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Kathy “Scout” Pettersen and Beverly Reicks Equality and love win


It’s funny how things once considered taboo, unthinkable, and unlawful become accepted practices. if not by everyone (Where is there one hundred percent consensus on anything?) then by the vast majority of us. Gay marriage is certainly one of those societal shifts. As the gay rights movement took hold and most of us came to terms with the fact that we have gay individuals in our lives whom we like or love or respect, ideas about same sex unions moved the public and private needle about this basic human and civil right little by little until what was thought impossible became practical, fair, lawful, and right. This is a piece I did about the women who became the first legally sanctioned same sex married couple in Douglas County, Nebraska.

 

l-r: Kathy "Scout" Petersen and Beverly Reicks

Kathy “Scout” Pettersen and Beverly Reicks

Equality and love win

When marriage equality became binding law in all 50 states, one Omaha couple wasted no time making Neb. history. Within two hours of the landmark June 26 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Kathy “Scout” Pettersen and Beverly Reicks got hitched at the Douglas County Clerk’s office downtown.

The kiss sealing their I-do’s graced the Omaha World-Herald’s front page and many other media platforms.

The couple, who share a home in Benson, waited years for legislation to catch up with public opinion They kept close tabs on the same-sex marriage debate. The morning their lives changed Pettersen was at The Bookworm, where she manages the children’s department, and Reicks, National Safety Council, Nebraska president and CEO, was getting blood work done at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

After hearing initial reports of the court reaching a decision, Reicks joined Pettersen at the bookstore. Once the 5-4 ruling in favor of marriage equality was confirmed, the pair drove to the courthouse for a license. Surrounded by hungry media, supportive staff and friends, they opted for an impromptu civil ceremony.

“We were greeted just with an abundance of joy and happiness,” Reicks says. “It was just really cool.”

“The reception was really warm. Everyone smiling and congratulatory. Lots of hugs from people I’d never met. It kind of made up for the disappointment I experienced in Neb. in 2000,” Pettersen says, referring to voters passing Initiative 416 prohibiting same-sex unions.

“It was troubling people thought certain people should be without civil rights,” Reicks says of the status quo that prevailed here.

Nebraska District Court Judge Joseph Battalion twice ruled the ban unconstitutional. A state appeal resulted in a stay that left gay couples in limbo until this summer’s milestone federal decision.

The couple’s friend, County Clerk Tom Cavanaugh, paid for their license. More friends witnessed the proceedings.

“We were just really honored so many people came through for us,” Pettersen says. “It was just really wonderful.”

“It was beyond what I ever imagined,” Reicks adds.

With the paperwork signed, Chief Deputy Clerk Kathleen Hall nudged the pair to give the media a marriage to cover. Pettersen and Reicks obliged. The lights, cameras and mics made for a surreal scene.

“I felt like I was in a whirlwind,” Pettersen recalls. “I felt like a celebrity,” Reicks says.

After basking in applause and cheers, the newlyweds answered reporters’ questions. Congrats continued outside. The couple celebrated with friends and family at La Buvette and Le Bouillon.

“It was an all-day, into-the-night celebration,” Pettersen says. “Lots of toasting.”

Reasons to celebrate extended to finally being accorded rights long enjoyed by opposite sex couples. Pettersen has an adopted daughter, Mia, and Reicks says, “Now she’s truly my step-daughter.” Recently filling out joint documents, Pettersen says, “I checked the married box for the first time without any hesitation or doubt. That was a very big deal to me. I couldn’t stop smiling it felt so good.”

Reicks reminds, “We owe a debt of gratitude to the plaintiffs who took these cases where they needed to go. They were brave enough to come forward and take up the challenge. We took advantage of the moment they created.”

“We reaped the benefits of their hard work,” Pettersen says. “I never thought I would see this in my lifetime. I do feel like we’re a part of history.”

Contrary to opponents’ fears, Reicks says, “The world did not come to an end because some gay and lesbian couples got married.”

Pettersen says It just all proves “love wins.”

l-r: Kathy "Scout" Petersen and Beverly Reicks

 

Pot Liquor Love: Dixie Quicks chef and co-owner Rene Orduna and partner Rob Gilmer deliver righteous Southern grub in eclectic space


A funny thing happened on the way to my profiling my favorite Omaha area restaurant, Dixie Quicks Public House, and its chef and co-owner Rene Orduna who is so expert at making food flavors and presentations pop. I was supposed to have done the story years ago but for reasons no longer relevant it never happened. Until now. I am happy to say my debut piece for Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/) is this long detoured and delayed profile about Dixie Quciks, Rene, his life-business partner Rob Gilmer, and the way they have made a success of doing things their way, as an expression of their well-yoked creative souls. I was first introduced to Dixie Quicks at its original location in downtown Omaha, and that very first visit vaulted the place and its food to the top of my favorite eateries list. Rene did then, and this is going back 20 some years, what has become all the rage today in terms of using locally sourced, fresh ingredients and classical techniques that elevate American comfort food to gourmet or fine dining fare. He’s still doing it today. I followed the restaurant to Leavenworth just south of downtown but I never made the crossing over to its new digs in Council Bluffs until I did this story. In addition to finally visiting this splendid destination attraction with the restaurant on one side and the RNG Gallery on the other, with a curio and gift shop in between, I got to meet Rob for the first time. Rene is charming and passionate as always. Rob, who is an artist and the curator for the gallery, is a delight, too. Together, they make a great team and a great couple. Just as Rob is a visual artist, Rene is an artist in the kitchen, and they’ve applied their imagination and whismy to creating a fun, eclectic place whose food and decor you won’t forget.

Visit Food & Spirit’s Facebook page-

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Follow my Pot Liquor Love food blogging at leoadambiga.com and on Facebook at My Inside Stories. And since food and movies are such a good pair, remember to follow my Hot Movie Takes on the same two social media platforms.

 

Rob Gilmer and Rene Orduna stand in their restaurant Dixie Quicks from Omaha, Neb. to Council Bluffs, Iowa, so they could get married and expand their restaurant.

