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Outrage over a plan to close Douglas County polling places has died down, but the controversy left behind a zeal among north Omaha voters.
Coupled with several high-profile races, that means north Omaha community leaders have seen election-related excitement grow steadily — they believe it's almost reached the level of 2008, when voter turnout broke records and lines stretched around the block.
“It is literally history in the making,” said Willie Hamilton of the NAACP.
On Nov. 6, north Omahans will see an African-American candidate on the ballot in nearly every major race, including two of three federal races on the ballot, more than ever before. Three contests are drawing the most attention:
» Former State Sen. Ernie Chambers and incumbent Brenda Council are competing in a divisive race for the District 11 legislative seat.
» John Ewing, a north Omaha native who also is a minister at Salem Baptist Church, is seeking to represent the 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House.
» At the top of the ballot, President Barack Obama is running for re-election. Strong north Omaha turnout in 2008 was a factor in Obama's winning the 2nd District.
“The local, the state and the federal races all have a major significance for the whole city, but especially north Omaha,” said Willie Barney, president of the Empowerment Network.
Barney said election talk is popping up more than ever in barber shops, restaurants and homes. “I hear a lot more discussion about the election process,” Barney said.
Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps was an unintentional catalyst for the enthusiasm in February, when he announced that he would close nearly one-third of the polling places in the county.
Community leaders protested, saying the plan would hurt poor and elderly voters. Phipps eventually relented, apologized and reopened some polling places.
The issue was settled, but voting fervor persisted.
Barney, Hamilton and others have channeled that into candidate forums, educational sessions, phone banks and other efforts to encourage voting.
A host of groups — including the Empowerment Network, the Urban League, the NAACP and churches, as well as some from outside north Omaha — have worked together on the effort.
“We're saying you have to vote like your life depends on it,” Hamilton said.
Council said one of the hardest parts is convincing people that their vote matters. But she's seen in her own elections how low turnout in one area can sway an entire race.
“It does make a difference,” she said. “It makes an incredible difference.”
City Council Ward 2, which covers most of north Omaha, saw a 17 percent turnout in the spring primary.
That's much higher than usual. In the 2008 presidential primary, 13 percent of Ward 2 registered voters showed up at the polls.
Still, the area has seen lower turnout than Douglas County as a whole in every presidential election since at least 2000.
Campaigns can present black candidates with special challenges. In August, a Ewing supporter found a racist slur referring to the candidate drawn on her garage.
Yet community leaders aren't demoralized.
They're trying to recapture the excitement of 2008, when a record 228,916 people voted in Douglas County as a whole.
That year, Obama's campaign spent significant time and resources capturing the 2nd Congressional District's electoral vote. But he doesn't seem to be working hard for that electoral vote this year.
Community groups have picked up some of the slack on the get-out-the-vote effort, though. And the allure of voting for the first black president will still draw people to the polls.
That's coupled with excitement over the candidacy of Ewing, who as Douglas County treasurer was the first African-American elected countywide. Ewing grew up in north Omaha, and he's remained active there. Hamilton said people are looking forward to voting for their former neighbor for Congress.
Also on the ballot is embattled Omaha school board president Freddie Gray. She faces James English, a retired OPS administrator and teacher. That race has not elicited the kind of voter passion others have, though.
Perhaps no race offers a clearer difference in leadership style than the Council-Chambers matchup.
Chambers was a master of legislative rules who had no problem killing bills he deemed ill-formed or just plain wrong. Council is more of a consensus-builder. She prefers to work with community groups to stall what she sees as poor legislation, or to push through her proposals.
Elected officials and others have rallied around Council, even after she pleaded guilty this year to a misdemeanor for misusing campaign funds to gamble and acknowledged she neglected to pay property taxes for four years. But Chambers gained a fiercely loyal following in the nearly four decades he served in that seat.
Both are so well-known and so well-liked that few in north Omaha are undecided.
“You're going to have some close races,” said Thomas Warren, president of the Urban League of Nebraska and Council's brother. “And that makes for an exciting, interesting Election Day.”
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