'Twas a good night to be a City Council incumbent - Omaha.com
Published Wednesday, May 15, 2013 at 12:00 am / Updated at 9:23 am
'Twas a good night to be a City Council incumbent

The City Council of the past four years appears to be quite the popular group.

Every incumbent who made it past the primary won re-election Tuesday, most of them by wide margins.

The five returning council members will be joined by two newcomers: former State Sen. Rich Pahls and Aimee Melton, an attorney.

Pahls will replace Jean Stothert, who left her seat in District 5 to run for mayor. Melton will take the place of Tom Mulligan, a council appointee who didn’t make it out of the primary in District 7.

The two new members don’t dramatically alter the makeup of the council. It will retain its 4-3 Democratic lean. Melton and Pahls are Republicans.

Garry Gernandt, who easily won re-election in South Omaha’s District 4, said the public’s criticism of Mayor Jim Suttle did not trickle down to the council.

“Obviously, (voters) saw that the council was doing what they wanted, what the general public wanted,” Gernandt said. “Apparently, they were not happy with the way the mayor was doing things and wanted a change.”

The council butted heads with Suttle throughout his term. It called him out for raises he quietly gave to department heads and fought against his proposed tax increases.

Most visibly, it voted down a proposed contract with the city’s fire union, then revoked the mayor’s ability to negotiate contracts.

Since then, the council’s labor negotiations committee has agreed to a few contracts.

Some council members have said they want to return the power of negotiating contracts to the Mayor’s Office.

The council has been popular since at least last October, when a World-Herald poll showed the council had a 55 percent approval rating. Only 32 percent said they disapproved of the council.

Franklin Thompson, who coasted to re-election in District 6, said Mayor-elect Jean Stothert would be “a breath of fresh air.”

Some challengers had criticized the council for voting to raise tobacco taxes and provide employment protection to gay and transgendered workers, issues the mayor also supported.

Those complaints didn’t seem to translate into votes. The closest race of the night, in north Omaha’s District 2, was still separated by some 15 points.

In her victory speech, Stothert congratulated the new council members. She called the new council “a great mix of experience and new perspective.”

She said she looks forward to working with it over the next four years.

“The public expects us to work together to improve our city, and we will,” she said.

DISTRICT 1 WINNER: Pete Festersen

Incumbent Pete Festersen sailed to victory in the 1st District, which includes Dundee, Benson, Florence and the Crossroads area.

Festersen outspent political newcomer Ed Truemper, a critical care pediatrician.

Festersen, a Democrat, previously worked for then-Mayor Mike Fahey and for the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. He now owns his own company, Strategic Business Development LLC.

He spent his first term focusing on neighborhood development in his district. He said he will do more of the same in the next four years. Festersen's other priorities include lowering crime rates and voting against tax increases.

“I think when you work hard, voters reward you, and I think that's what happened tonight,” Festersen said.

Truemper failed to gain traction with donors before the primary. He raised more during the general election but didn't make up the difference.

DISTRICT 2 WINNER: Ben Gray

Voters of District 2 picked incumbent Ben Gray's consensus-building over the more forceful style of his opponent, Tariq Al-Amin.

Gray has focused in the past on job creation and training in the district, which includes most of north Omaha.

He said he'll continue that push as part of an overall strategy of preventing and reducing crime in the city.

He'd like to see the City Council help bring manufacturing businesses to his district.

In his private life, Gray serves as a consultant to community groups. He is actively involved in the city's gang and violence prevention efforts.

He is married to Freddie Gray, the former chairwoman of the Omaha Public Schools board.

Al-Amin agreed with Gray that the district needs to see improvement. But the race became contentious after the retired police officer said Gray wasn't doing enough.

DISTRICT 3 WINNER: Chris Jerram

Lawyer Chris Jerram was re-elected to a second term on the City Council in the biggest blowout of the night.

The former Douglas County Democratic Party chairman cruised to victory with support from high-profile donors Dick Holland and Michael Yanney.

