Tag Archives: politics

Mob Wild

March 2, 2017 by
Illustration by Derek Joy

When Mayor Jean Stothert faces Nebraska State Senator Heath Mello and any other challengers in the upcoming mayoral election, no one is expecting any donnybrooks, free-for-alls, fracas, or melees.

Thank goodness.

The most violent city politics has become in recent memory is perhaps when then-Mayor Mike Boyle tossed a foil-wrapped pat of butter at a county corrections official in 1985.

There was a time, though, when Omaha politics drew the scorn of the nation and nearly got a sitting mayor hung.

Omaha in 1919 seemed more like some outpost in the Wild, Wild West. It was a time rife with prostitution rings, bootlegging, and gambling. And a time of nicknames: “Cowboy” Jim Dahlman, Omaha’s longest-tenured mayor ever; Dean “Lily White” Ringer, the police commissioner; and the “The Old Gray Wolf”—political boss Tom Dennison.

Many Omahans know the most tragic part of the tale —the lynching of Will Brown, a black man accused of assaulting a white woman Sept. 25 that year (to his end, Brown maintained his innocence).

Less known, though, is that then-Omaha Mayor Edward Smith was hanged because he tried to defend Brown outside the country courthouse where Brown was being held in police custody. Smith was facing a mob of 4,000 people shattering windows and breaking doors. They grabbed files of the district court, doused them with gasoline and set them ablaze. They burned police cars and cut fire hoses.

Smith tried to reason with the angry crowd. Instead, someone smashed him over the right eye with “a blunt instrument or a brick,” reported the Omaha World-Herald. He was knocked unconscious then dragged through the street and a noose put around his neck — three times. The last time, the rope was thrown over the arm of a traffic signal tower and cinched tight. His body rose in the air.

What happened next isn’t clear. According to now-deceased UNO Political Science Professor Orville Menard in his book, River City Empire: Tom Dennison’s Omaha, it appears four lawmen played some role in cutting the rope, pulling the mayor to safety, and driving him to Ford Hospital.

“They can’t have him,” the World-Herald reported Smith saying in a delirium in the hospital, “Mob rule shall not prevail in Omaha.”

Sadly, mob rule did prevail, for at least a day. They grabbed Brown, beat him unconscious, stripped him of his clothes and hanged him an hour shy of midnight. The crowd then riddled his body with bullets, dragged it behind a car to 17th and Dodge streets, and burned it.

The mayor, however, would recover. Two years later, though, he was out of office, with Dennison’s buddy Dahlman earning re-election and serving until 1930 (he’d also been mayor from 1906 to 1918).

The World-Herald would earn a Pulitzer Prize with its editorial “Law and the Jungle.”

“Omaha Sunday was disgraced and humiliated by a monstrous object lesson of what jungle rule means,” the paper wrote.

In the aftermath, some wondered if it was Dennison’s men who donned blackface to attack white women, hoping to strike a match of racial strife that would lead to chaos and unseat Smith.

Nothing was proven.

“What does seem clear is …  Will Brown was the victim of political machinations,” Menard wrote.

Smith, too.

Jean vs. Heath? Not the most colorful names.

But boring is good.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Encounter.

13 Hours in Benghazi

July 17, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article was featured in July/August 2015 Omaha Magazine.

The chaotic scene in Benghazi, Libya, the night of Sept. 11, 2012, looked like something out of a Michael Bay movie.

Just after 9 p.m., more than 100 Islamic militants flooded the U.S. embassy compound there, forcing a small group of American diplomats and security personnel into a frantic retreat to a safe room hidden within the compound.

One mile away, Omahan Kris Paronto, a former Army Ranger, sat watching a movie with fellow members of the secretive CIA security force known as the Global Response Staff. Then came the distress call from the compound: An urgent cry to “Get in here—NOW!” amid explosions and Jihadist cries of “Allahu Akbar.”

The ensuing rolling battle placed Paronto not only in the crosshairs of Libyan extremists, but, back in the United States, in the crosshairs of one of the most politicized events of the 21st Century. Benghazi.

Benghazi. The death of two American diplomats, including American ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, who died of smoke inhalation in that safe room. The fact that Paronto and his team—two of whom died in the skirmishes that followed—were told to stand down by the region’s CIA chief (orders that Paronto and his team soon disobeyed).

How could this all happen? Who was responsible for the intelligence and security lapses? Liberal conspiracy, or conspiracy theory of conservatives? Politicos in the 24-hour news cycle droned overtime.

This firestorm in which Kris Paronto found himself not only looked like something out of a Michael Bay movie, it will actually be a Michael Bay movie. And in that movie, and the book that inspired that movie, will be a character named Kris Paronto.

Paronto is now back in Omaha living what may be called a normal life with his wife, a son he calls “Bubba,” and a daughter he calls “Princess.” He takes long runs and rides his bike to clear his mind of the ghosts that haunt him. He resumed his insurance-adjusting business.

In the months following September 2012, the hourly barrage of news about this horrific ordeal died down, but what trickled out to the public was, in Paronto’s mind, grossly twisted into a political nightmare.

The surviving members of the team met in Langley, Virginia, that May to honor their fallen comrades. Following the formal service, they gathered at a bar, where they toasted the deceased. As the nearly unavoidable subject of politics arose, Paronto discovered he was not the only team member disgusted with the media’s portrayal of Benghazi.

“What the hell?” Paronto says, shaking his head.

The only way to tell the correct story would be to tell it themselves. It was then they determined they needed to write the story—as a team effort.

They had to stick together, as they were not supposed to mention the attack to anyone, let alone write a book.

“We kept getting treated badly by the CIA,” Paronto said. “We had to sign a bunch of non-disclosure agreements.”

But Paronto maintains this is the truth, and he tired of biting his tongue and clenching his fists when he heard inaccuracies on the news.

“It really bothers me when whatever side you’re on goes too far to further their cause,” Paronto says. “Battles aren’t political. You’re trying to live and they’re trying to live. We did not speculate what was going on in the head shed.”

Paronto is political in his own right. He’s a conservative-minded patriot with several tattoos, including one that looks as though his skin is being ripped open to reveal an American flag in his core.

