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Mayor steps up effort to fill resident representative and racial minority seats on OHA board

The Omaha Housing Authority board may soon have a resident representative and at least one racial minority member again. Those legally required seats have sat vacant for several months.

Mayor Jean Stothert sent a letter to the OHA board chair Monday asking for a list of minority candidates by Friday.

Stothert also pressed the agency to review an application to be the resident representative from Eric Burgin, a longtime north Omaha neighborhood leader. OHA staff had left Burgin’s application, along with those of about 70 other OHA residents, out of the stack that the Housing Authority sent to the Mayor’s Office. That’s because the staff believed those applications were incomplete, OHA told the mayor.

Stothert’s letter said several people on her staff know Burgin, have worked with him “and consider him a viable candidate.”

State law requires there to be an OHA resident and at least one racial minority person on the agency’s board. Stothert sent her letter a day after a World-Herald article reported that there has been no resident representative for 8½ months, and no person from a racial minority for 4½ months.

“There has been a series of unnecessary errors and delays in the application and selection process for the two vacant positions on the Omaha Housing Authority Board of Directors,” Stothert wrote to OHA board Chair David Levy. “I am aware of the Board’s efforts to recruit and recommend a minority member. We rely on your expertise and recommendations since we are not involved in the operations of the agency, however, I must present appointment recommendations to the Omaha City Council immediately.”

Levy said Tuesday that the OHA board will work with Stothert to fill the vacant board positions. He declined to comment further.

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The resident representative and racial minority seats have been vacant while the OHA board weighs important decisions about working with philanthropists and private developers to demolish and redevelop Spencer Homes in north Omaha and Southside Terrace in South Omaha. The two public housing apartment complexes are home to more than 1,500 people.

Asked why it’s taking this much time to fill the vacancies, Stothert said her staff has been going through the OHA residents’ applications as well as working to find qualified candidates for the more than 50 other boards and commissions she appoints. Many of those seats require people with certain expertise and from various parts of the city.

Stothert noted that the OHA vacancies were unexpected, occurring because previous members resigned. Asked why she had appointed former OHA interim CEO Christine Johnson, who is white, in August ahead of a minority person or OHA resident, Stothert said it was because the OHA board recommended Johnson and because of her expertise.

“These (board appointments) aren’t easy,” Stothert said. “We’re working on them constantly. ... The OHA board is not the only one I’m working on constantly.”

She said no one from OHA had expressed any urgency to her to get the two vacancies filled.

“It’s not that we’re refusing to do it,” Stothert said. “If I was told that the OHA board has just shut down, and they can’t do anything until they get these two appointed, we would have put the rest of this aside, and we would have made sure (people were) appointed. But the communication to us was we’re fine, we’re OK, we’re going though the application process, we’re trying to get the minority member, we’ve made a lot of calls, we want to get the right member, everything’s fine, we’ll get you some recommendations. I didn’t feel the urgency.”

Stothert said it concerned her that the Mayor’s Office first became aware in recent weeks that Burgin had applied to be the resident representative — when he called the Mayor’s Hotline to ask about his application. Burgin, who is president of two neighborhood associations and has served on an Omaha Police Department precinct advisory council, confirmed that that happened.

A mayoral staffer contacted an OHA attorney, who at first told her Burgin had not applied. The attorney then emailed the Mayor’s Office that Burgin had submitted an incomplete application. When asked how many incomplete applications there were, OHA officials then delivered about 70, in addition to the 25 they had initially sent.

Murphy said the mayor’s staff is going through the applications.

“We do care about who’s on that board, and we want to make sure that they’re filled,” Stothert said. “I’m responsible for appointing the board, so I’m not going to say that this is all not my fault. But I just want you to understand the reality of it. It does not mean that this is not a priority for us.”

Omaha's Mayors from the beginning to now

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In chat at Creighton, Bob Kerrey challenges notion of secularism being 'the enemy of religion'

Religion is not the sole path to morality for people or society, former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey told a Creighton University audience Tuesday night.

Kerrey, a Democrat who was governor of Nebraska and represented the state in the U.S. Senate, challenged the notion recently espoused by U.S. Attorney General William Barr that nonreligious people are out to destroy morality in the country.

