By Chris Bowling
Within puzzle-piece boundaries that jut and zigzag from the Missouri River to Cuming Street, up 48th Street and across Redick Avenue, lies Legislative District 11. Throughout Nebraska, there are 49 other malformed polygons like it. Every four years, about 35,000 people in those boundaries elect one among them to serve in the state’s legislature.
But none stands out as much as District 11. In a state and city that’s overwhelmingly white, District 11 is majority black. Whereas most Nebraskans define their history by homesteaders and wagon trains, the history of District 11 is informed by civil rights as well class and racial struggle.
No other area has had such consistent leadership, either. In the past 50 years, only two people have represented it. And next Tuesday, residents will select candidates for a third on the May 12 primary.
Since 1970, Ernie Chambers has antagonized, challenged and pushed the conventions of the Unicameral. However, term limit restrictions bar Chambers from running again for another four years. That’s opened up opportunities for seven new candidates who see this as a moment to address new and longstanding issues in the community.
Chambers wouldn’t comment on the race or the district’s current issues only that his successor must have strong personal resolve.
“I hope whoever gets it does not have to feel that he or she will have to be me,” Chambers said.
In an interview with the Omaha World-Herald, Chambers endorsed Terrell McKinney a 29-year-old Creighton University law student and local activist.
“He is an educated person. He’s not someone who’s popped out of nowhere,” Chambers told the World Herald. “I believe he’s thought about it and is preparing himself to do a good job.”
Brenda Council knows what’s at stake: Leveraging state authority is possibly the only way to create serious change in the district. Council succeeded Chambers after he was first prohibited from running due to term limits in 2008. In 2012, she lost to Chambers following a gambling scandal that barred her from practicing law and holding public office.
But every candidate should know, this job is more demanding than they think, said Council, a former Omaha City Councilwoman and two-time mayoral candidate who was less than 1,000 votes shy from becoming the city’s first black and first woman mayor in 1997.
“I’m concerned, do people really understand what this position entails?” Council asked. “It’s not like the City Council; it’s not like the school board; and it’s not like the county board.”
Even with her experience, working six or seven days a week, researching hundreds of bills and trying to stay in touch with her community 60 miles away was a serious challenge.
On top of that, the job only pays a $12,000 salary.
Keeping your day job isn’t an option either, Council said. That means missing days on the floor and blowing opportunities to inch your ideas forward.
“This area unfortunately is plagued with some historic deficits that, quite frankly, when it comes to governmental intervention, the state is the entity that has the most resources and tools that can be brought to bear,” she said.
From her perspective, those tools have been underutilized. That’s apparent in the chronic poverty and joblessness that’s persisted in the area.
The coronavirus is highlighting inequities in housing, unemployment, health care access, the latter being the most stark as African Americans have died at rates twice their population size. But these aren’t new issues. They’re old, baked into the neighborhoods north of Dodge St. Now is a chance for someone who’s passionate, intelligent and dogged to address serious change.
Whoever wins, Council wants them to know she’ll be there to offer help.
“These issues need to be addressed immediately. Immediately and effectively,” she said. “Whoever gets elected to represent this district, I’m more than willing to assist them in any way I can. Because ultimately the objective is to advance the interests of the people who live in District 11. That’s the ultimate objective.”
Fred Conley leans back in his chair, a Samsung phone tucked behind satiny black suspenders and a blue sportcoat.
This is not where he wants to be, meeting among masked shoppers milling over the worn, gray carpet in the OfficeMax near 72nd and Dodge streets. But that’s just one adjustment of running a campaign during a pandemic.
“The timing is the timing,” Conley said.
The 72-year-old former city councilman, one-time interim Omaha mayor would rather walk the blocks of North 24th St. to talk about the open senate seat of District 11.
Conley, currently a member of the Papio Missouri River Natural Resources District Board of Directors, decided to run for the seat months ago as he saw old problems returning, such as voter suppression, threats to public school funding and educational inequity.
“There are issues that are prominent today that have not been prominent for years,” he said.
