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 of the five big names with eyes on the Mayor's Office.
Schedule: Monday: Jean Stothert. Today: Dave Nabity. Wednesday: Brad Ashford. Thursday: Dan Welch. Friday: Jim Suttle.
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It is a Sunday afternoon, Creighton is playing for a tournament championship, and the swirling snow and ice have made driving a contact sport.
Yet about a dozen people have gathered at the Champions Run clubhouse to hear mayoral candidate Dave Nabity — “Nabs,” according to his name tag — talk about his plans for Omaha.
It's clear why the occasional talk radio host considers public speaking a strength. He's on a roll.
He rails against bureaucrats in the City Planning Department or, as he calls it, the “department of job prevention.” It's slow to approve new buildings and business plans, he says, so slow that a friend who applied to build a restaurant waited eight weeks to get plans authorized.
“Eight weeks!” he says as a few more come in from the cold. “How the heck does that even happen?”
He talks about crime, voter apathy and gun control, but what gets people the most fired up falls under a bubble on the chart Nabity has set up. It says simply “Modify labor contracts.”
Nabity, who works as a small-business consultant, asks the audience to guess what percentage of salary the employer — that is, the city — has to pay toward pension costs.
Some guess that taxpayers put 15 percent of payroll toward pensions. One person says 20 percent.
When Nabity says it's closer to 35 percent, everyone groans.
“It's an organized, deliberate plunder of city government,” he says, vowing, if elected, to take a harder stance with the labor unions.
In the five-way race for Omaha mayor, Nabity has positioned himself as the outsider who will shake up City Hall. He takes pride in being the only candidate who hasn't held public office.
For years, he has railed against Omaha's labor contracts, which have become one of the central issues in this spring's campaign. Nabity took on Mayor Jim Suttle in a failed recall election.
Now Nabity has established himself as a legitimate contender to move into the Mayor's Office himself.
During the campaign, he has gone beyond the single issue of Omaha's labor contracts.
His five-point plan for Omaha includes a focus on crime and reducing the size of government. He hopes to cut taxes and partner with private businesses to improve the city. He says he'll take a hard line with the public unions, putting all options on the table — including some privatization — to get them to agree to reduced benefits.
As Nabity wraps up at Champions Run, people break off and start talking about his ideas.
Among them is John Abkes, president of an Omaha company.
Abkes is one of the “true believers” that political observers talk about when discussing Nabity. Ask Abkes why he supports this candidate for mayor, the only candidate without any government experience, and he doesn't hesitate.
“When I'm listening to Dave,” he says, “it makes sense.”
Nabity, 54, has never been deeply involved in party politics. He was chairman of the Nebraska Young Republicans in the mid-'80s, but then the lifelong Omahan moved to the political periphery to focus on his business and family.
He and his wife, Kim, had seven children. One, Ben, died in an accident at age 2. The others range in age from 17 to 33.
“I've been raising teenagers for 20 years,” Nabity likes to joke. “If I can handle that, I can handle anything City Hall can throw at me.”
His first real foray into politics came in 2003, when he announced that he would run for governor. At the time, no one else was in the race. But within months, he was going up against an incumbent governor and Tom Osborne.
He wound up getting 5 percent of the vote.
Four years later, he started the Alliance for the Private Sector. Part advocacy group, part think tank, the organization was created to give the small business community a voice in Omaha politics, Nabity said.
One of its major successes was taking on an Omaha ordinance that mandated the number of fire engines, aerial trucks and medic units the Fire Department had to have in operation, as well as the number of firefighters that had to be on each truck.
The firefighters union framed it as a safety issue.
Nabity's group disagreed, saying it tied the city's hands in managing the Fire Department.
The group set out to get the ordinance repealed.
Alliance members spread the word about the ordinance, going on talk radio and meeting with City Council members.
Nabity reached out to some business owners and persuaded them to fund television ads urging voters to get involved.
Council staffers took more than 600 phone calls in the days leading up to the vote to repeal the ordinance. The council eliminated it on a 5-2 vote.
“He can sure motivate others to help out,” said businessman Mike Simmonds, who came to know Nabity through the alliance. “He educated us, and I felt like we were informed.”
In the campaign, Nabity says his own research will help the city in negotiating with its unions.
Some cities spend 50 percent of their budget on public safety, he said. In Omaha, he said, it's more like 65 percent.
Nabity said the city can think outside the box to get more leverage in negotiations. For instance, he suggested exploring the privatization of some services, such as ambulances. While he's not sold on the idea, he says it could persuade firefighters to accept benefit reductions.
“I'm going to be very, very well-researched,” Nabity said. “I'm going to know exactly what it takes in these contracts to get them more balanced.”
People often get one of two distinct impressions about Nabity.
People who like him say he's studious, trustworthy, a leader. People who don't say he's autocratic, divisive, a rabble-rouser.
There's some truth to both. Take Nabity's role in the attempted recall of Suttle.
When the effort first took off in summer 2010, Nabity wasn't in the picture. It was headed by a committee, which had raised at least $5,000 and put up a website asking for donations and volunteers.
John Chatelain, treasurer for the committee, said Nabity was told to keep his distance because the recall effort didn't want to be associated with a possible mayoral candidate.
But when the petition effort lagged in collecting signatures, Nabity got involved. He held a meeting with some business owners and asked if they wanted to save the recall.
“We saw what was happening over there and realized it was kind of neat,” said Simmonds, who contributed at least $60,000 to the recall effort after speaking with Nabity. “But the way they were going about it, it wasn't going to be successful. ... That thing was going to fail.”
Pat McPherson, a consultant to the recall committee, acknowledged that Nabity brought in money that helped make the petition drive a success.
Based on Nabity's advice, the recall effort hired paid petition circulators, who gathered the necessary signatures with time to spare.
But Nabity also became a subject of division in the effort.
“We needed his help raising the money,” McPherson said. “But after that he just hijacked the campaign.”
Nabity wanted to direct advertising and the effort's message.
One morning, McPherson said, committee members were having a meeting at Nabity's house. They were talking about how people were uncomfortable recalling a mayor without knowing who would come next.
As McPherson told it: “He said, 'Well, why don't I just announce that I'm going to run?' ”
Afterward, Chatelain released a statement saying Nabity threatened to take his donors away if the committee didn't hire a full-time campaign manager. The group refused, and Nabity took his donors and created a second recall committee.
Jeremy Aspen, the recall spokesman, said he remembers the original committee's members being thrilled to have Nabity onboard at first. Now, he said, those same people view him with a little more skepticism.
“What would put them on their heels is that willingness of his to force his way into things,” Aspen said. “That really did not sit well with everybody.”
Nabity has said his public confrontations — including paying a settlement after being sued by the fire union president — give the wrong impression about his leadership style.
He said he listens to all sides before making up his mind on issues and works to build a consensus.
“But at some point, you just can't,” he said. “You have to act. You have to lead.”
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