Rene Orduna and Rob Gilmer

 

Pot Liquor Love:

Dixie Quicks chef and co-owner Rene Orduna and partner Rob Gilmer deliver righteous Southern grub in eclectic space 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/)

 

Dixie Quicks Public House features Southern-Tex-Mex infused dishes reflecting classically trained chef and co-owner Rene Orduna’s many influences. But make no mistake, his good eats are soul food by any other name. He says about any cuisine, “It’s all soul food if it’s good, if it’s got flavor.” His singular bold flavors come right from the soul.

Twenty years into a run that’s seen Dixie Quicks evolve across three metro locations, Orduna, together with life-business partner Rob Gilmer, has created an artful but unpretentious experience. Years before it got trendy, the two foodies emphasized farm-to-table fresh ingredients and made-from-scratch fine dining quality comfort food.

“From the day we opened we’ve had locally grown food,” Orduna says. “It just makes sense. Having relationships with farmers always made it easy for me to get stuff in I couldn’t find anywhere else.”

His grandfather grew chilies and tomatoes for the family’s iconic Howard’s Charro Cafe in South Omaha, where Orduna got his start in the industry. On family vacations to Mexico he was introduced to the vibrant, fresh flavors of his ancestral homeland.

Gilmer’s folks back East farmed acres of organic gardens. He says, “When Rene and I lived in New York City we’d go to their place and the food was amazing. Rene was like a kid in a candy chop.” “Oh, yeah,” Rene recalls. “Being able to go pick it and cook it right there was great. That taught me a valuable lesson – one I’d learned before.” Orduna finds it ironic farm-to-table is suddenly “all new and mainstream.”

Today, his picking is facilitated by six farmers who regularly produce for him. Several others supply specialty items. Beyond that, he uses Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and H. Olafsson International.

“Knowing those places and having a good salesman like I do, who’s been with me from the beginning, makes the difference. It’s all about the relationships. Usually I have the menu planned out at least a week ahead of time. I know what’s coming and since I already know my purveyors, I get what I want.”

His refined fare is served in a relaxed, whimsical setting where CEOS, bikers, creatives, families, gays and straights feel equally comfortable.

As Rene puts it, “We open up our doors to basically our home and wa want whoever walks in to feel comfortable.”

Gilmer never ceases to be wowed by the emotion and imagination Orduna pours into his culinary creations. If the Huevos Ranchero is especially hot, then Gilmer knows Orduna’s upset.

“It all comes out in the food,” Gilmer says. “It’s that love, that passion you cannot learn, you cannot be taught. It’s been instilled in him since birth. Basically, cooking is chemistry, but he adds that punch. When he makes Ramen Noodles from the package at home he throws away the seasoning packet and adds his own seasoning mix and it’s a banquet.”

For a Diners, Drive-ins and Dives segment host Guy Fieri raved about Orduna’s serious cooking chops and mentioned the Texas Chili Pepper Steak, the Blackened Salmon, the Chicken Tortilla Soup and other dishes. That exposure keeps bringing folks from all over the country and the world. “It’s amazing how word gets out,” Orduna says. He adds that the College World Series, U.S. Olympic Swim Trials and Berkshire Hathaway Convention draw people “who are serious about food – they loving coming here and they come back every year.”

 

 

 

It’s not just the food but the funky environs. In its latest iteration, glittering plastic globes and repurposed doors hang from the ceiling.  Toy dinosaurs are arrayed on a front counter. Photographs and other works by Gilmer, a visual artist, adorn the dining room walls.

“It makes him part of the restaurant, too,” Orduna says of having Gilmer’s art displayed there

The art and ephemera continue in the couple’s adjoining RNG Gallery and cozy curio-thrift shop.

All of it has an urban chic yet homespun feel that gains further charm from the character of the 19th century digs whose ground floor the business occupies. In 2011 Dixie Quicks moved into the renovated Hughes-Irons Building at 157 West Broadway in Council Bluffs from its decade-long home at 1915 Leavenworth in Omaha. Dixie Quicks and RNG add a bohemian accent to this block of historic buildings with quaint brick facades and wrought iron-laced balconies.

Dixie Quicks began at 1516 Dodge Street in Omaha. At each spot it’s fused food and art. Rene works his magic in the kitchen but he also has a strong managerial and design sense.

“The restaurant business is a perfect place to learn where to put this and where to put that,” he says, “and it transfers everywhere in regular life. How I arrange my home and my kitchen – it’s all the same thing.”

In addition to Gilmer making art for the eatery’s walls, he curates the gallery and he adds playful flourishes here and there.

“I have as much fun with it as anyone,” he says of the toys and things.

He also does the books and runs the front of the house.

“We know our stations,” he says. “You don’t want me cooking in the kitchen. And you don’t want Rene with a checkbook. Every once in a while I’ll say, ‘Do you want me to go in the kitchen and start cooking?’ and he’s like, ‘No, no, no, I’ve got that.’ We know our strengths, we know our weaknesses, we know our gifts, we know our shortcomings, and it works out really well. Sometimes we do butt heads, and I just let Rene think he’s right,”

“That’s all that matters,” Orduna says, smiling. On a more serious note, he adds, “Knowing your abilities and your inabilities makes all the difference in the world and we’re able to accept that from each other.”

Gilmer says he’s reminded of how Jun and Ree Kaneko work together.

“Jun is such an incredible artist and Ree is such an incredible administrator. I mean, every Jun should have a Ree, and we sort of have that. If Rene did it all by himself here he’d have to worry about the kitchen and the front, so here we even it out. It’s all good.”

Making them a good match is their mutual appreciation for good food and their love for the restaurant business. Orduna grew up at Howard’s and broadened his knowledge at the French Cafe and M’s Pub. He then left for a whirlwind culinary life and career in New Orleans, Atlanta, Kansas City, San Francisco, Hawaii, New York City, Maryland. He learned new techniques and shortcuts, he opened and closed establishments, he worked with legends Julia Child and James Beard.

“I was lucky enough to work at the French Cafe when they had three chefs from Paris working there. I waited tables and they saw something in me. They would take me off the floor back to the kitchen between lunch and dinner and teach me how to do other stuff. Those were the three best mentors I’ve ever had in my life. It was totally eye-opening to see the great food they put out. Learning how to make it was the best thing of all. It helped me wherever I went.”

 

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His famous Texas Chili Pepper Steak is his take on the classic Steak au Poivre he learned to make there.