He considers himself a warrior not just for the U.S., but for God, though personally, he’s more of a C&E’r, as in Christmas and Easter churchgoer. He sometimes attends Gethsemane Lutheran Church outside of the holidays and is a member of Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

A plan of counter-political attack made, Paronto contacted his friend Richard Abate, literary agent for author Mitchell Zuckhoff. Paronto previously read Zuckhoff’s book Lost in Shangri-La, and knew that the seasoned journalist and Boston University College of Communication professor could write the story well.

“This was the first book that came to me quite this way,” Zuckhoff says. “Normally I got out and found an idea and wrote a book. I felt honored that Kris and the guys went out and found me.”

“Like a lot of Americans, I thought I knew a decent amount,” Zuckhoff says. “The incident happened about nine or 10 months earlier, and I kept on top of it…Once I started talking to the guys, I realized I, like most Americans, had no idea what happened over there.”

One part Zuckhoff had no idea about was the lack of involvement from a film titled Innocence of Muslims, which both conservatives and liberals blamed as being part of the reason for the attack.

“What? I got up the next day and saw something about a video,” Paronto says. “Gosh, I don’t know where they got that video thing. It hadn’t filtered to Benghazi yet.”

As Zuckhoff discovered the story being told in the mainstream media differed vastly from the story the guys told him, he unraveled the story like a cat tearing into a knot of yarn.

“We got it done in about three months,” Paronto said. “We did three different revisions to make it apolitical. Even though we knew it would eventually become political, we wanted it to be nonpartisan.”

Also helping to keep the story apolitical were the GRS operators’ unassuming demeanors. “These are extraordinary guys, and what I loved about working with them was they got it,” Zuckhoff says. “They didn’t focus on ‘does this make me look good?’ They didn’t ask ‘does this make me look bad because I was joking around in a serious moment.’”

One member of the unit that Paronto had a hard time keeping apolitical about was the chief, known as Bob. Bob wasn’t Paronto’s favorite person. He was a veteran of what Paronto calls the “Alphabet Soup Company,” since he oversees so many things without really being a part of any of them.

“You can be in a combat zone and not be in combat,” Paronto said. “But that’s Bob.”

He sets his jaw more squarely and straightens his back when talking about the large Libyan militia unit known as the “17 February Martyrs Brigade.” Bob told the team one reason his team did not respond quickly was that they were waiting for help from the militia’s fighters. Paronto, specifically, did not trust that militia, which was formed during the revolution that toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Paronto’s instincts were proved correct when the only members of the militia in the area were a group of boys who turned back following the sight of actual combat.

“Failure to prep the 17 February unit.” “The GRS operated as mercenaries.” Accusations flew in all directions. Zuckoff had myriad divergent narratives to rectify.

“There were so many political interests around, but once I started talking to Kris, I discovered it was really straightforward,” Zuckoff says. “These are truly honorable, decent men who didn’t have any agenda outside of how they lost four brave men, and how they had been left to fend for themselves.”

Zuckhoff himself had no problem remaining neutral, although his own political tendencies sway opposite Paronto’s. The Boston University professor admits that previous to his contact with the GRS team, he was not likely to be friends with military contractors.

“My professor friends are more likely to have a glass of wine and call it a night,” Zuckhoff says. “When I go out with these guys, there’s a lot of storytelling. They are funny and profane, and there’s no guile.”

For example: Paronto, as serious as he can be, is well-known by his compatriots as an unrepentant prankster. He particularly enjoys heisting the odds-and-ends of friends (such as hats, Xbox games, and magazines), immersing them in containers of water, and then freezing them.

“I wanted to show a human side,” Paronto says. “I think the book did a good job of that.”

The book, 13 Hours in Benghazi, came out in September 2014—exactly two years after the attack.

“This was the fastest I’ve ever written a book,” Zuckoff says. “I literally only took one day off during that entire time. The only real pressure I had was that we wanted the book to come out on the second anniversary of the attack.”

The tome, bearing a book jacket covered in the yellow and green colors of a fading bruise, came out at the perfect time to engage the media. The first organization to report on the book? Fox News.

“People were saying we chose Fox because it is Republican or whatever,” Paronto says. “No, we didn’t choose them for that reason.”

The reason, Paronto said, was because Fox gave them the best deal.

Publishing the book means potential civil forfeiture of royalties and movie life rights, along with possible fines of $250,000 and prison. The team has experienced accusations of slander from both the government and the media.

But Paronto and his teammates succeeded in telling people their story. Partially boosted by good reviews in the The New York Times and the Washington Post, United States and Canadian bookstores sold 200,000 copies by the end of 2014.

Paronto sits back in his chair. “If I was in a military setting, we’d have gotten the medal of honor,” he says. “The things those guys did that night…those things that happen in combat, they don’t happen anywhere else.”

There is one other place that happens…the big screen. Paronto and the team will be able to watch the horror unfold again through the magic of Hollywood. Chuck Hogan, writer for The Town, starring Ben Affleck, wrote a screenplay based on the book. Shooting for the movie has just begun, with Pablo Schreiber portraying Paronto. No release date has been set, but Paronto has visited the set and describes Schreiber as “outstanding” in the role of, well, him.

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Holly Barrett

April 9, 2015 by
Photography by Keith Binder

Originally published in March/April 2015 Encounter.

Holly Barrett knows how to shovel horse manure. According to her father, this set Barrett up perfectly for politics. Once a professional horse trainer and dressage rider, Barrett brings a unique and upbeat attitude to her job as the director of the Omaha Downtown Improvement District (DID).

And she isn’t afraid to get dirty. Barrett may push down a filthy lever on a trash compactor during the day, and then put on a floor-length gown at night to rub elbows with the donors of the city. She is a basic black dress kind of girl. “It hides the dirt or dresses up,” Barrett says with a boisterous laugh. She is animated and refreshingly candid.

If you watch Parks and Recreation, you’ll see a little bit of Leslie Knope in Holly Barrett.

