State Sen. Suzanne Geist announces GOP bid for Lincoln mayor
Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird is Nebraska’s highest-profile Democrat
State Sen. Suzanne Geist (center left) speaks to potential supporters, including Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers (right), at her campaign kickoff for Lincoln mayor. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — State Sen. Suzanne Geist announced a bid for Lincoln mayor on Wednesday, saying she wants city voters to feel safer from crime, bounce less on city streets, secure a second source of city water and join fewer divisive political fights.
The Republican businesswoman said her 2023 mayoral campaign will not personally attack the state’s highest-profile elected Democrat, Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird. Geist said she will, however, contrast her approach to governing with Baird’s record.
“I have a different vision for what I think Lincoln could be than where we are going right now. I look at the climate that’s going on in our society, not just in our town, but in our country, and I think we’re very polarized,” Geist said.
“I see this job in the city as being a uniting job. It doesn’t have a lot to do with issues that are divisive.”
Wedge issues a factor
Political observers said they expect issues such as abortion, guns and public health mandates to affect the mayor’s race in Lincoln, because of the national political environment and opposing views between the major political parties.
After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in the Dobbs decision, Democrats could make a campaign factor out of Geist’s support for a bill that would have banned abortion in Nebraska. Republicans could do the same with Baird, who supports abortion rights.
Geist is already facing criticism on guns from her right flank. She voted no on a bill that would have allowed people to carry handguns in Nebraska without a permit or background check, after listening to police union concerns in Omaha and Lincoln.
Baird likely faces criticism about the city’s mask mandates during previous peaks of the COVID-19 pandemic. Public health officials have credited such mandates with reducing illness and deaths. Geist said this week that she would not pursue public health mandates. She said she prefers encouraging people to make sound choices.
Geist said she knows that if she became mayor, she would have to work with a City Council that is likely to maintain a supermajority or majority of Democrats.
She said she would call on her experience working in the officially nonpartisan Legislature She also said one of her strengths is her ability to talk and connect with people who disagree politically and figure out what’s possible.
“I would meet with them regularly, one-on-one, talk with them about what their priorities are and what my priorities are, see where we can come to agreement,” she said.
Streets, safety, water
Street conditions, police and fire service, along with water, should not be partisan issues, she said. Asked what she’d do differently than Baird on those issues, Geist said she would talk to experts who know the systems and get them what they need.
Geist said people are tired of news about crime in Lincoln. She said that the city needs more police officers and that more people will consider the job if officers feel appreciated.
Geist has a close relationship with local law enforcement unions in Nebraska from her work on the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. Baird has clashed at times with the union that represents Lincoln police officers.
The state senator acknowledged that Baird has worked to increase officer pay and that staffing shortages in law enforcement and in many city departments have hit cities nationwide.
“There are no easy fixes,” she said.
The city’s latest two-year budget boosts spending on street maintenance and new roads to $42.6 million in 2022-23 and $45.5 million in 2023-24. Geist said she wants to dig deeper into long-term maintenance plans and see what can be done.
How to pay for it
Real change could require investments, Geist said, especially on water, where she would like to see the city move more quickly to address its challenges. She is willing to consider multiple options to pay for major improvements, including bonding.
She said she does not want to increase the burden on local property taxpayers and would rather “shift funding as opposed to raise funding.” Asked what city departments she would cut or shift funding from, Geist said she did not yet know. She said she would need more time with the city budget.
Baird has asked a committee of local leaders to recommend the city’s best course of action in securing a second major source of water other than Lincoln’s Platte River wells near Ashland.
Metropolitan Utilities District in the Omaha area has three sources of water, redundancies that help MUD overcome droughts. Geist said she wants to help Lincoln grow, and that will take more water.
“I look forward to discussing the historic investments my administration has made in health and safety, city infrastructure, and Lincoln’s nationally recognized economic recovery during my first term as mayor,” Baird said in a statement from her campaign.
A change in tone
Geist has said she wants to make Lincoln friendlier to new business and small business growth. That includes improving permitting processes and review times, she said. It could include revisiting impact fees on new construction.
Another area where she’d like to see change is in affordable housing. She said she’d like the city to review its building codes to see what can be tweaked to make housing more affordable, yet safe.
Her goal, she said, is to set a different tone at City Hall and to work with a team of experts to improve Lincoln incrementally over time, without changing what works. People who supported the city’s “fairness ordinance” pushed too hard too fast, she said.
That ordinance would have added sexual orientation and gender identity to protected classes against discrimination in city ordinance. She said the same goals can be accomplished “without alienating people.” She did not specify how.
Conservatives have argued that the “fairness ordinance” didn’t carve out enough religious-based exemptions. LGBTQ residents and allies said it would have aligned local ordinances with a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, and people need protections.
Said Geist: “The city is for all of us. I see Lincoln as a community that defines itself by being diverse, being open, being welcoming, and a place where people can thrive … We’re all Lincoln … and we all care about each other.”
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