In his next term, Jerram said he hopes to continue to work on economic redevelopment in his midtown district. A construction plan along 16th Street and some work along Farnam Street west of Midtown Crossing should build upon the work that has already started in the area, he said.

Jerram said he looks forward to getting a chance to focus on that kind of work. In his first term, the council wrestled with financial issues that led to the creation of new taxes.

His opponent was JR Jasso, who works in Creighton University's marketing department. Jasso, in his first run for elected office, didn't raise the $5,000 that would have required him to file with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission.

DISTRICT 4 WINNER: Garry Gernandt

Longtime City Councilman Garry Gernandt triumphed over a fellow retired police officer who was seeking his first elected position. Gernandt will return for his fourth term.

“No matter who's in the head chair, the legislative branch has to get along with the administrative branch,” Gernandt said. “My goal is to maintain civility and continue our city on a positive path.”

Gernandt, a Democrat, touted his work in establishing a phone line to assist residents with city services. He also pushed for an anti-grafitti ordinance as part of his strategy to reduce crime by taking care of small problems before they become big problems.

The vote that Gernandt is probably best known for came about a year ago, when he changed his mind at the last minute and voted for a controversial anti-discrimination ordinance with protections for gay and transgender people in the workplace.

His opponent, independent Virgil Patlan, focused on the anti-discrimination vote as well as calling for reducing taxes.

DISTRICT 5 WINNER: Rich Pahls

Former State Sen. Rich Pahls will represent the southwest Omaha district vacated by Jean Stothert in her mayoral bid.

During his two terms in Lincoln, the former Millard school administrator took a conservative approach to finances. He said he wants to see Omaha's city government use some of the tactics that the state has used to address its budget, though he said he wasn't sure where the city could make cuts.

Pahls, 69, first ran for the Nebraska Legislature in 2004, shortly after he retired from working in the Millard Public Schools.

His City Council campaign won the fundraising battle. He personally loaned some $14,000 to his election effort.

“It's going to be a new adventure. Hopefully, some of the things I learned down in the Legislature I'll be able to apply there in the City Hall,” he said.

His opponent, insurance agent Jeff Moore, was in his first race for political office.

DISTRICT 6 WINNER: Franklin Thompson

One of Omaha's longest-serving council members will get a chance to extend his legacy.

Franklin Thompson won his fourth term, defeating former Elkhorn Mayor Phil Klein.

Thompson, a University of Nebraska at Omaha professor, said his longevity gives him a responsibility not only to his district, but also to the city overall.

He has attended meetings on police-community relations in north Omaha and at Rotary Club meetings in Field Club, and he has talked about Crossroads redevelopment plans. Thompson said he enjoyed the opportunity to walk the district during the campaign. “I did a lot of door-knocking and got to know a lot of new voters I hadn't met before,” he said.

He said he looks forward to getting the city's financial house in order. “We can't go into it saying there will be no new tax raises at all, but I think we can do a better job of managing. I look forward to doing that.”

DISTRICT 7 WINNER: Aimee Melton

Aimee Melton, a former county prosecutor and a political newcomer, will be one of the new faces on the City Council.

Now a managing partner of Reagan, Melton & Delaney LLP, Melton ran on a platform of cutting spending and being tough on crime. She said she hopes to draw on her background to make smarter investments in public safety, in particular to fight drugs and gangs, which she said are behind most crimes.

She will retain her title at her law firm, but she has hired another attorney to handle most of her caseload.

Tim Lonergan, her opponent, had previously run for the District 7 seat in 2001 and 2009. He lost by a wider margin Tuesday than in either of those races.

Melton said she's excited to renegotiate the fire contract, the current version of which she said gave too much away.

The state labor court “said staffing should be a management decision,” she said. “We won that issue, but then we contracted that away. To me, that's an issue of common sense.”

Contact the writer: Matt Wynn

matt.wynn@owh.com    |   402-444-3144    |  

Matt does document- and data-driven stories and builds things for the Web that leverage both.

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