These stories are in-depth profiles of three of the four candidates running for the Omaha City Council’s District 3 seat. Follow the link for more information on the fourth candidate, Danny Begley. For coverage of other races check out The Reader’s 2021 city election hub.
Cammy Watkins is plunging into politics for the first time with her campaign for Omaha City Council District 3. Charismatic and jovial, Watkins has worked for the public good for over 20 years with several community nonprofits, including Habitat for Humanity of Omaha, Opera Omaha and the Sierra Club. Watkins, who is currently Deputy Director of Inclusive Communities, decided to run because she wants to elevate community voices, offering representation that is invested in addressing the needs of the whole community.
Watkins is committed to educating the community on lead exposure, a significant health hazard to Omaha children, particularly in North Omaha. Almost 25 years ago, Omaha first reported children with high levels of lead in their blood to the EPA. This led to years’ worth of cleanup of the Omaha Lead Superfund Site. Although numbers have improved, the problem has not been eradicated and there is more work to be done, Watkins said.
She is also committed to helping all families to own their own home. Watkins wants to create development plans for access to home ownership.
“The lowest cost house right now, on average, is around $175,000. And that’s really not affordable for those first-time homeowners,” Watkins said. “We have more real estate agents than houses to sell. If we look on the rent side, the average [rent] in our city has increased 60%, making it unaffordable for people who [make] from $35,000 to $60,000 each year.”
The candidate sees a solution in the construction of duplex homes and multi-family apartments.
“We have many multigenerational families who would like to live together, [including in] South Omaha. We need to update the zoning laws,” she said.
Watkins said Omaha’s public transportation service is not accessible. She proposes expanding the bus system to connect the entire city, because many residents who now live downtown must wait a long time to move south, or if they live in West Omaha, there is no direct route for them to get to North Omaha.
“It is not accessible to people with disabilities and is not accessible to people who live basically anywhere. The streets are not configured to be a primary means of transport,” she said.
It’s important, Watkins said, to look at the potential for multimodal transportation, such as expanding tracks for bicycles, walkways and motorcycles.
Watkins said it’s also necessary to end the segregation that exists in Omaha and pay attention to food security. She recognizes the community gardens, fostered by the Latino Center of the Midlands, as a source of fresh food, and she hopes the city can use community gardens to promote food security.
“We have enough ingenuity and opportunities to do urban agriculture in our city,” she said. “I want us to lean on the city to invest in a city without hunger. We can do it.”
She also sees in Omaha a city that can attract tourists. The candidate hopes to install a free WiFi network that facilitates internet access for both locals and visitors, as well as supports local businesses.
“People want to feel at home when they visit the city,” Watkins said.
For people to live with dignity, Watkins said, the minimum wage needs to be raised to $18 per hour, not $9. She believes projects and industries like tourism that encourage local investment and consumption could reduce the unemployment rate.
Watkins sees her campaign for a District 3 City Council seat as an opportunity to make Omaha more inclusive––and closer to its people.
Jen Bauer is president of Aksarben Elmwood Park Neighborhood Association; she hopes to apply the leadership and problem-solving skills she’s gained there to representing the District 3 community on Omaha City Council.
If elected, Bauer will prioritize three plans that she considers most important for Omaha. The first is to review the annual budget and capital plan to ensure that each department is held to a high level of accountability. This process needs to be transparent to the residents, she said. The second is to ensure that documents and laws are translated into languages such as Spanish and Karen (spoken in Myanmar and Thailand), and add sign language interpretation to city meetings. The third is to address the inefficiency of public transportation and lack of fresh food in many parts of the city.
Bauer also wants to transform Omaha into a greener, friendlier city with alternative transportation systems such as bicycles. She recalled the emerald ash borer insects, which have attacked and killed many mature trees in Omaha since 2016.
“I want Omaha to be greener. We need a plan to have more trees. Our parks are important. They also help clean the air,” Bauer said.
The businesswoman, who is currently a member of a global IT team, also wants to work for the benefit of local businesses and find a way to lower unemployment in the city.
Bauer does not identify with any political party and said that what matters to her is seeking solutions to the needs of the community.
“I have worked with multicultural companies for over 10 years. One of the things with City Hall is that you [must] have the power to listen [and make] decisions based on people’s comments and ideas,” she said. “It’s not about preferences, it’s about working for people and … in conjunction with other districts.”
She supports the idea of installing internet with free WiFi in the city, as has been implemented in Council Bluffs.
“This will help people … who don’t have access to the internet. I don’t think the facilities are expensive compared to the plans a person has in their homes,” she said.
Bauer believes Omaha must address racism, particularly segregation in the city.
“I don’t know how you can fight that. We need to talk about how that separation of sections comes about,” she said
Bauer is well-known in Aksarben but wants to work fully with all of Omaha, including members of different cultures and everyone on City Council.
As election day approaches, the candidate is optimistic about her campaign and passionate about the city she hopes to serve.
“I love Omaha. When I moved here I saw it as a very friendly [place],” Bauer said. “Here there is … diversity … we have a lot of ethnicities which makes it a vibrant city.”
Gilbert Ayala has experience running for office as a senator for the state of Nebraska. Now, he’s launching a campaign for the Omaha City Council primary to represent Central Omaha’s District 3.
Ayala wants to bring a conservative voice to City Council. He said he’s against the legalization of marijuana because he considers it to cause schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
The candidate’s main concerns are the economy and lowering Omaha’s taxes. Ayala said inhabitants pay very high property, city and sales taxes. He believes money is wasted in the city and that low taxes can help companies grow and invest more in the city.
“There’s a lot of waste in the government, but there’s no one who realizes [it],” Ayala said. “People are elected and waste continues because [elected officials] don’t want to deal with it. I’m one of those people who would talk about it, make it public and let people know what’s going on.”
He said the biggest “waste” of money he has seen recently is the ORBT transportation route opened earlier this year that runs along Dodge Street. ORBT was funded by various foundations, in addition to the city of Omaha.
“This should never have run. It’s always empty. If there was a massive influx of people using the bus then it doesn’t represent a waste of money,” Ayala said. “But, there you see it, they’re empty and [the city’s planning department] knew it.”
He noted that politicians in Omaha keep quiet and don’t focus on the real problems.
“They say they have 30 years living in Omaha, that they appreciate their granny and that they love people, but they don’t do anything,” he said. “And a lot of people choose them just because they like them. Voters need to educate themselves well about candidates and know which people they choose.”
In preparation for election day, Ayala has been going from house to house to inform the community about his projects and engage in dialogue with constituents..
“I’m very direct. I tell people my position, and if people don’t like it, I usually hear them,” Ayala said. “But [sometimes] they change their minds and reflect.”
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