Longtime Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray was trailing political newcomer Juanita Johnson on Tuesday night in the race to represent northeast Omaha.
In two other east Omaha races, voters were poised to return incumbents to office, with Pete Festersen leading Sarah Johnson to represent the Dundee, Benson and Florence areas, and Vinny Palermo leading Becky Barrientos-Patlan in South Omaha.
The City Council is officially nonpartisan.
While Juanita Johnson has never held elected office, she's been active in northeast Omaha, where she serves as chair of the 24th Street Corridor Alliance and is president of the Long School Neighborhood Association. She is an associate project engineer at Union Pacific.
Gray, a retired television news host, producer and photojournalist, was first elected to the District 2 seat in 2009 and is seeking his fourth term.
Both are Democrats.
Johnson said she believes COVID-19 was a factor in voters wanting a change.
“COVID-19 exposed a lot of inequities, and the people said, ‘Hey, when we're back up and running and fully operational, we want to have a seat at the table,’ and I voiced that in my platform.”
Residents of North Omaha feel that they haven’t been included in the decision-making process from the beginning, she said.
“Far too often, North Omaha is involved only when the process is in the implementation stage,” she said.
Late Tuesday evening, Gray said he knew this election would be his toughest.
"It's been a good race. It's been a good campaign," he said. "We did all the things we wanted to do. We got our message out."
Gray said he's proud of the work he's accomplished and hoped the final election results would allow him to continue. North Omaha has seen more investment during his term than prior to his being elected, he said, pointing to the Ames Corridor and 56th Street plaza among others. He also cited LGBT protections as a singular accomplishment.
Incumbent Councilman Pete Festersen said he was grateful for the vote of confidence in his challenge by Sarah Johnson.
"Voters wanted proven leadership to help lead us through these challenging times, and they responded to our many accomplishments," he said. "I'm optimistic about our future and look forward to engaging a new City Council. It's back to work tomorrow."
Key priorities, he said, are continued economic development in neighborhood business districts and citywide issues like police-community relations, affordable housing, mental health and public transit.
Festersen, a Democrat, is a vice president at CHI Health. Johnson, a former bicycle shop owner who has worked to improve transit, is an independent.
In South Omaha, Councilman Vinny Palermo was headed to a second term representing District 4. He is owner and operator of Vinny’s Tree Service.
Palermo could not be reached for comment.
He campaigned on his record of bringing improved streets to South Omaha and strong constituent service. Palermo is a Democrat. Becky Barrientos-Patlan, a Republican, is the founder and president of Burlington Road Neighborhood Association.