The area’s gone through immense change since Conley’s family moved here from Arkansas in the late ‘50s. He grew up working at the Northside Inn, which his mom and stepdad ran on 24th and Hamilton streets, before graduating high school and joining the United States Air Force in 1967.
While stationed in Colorado Springs, Conley worked with the NAACP, which he’d been active with in Omaha through its youth program. After returning to Omaha and graduating from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, he got a job as a social worker assisting the deaf and blind in Douglas County. An interest in politics followed.
“I’ve always been a people person, even in high school,” he said. “I liked talking to people about the issues and their pro and con positions. But I thought [getting involved politically] was a fair way to get diversity on the city council.”
At that time, an African American had not served on the city’s highest legislative body. Twice in the ‘70s, Conley ran for and lost a seat for Omaha City Council when positions were still decided by citywide votes. In 1979, a state law championed by Chambers changed city council elections from at-large to district voting. Conley ran for the council seat representing North Omaha and won by a slim margin, becoming the first black member of the Omaha City Council in 1981.
Over his 12 years on the council, Conley said he considers downtown development and divestment in South Africa during apartheid as some notable acheivements. He also became interim mayor in 1988, still the only person of color to do so. Since leaving City Council in 1993, he’s served on the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District board of directors and the Metro Community College board of governors, which he resigned from under pressure in 2016. He also ran for his old seat on the Omaha City Council in 1997 and lost.
As people piled into the race for District 11’s spot, Conley saw it as an opportunity to leverage his past with his ambition for the future.
“It’s just something I’ve always loved,” Conley said. “And so at this stage in my life, I’m 72, this might be my last opportunity to serve in a different capacity.”
Lifelong North Omaha resident Gwen Easter said District 11 needs a leader who’s willing to address how big changes are affecting District 11’s restaurants.
“I want to be able to see people who live here be able to start their own businesses and remain here,” Easter said. “What I want to see is our culture remain here.”
For 20 years, Easter’s owned Safe Haven Community Center, a family service provider focused partially on helping children struggling to read and those with dyslexia. In recent years, competition from free childcare offered through Omaha Public Schools has severely undercut private, local institutions like hers, she said.
She’s also concerned about equitable development. Projects such as Seventy Five North has brought fresh commercial and residential facades, but Easter knows not many current residents can afford to live there. Many in the area are already surviving on minimum wage or have a hard time finding sustainable work in a community that doesn’t offer enough livable wage jobs. A better alternative would be focusing on building more affordable single-family housing, she said.
These issues aren’t confined to District 11. As a state senator, Easter said, jobs, education and protecting community business across the state would be priorities for her.
In that position, she sees herself as patient and willing to listen but also bold when it comes to her ideas. And Easter is not one to keep quiet.
In 2016, Easter’s picture appeared in newspapers across the nation as she, along with many others, objected to Omaha Public Schools changing its sex education curriculum. In 2017, she ran and lost in the primary for the seat of Omaha City Council member Ben Gray.
But Easter said it’s important she keep speaking out. While leaders have helped the community over the years, they’ve been too silent on other issues.
“There are certain things that have happened in our community where nothing’s being done by those we need in leadership,” she said. “So yes, I will hold people accountable for certain things taking place in our community, and at the same time I want to work with those senators to better our community as well as Nebraska.”
Teela Mickles is not a politician. She knows a candidate for state senate shouldn’t admit that, but the image of a suited lawmaker elbow-rubbing and deal-making seemed far from her personality.
Since 1994, Mickles, 71, has worked to serve and advocate for incarcerated people through her organization, Compassion in Action. And for a long time, that avenue seemed sufficient. But a few years ago, Mickles saw an opportunity to treat the societal ills overcrowding Nebraska’s prisons from the outside.
“My community needs to be valued; they need to be validated,” Mickles said. “They need to hear a voice that tells them they will be heard and what they know and what they want to contribute is important.”
