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. Thursday: Dan Welch. Today: Jim Suttle.
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Three weeks before the city primary, Mayor Jim Suttle stood in the darkened conference room of his campaign headquarters to preview his re-election bid's first television ad.
He watched an image of an elementary school hallway appear on a staffer's laptop. Then an empty theater, then an Omaha mall. He listened to his voice cite the names Newtown, Aurora and Westroads. He heard himself pledge to back a local ban on assault weapons.
“It's time for leadership,” Suttle told a visitor after the screen faded black.
“How many limbs have I been on in the last four years?” the 68-year-old said with a grin.
“Every one of those limbs have worked, and done what they're doing for the good of our city.”
This is how the mayor operates. Suttle hears that Omahans don't feel safe, so he proposes a solution he deems good for the city — even if it angers some residents of a gun-friendly region.
Suttle learned the city's books were unbalanced, so he proposed tax increases — even though they angered cash-strapped residents. Even though they nearly cost him his job.
“I learned a long time ago, you can't waffle all over the place, changing your mind every other day,” Suttle said.
“You have to weigh in ... find a course and then ride that course out. And you'll find out whether it was a good decision or a bad decision.”
Jim Suttle is riding out the course. Voters must now decide if his path is one of a gutsy leader or that of a stubborn, tone-deaf mayor.
After four years in office — and one failed recall election — the mayor is sticking with his black-and-white approach to problem-solving.
His solution to the city's poor fiscal health maddened many residents saddled with higher property taxes, a higher wheel tax and a new tax on restaurant tabs — as they shouted back about their tanked 401(k)s. He has clashed with the City Council and given controversial salaries to his Cabinet members.
The former public works director has also used his engineering skills to overhaul snow removal, manage a massive sewer overhaul and help fend off a historic flood. Suttle stands at the helm of an administration directed to protect a city budget from its debts, bring government online and make strides on crime and economic development.
And while four well-organized challengers want his job, the mayor leads a well-funded campaign that looks set to win the April 2 primary, which will whittle the field to two for the general election.
As he looks back, Suttle insists his choices have been “the right thing to do.”
“When you have to make the final decision, make the final tough decision, I'm certainly willing to make it,” he said. “I've done that all my life, so that part of me is not going to change.”
Suttle also doesn't buy the idea that most residents inherently oppose taxes. The image of an angry Omaha taxpayer, he says, is inflated by “the media and talk radio.”
In February, a forum moderator asked Suttle how to keep taxes down while maintaining relationships with affected residents. The mayor answered with a story about his father.
“He said, 'Son, I hate paying taxes,' ” Suttle told the group at a high school lecture hall. “ 'But I'll gladly pay 'em if I can see a return on my investment. And I don't see a return on my investment.' ”
Part of his audience surely thought the same thing.
“That echoed in my head at age 12,” he continued. “And I never forgot it in business, I never forgot it in my government service as public works director, nor as city councilman, nor as mayor.”
Suttle eyed the crowd. Perhaps he knew what they were thinking.
“I think you deserve a return on your investment,” Suttle said. “That's what we're trying to give you.”
Five years before that moment, City Councilman Jim Suttle publicly rejected a downtown ballpark over the plan to pay for it.
Suttle had already doubted Mayor Mike Fahey's plan to finance part of the project with occupation taxes on restaurant tabs and movie tickets. “I think the entertainment tax is dead on arrival,” Suttle had said.
By the time District 1's representative moved to the Mayor's Office — after a campaign pledge to lower property taxes — it was clear that Omaha was in financial trouble.
The police and fire pension fund was beleaguered by generous benefits and market downturns. City tax revenue lagged; debt was high.
Segments of the public hated the idea of a tax increase. As mayor-elect, Suttle described the city's fiscal troubles as the “perfect storm.”
The mayor's 2010 budget proposal was marked by battles with the City Council over a property tax increase, voluntary employee furloughs and a Suttle-led restaurant and entertainment tax proposal. A 10 percent property tax increase to cover city debts and a budget shortfall survived the fray.
