Will Omaha give the Mayor his walking papers?

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January 25, 2011

By Eileen McGuire-Mahony

Nebraska voters are minutes away from learning if a recall effort to oust Omaha's embattled Mayor, Democrat Jim Suttle, will succeed.

Elected in 2009, Suttle has faced challenge and controversy since the beginning. Tax hikes, broken campaign promises, generous pensions to some city employees, and a failure to listen to citizens all played a role. The Mayor's office agreed he needed to do a better job of fostering public engagement and citizen input. Yet, Suttle has stood by his tax policy, pointing to existing deficits and blaming his predecessors for creating many of Omaha's problems.

Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle

An early initiative effort fell apart but the momentum to recall Suttle continued. Beginning last autumn, political opponents of Suttle began raising money and collecting signatures. They turned in enough to survive a court battle and calendared a special recall election for today, January 25, 2011. Those in favor of retaining the mayor fought back, forming their own committees and waging a press offensive, in which recall efforts were characterized as a waste of time.

Suttle finds himself in an unusual predicament. Even his strongest opponents agree he has violated no law and there is no specific incident held up as the cause for recalling him. Instead, it is his overall performance that proponents say has failed the citizens.

Held on a freezing Nebraska winter day and scheduled apart from any other ballot issues, Suttle's recall hinges on turnout. The Douglas County, Nebraska Election Office declined to make predictions, saying the very nature of special elections defies prediction. But, if voters do give Suttle the boot, Omaha, which recalled Mike Boyle in 1987, will be the only city in America to have recalled two mayors.

Here are some things to watch for:

  • A scandal during early voting when Suttle admitted to busing homeless people to the polls and paying them led to spikes in fundraising for both sides and a surge in voter turnout for the next several days. Suttle's supporters have sought to bury the incident but any lingering reaction to it could drive turnout and voting decisions.
  • Suttle's major support has come from Dems and organized labor has been an important ally. Surveys indicate sentiment about ousting Suttle is breaking along party lines, something that may prove true all the way through and that could turn the election.
  • What was a single recall committee split in two at the end of 2010. Tbe man who formed a second committee is widely thought to harbor aims to be Mayor of Omaha himself. His wealthy friends bankrolled the petition drive and, once he moved on to his own group, donations to the first group dropped. Overall, those in favor of recalling Suttle still have outraised the Mayor's friends. If Suttle holds his seat, schisming among recall activists will get some blame.

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