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 — Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird told more than 200 people at a candidate forum Thursday that her opponent, former State Sen. Suzanne Geist, is bad for business, while Geist described Lincoln under Gaylor Baird’s watch as a harder place to do business than it should be.
Gaylor Baird said Geist’s legislative record could cost the city young talent and growth.
Geist said she would work to make City Hall a friendlier place to builders and developers and make Lincoln a more affordable place to buy a home.
The two faced off for the first time as general election opponents Thursday at the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce event.
Mayor takes a shot
During closing arguments, Gaylor Baird hit Geist with the sharpest criticism either candidate has lobbed during a race marked by outside advertising against Gaylor Baird from a third-party group funded by some of Geist’s top supporters.
The mayor said legislation Geist supports makes it harder for the mayor and business partners to attract and keep young professionals. She pointed to bills targeting “women and our LGBTQ friends and neighbors.” She called Geist’s support for anti-abortion and anti-trans bills in the Legislature harmful.
Gaylor Baird expanded on her statement during a follow-up interview, adding that Geist’s initial votes supporting legislation legalizing carrying concealed handguns without training or a permit were bad for local police and public safety. On a later round of debate, Geist voted present but not voting.
Geist, who was endorsed by the Lincoln Police Union, said law enforcement leaders had raised questions about the bill’s impact in cities. Gaylor Baird was endorsed by the Lincoln Fire Fighters Association.
“Her voting record at the state Capitol makes it clear that her priorities are not our shared priorities,” Gaylor Baird told the Nebraska Examiner. “They hurt Lincoln and they hurt Nebraska.”
Geist, who resigned last week from her legislative seat representing southeast Lincoln, called the mayor’s criticisms a “distraction.” Geist said she would remain true to her “core values” if she gets to City Hall. But once there, she said she would focus on city issues, not divisive ones.
City issues or divisive ones?
When asked why voters should trust that Geist would govern differently on divisive issues at the city level than she has at the statehouse, Geist said she supported abortion bans and legislation aimed at outlawing gender-affirming care for trans minors because they were state issues.
She said she would focus on improving the city’s public safety, roads, jobs and business culture, goals Geist and Gaylor Baird spent most of the 45-minute candidate forum discussing, in response to Chamber questions about boosting Lincoln’s economic competitiveness.
Geist focused her answers on streamlining city processes, repeating earlier comments about the city needing to know “when to get out of the way.” Gaylor Baird touted record investments in public safety and roads and record numbers of housing permits being issued during her term.
Both emphasized the need to invest in police officers, firefighters and paramedics. Each stressed the importance of working with private partners to grow local businesses and entrepreneurship. Both backed working with the state to build a new downtown convention center.
Both weigh in on outside ads
Talking with reporters after the forum, Geist criticized the tone of third-party ads against Gaylor Baird, but she declined to call on her supporters to stop airing them. She referenced one of the latest ads from an outside group, which questions whether Gaylor Baird lives in Lincoln.
“That is not my character,” Geist said. “It’s not who I am. … I know the mayor has a city address, and actually, to me, that is a non-issue. That’s another thing that just is a distraction. … I think 80 percent to 90 percent of the public longs for leadership that is uniting and not divisive.”
Gaylor Baird has acknowledged that her family has a vacation home in the Ashland area, which the ad insinuates is where she lives. Her campaign issued a statement recently clarifying that she and her family live and work in Lincoln.
She said that Geist should denounce the ads more strongly and that the public understands who is behind them. Backers of the main outside group funding the ads, Together Nebraska, include Geist donors Tom Peed, a Sandhills Publishing executive, and U.S. Sen. Pete Ricketts, R-Neb.
“I’m going to be focused on public safety, on building out infrastructure, on making this an inclusive community where everyone has the opportunity to build their lives and livelihoods,” Gaylor Baird said. “That’s how we grow a city.”
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