On April 2, Omaha voters head to the polls to trim the list of candidates down to two. Each day this week, The World-Herald is running an in-depth profile on one the five big names with eyes on the mayor's office.
Schedule: Today: Jean Stothert. Tuesday: Dave Nabity. Wednesday: Brad Ashford. Thursday: Dan Welch. Friday: Jim Suttle.
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Jean Stothert doesn't let an opponent's yard sign stand in the way of a potential vote.
The Omaha City Council member has knocked on more than 5,000 doors in her mayoral quest, and she has come to view a rival's claim on an Omaha household as a "challenge."
Yard sign or not, she's knocking and making her case.
"I truly love the challenge of knocking on doors where my opponents' signs are. ... If you knock on their door and your opponent hasn't, you have a chance at their vote," said Stothert, whose rapid verbal patter bears an uncanny resemblance to former Omaha Mayor Hal Daub's fast-talking, fact-throwing style.
Stothert, who has made a name for herself as Mayor Jim Suttle's fiercest critic at City Hall, isn't afraid of a fight or a challenge.
The Republican is one of four challengers seeking to unseat Suttle, the lone Democrat in the race. She is considered a frontrunner, in large part because of her high name recognition and her large-scale grass-roots campaign that tapped into support among social and fiscal conservatives.
On the campaign trail with Stothert it becomes clear she is known by many Omahans as the fighter in City Hall. Whether she's opposing the gay rights ordinance or hammering Suttle for quietly giving his department heads healthy raises without City Council approval, Stothert has an uncanny ability to garner the limelight and to strengthen her support in Republican circles.
"You're a breath of fresh air down there," one man gushes after he finds Stothert on his doorstep on a chilly Saturday afternoon in northwest Omaha.
Stothert is one of those political figures who stirs deep emotions on both sides of the political aisle. For Republicans, she is a true believer, who talks the talk and walks the fiscal conservative walk. For Democrats, Stothert is a political preener who votes no on taxes without offering specifics on what cuts she would make to balance the budget.
Stothert dismisses such criticism, saying her job as a councilwoman is to vote on the budgets and proposed tax increases that come before the council. She said she has voted no because she didn't believe the mayor worked hard enough to cut spending.
If she is elected mayor, Stothert said, she promises to find the cuts necessary to reduce the size of City Hall. Exactly where those cuts would come from, she doesn't specify.
"It's not my job right now to find those savings — it's the mayor's," she said.
Stothert is easy to spot in any crowd. She is 6 feet tall, and when she wears high heels — as she frequently does — she towers over most people in a room. She's a talker who likes to get down in the weeds when discussing policy issues. And she can be intense, working hard to try to persuade her audiences to see things from her point of view.
"I will pledge to you, I've never voted on anything I didn't thoroughly research and understand," she told one business group recently.
A native of Wood River, Ill., Stothert moved to Omaha in 1992 with her family.
A former critical-care nurse and nursing manager, Stothert got her start in politics on the Millard school board, where she served 11 years, including several as board president.
During her time on the school board, Stothert earned a reputation as a hard worker who studied issues before she cast a vote.
"She's one of the most prepared board members I've ever served with," said Mike Kennedy, a fellow Republican and Millard school board member. "She reads everything. She was prepared. She had her questions prepared in advance."
"Even if she had a disagreement with one of us, she never used her power as president of the board to punish anybody," said Kennedy, who dubbed her "Jean the Machine."
During her years on the school board, Stothert was not always an anti-tax advocate, as she has been on the City Council. She voted twice to raise taxes to help the district, which was growing by leaps and bounds, to fund more schools and other programs. She now uses those votes to rebut criticism that she had knee-jerk reactions to proposed tax increases on the council.
"I felt like we had reduced spending everywhere we could, and I was comfortable with it," Stothert said of her tax votes on the school board.
On the campaign trail, Stothert says she has reduced the tax burden on Millard homeowners. Millard's property tax rate did drop during her years on the board, but the average taxpayer paid more by the time she left office.
In 1996, the year before Stothert took office, the Millard tax rate was $1.52 per $100 of assessed valuation. For 2008, Stothert's final year on the board, the tax rate was $1.21. But the typical Millard homeowner saw a valuation increase of more than 65 percent over those 12 years, which more than offset the lower tax rate.
In fact, Millard school taxes for the typical homeowner went up about $450, or 32 percent, during that period.
On the City Council, Stothert has taken a much firmer line against taxes, rejecting every attempt to raise them.
Despite her objections, the property tax rate was raised twice, the wheel tax was increased and a restaurant tax was implemented.
If elected mayor, Stothert said her priority would be to lower the city's property tax rates.
She said she would accomplish that by looking for ways to make the city run more efficiently. If elected mayor, Stothert promised to conduct performance audits on all the city's departments and re-establish performance evaluations for every city employee.
"What we've got to do is prioritize," she said.
As for the other taxes raised during Suttle's administration — the wheel and restaurant taxes — Stothert did not promise to repeal either of them.
The revenue raised by the 2.5 percent restaurant tax is being used to help fund the police and firefighters' troubled pension fund. "My goal would be to roll it back, absolutely. But because it raises $25 million, it's nothing we can do right away," she said.
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She also indicated that she would not work to repeal the wheel tax increase, saying she recognizes that more money is needed to help maintain and repair streets. Still, she says, she stands by her earlier opposition to the increase, despite her embrace of the revenue it has generated.
"Right now, as far as the wheel tax, I would not work on rolling (it) back, but it was a tax that I did oppose because I thought we were piling on Omaha's taxpayers," she said.
Stothert may have been a consistent vote against many of the mayor's major policy initiatives, but she still managed to develop close working relationships with Democrats on the City Council.
Most notably, when the council stripped Suttle of his traditional role as lead negotiator with the firefighters union, the council tabbed Stothert to lead the council's negotiating team.
At the time, Stothert was a lead critic of the union contract negotiated by Suttle, arguing that the mayor had been too generous.
She and Councilmen Chris Jerram and Pete Festersen, both Democrats, eventually worked out a contract with the union that she says will save taxpayers millions of dollars over the next 50 years. She says it will do so by requiring firefighters to invest more of their own money into their pension fund and by making them pay more for health care.
Jerram says he was impressed with Stothert's work on the contract, especially her ability to compromise after taking such a hard line against the union's contract early in her tenure.
He described her work on the contract as politically courageous, in light of her eventual decision to run for mayor.
Jerram recalled that she originally entered negotiations hoping to force firefighters to enroll in the city's health care plan. The firefighters, who have their own insurance plan, refused.
In the end, Stothert agreed to a compromise: The firefighters kept their insurance coverage but agreed to higher deductibles and premiums.
"One could argue that, politically, given her base, or what people perceive as her base — a very conservative Republican and Tea Party element — it would not be in her best interest to have negotiated and reached a compromise with the firefighters union," Jerram said.
And Stothert has taken heat for the contract from Republican rivals, notably Dave Nabity and Dan Welch. But she has adamantly defended the contract work, saying she and council members had to operate within the confines of labor law to make the deal. She has said that, if elected, she would work with the council to have the mayor's negotiating power restored.
No one can dictate the terms of any union contract, she said.
"Sure, there (are) a lot more things I would like ... but we made great advances," she said.
World-Herald staff writer Paul Goodsell contributed to this report.
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