The brown briefcase sitting on Jim Dowding's office floor at City Hall is old. The leather is stained and cracked, the corners are worn white. The interior lining is ripped. Both handles are loose, and one is wound with masking tape.
Still, the bag that Lou Andersen first carried into City Hall in 1979 for a then-new job as City Council aide does its job.
It holds the documents of the day, however mundane or significant, that move Omaha forward.
It holds a couple of ink pens, a highlighter, a handful of paper clips and some copies of the meeting preamble that the City Council president reads each Tuesday.
Just as it did in 2005 for Andersen's successor Warren Weaver and does now for Weaver's hopeful successor, Dowding, it ferries the bible of Omaha governance, the City Charter.
As mayors and council members have come and gone, as Omaha's boundaries and population have grown, as change has exploded along Omaha's riverfront and in neighborhoods old and new, this simple bag has remained a constant.
It is a humble symbol that the work of the people is bigger than one person, one project, one period in time. And it's a reminder that no matter how technologically evolved we have become, we still need paper. A 14-page City Council agenda to mark up. Tally sheets to count votes. A rubber-banded shut binder to remind them all of the City Charter and meeting rules.
The story of the briefcase tells a bit about the mechanizations of Omaha.
It begins in the spring of 1979. Lou Andersen was starting a second career at City Hall after an intriguing 25-year Air Force stint that included piloting B-45 bombers. He had also been in the Secret Service under President Eisenhower, worked in counterintelligence during the Cold War, testified before Congress and headed up personnel for Strategic Air Command.
He came to City Hall to serve in what was then a new role: legislative aide for the seven-member council. Council members wanted help with research, analysis and responding to constituent complaints. Andersen, by all accounts a low-key, nonpartisan diplomat, was welcome help. His job was paper-laden.
Andersen doesn't remember where he bought the briefcase, but it was, he said, “the way I carried everything in and out.”
The briefcase had a cameo in a news story. Andersen was two months into his chief aide gig when he got stuck in an elevator.
“Andersen found himself standing in the elevator with his briefcase in his left arm,” my colleague Michael Kelly wrote in part of a larger profile of Andersen, “and two elevator doors closing tightly on his right arm.”
The open button didn't work. It took two men to pry it open.
I'd like to think that this former Secret Service agent was putting duty first, holding the briefcase the way you would a baby, taking a proverbial bullet for City Hall minutiae.
Andersen filled that briefcase with documents 5 inches thick and lugged it home each night after 5 and back to work at 7 each morning. He lugged it up and down stairs, on elevators and into the Legislative Chamber every Tuesday.
Andersen did this for 26 years, through eight mayors, through annexations that pushed the city's western boundary from Westroads through Elkhorn, through population growth that added about 90,000 people, through the demolition of huge low-income housing projects in north Omaha, through a riverfront renaissance that replaced rail yards and a lead smelting plant with what is now the CenturyLink Center, the Omaha Hilton and more.
Each change, incremental and big, took sheafs of paper and votes. Each change took research and diplomacy. Each change, whether it sailed forth easily or resulted from a hard-fought battle, was documented in the papers that went home in Lou Andersen's brown briefcase.
When Andersen retired in 2005, his replacement, Warren Weaver, who had been on the council legislative staff for 14 years, asked for the bag.
“I wouldn't call myself a romantic,” Weaver explained. “I would say I'm someone who goes along with history, goes along with precedent. I spent 24 years in the military. I certainly understood heraldry and tradition. I certainly understood things that were legacies.”
And Weaver, who had his own Air Force career, so admired his boss and so believed in thrift and symbolism, that he pressed Andersen for it. Andersen didn't part with the briefcase easily. He told Weaver he better never see the briefcase on eBay.
“I said, 'Lou, I will make you a promise: You will never see it on eBay,' ” Weaver told me. “If you give it to me, I will think of it as a reminder to you and a reminder of the fidelity and everything that goes with the job.”
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
Eight years and six restitchings later, Weaver presented the bag to Dowding, interim chief aide, along with the same admonition to keep the City Charter always handy.
“I don't want to call myself an expert on the charter, but to be really honest, I was kind of an expert on the charter,” Weaver said. “I would call mayors and I would warn them: 'Hey, watch out.' I did that to Jean Stothert a couple weeks ago, and even though she didn't thank me, it precluded her making a minor faux pas.”
Weaver said he tried to remain nonpartisan and focused on the job of the day, which includes schooling newly elected City Council members, who often need a primer in city governance.
“As I told my staff — and I repeatedly told my staff — our job is not to tell them how to vote. Our job is to tell them the pros and cons of a particular issue,” Weaver said. “To apply the law and apply the charter to the issue of the day. How they chose to do it and how they chose to vote was not up to us. If they voted to do X, it was our job to carry out X.”
That bag was like a silent witness in these meetings. Weaver said it was often overstocked, especially during the summertime budget session when he'd shove piles of papers up to 10-inches thick inside. The briefcase would be too heavy to lug by the handles, so he'd balance it on his hip.
The chief council aide sits behind the council on Tuesday meeting day, and that briefcase is like a diaper bag. Need a pen? Need a sticky note? Need to know a budget appropriation, a phone number, a reason why that item was laid over six weeks ago?
Weaver carried that briefcase so much over eight years that he finally had the handles repaired. But a stitch burr kept cutting his hand, so he wrapped masking-tape around the handle.
About two weeks ago, with little ceremony, Weaver gave the bag to Dowding, who is the temporary caretaker until a permanent hire is made. Dowding, of course, hopes he is the one who carries that bag next.
“It's sitting right here,” Dowding told me when I called him. “(Weaver) asked me to use it. I told him I would.”