Omaha Voters Will Decide Mayor, Council Next Week

By 
Scott Stewart
The Daily Record

Voters will go to the polls Tuesday, or finish casting their absentee ballots, to select leaders for the City of Omaha.

All seven seats on the City Council are up for election, as well as the Mayor’s Office. In addition, Douglas County West Community Schools is wrapping up a school bond election.

The Daily Record surveyed candidates in advance of the primary election last month about their views. The full responses, or a brief summary of the candidate for those who didn’t reply, is available at omahadailyrecord.com/election.

Here’s a look at each race on the ballot: Mayor

Incumbent Jean Stothert, a Republican, faces challenger RJ Neary, a Democrat, to lead the city’s executive branch in the coming years.

Stothert received a dominating 47,976 votes in the primary, while Neary received 13,166. A total of 84,809 votes for mayor were cast in the primary.

Neary is chairman of Investors Realty, and Stothert is the full-time mayor and a former nurse.

In a news release, Stothert said she is running for office “to continue the work I love in a city I love even more. We are moving in the right direction.”

Stothert’s campaign notes her record includes eight balanced budgets, stable city finances, a reduction in serious crime and a record number of police officers on duty. During her administration, property tax rates have been cut twice. Stothert’s office recently announced new developments and other initiative, such as an annexation package.

The mayor championed the $200 million “Road Map to Better Streets” bond, which voters overwhelmingly approved last spring. Implementing the new program will be one of the most significant financial and community improvement initiatives in Omaha history

Stothert’s campaign website lists COVID-19 recovery, public safety, better roads, economic growth, lower taxes and a more welcoming city as key priorities.

Neary served in many leadership roles in Omaha, including as chair of the Omaha Planning Board.

“Under my leadership, I will make Omaha a city of the future. I will correct the city services, and make sure that we get the basics done right,” Neary told The Daily Record. “I will improve our processes and bring new programs and initiatives that provide Omahans with the changes that they want to see in our city. My Pathway to the Future will serve as what you can expect from me as the next mayor of Omaha.”

Neary said that Omaha struggles with racial inequality, which has become more challenging during the coronavirus pandemic. He citied redlining, racialized zoning, segregation and predatory lending as examples of public policies that have caused racial inequality.

“Omaha can do better and I am committed to meaningful racial equity as your next mayor,” Neary said.

District 1

Incumbent Pete Festersen, a Democrat, more than doubled the votes for challenger Sarah Johnson, an independent, in last month’s primary results.

Festersen had 7,416 votes versus 3,327  for Johnson.

Johnson ran the Omaha Bicycle Company in Benson from 2012 to 2019 and is a founding member of Mode Shift Omaha, which works to improve mobility equity.

“As a small business owner and nonprofit volunteer coordinator, I know the importance of bringing people together to accomplish a common goal, and I know how to get things done as a team,” Johnson told The Daily Record. “I’ve managed a successful business and been an active member of my neighborhood community. I work hard and value honesty and accountability.”

Festersen is vice president of strategy and public affairs for CHI Health and was first elected to the City Council in 2009.

“We need proven leadership that can bring people together during these challenging times,” Festersen told The Daily Record. “I have always been impressed with what can be accomplished in our community when there is a shared sense of purpose between government, business and philanthropy and facilitating that shared vision has been my track record.

District 2

Incumbent Ben Gray faces Juanita Johnson, who squeaked by a strong third-place finisher out of a field of six Democrats who ran for the seat last month.

Gray received 2,615 votes to Johnson’s 1,503, but a total of 6,647 votes were cast in the primary.

Gray told The Daily Record he has 12 years of experience on the City Council and previously had covered city hall for more than 20 years as a journalist.

“I have the ability, the contacts and connections to seriously get things done,” Gray said, noting the acute need for affordable housing and addressing racism as among his priorities.

Johnson is a community organizer in North Omaha chair of the 24th Street Corridor Alliance and a member of the Long School Neighborhood Association

“I believe progress happens when we empower the people to chart their own paths,” Juanita wrote on her campaign Facebook page.

District 3

Chris Jerram didn’t seek reelection, leaving an opportunity for Danny Begley and Cammy Watkins to compete for election to the Omaha City Council.

Watkins received 4,124 votes in the primary, just shy of Begley’s 4,230 out of a total 11,131 votes cast.

Begley, a Democrat, is a claims representative who has worked for the Omaha Public Power District for many years. Watkins, who is nonpartisan, is a community-based organizer and activist who is deputy director at Inclusive Communities.

My focus is on what is best for the community and the people of Omaha, especially the most underserved. I believe in order for all of us to thrive, the least among us must thrive,” Watkins told The Daily Record. “I chose to run for public office because I have a unique perspective and experience as an activist and community leader that is not well represented on our City Council today. I recognized that many members of our community were being excluded from the conversation about the future of Omaha.”

“I’m skilled at problem solving in difficult situations involving competing interests and know how to find solutions that work for everyone,” Begley told The Daily Record. “We need to focus on improving our city infrastructure and providing living wage jobs. The number of unemployed and underemployed people has skyrocketed during this pandemic and the council needs to lead the way on our recovery. I will work to advance projects that improve our infrastructure like our roads and provide fair pay and safe working conditions.”

