The skyline of Omaha, Nebraska. (John Coletti/Getty Images)

Racial justice protests rocked the city last year. Activists see next week’s mayoral race as a chance to take a new path.

The racial justice uprisings of last summer, along with the COVID-19 pandemic, have turned mayoral races across the country into a focal point amid demands for leadership committed to representing marginalized communities. 

In Omaha, Nebraska, a city rocked by protests against police violence, some see the upcoming mayoral election as an opportunity to chart a new course on policing, public safety, and racial equity.

Protests erupted in Omaha last year after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, and again in November when Omaha police fatally shot Kenneth Jones, a Black man, during a traffic stop. Police crackdowns on the protests and the murder of a Black demonstrator by a white man known for bigotry further escalated tensions and fueled demands to defund police.

Mayor Jean Stothert, a Republican who first took office in 2013 and  is seeking her third term, instead proposed to increase police funding. Now the Omaha Police Officers Association, which did not endorse a mayoral candidate in 2017, is backing Stothert.

“This is us rewarding loyalty for a mayor who has stood with us,” announced the association’s president, Sgt. Tony Conner. 

Local activists are rallying behind two Democratic challengers: criminal justice reform advocate Jasmine Harris and school board member Kimara Snipes. The election of either Harris or Snipes would give Omaha its first Black female mayor. Both candidates have spoken about the need for a more holistic approach to public safety that recognizes the root causes of crime that simply increasing policing doesn’t address.

Two other Democratic candidates, high school teacher Mark Gudgel and real estate firm owner RJ Neary, will also appear on the ballot for the nonpartisan April 6 primary. The top two vote candidates will move on to the May general election

“When we’re talking about the city [government], this entity that’s supposed to represent us, it needs to have the same work ethic and reflect the diversity and the makeup of the people who are doing the work,” said Dawaune Lamont Hayes, founder of a community-led local news outlet, North Omaha Information Support Everyone (NOISE). “Because we’re out here, and we’re making it happen.”

Hayes launched a short-lived bid for Omaha mayor with a wide-ranging platform that included restorative justice, equitable transportation, and environmental sustainability. They withdrew from the race after not receiving enough verified signatures to get on the ballot, but that has not deterred them from becoming a driving force for voter engagement along with local grassroots groups. 

No matter who wins this year’s municipal elections, Hayes said, “we still need an engaged electorate that’s going to hold those people accountable.” Hayes is among the activists supporting Harris and Snipes, describing them as “brilliant coalition-building women who have offered incredible ideas.”

Public safety is a key issue in this race. More than 36 percent of the city’s budget goes to policing. During heated fiscal debates last summer, Omaha City Council president Chris Jerram proposed a measure to remove $2 million that Stothert added to the police budget and put it toward mental health services and employment training. The council shot it down, but then passed an amendment to pull $1.8 million from the city’s cash reserves to fund those services. Stothert vetoed the amendment saying it would be “reckless” and “irresponsible” to take money from the contingency fund during a pandemic. 

Harris said one of her first priorities as mayor would be to review all agency budgets to identify programs that need reworking for greater efficiency and equity. She said the police department is no exception. 

“When people talk about public safety, they’re always saying ‘we need to add more police to keep the public safe,’” said Harris, who works as the advocacy and policy director for RISE, a statewide organization that supports people coming out of prison and advocates for initiatives to reduce incarceration. “But at the end of the day, everybody doesn’t feel safe with the police. So we need to ensure that public safety encompasses everyone. And for me that’s taking on a preventative and proactive approach.”

Harris said she would work to decriminalize activities that traditionally have led to interactions with police, like panhandling. She also wants to demilitarize the police by restricting their use of riot gear and chemical weapons. To ensure police accountability, there should be “a transparent misconduct process where our community members know what’s going on along the way,” Harris explained. “That means creating an independent police oversight board. So that way, they have authority to be able to do investigations and to have the discipline afterwards.”

