Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle has a South Omaha problem.
The embattled Democratic mayor who is fighting for his re-election bid has lost ground in the Democratic bastion that is South Omaha, a traditional battleground district that may decide Suttle's fate in the May 14 election.
Suttle won the district — home to a robust Latino population — in his first mayoral race in 2009. But since then he has struggled in the area. In fact, about half the Democrats who voted in the April primary voted for either a Republican or an independent, according to a World-Herald review of vote tallies.
A neighborhood leader and others attributed Suttle's South Omaha woes to a feeling that he hasn't spent enough time in the district and that he has appeared to focus more of his energy on promoting development in other high-profile areas, including north Omaha.
Others say Suttle sometimes appears not to listen to people and to their concerns in South Omaha.
Suttle says he is looking for answers as to what's going on in South Omaha.
But some of those who say Suttle has ground to make up in South Omaha also say winning the area isn't a given for his opponent, Republican Jean Stothert. She carries her own baggage there, including a hard-line stance on illegal immigration that has angered some Latinos.
“I think at the end of the day, especially if Stothert's views on immigration are raised, he'll squeak by,” said Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, a Suttle supporter and a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
South Omaha is pivotal in any Omaha mayoral race, having played kingmaker in past elections. It is a Democratic stronghold, but it has a strong independent streak.
In every mayoral election, the area receives its share of candidate visits.
In fact, to see how important South Omaha is in next month's election, consider recent actions by Suttle and Stothert. Both campaigns announced this week that they would open campaign offices in the district.
The area has one of the city's highest concentrations of Democrats. About 11,600 voters are registered as Democrats but only 6,100 as Republicans in District 4, which stretches roughly from Bancroft Street south and from 72nd Street to the Missouri River.
The district is home to a large number of Latinos, including new and old immigrants. It also has a sizable working-class population. More recently, it has been the site of new business developments, including a growing art scene along Vinton Street.
“It's a rapidly changing district,” said Louie Marcuzzo, owner of Louie M's Burger Lust. “The dynamics of South Omaha has changed so fast over the last 20 years, I don't think anyone knows who is the heart and soul of South Omaha anymore.”
One thing is for sure: the district plays a significant role in mayoral elections.
In 1997, it proved vital to Republican Hal Daub's win over Democrat Brenda Council. Daub won South Omaha that year by 944 votes, pursuing moderate anti-abortion Democrats. In the end, he defeated Council by 878 votes.
In 2009, Suttle made South Omaha a key part of his campaign strategy, holding campaign rallies and building support with community leaders.
It paid off. He won the area by 2,000 votes.
However, two years after that election, South Omaha supported the effort to oust Suttle from office in a failed 2011 recall effort.
And South Omaha backed Stothert in the April primary even though Suttle was the only Democrat on the ticket and even though more Democrats showed up at the polls. (Forty-nine percent of voters in the May primary were registered Democrats, compared with 37 percent Republicans.)
Stothert won 12 of the 18 precincts in District 4, while Suttle won five.
Suttle acknowledges he has some work to do in South Omaha, but he predicted he would win the district, noting he was in a similar position in the 2009 mayoral election. In that election, Suttle ultimately won South Omaha, despite his Republican opponents' garnering more votes in the primary. “It's the same challenge (as 2009). It's deja vu,” Suttle said.
Suttle says he believes one issue that might be hurting him in South Omaha was his tax-increase proposals. Suttle has argued he was forced to raise taxes because of a large-scale financial shortfall he encountered when he took office.
“We're trying to bore in, find out what has upset voters enough that they went to the other side. Is it because I raised taxes?” asked Suttle.
Suttle may be right.
Mike Battershell, president of the South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance, said he believes that some people in the community feel as if the mayor hasn't listened to their concerns. Battershell, who is not taking sides in the mayoral race, also said there is a feeling among some that Suttle hasn't spent enough time in South Omaha, building relationships.
“South Omaha requires a lot of work on the ground,” Battershell said. “It requires a lot of time spent, developing relationships. And, if anything, maybe people feel like that hasn't happened in the last four years.”
One thorn in Suttle's side in South Omaha is Ben Salazar, a longtime community leader.
Salazar, who is the publisher of the Nuestro Mundo newspaper, is a fierce critic of Suttle. He has been sending out blast emails, urging people in South Omaha to oppose Suttle and Stothert.
Instead, Salazar is urging people to write-in Tristan Bonn's name. Bonn is Omaha's former public safety auditor. She has not mounted a write-in campaign but, Salazar said, she has agreed to allow him to push her as an alternative.
Salazar says he can't support Stothert because of the tough stance she took on illegal immigration during her failed 2006 bid for the Nebraska Legislature. During that run, Stothert opposed in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants, and she opposed a path to amnesty for those in the country illegally. She also supported making English the state's official language.
But he also can't support Suttle, calling the mayor “arrogant” and saying he spends more time on north Omaha's problems than South Omaha's. He also is upset that Suttle fired a Latino, Roger Garcia, as his South Omaha liaison in 2011 and hired Elisha Novak as Garcia's replacement.
“He hired an Anglo woman as his Hispanic liaison. That might seem like a little thing ... but when they do that, that's a slap in the face,” Salazar said.
At the time, Suttle's administration declined to comment on Garcia's dismissal, calling it a personnel matter. But they have defended Novak as the perfect person for the job, noting she is bilingual and has worked extensively in the community for years.
Benjamin-Alvarado also defended the hiring of Novak, saying she has a “good sense” of what is happening in the community. “I find her very effective,” Benjamin-Alvarado said.
“Would it be a slap to the face of the community if he hired someone with less qualifications, solely because they were Latino?” he asked.
Benjamin-Alvarado also took exception to Salazar's contention that Suttle spends too much time addressing problems in north Omaha.
“Why do we have to continue comparing north to south?” asked Benjamin-Alvardo. “I understand that both are minority communities. But there is a distinct difference. There is an economic and social vibrance that exists in South Omaha that, perhaps, doesn't exist in north Omaha.
“Any mayoral candidate worth their salt would try to address the issues in north Omaha.”
World-Herald staff writer Paul Goodsell contributed to this report.
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