Barrett brings 17 years of experience in relationship-based professions, including fundraising, politics, and public relations. Her latest stint was serving as the executive director of Denver’s LoDo area, its image growing considerably under her watchful eyes. “She (Barrett) is just what Omaha needs to make downtown the premier spot to visit, work, live and be entertained,” says Bill Owen, the board chair of the DID.

Barrett is excited to be part of a city at its tipping point—the sky’s the limit and Omaha is a wonderful canvas, she says. Transportation alternatives, improvement of parking, and activation of public spaces are ideas in the hopper. “We have to get Omahans to think of themselves as a big city,” Barrett says.

In order for this to happen, Barrett says the perspective and mentality of people here first has to change. If someone wants to stop by for a frosty mug of beer down in The Old Market on a hot day, he or she will drive around and around to find a parking meter. Meters are less expensive than an $8 parking lot.

Barrett says $8 for parking is probably the cheapest in the country, but understands it is important to work with parking lot vendors to lower rates to make them more reasonable. She has worked with one city lot, on 10th and Jackson Streets, to lower it to $1 an hour. Almost instantly, it was easier to find a meter because the lots were full. Plus, Omahans are still very much in love with their cars. “I have seen people drive four blocks to go from a meeting in The Old Market to come up to a meeting here,” Barrett says laughing until her face turns red. “And, in my mind, that is absolutely hilarious.”

She wants people to move easier and more efficiently downtown, but realizes the harsh Midwest weather permits this from happening. She walks pretty much everywhere, even on the coldest of days, bundled up in a coat. Barrett drives only for basic amenities or to see her horse, Poppy, in Papillion.

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Not Business as Usual

December 2, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Some things just don’t mix very well: oil and water, Red Sox and Yankees, the Kardashians and modesty. Labor and management might wind up on most lists, but not here. Not in Omaha.

For almost 40 years, union workers, business owners, and civic leaders have changed the landscape of the Midlands by developing, nurturing, and realizing projects together. This alliance, unique for an American city of any size, didn’t occur by chance. It began as a calculated move by Terry Moore, long-time president of the Omaha Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.

“The one driving thing that benefits workers, business—everybody—is economic development,” declares Moore, 71. “But I knew in order for that to happen, I had to change the image of labor in this town.”

When Moore first ran for president of the Omaha Federation in 1976, he was already well-known in the labor movement. Like so many young men of his generation who grew up in South Omaha, Moore followed his older brothers and father into the then-thriving meatpacking business right out of high school in 1961 because “those plants paid the best wages in town.” He got his union card the very first day.

“My father, Charlie Moore, was actually management at Swift & Company. He was the night supervisor and everybody loved him,” says Moore. “But he said to me, ‘I want you to join the union to protect your rights, son.’”

Around the same time, Moore became involved in South Omaha politics, stumping for candidates “of both parties, whoever supported labor.” Moore got to know a lot of people on the campaign trail and realized that, to many of them, labor was still stuck in the stogie-chewing, belligerent, wiseacre era.

“So I started wearing three-piece suits,” he says, “and I purposely got to know powerful labor leaders. I told them we were misunderstood, that we came across too confrontational. I said we needed to reach out to business. They heard me and knew it was time for a change.”

Moore won the union election in 1976 with more than 70 percent of the vote. With characteristic Irish charm and energy, the diminutive Moore wore his nice threads to every breakfast, lunch, and dinner in those early years, shaking hands with business leaders and exchanging ideas on how to develop downtown Omaha—with labor as a leader. Many of the close friends he made so long ago are gone, but other friendships endure and have proven invaluable.

“I got to know Terry Moore in the ‘70s when he helped a group of us get the riverfront developed,” recalls Mike Yanney, longtime Omaha investment banker and philanthropist. “He’s trustworthy and very capable and knows how to follow through on a commitment. I couldn’t be more honored than to talk about Terry Moore.”

The two men most recently collaborated with government and business leaders to develop the new $323 million cancer research facility on the University of Nebraska Medical Center campus, set to open in 2017 with a projected yearly payroll of $100 million. But they made their first economic footprints along the Missouri River.

“The first step in cleaning up downtown Omaha was creating the Central Park Mall, now known as the Gene Leahy Mall,” says Moore. “The second step was to keep ConAgra Foods in Omaha by building their new campus. Step three was the arena. And the rest is history.”

By the time the arena, now known as CenturyLink Center Omaha opened in 2003, Moore had amassed a resume filled with honors, awards, community service citations, and six pages listing labor, education, arts, charitable, and business affiliations. Equally impressive are the millions of dollars in charitable projects union workers have done pro bono through the years, including the fountain on the Creighton University campus; the Potter House, where families of children who need transplants can stay; and the annual Tree of Lights for the Salvation Army.

“Terry is an Omaha treasure…an icon in terms of building bridges between companies and labor,” says Steven Martin, President and CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska. “He’s an innovator in bringing labor and management together in unique training and regulatory compliance programs.”

As Moore sits in his office at union headquarters at 6910 Pacific St. surrounded by trophies, awards, and pictures taken with every U.S. President since Jimmy Carter, he admits it’s tough keeping unions strong in this day and age. In 1976, Moore had 35,000 members in his organization. Today, that number is 25,000, which “isn’t bad,” he says, “considering the jobs lost when the packing plants left and other jobs were shipped overseas. But it goes well in Omaha.”

He has spent a lifetime fighting for equitable wages, hours, and benefits for his workers. But Moore’s own life has been beset with sadness.

His wife Tania suffers from an incurable neuromuscular disease. Moore leaves the office early to be at her side, an act of devotion played out every day for years. His oldest child, Tawni, was 28 when she suddenly died in her sleep—cause unknown. She left behind a 5-year-old son. His beloved granddaughter, 10-year-old Lita Virgilito, died in 2003 when her family’s rental home just south of Harrison Street caught fire. Moore says if his faith hadn’t been so strong, he would have never gotten over the grief.

His only son, 45-year old Terry, Jr., was born with Williams Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder characterized by learning disabilities and heart problems. But Terry is his father’s great joy and constant companion. The two can be seen every Sunday taking up the collection at St. John’s Church at Creighton.

Moore plans to run again in January for another three-year term as president of the union. With the energy of a man half his age, he still has the fire inside to do right by his workers, do well by business, and do good work for his community.