“When I moved to the South I had a different view of it. Instead of using peppercorns I used chili peppers and peppercorns and brandy and bourbon instead of just brandy, which gave it its own little flair. I use poblanos, anaheims and jalapenos. One has a depth of flavor, one has the mildness of chili powder and one has the heat. It really brings out the flavor in all three. It’s like our coffee here – a cross blend of light roast, dark roast, regular roast. It covers all the bases.

“I just salt and pepper the steak and put the peppercorns on top. It gets sauteed in a pan (in soybean oil). The peppers are added to it with a few onions. The bourbon and brandy’s added to that. Then, I add a little beef stock, then cream and then that reduces in a pan.”

For his Blackened Salmon he dredges his fillets in a secret spice mix that creates a blend of flavors and a hint of heat.

“It gives a carnival in your mouth every time you take a bite and our signature tomato butter goes so well with it.”

He cooks the salmon atop a hot grill, sans oil or anything else. The oil from the salmon does the rest.

He’s considered coming out with a line of spice mixes and such but there’s been no time. “Maybe in the next five-year plan we’ll do that.”

There was no five-year plan when he left town, just a desire to travel.

“Once I left Omaha, I went to New Orleans. Working at Brennan’s restaurant I realized i could do my job anywhere I wanted. My other mentor was Ma Hall from Ma Hall’s Boardinghouse in Atlanta. She served brunch on Saturday and Sunday with tables on the front porch and in the gardens. People flocked to this restaurant. It was all self-served soul food sourced from local farmers. It was heaven.”

Dixie Quicks is famous for its brunch.

Gilmer never worked in the industry until he and Rene opened Dixie Quicks in 1995 but he always found it intriguing.

“I’ve always loved it. I’ve always been enamored by the restaurant process and by what restaurants can do.”

 

Dixie Quicks Magnolia Room - Omaha, NE, United States. Texas Chili Pepper Steak on mashed potatoes with collard greens! Delicious!!!
Texas Chili Pepper Steak on mashed potatoes with collard greens

 

 

 

 

Growing up in suburbia New York state and vacationing summers in Maine, his family ate out a lot and he tried wide ranging fare in diverse settings. What most stood out were spectacle-style venues. There was the Polynesian-themed Bali Hai whose outside featured a faux volcano that lit up. Running through the inside was an enclosed mini-river filled with baby alligators. A waterfall, too. At Hamburger Choo-Choo a model railroad track ran through the kitchen into the dining room, with patrons placing their dirty dishes atop the flatbed train cars.

“That’s why we have dinosaurs everywhere. I look at the restaurant as almost a kid and what makes it fun.”

In addition to what Orduna’s taught him, Gilmer gleaned much from his partner’s late mother, Delores Wright, who made Howard’s a success.

“I learned from his mom talking with her, watching her. I picked up so many wonderful pointers – to the point where his brothers and sisters  we’ll hear me say something and go, ‘God, Mom said that.’ I learned from the best. She was an amazing woman.”

The men are grateful the family has embraced them as a couple.

Howard’s is now on its fourth generation. Gilmer and Orduna settled here after they came back to help the family move that eatery from 24th and Q to 13th and J in the former Marchio’s.

“I thought we could either go back to New York or we could stay here and open up our own place,” Orduna recalls. “Living in the South I had a love for Southern food, Cajun, Southwestern. There was no restaurant like that in Omaha, so we opened our own. It was the time.”

Dixie Quicks earned loyal customers from the start. Most followed its two moves. Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne is a fan. He says,  “I went to their first place, then followed them to Leavenworth and then followed them across the river. I just think they’re a tremendous asset. It’s a place I can take people visiting for the first time and they’re surprised by how hip it is.”

Relocating to the Bluffs was done for business and personal reasons.

“It was an opportunity for us to give Council Bluffs something it didn’t have,” Orduna says, “and another part of it was so we could get married. We figured it was a good fit.”

 

 

The new site has more space and better electrical-HVAC systems than the past spots. Much thought was given to every detail, even the acoustics. Big windows allow ample light and cool streetscape views.

“There is a commitment here that is from the soul and you have to be committed to all of it,” Orduna says. “I’ve been in the business long enough that I do understand the art of it.”

Gilmer says, “The art is making all this hard work look easy.”

Satisfaction comes from “knowing everybody had a meal worth twice the money they paid for it,” says Orduna, adding, “That’s what I wanted people to feel. That’s what makes me happy.”

Sustaining that is an art, too.

“A restaurant is only as good as the last food they put out,” he says. “That’s as good as a restaurant gets,”

He welcomes “the camaraderie” with customers that extends over years. A generation later he says patrons who came as kids are now parents bringing their own kids. “We get a lot of the same people we’ve had from the beginning.” Count Mary Thompson among them. “I used to bring Rene fresh veggies from my garden,” she says. “He once did a fabulous dessert presentation – Bananas Foster to be exact – for an event I did. He is a true master.”

Orduna enjoys sharing tricks of the trade to young people who work for him. “Many are still in the restaurant business and they still look back on their time at Dixie Quicks as the hardest job they ever had but the most learning job they ever had. That makes a difference to me.”

He and Gilmer admire the enterprising, ingenious chef owners who’ve emerged to elevate Omaha’s culinary scene. They host pop-ups to give people space for their dreams. The couple’s own dream is rooted in family. Howard’s is where Orduna’s love affair with food began. It’s still going strong in the family’s hands. Just as Rene and Rob support that legacy, the family supports the couple’s legacy.

“They’re all proud of what we’ve accomplished,” Orduna says. “Being able to be here with this place now is really great. They all come in here and have lunch or dinner on a regular basis. We go over there every Tuesday night for dinner. Oh yeah, we gotta make sure their food is right. We’re quality control.”

Open Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m.; Saturday Brunch 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Dinner 5 to 9 p.m.; Sunday Brunch 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Closed Mondays. Visit http://dixiequicks.com/.

