Long before Jean Stothert faced him on the ballot in the Omaha mayoral election, incumbent Jim Suttle may have lost the race.
In places like Florence, Benson and South Omaha. Places where Democrats usually win. Places where Suttle had won before.
At Harold's Koffee House in Florence, conversation Wednesday was about Suttle's missteps over the past four years. The Democratic neighborhood around the diner has mirrored the mood of the electorate during that period — voting for Suttle in 2009, narrowly siding with the mayor during the 2011 recall, and rejecting him by a wide margin Tuesday.
It wasn't just Suttle's tax hikes, some customers at Harold's said, because they know the city has bills to pay. It wasn't that they loved Stothert; in fact, a few sat out the race because they couldn't bring themselves to vote for either candidate.
Ask Doug Prokop — who did vote for Stothert — why he no longer supports Suttle, and he rolls his eyes.
“His actions,” Prokop replied, before launching into a list of what he considers Suttle's greatest flops. There was that costly car lease, right out of the gate. The restaurant tax. The secret raises.
“That was bad. That was real bad. And then the million dollars for police,” he added, referring to Suttle's decision not to pursue overpayments to police officers.
Suttle campaign manager Gary DiSilvestro acknowledged that some of the mayor's actions provoked anger or dismay, even among potential supporters. But he said the real reason voters went against Suttle was the tax hikes: two property tax increases, a new restaurant tax and a higher wheel tax.
“Taxes are real unpopular,” DiSilvestro said. But he said the increases were needed to keep the city running.
“It kept the city out of bankruptcy, the parks open, the libraries open and the parks mowed,” he said. “Had those things fallen apart, I think the mayor would have been even less popular.”
Regardless of the reason, there's little question that Suttle's unpopularity kept him from retracing his 2009 path to victory. As when he defeated former Mayor Hal Daub, his hopes this year rested on turning out his Democratic base.
The difference was that in 2009, those voters were choosing between newcomer Suttle and Daub, a widely known politician who stirred strong opposition among some voters. Four years later, after the recall battle and a series of controversies, Suttle had become the political lightning rod.
Prokop, a Democrat who lives in west Omaha, not Florence, said he likes Stothert but had been prepared to vote for anybody but Suttle.
The result was that Suttle had trouble Tuesday following his 2009 road map to victory.
In the eastern, Democratic part of the city, Suttle succeeded in getting turnout up to 2009 levels. Unfortunately for him, a large chunk of those votes went to Stothert.
Stothert won nearly half of the city's Democratic precincts.
Suttle won the east overall, but not by the same margins as four years ago. In fact, he lost two of the four eastern council districts, with Stothert winning traditional Democratic areas such as Benson and South Omaha.
At the same time, turnout in the western part of Omaha was above 2009 levels, and Stothert clobbered him there: in 2009, Suttle managed 41 percent of the west Omaha vote; this year, just 33 percent.
Those two factors, combined, left Suttle giving his concession speech about an hour after the polls closed.
Stothert's victory margin caught even her campaign manager off-guard.
“We went in pretty optimistic, but I think (the) margin was a bit of a surprise,” Ryan Horn said.
Horn said the campaign laid the groundwork for doing well in Democratic areas by campaigning citywide.
“We went to neighborhoods all across the city,” he said. “We took our message to the mailbox and through the phone in areas where Republicans had just not bothered to go before.”
DiSilvestro said the Suttle campaign worked hard, too.
“We didn't leave anything undone,” he said. “We made tens of thousands of phone calls, knocked on doors, put signs out. We did all the things a campaign can do to reach out to voters. Mail, television. It was just very tough to overcome the challenges, the perceptions about taxes and those other issues.”
As it turned out, Suttle improved substantially over his primary showing in the eastern part of the city. He gained about 7,400 votes above the combined total for him and independent Brad Ashford in the primary.
That was much less than he needed, however — and much less than the 12,000 he had gained in the east between the primary and general election in 2009.
And not only did Suttle get too few eastern votes, but Stothert also gained in that part of the city. She added about 4,000 votes in that area beyond the combined primary totals for her and fellow Republicans Dan Welch and Dave Nabity. In 2009, Daub had gained only about 1,000 eastern votes after the primary.
In the west, Stothert added about 7,700 votes after the primary, more than Daub gained in 2009. Suttle added 5,900 in the west since the primary, less than he gained four years ago.
Horn said the Stothert campaign didn't know how well it was doing, especially among Democrats.
“The width and breadth of the faith voters put in her was encouraging and a little surprising,” he said.
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