Harris wants to see the Omaha Police Department’s behavioral health and wellness unit further expand and receive proper funding and support. Last year, Omaha implemented a program that pairs precincts with mental health co-responders. The program debuted shortly before the city settled with the family of Zachary Bear Heels who was shot with a Taser and beaten while handcuffed in June 2017. He was having a mental health crisis and died as a result of the officer’s conduct.

Harris pointed to the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon, and the STAR program in Denver as models she supports. These programs send mental health responders to some emergencies instead of, rather than alongside, police.

Snipes, an elected member of the Omaha Public Schools Board, told the Political Report in an email that she would take a holistic approach to public safety, including expanding the role of mental health professionals. 

“To be a 21st century city, we need to jettison 20th century politics,” wrote Snipes. “That means we need to show an openness to change and innovation.”

Snipes wants to establish an all-civilian police oversight board. And she told the Political Report that public safety requires addressing the root causes of crime, “including unemployment and underemployment, mental health, homelessness, poverty and inequities.”

During  a forum held by the League of Women Voters of Greater Omaha this month, Snipes criticized the mayor’s handling of protests. “The people should not have to wait on leadership,” said Snipes. “[Mayor Stothert] showed she was out of touch with the community when we were dealing with the social justice protests.”

NOISE reported last month that the ACLU of Nebraska obtained emails showing the city of Omaha and police had coordinated surveillance of racial justice organizers. Lieutenant Sherie Thomas told NOISE via email that officers acted in consultation with the city’s legal department to determine which sources of intelligence they could legally access. 

The events they monitored were generally regarded as protected First Amendment activities, including a sidewalk chalking event, a former NOISE reporter’s livestream of a City Council meeting, and a prayer vigil for James Scurlock, a Black protester killed by a racist white bar owner. 

Omaha Abolition Research (OAR) is among several local groups that have pushed for the city to move away from policing. In an email, the group told the Political Report that in different neighborhoods, “safety differences are not correlated with police presence. … Safety is correlated with economic stability or instability and the continued impact of class and racial divides.” 

OAR named affordable and safe housing, transportation access, a clean environment, and access to food and healthcare as some of the things that make a neighborhood safe.  OAR added that Omaha’s status as a city with a large per capita share of millionaires enables wealthy people to disproportionately influence the city’s priorities.

“Omaha would benefit greatly from a participatory budgeting process so that middle and lower class residents … are able to have a voice in how public funds are allocated,” explained the OAR team. 

Participatory budgeting is underway in Seattle, where community organizers and elected officials are using the process to reallocate funds cut from the police budget. Harris said in a forum in January that she would like to use participatory budgeting to “let the community members decide how funding will be spent.”

That could lead to investments in housing and transportation, which Harris named as two major issues affecting residents in the city. 

“In Omaha, people live in one area and jobs are in another,” Harris explained. “And our public transportation isn’t set up to conducively get people from their home to their job, or back from their job to their home if they have a late shift.” She pointed to the struggle to find living wage jobs as a key challenge for many community members, particularly people who were formerly incarcerated. 

Snipes expressed a similar concern during the League of Women Voters forum, citing a shortage of approximately 80,000 affordable housing units. She referenced a study from the Sherwood Foundation that found that the shortage is concentrated in majority-Black North Omaha.   

Gudgel echoes these stances. He told the Political Report that tackling issues like affordable housing, better public transportation, and access to higher education is the way to address the “poverty that breeds crime.” Gudgel also expressed an interest in having an independent police review board, decriminalizing marijuana, and demilitarizing the police. “Military grade weapons, such as tear gas, should never be allowed for use against civilians,” Gudgel wrote in an email. 

But Gudgel’s commitment to racial equity was called into question this month when anti-Black Lives Matter comments made by one of his primary campaign donors came to light. Gudgel, who is white, apologized and cut ties with the donor.

Neary, who has raised the most campaign funding among those challenging Stothert, did not respond to requests for an interview.

Despite Neary’s financial advantage, Hayes is skeptical he could beat Stothert in the general election. They make the case that Neary lacks the grassroots support necessary to build the kind of multiracial coalition they think it will take to win. The campaigns that Snipes and Harris are running are “emblematic” of Omaha politics shifting toward electing “a mayor that represents the people,” Hayes said.