 

 

Ann Schatz on her own terms – Veteran sportscaster broke the mold in Omaha

March 30, 2016 4 comments

Women covering sports today is routine but not so long ago it was a rarity. Ann Schatz broke the mold as the first female sportscaster in Omaha in the late 1970s. She then became the first in Portland, Oregon. In both cities she dealt with serious push-back that got ugly. Not from male colleagues, who supported her, but from fans and viewers. She’s stuck it out to have a big career as a reporter and play-by-play announcer. I distinctly remember when Ann broke through on Omaha television. It really was A Thing and topic for conversation because she was the first. Because viewers, myself among them, were not entirely sure how we felt about her doing sports, which back then was the clear domain of men, we collectively put her through a trial-by-fire period that saw some folks get downright rude and nasty. She rose above it all to prove herself a real pro who could talk and report sports with the best of her male counterparts. Ann’s been away from Omaha a long time but she’s coming back as a keynote speaker for an event I will be at and I’m very much looking forward to meeting her for the first time. However, I feel like we do know each other already as a result of the interview I did with her for the following profile appearing in the April 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Ann hails from a prominent Omaha family. Her brother Thomas Schatz is a noted film educator, historian, and author who wrote one of the forewords fro my book, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.

 

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Ann Schatz on her own terms – Veteran sportscaster broke the mold in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the April 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Omaha native Ann Schatz swears she never meant to be a pioneer. She became one as her hometown’s first female sportscaster in the late 1970s, repeating the feat in Portland, Oregon in 1989. From that Pacific Northwest base she’s traveled to cover the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, where she broke the Tonya Harding story, and the 2000 Sydney, Australia Summer Games. She’s covered everything from the NBA finals to the Boston Marathon to the U.S, Women’s Open Golf Championship.

These days, she does play-by-play of women’s college sports for the Pac-12 Network. sometimes gigging for Westwood One.

Schatz is back in Omaha as keynote speaker for the April 29 Toast to Fair Housing Gala at the Livestock Exchange Building Bsllroom.

As a woman sportscaster, she’s confronted gender bias. As a lesbian, she once hid her sexual orientation for fear of repercussions.

Today, with women sports reporters galore on ESPN and Fox, her story may seem passe. But a few decades ago, even as recently as 2000, a female covering sports raised eyebrows and ire. Being there first paved the way for others.

Schatz’s late father was a federal district judge in Omaha. She grew up playing sports with her siblings.. She competed in basketball and softball at Creighton University. where she earned a broadcasting and mass communication degree. A WOWT internship introduced her to local television sports legend Dave Webber, the first of many men in the business who encouraged her. Still, she didn’t see herself as a sports journalist until KMTV hired her as a weekend sports reporter despite scant experience. The late Terry Yeager mentored her.

Try as she might, she says, “there were very few women role models” in the field then. None locally. Only former beauty queens Phyllis George and Jayne Kennedy nationally. “There wasn’t anything to aspire to. It’s not like you could point to somebody and say, ‘I want to be like her.’ There weren’t any hers, they were all hims.”

She’s mused whether affirmative action or her family name got her in the door but she’s concluded, “It really doesn’t matter why, it just matters what you do with what they’ve given you,” adding, “It didn’t take me long to find out I had found my calling. i knew the questions to ask. I wasn’t afraid of hard work.”

To her surprise and delight, male peers schooled and shielded her.

“They taught me in the most kind, compassionate, relevant way. Those guys saved me and the rest of the newsroom saved me. When I heard potshots from people it would be from athletes and fans, never from my colleagues, and that meant everything to me. I got nothing but support and it was genuine.”

That support extended to her family. From her pre-Title IX childhood on, they championed Schatz’s love of sports.

“It didn’t occur to me girls weren’t supposed to play sports because that’s not how I grew up. In the neighborhood I played with boys all the time and it was no big deal. My brothers taught me how to bat, throw, shoot, run. My dad, my brothers and I read the sports section of the Omaha World-Herald every night. My dad would wake me up in the morning and let me know how my beloved Boston Celtics did the night before. I learned how to read box scores. It never occurred to me this was an odd, difficult activity for a young girl to love and pursue.

“What a gift. What a testament, especially to my father and mother who never once caused me to question it. All they did was encourage.”

 

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Not everybody was so inclusive. In Omaha she endured vitriol from some viewers and fans.

“People would tell me, ‘You suck, we hate you. you’re the worst, we never watch you.’ Some of the stuff that came out of the stands, especially at high school games, was just brutal.

“Some of the athletes would test me. I would remind myself, Hey, you chose this, you knew exactly what to expect, so either figure out a way to deal with it or walk away.”

As bad as it got here, she says. “Portland was tougher initially because I was the girl from the cowtown with the hick accent. It was very much, Are you kidding me – who the hell is she?””

Worse yet, she was far from her family’s embrace.

“I knew not a soul in Portland You can only call home so often. Not having any support personally was really difficult. That made the comments, the letters, the phone calls sting much more. I just didn’t have that ability to vent and let off steam.”

Her saving grace was an empathetic workplace at KOIN-TV.

“Had I had any kind of push-back in that newsroom in Portland I’m not sure I would have lasted. Their support meant everything to me. It was critical I did not bail out on a tough situation. I’m glad I stuck with it. And, hey. look, I’m still here 27 years later.”

Portland’s also an LGBT-friendly place that, she says. is “not counterproductive to my head and heart,” adding that being gay is not something “I lead with, but if it comes up – and it took a long time – I am absolutely comfortable.”

As time went by, she was no longer the lone woman covering sports.

“It was a relief to see another female in those environments in which I was the only one for all those years”

 

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She loves what’s happened at the networks with Erin Andrews and Co.

“God bless that these women are young and blonde and pretty. It’s not just style either, but substance, too. I applaud these women for going in an arena where women are still judged differently.”

She says women are still not immune from double standards she confronted.

“You always had to be better. You were judged much more harshly. Your mistakes were magnified. The smallest things were scrutinized. If a guy got something wrong, like a score, it’d be, ‘Oh, there goes Bob again.’ If I got it wrong, it was, ‘See, I told you – stupid women.’ You always had to be better, more nimble, more prepared.

“As hard as it was, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes where I’d excuse myself because I needed a good cry, that awareness I had to be better helped immensely.”

For all the strides women in sports media have made elsewhere, she notes that after opening the door here and in Portland few have followed her footsteps.

“That makes me sad. I thought there would be more after me. The fact that there isn’t is puzzling.”