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Riding into the Sunset?

May 13, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In February 2013, U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns announced he would not seek reelection for his senate seat this November. But don’t ask him if he’s looking forward to his retirement.

“Well, retirement is always (discussed) in these circumstances when you’ve decided not to seek reelection,” Johanns says. “I honestly don’t plan on retiring as such. I’m not exactly certain what will be next, but no, it won’t be retirement.”

Due to senate ethics rules, Johanns isn’t able to officially accept offers for employment until after the November elections, “but you can answer a call or a letter, and it looks like there’s a lot of interesting things out there,” he says.

Of course, if he was to retire, who could blame him? His political career is coming to a close after 32 years of public service across a variety of offices. During those 32 years, Johanns was either running for something, or his wife Stephanie was running for something, or he was serving, or Stephanie was serving. For her part, Stephanie has worked as both a county commissioner and a Nebraska state senator.

So, it’s hard not to speculate in an information vacuum. The most natural move, considering his past, might be some form of return to his agricultural roots. After all, Johanns is a farmboy at heart. And, in his life outside of city and county government, agriculture has been a major focus of his life.
In fact, early on, he considered a life on the farm he grew up on in Iowa. “You know, I gave it a lot of thought. My parents put a tremendous amount of value in education. And they would always say, ‘Get an education, then come and talk to us about farming.’ I think they knew that once we left the farm and got a college degree, I think they were fully aware of the fact that we probably weren’t going to end up farming.”

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He did end up back on the farm for one summer after receiving his bachelor’s at St. Mary’s University. “I loved farming,” he says. “And I was good at it. I was good with livestock and good with equipment.” But, his great passion was the law. So, after undergraduate work in Minnesota, he attended Creighton Law School.

With law degree in hand, Johanns began to consider running for political office. But that young Johanns is not the politician we know now. Consider: He had grown up in a devoutly Catholic family with pictures of the Pope and John F. Kennedy on the wall. “I think as a very young man, I kind of thought, gosh, what a great calling. I must admit, (Kennedy) probably sparked the interest as much as anything.”

In 1981, Johanns ran for county commissioner in Lancaster County as a Democrat. He was elected to the position in 1983.

Before Johanns won his seat with the Lincoln City Council, he found himself inspired by another charismatic president: Ronald Reagan. His view of the role of government shifted. In time, he says, “I just felt the conservative philosophy matched my judgments better.”

Johanns was elected mayor of Lincoln in 1991 and served for eight years. Immediately after, he became Nebraska’s governor. He was reelected for a second term in 2002, becoming the first Republican to do so since the ’50s.

As governor, Johanns traveled frequently, often to Asian countries to facilitate the sale of Nebraska agricultural products to a growing middle class. Johanns’ background in agriculture didn’t escape the attention of Washington, D.C. George W. Bush appointed Johanns as his Secretary of Agriculture in 2004.

“I had the background in agriculture, I came from a big ag state. This was a natural,” Johanns says.

After a few years in a cabinet position, he was ready for something else. So, he ran for the U.S. Senate. “It was just a great opportunity to take that ag background, a background as mayor and governor, and put that to work.”

As Johanns prepares to leave his seat in the Senate this November, he can look back on a career that’s fairly controversy-free. Indeed, the few controversies in which he’s been embroiled where more a consequence of party politics, not his own maneuvers. Take, for example, the explosive issue of the government shutdown last October. His natural inclination was to negotiate and diffuse.

“I said before the shutdown, I wasn’t sent to Washington to shut down the government.”

He reflects that each office he has held had its own challenges. If closing government was a nightmare at the federal level, trying to open a new jail (as any city or county officials would likely agree) was a nightmare in Lancaster County. “As county commissioner, we built a new jail. And nothing is more controversial than a new jail. No one wants to spend money on jails.”

Perhaps public life was more contentious at the most local level. When he was on the Lincoln City Council, there were budget issues. Throughout eight years as mayor of Lincoln, controversy was everywhere from budgets to planning.

While Johanns says he has no plans for retirement, it is clear he has plans for a more leisurely pace in life. When describing his idea of the perfect future—halcyon days spent with his wife and grandchildren—he does sound a bit like a man targeting semi-retirement.

“A life that would let us focus on our faith—faith is very important,” he says. “We have grandkids, and I have two children by my first marriage, and then five grandchildren. Stephanie and I want to spend more time with family.”

It also sounds like Johanns hopes to spend more time in the couple’s home in the Old Market enjoying his wife’s company.

“Stephanie wakes up every day believing that it’s this day that’s the best day of her life. And that attitude just…if you met her, you would say how does she do that? But she lives her life that way. The two of us have just had the most amazing time.”

Jean Stothert

September 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and Keith Binder

The corridor leading to the Omaha mayor’s office serves as a gallery for a long line of portraits of the city’s past mayors. It is a wall-to-wall boy’s club.

This day, the portrait of the city’s newest mayor is off at a photography studio waiting to be framed. But once it arrives, it will be an image long overdue on this wall.

It’s the first picture of a woman in the hallway on the third floor of the Civic Center.

“It was not an issue in the campaign, and it was not something I thought about,” says Mayor Jean Stothert as she sits at the conference table in her new office. “But yes, there’s no question I’m proud to be the first female mayor of Omaha.

“You get pretty sick of the ‘*-word.’” – Jean Stothert on women in politics

“Some of my biggest influences are those strong, pioneering women who broke new ground. I love Margaret Thatcher. I would love if someone called me The Iron Lady.”

So be it. Jean Stothert—The Iron Lady. It’s a name both friend and foe are likely to find fitting.

Conservative, like Thatcher. Driven. A homemaker from humble beginnings turned successful political figure. A tough, sometimes polarizing figure. A woman who can shrug off, and move on from, the sometimes vile comments only female political figures have to face.

“You get pretty sick of the ‘c-word,’” she says. It isn’t unusual for women in politics to be pushed to prove their “toughness.” So where is the “Iron” in the “Lady?” In Stothert’s case, not only did politics help galvanize her; so, too, did her years as an ICU nurse.

