Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker drew a few hundred people to a Monday rally with Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert — and a few hundred union members to protest outside the event.
Walker, whose moves to restrict labor unions have made him a polarizing figure nationally, said there’s a clear distinction between Stothert and challenger Heath Mello. The governor came to Omaha in part as a response to last week’s Mello rally with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“Do you want Midwest common sense?” Walker asked about 250 attendees. “Or East Coast radical values?”
He pointed to several specifics, including Stothert’s property tax cuts and her moves to add police officers and eventually a fifth police precinct.
But about 100 union members including firefighters, teachers, laborers and operating engineers said at an earlier gathering that neither Walker nor Stothert share their values. The group, along with about 100 others, then went to protest the rally.
“To Scott Walker, I say, go back to Wisconsin. Omaha does not need or want your political agenda here,” said Tracy Hartman-Bradley of the Omaha Education Association. “To Jean Stothert, I say, be wary of the company you keep.”
In his first term, Walker pushed for a budget bill that ended collective bargaining rights for many public employees and mandated that they cover part of their health care and pension costs. The measure brought national attention and huge protests to the Wisconsin State Capitol.
He survived a recall effort and was elected to a second term. Last year he ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for president.
Stothert, a Republican in an officially nonpartisan election, said she sees many similarities between herself and Walker.
“Folks,” she said, “my opponent wants more government and he will raise your taxes to get it.”
Stothert was elected in 2013, in part by promising to resolve the pension issue. She’s agreed to put more city money into the pensions and received concessions from city workers on pension benefits.
Stothert has criticized Mello for accepting $25,000 from the fire union, saying it would be difficult for Mello to objectively negotiate a contract with a group that has given such a large contribution to his campaign. Stothert argues that Mello would bring back benefits for unions that would take the city back to the days of the pension funding crisis.
Mello says he could remain objective when negotiating agreements.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, who described himself as a good friend of Walker’s, reiterated that Walker “has done the same kind of things the mayor has done except at the state level.”
He said Stothert has addressed voters’ No. 1 concern by twice pushing to lower property taxes.
Omahan John Georgeson, who attended the rally and asked both Walker and Ricketts to sign his collection of 2016 Republican presidential pins, said he likes Stothert’s push to roll back pension benefits for union members.
“She’s a sweetheart,” he said. “And she’s done good things for this city that we’ve needed for decades. She’s a wonderful leader.”
Walker is the latest sign of growing national attention on Omaha’s mayoral race.
Sanders, an independent who unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic nomination for president, sparked a national debate by campaigning for Mello.
Some Democrats questioned whether Mello, who opposes abortion, can be considered a “progressive.” They argued that abortion rights are too important to allow for compromise; others said there should be room for disagreements within the party on even the most important issues.
Nebraska Democrats, including supporters of abortion rights, have defended the progressive credentials of Mello, a Democrat.
Monday, Mello said Walker’s record “should concern every single working family in this city.”
“It speaks volumes in regards to who Mayor Stothert is bringing in today to campaign for her, to talk about very similar governing styles, and the admiration she has for the way he’s governed Wisconsin,” Mello said.
Mello and Stothert have already repeatedly clashed over union support. The firefighters group has been one of Mello’s biggest financial backers and has connections to a third-party group running anti-Stothert ads.
Stothert has had public battles with the city’s labor unions, and both the firefighters and the police officers have taken her to court.
Mello drew the nod not only of the fire union but also the city’s largest civilian union, as well as the first-ever endorsement from the Omaha Public Schools teachers’ union. The police union is remaining neutral.
But Stothert points to the fact that she has negotiated labor agreements with all the city’s bargaining units as proof that she can work with unions.
Steve LeClair, the president of the fire union who helped organize the anti-Walker protest, said he doesn’t think the mayor represents the values of working Omahans.
“This mayor bringing this governor in signals to us that she does not believe the same things we believe in,” LeClair said.
World-Herald staff writer Christopher Burbach contributed to this report.
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