These stories are in-depth profiles of candidates for Omaha City Council’s District 6 seat. For coverage of other races check out The Reader’s 2021 city election hub.
City Councilman Brinker Harding is running for re-election as the District 6 incumbent. He was first elected to serve on City Council in 2017, when then-incumbent Franklin Thompson decided not to file for re-election.
Prior to becoming a council member, Harding was involved in city government for a number of years. He worked for former mayor Hal Daub’s campaign as his finance director and served as Daub’s economic development director and later chief of staff. When Daub’s term as mayor ended, Harding began working in commercial real estate brokerage for Colliers, but he knew he couldn’t stay away from city government.
“Over time I found it important to stay involved both civically and politically,” Harding said. “I was on the Omaha Planning Board for about four years, and then I had to leave the Planning Board when I was elected to City Council in 2017.”
Harding believes his work in commercial real estate, along with his experience in the Mayor’s office in the 90s, led to a natural progression toward his decision to run for City Council.
“It’s taking the talents that I’ve acquired along the way, as well as a belief in public service,” he said. “Coupling those things together, it made sense that I could be … in the city government by running for City Council.”
Harding feels his greatest areas of success during his first term as a member of the City Council include promoting public safety, improving city services and infrastructure, and encouraging economic development. While these issues remain important to Harding, he said his top priority if re-elected will be working on Omaha’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic; he wants to ensure the city is poised to continue growing in economic opportunity.
For ongoing COVID-19 recovery efforts, Harding points to $60 million in CARES Act funds received through the state and county, as well as $22 million in rental and utility assistance. He said his work as a member of the city’s finance committee was important in making sure those funds were secured.
“It boils down to people being able to have food on the table and a roof over their head,” Harding said. “The $60 million in CARES Act money and $22 million additional rental and utility assistance is going to help our workforce be able to get through this.”
For issues specific to District 6, Harding said he will continue to focus on improving public safety, adding that he was proud of the work he did to build and open a fifth police precinct in Elkhorn. If re-elected, Harding said he’d like to continue working to ensure the city’s police and firefighters have enough funding for training and equipment that will help them perform their jobs safely.
While Councilman Harding is a registered Republican, the Omaha City Council is officially nonpartisan. Harding said this encourages members to work together despite their differences.
“We’re a very diverse group now, and I think we all know we have a common goal … We may differ on the path to get to the common goal,” he said, “but we find ways to work together to find a solution.”
Harding said he was proud to receive endorsements from former mayors of both parties when he ran for office in 2017; their support, he said, is proof of his bipartisan approach to working in city government.
Looking toward Omaha’s future, Harding said he is encouraged by the fostering of public-private partnerships that have contributed to the city’s growth in recent years. If re-elected, he looks forward to continuing work with community partners in developing projects around the city.
“One of the things that I’m going to continue to focus on the next four years is building those relationships and growing those relationships,” Harding said. “There’s tremendous potential there to partner together [and] continue to improve our city.”
Naomi Hattaway is the lone challenger for City Council in District 6, a district she said typically doesn’t have many people running for local office. Hattaway decided to run for City Council after seeing Omaha’s protests in response to the deaths of George Floyd and James Scurlock.
She said last summer’s protests were a sign to her that the city is looking for new leadership and a change in vision for the city’s future. Hattaway believes she’s uniquely suited to answer those calls for change and bring the people of Omaha together.
“I’m a Black biracial woman. My dad is Black and my mom is white, and I often can navigate spaces in ways that others can’t because of my ambiguity of what I am,” Hattaway said. “I was like, ‘You know, maybe this is my next place of impact, helping to navigate and bridge-build.’”
Hattaway has a number of plans she said would help accomplish her goal of making Omaha more united and welcoming for all its residents. One area where she thinks the city needs improvement is language access for non-English speaking community members. Both in city government and public schools, she feels Omaha has a lot of work to do in recognizing how culturally and linguistically diverse the city has become.
Another change Hattaway hopes to see in Omaha is having more elected officials who are willing to openly talk about the impact of racism on the city’s past and present.
“We need to have elected officials on the city level, that are willing to speak … confidently and matter of factly about the fact that racism exists in Omaha,” she said, “and then have [the] ability to say, ‘We don’t know all the answers, but we can start with anti-bias training and anti-racism training for our city elected officials.’”
Hattaway recognizes that calls for change in Omaha are different coming from her district in West Omaha, when compared to the rest of the city. In order to get her message across in District 6, Hattaway has made it a focus of her campaign to connect with voters on a personal level, engaging with their values and entering into dialogues about the issues that are important to them.
As the only challenger in District 6, Hattaway wants to make the distinctions between herself and Councilman Harding obvious to voters. She believes her approach to public service, centered on clear communication with all Omaha residents, will set her apart.