Kerrey quoted Winston Churchill, who was asked why he rarely attended church. Churchill said he was like a buttress to the church. “I support it from the outside,” Kerrey quoted Churchill as saying.

Kerrey spoke Tuesday night at Creighton’s Harper Center, his first talk at Creighton since his invitation to give the commencement address in the spring provoked Republican outrage. Some Republican leaders said it would be wrong for a pro-choice speaker to give the commencement address at the Catholic-affiliated university.

Kerrey voluntarily withdrew from speaking, saying he didn’t want to cause a distraction during graduation.

But Kerrey did speak Tuesday as part of Creighton’s Presidential Lecture Series, which about 250 people attended.

Kerrey had written a speech, but he referred to it little. Instead, he was asked questions in front of the audience by retired World-Herald columnist Mike Kelly.

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The session with Kelly resulted in a living-room chat in which Kerrey told funny and touching stories in impromptu fashion. Some involved his leg being amputated after suffering an injury in the Vietnam War.

Kelly recalled Kerrey’s relationship while governor with actress Debra Winger. “She swept me off my foot,” Kerrey said.

Kelly also referred to a memoir Kerrey wrote, “When I Was a Young Man.”

Kerrey responded, “You can get it for, like, 10 cents now.”

Kerrey said he owed Creighton a great deal because his son Ben attended college there. Ben, who became a Catholic, now is a pediatrician in Ohio.

“I do owe Creighton a lot,” Kerrey said, “and I suspect you’ll get it out of me at some point in time.”

Barr spoke this month at Notre Dame University and decried what he considers the moral decline of the United States over the past 50 years.

He said that forces of modern society have attacked religious freedom and that he and other members of the U.S. Justice Department have set up a task force. That committee, he said, will pursue cases in which people are discriminated against on the basis of religion and where states pass laws that constrain freedom of religion.

Kerrey said that is a poor use of the power of the Justice Department. Compare the past 50 years to the moral depravity of slavery, he said, and one understands today’s societal sins are dwarfed by that period.

Further, Kerrey said, humans advocated ethical and moral behavior long before Judaism and Christianity were developed.

“So I think it’s a mistake to set up secularism as the enemy of religion,” he said.

On the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, Kerrey said the Kurds are the largest ethnic group without their own nation. They helped the U.S. defeat the Islamic State. “I think we’re going to look back on this one as a moment of betrayal,” he said.

He also said any president who would ask a foreign government to go after his political opponent should be impeached. “It has to be an impeachable offense,” he said to some applause.

But the 90-minute session largely consisted of Kerrey recalling his political career and his nine months in a hospital after suffering his catastrophic war injury.

Asked by Kelly if there were moments when Kerrey wished he were dead after suffering the injury, Kerrey said no. Then he referred to newspaper coverage of him through the years. “The times I wished I was dead was when I was quoted correctly, not incorrectly.”

He also recalled screaming out across the ocean to release his hatred of Richard Nixon, who was president when Kerrey was injured. Kerrey yelled to the ocean: “I forgive you, Richard Nixon!”

“Hating is a horrible thing,” Kerrey said to the audience.

Immediately after his leg was removed, he asked his mother how much of it was left. She leaned in, he said, and referred to him as a person and not to his leg when she said: “There’s a lot left.”

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'Just like a small town': Richie's, a neighborhood go-to restaurant, plans to close

It was just another day at Richie’s Chicken and Hamburgers.

Walls were peeling. Aluminum pans were catching drips from leaky rafters. A customer walked through the cafe’s kitchen to get to the restroom.

And, as lunch hour ticked on, almost all of the 10 tables filled up and individual diners also dotted the extended counter that overlooks the kitchen.

“Here at Richie’s, it’s just like a small town,” longtime waitress Carol Armbrust said before she whisked by with an armful of fried chicken dinners for a table of men.

But days like these are numbered for the mom-and-pop restaurant that 50 years ago moved into an old laundromat at 3528 Center St. Richie Huntzinger, whose family leases the small building, said he and the landlord could not come to terms on the updates needed to keep the place going.

So at the end of the year, when his building health permit expires, Huntzinger plans to close what has become a neighborhood institution of sorts, providing some jobs and countless late-night takeout orders over the years.

