As a 20-something in St. Louis, fresh out of nursing school, Jean Stothert wanted to be where the action was.
While some of her peers eyed jobs at county hospitals, Stothert was drawn to St. Louis University, in the center of the city, where at times she helped treat victims of the Mafia, casualties of industrial accidents and, in one case, the city’s first AIDS patient, who had yet to be diagnosed.
Stothert, a former critical care nurse, said she wanted to work where she could make the most difference.
“I would offer to work double shifts all the time just because I didn’t want to miss something,” Stothert, 67, said in an interview this month.
Through two terms in the mayor’s office, the Republican has brought a similar level of tenacity to City Hall.
Facing crumbling streets and frustration from drivers, Stothert took the issue to the community and sold the public on a voter-approved $200 million streets bond issue.
When the City of Omaha’s credit worthiness goes under the microscope each fall, Stothert herself delivers the city’s presentation to bond credit raters.
During negotiations over police, fire and civilian union contracts, Stothert plays an active role at the bargaining table.
While her challenger in the May 11 general election, commercial real estate broker RJ Neary, says it’s time for a shakeup at City Hall, Stothert says voters clearly value her experience and leadership.
“I love my job,” Stothert said. “It excites me and invigorates me. I love going to work every day, and I want to continue all the great partnerships with so many people and business owners and organizations that make this city so successful and so dynamic.”
Stothert said she wants to build upon her work of bettering public safety, carefully managing the city budget and spurring economic development in every corner of the city. She also said she wants to foster a more welcoming, more inclusive city.
During her time in elected office, Stothert has earned a reputation as a hard-charging, hard-nosed leader who at times has rubbed business and community leaders the wrong way.
When she was running for her second term in 2017, Mike Yanney, a prominent Omaha businessman and philanthropist, supported Stothert’s opponent and said Omaha needed a leader who could collaborate to bring game-changing ventures to the city.
Former Douglas County Sheriff Tim Dunning said at the time that he had blocked Stothert’s number, saying she had a “my way or the highway” approach.
Four years later, Stothert seems to have swayed some of her critics.
Campaign finance records show Yanney has given $10,000 to her reelection campaign (Yanney did not return messages seeking comment). And Dunning, who eventually said he regretted trading barbs with Stothert, recently stood with other law enforcement officials in endorsing her.
Omaha has lost some marquee employers during her tenure. ConAgra moved to Chicago. Charles Schwab bought TD Ameritrade last year and said its headquarters eventually will be in Texas, though the effect on jobs in Omaha is still unclear.
Conversely, Stothert can tout several massive, city-defining projects on the horizon that are the result of public-private partnerships: The $300 million overhaul of Omaha’s downtown and riverfront parks and a related $101 million science museum; mixed use developments such as the Heartwood Preserve, the Crossroads redevelopment and Avenue One; and a partnership with the University of Nebraska Medical Center that could one day transform Omaha’s urban core.
“There’s big, $100-million-dollar-plus projects going in all over Omaha,” she said.
Michael Perkins, who owns a construction company based in North Omaha, said he recently told Stothert he plans to vote for a Republican for the first time in his life.
Perkins, 64, praised the Reach program, a collaboration between the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and the city that provides training, funding and support to smaller contractors. Perkins said his business has taken off since joining.
“Where I’m at today — it wouldn’t have been possible without the mayor,” he said.
But to a sector of younger, progressive Omahans, the city under Stothert has progressed too slowly, and has left too many people behind. Democrats who challenged her in the primary said the city has prioritized development over people, failed to focus on sustainability and equity and hasn’t done enough to attract or retain young people.
Jonathan Lathan, who ran to represent North Omaha on the City Council but fell short in the primary, said he has yet to see Stothert’s administration deliver on pledges to increase transparency and accountability in the wake of summer protests over policing and racial equity.
He pointed to two recent examples: A delay by Omaha police in releasing body camera video of a 2020 police shooting; and the department’s failure to submit some domestic abuse reports to a state agency.
“You are expected to be accountable when you’re in this position,” Lathan said of the mayor.
The city made several changes to department policy in the wake of the protests. Earlier this spring, Stothert received the endorsement of the Omaha Police Officers Association, which backed her for the first time in her mayoral career.
The union, which is one of the city’s larger public employee unions, opposed her in 2013, and did not weigh in on the mayor’s race in 2017.
One of her campaign ads features Sgt. Tony Conner, president of the police union. The ad shows text message exchanges between Stothert and Conner after he contracted COVID-19 and was hospitalized.
“Mayor Stothert has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the safety of our citizens and an unflinching respect for the men and women of the Omaha Police Department,” Conner said at one of Stothert’s campaign events this month.
