After almost five decades in one office or another, Bellevue’s Paul Hartnett will not this year be taking an oath to defend the Constitution.
It has been a long road for one of Bellevue’s most influential and persistent public officials. Over the past 52 years, he served 18 years on the Bellevue school board, 20 years in the State Legislature and 10 years on the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties. His only pause came after 2004, when he left the Legislature. Four years later, he was elected to the Learning Community Council four years later.
Hartnett, now 91, declined to seek re-election in November, bringing to a close a career in public life that began with the construction of Bellevue West High School and saw the extension of the Kennedy Freeway through Bellevue, construction of the Highway 34 bridge over the Missouri River and passage of Legislative Bill 840, which is being used by Bellevue to finance the development of 5,000 acres south of Offutt Air Force Base.
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In addition to playing a role in such major, community-shaping events, there were the innumerable little courtesies that elected officials are called on to perform for their constituents, such as appearing at events and making helpful phone calls.
All of those things, Hartnett said — large and small — were done to satisfy a single, lifelong urge.
“My biggest thing is that I like to help people,” he said.
Bellevue City Councilman Don Preister, who served with Hartnett in the Legislature, said Hartnett exemplified public service.
“He was a remarkable, highly effective legislator in our Unicameral, for 20 years of dedicated service,” Preister said. “Paul cares about people and our quality of life. As the long-serving chairman of the Urban Affairs Committee, Paul was in a position to improve legislation for Bellevue and Nebraska. From acreages to zoning, volunteer firefighters, the Kennedy and Highway 34, he was there leading the way to help.”
Elected to the Bellevue school board in 1966, Hartnett had a long presence on the public stage that is dotted with incidents that draw his characteristic laugh. He remembers the Bellevue school board threatening to bar students of military families unless the federal government sent money to pay for their education. It was a threat that would not have been carried out, he said, but it nevertheless paid a dividend when then-U.S. Sen. Roman Hruska showed up with an actual check in his pocket.
“We got their attention,” Hartnett said.
Then there was the significantly more sober time when Hartnett agreed to sign on to a bill abolishing the death penalty just as Bellevue child serial killer John Joubert was approaching his execution date.
“I got a lot of calls on that,” Hartnett said.
Along the way, Hartnett said, he received the help of key supporters, without whom he could not have remained so long in public life.
Chief among them, he said, was his legislative aide, the late Bill Stadtwald, who proved to be a critical researcher and guide.
“He was brainy and smart,” Hartnett said. “A lot of people don’t like to have people smarter than they are working for them. It didn’t bother me a bit.”
Other important figures in his public life, he said, were former Bellevue Mayor Joe Baldwin, former Bellevue City Attorney John Rice, attorney Dean Hascall and Hartnett’s late wife, Marge.
Times have changed, Hartnett said, since he was first elected to the school board in 1966. Back then, he said, there was very little to seeking public office. He deployed no yard signs and paid for no billboards, just put his name forward and let the voters decide.
In later years, he said, he stepped up his game by walking neighborhoods and knocking on doors, being seen and becoming known. As Bellevue has grown, he said, such campaigning has become indispensable, and he would advise any young person considering seeking public office for the first time to bear that in mind.
“I would encourage that person,” he said. “You have to get elected, of course, but if you will work at it and walk and knock on doors, you can do it. People have got to see you.”