The heir to the family diner said he’s 55 years old, too young to retire, and is open to other ventures. One option, he said, is to find a different spot where his mom’s popular fried chicken and other recipes might carry on in some fashion.

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Demolition of the 1,313-square-foot shack built 80 years ago, meanwhile, seems likely, said Mike Peter, who is part of a group that owns the Richie’s building and a few other nearby properties.

Some of the same investors also control the home of Vis Major Brewery Co., a pub and eatery that launched two years ago in a rehabbed century-old grocery across the street from Richie’s.

When Vis Major opened, Peter spoke of a dream the group had for a stretch of Center Street west from 32nd Avenue and Hanscom Park to roughly 38th Street and the Greek Islands restaurant.

Eventually, the Richie’s ground could become a key part of that vision to transform the strip into the kind of walkable entertainment and retail district popping up elsewhere in Omaha and urban areas across the nation.

For now, though, Peter said the grander vision is in a “holding period,” and neighborhood leaders are talking with city officials about issues such as street improvements that could narrow the road.

“Local development, especially in neighborhoods, is hard and can take a long time,” said Peter, also a partner in Clarity Development, which has helped build up the Blackstone District. He’s working separately on the Center Street properties.

As for Richie’s, Peter said that the diner has been a good tenant but that all involved recognized the need for substantial renovation. He said such a project would require investment from beyond the landlord, or a rent hike, which didn’t appeal to Huntzinger.

“It’ll be tough; I grew up in this,” Huntzinger said recently during a break from preparing the day’s Swiss steak special.

BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERALD  

Richie’s Chicken and Hamburgers, located near the intersection of 35th Street and Center Street, is a neighborhood favorite but will close by the end of 2019 as the landlord and tenant don’t want to invest in updating the building.

His family business dates back to the mid-1950s when Huntzinger said his folks, Dick and JoAnne, opened a cafe a few blocks away at 32nd Avenue and Frederick Street. The couple opened a second location (Richie’s) in 1969 and, for a few years, ran both.

Soon, Richie’s was open seven days a week and on weekends until bars closed. “Things were different back then,” said Huntzinger, noting that the Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack was still running, as was a tavern next to the diner.

Richie, the only son of six kids, helped at the restaurant over the years and took the full-time helm in 1996 when his dad’s health started to fail.

Other patrons and workers have been a part of the storied diner that features Husker photos and artwork from patrons.

Armbrust, the waitress, said she’s a newbie compared to co-workers such as dishwasher and cook Hal Perry. Said Armbrust: “He came with the building, people say.”

James Russell, 75, is a longtime fan who now visits twice and sometimes three times a day since his wife died. On this particular day, the disabled veteran cut short his breakfast to meet a plumber and then returned for a hamburger. He said he’ll probably order the steak at dinnertime.

“I don’t like eating alone,” he said.

Also at the counter sat an old Gross High School buddy of Huntzinger’s who hadn’t seen him for years but dropped in after the Richie’s sign caught his eye.

The two reminisced, laughing about the time a high school-aged Huntzinger got busted throwing a party at the diner while his parents were out of town.

“I had no idea it was closing,” said Craig “Gus” Boro, a radiation therapist from the class of 1982. “Ask anyone in South Omaha about Richie’s, they’ll know.”

BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERALD  

Richie Huntzinger, owner of Richie’s Chicken and Hamburgers, talks with customer and former Gross High School classmate Craig “Gus” Boro.

Doug Johnson, who works at a local TV station, said he stopped for a bite after running into Huntzinger at a different diner and learning of the impending closure. Like many others, Johnson has had his share of take-out chicken. “But the atmosphere (inside) is pretty awesome,” he said.

Newcomers wander in, too. Vivian Creswell was a first-time visitor, invited by retired medical social worker friend Dean Pierce, who hadn’t been in for years but had a hankering for Richie’s old-style dishes.

“After 40 years, you gotta come back,” he said.

Nearby sat neighborhood resident Mike Danze, who said his daughters had gotten weary of tracking through the kitchen to use the ladies’ room. He knew son-in-law Joe Dekker, an Omaha firefighter, would appreciate the casual vibe and affordable prices.

