Jean Stothert, a Republican candidate with the potential to become Omaha's first female mayor, endured two assaults on her gender in the past week that one national observer said were among the most “disgusting” sexist attacks she had ever seen leveled at a woman politician.
One assault came in the form of a T-shirt that depicted Stothert as a stripper on a pole. It came with a crude word pun that revolved around the words: “private sector.”
A grinning Democratic City Councilman Chris Jerram was pictured holding the T-shirt in a snapshot that was making the Facebook rounds Monday. Jerram has since apologized to Stothert and to the “women of our community.”
The other alleged attack came from an anonymous Twitter account that used language needing a public disclaimer. If you don't want to be offended, stop reading now. The offensive Tweet included a reference to Stothert's vagina, blood and “a weekend on phrat row.”
Neither attack has been linked to any of her competitors in the mayor's race. Jerram, who has not endorsed a candidate, has praised some of Stothert's work on the council.
All four of Stothert's rivals condemned the attacks Monday.
"It was deplorable," Brad Ashford said of the episode.
Dan Welch and Dave Nabity said such attacks have no place in politics, and Nabity called the commentary "vile and disgusting."
Said Mayor Jim Suttle: "I don't condone sophomoric behavior" and added the attacks were detracting from the real issues facing the city.
Both the T-shirt and the Tweet were “some of the worst” examples of sexism in politics that Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, has ever seen.
“This is just really beyond the pale and quite disgusting,” said Walsh.
Walsh has been studying women candidates for years. She said women who run for high office sometimes face public scrutiny that their male counterparts don't have to endure, including comment on their clothes and hair. But, she has never seen anything quite like the attacks leveled at Stothert.
Stothert is considered a front-runner in the race for Omaha mayor among the four contenders hoping to unseat Democratic Mayor Jim Suttle. She has been increasingly coming under fire as the April 2 primary election draws near.
She is the third major female contender to run for mayor in Omaha and, if elected, she would be the first to serve. The other two were Brenda Council, who ran in 1994 and 1997, and Betty Abbott, who ran in 1977.
Stothert condemned the attacks Monday, calling her critics “cowards” for hiding behind secret Twitter accounts and unsigned T-shirts.
“I have been in politics a long time. It's tough. But vulgar attacks . . . from nameless, faceless cowards hiding behind front groups should not be a part of our political debate,” said Stothert.
The picture of the T-shirt and Jerram was shot at McFly's on St. Patrick's Day. The bar is known as being a hangout for Omaha firefighters. Firefighters and Stothert have been at odds for much of the last four years.
The firefighters union endorsed Stothert in her 2009 City Council bid. They had a falling out after Stothert supported removing a controversial requirement from city ordinances that required fire trucks to be manned by four people.
The T-shirt read: “Jean, quit stripping us of our tax dollars!!!”
Jerram said a firefighter took the photo of him holding the shirt. He said he did not know who made or distributed the shirt. He also said he didn't know who handed him the shirt at the bar, saying the place was “crowded” when the picture was taken.
“I was wrong to have appeared in/posed in the photo. It was a lapse of judgment for which I am sorry,” Jerram said in a prepared statement.
Steve LeClair, president of the firefighters' union, said the union had nothing to do with the shirt. He called the shirt “offensive.”
“There is no place for that kind of crude behavior,” said LeClair.
He acknowledged that a firefighter, Kellie Price, took the picture. He said she saw the shirt laying in the bar and asked Jerram to pose.
Price, who was contacted Monday, declined to comment.
The controversial Tweet was posted late last week from a bogus Twitter account under the handle ctycouncilomaha. The anonymous account described itself as a “parody” of the Omaha City Council.
It has been a frequent critic of Stothert.
Since the controversy erupted, the account has removed several of its anti-Stothert Tweets and has essentially gone dark.
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