Jim Suttle recall, Omaha, Nebraska (2011)
- 1 Election results
- 2 Suttle's tenure
- 3 Background
- 4 Opposition to recall
- 5 Events in campaign
- 6 Donors for and against
- 7 History
- 8 Process
- 9 See also
- 10 Additional reading
- 11 References
Suttle, a Democrat, has served as the Mayor of Omaha, Nebraska since June of 2009. He is not accused of breaking any laws and there is no single act being held up as the justification for a recall. Rather, the impetus for the recall campaign was citizen discontent with his performance.
At the heart of the recall is voter anger at a deal over police pensions that Suttle personally negotiated and increasing tax rates in the 2011 budget.
The recall effort attracted national attention and was cited by news sources such as Reuters and the New York Times as evidence of the growing use of recall amidst city budget problems and voter anger.
- Votes to recall Suttle: 35,786 (49.01%)
- Votes to retain Suttle: 37,233 (50.99%)
as of 9:33
- Votes to recall Suttle: 28,349 (49.00175%)
- Votes to retain Suttle: 28,351 (50.00176%)
as of 8:46
- Votes to recall Suttle: 18,974 (49.600%)
- Votes to retain Suttle: 19,280 (50.399%)
as of 8:17:
- Votes to recall Suttle: 13,342 (49.495%)
- Votes to retain Suttle: 13,625 (50.525%)
Under Suttle's mayoral stint, property taxes increased 15%, despite a campaign promise not to do so. The 'wheel tax' on cars grew more than 40%, from $35 to $50. Restaurants were also handed a 2.5% tax increase. Collectively, Omahans will pay $32.9 million in 2011 for those three items alone.
Suttle could have delayed some, or all, of the tax increases for one, or two, years. However, such a move would likely have led to charges that Suttle was buying time to consolidate support for himself against a recall and that he was failing to face Omaha's financial problems head-on. Even staunch opponents of his particular tax policies, such as Councilwoman Jean Stothert, agree there was never any way to pay police and firefighters pensions without huge tax increases to the citizens.
Suttle's numerous relatively small tax hikes also created the conditions for numerous groups, each with their own problems with Omaha's tax structure, to come together. While Suttle said he regretted none of the tax hikes and that he stood behind his decision to get the fiscal pain over with all at once, critics say he didn't do enough to cut costs before he began raising taxes.
The restaurant tax hike, in particular, resonated with petition signers and may have contributed to a general concern that the numerous tax increases on various services would never end under Suttle. Omaha eatery owners met with Suttle in the spring of 2010, after the Omaha City Council had shot down an earlier plan for an 'entertainment tax'. That proposal would have taxed restaurant meals, concert tickets, and other items. Shortly after meeting with the Omaha Restaurant Association, Suttle announced the 2.5% tax on restaurants only. Restauranteurs seethed, claiming Suttle had assured them he would continue to work on a tax evenly distributed across all entertainment businesses. Suttle claimed he had only said he would do his best on any tax and that ORA members had misunderstood him.
However, even as he faced recall, Suttle could boast that national bond rating agencies had slightly improved their assessment of Omaha. Speaking to reporters in his offices in January 2011, he decreed that his legacy would be, “Jim Suttle brought financial stability to the city's finances.”
Much of Omaha's debts and delayed projects were, Suttle insisted, incurred under his predecessors. The wheel tax was presented as a way to take care of deferred road maintenance and to build up the city's snowplow fleet after years of neglect. Tax increases to pay off police and fire pensions, currently running at a $620 million longterm shortfall, were connected to years of overpromised benefits and the city's debt from building the Qwest Center was cited in raising restaurant taxes.
2009 recall effort
Rumblings of voter discontent with Suttle began only months into his tenure. A poll executed by the Omaha Police Department asked residents in the Nebraska city whether or not Mayor Jim Suttle should be the target of a recall effort. Suttle was in the fourth month of his term in office and was just one of several topics brought up by the 25 minute phone survey, according to police union president Aaron Hanson.
According to reports, Hanson was asked whether or not the recall question was a tactic in the then-ongoing police contract negotiations; he declined to answer. Hanson also declined to give the results of the survey. He also stated, despite some people calling the survey counterproductive, that the recall question was “fair game”.
According to Hanson: “The buzz is there. There’s been discussion in certain circles....[we] wanted to take the pulse of the city of Omaha on a multitude of issues that are high priority today.”
