Omaha mayor's race on pace to be costliest ever

Candidates for Omaha Mayor, from left, Jim Suttle, Dan Welch, Brad Ashford, Dave Nabity and Jean Stothert speak a public forum sponsored by the Metro Omaha Property Owners Association at the Westside Community Conference Center in Omaha, Neb., Monday evening.


Learn more about the mayoral candidates.

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Five Omaha mayoral candidates have been amassing their war chests, setting the stage for what could become the most expensive local election in the city's history.

Collectively, they raised more than $1.4 million last year. That's about double the amount raised by this time in 2001, Omaha's priciest mayoral race.

That campaign featured a two-man competition between then-Mayor Hal Daub and challenger Mike Fahey.

This year's candidates reported raising serious money, transforming the dynamics of a hotly contested race to control City Hall.

Official campaign filings aren't due until the end of the month, but each campaign provided The World-Herald with a general overview of its fundraising efforts in 2012:

» Democratic Mayor Jim Suttle's campaign said it raised roughly $350,000.

» Republican Councilwoman Jean Stothert's campaign said it raised $330,000. That included roughly $100,000 transferred from her City Council committee.

» Former City Council President Dan Welch, a Republican, reported raising $282,000, including some $12,000 from his council committee.

» Businessman Dave Nabity, a Republican and a key figure in the attempted Suttle recall in 2011, reported raising $273,000.

» And State Sen. Brad Ashford, an independent, reported raising $170,000, including $16,000 moved from his legislative campaign committee.

Nabity's campaign declined to share individual contributions but said his large donors include key supporters of the Suttle recall campaign and: Mike Simmonds, CEO of Simmonds Holdings; George Venteicher, president of KVI Industries; Mike Cassling, CEO of Cassling Diagnostics; and Sid Dinsdale, president of Pinnacle Bank. Other large donors, the campaign said, included business leaders such as Mogens Bay, chairman and CEO of Valmont; and Lisa Roskens, president and CEO of Burlington Capital Group.

Not all recall supporters are backing Nabity. Pete Ricketts, the TD Ameritrade executive, donated $15,000 to Welch's campaign. Among Welch's largest supporters were West Corp. CEO Thomas Barker, who donated $10,000, and former World-Herald publisher John Gottschalk, who donated $5,300. Other supporters include Charles Heider, president of Charles Heider Co.; Jack Diesing, president of CWS Omaha Inc.; Jerry Reimer, a principal with Urban Village Development; and Roskens.

Ashford's biggest backers represent the Waitt Co. investment firm. The campaign said CEO Dana Bradford donated $25,000, while founder Norm Waitt and President John Schuele each donated $10,000. Former Mayor Mike Fahey, who has publicly endorsed Ashford's campaign, donated $1,000. Other donors included Carl Mammel, chairman of SilverStone Holdings Inc.; Fred, Allan and Jim Simon of the Omaha Steaks International family; and Harley Schrager, former chairman of the Omaha Sports Commission.

Stothert and Suttle declined to name individual donors. Additional details about donors will become public no later than Jan. 31, when they must be reported to the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission.

The amount of money already invested in this campaign underscores what observers have said for weeks: There's no clear favorite.

“What's happened in Omaha in the last 10 years is, politics has gotten very competitive,” said Randall Adkins, chairman of the University of Nebraska at Omaha political science department. “When people see a political environment that is competitive, they're more likely to open their wallet up.”

Details on how the campaigns spent funds last year aren't available yet. But Welch's campaign says it has spent money largely on consultants and research. Stothert's expenses include office space, staff and research, her campaign said.

Suttle's campaign expenditures, in addition to campaign activities, included functions he attended as mayor but billed to his campaign.

Four of the five candidates say they have roughly $200,000 to $240,000 on hand. Ashford's campaign has the least cash on hand, roughly $125,000.

Paul Landow, a UNO political science professor and Fahey's former chief of staff, said Ashford's monetary disadvantage shows he's just getting started.

“He's spending his time in the Legislature,” Landow said of Ashford. “There has to be a point where he stops, and starts being in Omaha, campaigning. But he hasn't done that yet, and it's reflected in the fundraising numbers.”

Ashford's campaign has had one recent shake-up: Steve Scarpello has resigned as campaign manager, Ashford confirmed Thursday. Rob Irvine, a former Democratic operative, has taken over as director of campaign operations.

“I thought Steve did a good job for us,” Ashford said. “I have nothing but good things to say about him. He did a great job.”

Although Stothert is the only public officeholder among the Republicans in the race, she raised less last year than Welch and Nabity, excluding transfers from prior campaigns.

Welch fared better, even though he has been out of the public eye for four years.

And Nabity outraised both Stothert and Welch in 2012.

Mark Fahleson, state Republican Party chairman, said it was meaningful that Suttle's four challengers collectively raised $1 million. That alone is more than the nearly $700,000 raised at this point in 2001.

“There's this pent-up desire for someone other than Jim Suttle. That is the message I get from virtually every Omaha business leader I talk to,” Fahleson said. “Those numbers don't surprise me a bit.”

Landow said he expects Suttle to advance through April's primary election because he's the incumbent and the lone Democrat in what's technically a nonpartisan race.

“They're qualified, experienced, well-educated, and each of them is attracting their own base, their own group of supporters,” he said of Suttle's challengers. “It's going to be a real battle between the four of them.”

In the end, Landow said, “When you get through the primary, whoever the two are, I think they're both going to have spent more than anyone in Omaha history.”

Contact the writers: twitter.com/PerezJr, 402-444-1068, johnny.perez@owh.com, 402-444-3144, matt.wynn@owh.com

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