Mickles said her campaign is rooted in listening. She wants to take her lead on other legislation from the community. The problem is that most citizens of District 11, where Mickles has lived almost all her life, do not engage in civic conversations. North Omaha has had some of the lowest voter turnout and registration in the city, lagging by as much as 20 percent in some elections.
But that doesn’t translate to simple apathy, Mickles said. It’s because leaders are not engaging the average person in thoughtful discussion on District 11’s systemic problems, such as unemployment, poverty and education gaps.
“I truly believe the answer and resolve to our situation is in these houses someplace, behind these walls,” she said. “It’s behind there somewhere, I think there are creative ideas.”
While social distancing has hampered Mickles’ people-first approach, she’s confident her abilities as a listener and connector will prevail when life’s normal activities reconvene. For proof, she points to her years in charge of Compassion in Action. There she found common ground with everyone from corrections directors to inmates serving life sentences.
But, more than anything, Mickles believes in her ability to speak in human terms. To make issues real and urgent, to get to the heart of a problem and find ways to solve it.
“I put flesh on the process,” she said of making the issue personal. “I put flesh on the people.”
On a sultry day in August, 2014, the city of Ferguson, Missouri, erupted in protest and anger after a police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Mike Brown. About 12 miles away in St. Louis, Terrell McKinney watched the anguish unfold through friends with family still in the St. Louis suburb.
A year later, McKinney attended a barbecue in Ferguson and saw how the community had found a way to survive despite baring deep scars.
“It was like life still goes on,” he said, “but these people are still affected by this issue.”
For most of the now 29-year-old McKinney’s life, people knew him for wrestling. He was a two-time state champion at Omaha North High School and an All-American at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He transferred with the former team’s head coach to Maryville University in St. Louis, Missouri, after UNO dropped the sport in 2011.
For McKinney, wrestling was an escape from poverty and its trappings. Much of his family where he grew up in North Omaha is in jail or connected to gangs, he said. He took a different path.
But as he saw more of the world, he thought critically of why it looked so profoundly different from his home. After moving back to Omaha, he got involved with activist groups such as Black Men United and worked as the Hunger Action Advocate with Nebraska Appleseed. He will soon be studying law at Creighton University.
McKinney decided to run for the state senate seat in District 11 because he knows its issues so personally. Criminal justice, health care, education and housing all top his list.
“I’m looking at an equity package that would include resources for scholarships, resources for small businesses’ infrastructure and resources for businesses to build in our community,” he said. “I believe in growth from within.”
His plan for health care will depend on whether Medicaid has been expanded by the time he’s elected. He also wants to look at re-entry programs for incarcerated people to make sure they are provided adequate training and resources to transition back into civilian life.
As for how he would govern, McKinney respects Chambers’ legacy as someone who has singularly and passionately fought for the area. McKinney said whoever’s in office needs to continue that fight.
“I feel I have a real understanding of our people and what they need and want,” he said. “But I’m always someone who’s willing to listen. I never want to tell people, ‘This is what I think we should do.’ I’d rather go in a room and say, ‘What needs to be done? How can I help you fix this?’ That’s my approach to this.”
When John Sciara, 64, registered his name for the state senate race in District 11, he counted on pounding the pavement to sway voters. The Republican knew his party’s presence in the community was small. However, if he could knock on people’s doors and tell them his ideas, among them increasing opportunities for small businesses, Sciara felt he’d get their support.
But Covid-19 took that away.
“This whole thing seems to be a whole different scenario than I’ve expected,” Sciara said.
Sciara, most recognizable for challenging Chambers’ residency in 2017 after losing to him in the 2016 election, said he has not sought alternative campaign methods and does not expect to move on to the general election this fall.
Originally from New York, Sciara said he settled in Omaha while serving on Offutt Air Force Base. After 12 years in the Air Force and 10 years in the Army Reserve, Sciara said he has had a variety of job titles, including black jack dealer, insurance salesman and telemarketer. Most recently, he’s been driving a school bus to supplement military retirement and Social Security benefits.
Running for public office has been on Cornelius Williams’ mind for a long time. Last year, he started thinking about vying for District 11’s seat in the state legislature as Chambers’ term limit exit meant opportunities for newcomers like himself.