She says the playing field will only be level when more women call the shots in media executive suites and in sports organization front offices.

Her biggest professional coup was getting Tonya Harding to address the Nancy Kerrigan imbroglio. KOIN sent Schatz and her cameraman to Lillehammer sans credentials. They were among hundreds of journalists on the outside looking in but found a way to reach Harding when no one else did. “Connie Chung, Dan Rather, 60 Minutes were calling us. We went from the step child to the golden child real quick.”

After years reporting, including sideline work for the Portland Trailblazers, she found her niche doing play-by-play for the Big East, Conference USA and the Pac-12 (soccer, hoops softball). She likes the “purity” of women’s college athletics and its lack of “hired guns.”

“There’s nothing like an in-the-moment call when you gotta get it right. You don’t get to take it back and do it again.”

Unlike the mellifluous tones of her sportscaster idols Vin Scully and Keith Jackson, she’s fast-talking, high-energy, high-emotion.”

She feels privileged witnessing-chronicling great moments in athletics.

“The only way we can understand greatness is to watch athletes do their thing at the highest level. It doesn’t have to be the Super Bowl. Greatness happens at every level if you’re open to it. That’s the beauty of sports.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

 

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Jocelyn and Deven Muhammad: Creative Siblings Move Past Labels to Make Their Marks

September 15, 2015 1 comment

Jocelyn and Deven Muhammad are so over being known as openly gay siblings and that is of course a credit to them and how it should be.  But if you’re a journalist assigned to cover them as I was for this story then that facet of their identity and being, even though it’s just one facet, has to be addressed.  Why?  Well, it is a part of their humanity.  It is also a point of curiosity and interest that cannot be denied or ignored or wished away.  And so so this story about Jocelyn and Deven attempts to strike a balance in its portrayal of them, neither spending too much space or giving too much attention to their sexual orientation nor avoiding it.  In fact, I decided to broach the subject and their matter-of-fact, it’s-no-big-deal attitude about it right up front.  My Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) profile of this dynamic brother and sister – he is a champion dancer and she is an emerging singer-songwriter – hopefully establishes them as compelling, destined-for-big-things individuals you should know about not because they happen to be gay siblings but because they have much to offer with their talent and intellect.  Something tells me we will be hearing from them as time goes on and as they hone their fabulousness and reach ever greater heights.

 

 

Muhammads

Jocelyn and Deven Muhammad

Creative Siblings Move Past Labels to Make Their Marks

August 26, 2015
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Originally appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

Since coming out a few years ago, Jocelyn and Deven Muhammad have been known as “the gay siblings.” But as a LGBT Nebraskans profile put it: “That’s one of the least interesting things about them.”

Jocelyn’s a promising singer-songwriter with an old-soul spirit. A May graduate of Millard South, where she was named prom princess, she can be found performing her sweet-sad love tunes on Old Market street corners and at open mic nights around town. Her from-the-heart work, some featured in YouTube videos, has attracted the attention of the music industry. She recently sang during open mic sessions at the legendary Whiskey a Go-Go in L.A. and the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. She plans to return to L.A. this summer.

Her goal is to write hit records. She’s currently creating songs for what she hopes is her debut album on a major label.

Deven has been selected as a touring performing artist with The Young Americans, a nonprofit group founded 50 years ago to promote understanding and goodwill through the arts. The charismatic junior-to-be at Midland University in Fremont recently helped his school’s competitive dance team win two national titles with his dynamic hip hop, jazz, and pompom routines.

In high school he starred in musical theater before becoming the first male dance team member and being voted Mr. Millard South. At Midland he was crowned Freshman Homecoming Prince.

These creatives fiercely support their individual expressions and dimensions. For a long time it was Deven who sang and Jocelyn who danced. As kids they became determined to swap lives.

“What I love about us is that I know she’s the singer of the family and she knows I’m the dancer…and we kind of leave it as is,” Deven says. ”We do our own thing, we have our own thing, so we don’t get jealous of each other. But we also love to share what we’re doing.”

The siblings not only identify as gay, but also Caucasian, African-American, and Chinese. They have encountered racism, both subtle and overt. Through everything, including a childhood when their father wasn’t around much and they made do with less than their friends, these two have been simpatico. Of course, the siblings also sometimes stole each other’s clothes.

“We feed off each other and we respect one another,” Jocelyn says. “We’ve always had each other. We have this bond. He’s always pushed me. He’s very real, very blunt. He’ll tell you what’s up.”

Though brutally honest about her first vocalizing attempts, he worked with her. Most of all, he reminded her they come from a loving family that supports whatever interest any member follows.

“He showed me there’s no such thing as trying,” she continues. “You do it or you don’t do it. That’s what he’s done with his dancing. He’s very inspiring. I look up to him a lot.”

Tough love is necessary if you expect to get better, Deven says. “That’s why I’m hard on her on some things and that’s why people are hard on me. I love being pushed, I love reaching for a new goal.”

Though not surprised by Jocelyn’s success, he’s impressed by how far his little sister has come since picking up the guitar less than three years ago.

“She’s growing up really fast. She holds herself very well. She’s different every time I listen to her. It’s literally a whole new voice. Jocelyn is making strides like it’s nobody’s business. She’s doing what she feels she needs to do to succeed.”

Jocelyn has surrounded herself with veteran musicians who’ve taught her stagecraft and the business side of music. She considers the defunct Side Door Lounge, where she played extensively, “the best schooling I’ve ever had in my life,” adding, “Just being there experiencing everything, meeting musicians, having jam sessions—that one venue changed the rest of my life.”

Deven’s refined his own craft through dance camps and workshops.

“I know if I want something in life I have to work for it,” he says. “I love that the things I have are because I worked my ass off for it. I’m very appreciative of what I have. That’s really shaped who I am.”

As life’s grown more hectic between rehearsals, school, and work, the release that comes in dance, he says, is more precious than ever.

“It kind of makes me forget about everything going on in life,” he says. “It’s the one thing I love to do.”

When the vibe’s just right during a set, Jocelyn gets lost in the music, deep inside herself, connecting with the audience.

“It just makes you feel your highest self,” she says. Jocelyn feels the chances coming her way are, “happening for a reason. You create your own destiny and your own luck.”

