• Video: Click here to see exclusive interviews with Jean Stothert and Jim Suttle and Stothert and Suttle on primary night.
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The back room at McFly's Tavern is half-filled on Tuesday evening, and primary election night is young.
Half an hour to go before the polls close. The Cleveland Indians are facing off against the Toronto Blue Jays on TV.
But no one here cares.
Steve LeClair, the fire union president, and some of his fellow firefighters are staring at their smartphones. Barry Rubin, their paid political consultant, has his Macbook Air open.
Political stalwarts, union supporters and candidates for other races filter in, greeting one another in somber tones, the way you do at someone's wake.
The firefighters are waiting. They are wondering how the numbers at tonight's election dress rehearsal will shape the next 42 days, until the big dance, they say, will decide their fate.
Officially, tonight is a primary contest for mayor.
Unofficially, these firefighters believe, it's a referendum on Local 385, the 660-member firefighters union.
The union has pumped money and sweat into this year's city races, as it does in every local election cycle. Local 385 is arguably the largest, most organized and most responsive political machine in Omaha.
You're either with the union or against it, as determined by multipage surveys, personal interviews and the union's research into each candidate.
In the past, firefighters could make or break elections. See Daub v. Council and Fahey v. Daub: Hal Daub beat Brenda Council by 735 votes in 1997, and Mike Fahey edged out Daub by fewer than 1,000 votes in 2001. Firefighters union members plus their friends and families were credited with making the difference in both cases.
This year, firefighter benefits and firetruck staffing are issues, as usual. Firefighters are backing Democratic Mayor Jim Suttle.
His three Republican opponents duked it out for who-will-be-toughest-on-the-fire-union status. Republicans Dave Nabity and Dan Welch went after fellow Republican Jean Stothert, who brokered the latest fire union contract after she and the City Council stripped negotiating power from the mayor. It was a prolonged and tangled mess that will start all over again when the contract expires in 2014.
That bought firefighters a year. But no one is relaxing, not even tonight, as Mark Lampe, a firefighter and the tavern's co-owner, brings out baskets of tempting fried pub grub and bottles of Busch and Bud Lite, which are being slowly sipped.
This will be a sober evening. Firefighters feel that their very future will depend on who wins in May.
“If anybody's not worried about where they're at right now, there's a problem,” say Keiron Taylor, a 12-year paramedic. “One moment you might have a contract, the next moment you might not.”
Though the union is backing Suttle, it places union values above party. For example, the union spent $25,000 on Republican Tim Lonergan in City Council District 7 in the primary and not a dollar on Suttle, though it gave both Lonergan and the mayor boots on the ground. Planting yard signs, knocking on doors, calling voters.
Photo gallery: Images from Stothert and Suttle campaign parties
The union once backed its current archenemy, Stothert, when she ran for Omaha City Council.
But the union has seen its clout erode.
As the nation inches back from the Great Recession, the public is more skeptical of municipal unions and benefits packages uncommon in the private sector.
Union membership has declined nationwide, dropping to 11.3 percent of all full-time earners, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Unions suffered nationally when Wisconsin's governor prevailed in a high-profile fight over collective bargaining rights there.
You don't have to remind LeClair of all this. Nor of recent news stories like the one of a city councilman mugging for the camera while holding an offensive T-shirt depicting Stothert as a stripper, “stripping” firefighter benefits.
The picture was taken at this tavern at 45th and Center, where black-and-white photos and firefighter memorabilia fill a wall, where a firetruck siren wails when a good tip comes in, where a fireman is carved into a 5-foot block of wood at the entrance.
No one knows who made the shirt — LeClair has repeatedly said the union had nothing to do with it and has denounced its message.
LeClair, 43, is among a handful of firefighters at McFly's on this Tuesday night. To his left is Taylor, 34, the paramedic. Across the table is Rob Andersen, 33, who joined the department after Omaha annexed Elkhorn, where he had served as a volunteer firefighter.
They are proud of their service. LeClair, an Army reservist who served in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, said being a firefighter is an extension of his Jesuit education.
Taylor said he likes to be “that person who can actually ... make a difference in a person's life.”
Andersen cited the firefighters' longtime support for the Muscular Dystrophy Association as an additional way to give back.
We're interrupted by a loud, collective “ooooohhh.”
The early election results are in, and Stothert is thumping Suttle, 32 percent to 24 percent. Everyone figured those would be the top two. The surprise is in the margin.
It's early, Rubin says, noting this is the first batch of numbers. It's a Republican primary, he adds, noting that the three Republicans and one independent in the race would be a bigger draw for Republican voters. Suttle is the only Democrat on the ballot.
But as the night wears on, the proportions stay about the same.
Union supporters downplay the significance of the vote and focus on Round 2, coming May 14.
“Forty-two days!” they keep saying.
LeClair says Tuesday's Stothert victory means more strategizing, more of the “hard, tiring, thankless” work of campaigning.
“It will come down to who will outrun the other side,” LeClair says. “I'll put our work ethic up to any other candidate's ground game.”
And now it's game on.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1136, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/ErinGraceOWH