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Humble Roots

Stothert grew up in Wood River, Ill., outside St. Louis, “a refinery town where my dad worked at the refinery.”

He was not in a union, if you were wondering. Like Thatcher, Stothert—as she has proven already with the firefighter’s union—stands in vocal and firm opposition to some union interests.

The specs of her childhood home roll quickly off her tongue. “Tiny house—living room, kitchen, four kids, one bathroom,” Stothert shares. She’s clearly said this many times before. It is a counterpoint raised often in political spheres when people note that she lives with her surgeon husband in often-assumed-to-be-more-affluent-than-it-is Millard.

She walked to school, had a job, did volunteer work. She wanted to be a nurse “because it seemed like a good way to give back to the community.” While many of her friends chose to work in hospitals in more affluent parts of St. Louis, she chose to “be where I was most needed”—with the Trauma Center at St. Louis University Hospital in the heart of the city.

You have to become an Iron Lady to be a nurse in an inner-city trauma center.

“You see it all,” she says. “I’ve done CPR on hundreds of patients. I’ve opened people’s chests and done internal heart massage. I’ve wrapped up bodies and taken them to the morgue over and over again. That’s just how it is.

“I like the challenge of making a critically ill patient well. But sometimes, I’m not going to make that patient well. They’re going to die. The thing is, I never want to get that hard edge. You can do tough work without losing your humanity and compassion doing it.”

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From Homemaker to Politician

It was in this environment that she met trauma surgeon Joe Stothert.

After five years of dating, they married. In time, the couple moved to Seattle with his job. Then to Galveston, Texas, where the couple’s daughter, Elizabeth, and son, Andrew, were born.

Then to Omaha, Neb., “in good part for the better schools,” Joe notes. With two young children and a husband with a job that took him away at all hours, Jean decided she would stay home with her children.

“She has always been strong-willed but wonderful at listening to others and working together with people to get things done.” – Joe Stothert

In little time, being an at-home mom entailed diving into work with her local parent-teacher organization. Joe says it was a natural fit for her.

“She has always been strong-willed but wonderful at listening to others and working together with people to get things done,” he says. “Then, as an ICU nurse, she was working with an immense amount of sophisticated mechanisms. She enjoyed that. I think she was quickly interested in the mechanisms of government.”

Jean and husband Joe Stothert went out in a blizzard to campaign.

Jean and husband Joe Stothert went out in a blizzard to campaign.

Getting Out the Vote

Three years after the family arrived in Millard, three positions opened on the Millard School Board.

“There were 13 people running. A full field,” Stothert says. “I didn’t have much money, so I figured we’d have to hit the streets and knock on as many doors as we could. We won by a good bit. We learned right then how important it is to get out and talk to everyone you can.”

That shoe-leather, door-to-door campaigning with her and her supportive family at its core has been the key to her continued success. She served two more terms on the Millard School Board before her election to the Omaha City Council, which, she says, was a logical step.

“School boards are very much like city councils,” Stothert says. “You manage multi-million-dollar budgets, you have labor negotiations. It wasn’t much of a leap at all.”

During her time on the school board, she suffered her only loss so far in politics: a 2006 bid for the state legislature against Democrat Steve Lathrop.

It was one of the closest races in state history. Initially, it appeared Stothert had won by only a few votes. She celebrated with a small vacation with her husband. When she returned, she found out that after absentee votes were counted, she had lost by 14 votes. Stothert said the final margin—after some votes were contested—was five votes.

“So maybe you should have picked up 10 of your friends and driven [them] to the polls,” she recalls having wondered to herself. “Yes, I thought about it. But I truly believe we did the best we could. I think I learned more in losing than I did in winning. I also truly believe that things happen for a reason.”

She then turned her eye toward the Omaha City Council. She asked Joe if she should run. “I said ‘no,’” he says. “She ran anyway.”

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Taking on the Big Boys

She had no plans to run for mayor when she won her seat on the council, but, in time, she says, she “decided that we needed a change.”

In her race for mayor, her calls for smaller, more streamlined government resonated with voters. Her ground game grew considerably. At its core was a relentless door-to-door campaign by the entire Stothert family.

Joe took 10 vacation days prior to both the primary and the general election. Her son, who is pursuing an advanced degree at the University of South Florida, and her daughter, who works at Union Pacific, also joined in.

Stothert proudly showed off a framed photo of her and her husband in the middle of a residential street during one of the weekend campaign blitzes. The city was socked in by a blizzard that weekend. The Stotherts are wrapped in wet winterwear. Part of Jean’s hair is frozen and cocked sideways. Joe’s right thumb is protruding from a hole in his glove.

It’s a picture of resolve. They knocked on 15,000 doors. She says Joe helped push her on when she grew tired on the campaign trail. Joe insists, “She never would have gone on if she didn’t want to.” It’s also a picture, she jokes, of the Stotherts on a date. “We really have enjoyed those times together,” the mayor says.

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The Ugly Side of Politics

At times, the war of words during the campaign got brutal. Stothert, often characterized as a hardline conservative, can throw fire as well as she receives it. But particularly in the modern world of blogs, tweets, and every sort of website, the personal stabs at those in the public arena are often relentless and outrageous.

Stothert admits that, during the campaign, she failed to heed advice that she avoid reading all the attacks on her on the internet. Also, some of the nastiest—and most sexist—of the insults blew up into campaign issues she then had to address.

She boldly repeats two comments about her—one, a joke essentially about her being gang raped, and another about her being a stripper—that one would not expect to hear verbatim in an interview with the mayor.

“She would get pretty stern. She would challenge me, I would challenge her.” – State Senator Brad Ashford on Stothert

But there is often a flipside to such outlandish attacks. People get angry. In this election, Stothert admits, polls showed that a substantial number of women responded to the sexist attacks by moving into her camp.

Stothert says she’s not afraid of criticism. She invites it, as long as it’s civilized. But she knows now to avoid the constant barrage in cyberspace.

“It’s just not good for your mental health,” she says. “It wouldn’t be good for anyone’s health.” Her husband, as you might imagine, hasn’t handled some of the nastier or more personal criticisms with such a thick skin. “I don’t forgive and forget as easily,” Joe says. “She’s the one who can do that. Early on, she had it pegged. She told me the jabs were going to hurt me more than they would hurt her.”