Muhammads

Passion Power: Dominique Morgan’s voice will not be stilled

April 7, 2015 1 comment

So, everyone has a story, and that’s certainly true of two Omaha native music talents, one now passed, Julie Wilson, and the other, Dominque Morgan, whose future seems bright after some dark days.  Julie Wilson performed on and off Broadway, in movies and television, but she made her greatest mark as a cabaret singer in New York City.  Life wasn’t always roses for her, though.  A marriage to a famous theater figure didn’t work out.  Her folks back here got ill and stopped her career to care for them.  Her two sons went through some wild times, including right here in Omaha.  One of her boys died young after years of drug abuse.  In more recent times Wilson suffered health problems that affected her voice.  But she was one tough broad who wouldn’t give up.  She was only human though and after fighting the good fight she died the other day at age 90.  I only interviewed her once and she was a hoot.  I also interviewed her actor son Holy McCallany, who spoke lovingly about his mother. The subject of this story though is a musical artist of a very different kind, Dominque Morgan, who is only his 30s and has a modest career as a R&B, soul and hip hop artist based in his hometown.  Dom, as his friends call him, spent some years behind bars for bad decisions he made as a young man and he lost both his parents.  But he’s all in these days with doing the right thing by his life and music.  He’s very active as an advocate in the gay-lesbian-transgender community.  My profile of him for The Reader (www.thereader.com) reminds me that we all carry baggage, we all experience heartache, we all long to express passion.  He and Wilson couldn’t have been more different, yet they both loved performing music and sharing their gifts with others.

NOTE: Later this week I plan posting the interviews I did with Wilson and her son Holt as a kind of tribute to her.

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Passion Power: Dominique Morgan’s voice will not be stilled

Singer-songwriter doesn’t let travails slow his roll

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

R&B and soul singer-songwriter Dominique Morgan, 33, has emerged as an urban music force with multiple Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards nominations for his Love Chronicles album.

His tunes of love and loss come from personal experience: an abusive relationship, homophobia, both parents passing, incarceration.
Alfonzo Lee Jones, founder-president of Icon One Music, the local label Morgan records on, says the artist has “absolute determination.”

Music is Morgan’s passion and sustenance. When he bravely came out at 14, he leaned on music for solace.

“It was an important part of my secret life. I spent a lot of time in my room listening to music.

No one knew this was my salvation, this was my safe space,” Morgan says. “I was very closeted about music. I didn’t sing in front of people. But I had this desire to perform. I wrote songs in a notebook I hid under my bed. I was just very insecure and being a performer is the ultimate exposure.”

He got up enough nerve to sing in Benson High’s mixed chorus and to audition for its Studio Singers show choir.

“I was frightened to death to audition. I didn’t know how to dance in time, I didn’t know how to read music, I felt so behind.”

He made the cut anyway.

“It was the first time I had been chosen for something and somebody saw something special in me. That experience was amazing. It opened me up to discipline, group dynamics, being a leader.”

Though his parents accepted his sexual identity they didn’t want him dating. At 16 he got involved with a 21 year-old man. Full of rebellion, Morgan left home to live with his partner.

He says he silently suffered abuse in that co-dependency before finally leaving at 19.

“I really had no self-esteem. The relationship tore that completely apart.”

Broke and feeling he had nowhere to go, he lived a gypsy existence between Omaha and Lincoln

“I did not want my family to see me.”

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He committed nonviolent crimes – stealing cars in a valet dodge and writing bad checks. He slept in the cars and attended to his personal needs in public and dormitory restrooms.

“It was how I was surviving.”

His desperation led to many poor choices.

“I have this need for people to like me and to want to be around me. I was constantly putting myself in precarious situations because of that.”

He let friends think he was going to school.

“I had to keep up a facade with them.”

He did the same with a local boy band, On Point, he joined.

“It was my first experience recording in a studio and performing outside of high school. It was bittersweet. I was enjoying it but I knew it wouldn’t last. I knew eventually it would blow up in my face.”

The pressure of maintaining the illusion grew.

“Those internal thoughts are hell. All these balls i was juggling. I found myself in a cycle. I didn’t want to face how bad of a situation I was in.”

Once again, his only comfort was music.

“It was how I got through each day. It was just peace for me.”

Wracked by fear and blinded by denial, he says, “I reached a point where I knew I couldn’t go on much longer like that. I just didn’t know what the stopping point was for me.”

Getting arrested in Lincoln in 2000 was that point. Assigned a public defender, he pleaded no contest to several counts of forgery and theft. Unable to make bail, he sat in Lancaster County

Jail months awaiting sentencing. The judge gave him eight to 12 years.

Morgan’s reaction: “My life is over.”

His next tour months were spent at the state correctional system’s Diagnostic and Evaluation Center.

Life in stir came as “a complete culture shock,” he says. “I couldn’t let anybody know I was frightened because you can’t show any weakness. Besides, I was out. I was young, gay and black – three strikes against me. So I came in fighting. I wanted them to respect me. I was watching boys get raped, people be sold, stabbed, beaten with padlocks. I was like, I just want to make it home.”

He didn’t pursue an appeal – “I thought if I fought it I was going to go crazy” – and instead accepted his lot.

He served in Omaha, Tecumseh and Lincoln facilities, sometimes segregated from the general prison population, for his own safety he was told. Other times, he mixed with convicted murderers and rapists.

While incarcerated his father died suddenly. He’d been Morgan’s only regular visitor. Morgan stopped calling home. Hearing freedom on the other end only made his confinement worse. “It was too much for me.”

He turned to music to cope.

“It was like this wall burst in my head and these words, these songs, these melodies just flooded out of me. I thought, One day I want to sing my songs. Music kept me going. It was my saving grace.”

He wrote the songs in long-hand, with a pen, in notebooks and on kites (internal request forms). He utilized mics and mixing boards in prison music rooms, buying access to the gear via handmade checks he covered with the $1.21 a day he made working in the kitchen. He earned a culinary degree he uses today as a caterer.

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In a prison talent contest he revealed music chops he’d kept on the down low. The prospect of using those chops on the outside kept him sane. After serving eight-plus years, he got out February 2009 and cared for his ill mother until she died that December.

“It was devastating.”

