The two candidates for Lincoln mayor in the nonpartisan 2023 city general election race are State Sen. Suzanne Geist, left, and Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird. (Courtesy of candidates’ campaigns)
LINCOLN – The barbed tone of the Lincoln mayor’s race hints at the statewide political stakes of Tuesday’s primary election.
Incumbent Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird is running for a second term. She is Nebraska’s highest-profile elected Democrat. Mike Johanns is the last Republican elected Lincoln mayor, serving from 1991-1998.
Republicans Suzanne Geist, a state senator, and nonprofit executive Stan Parker are jockeying to see which reaches the general election. Some Geist supporters have lined up behind the traditional business wing of the GOP, while Parker has gained support from some in the Trump-focused wing that took over state GOP leadership in 2022.
They have spent much of the campaign criticizing the city’s direction under Gaylor Baird, rather than attacking each other.
Tuesday’s primary is nonpartisan, but political observers expect the mayor to advance Tuesday as the only Democrat running. She has spent part of the campaign defending herself from attack ads, funded by a few wealthy Geist supporters.
Those donors, including U.S. Sen. Pete Ricketts, R-Neb., are spending to overtake the state’s bluest island on a blood-red map. Their spending has helped make this Lincoln mayor’s race the city’s costliest, with Geist and Gaylor Baird each raising at least $1 million and Parker raising $65,000.
The top two vote-getters will face off in a May 2 general election. In recent weeks, the Nebraska Examiner interviewed Gaylor Baird, Geist and Parker about the issues that have dominated the campaign: public safety, street maintenance and economic growth. This bit of last-minute voter preparation summarizes their answers:
Under Gaylor Baird, the city has added 18 police officers and 13 civilian employees to the Lincoln Police Department and made Lincoln officers the state’s highest-paid. The city’s violent crime rate is near a 30-year low, despite growing by 100,000 people, Gaylor Baird said.
The mayor said she has been proud to work with police on developing a “more nuanced and comprehensive response to emergency calls” by adding specialists in mental health and homeless services to the police teams responding to calls.
The Lincoln Police Union, however, says Lincoln faces more serious criminals and crimes today than decades ago — in a college town that has grown into a medium-sized city of nearly 300,000 people. The union, which did not endorse the incumbent, argues the city needs more police officers.
The Lincoln Fire Fighters Association did endorse Gaylor Baird, citing her follow-through on renovating and building new fire stations, replacing rigs and ambulances and adding 28 people to Lincoln Fire and Rescue. The mayor said she was proud of improved cardiac care by paramedics and increasing survival rates.
She said voters can see through efforts to scare them with TV ads and mailers that make the city sound less safe than it is.
“We have been investing in supporting our first responders, with investments in personnel, equipment, facilities and training,” Gaylor Baird said. “I’m really pleased with the investments we’ve made … and the results. They’re delivering for our community.”
The term-limited state senator, who has the police union’s backing, has carried legislative measures for law enforcement unions, including an effort this term to add more residential mental health treatment options for young criminal offenders short of juvenile detention. The union contends Lincoln needs another 110 police officers on top of the 358 the City Council has approved.
“The things I think are important … one of those is looking into beefing up our public safety and first responder numbers,” Geist said. “Law enforcement needs a significant increase in officers.”
Geist talked about an unusual spike in Lincoln homicides in 2022. Last year, the city saw double-digit homicides for the first time since the mid-2010s, driven by a spate of summer shootings. She also said the city needs to solve more property crimes and said she would prioritize police needs in her budget proposals.
Geist, who also pledged to cut city spending, would not specify what she would cut to add police officers other than to say she would audit city departments to see what her budget could de-emphasize. The city spends half of its $240 million tax-funded budget on police and fire service.
Democrats in Lincoln have questioned Geist’s seriousness about public safety, pointing out her March 3 vote in favor of Legislative Bill 77, which would legalize the concealed carry of handguns without a permit.
During the second round of debate last week, Geist voted present but not voting. She told the Examiner she sidestepped voting on the bill during that round because of concerns about LB 77 overriding local ordinances that police say help them target gang violence. The police unions in Lincoln and Omaha initially opposed LB 77, arguing more guns on the street in the hands of more people with less training could make their jobs more dangerous. Omaha eventually moved to neutral.
Parker said he sees a disconnect between the city’s official crime statistics and what police officers have told him. He says officers tell him the stats are down because the city doesn’t always have enough officers to file reports on some crimes. The city and police department, however, stand by the crime statistics.
Parker, a former offensive lineman for the University of Nebraska in the mid-1980s, said the public’s perception is that local crime is getting worse. He said people don’t want Lincoln to become “another city that gets used to crime.”
“There were articles that came out that said we’re at a better place than we’ve ever been statistically,” Parker said. “But you can make numbers say what you want.”
According to the city, Lincoln has 1.2 officers per 1,000 people, about half the national average. The budget document says LPD has one of the lowest staffing levels of any U.S. police agency in a city of similar size. Parker said he wouldn’t brag about that. He said if elected he would press the city to make sure he’s getting accurate numbers.
He credited Gaylor Baird for paying officers more but said it’s disturbing that the department is still having trouble attracting officers. Part of that, he said, is the hangover from the 2020 protests after George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis. Parker criticized Gaylor Baird for trying to please both sides with comments that expressed an understanding of why protesters were upset and supportive of police officers who follow the law.
