These stories are in-depth profiles of candidates for Omaha City Council’s District 7 seat. For coverage of other races check out The Reader’s 2021 city election hub.
The incumbent for District 7, councilmember Aimee Melton is running for re-election. Her roots in Omaha go back to when she was five years old, at which time her family moved to the city. Growing up, she attended Saint Robert Bellarmine Catholic School, where she later sent her three sons.
Melton attained a degree in political science from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and later graduated from Creighton University School of Law in 2004. Since then she’s worked as a prosecutor for the Douglas County Attorney’s office in the domestic violence unit and now practices family law as the managing partner of Reagan, Melton & Delaney law offices.
As Melton’s career in private practice unfolded, she said she felt called to public service. Her first stop was serving on the Douglas County Republican Party Executive Committee and later the Omaha City Council in 2013, following the retirement of then-Councilman Chuck Sigerson.
“I thought those were big shoes to fill, because he served us really well for a really long time,” Melton said. “I was fortunate enough to have his and his wife Liz’s endorsement at that time.”
Melton said what she has enjoyed most about being a council member is the solutions-oriented approach to governing and lack of partisan bickering that’s typical on the federal level. The nonpartisan nature of Omaha’s city government allows members of the Council to work together on improving public services and infrastructure, as well as economic development and job creation, she said.
According to Melton, her experience in mediation, gained from practicing family law, has proven invaluable to her City Council work. As council members work toward solutions for the issues facing Omaha, Melton said she and her colleagues spend their time negotiating among themselves and with the mayor’s office.
“A lot of times what I do is attempt some mediation and see what we can do to make everybody happy,” Melton said. “You have to listen to people, whether you agree or disagree, before you even render an opinion.”
She said her proudest accomplishment as a City Council member is helping erase the $20 million budget deficit that existed when she first entered office. Melton is especially encouraged by the fact that the city was able to create a budget surplus without cutting public services.
One of Melton’s major goals, if elected to another term, is to create more well-paid jobs through training and apprenticeship programs.
“We want to be able to provide jobs where people can support themselves with only one job, not two or three jobs,” Melton said.
Additionally, Melton wants to work on creating more affordable housing in Omaha, but she doesn’t just mean government housing or rental units. Melton wants to improve Omaha’s rate of homeownership by creating programs that will help people acquire the necessary knowledge and resources to invest in property of their own.
When Melton was first elected to City Council in 2013, she was the only woman serving on it; now, there are women running in every district. Melton loves seeing so many women called to public service and considers it a sign of how far Omaha has come as a city. She hopes the presence of women on City Council will inspire more women to continue running for office.
“I absolutely love that in District 7 you aren’t going to get a man on the ballot. There’s only two of us, and we’re both women,” Melton said. “And I have to tell you, I celebrate that.”
The lone challenger for District 7’s Omaha City Council seat, Sara Kohen said she was inspired to run for office by her love for Omaha and her belief in the importance of local government.
Omaha’s late response to enact a mask mandate last year was particularly frustrating for Kohen, who said she wished local officials would have listened to the advice of medical experts sooner. To Kohen, this was a policy failure and clear sign that Omaha needs new leadership.
“It seemed like this was a pretty basic step to help us … keep people safe, keep kids in school [and] keep businesses open,” Kohen said. “The current incumbent council member made some comments that seemed like they were downplaying the virus.”
Currently, Kohen splits her time helping out at her oldest child’s school and doing in-house legal work; her specialties include real estate and contract law. She said she’s running for City Council for the same reason she decided to go to law school and start helping at her child’s school: To improve the world around her.
Some of Kohen’s plans for bettering Omaha include ensuring proper maintenance of roads, improving public services, creating jobs, promoting public health and investing in parks and libraries. Above all, Kohen wants to change the city’s approach to communication with its residents, emphasizing the obligation to listen to their needs and explain how decisions are made.
“We need to [go] beyond the basics and look at how we can help make Omaha an even better place for everybody,” she said. “[Let’s] make it the type of city where people want to come and where people want to stay.”
During her campaign, Kohen said she’s enjoyed talking to voters across District 7. According to Kohen, constituents often say they’re tired of divisive politics, and they’re looking for leaders who will focus on issues that are important to them.
“I’ve heard people in the district tell me that they’re concerned Omaha isn’t doing enough about these threats,” she said. “We don’t want to be caught flat footed. We need to make sure that we’re doing what we can to protect our community and also trying to mitigate our own [negative] impact [on the climate].”
Some of the biggest personal motivators for Kohen in her race are imagining a brighter future for Omaha and making it a better place for her kids to grow up. She’s been heartened by conversations with voters in her district and believes she has a real chance to make a difference in their lives. It all comes back to Kohen’s belief in the importance of city government, which she said directly impacts everyday issues in our lives.
Win or lose, Kohen said she is optimistic about Omaha’s future, pointing to a growing realization among Omahans of how much we have in common and what we can accomplish when we all work together. She also sees an increasing awareness of the need for new leadership and a new vision for the city’s future.
“I think that people really are ready for a change in politics as usual,” she said. “People can have disagreements about policy and about priorities, but … there’s a real interest in trying to work together and put aside differences so we can focus on shared goals and making Omaha an even better place to live.”
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