According to resident Mark Paulsen, he stated he received a phone call on the evening of November 23, 2009. The caller stated that he was with a research group but declined to state who was funding the survey. According to Paulsen, “It was a survey about how the city was being run and my opinions about the mayor, questions if I would support a recall, if I would sign a recall. I think they're pro-recall, even though they didn't persuade me one way or another, their questions led you down a certain road, and that road was to recall the mayor."
The first sign of a recall came in July, 2010, when a losing legislative candidate, Anthony FastHorse, filed an affidavit for a recall with the Douglas County Courts. At that point, Mayor Suttle had 20 days to give a written reply. After that, FastHorse was legally able to pick up petitions and begin gathering signatures. Petitioners had 30 days to submit close to 27,000 valid signatures in order to move on to the next stage.
FastHose, who was unemployed at the time, told reporters he was frustrated by Suttle's proposal to meet a $33.5 million budget shortfall primarily with tax increases and that he felt the Mayor was consistently unwilling to listen to citizen input.
When, as July closed, Suttle went before 300 Omaha voters to defend his budget proposal for 2011, one man stood up and openly suggested the struggling politician “just resign”. The comment brought sustained applause. Containing $44 million in new taxes, the budget riled voters with enviable pensions for police and fire fighters and generous raises given to the Mayor's private staff. At that time, the recall effort was nascent and viewed by most as a longshot.
However, citing the need for more time to organize the petitioning effort, FastHorse withdrew his request the following month. While it was the end of one specific recall effort, it did not mean Suttle had escaped.
Recall committee formation
By mid-August, those in favor of removing Suttle from office had raised enough money that they were legally required to file with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission. Taking that as a cue, the Mayor Suttle Recall Committee went public on August 26, 2010. The hastily planned launch took place at a local steak house.
Around the same time, a second recall effort, that named Suttle along with two Omaha City Council members, was in the works. However, Lowen Kruse, a former state Senator who named his group the Omaha Citizens Coalition, was explicit that he wanted to promote debate but did not seek to remove anyone from office.
Shortly after Labor Day, the recall effort went online, at www.mayorsuttlerecall.com . The page accepted donations and asked for volunteers to act as petition circulators, it being illegal under Nebraska law to pay such workers.
Having monitored support among voters, the recall committee publicly announced, on September 20, 2010, it would indeed gather signatures, beating its own internally imposed deadline to make a decision of October 1, 2010. In response, Suttle quoted a $90,000 price tag for the recall and suggested such services as public libraries could be cut to pay for it.
On the morning the group affirmed it would petition voters, leadership announced a war chest of $35,000 and 150 volunteers already on board. The same day, the Douglas County Election Commission said Suttle's $90,000 price tag for a recall election was high. Coming to the Mayor's defense, his spokesman pointed out that Suttle took office in the midst of a financial meltdown and fellow Democrats in Douglas and Lincoln counties came to his defense, suggesting a partisan agenda and claiming that recalling an elected official was undermining Democratic principles.
Opposition to recall
Dick Holland, a retired executive who made a name for himself in Omaha as a philanthropist, announced the formation of The Committee to Keep Omaha Moving Forward, a political entity designed to counter the work of the recall committee. Holland downplayed the grievances that Suttle faced, saying recalls ought to be limited to actual crimes committed in office rather than voter dissatisfaction at a “tiny tax increase”. Too, state Senator Brad Ashford , whose Republican affiliation had put him at odds with Suttle in the past, announced he would back efforts to block the recall. For Ashford, the decision was grounded in a wish to avoid the distractions of a recall going forward.
Holland's group later shortened its name to 'Forward Omaha' and registered www.jimsuttle.com as its online hub.
Anti-recall efforts include air time
With petitioners set to go to work one week before the midterm elections, Forward Omaha began airing a 30 television clip five days out. While it never mentioned Suttle by name, the ad told viewers that, “On Election Day someone might illegally try to get you to sign a petition.”.
Anti-Recall Effort Starts
Days later, Jerry Aspen, co-chair and spokesman of the Recall Committee, confirmed his group would be following all laws about polling place behavior and petitioning. He told media that his group had 300 volunteers ready to go for Election Day.
Aspen's statement came on the heel of stories related to signature gathering at a sporting event, when allegations were made that petitioners supporting the recall harassed members of the public. Members of Holland's group were not at the event as organized monitors but as observers, something that led to their undertaking such plans for election day. Ahead of the Omaha Nighthawks game, held October 27, 2010, Mayor Suttle had asked for a set of agreed upon rules in petitioning. Jerry Aspen declined, saying manners and common sense were all volunteers needed as they collected signatures and that Suttle's desire to set ground rules was really an attempt to manipulate the petition process.
