2013 mayoral election
» Monday: Deadline for in-person early voting at election commission office, 114th and Davenport Streets.
» Tuesday: Polls open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Early voting ballots are due to election commission office by 8 p.m.
Five hours into a 14-hour workday that will include two luncheons, four speeches, seven event appearances, a handful of TV and radio interviews, and at least one photo-op with a crying child, Mayor Jim Suttle audibly sighs for the first time.
He's been shaking hands and talking about taxes and cutting ribbons with giant scissors since 7 a.m., or, depending on how you look at it, since sometime in late 2008. Now, headed from the first luncheon to the second, there's a split second where he lets out a breath, says “OK,” and pauses.
For a second, it seems like he's ready to say he's tired, ready for a break from photos and interviews and calling people to ask for campaign cash.
But just as suddenly as he stopped, he's back on. Suttle talks about how he thrives on the packed schedules, about the things he's accomplished in his first four years in the Mayor's Office, about his plans for a second term.
On this day, it's exactly one week until Election Day, and the mayor's faith that voters will re-elect him is unflappable. It doesn't matter that he finished second in the primary. He's an engineer, he'll tell you over and over again, and he knows how to make plans and make them work.
What happens if he loses on Tuesday? It's not in the plan. He won't go there.
“You don't train your team to come in second place,” Suttle said. “You train yourself and your team to come in first. And we will come in first. ... Voters are figuring this out, just as they figured it out in my race against Hal Daub. They figured it out in the recall. And they're going to figure out that for the city to continue and grow, they've got to have the engineer-businessperson in the mayor's chair.”
The engineer maps out his day with a printed schedule, an iPhone and an armful of red folders that contain his speeches, each marked with a sticky note marked with a time and the title of the event.
By 7 a.m., he's standing in front of a Rotary meeting at Happy Hollow Country Club. He launches a lengthy discussion of his successes in managing the city's finances and staving off the flooded Missouri River two summers ago. He talks about Omaha's growing presence on national lists ranking the best cities for families and businesses, about projects like a downtown hotel and a north Omaha industrial park that he says will boost economic development.
“The city,” Suttle assures the Rotary Club, “is saved.”
This far into the campaign, the speech is polished and professional. Suttle hits all of his talking points and takes on opponent Jean Stothert's proposals on taxes and spending. With no notes in hand, he provides numbers and statistics and plans for just about every question that comes his way, on topics ranging from the city planning department to a perceived shortage of hockey rinks in the city.
Suttle is confident he's made the right decisions for Omaha — so confident that he risks a joke on the much-discussed restaurant tax that helped prompt a recall effort against him. At one point, Suttle puts a dollar in a hat along with Rotary members who failed to attend a recent club fundraiser.
“You did serve a meal there, so I get 2.5 percent,” he jokes.
The quip gets some laughs. In the back of the room, Suttle's mayoral-turned-campaign spokeswoman, Aida Amoura, groans.
For all his careful planning, the mayor sometimes miscalculates his messages.
Take any of the issues that have been a sticking point for Suttle's opponents — the restaurant tax, the leased mayoral SUV with a 24 percent interest rate, the spat with businesses fighting higher sewer payments — and he has an explanation.
His plans, he says, are always in the best interest of the city. He can get frustrated when others don't seem to see it that way.
The SUV, which he calls the “Dead Horse,” was part of his plan to test out hybrid, electric and natural gas vehicles to determine which would stand up to changing weather conditions and save the city money for an eventual overhaul of the fleet.
He classified the return of debate over the sewer funding issue, which flared up over the past week, as “shenanigans” from Stothert's campaign.
“We solved the problem,” Suttle says from the front of the SUV. “Why are we back talking about something that's solved? It took three years to solve it. Three years to solve it. Jean was involved for three months.”
Joe Hodges, a retired police officer and one of three men who pilot the Dead Horse around Omaha, said he wishes more people could see what he does on his shifts with the mayor. Hodges said he took the job after seeing the mayor speak at community meetings in north Omaha. He saw Suttle as a guy who meant what he said when he talked about solving problems.
After 2½ years with the mayor, his opinion hasn't changed.
Suttle, Hodges said, works 16-hour days whether he's running for office or not, investing time in efforts that don't always make the news.
“He believes that his work speaks for itself, but it doesn't in politics,” Hodges said. “He's a businessman, not a politician. A lot of politicians brag about what they really didn't do. They find a way to take credit for everything. And he's done it, but he doesn't take credit for it.”
Now, Suttle will have to wait and see if enough voters see him the same way.
In the campaign office, Amoura mans a desk near the entrance, handling phone calls from reporters and directing a small team of staff members and volunteers. She took a leave of absence from her job at City Hall with just three weeks to go until the election, a move she said was aimed at helping to clear up “misinformation.”
