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Underdogs and Frontrunners in the Omaha Mayoral Race

February 21, 2017 by
Photography by Christopher Geary photos by Bill Sitzmann, all others contributed

Running for the office of Omaha mayor seems surprisingly accessible for any registered voter age 25 or older who is an Omaha resident of six months or more: Pay a $100 filing fee, complete a notarized candidate filing form and a statement of financial interests form, and submit a petition signed by 1,000 registered Omaha voters.

As the March/April issue of Omaha Magazine went to press, 10 individuals had taken out paperwork from the Douglas County Election Commission (the first step to getting on the ballot in hopes of being elected to the nonpartisan office that pays $102,312 annually for a four-year term starting in June). But in the months before the election, only about half of the potential candidates had developed and promoted detailed campaign platforms through polished websites, social media channels, and savvy media relations efforts. Several of those receiving less pronounced media attention have articulated core issues that range from legalizing marijuana, to improving the lives of local lower- and middle-income families, to touting free speech.

Douglas County Election Commissioner Brian W. Kruse says it’s unlikely all 10 will make it to the ballot for the April 4 primary based on precedent: Although seven candidates qualified for the 2013 primary, there were just five in 2009, only two in both 2005 and 2001, and three in 1997. (The two candidates with the highest number of votes advance to the general election, May 9 this cycle.) Self-promotion isn’t the only challenge for potential candidates, Kruse says.

“Especially with the mayoral candidates, we do hear quite a bit how hard it is to get 1,000 signatures that are accepted. It takes work, you know?” he says. Some well-meaning signers are discovered during the painstaking verification process to not be registered to vote or not registered in the correct jurisdiction, he explains. Candidates are encouraged to obtain extra signatures and complete paperwork well before the March 3 filing deadline. If time allows, they can correct paperwork errors or omissions or even gather more signatures if they come up short or cut it close.

“We would feel terrible if someone turned theirs in on March 3 and they had 995 signatures, because there’s nothing they can do at that point,” he says. “In our office, we will certify to 110 percent. We try to turn them around pretty quickly; the mayor (incumbent Jean Stothert) turned her signatures in on a Wednesday, and we were done by Friday afternoon. Often candidates will call and check with us on how it’s going, and we’ll give them updates. We try to be as customer service-friendly as possible … We’re here to serve the voters and the citizens of Douglas County.”

Christopher Geary, a martial arts teacher/studio owner and former Marine, is a newcomer to the mayoral race. He and the current mayor were the first to meet the credentials needed to appear on the ballot, receiving confirmation from the commission Jan. 6.

 

“I feel that service to others is not only something people should do, but it’s an obligation we all should embrace. I have run for office before and I feel that now is the perfect time to serve the City of Omaha, which has been my home for three decades … Omaha is an awesome city with a fantastic history and people. The diversity of communities and how we come together in hard times is really inspiring,” Geary says. “I have a vision for Omaha that brings government, business, and citizens together to improve living conditions for everyone by increasing job opportunities, helping businesses grow and prosper, and provide training for those seeking employment.”

Geary has made the unusual decision to not accept campaign contributions. “I think a candidate for any office should be free and clear of anyone or any group that would try to manipulate them once they are in office,” he says.

He also will not participate in debates, he adds. “Political debates end up being personal attacks on one another and rarely stay on point. Candidates will only say what people want to hear with memorized speeches and can easily stump the other candidates with facts they don’t have access to. Voters that watch or listen to these debates will not receive the necessary information to make informed decisions regarding his or her candidate.”

Mayoral candidate Taylor Royal

Another mayoral hopeful, certified public accountant Taylor Royal, is entirely new to politics.

“I have always had the heart to serve the public and make my hometown better for everyone, but the urgency to run for mayor originated when I moved back to Omaha two years ago,” he says, explaining that he was impressed with the business climate and other opportunities in Dallas, where he lived for four years as he earned his master’s degree and launched his career.

