Democrat Chris Beutler liked being a legislator until newly imposed term limits forced him out.
In the Capitol, he had developed a reputation for blocking what he saw as bad legislation, pushing for ethics measures and showing an interest in environmentalism.
But he soon found a job he liked even more: Lincoln mayor. It’s a job that’s allowed him to shape the second-largest city in Nebraska and leave a legacy that includes development of a trendy area downtown, a focus on arts and the creation of the Pinnacle Bank Arena.
“He never tired, he never got fatigued, he could run circles around all of us because of his energy and excitement and joy,” said Lincoln City Councilwoman Jane Raybould. She thought for a moment and added: “He was tough, there’s no doubt he was tough.”
A term limit again caught up with him, though, when voters passed a Republican-backed effort to limit the Lincoln mayor to three terms.
Lincoln will soon say goodbye to an executive who led the city with a quiet vision and willingness to face conflict when he felt like it was the right thing to do.
“I think the last 12 years have really taken Lincoln to a whole different level in terms of its size and its diversity and its innovation,” said Lori Seibel, president of the Community Health Endowment. “His legacy will really be that he led Lincoln through this period where we kind of grew into an adult.”
The next mayor will be Leirion Gaylor Baird, a councilwoman who ran on promises to build on much of Beutler’s work at City Hall. She defeated fellow Councilwoman Cyndi Lamm, who had said she wanted to take the city in a different direction and spend less in such areas as the arts and parks.
Beutler, 74, grew up in Omaha. He first tasted political defeat at Benson High School, where he led a campaign to change the mascot of the Benson Bunnies.
Students were in “overwhelming” support, he said, but alumni were not.
“I learned my first lesson in political power,” he said.
He attended Yale, was inspired by President John F. Kennedy to serve in the Peace Corps, then got drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War. He attended law school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and he eventually settled back in Lincoln.
He always wanted a career in public service, though he had a hard time imagining his quiet self as “the guy” — the politician.
Still, when a legislative seat opened up in the district where he lived, he ran and won in 1978.
The lawyer soon drew a reputation as a meticulous legislator who would pick apart poorly drafted bills.
There was even a term for it: to “beutlerize” a bill.
“He would file amendment after amendment,” said Don Wesley, a friend and legislative colleague who served a term as Lincoln’s mayor. “If you didn’t read your own bills and know your own legislation, he would tie you up in knots.”
He made ethics and campaign finance a priority, though the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling overturned Nebraska’s political spending limits that Beutler had supported.
He also felt that no one was addressing environmental issues, especially water protections. He sometimes found himself at odds with agricultural groups in his efforts to strengthen the government’s ability to regulate water.
His first political defeat as an adult came in 1986, when he lost the Democratic gubernatorial primary. But four years later he was back in the Legislature, where he stayed until term limits took effect in 2007.
That’s the same year he took over as mayor . He’s now served three terms, more than any other mayor in Lincoln’s history.
His overarching vision for the city, he said, hinged on the fact that he believes the Omaha and Lincoln metro areas will merge. He wants Lincoln to have its own strengths so the future metro area won’t be competing within itself.
He placed a heavy emphasis on partnerships with companies, nonprofits and other governmental entities. Partnerships, he said, were key to many of the major changes to Lincoln in the past 12 years, including the construction of Pinnacle Bank Arena.
City Councilman Carl Eskridge credited Beutler for having the vision to make that facility happen. Eskridge said he remembers the ribbon-cutting in 2011.
“You’re looking back in the city and you’re thinking, gosh, what is this going to be? Because it was just a wasteland,” he said. Now, it’s a centerpiece of the city.
Beutler said he’s most proud of his work on cultural issues, such as public art and parks.
But that focus on public art, like the construction of a 57-foot Jun Kaneko sculpture in downtown Lincoln, drew criticism from political opponents who said the city should focus its efforts on more basic city services.
But he argues that art, along with other quality-of-life investments like parks, are an economic development tool. He says that creating a vibrant city with lots to do and see — more than Husker games — is key to attracting a new workforce.
During his career, Beutler has not shied away from a fight when he feels ethics and the law are at stake. While in the Legislature, he pushed for the impeachment of the attorney general in 1984 and a member of the Board of Regents in 2006.
In 2016 he successfully took his own City Council to court to fund his budget.
But he stood down when he could have fought the term limit proposal in court.
The difference, he said, was that although he questioned the backers’ philosophical commitment to term limits in general, he believed that they were operating within the law.
“I thought I was following what I had always said before,” he said. “If you’re following the law ... it’s within the bounds of political argument.”
Is he glad he’s the kind of mayor who sues on behalf of city funding but not to save his own political career?
“It’s a hard result, I know,” he said. “But yeah, I am glad that I did it.”
It passed, and so Gaylor Baird will be sworn in on Monday.
She’ll inherit some projects that Beutler started, like the Prairie Corridor — a 10-mile stretch of prairie that will connect Pioneers Park in Lincoln with the Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center with trails, conservation and education.
And there are two projects that Beutler said he would have liked to have gotten off the ground: a new central library, and a push to get more direct flights into the Lincoln airport.
Now, he said, his family, including his wife Judy, five grown children plus grandchildren, are his priority. He’d like to stay involved in the community, though probably not in public office.
“I’ve just kind of fallen in love with the idea ... of making Lincoln a great place to live and work and raise a family,” he said.