However, the real motivation goes back even further.
“When I was a small child, I figured I’d do a lot of things, and politics was one of them,” Williams said.
Along with a public position, Williams, 56, imagined he’d win the Heisman Trophy and study science like his hero Spock on Star Trek. Eventually, science, nuclear physics specifically, overshadowed football, and he studied at Stanford University, Texas A&M University and Michigan State University, earning his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees, respectively.
Coming back home to North Omaha wasn’t necessarily important to Williams, but a lack of research and teaching opportunities made finding a job in physics challenging. Now, he’s a part-time college teacher and fills the financial gaps doing taxes and delivering food.
Coming back home has also pushed Williams to get involved in local politics, serving as a member of the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties and the Nebraska Democratic Party Black Caucus.
Now, he’s looking to reach a wider audience as a state senator, to help an area that’s in need of significant change.
“We are a community in distress and crisis,” he said.
Among the issues he sees most ailing District 11 are poverty, unemployment and inequity through lack of transit options and raised prices on commodities, such as gas. And while he sees a need for intense focus on District 11, he wants his solutions to have a broader impact.
Williams said if he is elected, he will strive to bring more renewable energy to Nebraska. In addition to combating climate change, the construction of wind turbines and solar panels would train Nebraskans in jobs to aid the future’s energy industry.
To get that done, Williams said his experience as a scientist will work to his benefit. He describes himself as someone who can cut through the noise of an issue and isn’t afraid of leafing through stacks of research.
“More than anything else, I’m willing to talk past the concepts and get down to the real nuts and bolts,” he said. “As a scientist doing research, that’s what you do, you get down to the bolts.”
Dennis Womack’s roots in District 11 go back to when many of its streets were still dirt roads. He grew up there playing football and baseball throughout the late ‘50s and early ‘60s under the tutelage of the likes of Josh Gibson, who mentored many future professional athletes in North Omaha. Soon a career in sports was all he focused on. Womack moved to Riverside, California, in 1968 for a chance at increased scouting exposure.
But in his senior year, the 6-foot-3-inches, 225-lb Womack suffered a career-ending injury. The experience devastated him.
“I was kind of one of those athletes that was given quite a bit,” he said, “but when you’re hurt no one knows who you are anymore because you can’t help them.”
That injury led him to search for a new purpose in public service. In his career, Womack, 68, has worked with the Nebraska Urban League, Douglas County Election Commission and the U.S. Department of Commerce, among other private companies along the way.
In the past few years, Womack has run unsuccessfully for positions on the Metro Community College Board of Governors and Omaha City Council.
Most recently, he worked for the U.S. Department of Labor in its Bureau of Labor Statistics, collecting data to inform Social Security funding. It was while working that job during a blustery January day in Washington, D.C., in 2019 that Womack said he heard a radio interview with Chambers. On that broadcast from Omaha, Womack said he heard Chambers discuss the 2020 race.
“He was begging for someone who was knowledgeable about the needs of this community to come and run for his seat,” Womack said.
Womack had thought of running for a while, but this was the impetus he needed to file.
Womack feels uniquely qualified for the position. As someone who’s spent decades in civil service, working close to the ground and within federal bureaucracies, Womack said he has a wealth of experience. But he also understands the need for someone to pick up where Chambers leaves off.
That starts with recognizing that District 11 has changed dramatically in the past few years. At one time, the district was solidly African American. Now, refugee and Hispanic communities represent large shares of the population along with growing numbers of senior citizens.
Building coalitions across those communities is a necessary first step to addressing issues that affect them all—poverty, unemployment and lack of affordable housing. Womack said if elected he’d prioritize securing funds for small business start-ups and bolstering workforce training.
On a larger scale, he wants to help end the “brain drain.” The state has a history of providing top-quality education; it just needs renewed attention and fervor to edge out the competition, Womack said.
“I want to present the opportunity here for it,” he said, “because we need to build this state.”