“Moving back to Omaha in 2015 was a different story. The same old problems that plagued our city when I was growing up were still prevalent, and new problems were surfacing,” Royal says. “I want to be mayor of Omaha to create a more business-friendly and community-friendly Omaha. I believe my new vision for Omaha will join our community together to solve our challenges and make Omaha the place to be for families and businesses.”

Royal received early media attention for his proposal to build a football stadium and bring an NFL team to Omaha, but his platform also includes unlocking new sources of revenue, looking for strategic opportunities to outsource, improving street maintenance, and revitalizing North Omaha. Citizens have been receptive, he says.

“My campaign experience to date has been a confirmation of what I already knew about the people in Omaha,” he says. “Omaha is a city filled with people who display unmatched hospitality and incredible diversity, and my candidacy has received a warm welcome from the residents.”

Candidate Heath Mello, who comes into the mayoral race fresh from two terms in the Nebraska Legislature, says engagement is key to winning an election.

“Looking back, I was probably most surprised by how important it was to spend more time knocking on doors and meeting with voters than doing anything else. Spending quality time with people in their homes, churches, and senior centers proved to be so much more meaningful to me throughout the campaign than any speech, fundraiser, meeting, or parade,” he says, estimating that he knocked on more than 12,000 doors in his first race alone.

Engagement then transfers to successfully serving the public, he adds.

“I worked hard for eight years as a state senator to keep that kind of personal engagement through town halls, neighborhood roundtables, knocking on doors, and proactively connecting with neighbors,” he says. And he’s taking that approach through his bid for Omaha mayor with a platform that includes plans to reduce crime, improve city services, create jobs, and foster collaboration.

“From Belvedere to Deer Park, Blackstone to Elkhorn, and everywhere in between, I am continuing to knock on doors and visit with small businesses to learn more about how Omahans want to help shape our great city for the next 20 years and how we can collectively create a smarter, more innovative city.”

Incumbent Stothert emphasizes safety of Omaha’s citizens as her top priority in her bid for re-election. “There is no issue we work harder on than reducing crime and apprehending and prosecuting those who commit crimes. I am proud of our police department and our work with community partners to make Omaha a safer community.”

Her motivation for running again is simple: “I love my job, and it is a privilege to serve as mayor.” Stothert notes, however, that running for re-election has both advantages and challenges.

“During the past 3 1/2 years, we have provided leadership, accomplished priorities, and worked with partners on community projects. This experience provides me the opportunity to highlight what we have accomplished, something you can’t provide as a first-time candidate,” she says. On the other hand, “Four years ago, I could spend most my time campaigning by meeting voters throughout the city and visiting people in their homes. While I am doing that again during this election, I also know my work and commitments as mayor must come first. Even though I have less time to campaign, I believe the best politics is doing a good job so we work hard to make sure Omaha is on the right track.”

Information on the election process or candidates is readily available, Kruse says, and he’s hoping for a good turnout for both the primary and general elections with 182 polling places open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Visit votedouglascounty.com or call 402-444-VOTE to reach the Douglas County Election Commission for more information.

TEN MAYORAL HOPEFULS

As of press time, 10 prospective candidates had begun the paperwork process to enter the mayoral race. To appear on the ballot, they must obtain and file 1,000 signatures from registered voters who reside in Omaha by March 3. Contact information is based on Douglas County Election Commission public records and online information (listed alphabetically by surname).

Bernard Choping

  • Phone: 402-917-5149

Mark Elworth

  • Phone: 402-812-1600
  • E-mail: markelworthjr@aol.com
  • Twitter: @markjr4gov

Christopher Geary

  • Phone: 402-905-6865
  • Website: geary2017.com
  • E-mail: christophergeary@gmail.com

J.B. Medlock

  • Phone: 402-302-0000 and 402-213-2095

Heath Mello

  • Website: heathmello.com
  • E-mail: info@heathmello.com
  • Twitter: @heathmello

Ean Mikale

  • Website: mikaleformayor.com
  • Twitter: @mikaleformayor

Taylor Royal

  • Website: taylorjroyal.com
  • E-mail: royalformayor@gmail.com

Jean Stothert

  • Phone: 402-506-6623
    Website: jeanstothert.com
  • E-mail: info@jeanstothert.com
  • Twitter: @jean_stothert

Mort Sullivan

  • Website: mortsullivan.com
  • E-mail: mdsullivan@cisusa.info

Jerome Wallace

  • Phone: 314-495-0545

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

 

The Greenhouse is why Marge Tilton stays downtown.