His youngest sibling, Andrea, came to live with him.

He tracked down Icon One’s Alfonzo Lee Jones and began writing songs for the label. Jones admires “the soul and feeling” Morgan puts into his writing,” adding, “Dom paints a vivid picture with every song he composes. You can feel the emotion. That’s powerful.”

Morgan says in Jones he’s found “more than a producer – he’s like a brother to me.”

Meanwhile, Web and radio hosting gigs brought Morgan to the attention of East Coast artists he’s now working with.

His music took off as a recording artist and live performer, he says, once he stopped trying to position himself as a gay singer-songwriter. That transition came with his outreach work for the nonprofit LGBT advocacy group, Heartland Pride.

“I am a singer who happens to be gay. I can still be myself through that but I let the music speak for itself.”

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His life and career were rudely interrupted last fall when informed he’d not served the mandatory minimum for one of his charges. He found himself detained four months at the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center.

“It was like watching my life die. It almost killed me wondering how much of my life is slipping away while I’m gone.”

A parole board review set him free in February.

During that limbo he was removed from the Pride board for not disclosing his criminal past. That prompted a Facebook post by Morgan laying out his troubled journey and hard-fought redemption.

“I can’t be OK and love who I am now and be ashamed of such a large portion of what made me who I am,” he says. “I felt I needed to own my story. I wanted people to really know where I came from.”

He’s since co-founded Queer People of Color Nebraska. It seeks to start conversations in the African-American community and larger community about the challenges of being black and gay in America.

His advocacy for equal rights led him to co-direct a recently released “Black Lives Matter” video.

“I want to do it loud and proud,” he says.

The release party for his new album, Loveaholics Anonymous – Welcome to Rehab, is April 25 at The 402 in Benson.

Follow Dom at http://www.facebook.com/dniquemorgan.

My Two Moms: Zach Wahls Brings His Message of Equality to UNO Human Rights Lecture Series


 

Zach Wahls may not be what you expect the son of same sex parents to look like.  And that’s the point.  He’s a strapping young man, an Eagle Scout and an entrepreneur who also just happens to be the product of lesbian partners he calls “my two moms,” which is also the title of his 2012 book.  He became a gay marriage and gay parents advocate when his personal 2011 testimony before Iowa lawmakers in support of LGBT equality went viral on YouTube.  He’s a much in demand speaker today and my story below for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appears in advance of his March 12 appearance for the Shirley and Leonard Goldstein Lecture on Human Rights in Omaha.

 

 

 

Zach Wahls testifying before the Iowa House Judiciary Committee

 

 

My Two Moms: Zach Wahls Brings His Message of Equality to UNO Human Rights Lecture Series

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

With gay marriage being assailed during an Iowa House Judiciary Committee public hearing in 2011 Zach Wahls offered counter testimony that not only charged the proceedings but the national dialogue about the issue.

Raised by same sex partners, Wahls made the case that sexual preference has nothing to do with effective parenting. He used himself as a case in point. The 21-year-old University of Iowa student and Eagle Scout, who happens to be straight, owns and operates his own tutoring business, Iowa City Learns, that hires local high school students to tutor peer students.

What Wahls spoke that afternoon became a YouTube sensation and ever since he’s emerged as a leading LGBT advocate.

His 2012 book, My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength and What Makes a Family, distills his thoughts and experiences as the son of a lesbian couple. The book’s message picks up where his testimony ended, when he said “the sexual orientation of my parents has had zero impact on the content of my character,” and frames his frequent public talks. He’s the featured speaker for the March 12 Shirley and Leonard Goldstein Lecture on Human Rights at the Thompson Alumni Center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. His 7 p.m. address is free and open to the public.

Wahls will emphasize what unites people, not divides them.

“I obviously grew up in a family that is in some ways very different from the median American family,” he says, “but at the end of the day I think there’s much more that makes us similar to most other American families than makes us different. So my remarks are really going to be focused on trying to find this common ground.”

 

 

 

Wahls with his two moms, holding his speech, relaxing at home, ©Ackerman and Gruber for People Magazine

 

 

The 2011 plea he made before Iowa legislators did not stop the Republican-controlled Iowa House from passing the same sex ban, which the Democrat-majority Senate has thus far blocked. But the argument he made for gay marriage and parenting resonated far beyond the confines of that state debate.

“My family really isn’t so different from any other Iowa family,” he told lawmakers. “When I’m home, we go to church together. We eat dinner, we go on vacations. But we have our hard times too. But we’re Iowans. We don’t expect anyone to solve our problems for us. We’ll fight our own battles. We just hope for equal and fair treatment…

“So what you’re voting for here is not to change us. It’s not to change our families, it’s to change how the law views us, how the law treats us. You are telling Iowans, ‘Some among you are second-class citizens who do not have the right to marry the person you love.’ I’m sure we’re going to hear a lot of testimony about how damaging having gay parents is on kids. But not once have I ever been confronted by an individual who realized independently that I was raised by a gay couple.”a

His remarks went viral online overnight. Life hasn’t been the same since. He’s given national media interviews and appeared on The Daily Show and the Ellen DeGeneres Show.

“It’s an interesting place to find one’s self, no doubt about it, especially at such a young age,” he says of the notoriety. “The thing a lot of folks don’t necessarily  understand is that when you are the son of a same sex couple, especially in a place like Iowa or Wisconsin, where I was born, you are already an ambassador  simply because there aren’t a whole lot of us. And so growing up I was really the only kid that a lot of folks knew who had gay parents and that put a certain amount of pressure on me when I was younger.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Active in the Scouts for Equality campaign to end the ban on gays in the Boy Scouts, he’s hopeful a policy change is near. He says the organization is listening to the Scout community and trying to formulate equality language to be voted on May 24 at the meeting of its national council.

He’s embraced the activist role that’s come his way and is encouraged by the support he’s encountered in his many travels.

“Over the last two years now I’ve had this incredible opportunity to go all over the country and have a conversation with people who are similar to me, who are different from me about this question and this debate the nation is currently having about marriage and family and tried to make some sense of it.

“My message really resonates with people both on the left and the right politically.