“To be willing to put your life on the line for a community that you don’t feel is 100% behind you, that’s not something that lots of people are going to want to sign up for,” Parker said.
He said he would evaluate the culture of the police department, starting with Police Chief Teresa Ewins.
Parker has said he fully supports the legislative bill allowing concealed carry of a handgun without a permit.
Geist said she hears a lot of complaints on the campaign trail about potholes, bumps and the overall quality of Lincoln’s streets.
She wants the city to increase its pace of arterial street improvements, the main roads that carry commerce. She’s also interested in prioritizing road improvements that carry products to market and people to shopping and other local destinations.
She also said she has her eyes set on possible annexations to grow the city, much like Omaha, though she did not say where she’d like to grow.
Geist said her seven years of experience in the Legislature have taught her the need to listen to people, regardless of whether they agree with her politically. She said she would pursue additional public input to see if the plans in place today are the best for the city.
“I’ve learned to listen and discern what are people actually saying,” Geist said. “Not just what I want them to say … but what they actually are saying.”
Parker said he hears more complaints about the condition of local roads than anything else. Residents complained to him that they thought the problems would be fixed quickly after voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax to repair local roads. They also told him the city’s wheel tax and extra sales tax should be enough to get the road work done.
Many are complaining about potholes. Others complain about bumps and curbs that need fixing.
He said he understands after speaking with the city’s transportation director that a lot more roads are being repaired than people understand. But he said his work with nonprofit leaders and as a Christian broadcaster has shown him the value of improved communication.
The city, he said, has a great website with all the road work shown on it. But he said it’s not done enough outreach and social media work to promote that map and spread the word.
“Some of that is perception,” he said. “Some of it could be real. … We’ve got to not allow that level of disconnect to happen.”
Since Gaylor Baird took office, the City of Lincoln has spent $211 million on street improvements, including repairs. She became mayor shortly after voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax increase for deferred and needed road maintenance.
The mayor describes street improvements as vital for public safety and the economy. She said she understands public frustration about the pace of fixes on major streets. Negative mailers and online outreach have questioned the progress on Lincoln’s streets.
The mayor said people might not know the bigger picture: that maintenance is an ongoing fight with aging roads and the need to grow at the city’s edges. Rising construction costs mean the city continues to have more repairs than it can afford to make, she said.
Gaylor Baird said the city has essentially maxed out the capacity of contractors willing to do the work.
However, she said, residents will continue to see more roads fixed. The city has already improved 123 lane miles of arterial streets and 141 lane miles of residential or side streets.
“We’ll never stop …,” she said. “Repair, rehab or new streets are coming soon to an area near you. This is a very important, fundamental responsibility of our city.”
Parker used a sports analogy when asked about the city’s business development. He said right now the city has a reputation like an official in a big basketball game who makes calls and showboats and draws a lot of attention to itself.
He said he wants the city to act like the best officials, the ones who officiate a game so cleanly and so fairly that people barely notice that they’re there.
“They’re overregulating right now, calling the fouls too tight and stifling play and holding down the school,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure that people are playing by the rules … but we need to let players play.”
He said the city governs best when it leaves the business community and the nonprofit community to “bless the city” with their work and their efforts.
Another big factor in the city’s ability to keep growing is finding and investing in a second water source to augment the water Lincoln draws from the Platte River.
Parker has said he would work with experts already engaged in the city’s processes to find the best, most cost-effective way to provide a second source.
The mayor has heard the complaints about how her administration handled masking during the COVID-19 pandemic. But she said she won’t apologize for working with public health experts to save lives.
A Johns Hopkins study found that Lincoln fared better than most similarly sized cities, with fewer deaths per capita. Lincoln also fared better than other Nebraska cities.
Some business leaders who opposed masking have rallied against her re-election, including the owners of Sandhills Publishing, who are backing Geist. They say Gaylor Baird, a former management consultant, isn’t friendly enough to businesses.
Gaylor Baird points to a record number of construction permits the city approved in 2022 and a quick economic rebound after the pandemic to say that her approach works. Gaylor Baird said she has used federal pandemic recovery funds to help boost local job training, including a partnership with Bryan Health to train more nurses and phlebotomists. The city also partnered with organizations to train more child care workers.
“We want everyone to achieve financial security, and independence and be able to provide for their families,” she said.
On water, the mayor appointed an advisory council that identified the Missouri River as the best likely second water source. Building the infrastructure to reach that water won’t be cheap or easy, she said, but called it the city’s “most significant” public works project in decades.
Geist said she hears from people in the business community who want to cut the number of steps and length of time it takes to clear hurdles at City Hall.
She said she would focus on reducing red tape and “helping businesses grow and thrive in an easy way.” She also said she would work with directors to make sure permitting processes are streamlined. Business leaders need better communication and better, clearer processes for navigating the bureaucracy, she said.
She said she would ensure the city is more involved in flood mitigation, working with local natural resources districts to ensure that a 100-year flood doesn’t catch the city flat-footed.
Geist echoes Gaylor Baird on the need to secure a second water source. She said the city can’t grow if it can’t sustain the people and businesses moving to Lincoln. She’s encouraged that the city might be able to work with other communities along the piping route to share the costs of building out to the Missouri River for water.
The hardest part of getting that project moving will be selling people who don’t want to pay more for water today on the need to ensure supplies tomorrow, she said.
“I plan to sit down with people far smarter than I am to figure out how we could do that. And … I believe that’s a 20-year solution. … Small steps, but a big result.”
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