Ultimately, the recall advocates persuaded Citizens in Charge head Paul Jacobs, something of a superstar in citizen driven political activity, to join the effort in a consulting role for around two weeks. Jacobs introduced the idea of having petitioners set up recognizable booths in central areas, a move organizers credited with putting them over the top.
Events in campaign
Recall advocates begin paying circulators
Early talk of the number of volunteers on hand aside, the recall effort, on November 10, 2010, announced it would begin paying workers. At the time, they had only nine days left to turn in the necessary signatures. Spokesman Jerry Aspen declined to characterize how many signatures his groups already had or how close to the 26,642 threshold they were.
The move was a reversal of an earlier statement that the group would announce totals. Aspen explained the new direction by saying sharing the numbers would be a "no-win" situation for signature gatherers, going on to say that opponents of the recall could use either a high or low number of signatures gathered to spin the story their way.
The Election Day efforts focused on western Omaha, an area where Suttle's support had consistently been the weakest.
Suttle attacks signature gathering
Following the November 19, 2010 deadline for the Recall Committee to finish gathering signatures, Douglas County's Election Commission had 15 days to review the signatures. Working over the Thanksgiving holiday, overtime costs came to $32,400 for election staffers to assess and validate signatures.
While waiting to hear the Election Commissioner's ruling on signatures, Suttle gave an interview to The Knowledge Network, in which he admitted his office needed to do a better job with public relations and spoke to the issue of a broken campaign promise. Suttle had campaign vowing to cut property taxes, but his budget for 2011 in fact raised them. He defended this by saying he had no clear idea of the severity of Omaha's financial situation until after he was elected, when he sat down with the outgoing mayor to look at the city's debts and obligations.
During that same time, Suttle and his allies filed two lawsuits. The first, to expand the time available for examining signatures, failed. However, they were successful on the second case, a bid to procure a hearing for fraud allegations against petition circulators. In response to complaints that volunteers gathering signatures misrepresented Suttle's taxation schemes and improperly altered completed sheets of signatures, a December 20, 2010 hearing was scheduled.
During testimony, the recall group's expert, Paul Jacobs, testified that all signature gatherers has been schooled in petition law and had followed rules when gathering signatures. Specifically, he repudiated the testimony of petition circulators who said they were paid by the signature and given quotas to meet. Speaking to press outside the courtroom, Jacobs described Suttle's efforts as a "sideshow" designed to distract from the material facts behind the recall effort.
Dave Phipps, Election Commissioner for Douglas County, delivered a letter on December 13, 2010 stating his opinion that the petitioners had enough valid signatures to force an election. At that point, Suttle had five days to tender his resignation if he wished to avoid the recall election. The Mayor immediately announced he would not resign.
Gary Gernandt, President of the Omaha City Council, the man who would become acting Mayor in the event of a recall, said he did not feel Suttle's resignation was warranted. Gerandt opined that Suttle had not violated any law, though he said he would step in as Mayor pro tem if he had to.
Three days of testimony led to a judge's decision, just before Christmas, that the recall election would proceed, with the date set for January 25, 2011. Mayor Suttle was not in the courtroom to hear the decision and reiterated his stance that he would not resign. The Mayor's attorney, Vince Powers , stated he would not appeal to the Nebraska Supreme Court.
While January 25, 2011 had been the expected date for as long as the recall had been in play, it was officially set as the date by the Omaha City Council, which met on December 21, 2010 and voted 6-1 to set the date. Councilman Ben Gray voted in opposition, not from any problem with the date but from a belief that the recall ought not go forward. Speaking to press, Gray characterized the entire recall effort as a "farce."
Petitioners' efforts garnered 37,000 signatures. With 28,720 authenticated by state election workers, Suttle took the fight to the courts, alleging fraud. In support of his claim, he called half a dozen signatories who said their signatures were in fact forged, two circulators who testified they were illegally paid by the signature, and a handwriting expert who argued that numerous signatures were forged.
In making his decision, Peter Bataillon, a District Judge for Douglas County, noted that even giving Suttle's legal team the benefit of the doubt and throwing out some 1,700 signatures, petitioners still had enough valid names to force the election. Legally, the recall team only needed 26,642 signatures.
