Omaha mayor says he has defeated recall effort

TIMBERLY ROSS - Associated Press
January 26, 2011
Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle delivers the State of the City address Friday, Jan. 21, 2011 in Omaha, Neb. Suttle faces a recall election on Jan. 25. (AP Photo/Dave Weaver)
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Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle delivers the State of the City address Friday, Jan. 21, 2011 in Omaha, Neb. Suttle faces a recall election on Jan. 25.

Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle on Tuesday declared himself the winner of a special election seeking his ouster over tax increases and contracts with the city's police and fire unions, although some ballots still had to be counted.

Recall spokesman Jeremy Aspen said he would not concede Tuesday night, but Suttle insisted he had enough votes to keep the job he has held since spring 2009.

"Omaha sent one important message today: We all care deeply about our city. . . . Let that one important trait carry us forward the next two years," Suttle said in his speech declaring victory.

"I respect the right of those to disagree and I want to reach out to those individuals as we move forward."

With all precincts reporting, 51.1 percent of voters opposed the recall and 48.9 percent supported it. Some provisional and early ballots still had to be counted, and election officials did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment on how many were left.

Suttle has said he never planned to raise taxes when he took office two years ago but that the city's unexpected financial mess left him no choice.

Recall threats are common in Nebraska's largest city, but seldom do those efforts actually reach the ballot. Tuesday's election was the first since 1987 in which voters had the opportunity to oust their mayor.

Voter Laura Harris, 26, said she is "not sure why people are so mad" about Suttle's job performance or why the recall election was even necessary. The Democrat said the process is too expensive and leaves questions about the city's future should Suttle be recalled, that's the mainly why she voted against it.

"I think it's ridiculous," she said. "It's just a response to an increase in taxes."

As a powerful Democrat in a deep-red state, Suttle says he felt targeted by Republicans since the moment he was declared the winner of the 2009 election. The anti-Suttle effort picked up steam around a year ago when he announced plans to raise property taxes, charge a fee on restaurant tabs and increase a vehicle tax to combat a projected $11 million shortfall for 2011, largely because of policies by his predecessors.

Although the tax hikes were hugely unpopular, they did help balance Omaha's books, turning the city's deficit into a $3.3 million surplus and helping to restoring its AAA bond rating.

Organizers of the recall effort insist it isn't about politics or about revisiting the 2009 mayoral campaign. They accuse Suttle of supporting excessive taxes, breaking his promises and pushing for changes that threaten the city's economic future.

The GOP 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. Nebraska voters haven't favored a Democrat for president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, although Barack Obama won one of the state's three electoral votes in the 2008 presidential election.

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. Of the more than 28,000 people who signed a petition seeking the recall, 48 percent were Republican, 35 percent were Democrats and 17 percent were in neither party.