Stothert said she makes decisions by taking the time to gather enough information and talk to an array of experts and community members.
That approach, she said, led to overwhelming voter approval of the streets bond issue. Stothert said her administration took about three years to talk to experts and develop a strategic plan on how to fix and pay for the city’s streets.
“That’s being a good executive,” Stothert said. “It’s not, ‘Let’s see how fast we can get things done,’ or ‘Let’s make sure the mayor makes all the decisions ... in a vacuum without anybody’s input.’
“I never forget whose money I’m spending, and it’s the taxpayers’ money,” she said.
Stothert pushed back against criticism that she doesn’t seek community feedback, pointing to dozens of town hall events she has hosted and the advisory boards she has created, some with focuses on millennial, LGBTQ, Native and veterans’ issues.
The pandemic forced Stothert to make some “very tough choices,” she said, including shutting down pools and libraries, ordering a hiring and purchasing freeze at City Hall and furloughing some city employees. She publicly pressured Douglas County and the state to give Omaha its share of coronavirus relief money, and she said her choices helped Omaha avoid a budget shortfall.
Stothert served on the Millard Public Schools board from 1998 to 2009 and served a single term on the City Council before she made history in 2013 as Omaha’s first woman mayor.
If she wins a third four-year term and completes it, she would become the longest consecutive serving mayor in modern city history. Mayor James C. Dahlman was elected to seven terms, serving from 1906 to 1918 and then from 1921 to 1930.
Stothert was working as a nurse in St. Louis when she met her future husband, the late Dr. Joseph Stothert. In early March, Dr. Stothert died by suicide near the couple’s home. Stothert briefly paused her campaign, as did her challengers, as she and her family grieved.
Looking back on her first two terms, Stothert offered two decisions she would make differently with the benefit of hindsight.
She said her administration spent too much time “chasing our tails” figuring out if they could add enough money to the streets budget to fix the streets. Had she known the bond issue would pass with solid support, Stothert said she would have pursued the measure sooner, which would have led to better streets sooner.
Second, she said she would have called for a city charter convention in her second term to make amendments to the document that functions as Omaha’s constitution. The charter must be reviewed every 10 years — the last convention happened in 2013 shortly after she took office — but conventions can occur more frequently.
Stothert outlined two charter changes she plans to advocate for: She’s a proponent of changing the timing of Omaha city elections to coincide with non-presidential state elections, which she said would increase voter turnout and save local government money.
She’d also like to eliminate the measure that makes the City Council president acting mayor when the mayor is out of town. With modern technology, Stothert said she can run the city just as well from Lincoln, or when she’s visiting her mother in St. Louis, as she can from the City-County Building downtown.
“I think we’ve made a lot of progress,” Stothert said, “and I’m very excited about our future.”
Omaha mayors, from the beginning to now
Jesse Lowe 1857-1858
Andrew Jackson Poppleton 1858-1858
David Douglas Belden 1859-1860
Clinton Briggs 1860-1861
George Robert Armstrong 1861-1862
Addison R. Gilmore 1864-1865
Lorin Miller 1865-1866
Charles H. Brown 1867-1868
George M. Roberts 1868-1869
Ezra Millard 1869-1870
Smith Caldwell 1871-1872
Joseph H. Millard 1872-1873
William H. Brewer 1873-1874
J.S. Gibson 1874-1875
Champion S. Chase 1874-1877; 1879-1880; 1883-1884
Rueben H. Wilbur 1877-1888
James E. Boyd 1881-1882; 1885-1886
William J. Broatch 1887-1889; 1896-1897
R.C. Crushing 1890-1891
George P. Bemis 1892-1896
Frank E. Moores 1897-1905
Harry B. Zimman 1905-1906
James C. Dahlman 1906-1918; 1921-1930
Ed. P. Smith 1918-1921
Richard L. Metcalfe (1930-1933)
Roy N. Towl 1933-1936
Dan B. Butler 1936-1945
Charles Leeman 1945-1948
Glenn Cunningham 1948-1954
Johnny Rosenblatt 1954-1961
James Dworak 1961-1965
Alexander Sorensen 1965-1969
Eugene A. Leahy 1969-1973
Edward Zorinsky 1973-1976
Robert Cunningham 1976-1977
Albert L. Veys 1977-1981
Mike Boyle 1981-1987
Bernie Simon 1987-1988
P.J. Morgan 1989-1994
Subby Anzaldo 1994-1995
Hal Daub 1995-2001
Mike Fahey 2001-2009
Jim Suttle 2009-2013
Jean Stothert 2013-Present
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