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Tackling Tough Issues

The criticism is not going to ebb. She will continue to grapple with the powerful and vocal firefighter’s union. While sitting at her office’s conference table, she points to her desk. The gritty specifics of her proposed budget to streamline government “are sitting right over there,” she says.

She promises to cut government and cut taxes while improving government services. There are few political figures who have not claimed they could accomplish this feat. There are few who have.“We are going to succeed,” she says. “I have no doubt about that.”

If anyone can pull off this trick, it might be Stothert. State Sen. Brad Ashford, who ran against Stothert for mayor while also working with her on several issues on the state government level, says Stothert, while always civilized, is a tough and driven negotiator.

“She would get pretty stern. She would challenge me, I would challenge her,” Ashford says. “There’s nothing wrong with that. In the end, that’s how you make good policy.” In Ashford’s mind, Stothert’s best chance to save money while improving services will come “if she’s committed to consolidating” many services that both the county and city provide.

Jean and Joe with their family.

Finding Equilibrium

To keep a sense of balance, Stothert says, she knows she has to guard her personal time. She has a life outside the demands of the mayor’s office. “I love my home,” she says. “I’m pretty good at getting there, calming down, and shutting things off for a while.”

Her day is fairly regimented, as you might expect. She’s up at 5 a.m. After a usually healthy breakfast, she walks for 30 minutes on her treadmill, then takes her Australian Shepard, Ozzie (named after St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith), for a one-mile walk.

Back at home, she watches little television beyond the news. Instead, she relaxes by reading “a lot of fiction.” Her favorite books: one from her childhood, To Kill a Mockingbird, and comedian Tina Fey’s Bossypants (the cover of which inspired our magazine cover concept and, yes, the mayor enthusiastically “suited up” for the photo shoot).

If she has the time, she loves to get in the kitchen. “My friends and I used to get Bon Appétit magazine and try things all the time,” she says. “I would consider myself a gourmet cook now. I enjoy any time I can cook something myself.”

“I’m pretty good at getting [home], calming down, and shutting things off for a while.” – Jean Stothert

If she can’t, she’s also a fan of numerous Omaha restaurants. One stands out though, she says, perhaps because she fell in love with the fresh fish dinners she ate during the family’s time living in Seattle.

“The Twisted Cork has wonderful halibut and salmon,” she says. “I just love the food of the Pacific Northwest when it is done well.”

Then it’s five hours or so of sleep, the morning exercise, and off to another day as The Iron Lady.

“I’m a very black-and-white person,” she says. “I’m a very determined person.”

Meaning?

“We will achieve better services for less money,” she says. “We are not reducing city service, and we are going to balance the budget. This is what the people of this city have asked me to do, so that is what we’re going to get done.”

Mafiosi and Madams

August 29, 2013 by
Photography by The Durham Museum and Julie Shadlow

An insignificant river town doesn’t grow up to be a thriving metropolis without producing its share of unsavory types. Villainous characters and shady stories abound in Omaha, especially in its early days, where men are often very tight and women deemed a trifle loose, according to poet John G. Saxe in 1869. These ain’t your mama’s headlines. Actually, they may have been your grandmother’s.

Political mob boss incites race riot. For 18 years, political boss Tom Dennison carried most of Omaha neatly in his pocket—government, police, and business. The man’s crimes were many, but his most reprehensible may have been inciting the infamous Omaha Race Riot of 1919. After citizens finally elected a non-Dennison man, one Edward Parsons Smith, as mayor in 1918, Dennison henchmen were accused of putting on blackface, assaulting women, and then stirring up crowds, leading to the lynching of black man Will Brown and the near-lynching of Mayor Smith. Smith’s administration was later accused of being ineffectual during the riot. Dennison himself was never found guilty of any involvement, and a key instigator, Dennison henchman Milton Hoffman, fled the state before he could be questioned.

Brothel owner donates building for hospital, receives public outcry. Six months before her death, Anna Wilson, madam of downtown’s Sporting District in the late 1800s, “…closed out her dive and presented the building, with  $75,000, to the city as an emergency hospital,” reads the Lawrence Journal-World on Jan. 16, 1912. Even though it was the second largest gift to charity yet made by an Omahan, city officials and residents balked at accepting the donation of an old brothel. To abate accusations of “tainted money,” Wilson agreed to accept a rent of $125 a month for the rest of her life.

James (Jimmy) Dahlman posing as The Cowboy Mayor of Omaha (courtesy of Durham Museum).

James (Jimmy) Dahlman posing as The Cowboy Mayor of Omaha (courtesy of Durham Museum).

Puppet mayor runs for eighth term. Depending on where you look, James Dahlman was either a heroic figure of Omaha or an unscrupulous politician. He shot and killed his brother-in-law at the age of 22 and was a close ally of political boss Tom Dennison. That alliance led to Dahlman winning three elections in a row, seven altogether. He was filing for an eighth reelection when he passed away. He did fight for and won more autonomy for the Omaha government from the state. Perhaps that desire for doing things by his own rules explains why Dahlman originally refused federal aid after the fatal Omaha Easter Sunday Tornado of 1913.

Saloon owner is key lieutenant in crime ring. William E. Nesselhous, one of Tom Dennison’s bootleggers, owned a saloon called The Budweiser, which served as Dennison’s headquarters. A tiny man with glasses (he was a former jockey), Nesselhous was Dennison’s connector, an adaptable man who managed people easily. He was indicted in 1932 (along with 58 other people) by a federal grand jury for conspiracy to violate prohibition laws.

Child of prominent family stolen! Kidnapper writes book. In the 1880s, Pat Crowe went to work for one of the big four names in Omaha’s meat industry when his butcher shop was bought out by the Cudahy Meatpacking Plant. Edward Cudahy later fired him when he was caught stealing money. Several years later, Crowe kidnapped 16-year-old Edward Cudahy, Jr., in 1900 and received $25,000, the first successful ransom in the United States. This was perhaps due to the cold ransom note, referencing another kidnapping where a boy died because the father refused to pay. “If you don’t give up…you can lead your boy blind the rest of your days,” Crowe’s note threatened, stating he would put acid in the young man’s eyes. Five years later, Crowe was arrested for the crime but acquitted, whereupon he wrote not one but two autobiographies detailing the kidnapping. Crowe’s crime supposedly influenced the famous kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s child.