“I think there’s … a vast difference between the two of us, and what I am thankful for in our race is that it’s just him and I, so voters clearly can just choose one or the other,” Hattaway said.
One of the biggest challenges that Hattaway’s campaign has faced is competing with the resources and connections of an incumbent, whom she said the political system is designed to advantage. She described the race as an uphill battle, but it is a challenge she gladly accepts.
“I really am excited for a day when the incumbent is someone that looks more like me, when the incumbent is … female, or someone who is non-binary,” Hattaway said. “Let’s have the incumbent that is benefited by the political system look different than what it looks like now.”
As Hattaway’s campaign continues to work toward the April 6 primary and May 11 elections, she and her team remain committed to their core values, which she said boil down to three words: engaged, accessible and reliable.
“I think that we are a city that is well-equipped to take the lessons from 2020 and actually do something with it,” she said. “We’ve got amazing candidates running right now. I am just blown away by the collective power and leadership.”
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Hear where candidates stand on the issues
What would you consider Omaha’s number one problem that we need to address within the next year? What about a larger problem we need to solve in the next 10 years?
NH: I believe we need to begin quickly working on the affordable housing crisis in Omaha, and function as a City Council who is proactive, and collaborative with County and State officials to maximize funding and resources to bring those solutions to fruition. I have the experience necessary from my past leadership navigating public-private partnerships as it relates to addressing safe and sustainable housing in Omaha since 2017. We have access to several comprehensive studies with plans at the ready, and with intention and the right people in elected office, we can begin to tackle housing in Omaha. My opponent calls it a heavy lift, but stops short of offering solutions or championing necessary next steps. I’m ready to bring my expertise to begin work on housing from day one after being sworn in.
What solutions are you proposing to fix those problems that your opponent is not?
NH: First, I believe District 6 voters are looking for a candidate who is accessible to them, a representative who can commit to keep lines of communication open, and promises to be reliable and responsive. That might not seem like an applicable answer to the question, however if we don’t have a consistently reliable and communicative representative in City Hall, we will continue to see the same issues in years to come.
To specifically touch on housing, addressing those issues will require a multi-pronged approach and I believe we must first redefine what “affordable” means in Omaha. Included in the myriad of solutions I envision: are preservation of our existing housing stock (including a higher priority on weatherization of older homes), implementation of the rental property registry and a right to counsel for anyone facing eviction court, property owner liaison assistance / resources, innovative incentives for small developers who will prioritize infill projects, and intentional furtherance of policy that supports missing middle housing and other strategies that support multi-family, multi-generational living. We can also introduce and champion City initiatives in areas that help our neighbors retain the housing they already have in their possession, such as wills and estate planning workshops, education campaigns for how to execute transfers of deed at death, etc. The aforementioned solutions represent just a few of the needed steps, and I look forward to releasing more detailed policy plans in the weeks leading up to the general election in May.
How would you describe Omaha government’s current/historic approach to racial, social and geographic equity?
NH: In 2018, I was simultaneously heartened and saddened to hear a representative for the City of Omaha state that she believed she was the first to apologize on behalf of the City for the harm caused by 75 North ripping through the heart of North Omaha (a process that began in 1954, the freeway was dedicated in 1998). As we joined together to unveil new plans for a project boasting smart growth and progress in North Omaha, she recounted how it was one small step towards considering ourselves to be a city that demanded change and progress. Omaha is filled with residents who want to be better neighbors to each other, from our faith community, leaders in nonprofits, City employees, teachers, business owners, engaged advocates, and more folks across the city, however the core value of equity is not currently represented by and through our government in the way we value every Omahan’s experience with local government, nor in the way we currently approach policy and legislation at the municipal level.
Last year brought a global pandemic that exposed weak points in our society and protests that demanded change to long-standing issues. What lessons did you take from 2020 and how would you apply those lessons to your position, if you were to win?
NH: The pandemic did expose weak points, and I think it’s important to note to whom the exposure happened. As I see phrases like: “the pandemic exposed” or “due to the 2020 racial awakening,” I always add a caveat that we not forget, ignore or minimize those (+ their experiences) who have known these things all along. When I say “these things,” you can often choose from a myriad of hardships, struggles or systemic oppressions. For many right here in Omaha, the weak points in our society, system and government have been felt and experienced for years.
My own personal lessons from 2020 include recovery from a terrible injury to my leg, and learning about resilience, reliance on others, and being able to expand my awareness about issues faced by those who are disabled. I see so many opportunities to expand accessibility in Omaha, and whether that relates to physical access, language access, transportation access, or any other number of applications, the runway is laid out for us, and we owe it to ourselves and our neighbors to not miss this opportunity to elect leaders who are grounded in equity and responsibility.