In southwest Omaha, it's a race between two newcomers to city government, one with experience in politics and one just getting started.
With City Councilwoman Jean Stothert leaving the council's District 5 seat open to run for mayor, two challengers are looking to move in: Rich Pahls, a former state senator and Millard school administrator, and Jeff Moore, a longtime insurance agent making his first run at an elected office.
Both candidates are registered Republicans who share some similar interests in lowering taxes and making the city more appealing to business.
But only Pahls, who received 56 percent of the votes in last month's primary to Moore's 43 percent, has the backing of the local party.
Moore, meanwhile, acknowledges that he faces an uphill battle but says he's more comfortable running a campaign with an independent streak — and says he doesn't always toe the party line on social issues.
Pahls, 69, is a familiar name for voters and parents in the southwestern part of the city.
A native of Kansas, he moved to Omaha in 1972 and has lived in the Millard area since the mid-'70s. He spent decades as a school administrator in the Millard Public Schools, retiring in 2004 as principal of Aldrich Elementary School. That year, in a tight race that required a recount, he was elected to represent the Legislature's 31st District.
During his two terms in Lincoln, Pahls took a conservative approach to fiscal issues and spent time as the head of the Legislature's Banking, Commerce and Insurance Committee. He said he wants to see Omaha's city government use some of the same tactics that the state has adopted to fix budget problems.
“I found at the state level when we were in dire need, we didn't raise taxes,” he said.
Pahls said he is not yet sure of where any cuts at the city could be made.
Moore, 49, said he is also no fan of using taxes to plug budget holes. But he said the city should take a close look at how it is using the funds from its various occupation taxes before making any quick decisions to avoid cutting jobs or closing libraries or pools.
In nearly 24 years as an agent with State Farm, Moore said he has developed a business-minded approach to handling budgets that he wants to bring to the city.
He suggests encouraging individual departments to try to cut down on duplicative efforts or finding ways to save money by using technology. He also wants to get away from the idea that spending a full budget is necessary to justify getting the same amount of money the following year.
“The city is a business, and the citizens of Omaha are clients,” Moore said. “And we have to make sure that we serve them in the best possible way.”
Moore grew up in Omaha and Ralston and has lived in the Millard area for the past 13 years.
He said watching a long list of issues pile up for the City Council — police and fire pension fund shortfalls, an expensive sewer project, additional taxes — made him start thinking that he'd like to try his hand at sorting them out.
Moore paints himself as a bit of a political outsider. He said he attended a Republican Party meeting early in his campaign but parted ways with the group after finding that it had already decided to back Pahls. He figures that he may have ended up butting heads with the party on some issues, including any efforts to repeal the city's employment ordinance that protects gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees.
Though Moore said he's “old school on faith,” he's a supporter of the ordinance.
“I'm real flexible on things,” he said. “I'm not going to do it for a party, not going to make decisions based on what other people tell me to do. I'm going to do it from my character and what is the best decision for Omaha.”
Pahls said changing the ordinance isn't a priority. If it came up, he said, he'd support sending it to a popular vote.
Moore and Pahls said they would like to see the mayor take back negotiating power on labor contracts, and both believe that more changes need to be made. They agree that most residents in their district are more concerned about issues of taxes and development, rather than crime.
Pahls said he would like to see continued use of tax-increment financing to help spur development, including in older parts of the Millard area. He is also interested in bringing back the Neighborhood Center, an organization that provided support to neighborhood associations.
He said he has made a full recovery from an autoimmune disorder that landed him in the hospital — and in a coma — three years ago.
Now, he is touting his experience as a reason to get back in the game.
“Working in the Legislature, I can see how a relationship could be developed even better than it is right now with the city and the Legislature,” he said. “And I think I've had some of those relationships already developed.”
Headed into the May 14 general election, Pahls is winning the fundraising race.
As of mid-March, the end of the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission's most recent campaign finance reporting period, Pahls' campaign had about $31,160 in the bank, while Moore had $1,430. A significant chunk of Pahls' cash, however — nearly $14,000 — was from the candidate's loans to himself.
Contact the writer:
Occupation: Insurance agent
Public offices held: None
Education: Bachelor's degree in journalism, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Family: Married, one child
Occupation: Retired school administrator
Public offices held: State senator, 2005-2013
Education: Bachelor's and master's degrees in education, Fort Hays State University; doctorate in education, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Family: Single, two children
Q&A with the candidates
The World-Herald surveyed candidates for the Omaha City Council about their views on several issues facing their council districts. For other coverage of this and other City Council races, click here.
What is the single biggest challenge facing District 5?
Moore: The single biggest challenge for District 5 is taxes. As a city councilman, I will have to help manage the expenses of the city to keep taxes down without losing or diminishing our services. We must look at how the city works for our citizens. As citizens, we are the customers of the great city of Omaha. If the citizens are not satisfied, who do they turn to? I will look at the way the city does business with a fresh set of eyes and will use my business background to try to make the city more efficient.
Pahls: As I knock on doors and talk to people about the issues facing Omaha, what I hear repeatedly is concern about taxes and city spending. These seem to be concerns shared by Omahans regardless of where they live in the city. During my eight years in the Legislature, I voted consistently to balance the state budget without increasing taxes, even in a difficult economy when tax revenues dropped significantly below projections.
At City Hall, we must set spending priorities, ensure efficient delivery of city services and work to roll back the tax increases from recent years.
What in District 5 holds the biggest potential to drive economic growth and development?
Moore: The biggest potential to drive economic growth and development in District 5 is what I believe always drives the economy: Small business. As neighborhoods and the population have continued to move west, that growth has provided ample opportunity for small businesses to start and to thrive. As these small businesses start and grow, they provide employment opportunities and encourage further developments and investments by other companies.
Pahls: The greatest potential to grow southwest Omaha can be found in our people. If we can reform the City Planning Department to cut red tape and reduce burdensome regulations, job creators will have more reason to invest in and strengthen our community. I'm particularly interested in the potential to redevelop the Old Millard area as well as downtown Elkhorn. Those areas can serve as catalysts for further private-sector investment and job creation.
What are three of your policy goals for your term? Please be specific.
Moore: I want to help manage the expenses of the city so that we can keep taxes down. I want to help reduce crime throughout Omaha with more community education and more neighborhood watch programs and by developing a better relationship between residents and Omaha police. I want to make sure that Omaha is investing enough money in itself so that we can become more of a destination.
Pahls: First, we must continue to make progress on public employee pension reform in a way that fairly compensates police and firefighters for their vital service while protecting taxpayers. Second, public safety is an issue across the city and will require additional resources and possibly more uniformed officers in the next four years. Third, I'm committed to contributing to a more responsive city government that listens to and works with residents from across the city.