It didn’t take long after the snow thawed before the signs appeared. In every shade of purple, green, blue and red they jutted from lawns to slushy street corners.
It’s not an uncommon sight for Omahans in spring who this year will vote in city election primaries on April 6 and generals on May 11. Every four years the candidate pools flood. Newcomers upset the status quo, incumbents keep their seats, the cycle churns on.
But this year feels different.
“I think this is very pivotal,” said Jasmine Harris, a candidate for mayor in 2021. “What we saw [in 2020] wasn’t just overnight. These issues have been underlying for so long … And people are not just going back to normal. They’re staying on it. Now it’s election season and they want to see change. They’re hungry for change.”
For many, this election season feels like a pressure cooker waiting to explode.
COVID-19 and calls for racial and social justice dominated 2020. As people suffered and died from the virus, protesters filled the streets and local government meetings. It feels like people have been activated, drawing them to cast their votes at the polls and announce candidacies on platforms that include affordable housing, criminal justice reform and addressing longtime racial and social inequities.
The run-up to Election Day has been anything but ordinary. In Omaha, the last few months have brought:
- a controversy over an appointed City Council member’s blog posts about race;
- a candidate severing ties with a video game streamer who made violent comments about protesters;
- the suspension and resumption of several mayoral campaigns after a tragic suicide;
- retirement announcements from both the city’s police chief and top Douglas County public health official on the same day;
- outsider candidates collecting high-profile endorsements from previous adversaries;
- inner-party disputes, both private and public;
- a diverse and passionate group of challengers for mayor and city council, many with more experience in nonprofits and grassroots organizing than politics; and
- the Douglas County Election Commission already sending out nearly 70,000 early ballots, which, combined with in-person Election Day turnout, could potentially triple the turnout of the last Omaha city election primary.
For many the message is simple: City leadership has sat on their hands long enough and people are fed up.
“It’s really important to understand that, like, yes, there are larger systemic issues that have always been talked about, right,” said Ja Keen Fox, an organizer and now political consultant for several Omaha City Council candidates. “But the solutions haven’t been derived from the people that are most impacted by those issues.”
Others don’t see it that way.
Although voter turnout exploded last year, disparities between who voted still exist. And while Joe Biden won Omaha, only the second time a Democrat’s done so, Democrats still lost Senate and Congressional races by wide margins. The appetite for change is just not there for many voters who want to talk about potholes more than police.
“What the activists want to be the issues are not aligning with what the voters are saying the issues are,” said Crystal Rhoades, former chair of the Douglas County Democrats and a current public service commissioner volunteering with three campaigns across the city. “So all the candidate forums are asking about affordable housing, and it seems to be a buzzword that a lot of candidates have right now. But when you’re making phone calls and knocking on doors and talking to the voters, that’s not what they’re talking about.”
But which candidates are viable and what a winning strategy looks like depend on who you talk to. It could be an election for the history books, or it could fizzle like a dud.
It comes down to names on a ballot and voters across a diverse and fractured city to collectively decide what future Omaha wants to seek.
Predictable Patterns and New Catalysts
Chris Carithers usually isn’t surprised at his job. The deputy election commissioner for Douglas County has overseen votes cast here since 2014. Like a lot of things in Nebraska, elections in the state’s most populous county and city follow pretty predictable paths. The same people tend to vote every time around the same issues that usually involve the nuts and bolts of life: trash pickup, roads, property taxes, etc. Although the elections are officially nonpartisan, city and county leadership will trade back and forth between Democrats and Republicans. But even then, most people tend to gravitate toward the center.
This year seems no different as old disparities in voter turnout seem to be repeating themselves with mail-in ballot requests.
“[East Omahans] requests for ballots for this election are running at 80% of their total turnout for the last one, which is great,” Carithers said in mid March. “That means there are more people involved. But if you look at [West Omaha] they already have 3,000 more people requesting ballots than voted. West Omaha’s more involved again.”