Respectable wife murders husband in hotel lobby. On Nov. 17, 1888, Eliza Beechler of Chicago followed her husband, Harry W. King, Jr., to the Paxton Hotel at 14th and Farnam streets in Omaha. Beechler had seen a dispatch stating that King had married a Miss Duffy in Kansas City. At the hotel, King insisted Beechler go home, and when she refused, he allegedly replied that she shut her mouth or he would choke her to death. In response, she shot him in the Paxton lobby, killing him and depriving two other women, including one upstairs, of a man they also believed to be their husband.

Louise Vinciquerra, in a photograph dated 1927 provided by great-great-granddaughter Julie Shadlow of Oregon.

Louise Vinciquerra, in a photograph dated 1927 provided by great-great-granddaughter Julie Shadlow.

Phantom Sniper resents being called insane. After being released from the Iowa State Penitentiary for killing cattle, Frank Carter shot a mechanic and a doctor in Omaha and supposedly a railroad detective in Council Bluffs in 1926. Newspapers revealed the victims had been standing next to windows in their homes at night when they were shot. Though convicted of two murders, Carter claimed to have killed 43 people. His lawyers attempted to say he was a paranoiac with an inferiority complex, but Carter disrupted his own defense by shouting, “I’m not a nut! I tell you, I’m not a nut!” He was electrocuted on June 24, 1927.

Cigar store is front for Omaha Mafia boss. Anthony Joseph DiBiase (Tony Biase) was a short, portly man at 5’3 and 160 pounds. What began as small-time bookmaking in his Owl Smoke Shop on 16th Street in the ’40s would become a web of heroin trafficking and connections to New York mafia. In 1960, Biase was sentenced to 15 years for narcotics after his attempt on the life of a partner-turned-informant went wrong. Biase was paroled in 1970 and died in 1991 in South Omaha at nearly 100 years old. He only had one other arrest in between, in 1986.

Bootleg queen’s ex shoots her second husband. Earl Haning was visiting with his ex-wife, Louise Vinciquerra, in her home on July 4, 1933, when he was shot through a screen and killed by her first ex-husband, Sebastiano Vinciquerra. The two men had exchanged fire once before in 1928, while Haning was still married to Louise. Haning had been a prohibition agent in Omaha at the time he was married to Omaha’s Bootleg Queen. Haning was married to one Jessie McCombs when he was shot in his ex-wife’s home.

Shopkeeper butchers friend for $1,500. Ottway Baker killed his coworker, Woolsey Higgins, with two swings of an ax while Higgins slept in their shared room at a grocery on 12th and Farnam streets. Baker then set fire to the shop and shot himself in the arm to cover his tracks, but he was arrested and hanged on Valentine’s Day, 1868. It was the second legal execution in Omaha history and the city’s first ax murder on record.

Grassroots Organization

August 26, 2013 by

“The best way to predict your future is to create it.” – Peter F. Drucker

The thought of community organizing has been something that would raise my ire with thoughts of…well, you know the kinds of thoughts. When it was suggested that the same efforts might be useful for purposes I’m interested in, I was taken aback. If you read further, you might find that there is something in community organizing that you may find useful in your business endeavors, too.

In the U.S., there are a couple of companies that have been extremely professional in their approach to getting candidates elected: motivating the citizens in districts to participate in a meaningful manner to get a candidate re-elected or elected to office; changing apathy to active interest, and, on occasion, to participation. It was one of these companies that approached me to help with a difficult zoning matter.

Over a three-week period, we had people meet with and discuss a project for which I was seeking governmental entitlements with fully half of the registered voters in the city. Armed with a tablet computer, the door-to-door people knew who they were approaching, as well as the citizen’s voting participation, history, and party affiliation. This level of knowledge made their approach more of a “warm” contact. With each citizen contact, responses and interests were recorded for our use later. Citizens were asked to sign a postcard, which was pre-addressed to their specific council person. Hundreds did so, which resulted in a deluge of postcards to every council representative.

Just before the council hearing for the zoning matter, we called every residential telephone in the city, asking whether the resident wished to participate in a Tele-Townhall. Hundreds did choose to participate. This participation allowed us to poll the citizens again, as well as secure a huge city council attendance.

With this being my first such use of a political company to generate grassroots support for my business interests, there were several lessons learned.

Spend time with both the field people and the managers to be certain that they understand the big picture. Each person making contact with citizens needs to have a feel for what the hot topics are in the local community. They need to understand, with a moderate level of detail, the project being promoted. To be able to use local landmarks to describe location, and how the project will impact the community on a practical and emotional level.

Accurately describe the project from the perspective of both the opposition and the proponent. By offering both perspectives, one can stand before the governmental and political body and show that the presentation was neutral. More than a typical promotional approach, like selling a home or a car, this must be balanced. This is because when the citizens appear in the public forum and hear the impassioned presentation of both sides, they should find that what they were told was indeed balanced. This keeps your supporter’s positions solidly committed.

Unlike regular elections or product purchase, governmental action on many large issues will affect communities for generations. If a property is zoned for industrial, that use will be carved in stone for many decades. Citizens will step up to the gravity of the situation and the importance of the decision if they are informed and invited to participate. Every communication with citizens must convey the importance of the matter, as well as the part each citizen might play in that decision. You will find that many will grasp this opportunity to break from apathy and participate in a meaningful way.

Local government workers, and especially elected officials, may resent this grassroots effort. An awakened citizenry is a threat to their typically unquestioned authority. While this may be something you are accustomed to in business, the participating citizens may be better served by being forewarned that their reception may be rather cool.

For the modest expense involved and relative ease in this effort, I think that a well-planned and prepared grassroots effort is just what most communities need. Too many citizens have been lulled into apathy, cocooned in their daily routine. You may find that your project inspires great community support. Support that will result in you prevailing in securing necessary governmental entitlements.

