The Omaha mayoral candidates haven’t agreed on much, but they all agree that this year’s election is unique in one regard: For the first time in a long time, voters have a choice among five strong contenders.
All five mounted strong campaigns, raising money and flooding the airwaves and mailboxes with campaign advertising, they say. All five had a pathway to victory.
But only two will advance from Tuesday’s primary to the May 14 general election.
“It’s arguably been two or three decades in Nebraska politics since there has been a primary field with this many strong candidates, from top to bottom,” said Chris Peterson, campaign manager for Republican candidate Dan Welch.
Gary DiSilvestro, campaign manager for Democratic Mayor Jim Suttle, agreed.
“Everybody has really strong supporters,” DiSilvestro said. “I don’t know if there has been a race like this, for mayor of Omaha, with such strong candidates for a long time.”
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Barring a huge surprise, Suttle is expected to be one of the top two vote-getters on Tuesday. He has won a mayoral election before, and he has a campaign machine in place. Suttle on Saturday had more than a dozen people manning telephones and loading yard signs into cars. As the only Democrat, Suttle to some extent has run unopposed in the officially nonpartisan race. His challengers have focused most of their firepower on one another, turning the primary into a race for second place, especially among the three Republicans: Jean Stothert, a member of the City Council; businessman Dave Nabity; and Welch, a former councilman. The fifth major candidate, State Sen. Brad Ashford, is running as an independent. By all accounts, Stothert has been the front-runner among the challengers. For the most part, the rest of the challengers have focused their darts and arrows at her. Welch and Nabity both have repeatedly criticized Stothert for, among other things, negotiating a contract with the firefighters union that they argued was too generous. Stothert said the contract was far better than what had been done in the past. The Omaha firefighters union hammered Stothert this past week, sending out a mailing in which they compared her with former President Bill Clinton, who lied about having a sexual relationship with an intern. In the mail piece, the firefighters accuse Stothert of being a “fibber,” saying she lied when she said she never raised taxes. In fact, Stothert has acknowledged that she twice voted to raise taxes while on the Millard school board, but she also noted that the tax rate was lowered during her time on the board. Suttle and Stothert had the busiest campaign offices on Saturday, with about a dozen people working in Stothert’s, calling voters and hauling in meals for volunteers. “I think it’s going to be close. We’re certainly working like it’s going to be neck-and-neck,” said Ryan Horn, Stothert’s campaign manager. However, as every candidate has pointed out, anything can happen in a five-way race, where it may take only 20 percent to 25 percent of the vote to survive. At the Ashford campaign office, three people were working the telephone lines about noon Saturday, including his campaign manager, Robert Irvine. Ashford is a bit of a wild card. His is a well-known name in Omaha, and he has been active in city and state politics for years. A big part of his campaign strategy is to turn out voters in his legislative district, where he has won several races, and in traditional Democratic areas such as north and South Omaha. Ashford won the endorsement Friday of longtime State Sen. Ernie Chambers of north Omaha. “It’s going to be hundreds of votes, not thousands of votes, that decide first, second and third (place),” Irvine said. At the Welch campaign office, four campaign workers were manning the telephones and munching on pizza. Welch has been out of city politics for four years. When he entered the mayoral race, he was considered the least-known among the five candidates. The question for Welch is whether there was enough time in the campaign to re-introduce himself to voters. “We’ve worked hard to rebuild Dan’s name recognition, emphasizing his experience in City Hall,” Peterson said. At the Nabity office, four people were dialing for voters. Nabity came into the race with some strong assets. As a former radio talk-show host, he is well known in Omaha. He has a dedicated group of supporters who back his fiscally conservative message and his promise to overhaul City Hall. But he also brought considerable baggage, in large part because of his high-profile role in the failed recall election against Suttle. Nabity is viewed by some voters as a divisive personality, with a penchant for tossing verbal bombs. Over the past several months, Nabity has tried to soften his image with mail pieces that portray him as a family man. “Our goal was to show voters the other side of Dave Nabity,” said Darold Bauer, Nabity’s campaign manager. “He is a person of great faith. He is very positive. He has solid business experience.”
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