Omahans on Tuesday will begin the process of choosing the city’s next mayor.
This is an important election at an important time. The city has emerged from the Great Recession and the Flood of 2011 with eyes focused firmly on the future.
But serious issues remain, including the shortfalls in the fire and police pensions, the serious problem of gun violence and other crimes, the burden of an enormously expensive sewer overhaul and finding the best way to continue Omaha’s evolution into a modern city with jobs for all who want to work.
The political calculus suggests strongly that Mayor Jim Suttle, the only Democrat in the race, is likely to advance from the primary to the May 14 general election as he bids for re-election to a second term.
Given that, the question facing non-Suttle voters is straightforward: Who among the four leading challengers offers the best and clearest choice: State Sen. Brad Ashford, small-business consultant Dave Nabity, City Council member Jean Stothert or lawyer and former council member Dan Welch?
Looking back at their records and ahead with their campaign proposals, two candidates would offer Omahans the sharpest philosophical differences and the most vigorous general election debate with the current mayor: Jean Stothert and Brad Ashford.
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In nearly four years on the City Council, Stothert has demonstrated a firm grasp of the details of city government, much as she did during her 11 years as a member of the Millard school board. Stothert estimates that she has cast some 10,000 votes, and, “There’s not one I haven’t understood.”
She’s been willing to tackle tough issues, even when the outcome would be certain to bring criticism. After the City Council stripped the mayor of his role in negotiating labor contracts, she led a bipartisan team of council members in hammering out an agreement with the firefighters union. Was it perfect? No. But it did begin to address the pension fund shortfall and lower health care costs.
Stothert’s distaste for new taxes is reflected in her pledge to streamline city government. That includes some smart ideas, including conducting performance audits to evaluate city departments and re-establishing performance evaluations of all city employees. “It isn’t a business,” she says of City Hall, “but we need good business practices.”
Stothert points to the businesses Omaha has lost to surrounding communities because of the city’s crime problems, taxes and “a very customer-unfriendly city government.” She speaks thoughtfully about the role that a sales-minded mayor and a well-run city government can play in helping foster economic development and new jobs.
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Ashford has given three decades of service to the community and state, including two stints in the Legislature, service on the state’s labor court, with the Omaha Housing Authority and on the Metropolitan Convention and Entertainment Authority board.
All of that is indicative of one of his strengths: Ashford is someone who could improve the city’s fractious relationship with state lawmakers. “Omaha is not an island,” he says. “The idea of building relationships to get things done is what intrigues me.” On many issues coming before the Legislature — including a likely review of the state’s tax structures — a respected voice from Nebraska’s largest city would be valuable.
Ashford advocates merging city and county functions and smartly suggests that more cooperation among the city, county and other government entities could lower tax bills. His record on economic development is solid; he was a strong backer of Legislative Bill 775 to provide tax incentives for businesses expanding or moving to Nebraska.
The rap on this political independent? A reputation as something of an absent-minded professor whose attention can bounce from one subject to the next. Ashford and legislative colleagues attribute that to his interest in many different issues. He says he will surround himself with a strong staff to help keep things focused. He also insists, “I rarely change my mind once I set a priority.”
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A third candidate in this race, Republican Dan Welch, has campaigned with an impressive message, including lower taxes and greater civility. While we are not recommending the former City Council member in this election, Omahans can hope this young leader remains active in public service no matter the outcome on Tuesday.
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The city stands at a significant point in its history. With Mayor Suttle’s name likely to be on the May ballot, Jean Stothert and Brad Ashford are our choices as the candidates to offer voters the best debate about Omaha’s future.