2013 mayoral election
» Monday: Deadline for in-person early voting at election commission office, 114th and Davenport Streets.
» Tuesday: Polls open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Early voting ballots are due to election commission office by 8 p.m.
It is the waning days of the mayoral campaign, and Jean Stothert has gathered her staff for one of their almost-daily meetings.
They go over the packed schedule for the next week, balancing her City Council commitments with campaign obligations. They talk about volunteer efforts and the sign supply. They go over social media and planned press releases.
They look at a television ad they plan to release, one featuring a friend testifying to the role Stothert played in raising her son, who grew up to be a Marine and invited Stothert to his wedding.
“It's a great spot,” Stothert tells her staff, eyeing a still image that shows her dancing with the groom.
“Stunning,” agrees her campaign manager, Ryan Horn.
“But I look gigantic,” Stothert quips, gesturing toward the image that shows her a few inches taller than the groom. Everyone laughs.
It's not the sort of thing most candidates are joking about days away from an election. But meetings at Stothert campaign headquarters are a mix of brass tacks and barbs that belie their confidence.
Ask anyone here how he feels about the election, and the response is couched. “Cautiously optimistic,” they say. “Anything can happen,” they say.
But make no mistake: This campaign has a swagger.
And why not? In a primary where people generally thought Stothert was fighting for second place, she beat the mayor by 4,500 votes. The staff has had no problem getting volunteers to work the phone banks, and the office stays busy with a steady stream of supporters walking in to ask for signs or to drop off checks.
Even their problems seem to be silver linings looking for a cloud. They wrestle, for instance, with how best to dole out the remaining large yard signs. They need to start prioritizing, a staffer points out at the meeting, because they've already given away so many.
Bad news can be laughed off. A foul-up with the phone bank meant five calls to a lady named Eleanor in one day.
Eleanor was gracious and said she would be voting for Stothert. Given the thousands of calls they've made, the mistake is almost a badge of honor. Theirs is a smothering offense. They are leaving no stone unturned.
Still, Stothert tells the staff, “I think Eleanor's got the message. She doesn't need to hear from us any more.”
Stothert the candidate is much like Stothert the councilwoman. She is studious, and she knows every move her campaign makes. Every decision has her fingerprints.
She signs off on press releases, mailers and speeches. She stays on top of the schedule, ads and volunteer efforts in meetings with her staff.
It's not micromanaging, she said. It's just being genuine.
“Every mail piece, I guarantee, I've made some changes to it,” she said. “I'm hands on. I trust everybody and trust what they do. But at the end of the day, everything is a reflection of me.”
The schedule for this afternoon is going to be tricky. Stothert is supposed to speak at two events, four miles apart, with barely enough time to get from place to place. Beth Kramer, her finance director, is worried that Stothert will have trouble pulling it off, and she offers to drive.
First up is a speech before the Field Club Rotary. TJ Ewin, acting as the campaign's utility infielder, is already there by the time Stothert arrives.
The purpose, Stothert says, is so someone can scope out the room's layout and alert her to anything she should know before she arrives.
As soon as she gets in the main room, Stothert shows she is a people person. Former Mayor Hal Daub is immediately trying to get her attention. He holds out his cellphone to show her a picture he took of a pickup truck carrying her campaign sign.
She gives it a smile before she starts to circulate. She goes from table to table, greets people by first name, shakes hands and makes small talk.
More people are filtering in — the crowd grows from around 50 to more like 90 in the span of a few minutes.
She's just sat down to a table up front when Mayor Jim Suttle, having arrived moments earlier, pulls up a chair next to her.
“Now, what shall we talk about?” she says, smiling.
The two strike a pose as if they're arm wrestling. People snap photos. They laugh.
She gives her stump speech and takes a few questions.
As soon as they're back in the car, Stothert lays into Suttle.
“Can you believe that?” she asks Kramer. “It's considered not cool to be there while your opponent is speaking.”
During the primary, she says, she skipped meetings of her own Rotary Club as a courtesy to the other candidates.
“It's just kind of good practice to not show up and be in the audience while they are giving their speech.”
It fits right into a narrative that comes up in all sorts of conversations among campaign staff. Suttle hasn't been following protocol, they say. His attacks have been in poor taste, they claim.
But Stothert's campaign takes its own jabs at Suttle.
On a shelf behind the front desk of the headquarters, there's a bobblehead doll of a bald man whose name, “Walter,” has been covered up. This is now Mayor Jim Suttle, a new label says. Press a button, and you hear an impression of the mayor.
“Why doesn't anybody like me?” the mini-Suttle laments, before talking about tax hikes, a crime increase and lost jobs.
Back at the Olive Garden at 76th and Dodge Streets, Stothert's car arrives just two minutes late. She gets dropped off at the door.