The legal action also opened up an avenue for the Nevada Supreme Court to address the law surrounding compensation for signature gatherers. Currently, they may be paid an hourly wage but they may not be offered a commission contingent on gathering certain numbers of signatures, nor may they be paid a flat fee per signature. The Recall Committee agreed it paid workers by the hours but denied the story of one worker that he was eventually switched to a payment scheme where he was compensated for each signature.
Tension within recall group
Shortly after signatures were turned in at the end of November, the Recall Committee faced a schism. Republican David Nabity, an unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate in the past, admitted plans to start a second recall group. However, Nabity denied charges made by attorney John Chatelain that he had trying to take over the initial Recall Committee.
Nabity, through reaching out to a circle of wealthy friends, was responsible for the vast majority of the money the group brought in, something both he and Chatelain stipulated to. He was also the man who convinced Paul Jacobs to become involved in the recall effort.
However, Nabity denied he had tried to parlay that into control of the group. The two men also were at odds over how Nabity came to be affiliated with the Recall Committee. Nabity claimed he had long supported ousting Suttle and that the group had come to him. Chatelain demurred, saying Nabity had approached the group, looking for a way to be involved.
Also at issue were Nabity's future political aspirations. In the event of a successful recall and subsequent special election, he was rumored to be eyeing a mayoral run.
Citizens for Omaha's Future splits off
David Nabity did indeed act on his discontent with Jim Aspen's group when he kicked off 'Citizens for Omaha's Future' The Mayor Suttle Recall Committee, field by donations from Nabity's affluent frends, confirmed it had not raised any money since December 21, 2010.
Suttle campaign and homeless voters
Suttle address the homeless allegations
The pro-Suttle campaign, Forward Omaha, came under fire in mid-January when it was reported by the Omaha World Herald that:
"A group funded by the mayor on Wednesday picked up and drove three busloads of people — many of them homeless — to the Douglas County Election Commissioner's Office in west Omaha.
Some of the homeless were paid $5 by Forward Omaha, the main group opposing the effort to recall the mayor — and a group that has Suttle's backing.One homeless man, Michael Sergeon, first told reporters he was paid $5 to vote. A few minutes later, Sergeon retracted his statement, saying he was paid $5 to hand out brochures for the campaign."
The voters were transported from a local shelter, the Siena-Francis House, to polling place for January 12, 2011 early voting. That the people brough in by bus both voted and participated in recruitment and training activities became a core part of complaints.
One participant said a woman stood next to the bus as people exited, telling each person to vote "no" and that the same woman stayed near the groups as the approached voting booths, once more telling them to vote against the recall.
A spokesman for the Mayor Suttle Recall Committee said, "If they're taking people to the polls because there is a valid need, it's noble. But if they're taking advantage of vulnerable people and coaching them, that's wrong."
Suttle's initial reaction to the move had been to point to veteran status of many homeless citizens of Omaha, saying, "They’ve served in our military. They’ve fallen on hard times. Don’t they have a right to vote?"
On January 13, 2011, Mayor Suttle's office issued a statement that said that combining transportation and recruitment,as Forward Omaha did, was an "error in judgment."
The remainder of the early voting week saw a spike in turnout, possible related to the allegations of paying for votes. Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps also reported being approached by people who said they wanted to change their vote, either claiming to have been coached into voting or wanting to change their choice after hearing the story.
Even if anyone is convicted, bribing someone for a vote is only a misdemeanor under Nebraska law. The Nebraska State Patrol launched an investigation but indicated it was not likely to wrap up ahead of the recall election. The investigation was, in fact, anticipated to take several months, in part because contacting witnesses will require tracking down 80 homeless people.
Nebraska Revised Statutes, regarding bribery, read:
"Any person who accepts or receives any valuable thing as a consideration for his or her vote for any person to be voted for at any election shall be guilty of a Class II misdemeanor. Any person who, by bribery, attempts to influence any voter of this state in voting, uses any threat to procure any voter to vote contrary to the inclination of such voter, or deters any voter from voting shall be guilty of a Class II misdemeanor."
"No person shall do any electioneering, circulate petitions or perform any action that involves solicitation within any polling place or any building designated for voters to cast ballots by the election commissioner or county clerk pursuant to the Election Act while the polling place or building is set up for voters to cast ballots or within 200 feet of any such polling place or building. Any person violating this section shall be guilty of a Class V misdemeanor."