“It’s anti-yuppie,” said Danze. “Come as you are and you’re accepted.”

Huntzinger said business has been down after booming a few years back. He doesn’t take credit or debit cards, and wonders whether that might scare off some customers.

He said the fix list also was growing, and the air-conditioning units he reinstalled every summer were “getting heavier by the year.”

“It’s going to be a bittersweet ending,” he said. “We’ll have to see what happens next.”

Omaha Dines: Here are the city's 38 essential restaurants

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Russia, Turkey seal power in northeast Syria
Putin-Erdogan deal for joint patrols, including Syrian regime forces in parts, replaces U.S., Kurdish control

Tayyip Erdogan

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — The leaders of Russia and Turkey announced an agreement for their two countries' forces to jointly patrol almost the entire northeastern Syrian border after the withdrawal of Kurdish fighters.

The deal would seal the two countries' power in Syria, filling the void left by departing American troops after President Donald Trump abruptly ordered their withdrawal.

The announcement came as Kurdish fighters completed their pullout from a section of the Syrian-Turkish border as required by a U.S.-brokered cease-fire that was set to expire Tuesday night. Together, the arrangements transform the map of northeast Syria, leaving Turkey in sole control over one section in the middle of the border, while Turkey, Russia and the Syrian government will have hands in the rest.

The deployments replace American soldiers who for five years battled alongside Kurdish-led fighters and succeeded in bringing down the rule of the Islamic State across a third of Syria at the cost of thousands of Kurdish fighters' lives.

The American pullout has proven chaotic and stumbling. It ran into a new hitch when neighboring Iraq said Tuesday that the American forces did not have permission to stay on its territory. The Iraqi announcement seemed to contradict U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who a day earlier said the forces leaving Syria would deploy in Iraq to fight the Islamic State from there.

Under the deal announced by Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey in Sochi, Russia, Kurdish fighters would have 150 hours starting at noon Wednesday to withdraw from the border.

Russian and Syrian government forces then would move into that area immediately to ensure that the Kurdish fighters pull back 20 miles from the border. Then Russian-Turkish patrols would begin along a 6-mile-wide strip of the border.

The exception would be the region around the town of Qamishli at the far eastern end of the border, which has some of the densest Kurdish population. Russian and Turkish officials did not immediately say what the arrangement would be around Qamishli.

"I hope that this agreement is beneficial to our countries and to our brothers in Syria," Erdogan said.

Turkey will keep control of the section in the center of the border that it captured in its invasion that began Oct. 9. That is the territory that Kurdish fighters withdrew from under the U.S.-brokered cease-fire.

A senior Kurdish official, Redur Khalil, confirmed that his forces had entirely left that area. But he said Turkish troops and their allies were continuing military operations in northeastern Syria outside that withdrawal zone.

The Kurdish-led forces notified the White House of the completed withdrawal in a letter, a senior Trump administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the contents of the letter.

After the U.S. announced its pullout this month, Turkey launched its invasion, saying it wanted to carve out a safe zone cleared of Kurdish fighters, whom it considers terrorists. Turkey also plans to settle many of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees on its soil in that zone, which is the heartland of Syria's Kurdish minority.

For the Kurds, a Turkish takeover would mean the crushing of the self-rule they have carved out in the northeast amid Syria's civil war. They also fear massive demographic change, as Kurdish civilians flee Turkish control and mainly Arab Syrian refugees move in.

The new agreement aims to ease those fears by giving Russia and its ally, the Syrian government, control over much of the area, with the Turkish patrols limited to closer to the border. That may prevent a massive flight of civilians but would be a heavy blow to Kurdish autonomy dreams.

The Russia-Turkey deal goes a considerable way to restoring the control of Moscow's ally, the Syrian government, across much of the northeast.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has vowed to reunite all the territory under Damascus' rule. On Tuesday, Assad said he was ready to support any "popular resistance" against Turkey's invasion.

Erdogan is "a thief," Assad told troops during a visit to the northwestern province of Idlib. "He stole the factories and the wheat and the oil in cooperation with Daesh (the Islamic State group) and now is stealing the land."

"We are in the middle of a battle and the right thing to do is to rally efforts to lessen the damages from the invasion and to expel the invader sooner or later," Assad said.