January 16, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It’s a chilly Wednesday evening in Downtown Omaha, and Marge Tilton is just coming home from a yoga class. It’s been a busy day for the 86-year-old personal assistant. While the temperature decreases and the Old Market’s hustle and bustle continues outside her building, Tilton sits in her warm loft in The Greenhouse without hearing a peep.

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“Years ago,” she recalls, “there was a big sign on this building that read ‘If you lived here, you’d be home by now.’ That intrigued me, and so I decided to check it out.”

Tilton’s one bedroom, 720-square-foot loft boasts an open floor plan with a washer-dryer and access to an underground garage. Each loft is unique in its own way with high ceilings and exposed brick and piping. Sizes of the lofts range from 625 square feet to 1120. The building also features a fitness center and a security and intercom system. Most impressive though is its location across ConAgra Foods’ Downtown campus, a feature that has attracted an eclectic mix of residents from grad students to retirees.

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“I feel like I don’t have to go out to be part of the action,” Tilton says. “I can just open my blinds, and it’s all right here. I feel like I’m a part of Downtown.”

Assistant Manager Mary Whittington says many of the building’s tenants share Tilton’s views on the property’s prime location. “It is in the middle of the Old Market,” she says. “For retired people, it gives them kind of a young feel, and for grad students, it’s the location that appeals to them as well.”

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The lofts occupy the former McKesson-Robbins Warehouse on 9th and Farnam streets. It’s one of the few remnants of Jobbers Canyon, an industrial and warehouse district that solidified Omaha as a central hub for the transportation boom in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Also known as Nash Block, the nine-story, Renaissance Revival-style structure itself was designed by Thomas Rogers Kimball, the architect-in-chief of the Trans-Mississippi Exposition. Kimball also designed such extraordinary Omaha structures as the St. Cecilia Cathedral, the St. Francis Cabrini Church, and the Downtown Omaha Public Library. Construction of the McKesson-Robbins Warehouse was funded by Catherine B. Nash—one of Omaha’s wealthy elite—and completed around 1905.

Tilton adores the history of the building and especially likes the way it was renovated to make lofts in the 1980s. These condos still have some of the best views in Omaha of Downtown and the Riverfront. Tilton takes advantage of that view every New Year’s Eve when she hosts a small party in her loft. She and her guests are able to watch the fireworks from the comfort of her fourth-floor space.

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The parties shouldn’t be too much of a problem for other residents. “A lot of older buildings, especially warehouses, have very thin walls, and you can hear everything,” she says. “But I’ve never had a problem with noise since I’ve lived here.”

If she ever had an issue, Tilton says she is confident that management would take care of it right away. The responsive management, coupled with the sights of one of Omaha’s most alluring districts, is exactly why Tilton has lived in the Greenhouse for so long.

“I couldn’t be happier here,” she says. “Fourteen years later, I still get excited when I pull into the garage.”

Gesu and Brother Mike

April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Jesuit brother Mike Wilmot prefers his actions to speak for him more than his words. Lately, those actions have helped put several first-time homebuyers in new houses.

After years of coaching and teaching at Omaha Creighton Prep, then doing humanitarian missionary work in Sudan, he’s made North Omaha his ministry base. He helped build Jesuit Middle School and for more than a decade, he’s directed Gesu Housing, a nonprofit he founded that builds affordable new homes in high-poverty northeast Omaha.

Gesu helps him fulfill a Jesuit credo of finding God in all things. He gravitated to the Society of Jesus as a youth in his native Milwaukee.