The aftermath of the homeless busing flap meant a change in leadership at Forward Omaha. David Dover took over the group as a whole and Marlon Freeman came on board to head the voter transportation program, focusing on continuing to drive voters to polls while avoiding a repeat of the early voting problems.
Donors for and against
During the petition circulation time, supporters of the recall kept the identity of donors private. To do so, they took advantage of a state law that allows recall organizers to decline to identify donors until a date for a recall election has been set. When donors were named after the court decision, supporters of ousting Suttle were found to have come heavily from Omaha's business community, particularly the restaurant and hotel sectors, which stood to take tax hits under Suttle's proposed budget Small donors, who did not give enough to be bound to provide a name, accounted for around $2,000, as well.
Forward Omaha was specifically created to oppose Suttle's recall. The bulk of the group's funding came from Suttle's campaign, in the form of advertising and consulting services. Forward Omaha saw most of its fundraising, which included $70,000 in cash, come in after September 2010, when the recall petition began to pick up steam. What cash outlays have been made went to mailing and, as supporters attempted to keep the petition from gaining enough certified signatures to trigger an election, professional handwriting analysis.
From December 1 – 21, 2010, the group reported $60,000 cash on hand. By comparison, Suttle, working on his own campaign, brought in $250,000 in the same span.
Once Nabity's 'Citizens for Omaha's Future splits from the 'Mayor Suttle Recall Committee' at the end of 2010, the latter reported no donations for the December 22, 2010 - January 18, 2011 span.
Suttle, however, did bring in big dollars. In the first few days after he was confronted with allegations of having paid for votes, combined donations to 'Forward Omaha', the recall committee supporting Suttle, and to Suttle's personal campaign chest, were $22,000.
However impressive $22,000 in two days was, efforts to recall Suttle clobbered that number. After news of driving voters to polls and paying them broke, eight major donors gave $80,000 in three days - all aimed at ousting Suttle. One donor, MECA chair David Sokol, wrote a $50,000 check. That Sokol, whose name frequently comes up as a likely successor to Berkshire Hathaway giant Warren Buffet, sits on the board of the Qwest Center had added interest, as serving the debt Omaha incurred in building the Center was a key justification for Suttle's tax hikes.
On Suttle's side, philanthropist Dick Holland also gave $50,000. While that matched Sokol, the overall flavor of donations in late December and January favored those working for the recall. Forward Omaha, the pro-Suttle group, reported $79,000 since January 10, 2011, meaning that Holland's check and money raised immediately after the busing scandal focused media attention were the overwhelming bulk of the group's take.
Going into election day, January 25, 2011, those supporting the recall had a financial edge. Citizens for Omaha's Future reported $40,050 and the Committee to Recall Mayor Jim Suttle raised $307,227,63, for a total of $347,277.63. On the other side, Forward Omaha reported $242,133.69 and Dick Holland's Committee to Keep Omaha Moving Forward brought in $39,350.00, for a total of $281,483.69 and giving a 23% lead in fundraising to recall supporters.
Nebraskans have ousted a Mayor before. In 1987, Omaha voters rejected Mike Boyle, whose mayoral tenure was marked by feuding with city police and reports of erratic behavior.
Jim Clearly, spokesman for and a key figure in the Boyle recall, joined the Suttle recall efforts in late August 2010.
The recall election itself is a simple majority contest.
If the recall election fails, the sitting mayor may not be recalled again for one year.
In the event of a successful recall, a new mayor is elected within 90 to 150 days, a timespan that would fall sometime between April 24, 2011 and June 23, 2011. The winning candidate would need a simple majority to avoid a runoff. That runoff would itself take place 21 to 45 days after the intial balloting.
A replacement for Suttle would take office by July 2011 and complete Suttle's term, which ends in 2013.
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- The Omaha World Herald, "Bribing a voter not a felony," January 19, 2011
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- [Omaha World Herlad, “Anti-recall group raises $245K”, December 29, 2010
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- The Omaha World Herald, "Recall donations followed buses," January 19, 2011
- The Omaha World Herald, "Omaha Mayor Suttle recall contributions," accessed January 25, 2011
- Nebraska Watchdog, “Exclusive: Cleary Involved in Possible Suttle Recall”, August 23, 2010
- Nebraska Watchdog, “Exclusive: Next Mayor-Next May? June? July?”, September 23, 2010
- The Omaha World Herald, "If recall OK'd, who's next?," January 24, 2011