In my generation I’ve found there are increasingly very few people who view this as a partisan issue and it think that is a very good thing. As I’ve had the chance to speak with young conservatives and liberals and libertarians I’ve found there’s interest in coming together to find solutions and a desire for collaboration and problem solving and less interest in fighting this culture war that’s dominated American politics.”

He says his advocacy role “has absolutely changed me,” adding, “When my generation was growing up we were always told by our guidance counselors that we could change the world. I think a lot of us thought it was b.s.. We didn’t necessarily think it was true and this showed me that well, actually, it is true. There is nothing more powerful than an idea thats time has come.”

Several times now, he says, people have told him his words have helped change their minds about gay marriage and parenting and he calls this feedback “a very powerful reminder of the ability we all have to impact other people’s lives and to expose them to different ideas and new points of view.”

Follow Wahls on Facebook and via his website, http://www.zachwahls.com.

 

Garry Gernandt’s Unexpected Swing Vote Wins Approval of Equal Employment Protection for LGBTs in Omaha; A Lifetime Serving Diverse Constituents Led Him to ‘We’re All in the Human Race’ Decision

March 27, 2012 4 comments

Omaha and progressive are usually not synonomous terms but a recent vote by the city council enacting equal employment protection and redress to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender residents from workplace discrimination marked a step forward in this rather conservative enclave that prefers playing it safe on controversial issues like this.  Most surprising to some was that the swing vote on the 4-3 decision approving the ordinance advanced by councilman Ben Gray was cast by Garry Gernandt, who up until the March 13 final deliberation had opposed the measure.  This piece tries to give some insight into what may have made the enigmatic military veteran and ex-cop keep an open mind and ultimately change his mind and his vote.  In an interview he says he didn’t do it so much to make Omaha a more progressive and welcoming and therefore attractive place to live and work in.  Instead, he keeps coming back to the point that it was simply the right thing to do because discrimiation in the workplace is wrong and “we’re all in the human race.”

 

 

Garry Gernandt

 

 

Garry Gernandt’s Unexpected Swing Vote Wins Approval of Equal Employment Protection for LGBTs in Omaha; A Lifetime Serving Diverse Constituents Led Him to ‘We’re All  in the Human Race’ Decision

©by Leo Adam Biga

Origianlly appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

After weeks of public testimony and closed door meetings on the hotly contested equal employment ordinance giving legal protection to gay and transgender residents, the Omaha City Council decided the issue March 13.

Three-term District 4 (South Omaha) representative Garry Gernandt surprised many when he reversed his position and cast the swing vote in favor. The Democrat had resisted the proposal, even broaching an amendment limiting protections to city employees, Then he withdrew the amendment and voted yes. The ordinance passed 4-3, straight down party lines. Mayor Jim Suttle signed it into law March 15. The new law took affect March 28.

As his turn to vote came Gernandt says he employed a favorite mental exercise to sort through the “dust storm of emotions” and arguments on both sides.

“I’ve trained myself to do a collage of things that go across my mind on very sensitive issues, and that’s what was happening on this one. Everything going across my mind all came back to the fact we’re all still part of the human race. That was pretty much the reasoning behind it.”

He insists “there was no arm twisting” from Suttle or party officials. “I’m telling you the bottom line on my vote on this thing is that we’re all in the human race. You don’t have to like the GLBT lifestyle, but what was before us was discrimination in the workplace based upon sexual identity and orientation.” He says giving citizens the right to file complaints with Omaha‘s Human Rights and Relations Department to seek redress for getting fired or suffering other workplace discrimination or being refused service due to their orientation “was just the right thing to do.”

“Let’s just realize that and move on,” he says, adding, “I’m sure I probably ticked off some people, and I have to live with that.”

Gernandt’s vote makes sense in the context of his life serving people. A moderate coalition-builder who shuns the spotlight, he grew up in the cultural melting pot of South O and saw yet more diversity as a U.S. Marine and career Omaha Police officer, retiring as a sergeant in 2000. He says while growing up in the 20th and Vinton Streets area his broad-minded parents encouraged him to sample the different ethnicities surrounding them.

“I think experiencing the diversity opened every corpuscle in my existence so that I became like a sponge and just soaked all these things up. I stayed open and learned.”

He says he followed the same mantra during his military and police careers, where he practiced his people and communication skills with a broad range of folks.

“I like people, I like being around people, I like helping people,” says Gernandt, who’s seen the immigrant base of South O change from European to Latin American and African.

For his first Council campaign he pledged to do a better job than incumbent Paul Koneck responding to constituent complaints and returning phone calls. “A couple very simple things I got very well-attuned to doing in the military and on the police department, where you thrive on information. You’ve got to pay attention, you’ve got to listen to people, you’ve got to get back in touch with them if they call you.

 

 

Decades of work with the Deer Park Neighborhood Association and 11 years on the Council have reinforced for him that politics is “the art of compromise.”

“If you’ve got a problem I try to get the solutions at the table and get the best possible result. If you’ve got arguing factions then let’s talk it out at a round table and see if we can come to some middle ground that everybody can live with.”

When District 2 City Councilman Ben Gray first floated the anti-bias ordinance in 2010 the debate turned ugly in the legislative chamber. Gernandt rejected it as too “thermal” to support then but he did promise to reconsider the matter should new data surface the next time.

Gernandt was turned off by the rancor two years ago.

“Both the proponents and the opponents came into the chamber barrels loaded, and in my opinion when you are that angry you should not be asking for something as far as major change,” he says.

Gernandt, often an ally of Gray’s, knew his colleague would bring the ordinance back and when he did the tenor of the deliberation was far different.

“Seventeen months went by and this thing came back to us in a more plausible, palatable way, very little emotion. Facts on both sides I think were eloquently stated. There may have been a little bit of fiction in there as well,” he says, referring to survey results purportedly showing broad support and scriptural passages offered as admonition against it.

“So I think the approach was a 180 degree turnaround from what it was.”

What turned him off this time were heavy-handed tactics by fundamentalist Christians denouncing the ordinance on moral grounds. For Gernandt this wasn’t about morality, it was about fairness, quality of life and equal protection. Period.

He expects the next hot button issue the Council will wrestle with is the police auditor. He’s opposed to it, but he’s willing to hear differing viewpoints and perhaps be swayed by another mental montage if and when it comes to a vote.

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