Even when Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District made history by casting its single electoral vote for Joe Biden, Republican Congressman Don Bacon beat his Democratic and more progressive challenger Kara Eastman by a wider margin than two years before. At the end it seems voters want to stay near a comfortable center rather than side with an extreme on either side of the aisle.
But that’s not to say the unpredictable hasn’t happened. In 1994 and 1997, Brenda Council led campaigns built on registering new voters in East Omaha and bridging gaps between disparate and segregated pockets of the city. Kimara Snipes, a current candidate for mayor, remembers knocking on doors for Council. Seeing another Black woman activated something in Snipes, who went on to lead the South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance and govern the state’s largest school district as a member of the Omaha Public Schools Board of Education.
“That was my first time ever knocking on doors for anything, not even my church.” Snipes said. “I didn’t even know her.”
Council lost by fewer than 1,000 votes in 1997, and the seed was planted that despite what the numbers say, neighborhood unity, strategic campaigning and a candidate representative of a marginalized community can at least get you very close to winning.
More than two decades later, Omaha has still never elected a Black mayor. Candidates like Harris and Snipes hope to change that.
Snipes, who’s been involved with politics since her family started holding internal elections in 1981, says she’s uniquely poised to unite different parts of the city. Harris has a background in public health and criminal justice reform, two key skill sets she says couldn’t be more applicable to progressing Omaha.
And they’re not the only ones championing equity. The remaining Democratic mayoral opponents, real estate broker RJ Neary and public school teacher Mark Gudgel, both say racial and social equity is a No. 1 priority along with halting the brain drain and addressing issues like climate change.
Nearly every candidate for mayor or city council has at least something to say about issues like the city’s affordable housing crisis. Most acknowledge Omaha is falling short in serving citizens equally. They also say Omaha needs to address how it polices, though what that means varies candidate to candidate.
The result is a candidate pool that’s actually not much larger than most years, Carithers said, it’s just filled with more viable candidates than ever.
That’s a win for activists like Fox.
“We achieved our first goal, which is to have every race contested,” he said. “And we’re seeing real ideas; we’re seeing people that have never had to really campaign against someone have to engage in the new ideas that we’re bringing. That’s the point.”
It all feels like it’s building up to something, said Gary Di Silvestro, a former advisor to Mayor Jim Suttle and the current campaign manager for Snipes. While others use history to paint a predictable image of Omaha, Di Silvestro sees it differently. Democrats have won the big races following changes in national leadership.
Suttle won following President Barack Obama’s historic win in 2008, the first time Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District went blue. John Cavanaugh won a seat in Congress in 1976 after Jimmy Carter replaced Richard Nixon, the first Democrat in more than two decades to represent the district.
And more than that, the type of people this race has attracted is an indication that people are ready for change.
“You know, we always say every election is a watershed election, right?” Di Silvestro said. “But this one genuinely is. Genuinely.”
Crystal Rhoades said she has spent her career trying to diversify politics.
The former Douglas County Democratic Party chair said she made it her mission to support and elect more LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC candidates. Now as a public service commissioner she’s not consulting as much, but she is volunteering to help with three campaigns her husband is working on: Sara Kohen in District 7, Danny Begley in District 3 and Vinny Palermo in District 2.
Despite her personal feelings about how Omaha should change, she said there’s one thing she has to remember: Voters don’t care what you think.
Especially this year, Rhoades said, voters don’t care about the same things that have made headlines throughout 2020. She said the 100,000-plus people she and others working on these campaigns have talked to want to hear about trash, roads and other perennial topics.
“If that’s what voters want to talk about, then you better talk to them about what they care about, because otherwise you’re just spending a lot of money and a lot of time talking about messaging that isn’t getting any traction,” she said.
Likewise, Jim Vokal, former Omaha City Council president and current executive director of the Platte Institute, a right-leaning thinktank said he doesn’t anticipate any shocking results this election. People are generally happy with Mayor Jean Stothert’s performance, he said, and the only races that could shift the city council’s political makeup are in heavily Republican districts out west and the purple District 5 around Millard. Still, name recognition, fundraising abilities and the short one-month turnaround from primary to general make this an uphill battle on all fronts.
