Homeless people for Mayor Jim Suttle?
A group funded by the mayor on Wednesday picked up and drove three busloads of people — many of them homeless — to the Douglas County Election Commissioner's Office in west Omaha.
Some of the homeless were paid $5 by Forward Omaha, the main group opposing the effort to recall the mayor — and a group that has Suttle's backing.
One homeless man, Michael Sergeon, first told reporters he was paid $5 to vote. A few minutes later, Sergeon retracted his statement, saying he was paid $5 to hand out brochures for the campaign.
Gary DiSilvestro, the head of Forward Omaha, said some of the homeless were indeed paid $5, to complete a half-hour of training on how to go door-to-door and turn out voters. If they completed the training, he says they were offered a chance to work for the campaign on Election Day for $10 an hour.
After the training, men and women were bused to the Election Commissioner's Office to cast an early ballot. The idea: If the trainees want to work for the campaign, they need to vote early.
Some of the people who went through the training plan to work on Election Day; others decided that they weren't interested, said DiSilvestro, who ran Suttle's mayoral race in 2009 and is Suttle's main campaign adviser.
Everyone was given the option to get on the bus, go to the Election Commissioner's Office and vote, he said.
DiSilvestro said it was made clear to those in training that the $5 was not a monetary incentive to earn their vote, which would be illegal. He also said people who completed the class signed a form indicating that it was illegal for them to try to give anything of value, including food and tobacco, to persuade someone else to vote against the recall.
Suttle faces a Jan. 25 recall election, in which voters will be asked to determine whether the mayor keeps his job. As of late December, his campaign committee had given Forward Omaha $171,000.
Many of Wednesday's aspiring voters had to register before they could cast an early ballot. Several listed their residences as a homeless shelter — Omaha's Siena-Francis House. It is legal to register to vote and cast a ballot on the same day.
Noelle Obermeyer, a spokeswoman for Forward Omaha, said the buses were used for more than just homeless people. They picked up anyone who wanted to cast an early ballot but lacked a way to get to the Election Commissioner's Office.
“We're busing anyone who wants a ride down to the election commission,” said Obermeyer. “It's going to continue as long as it's demanded.”
She also said homeless people have as much right to vote as anyone else.
This is not the first time the homeless have been involved in the recall. Numerous people who listed their address as the Siena-Francis House signed the petition that led to this month's recall election.
Jeremy Aspen, a spokesman for the Mayor Suttle Recall Committee, said he hoped the people on the buses were not being asked to vote against the recall.
“If they're taking people to the polls because there is a valid need, it's noble. But if they're taking advantage of vulnerable people and coaching them, that's wrong,” Aspen said.
Mike Saklar, executive director of the Siena-Francis House, said he knew nothing about the buses, but he said he was checking into it after being told a bus had dropped off people at the shelter.
“I would never become involved in politics — one way or another. We're a nonprofit. We don't get involved in politics,” said Saklar.
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