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All five Omaha mayoral candidates are scheduled to attend a public forum Monday.
Who: Mayor Jim Suttle, seeking a second term, and four challengers: State Sen. Brad Ashford, businessman Dave Nabity, City Councilwoman Jean Stothert and former council President Dan Welch
Where: Westside Community Conference Center, 3534 S. 108th St.
When: 6:45 p.m. to 8:45 p.m.
Sponsor: Metro Omaha Property Owners Association Primary election is April 2; general election is May 14
The spring mayoral race in Omaha has all the makings of a cliffhanger.
It has a cast of five political candidates, each of whom has the potential to make good political theater and each of whom has a credible shot of making it through the April 2 primary.
The race features a conservative woman, Jean Stothert, trying to make history as Omaha's first female mayor, and an incumbent Democrat, Jim Suttle, who survived a 2011 recall vote and who faces opposition from within his own party.
It also features a former Republican state lawmaker, Brad Ashford, who is running as an independent and who has garnered support from some Democrats.
It's a race that, at this stage, is almost impossible to handicap.
“All five are quality candidates. And because they're all quality candidates, it makes the race much more competitive,” said Randall Adkins, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
The primary will be the first political test. The race is officially nonpartisan, so the top two vote-getters in the primary — regardless of party affiliation — will advance to the May 14 election.
So far, no clear front-runner has emerged. Most everyone has a different opinion of who is leading the pack.
Adkins said he believes Mayor Suttle is the front-runner, because he is the incumbent in the race and has high name recognition. “I think the incumbent is always the front-runner, simply because they've won before and put together a coalition,” said Adkins.
Others said it was Stothert, the outspoken southwest Omaha city councilwoman who has made her mark challenging Suttle on the City Council.
“If I had to pick one, I would probably say Jean (Stothert), but I'm just guessing,” said State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, a Republican who has not endorsed anyone in the race.
Like many, Lautenbaugh said anything could happen in a five-way race.
There are simply too many variables to consider. Will Stothert's historic bid appeal to Democratic women? Will Ashford be able to persuade enough Democrats to abandon Suttle? And how will he fare with independent voters?
It is clear that Stothert and former Omaha City Councilman Dan Welch will be courting similar voters. Both have portrayed themselves as fiscal conservatives and both are courting the business community.
A key question for Welch will be whether there is enough time to re-introduce himself to voters. Welch served two terms on the council but has been out of the public eye since 2009. During those years, Stothert has been front and center in many of the disputes and issues impacting the city, including negotiations on a firefighter contract.
The fifth person in the race, Dave Nabity, may be the wild card. He is a former Republican candidate for governor who is known as a rhetorical bomb thrower. He became the strongest, and most vocal, voice in the failed 2011 recall effort against Suttle.
Nabity has long advocated and pushed for wholesale reform in City Hall, notably calling upon the council to dramatically and unilaterally reduce benefits in the firefighter and police union contracts — a demand that others have said would not survive a legal challenge.
As a former radio talk-show host on KFAB, the Omaha businessman has earned himself a following. Nabity's supporters could be motivated to go to the polls, Adkins said.
“The people who believe in Nabity believe in him for policy reasons. And they have a very, very strong preference,” Adkins said.
Two more key questions are whether Suttle can hold the Democratic base and how much was the mayor wounded by a recall effort that was fueled, in large part, by anger at his successful bid to implement a 2.5 percent restaurant and bar tab tax.
Suttle has to worry about Ashford, who already has made inroads among some Democrats. Most notably, former Democratic Mayor Mike Fahey has backed Ashford. Fahey's support not only gives Ashford instant credibility among Fahey supporters, but also will help Ashford's fundraising.
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