Omaha's mayoral candidates tussled with each other — and, at times, a rowdy crowd Wednesday night in what was the noisiest and most unpredictable public forum of the campaign to date.
In the 90-minute event at Anthony's Steakhouse, the contenders fielded questions on issues ranging from gun control to contractor licenses to requirements for schoolchildren to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
They lobbed criticisms and accusations at each other on labor contracts and campaign advertising and shouted answers over boos from a crowd snacking on hors d'œuvres and drinking wine. In the waning days of the primary campaign, all of the candidates seemed eager to differentiate themselves from their opponents.
The forum, sponsored by radio station KFAB, attracted an audience that threw its biggest vocal support behind the three Republican candidates: attorney Dan Welch, businessman Dave Nabity and City Councilwoman Jean Stothert.
But the crowd was quick to divide its support among the three when they went head-to-head.
Stothert and Welch pointed fingers at each other, each suggesting the other had been behind the city's most expensive labor contract. Stothert challenged Nabity over negative ads targeted at her campaign.
Nabity bit back that Stothert was playing down her role in last year's fire contract, first promoting herself as an architect of the plan and then avoiding the “lead negotiator” label.
Nabity drew applause with comments on his business-minded plans for city government and his conservative stances on several issues, including the city's legal protections for gay employees and gun control.
“The only way to have a safe citizenry is if you have an armed citizenry,” he said.
Mayor Jim Suttle's responses to questions on social issues were frequently met with boos from a crowd that often yelled out during candidates' responses.
He fought off criticism of the gay rights ordinance, city spending and his support of Omaha's restaurant tax, telling the audience that he stands by tough decisions he's made during his four years in office.
“If we cancel (the restaurant tax) we'll be back into a $34 million deficit,” Suttle said.
“And you have to decide what services you're willing to cut. Libraries? Or parks? Or what? That's the dilemma I had, when we didn't have very many choices, and I had to do something in order to make sure that the city was in the black, and we are.”
State Sen. Brad Ashford drew mixed reactions with his support of tighter requirements on background checks for gun owners and support for adoptions by gay couples but picked up applause on a question about voting rights for people who live in a three-mile radius around Omaha.
Ashford said a combined city-county government would provide those residents with a direct role in a government that levies taxes and sets rules on building and development.
“I think we ought to have one board, and everybody in the county could vote for members of that board,” he said.
On the city's gay rights ordinance, Welch said he saw the issue as a business matter. He said the law is more likely to spark legal challenges than to protect employees from discrimination.
“It's overlegislation, overregulation, and it affects the business community in a negative way ... I don't like to see anyone discriminated against, but how many times is a businessman going to let someone go if he finds out they are gay or lesbian, if they're doing a good job and making that employer money? It's just not going to happen very often,” he said.
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