Suttle soon lobbied for legislative approval to put a city sales tax increase on the ballot, in order to shore up the police and fire pension fund.
The council declined to endorse the proposal. Suttle vowed to forge ahead. Legislators balked. Didn't matter, he'd suggest the idea again later.
Then 2010's budget came up short, and the fiscal outlook for the next year looked worse.
By summer 2010, Suttle revived the restaurant tax proposal, this time for restaurant, bar and catering tabs. Higher property and wheel taxes were also on the table.
Those increases were enough to spark a recall effort, though bond rating agencies welcomed the administration's decisions.
Forums on Suttle's budget proposal didn't go by quietly. The audience applauded at one event after a man stood to tell Suttle that he was struggling alongside the city. But he couldn't ask his employer for more money to pay his bills, the man said, and so the mayor shouldn't either.
After asking for the public's feedback, Suttle pressed ahead with higher taxes. That led to criticism that Suttle didn't actually hear the public's concerns.
“When I look back on it, there was no other option,” former City Finance Director Pam Spaccarotella said. “Thank goodness he was able to step up and make those decisions.
I give him credit for that. He ended up taking a terrible political toll for that.”
Nearly three years later, having survived a recall election by a mere 2,310 votes, Suttle said he doesn't take raising taxes “as some cavalier undertaking.”
“It's not my primary purpose,” he said. “My primary purpose is to get that equation balanced between revenue minus expenses equals a positive number. That's a business approach. And it saved our city; it was the right thing to do.”
Suttle's problem-solving strategy extends to even his health, after he suffered a stroke last year while overseas.
He's down 10 pounds — the mayor's doctor wants him to drop 15 — uses a treadmill three times a week and does some weightlifting.
“There was a problem. It occurred in a faraway place,” Suttle said of his health scare.
“When I came home, I met the problem face-to-face with my team — my doctor, my wife, my family, my friends — and we put a plan in place to address the problem. Now the problem is not a problem because I'm exercising, I'm watching what I eat.”
This is part of an old adage of the mayor's: Plan the work, work the plan. Suttle prizes this objective-driven approach.
But even Suttle's fellow Democrats say the mayor can be stubborn.
“Passionately stubborn at times,” City Councilman Garry Gernandt said.
“He certainly has a litany of engineering skills that he draws upon when confronted with a problem, or has an idea, or someone proposes an idea,” Gernandt said. “He runs that through his engineering thought process and does have a unique way of giving his opinion.”
Former Mayor Mike Boyle, who supports State Sen. Brad Ashford in the primary, said of Suttle: “If he gets something in his sights, he's going to go after it.
“That has a good side and that has a bad side,” Boyle said. “Mostly it's good.”
Jeremy Aspen, who tried to remove Suttle from office, said the mayor claimed that he'd listen more after the failed recall election. But Aspen said little has changed.
“He doesn't waver much,” Aspen said. “He acts more like a decisive leader in war as opposed to a representative of the people in peace.
“I think he's given up a lot of potential equity in the community by being that way.”
Some observers say the mayor sometimes struggles to communicate with the council, staffers or voters. It can come off as arrogance. He is not a natural politician, people close to him say. This contrasts with private or relaxed moments, when a gregarious and personable Suttle seems almost like a different man.
Suttle doesn't appreciate the stubborn tag much. That's simply leadership, he says.
“And if you want to call me stubborn for setting a course and staying with it, then I think it's leadership,” Suttle said.
As Suttle outlines his vision for the future, he expects the Mayor's Office to lead the way, not the City Council. Suttle believes that the City Charter is clear on a mayor's leadership role: a strong mayor to set proposals with a council as the check and balance to review them.
“I do listen, I do absorb, and I do process,” he said. “But there comes a point in time when you cannot be vacillating. You have to sit down and say like Harry Truman said: 'The buck stops here.' And the buck does stop in my office.”
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