Race-focused political campaigning, seeking to provoke White resentment, degrades Nebraska politics. Such low-road politicking aims to stoke the worst in human nature. It’s disturbing that in the final days of Omaha’s City Council contests, two campaign flyers in that vein are circulating.
One flyer, from the Omaha police union, seeks to support District 3 candidate Danny Begley by stating of his opponent, “In Cammy Watkins’ Omaha, No One Is Safe.” Watkins’ agenda, the flyer falsely claims, means “No Police. No Protection. No Peace.” Beside a photo of Watkins, who is Black, the mailer states that she seeks policies “risking our families’ safety” and “increasing violent crime and gun violence.” The other side of the flyer shows flames during a protest, recalling times when last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests tipped into rioting.
Such demagoguery insults voters’ intelligence and unfairly smears Watkins, a worthy candidate who demonstrates a wide-ranging knowledge of Omaha and offers insightful analysis of key issues facing the city.
Until the flyer appeared, the Begley/Watkins contest had been a positive one between two energetic candidates. Now a shadow has fallen over the race, due to the police union’s poor judgment.
Something similar has happened in the District 5 contest in southwest Omaha, with Republican Don Rowe facing Democrat Patrick Leahy. The April primary featured a tight contest between the two. Now, with the May 11 vote just ahead, the Nebraska Republican Party has sent out a flyer stating that Leahy’s “Top issue is ‘racial equity.’” The mailer’s message, in short: White people, be on alert.
Stoking racial resentment is the last thing Omaha and Nebraska need.
It was just a year ago that the state GOP indulged in similar low-road campaigning by featuring a photo of state legislative candidate Janet Palmtag — a longtime party activist — beside a photo of then-State Sen. Ernie Chambers, who is Black. Palmtag endorsed Chambers’ “radical” agenda, the flyer claimed. What was the link between the two? Palmtag criticized a 30% raise for state prison chief Scott Frakes. Many other Nebraskans did, too, including Chambers. On such flimsy justification, the state GOP argued that Palmtag’s agenda mirrored Chambers’. Former Gov. Dave Heineman rightly characterized the mailer as “despicable and disgusting.”
Yet, a year later, the election-season race-baiting continues.
Such flyers do damage in multiple ways. Above all, they pull Nebraska politics into the gutter, encouraging people to hold tight to racial suspicion and ill will. The police union flyer does additional harm by undercutting the Omaha Police Department’s efforts to signal its racial sensitivity as our country attempts to move forward on racial justice. In the wake of the union’s irresponsible action, the department must now work to rebuild trust.
There’s a third harm: When campaign supporters decide to sling mud, it gets on their own candidate too. In this case, the actions by the police union and the state GOP have placed a terrible burden on Begley and Rowe. Neither of those Omahans is known for indulging in low-road politics. But now, in the wake of these distasteful campaign mailers, both men will be under suspicion about their views on race.
Such flyers, in other words, not only degrade our politics. They harm the very candidates they’re supported to help.
No candidate should welcome such irresponsible campaigning. And Nebraska voters absolutely should reject it as the vile assault on human decency it most certainly is.