Suttle said he's never focused his efforts on a particular opponent. His strategy would have been similar had any of the other candidates made it out of the primary.
“When we put together a plan, which we did last Labor Day, we made very little changes to it. Because it really didn't matter to us who the opponent was out of the primary. We knew what we were going to do and when we were going to do it. All we had to change were some key things about the ultimate message, in a commercial, depending on who the opponent was and what the voters were thinking about.”
He says voters are most interested in money. They want lower taxes, but his answer isn't as simple as just making cuts.
Instead, the engineer breaks down the pieces. You keep spending down by being more efficient, he says. You do that by modernizing your systems, getting more things online.
He pulls out his iPhone and pokes around until, right above Angry Birds, he spots the Omaha Mobile App. The program, which he introduced last year, lets people snap a picture and send in reports about abandoned vehicles or potholes.
“This is what I'm talking about,” he says.
All day, Suttle tells people that he's proud of the city, excited about where it's going. And he wants to stick around, not just because he has more to do. The speeches, the photos, the shovels to dig in the ground for TV cameras — it's part of the plan that he loves.
“I'm in my dream job,” he says.
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On the issues
Stothert: Over the last 3½ years under Jim Suttle, property taxes have gone up 15 percent. He adopted a new restaurant tax, a new occupation tax and increased the wheel tax. And he sought legislative approval to increase the city sales tax again. Every financial challenge has been met with a new tax or fee. Omahans are fed up. As mayor, I would work to reduce government spending to balance our budget and let hardworking taxpayers keep more of their hard-earned money. I would seek to roll back all of Jim Suttle's tax hikes.
Suttle: When I came into office, the city was on the verge of bankruptcy. We had no stability in revenues, no formal discipline in spending and had lost our AAA credit rating. Today we have fixed city finances, restored our cash reserve, made solvent our pension obligations, and we are delivering services the public supports. We must be careful that calls to reduce taxes do not cause us to neglect our obligations or cut essential services. I have reduced spending where we can create efficiencies and will continue to do so, saving tax dollars.
Stothert: In 2011, after the mayor failed for several years to negotiate a contract that was fair to the taxpayers, I helped lead a bipartisan council effort to strip negotiating authority from the mayor. This was a vote of no confidence in Mayor Suttle's ability to negotiate a solid contract. The City Council then negotiated the successful fire union contract with positive results. As mayor, given my background in labor issues and contracts for over 14 years, I would request the council re-establish negotiating authority with the city's chief executive.
Suttle: Negotiations are an administrative function and should be done through the mayor. My approach would be as it has always been: to sit at the bargaining table and negotiate from a position of trust, strength and fairness. We must calculate the financial impact of every proposal. When my administration negotiated the police contract, we were able to achieve the most significant givebacks from any city employees union in decades. Officers are now working longer, taking home less, contributing more to their own pensions and benefits, and pension spiking was eliminated.
Stothert: Government does not create jobs; businesses create jobs. Over the past 3½ years, Omaha has missed many opportunities to bring or keep good, quality jobs in the city. Many businesses have given up efforts to locate here, and several have moved from our city. We cannot accept a city government that won't listen to the concerns of business people. I believe the role of city government is to put in place the good, pro-business policies that make it easier for a business to expand or locate in Omaha, and this is what I will do as mayor.
Suttle: First, we must be a strong partner in the local economy by having city financials in order and by delivering city services efficiently. My administration works closely with business and labor leaders to promote economic development and recruit new and better jobs to Omaha. About 40 percent of investment leads come through the Mayor's Office, and we work with the Greater Omaha Chamber. Our unemployment rate is half the national average and is lower than any of America's top 50 cities. I will continue to target job creation for parts of our city with higher unemployment, including South and north Omaha.
Stothert: We must get to the root of crime to start addressing the issue head on. Keeping kids in school and off the streets will help keep them away from a life of crime. We must develop a true community policing approach that takes cops out of their cars and gets them into the community, where they can build relationships and develop trust. When a crime is prosecuted, we must make sure the sentence is stiff enough to deter any further criminal activity. Finally, we must make sure we have enough active police officers to address crime across the city.
Suttle: We are making great progress in targeting gang and gun violence in our city, and we cannot afford to take a step backward at this time. We recently increased the gang unit street presence from 14 to 21 officers. We must also reduce access to illegal guns. Additional efforts include truancy intervention, after-school programs and summer youth jobs as preventive measures and stepped-up enforcement to curtail criminal activity, address nuisance tenants and problem landlords. We need to turn around state programs that put violent offenders back on our streets on furloughs and “good time” release. And we need common-sense gun measures that target dangerous weapons in the hands of dangerous people.