They're both lifelong South Omahans, both retired Omaha police officers, both men who talk about wanting to keep some of the city's oldest neighborhoods safe and its business districts booming.
But City Councilman Garry Gernandt, seeking a fourth term representing Council District 4, and challenger Virgil Patlan, looking to win political office for the first time, aren't working out of the same campaign playbook.
Gernandt, a Democrat, emerged from April's primary election with a sizable lead over Patlan, an independent. Gernandt earned 63 percent of the vote to Patlan's 29 percent in a three-way race.
But the veteran City Council member said he's not resting easy. He has spent the past several weeks dropping in on residents and business owners, talking to them about his efforts at City Hall since 2001. Among the efforts he highlights: helping to encourage development and street improvements along the busy 24th Street business district; getting more funding and rules to fight and clean up graffiti; and landing crime prevention grants. He says people want a representative who can help ensure that their streets are plowed and potholes filled.
“Voters want to see accomplishments that they can get their arms around,” Gernandt said. “I believe I've provided that in the last 12 years.”
Patlan has often focused on social issues and has pledged to do away with taxes and fees he says are hurting businesses.
He said many South Omaha voters are interested in his stances on topics such as gay rights, abortion and gun control, even though the council has little legislative control over some of those issues.
Going door-to-door, he said he and his campaign team are talking about his opposition to the city's ordinance protecting gay, lesbian and transgender employees — and the fact that Gernandt cast the swing vote that ensured the ordinance's passage.
“As that gets out, more voters are going to wake up on that issue,” Patlan said, “especially in the heavy Catholic and Christian areas.”
Gernandt said he saw his vote as one against discrimination, while Patlan said he disagrees with special protections for any group. It's a bit of a role reversal from a decade ago, when Gernandt opposed a city plan for affirmative action until Patlan, part of the Latino Peace Officers Association, urged him to change his mind.
The candidates do, however, share a similar stance on gun control.
Said Patlan: “I'm in favor of the Second Amendment.”
And Gernandt: “It's very simple. Don't assault my rifle.”
But neither candidate sees gun rights as a top issue for the council. For Patlan, the first order of business would be pushing for the removal of new licensing requirements for contractors operating in the city. Contractors must pay a fee and pass a test, which are steps that Patlan said don't encourage development.
“If I'm elected, I'm going to take that first week to get my feet wet,” Patlan said. “Then I'm going to start first with that contractor's ordinance — goodbye, goodbye. Introduce it to say goodbye. And the second thing would be the tobacco tax.”
Patlan said it's unfair to ask Omahans to come up with more money for a University of Nebraska Medical Center cancer treatment and research center with the new tax. Instead, he said, legislators should find state funds to cover the city's share.
Third on Patlan's to-do list is putting a limit on the city's restaurant tax. He said that all money generated from the tax should be dropped into the city's police and fire pension fund and that the tax should disappear after 10 years.
Gernandt, who voted for the budget that included the restaurant tax and supported the tobacco tax, also stands behind the rules for contractors. He said the city has benefited from more contractors getting training and meeting more rigorous standards.
“We need to make sure we don't have what we had when we had those big storms and the fly-by-night contractors came in to rip people off,” he said.
Gernandt said the city's Planning Department is making strides in smoothing out the process for contractors, including putting more forms online.
He aims to speed other services by launching a 3-1-1 call system for the city, an effort he's been working on since he took office. It would allow callers to dial one number for several departments and for their questions to be handled more quickly — and at all times of the day.
“We're not doing the right thing by our citizens by boxing them in to (calling from) 8 to 4,” Gernandt said. “They should be able to notify someone of a nonemergency situation or request, 24/7.”
The city is currently compiling information about how such a system would operate. Gernandt said he's not sure where the city will find funding. A study commissioned by the city found that the 3-1-1 startup could cost about $1.2 million over three years.
Patlan said he wants to improve city services but also sees himself as a needed advocate for Latinos and others in South Omaha.
He said the district, which is among the most diverse in the city, has unique needs that deserve more attention from city leaders. And he believes some recent decisions, such as passage of the employment ordinance and the tobacco tax, don't represent the views of a majority of people in the area.
“We all have to work together and live together in South Omaha,” Patlan said. “Because in the end, after the election, we have to work together and make sure the community's being taken care of.”
Contact the writer:
Occupation: City Council member; retired Omaha police officer
Public offices held: City Council, 2001-present
Education: bachelor's degree in criminal justice and political science, University of Nebraska at Omaha
Occupation: retired Omaha police officer
Public offices held: none
Education: attended South High School, later received GED
Family: married, four children
Faith: nondenominational Christian
Q&A with the candidates
The World-Herald surveyed Omaha City Council candidates 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 4?
Gernandt: Crime being fluid on all levels is a continuing challenge in District 4. I have and will continue to support effective criminal justice practices, and we need to prioritize giving our police the tools they need to be proactive in the fight to keep our community safe.
Patlan: I will work to reduce the influence of gangs and drugs as I have in the past as a police officer on the gang unit and in my community. I will work tirelessly to find grant money for local agencies so they have the funding needed to offer crime prevention programs.
What in District 4 holds the biggest potential to drive economic growth and development?
Gernandt: There has and always will be a strong work ethic in South Omaha. So with good-paying, long-term jobs in both labor and business, the economic/development engine will soar.
Patlan: Open the westbound exit on Interstate 80 onto 24th Street. This would increase the traffic to the South Omaha business district to tourists and hungry travelers. This in turn would increase tax revenue, job opportunity, foster growth and development. I want to ensure the proper use of tax increment financing.
What are three of your policy goals for your term? Please be specific.
Gernandt: 1) Establishing a 311 system for non-emergency city services. One central point of contact, not the current 107 ten-digit numbers, producing better accountability and follow-up on citizen requests. 2) Reducing crime by making sure we take care of small stuff before it has a chance to become big stuff. Example: the city's graffiti abatement program. Engaging citizens and law enforcement in proven crime prevention programs. 3) Making sure government doesn't stifle job creation with overregulation, unnecessary fees and not taking advantage of new technology. Promoting, recruiting and encouraging businesses to take root in South Omaha.
Patlan: I want to eliminate the contractor's fee and tobacco tax. I would work with the Legislature to create a tax-free weekend in Nebraska so that families spend their hard-earned money in Nebraska. I want to ensure the proper use of the restaurant tax and eliminate it after 10 years. This was to be applied toward the police and fire pension. Currently only a portion of it is going toward the intended reasons. We want to perform a study of the pension system and work with both the fire and police unions to reduce the unfunded liability.