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. Tuesday: Dave Nabity. Wednesday: Brad Ashford. Today: Dan Welch. Friday: Jim Suttle.
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The year was 2003, and the City of Omaha was $10 million short for the next year's budget.
Then-Mayor Mike Fahey wanted to make spending cuts without increasing property taxes or laying off city employees. So he made a proposal to employees: Take a pay freeze now, and the city will give it back in future raises and better retirement benefits.
A young lawyer named Dan Welch, two years into his time on the City Council, read Fahey's proposed contracts with the firefighters union and found a lot not to like.
Welch and some other council members pushed Fahey to ask the union for more cuts, saying the contracts would create long-term problems for city taxpayers.
Other council members approved a scaled-back version of the firefighters contract, over Welch's objections.
Fahey at the time said it was the best option, but the deal would be referenced years later as a cause of shortfalls in the police and fire pension systems.
Welch went on to serve eight years on the council, including four as council president. In office, he pushed for lower taxes and a focus on luring tourists. But he's best known for the 2003 battle with the firefighters union.
Now, after a four-year hiatus from politics, the one-time rising star of the Republican Party wants to become mayor of Omaha and cites that fight as a reason to vote for him.
Welch said he would push for more cuts from the firefighters than even the current City Council extracted this year. If that didn't work, he'd push for legislative changes to force the issue.
Those who worked with Welch on the council said his role in the 2003 budget debate gives insight into a possible Welch administration.
His supporters say it shows leadership and understanding of big issues.
“He was kind of the first guy that publicly took these unions on,” said Jim Vokal, a fellow Republican and council member who sided with Welch over the union contracts. “And I don't know anybody ... that could articulate the content of these contracts better than Dan.”
But Welch's detractors say it shows he offers simplistic solutions.
“The actual act of governing a big city is far more complicated than he gives it credit for,” said Paul Landow, who served as chief of staff when Fahey was mayor.
At 43, Welch is the youngest candidate in the race, but he says his experience on the council and in running a law firm, as well as his legal abilities, makes him the best choice for Omaha.
He's campaigning on a promise to return civility to City Hall. He said the current council's move to strip bargaining power from Mayor Jim Suttle is a hallmark of the city's current problems.
“Never make it personal,” Welch said.
Past allies and foes say Welch's background as a lawyer helps him make passionate arguments and stay firm without getting angry.
“He does a pretty darn good job of listening to both sides and hearing people out,” Vokal said. “He's respectful through the process.”
In his council days, Welch tried — sometimes successfully, sometimes not — to block tax and fee increases and to cut city spending.
He fought against the city's smoking ban but ultimately lost. He also helped block a proposal that would have named a park after longtime north Omaha State Sen. Ernie Chambers, a move that angered some.
But he garnered praise from his southwest Omaha constituents for hard work and his problem-solving ability.
Tom Peal, the president of the Stonybrook Homeowners Association, recalled that Welch helped him and his neighbors with several problems, such as a nearby park that wasn't maintained adequately.
“Overall, we were very impressed with him,” Peal said.
Welch said he wanted to lower taxes to encourage businesses to move in. When the city does spend money, he said, he wants it to focus on things such as downtown development and the arts.
As mayor, he would lead along similar principles, he said. His vision for the city includes a privately developed light rail system and reduced taxes. He'd like to see the Planning Department curbed to allow developers more freedom.
“We've got to continue to push Omaha as a tourism spot,” Welch said.
Welch said his 2003 union fight shows two things: He has the ability to make tough cuts, and he can do so while maintaining relationships.
Things got tense between the council and the Mayor's Office at the height of the budget debate, but Welch says he and the mayor still got along at the end of the day.
Without good relationships, Welch said, you end up with problems like the bickering during the latest fire contract negotiations.
The current City Council, led by mayoral candidate Jean Stothert, moved to take the bargaining power from Suttle and extract concessions from the firefighters union.
Suttle, in turn, announced that the resulting contract would put the city $7 million in debt — but said so only after the council had approved the deal.
Welch points to both Suttle and Stothert's actions as detrimental to the city.
Suttle has said that he shared the dollar amount as soon as he learned it and that it was important to share his findings.
Stothert's campaign manager, Ryan Horn, said Stothert's actions accomplished what Welch failed to do — get unions to agree to concessions.
But Welch said he thinks there is public support for contract changes that wasn't there a decade ago, and that's why current officials have been able to accomplish what he first advocated.
Welch wants to make clear that he doesn't have a personal vendetta against public employee unions, though he does feel strongly about the contracts. He wants to push for more cuts because he thinks the pension system is still not sustainable.
“Unions are going to get what they can get,” he said. “Leaders are the ones that have to say no.”
Landow, who worked closely with Welch, said the union contracts are an example of how Welch offers simplistic solutions that don't address the depth of complex problems.
Landow said Welch ignores the fact that the mayor doesn't get to make unilateral decisions about wages and benefits.
“These are contracts that have been negotiated over 30, 40 years. And every time a contract is negotiated, the unions ask for more, the city asks for more,” Landow said.
“The one thing that never happens is that the unions give something up without something in return.”
Welch acknowledges that he can't force the changes he wants. He said he thinks the unions are ready to give up more, but if they aren't, he's willing to take the matter to the Legislature.
There, he said, he would ask lawmakers either to reform the state labor court — or just to take away public employee unions' bargaining power.
He said he hopes it doesn't come to that. But union representatives say even bringing up the possibility shows Welch isn't really looking to find common ground.
“That tells me he's just going to burn bridges,” fire union President Steve LeClair said. “He's not a centrist. He's going to tear things down, not build things up.”
LeClair said the unions took enough cuts in the most recent round of negotiations, and the pension system is on the path to sustainability. Plus, he said, the state labor court was recently reformed. So he's not sure why Welch wants more cuts.
“You're crossing into the line where you want to make draconian cuts because you want to make draconian cuts,” he said.
Welch's position on public unions has earned him some allies, even across the aisle.
Brian Fahey, the son of the former mayor, contributed $2,500 to Welch's campaign.
Fahey, a Democrat, said he's supporting his friend Welch because the candidate has a good reputation, particularly in the business community. He said people have come around to Welch's point of view on union contracts.
“I think the unions need to be addressed,” Fahey said.
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