Economy in 2012: “A clash of titans” in North Omaha


July 3rd, 2012

Omaha, NE – It will be a close November election in the oldest part of Omaha. Two political rivals are squaring off to represent Nebraska’s 11th legislative district in North Omaha. While unemployment plagues the area, the race may turn out to be less about the economy, and more about personality.

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On the third floor of the Blue Lion Unemployment Office in North Omaha, Shawnta Dean sat patiently and listened carefully to a career advisor. Huddled in a small cubicle, Dean explained the purpose for her visit: “I did have a job late October of last year, but the store closed and that caused me to be laid off.”

North Omaha’s unemployment rate is far higher than the rest of the city. Estimates range from 11 to 25 percent. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

The decision to close the shop came as a shock to the 36-year-old, and left her scrambling to find work to make ends meet. “It was very unpleasant,” she said. “It does deal you a hard time to have to start over or readjust based on your income.”

“But you just gotta take the good with the bad.”

Dean is still looking for a stable job. According to Career Advisor Holly McElhatton, that’s something she has seen a lot of lately in this part of town.

“Actually most of the people I work with have been laid off,” McElhatton said. “It’s tough when you work for the same company for 20 years. So, you have to retrain yourself to apply for jobs. And you have to retrain yourself on what skills are now marketable and which ones aren’t. And it is scary out there.”

As of May, the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows Omaha’s unemployment rate at about half the 8.2 percent national average. But that isn’t a luxury across the board. Although a specific number is hard to nail down, estimates point to North Omaha’s unemployment numbers sitting anywhere from 11 to 25 percent.

Nebraska State Senator Brenda Council says that’s a big problem.

Sen. Brenda Council, pictured here at a press conference flanked by other North Omaha leaders, is fighting to keep her seat in the Legislature. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

Council works as a labor lawyer and currently represents Nebraska’s 11th district. Recently, she’s been working with the Urban League of Nebraska, an empowerment organization run by her brother and former Omaha Police Chief Thomas Warren, as well as pounding the pavement in her district, touting her platform of job creation and her legislative record.

“I focus on what the community has identified as the critical issues,” Council said. “Those issues are jobs, education, training, safety and health.”

Council said her legislative record, in terms of the bills that she has sponsored or co-sponsored, is evidence of her focus. “Those are bills in the areas that would address those issues and improve conditions in this community.”

Council’s opponent in November’s election is actually her predecessor Ernie Chambers. Chambers served as a state senator for 38 years, before being pushed out by term limits, and now, he’s looking to get back in. Chambers beat Council in May’s primary, but Nebraska law dictates the top two candidates to win a legislative primary have to square off in a general election.

Former State Senator Ernie Chambers, pictured here with his poodle Nichole, has a long history in North Omaha and is well-known in his community. (Photo courtesy Omaha Public Schools)

Chambers is a political maverick. He has no campaign staff, a non-maintained website, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any campaign flyers around town. He doesn’t speak to the media. He doesn’t return calls, and you can’t find him at his house in North Omaha.

So, in an effort to track him down, KVNO News went to his official headquarters: Goodwin Spencer’s. The 40-year-old barbershop is located in the heart of North Omaha. It was a staple of the community during the hey-day of the civil rights movements. It’s also where Chambers first made his name as a young, black barber with a reputation for his strong oratory skills. The small barbershop has an open-door policy for locals to speak their minds about problems in the community.

While we were waiting at the shop, Chambers walked in, but declined to be interviewed. So, instead, we spoke with Dan Goodwin, the owner of the small shop, and a close friend of Chambers.

Goodwin said he likes Council personally, but the residents of district 11 trust Chambers more.
“I predict Ernie will beat her two-to-one,” Goodwin said. “(It) should be more than that. In fact, to be honest, in this district and the way Ernie represents, people who are enlightened and know what’s going on… she shouldn’t get any votes.”

“Naturally, she will though,” he said. “But, I’m convinced he’ll beat her.”

Council is supported by many established leaders in North Omaha, including Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray and Empowerment Network President Willie Barney. But, as it turns out, Brenda Council’s platform on legislation, unemployment, and the economy as a whole could end up being the last thing on voters’ minds.
“I’m not really sure the race will be decided on those kinds of issues anyway,” said Paul Landow, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska Omaha. Landow said high unemployment is a problem, but, most North Omaha voters are looking at something else entirely: character. It’s a factor that’s played in Chambers’ favor in the past, and it could pay off now.

“Chambers never really has campaigned very much,” Landow said. “He’s always had the attitude, which I think he’s expressed on numerous occasions, that if the people want to keep him in office they will.”
“If they don’t, they won’t. He’s perfectly fine with their decision.”

Landow added whether voters rally around a candidate’s reputation, or stance on the economy, it’ll still be a close election. “A clash of titans.”

Editorial note: This report is part of an occasional series looking at the impact of the economy on local political races in Omaha. The series will continue Thursday.

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