Betty Nelson is the sort of sweet, 75-year-old grandma who bakes on Sundays and votes for the mayors she trusts on election day.
She voted for Republican Hal Daub when he was up for re-election. She voted for Democrat Mike Fahey when he was up for re-election.
She walked into a voting booth near Omaha Burke High School on Tuesday morning, and she did not vote for Jim Suttle.
Then she stood on the sidewalk outside the polling place with her husband, Jim, and agreed to answer my one-word question. Why?
That SUV, she said, the one that Suttle's aides leased for him during his first week in office — the one that originally cost $15,717 a year, with an eye-popping 24 percent interest rate.
Those secret raises, she said, the ones that Suttle gave several top city officials and originally failed to mention to the City Council or the public.
That $1 million, the amount of money that the city overpaid to Omaha police officers and then didn't try to get back. A million dollars is still a lot of money, she says.
“I just don't trust him,” Betty says as she stands on the sidewalk in the midmorning sun.
You might as well chisel those words onto Jim Suttle's political tombstone.
A fascinating paradox emerged as I talked to voters Tuesday, on the day they ousted Suttle and selected Republican Jean Stothert as Omaha's first woman mayor.
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As a city, Omaha seems to be doing pretty well, people told me after exiting their voting booths.
It's doing well when compared to other cities of similar size. And it's also doing well when compared to Omaha in 2009, when Jim Suttle took office, voters told me.
This anecdotal view seems backed up by a World-Herald poll commissioned in September.
That's a 12 percentage point jump from the answers that Omahans gave to the exact same poll question in October 2010, as Suttle finished his first year in office — a jump that suggests residents think our city is on an upward trajectory.
And yet, many of the Omahans high on Omaha do not seem willing to give Omaha's sitting mayor much credit for that upward swing.
Suttle's approval rating in that same September poll: 40 percent. That looks positively anemic when compared to Fahey's approval rating — 72 percent — in the months before he was re-elected, and pales even in comparison to Daub's rating of 56 percent mere months before he lost his re-election bid to Fahey.
Democrats I spoke to Tuesday explained the gap between the perception of Omaha and the perception of Suttle as a matter of public relations.
Suttle kept the unemployment rate far below the national average, while Omaha, according to the Brookings Institution, weathered the recession better than any other of the nation's 100 largest metro areas.
He turned what was once a yawning city budget shortfall of $11 million in 2010 into a budget surplus by the end of that year, mostly by championing a restaurant tax that brought in far more money than expected. He got roads built, neighborhoods redeveloped and snow plowed. He did the heavy lifting.
He did a bad job of explaining his success.
“He's apparently not effective at taking credit for the good things happening in the city,” said Mike Gooch, an Omaha attorney, who added that he appreciates leaders who don't take credit for things they don't exert complete control over.
Republicans explained that same gap with a different rationale: taxes. As in, Suttle created a restaurant tax and raised property taxes twice in order to repair the city budget, and they saw those moves as unnecessary.
Which brings us to Betty Nelson, and the flicker of bipartisan agreement she represents.
Some people voted for Jim Suttle on Tuesday, and more people didn't, but the cold truth is that neither group seemed to like him all that much.
It brings us back to this idea: I wonder if Jim Suttle would still be mayor if he had done all the big things the same — taxes, spending, the union fights — but carried himself a little differently as he completed these admittedly gargantuan tasks.
A little less autocratic. A little less prone to embarrassing blunders like that pricey leased SUV, those secret raises, those buses that took homeless Omahans to the polls during the recall election and many, many other self-inflicted wounds.
A little more willing to surround himself with experienced aides — as Betty Nelson herself asked me Tuesday, “Who has he got advising him?”
A little more aware that, at the end of the day, you need the Betty Nelsons of this city. A little more aware that the Betty Nelsons of this city will be grading you on style as well as substance.
Tuesday morning, Betty entered a voting booth just like she has in every mayoral election since she moved here in 1959.
For the first time, when she marked her ballot for Omaha's next mayor, she chose a woman.
Starting today, she will be watching you like a hawk, Mayor-elect Jean Stothert.
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