Omahans can expect four more years of City Hall focus on public safety and the budget — and maybe a new riverfront — after Mayor Jean Stothert easily won re-election.
Stothert won 53 percent of the votes to challenger Heath Mello’s 46 percent in the final unofficial count, with a particularly strong showing in the western part of the city.
“To the community I love, thank you for rehiring me,” she said. “I’ll work harder than ever to make you proud of our work.”
She said her focus during her second term will be public safety, the budget, workforce development, transportation, neighborhood support and making the city more welcoming.
She also promised to reach out to the community leaders and elected officials who vocally opposed her.
Most vocal of those was Sheriff Tim Dunning, who appeared in an anti-Stothert commercial, and the firefighters union, which spent thousands of dollars supporting Mello. Some prominent business leaders had also backed Mello.
Stothert, a Republican in an officially nonpartisan seat, kept the focus on local governance issues as Mello tried to harness anger over President Donald Trump.
Mello told his supporters that the results weren’t what they anticipated, but he urged young people not to give up and to be proud that their message was heard.
Stothert told a jubilant crowd that Mello was a “tough competitor” and that now it's time for the city to come together.
She got big applause for promising to work on downtown, “including a new riverfront as our signature.”
“What is the bottom line?” Stothert said. “Omaha is back. We have momentum. We are moving in the right direction.”
Omaha mayor's race: Results by precinct
Gov. Pete Ricketts said Omaha sent a message that the national issues aren’t the ones that matter — voters were more interested in her record on taxes and other local issues.
“I think the people of Omaha said the mayor is doing a great job, let’s keep her,” he said.
Stothert racked up big margins in west Omaha, winning 64 percent of the vote in the three western-most council districts (5,6,7). That gave her a 14,000-vote edge that Mello could not overcome.
Mello won the remaining four council districts, but most by narrower margins. In South Omaha, a crucial battleground in mayoral contests, Stothert got within 139 votes, even though Mello had represented the area in the Nebraska Legislature.
Mello won north Omaha’s 2nd District with 72 percent of the vote, but it didn’t help him much because of low turnout. In fact, the four council districts that Mello won had fewer total votes than the three that Stothert won. And while he took 59 percent of the overall vote in the eastern part of the city, that didn’t add up to enough votes to close the gap.
During the campaign, Mello had argued that the mayor needs to be thinking bigger and pursuing more public-private partnerships.
The two clashed over age-old City Hall issues such as annexation, crime and streets. And they sparred over a new municipal issue: the proposal to build a streetcar between downtown and midtown.
The election also got national attention: Former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders came to Omaha to campaign for Mello. Stothert brought Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to attend a rally with her.
Mello is a former state senator who pushed for legislation such as driver’s and professional licenses for young people who were brought into the country illegally as children and applying an equal-pay protection law to previously exempted smaller businesses.
The 37-year-old also made a name for himself as the first Omahan in years to be elected by fellow legislators to the position of chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
As a candidate, he said he wanted to make Omaha a “city of the future,” which he said means “more welcoming, more connected, more innovative.” He said one of his first hires would be a chief innovation officer, who would find ways to incorporate new technology into City Hall to make it more efficient and transparent.
Mello trailed throughout the night, but his campaign and supporters held out hope that he could close the gap. The campaign expressed optimism that the difference was a matter of geography in how the votes were getting turned in and counted at the election office located at 114th Street and West Dodge Road.
But after Mello conceded, his campaign said he started out the race far behind Stothert and argued that he did well to bring the race into single digits. Mello campaign strategist Ian Russell said the Democratic Party in Omaha “is alive and well.”
In his concession speech, Mello hinted at the Democratic Party discord that surrounded the Sanders appearance as Mello’s anti-abortion stance came under attack.
Russell declined to call the Sanders appearance a mistake, but he said the debate struck a dissonant tone for Omaha voters at a time when Mello wanted to focus on such issues as potholes and the proposed streetcar project.
Mello, in his Tuesday night speech, said he was glad he highlighted the importance of such issues as climate change, segregation and the need for inclusion in the city. He said he sees work ahead in making Omaha a more welcoming, connected and innovative city.
Mello said he saw Stothert take differing points of view seriously during the campaign. “I trust that she will continue to be responsive to each and every one of us and all Omaha residents during her next term,” he told supporters.
Stothert, 63, who previously served on the City Council and the Millard school board, had focused on the budget and public safety.
She noted that she successfully negotiated contracts with every bargaining unit in the city and pushed for two property tax cuts.
Stothert has gained a reputation as a fighter at City Hall, which her supporters like but which has turned off some business leaders and philanthropists.
Her campaign consultant, Bill Protexter, said Stothert’s popularity remained steady through the race.
“She worked hard,” he said. “She earned a second term as mayor.”
He said Mello’s strong support from the firefighters union raised eyebrows from those who worried that the city’s pension problems could return.
Still, he said, Mello was an “incredibly tough opponent.”
Thanking her supporters name by name Tuesday night, Stothert said, “Let’s continue to work together to make Omaha extraordinary.”