“Here’s the deal,” Vokal said. “City elections are so quick. After you get through the primary, you only have six weeks to really digest some of the stuff. These are pretty big, comprehensive, emotional issues. How much of that can you really get into in a six-week campaign?”
Rhoades also said while money alone doesn’t win races, candidates have to raise a certain amount if they don’t want to get smothered by a barrage of ads.
Stothert had about $830,000 between cash on hand and funds raised by March 22, according to campaign finance records. That’s far more than her closest challenger, RJ Neary, who had about $500,000. And it’s even higher than people like Harris, who had about $83,000, as well as Gudgel, about $70,000, and Snipes, $56,000.
But candidates like Snipes say it’s not about how much you have, it’s about how you use it. Since starting her campaign Snipes has worked out of the Scooter’s Coffee conference room on 30th and Ames streets. When her car broke down, she took the bus to canvas.
For Rhoades it doesn’t matter how great a story someone has, they still have to listen and communicate with voters. That takes time, money and support that feels lacking among many candidates, especially in the mayoral race, which she doesn’t think the Democrats have a shot at winning. She hopes she’s wrong, though.
That perspective has caused friction between her and Fox, who has accused Rhoades of perpetuating white supremacy for working with Colleen Brennan, an Omaha City Councilmember who drew scrutiny for what some called racially questionable comments on her personal blog. Rhoades denied that she worked with Brennan and called Fox’s comments misogynistic, upsetting and said that he could “fuck off.” While the conversations activists have spurred are necessary, they’re not endemic of how most voters feel, Rhoades said. When asked if she feels like any activist-backed candidates are likely to win over Democrats she’s supporting, Rhoades said no.
“I’m not at all concerned about it,” she said.
To activists like Fox, discounting candidates running on issues of race, policing and equity is the same as discounting Black and brown voters. To Fox, that’s what perpetuating white supremacy looks like.
“I think the important thing to talk about is who the audience is,” Fox said. “We’re talking to Black and brown people on purpose, not because they have historically voted in high numbers, but because they’re the people most impacted by the issues. And if we’re talking about the issues that they care about, we can increase their voter turnout.”
While Fox recognizes Omahans can’t change their government overnight, he said people can change who they campaign for, gathering under a tentpole of moral ideas that will attract new voters and make others comfortable to join the coalition.
That process is already starting, Fox said. Even if no incumbents are unseated, politicians are having to fight for their jobs like never before. They’re getting involved in conversations about equity that have been hot topics in areas like North and South Omaha, but not citywide. Things are changing.
“This might take some time, and it might not happen in this election,” Fox said. “But we’re going to make this a normal part of living in Omaha, that candidates are speaking directly to the people impacted by those issues.”
Vokal agrees. He said while most Omahans still seem to want a government that manages basic necessities and gets out of the way otherwise, it’s irresponsible to assume the old ways of addressing race relations, policing and social inequality are going to work. Everyone needs to be a part of the conversation for changing Omaha.
“If you don’t address it. I think that’s noticeable,” Vokal said. “It doesn’t have to be your top focus, but it needs to be somewhat of a focus along with how do we deliver city services? …Given the last year, I think you’re pretty tone deaf if you’re a Republican, and you’re not addressing the importance of continuing conversation.”
Bigger Than Omaha
In a few days, Omaha will halve its herd of city government candidates. After primary day there might be surprises. There might be some “I told you so’s.” Not everyone will be happy, but maybe they’ll find common ground on which to compromise.
Because no matter what side you’re on, something does feel different about this election. Issues are getting discussed in a new way, and more people than ever will likely vote.
The city, state and country seem to be in a continued state of flux, a pressure that keeps building. It could lead to nothing. Just a dud that fizzles out. But many don’t think it will.
“People are looking at us,” Snipes said. “And they’re seeing us. We have to lead by example and show people that this is really possible. And we really can take this city, and push it forward … it’s so much bigger than just what’s happening in the mayoral race. This is something that’s going to trickle over into so many other things. But it’s gotta be done the right way.”