Omaha mayor promotes unity after recall vote scare

JOSH FUNK - Associated Press
Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle greets supporters at a luncheon Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011 in Omaha, Neb.   (AP Photo/Dave Weaver)
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Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle greets supporters at a luncheon Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011 in Omaha, Neb.

Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle appears to have survived this week's recall election, but his narrow victory doesn't say much for the way he's run Nebraska's largest city.

Many voters may have disliked the idea of a recall — and its accompanying costs that could have reached $1 million — more than they disliked Suttle's leadership and tax hikes. Those voters helped save his job.

"I think it's pretty clear to even a casual observer that it's a coalition of supporters of the mayor and individuals who just oppose the idea of a recall. It's not necessarily a ringing endorsement of the mayor's policies," said Randy Adkins, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

The Democratic mayor will have to improve the way he communicates if he wants a good chance of winning a second term two years from now in this Republican-dominated state.

Suttle seems willing to try.

"It's time for a new start, a fresh start, but we need people coming together," he said on his way to a luncheon Wednesday. "There's no such thing as a Republican financial problem or a Democrat financial problem. These are Omaha financial problems."

Recall organizers conceded the race Wednesday afternoon. With all precincts reporting, 51.1 percent of the 76,039 votes counted so far opposed the recall, and Suttle had a 1,652-vote edge.

About 743 provisional ballots and 5,000 early ballots that arrived this week still need to be counted. The official count won't be completed until Feb. 4, and Douglas County election manager Justine Kessler said the totals won't be updated again before Friday.

Suttle's campaign manager David Dover said the remaining ballots wouldn't be enough to oust the mayor.

Recall spokesman Jeremy Aspen agreed Wednesday that the remaining votes wouldn't be enough to tip the balance in favor of recall.

But Aspen said he believes the recall campaign was worthwhile because it gave voters a chance to express their disapproval. He said he hopes Suttle gets the message and shows more willingness to consider other people's ideas.

"There is an unrest in the community about the direction the mayor is taking us," he said.

The effort to recall Suttle that began in earnest last year was fueled by displeasure with his plans to raise property taxes, charge a fee on restaurant tabs and increase a vehicle tax in response to a projected $11 million shortfall for 2011. Organizers accused Suttle of supporting excessive taxes, breaking his promises and pushing for changes that threaten the city's economic future.

But the tax increases helped the city generate a $3.3 million surplus by the end of 2010 and restore its AAA bond rating, meaning it can borrow money on more favorable terms. But the unpopularity of the measures helped recall organizers gather more than 28,000 signatures to force Tuesday's vote.

Suttle defended the tax hikes Wednesday and said Omaha will benefit in the years ahead despite the initial pain.

"We made the necessary decisions to get this city on a strong, stable foundation financially. That's my legacy," Suttle said.

The main messages of Suttle's anti-recall campaign that resonated with voters were that the recall process wasn't designed for this purpose — when voters are unhappy — and that it could be costly. Election officials estimated that Tuesday's vote would cost roughly $300,000, but if Suttle had lost, another election — and possibly a run-off — could have pushed the recall bill closer to $1 million.

Adkins, the political science professor, said Suttle needs to do a better job of explaining and promoting his policies to the public.

"I think the most important thing the mayor has to remember is that campaigns are not over when governing begins," Adkins said. "You have to not only govern, but you have to sell your policies."

The Republican party dominates politics in Nebraska, with a strong majority in the officially nonpartisan Legislature and a hold on most state and federal offices other than conservative Democrat Ben Nelson's U.S. Senate seat. But Omaha, a city of 440,000 people, is one of the few spots where Democrats can compete, with the party holding a slight edge in registered voters over Republicans.


Associated Press writer Timberly Ross contributed to this report.