I know that I’m being a bit vague by not naming names. The point of this topic is to be thought-provoking, not a step-by-step instruction. My direct experience has led me to the conclusion that I will involve the community with every big project.

Any views and/or opinions present in “The Know-It-All” are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of B2B Omaha Magazine, or its parent company, and/or its affiliates.

Verbal Gumbo

April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Felicia Webster’s voice produces chills up the spine. “And then he kiiiiissssssed me, and I melted. Like buttah.”

Her friend, Michelle Troxclair, nods and waves a hand. “Mhm, girl, we know what that’s like.”

This is spoken-word entertainment. It’s theatrical, it’s heartfelt, it’s ethereal, and it happens every third Thursday of the month at House of Loom on 10th and Pacific streets. This is not your safe-bet night out. The words you’ll hear could be dark, could be sexy, could be hilarious. It could be anything really, which is why Webster and Troxclair, the open-mic evening’s organizers, call this night Verbal Gumbo.

Troxclair arranges the club’s random chaise lounges, velvet chairs, and embroidered hassocks on the dance floor. Webster picks out the candles and incense. If guests outnumber the usual crowd of around 70, there might be a few people standing. A $5 cover charge gets you a simple meal, like Troxclair’s white chicken chili or her brother’s highly requested mac-and-cheese.

The evening begins around 7 p.m., giving guests enough time to sign up to speak if they wish, get their bowl, and settle into a seat. Troxclair is strict about minimizing distraction during the spoken word sets that begin about 8-ish. Of course, feel free to get up from your seat to wait for the massage therapist set up in the corner or the body painter off to the side as someone else speaks at the mic.

“For those who haven’t come here before,” Webster explains, “they’ll find out that it doesn’t matter what order you sign up in.”20130321_bs_8812

Troxclair laughs and says, “It’s whoever I’m feeling like hearing at the time.” The two women make sure speakers alternate male and female, but other than that, there are few rules. People offer poetry about anything from relationships to violence to the triumph of breaking cycles. “Sometimes it’s comedic,” Troxclair says, “but there’s always a message.”

The only requirement is that “you respect the mic,” as Webster puts it. Verbal Gumbo creates a flow between audience and speaker, almost a conversation. The speaker shares his work, and the audience participates in the performance by responding verbally when something resonates.

“Say yes, say amen, say all right, honey!” Troxclair suggests. “You’re validating what they’re saying.”

About 15 people speak per night for about three to five minutes apiece. If time’s not running tight, each person should feel free to offer two pieces. A short intermission makes room for a few public service announcements and to refill a drink.

Felicia Webster

Felicia Webster

If the easily stage-frightened start to come out of their shells as the evening progresses, all bets are not off. Walk back to the sign-up sheet, add your name, and you’ll probably be called on. Deliver your offering with confidence that whatever you bring will be accepted. “This is not The Apollo,” Webster says. “You don’t get the hook.”

Let’s be clear. Verbal Gumbo is not another poetry slam. A poetry slam is an entertaining competition. “Spoken word incorporates storytelling,” Troxclair says, separating spoken word from slam. “It can be prose or poetry.” Historically, it’s an artistic—and sometimes secret—way to spread information. It’s an oral tradition shared by Africans, African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and many other cultures.

“You are disseminating information to get people to think, to move, to change, to progress, to become empowered,” Webster says. That recipe ensures that Verbal Gumbo, like its culinary counterpart, is savory, spicy, and never the same twice.

Sample the next Verbal Gumbo on Thursday, May 16, or Thursday, June 20.

Politics and Moral Distractions at Work

November 25, 2012 by

The elections were over in November, but the political conversations continue in the workplace.

“How did this happen? I can’t believe he’s President!”

“When is Congress going to get over the bipartisanship and get to work?”

“Those Super PACs completely changed the game. All they did was lie, and no one held them accountable!”

“I am so angry about the political climate in Washington that I could burst!”

It’s not just employee conversations over the cubicle walls. Employers are talking politics, too. For example, David Siegel is the founder and CEO of Westgate Resorts, the largest privately owned time-share company in the world. He sent a memo to his 7,000 employees before the election stating that they need to worry about their jobs if Barack Obama gets re-elected. Obamacare and higher taxes, Siegel argued, are running his firm into the ground (Bloomberg Businessweek, October 10, 2012).

When should employees and employers feel comfortable expressing political views at work?

The Business Ethics Alliance held its fall dialogue last October about politics, business, and ethics. One reocurring theme was that political conversations at work are morally acceptable, as long as they do not take away from the real purpose of business. In keeping with this idea, the point was made that business leaders can, and should, educate employees about how to unify their voices on political positions that can greatly affect the stability of the firm or its industry.

So the bottom line is—stick to business. Don’t get distracted from business while at work. Focus, focus, focus.

But there is something unsaid here, some unspoken truth that is left out of this bottom line picture. This unspoken truth was beautifully expressed after the Business Ethics Alliance Dialogue by Stuart Chittenden on his SquishTalks blog:

“If businesses’ inflexibly require employees to engage only in subjects or topics that are…purely related to work, then the outcome inevitably is minimal breakthrough success for that business, a bland organizational culture, and impossible personal growth and fulfillment for the employee.”

Stuart helps us recognize the unspoken truth of the bottom line paradigm. When we focus only on business at work, we deny the human yearnings that deeply engage us. In one sense, being whole people at work is actually advantageous for business. Success in business can be measured by the numbers, but also by enlivening cultures and human flourishing. In other words, politics and moral distractions can positively feed business success.

Yet…is there more to the unspoken truth? I cannot help but press our reflection one step further…because thus far we are making the “business case” for why we should break through to our deeply held political and moral values at work. But what if, just what if, human dignity and flourishing is not merely an instrument for business success but is, rather, its raison d’etre?

And these human yearnings are the real source of the ethics that drive us to do and be better.
Respect
Freedom
Human dignity
Deeper
Being human
Breaking through to the real

Beverly Kracher, Ph.D., is Executive Director of Business Ethics Alliance and Chair of Business Ethics & Society at Creighton University’s College of Business.