After a Republican-connected effort to put limits on how long a person can serve as Lincoln’s mayor, the leader of the state Democratic Party said a term limits push could be coming to the Omaha Mayor’s Office, too.
The Nebraska Democratic Party may consider trying to place term limits on the mayor of Omaha, but not until after the November election. “We’ll look at it seriously,” said Jane Kleeb, the state party’s chairwoman.
Kleeb said “it would only seem fair” that if term limits are placed on the Lincoln mayor, the same would happen in Omaha.
The effort with Republican ties is underway in the Capitol City to prevent Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler, a Democrat, from serving a fourth term. The push came after Beutler, who has served three, four-year terms, announced his plans to run for re-election.
Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert has hinted that she may run for another term. The Republican mayor, who’s in her second term, pointed out during a recent political fundraiser that there are no term limits for the Omaha Mayor’s Office, even though the city’s next mayoral election isn’t until 2021.
Stothert said attempts to enact term limits shouldn’t be aimed at an individual, but rather the office in general.
“What Jane Kleeb is trying to do is directed at me,” Stothert said. “It’s because I’m a Republican, and that’s unfortunate.”
But Kleeb said “if the Republican Party is coming for one of our strongest leaders, we’re going to fight back.”
“You can’t put term limits on a mayor in Lincoln because you can’t beat him and then expect that the (Nebraska Democratic) party is just going to sit there and say ‘oh well,’ ” she said.
Kenny Zoeller, executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party, said the state GOP isn’t the sponsor or entity that ran the Lincoln petition. But, he said, the party “supports the concept of term limits and term limiting our elected officials.”
Matt Innis, spokesman for the Political Renewal Association, which is pushing for mayoral term limits in Lincoln, said that allowing politicians to serve in office without term limits is “the biggest problem in this country.”
“We don’t think anybody should be able to serve a lifetime in public office,” Innis said. “The Founding Fathers, when setting up everything, never intended for people to become kings or emperors.”
The Political Renewal Association is also backed by J.L. Spray, a Republican National Committeeman who’s long been involved in Nebraska party politics.
Term limits vary by political office in Nebraska. The governor, for example, is limited to two, four-year terms. So are members of the Nebraska Legislature.
Nebraska voters approved term limits on state senators in 2000. Some observers have said term limits have a negative affect on the Legislature, and that the turnover due to senators being term-limited leads to the loss of institutional knowledge.
Former Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle said the Nebraska Legislature is the “perfect example” that term limits don’t work because “intellectual capital” has gotten pushed out. Suttle, a Democrat, said he would oppose term limits for mayor, too, for similar reasons.
He said the mayor has a learning curve when taking office, along with staff and department heads.
“You want that intellectual capital to stay because it’s only going to get more experienced and work better and get more efficient,” he said.
Asked about the possibility that Stothert decides to run for a third term, Suttle said “that’s her call.”
“I will leave it at that,” he said. “The voters will decide if that’s going to be her future.”
Innis, the Lincoln organizer, noted that Beutler has served as an elected official for 35 years, between his time in the Nebraska Legislature and as Lincoln’s mayor.
Innis, a former chairman of the Lancaster County Republicans, said he’d support Democrats trying to impose term limits in Omaha, but suggested they push for three, four-year terms like what his group wants in Lincoln.
“You should be able to get done whatever you want in 12 years,” Innis said.
Three, four-year terms would allow Stothert to run for mayor once more. Stothert has served in public office for more than 20 years. She was previously on the Millard school board and the Omaha City Council.
Omaha City Attorney Paul Kratz said mayoral term limits could be enacted a few ways, including proposing them at a city charter convention. A charter committee could suggest changes, which would go to the City Council for approval. The council would have to vote to put the changes before voters.
Kratz said the council could also initiate imposing term limits and vote to put it on the ballot. Under a third option, people could gather signatures to put term limits before the council, which would then vote whether to put a proposal on the ballot.
In Lincoln, organizers gathered 4,322 valid signatures, enough to place term limits on the ballot in November, according to the Lancaster County Election Commissioner’s Office.
Innis pointed out that about 150 more Democrats than Republicans signed the petition, which the election commissioner confirmed.
Beutler in a statement has called the effort “unethical and unfair.” Still, he pushed for ensuring that the term limits issue made it onto the November ballot, saying it was in the interest of “transparency, integrity and respect for the voters of this great city.”
The Lincoln City Council last month voted to put the issue on the November ballot. Innis said it’s meant to go into effect in January, in time for the 2019 city election. The primary is in April, with the general election in May.
Lincoln City Attorney Jeff Kirkpatrick said the council had to sign off on putting the issue on the ballot because the petition gathered enough valid signatures, automatically qualifying it.
Kirkpatrick said the petition effort was “clearly intended” to apply to Beutler. He said there “could be some legal issues” with it, but “it’s not the city law department’s job to question whether it’s going to be constitutional or not.”
Asked whether she’d push for term limits should Lincoln’s effort fail, Kleeb said “it depends how conversations go with local leaders.”
Omaha City Council President Ben Gray, a Democrat, said he opposes imposing term limits because, he said, they already exist. “It’s called the ballot box,” he said.
Gray said the political-fueled discussion that started in Lincoln and spilled into Omaha is “silly and unbelievable.”
“That tit-for-tat kind of foolishness that Republicans and Democrats both do is, to me, troublesome, problematic and it doesn’t serve our constituents well.”