Stothert gives her speech to the Kiwanis. She jokes that it feels like she's been campaigning for 10 years — and this is the second time she's made the joke in the past half-hour.
She talks about crime and how she knows the pain it causes firsthand, from her time as a nurse in inner-city St. Louis. She talks about sitting with families as their loved ones lay dying from violence, and pledges to tackle Omaha's gangs head-on when elected.
She talks about cutting taxes and increasing services, acknowledging that her opponent has called that a contradiction.
She doesn't buy it.
“If it's the mayor's goal,” she says, “it can be done.”
As she walks out of the restaurant, a man looks up from his plate. Recognizing the candidate, he gives a thumbs up.
“One week,” he says, punching his fist. “One week!”
A young woman stops her by the door.
“I hate to interrupt,” she says, “but would you take a picture with me?”
In the car, Stothert's phone rings. It's Jack Diesing, president of College World Series of Omaha, wanting to know what he can do to help the campaign.
She tells him to work on getting voters to the polls. If her supporters vote, she says, she'll win.
Diesing asks her about her hectic schedule. She tells him she's been sleeping about four hours a night.
“I can sleep next Wednesday,” she says.
Contact the writer: 402-444-3144, firstname.lastname@example.org
On the issues
Stothert: Over the last 3˝ years under Jim Suttle, property taxes have gone up 15 percent. He adopted a new restaurant tax, a new occupation tax and increased the wheel tax. And he sought legislative approval to increase the city sales tax again. Every financial challenge has been met with a new tax or fee. Omahans are fed up. As mayor, I would work to reduce government spending to balance our budget and let hardworking taxpayers keep more of their hard-earned money. I would seek to roll back all of Jim Suttle's tax hikes.
Suttle: When I came into office, the city was on the verge of bankruptcy. We had no stability in revenues, no formal discipline in spending and had lost our AAA credit rating. Today we have fixed city finances, restored our cash reserve, made solvent our pension obligations, and we are delivering services the public supports. We must be careful that calls to reduce taxes do not cause us to neglect our obligations or cut essential services. I have reduced spending where we can create efficiencies and will continue to do so, saving tax dollars.
Stothert: In 2011, after the mayor failed for several years to negotiate a contract that was fair to the taxpayers, I helped lead a bipartisan council effort to strip negotiating authority from the mayor. This was a vote of no confidence in Mayor Suttle's ability to negotiate a solid contract. The City Council then negotiated the successful fire union contract with positive results. As mayor, given my background in labor issues and contracts for over 14 years, I would request the council re-establish negotiating authority with the city's chief executive.
Suttle: Negotiations are an administrative function and should be done through the mayor. My approach would be as it has always been: to sit at the bargaining table and negotiate from a position of trust, strength and fairness. We must calculate the financial impact of every proposal. When my administration negotiated the police contract, we were able to achieve the most significant givebacks from any city employees union in decades. Officers are now working longer, taking home less, contributing more to their own pensions and benefits, and pension spiking was eliminated.
Stothert: Government does not create jobs; businesses create jobs. Over the past 3˝ years, Omaha has missed many opportunities to bring or keep good, quality jobs in the city. Many businesses have given up efforts to locate here, and several have moved from our city. We cannot accept a city government that won't listen to the concerns of business people. I believe the role of city government is to put in place the good, pro-business policies that make it easier for a business to expand or locate in Omaha, and this is what I will do as mayor.
Suttle: First, we must be a strong partner in the local economy by having city financials in order and by delivering city services efficiently. My administration works closely with business and labor leaders to promote economic development and recruit new and better jobs to Omaha. About 40 percent of investment leads come through the Mayor's Office, and we work with the Greater Omaha Chamber. Our unemployment rate is half the national average and is lower than any of America's top 50 cities. I will continue to target job creation for parts of our city with higher unemployment, including South and north Omaha.
Stothert: We must get to the root of crime to start addressing the issue head on. Keeping kids in school and off the streets will help keep them away from a life of crime. We must develop a true community policing approach that takes cops out of their cars and gets them into the community, where they can build relationships and develop trust. When a crime is prosecuted, we must make sure the sentence is stiff enough to deter any further criminal activity. Finally, we must make sure we have enough active police officers to address crime across the city.
Suttle: We are making great progress in targeting gang and gun violence in our city, and we cannot afford to take a step backward at this time. We recently increased the gang unit street presence from 14 to 21 officers. We must also reduce access to illegal guns. Additional efforts include truancy intervention, after-school programs and summer youth jobs as preventive measures and stepped-up enforcement to curtail criminal activity, address nuisance tenants and problem landlords. We need to turn around state programs that put violent offenders back on our streets on furloughs and “good time” release. And we need common-sense gun measures that target dangerous weapons in the hands of dangerous people.