunity, particularly since the revenue appears adequate, to get the financial house in order and push his initiatives,” Bykerk said.
Rick Witmer, a political scientist at Creighton University, agreed.
In a sense, he said, Suttle actually might be in a “stronger position” after the recall, since he survived everything his opponents could throw at him.
Suttle's win now puts the political spotlight on 2013.
Several Republicans, including former Councilmen Jim Vokal and Dan Welch, are interested in running for mayor. They now have two years to potentially put together a campaign and raise money for a more traditional campaign.
The field will probably be crowded, whether or not Suttle, a Democrat, runs for re-election.
His slim victory Tuesday will fuel the belief that he will have difficulty winning re-election.
“He has a lot of work ahead of him, if he's thinking about running in 2013,” Welch said. “Even though he survived the recall effort, a lot of people aren't happy with his performance. Jim Suttle needs to keep that in mind.”
But a lot can happen in politics in two years, said Barry Rubin, a Democratic activist.
If Suttle can create jobs, and the city continues to grow, he might have a chance in 2013, Rubin said.
Kramer said he wouldn't count Suttle out — but said the mayor will have to change his approach.
“Voters tend to love a comeback story,” Kramer said.
World-Herald staff writer Matt Wynn contributed to this report.