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The first leg of the Omaha mayoral campaign is shaping up to be a race for second place.
All of the major Republican challengers to Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle agree the Democrat is likely to be one of the top two vote-getters in the April 2 primary, securing a spot on the May 14 ballot when voters choose the city's next mayor.
They also agree that this is a wide-open, fluid race in which each of the four major challengers, one of whom is an independent, has a shot at winning the second ticket out of the primary.
However, that's where the agreement ends, with the four candidates parting company on who would be best positioned to unseat Suttle in the general election.
Omaha City Councilwoman Jean Stothert, Omaha businessman Dave Nabity, State Sen. Brad Ashford and former Omaha City Councilman Dan Welch are mounting aggressive campaigns in the belief that Suttle — the survivor of a 2011 recall election — is ripe for defeat.
Stothert, Nabity and Welch are the Republicans in the officially nonpartisan race. Ashford became an independent in the waning days of 2011, saying he no longer felt like he belonged in the Republican Party.
Stothert, Nabity and Welch all said Suttle has enough support within his Democratic base to advance out of the primary.
In a five-way race, it may take only a quarter of the vote to finish in the top two — especially as each of the five candidates comes into the race with a strong base. It's difficult to imagine an incumbent mayor, the only Democrat in the race, finishing third or worse, Stothert said. She acknowledged that her own internal polls show Suttle with a lead.
“There's no doubt: Suttle will get through the primary,” said Stothert, who said her poll shows her in second place. “People are looking at this as a race for second.”
Ashford is the only major challenger who said Suttle is not a given.
Ashford has mounted a middle-of-the-road campaign, trying to attract voters from across the political spectrum, including Democrats disenchanted with Suttle. Ashford's campaign has been running Spanish-language radio ads in South Omaha, a traditional Democratic base that Suttle won in his first mayoral election but lost during the failed recall bid.
“I think it's very fluid. And I think all the candidates have a chance,” Ashford said.
The belief in Suttle as the man to beat has slowly become a central plank in the primary campaign, as most of the candidates — especially the GOP challengers — lay out their arguments why they would have the best chance against him.
Nabity, who heads a family-owned financial investment company in Omaha, is the only major candidate who has not served in public office. He said that works to his advantage, because Stothert and Welch each served on the City Council and voted for controversial labor contracts with the city's police and fire unions.
Nabity, an aggressive critic of the city's police and fire contracts, has argued for years that the city has been far too generous with the unions.
“My feeling is that both Jean and Dan have their fingerprints on the labor contracts that have gotten us into trouble,” he said.
Welch voted for the police contract in 2004 and Stothert led the committee that negotiated the latest fire contract after she and her fellow council members stripped Suttle of his traditional role as the city's lead negotiator.
Stothert dismissed Nabity's criticism, saying she stands behind the contract she helped negotiate. She argued it will save the city millions over the next 50 years by requiring firefighters to pay more for their health care and contribute more into their pensions.
She also countered that she is in a perfect position to tackle Suttle because she has proven her electability at the ballot box. Stothert has won three elections to the Millard school board in addition to her election to the City Council in 2009.
“While the others have been observers of the Suttle administration, I've been down there, taking the lead every day,” Stothert said.
Ashford said all five candidates are qualified to be mayor, but he has the best chance to bring a “cooperative” style of governance to City Hall. He said he proved, during his years in the Nebraska Legislature, that he can work with everybody.
“I've been involved in public life since 1984, and I've been elected several times, and I think I have a lot of experience working on a number of issues,” Ashford said.
Meanwhile, Welch works to position himself as the Republican with the best chance of garnering a broad swath of support in the general election, especially among independent voters and Democrats upset with Suttle.
Specifically, Welch is running as the person who will return “civility” to City Hall, saying that Stothert and Nabity are too divisive for many voters.
Nabity has thrown his share of verbal fireballs over the years as the leader of the anti-Suttle recall. In addition, in 2010, he was sued for defamation by Steve LeClair, president of the firefighters union. Nabity later settled the lawsuit, paying LeClair about $9,000.
For her part, Stothert has been a vocal critic of Suttle. She helped lead the council's charge to strip the mayor of his negotiating power with the unions.
Said Welch: “I can work across party lines, and I am able to be agreeable with people I don't always agree with.”
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