Newly chastened, Omaha's Mayor vows to get back to work

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January 26, 2011

By Eileen McGuire-Mahony

OMAHA, Nebraska: Mayor Jim Suttle just barely still has a job, and he says he gets the message, now.

75,000 people turned out, almost as many as cost ballots in the 2009 election that made Suttle the Mayor of Omaha. By 2.2%, the recall has failed, pending the February 5, 2011 certification of the vote.[1]

Late yesterday, the Democrat gave a preemptive victory speech when the final results of the night showed him to be ahead, uttering a politically classic phrase: “...we must begin a time of healing and reconciliation.”[2] Suttle's inaccessibility to citizens and his perceived unwillingness to listen to input from concerned voters were big parts of the recall effort. Last fall, when his opponents were gathering petition signatures and when Suttle was trying to head off those efforts, the Mayor did admit on a radio interview that he had failed to listen to average Omahans and that his office needed to revamp its PR strategy.

However, the other part of the anger that came within points of ousting the Mayor is related to taxes. Only months after taking office, Suttle's first budget demanded 15% more in property taxes from his citizens, this despite a campaign promise not to raise property taxes at all. Suttle argued that he had not understood the severity of Omaha's fiscal shortfall when he made that promise, but it did little to soothe homeowners.


Suttle's policies hit voters right in the wallet

Next came a 42% bump in the wheel tax on and a 2.5% increase in the tax on all restaurant meals and bar tabs. The latter ended up showing just what outraged eatery owners are capable of. Campaign finance reports showed the restaurant sector was a major donor to the recall committee. A key complaint members of the Omaha Restaurant Association made was that, in a spring 2010 meeting with Suttle, the Mayor had promised he would leverage a broader 'entertainment tax'. When he instead announced a tax that fell only on restaurants, ORA members cried foul; Suttle maintained he had only promised to try for a wider tax and that business owners had misunderstood him.

The numerous tax increases made it easy for varying groups to get together behind shared grievances. They also gave rise to fears that Suttle would continue to add new taxes across sectors of the economy. The immediacy with which Suttle announced the news taxes also became a sticking point. Critics, some of whom were unwilling to go so far as backing the recall, still opined that the Mayor should have spent more time cutting spending and listening to proposals. Instead, he almost doubled salaries for some members of his private staff and leased an SUV for his personal use.

Suttle and his supporters referred to recall efforts as a “farce” and a “waste of time”, suggesting that voters should wait until the next election, in 2013, if they disliked their Mayor. They also played up the potential costs of a special election and the chance the Omaha might not necessarily get anyone better, while blaming the city's deficit on Suttle's predecessors. Omaha does have major financial woes; much does owe to years of overpromised benefits and neglecting infrastructure. The worst is a $620 million longterm shortfall in pension obligations to police and firefighters; taxpayers will pay $18 million in 2011 toward those pensions. After Suttle personally negotiated a deal with the police and fire unions, which was publicly seen as caving in to the unions and passing costs on to strapped citizens, the pension issue became part of the recall.

An unusual recall tests new waters

What recall supporters never had was any actual crime or single incident to justify the recall. Instead, the petition named broken campaign promises and poor performance. That made the recall a remarkable experiment in citizen driven political activities. Ultimately, the test to see if general dissatisfaction and low approval could pass muster with voters as a reason to oust an elected official failed. Still, voter unease at voting out Suttle without an actual high crime is probably the reason Suttle survived the recall. Approval ratings and voter surveys make it clear that Suttle has been low in citizens' eyes for most of his tenure; recall advocates just weren't able to convince enough of those people to vote for removing Suttle.

The Mayor is now legally protected from a second recall effort for one year and will likely finish his term. Some argue this means Suttle has cleared a major cloud that hung over him and has an opportunity to make a fresh start. Former Republican state chair David Kramer said, “the bottom line is: people said they wanted him to stay on as mayor.” If Suttle can shore up his approval ratings in his remaining time in office, he could become the comeback kid everyone loves. But not everyone is so sanguine. Political scientist Randy Adkins saw a different message in the results; “This is not any type of vindication for the mayor. This isn't going to change his approval rating.”

Now what?

On election day, updates were released every 45 minutes starting after polls closed. For most of the night, Suttle was barely above water, having a microscopic two-vote edge at one point. The final tally included all 284 precincts and early votes but not the absentee ballots. At that point, Suttle was up by 1,652 and recall leaders conceded it was unlikely the remaining ballots would give them a win.[3] If Suttle changes the tone of his governance, recall supporters might still count it as a partial win. Indeed, it does look like the Mayor will be newly accessible so long as the memory of the recall is fresh.

Taxation is a bigger problems; with laws passed and budgets approved, it would take a not insignificant effort to change that. And the enviable, fully packed pensions for police officers and fire fighters aren't going anywhere without a fresh round of union negotiations. That labor leaders would make major concessions to save Suttle's hopes of a second term is unlikely.

One thing that is certain is that two years is a long time both for Suttle to capitalize on his narrow victory and for his opponents to buttress their case against him.