After weeks of public testimony and closed door meetings on the hotly contested equal employment ordinance giving legal protection to gay and transgender residents, the Omaha City Council decided the issue March 13.
Three-term District 4 (South Omaha) representative Garry Gernandt surprised many when he reversed his position and cast the swing vote in favor. The Democrat had resisted the proposal, even broaching an amendment limiting protections to city employees, Then he withdrew the amendment and voted yes. The ordinance passed 4-3, straight down party lines. Mayor Jim Suttle signed it into law March 15. The new law took affect March 28.
As his turn to vote came Gernandt says he employed a favorite mental exercise to sort through the “dust storm of emotions” and arguments on both sides.
“I’ve trained myself to do a collage of things that go across my mind on very sensitive issues, and that’s what was happening on this one. Everything going across my mind all came back to the fact we’re all still part of the human race. That was pretty much the reasoning behind it.”
He insists “there was no arm twisting” from Suttle or party officials. “I’m telling you the bottom line on my vote on this thing is that we’re all in the human race. You don’t have to like the GLBT lifestyle, but what was before us was discrimination in the workplace based upon sexual identity and orientation.” He says giving citizens the right to file complaints with Omaha’s Human Rights and Relations Department to seek redress for getting fired or suffering other workplace discrimination or being refused service due to their orientation “was just the right thing to do.”
“Let’s just realize that and move on,” he says, adding, “I’m sure I probably ticked off some people, and I have to live with that.”
Gernandt’s vote makes sense in the context of his life serving people. A moderate coalition-builder who shuns the spotlight, he grew up in the cultural melting pot of South O and saw yet more diversity as a U.S. Marine and career Omaha Police officer, retiring as a sergeant in 2000. He says while growing up in the 20th and Vinton Streets area his broad-minded parents encouraged him to sample the different ethnicities surrounding them.
“I think experiencing the diversity opened every corpuscle in my existence so that I became like a sponge and just soaked all these things up. I stayed open and learned.”
He says he followed the same mantra during his military and police careers, where he practiced his people and communication skills with a broad range of folks.
“I like people, I like being around people, I like helping people,” says Gernandt, who’s seen the immigrant base of South O change from European to Latin American and African.
For his first Council campaign he pledged to do a better job than incumbent Paul Koneck responding to constituent complaints and returning phone calls. “A couple very simple things I got very well-attuned to doing in the military and on the police department, where you thrive on information. You’ve got to pay attention, you’ve got to listen to people, you’ve got to get back in touch with them if they call you.
Decades of work with the Deer Park Neighborhood Association and 11 years on the Council have reinforced for him that politics is “the art of compromise.”
“If you’ve got a problem I try to get the solutions at the table and get the best possible result. If you’ve got arguing factions then let’s talk it out at a round table and see if we can come to some middle ground that everybody can live with.”
When District 2 City Councilman Ben Gray first floated the anti-bias ordinance in 2010 the debate turned ugly in the legislative chamber. Gernandt rejected it as too “thermal” to support then but he did promise to reconsider the matter should new data surface the next time.
Gernandt was turned off by the rancor two years ago.
“Both the proponents and the opponents came into the chamber barrels loaded, and in my opinion when you are that angry you should not be asking for something as far as major change,” he says.
Gernandt, often an ally of Gray’s, knew his colleague would bring the ordinance back and when he did the tenor of the deliberation was far different.
“Seventeen months went by and this thing came back to us in a more plausible, palatable way, very little emotion. Facts on both sides I think were eloquently stated. There may have been a little bit of fiction in there as well,” he says, referring to survey results purportedly showing broad support and scriptural passages offered as admonition against it.
“So I think the approach was a 180-degree turnaround from what it was.”
What turned him off this time were heavy-handed tactics by fundamentalist Christians denouncing the ordinance on moral grounds. For Gernandt this wasn’t about morality, it was about fairness, quality of life and equal protection. Period.
He expects the next hot button issue the Council will wrestle with is the police auditor. He’s opposed to it, but he’s willing to hear differing viewpoints and perhaps be swayed by another mental montage should it come to a vote.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com