A Democrat with a long history in local development entered the Omaha mayor’s race Wednesday, bringing business and fundraising connections that could make him a contender in next spring’s primary.
RJ Neary, chairman of locally owned commercial property company Investors Realty, said Omaha needs a visionary leader willing to reach for the city’s potential, instead of just talking about it.
“Omaha is doing OK,” he said. “I’ll work to make Omaha a world-class city.”
Mayor Jean Stothert, a Republican, announced her bid for a third term last month, touting her record on public safety, redevelopment and a bond issue to improve city streets.
Stothert, through a campaign spokeswoman, said Wednesday she welcomes all challengers and “looks forward to a positive campaign focused on Omaha’s future.”
Several other people have said they are considering mayoral bids. The officially nonpartisan city primary is April 6.
Neary, 67, said Omaha needs to get the city’s basics right, including streets and trash and recycling, so it can do the bigger things better, including making Omaha more attractive to talented workers.
Business leaders tell him that having too few workers — and too few trained for the jobs they need to fill — is a big reason why major employers like Conagra look elsewhere. Workforce issues will be key, he said. Conagra announced it was moving its corporate headquarters to Chicago in 2015, settling for less in tax incentives than Nebraska offered.
Young workers, he said, are moving to other regional cities that invest in mass transit in ways that make cars optional and offer quality of life amenities, including entertainment options that Omaha could match.
“We’re losing our 25- to 42-year-olds,” Neary said. “We need to compete.”
Part of competing for talent is making sure Omaha is a more equitable place for all residents, regardless of ethnicity or income, he said. Zoning and development that encourages affordable, quality housing is key, he said.
Asked for an example, he said Omaha could be more purposeful in its use of tax-increment financing, or TIF, by requiring that more affordable housing be included in projects funded by the local economic development tool.
Neary says he would hire the right people at City Hall, then “get out of their way” and let them do their jobs.
He said he also would work with Public Works and Omaha’s local engineering experts to make city streets more durable.
Neary said a growing Omaha might be able to build and maintain fewer street lane-miles if the availability and reliability of transit options were improved.
Neary regularly rides his bike to reach a stop for ORBT, the city’s new rapid bus transit service that runs down Omaha’s Dodge Street spine. He wants the service to be quickly expanded to North and South Omaha.
He said he has been trying to ride every Metro bus line in the city and talk to voters and ask what they want from City Hall. He said many citizens have told him that they want a new approach.
Neary has previous experience in city government, chairing the Omaha Planning Board, and also working with Omaha By Design and serving local nonprofits, including Goodwill and Catholic Charities.
Neary has been endorsed by former Omaha Mayors Mike Fahey and Jim Suttle, as well as City Councilmen Ben Gray and Vinny Palermo, all Democrats.
“RJ and I go way back,” Fahey said. “He has big ideas and ways to get those big ideas done.”
Neary said Stothert, a Republican seeking her third term, has had two terms to move the city forward, and voters can decide whether that’s enough.
Neary said major corporations benefit from changing leadership more often than every eight or 12 years. He points to the city’s slow response to COVID-19, including a vote by the City Council in August to mandate masks, as an example of the need for change.
He said the city would have fared better had it embraced the advice sooner from experts at the University of Nebraska Medical Center on masks and other health-related measures.
“I think Omaha’s been lucky enough to have the right mayor at the right time, for different reasons,” he said. “And it’s just the right time for me to serve.”
Our best staff images from December 2020
World-Herald Staff Writer