District 4

Incumbent Vinny Palermo, a Democrat, faces a challenge from Republican Becky Barrientos-Patlan.

Palermo had a comfortable advantage in the primary, receiving 2,927 votes to Barrientos-Patlan’s 1,417.

Barrientos-Patlan is the founder of the Burlington Road Neighborhood Association. Barrientos-Patlan told the Voter Information Project her priorities include law enforcement and quality of life in South Omaha.

She told The Omaha World-Herald that she would vote to end the mask mandate. In a World-Herald profile, Barrientos-Patlan described herself as the “Pro-God, Pro-Family, Pro-Veteran, Pro-Life, Pro-Active Transparent, Councilwoman!”

Palermo is the current Omaha City Council vice president and also serves on the police and fire pension board. In 2019, Palermo admitted in federal court to not filing income tax returns for three years. He was sentenced to four years of probation.

“Being on the City Council has been my dream job,” Palmero said in a campaign ad on his website. “By helping people, we make our community stronger, and that’s been my driving force since Day 1.”

District 5

A seven-way race in the primary unseated incumbent Colleen Brennan, who was appointed earlier this year. Instead, Democrat Patrick Leahy squares off with Republican Don Rowe.

Rowe received 2,554 votes to Leahy’s 2,480, both out of a total 13,218 votes cast during the primary.

Rowe is vice president of sales at Millard Lumber. Leahy is a senior architect at CMBA Architects.

“Omaha needs steady leadership to make Omaha Better,” Leahy said on his campaign website. “My work as a healthcare architect and urban planner gives me unique knowledge and skills to develop solutions.”

“My hope is that Omaha continues to grow and develop into a city that is welcoming, safe and affordable,” Rowe told The Daily Record. “My neighbors are hard-working people that want to make a good life for themselves and their families.”

District 6

Incumbent Brinker Harding, a Republican, held a advantage over challenger Naomi Hattaway, a Democrat, in last month’s primary.

Harding received 10,202 votes to Hattaway’s 6,444, with no other candidates vying to be on the May ballot.

Both candidates are real estate professionals. Hattaway is a nonprofit consultant and licensed Realtor who has worked on affordable housing. Harding is a senior vice president at Colliers International.

“I have served the City of Omaha in government and in the private sector nearly my entire life,” Harding told The Daily Record. “After serving as the chief of staff to Mayor Hal Daub and working in the Omaha real estate community, I saw firsthand what could be accomplished through honest public service and commitment to our community.”

“I am running for this seat, and in this time, because West Omaha needs a proactive leader who is willing to actually represent the individuals and families who make up the fabric of this city, and not defer to developers,” Hattaway told The Daily Record. “My vision is that we have an Omaha for everyone, and that vision is not out of reach.”

 

District 7

Incumbent Aimee Melton, a Republican, is facing a strong challenge from Democrat Sara Kohen.

Only 53 votes separated them in the primary, with Melton having the edge in the 7,121 to 7,068 result.

Both women are attorneys. Melton is a founding partner of Reagan, Melton & Delaney LLP. Kohen is the director of advancement for the Friedel Jewish Academy, where she does some in-house legal work.

Melton told The Daily Record that her top priorities include public safety and infrastructure.

“The biggest issue Omaha faces is economic recovery and development due to the COVID pandemic.  We need to ensure that the jobs lost are replaced; that families do not lose their homes; and all our businesses are able to recover and prosper once again,” Melton said.

Kohen told The Daily Record that her priorities include creating jobs and addressing climate change.

“Our community, like many, has become divided. We need to listen to people and let them know what their city government is doing. We also need to pay attention to the details, use common sense, and bring people across our community together around solutions,” Kohen said.

DC West School Bond

In addition to the Omaha city elections, voters in the Douglas County West Community Schools are being asked to vote on a $16.8 million school bond.

The mail-in election will determine if the DC West Community Schools can construction additions to its secondary school facilities in Valley including an addition to the middle school, a fine arts classroom, an auditorium and a restroom/concession facility for the softball field complex. The money would also be used to renovate portions of the existing secondary school facilities, including the middle school, weight room, wrestling/cardio room and high school locker rooms.

The school district states that it plans to shift 7 cents from its building and general funds to the bond fund for the project, so it does not plan to raise its tax levy. A public vote is needed to issue bonds for the project.

Find more on the bond issue from the district at sites.google.com/dcwest.org/dc-west-bond-proposal.

DC West ballots must be returned by 5 p.m. Tuesday, so ballots not in the mail should be taken to a drop box, such as the one located at the Elkhorn Public Library.

Voting Information

Polls will be open Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in Omaha, and all absentee ballots are due back before 8 p.m. to be counted.

Voters must live within the City of Omaha boundaries to be eligible to vote in this election. There will be 174 different polling places open. Registered voters who missed the deadline to update their information or who lost or ruined an absentee ballot may vote a provisional ballot.

Results will be released on votedouglascounty.com as they’re available. Typically, final unofficial results are available the week after the election.

For more voter information, contact 402-444-VOTE (8683) or visit the Douglas County Election Commission website, votedouglascounty.com.

Daily Record writers Derek Noehren, David Golbitz and Molly Ashford contributed to this report.

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