“I got to know many Jesuits who were very influential in my life,” he says. “They were friendly, they were happy, I admired them, and then I kind of said, ‘Well, maybe that’s what I should do.’ In anything that any of us do, we want to make the world a better place to live in by spreading the kingdom of God and bringing that to all people, and housing-shelter is one of the ways you can do that.”

“Everybody should have a decent place to live.” – Brother Mike Wilmot

Wilmot’s work in Sudan impressed upon him the difference a suitable dwelling can make in people’s lives. Back in America, he realized many urban residents lack a home of their own.

“Everybody should have a decent place to live,” he says, “but it’s not the case, at least for a lot of people it isn’t. It’s proven that kids that grow up in a house [that] their family owns are much better off.” He says kids and families benefit from the stability home ownership provides.

Enter Gesu (Italian for Jesus) as a provider of quality, affordable houses in a working-poor area beset by distressed homes and vacant lots. Gesu mostly does in-fill on empty lots, thus turning neighborhood eyesores into assets. Wilmot lives with fellow Jesuits in the Clifton Hills neighborhood Gesu builds in.

He’s recruited former Prep students as key team members. Dale Barr, Jr., grew up in Clifton Hills and has gone from volunteer painter to board member to board president to paid general manager. Dan Hall, whose Hallmarq Homes is the general contractor for Gesu, played ball for Wilmot.

“It’s rewarding work,” says Barr, whose duties include promoting Gesu and raising funds. A recent direct-mail brochure he sent out netted new supporters. “It’s nice to find people who buy into Brother’s vision,” he says.

“It’s a great thing we’re doing down here,” says Hall. “We’re changing the neighborhood one house at a time.”

Gesu works closely with the city to tap HUD dollars that subsidize half the purchase price of each home and make it possible for low-income buyers to obtain low-interest loans and to assume small mortgage payments. Omaha 100 helps buyers qualify and educates homeowners in maintaining their places.20130114_bs_0907_Web

Both the Peter Kiewit and Sherwood Foundations have supplied major matching grants. Kiewit recently awarded a second $250,000 grant, but that means new funds must be found to match it. A fundraiser is in the works.

Barr says Gesu isn’t as well-known as older nonprofit players in the field, but what it offers is hard to beat. He says Gesu homes represent “a tremendous deal,” adding, “If you’ve got good credit, you’ve got a job, and you qualify for a $70,000 loan, you’re going to get into a brand-new, three-bedroom, energy-efficient house for $600 per month.” It’s why he hopes more people discover Gesu and support it.

“It’s not just people getting houses…It’s improving neighborhoods, it’s diverse people living together,” says Wilmot. “It’s been proven the best neighborhoods are diverse economically, culturally, ethnically. That’s the mission of Gesu Housing—to put people into houses and to make the neighborhoods better neighborhoods. “We’ve got to rebuild the city from the inside out.”

Gesu’s doing its part with 17 homes completed and occupied, five underway, and five new ones scheduled for construction this spring. More support can help build more homes and assist more families to live the ‘American Dream’.

“It’s a great thing we’re doing down here. We’re changing the neighborhood one house at a time.” – Dan Hall, contractor with Hallmarq Homes

“We’ve gone from two houses a year to four, and now our cycle’s five,” says Barr. “That’s gotten us in good graces with the city and HUD because we’re doing it…we’re building them and selling them. We don’t have inventory sitting around.

“We’re making our own footprint with these new houses. We try to be a part of the neighborhood. We ask neighbors what we can do better. We give away hams and turkeys to our homeowners and their neighbors at Christmas.”

Hall says the collective neighborhood is protective about Gesu homes because residents appreciate the investment they represent on their block.

“Neighbors that watch houses for me, I give a gift card. It goes a long way, you know, in establishing a relationship. You get some security out of it. Once you get people involved, if somebody isn’t supposed to be here, they’ll run them off or they’ll call me.”

It’s all about building a community, says Wilmot. “We started on Grant Street, then we went to Burdette, and now we’re going over to Erskine. Little by little…”

One house at a time.

For details about how to support Gesu, visit gesuhousing.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.