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Tony Vargas beats the bushes for votes in pursuit of history

October 17, 2016 Leave a comment

South Omaha has been home to machine politics and to legacy families serving in elected office and other avenues of public leadership. Trying to break the mold is Omaha transplant Tony Vargas. The brash New York City native and son of Peruvian immigrants has made quite a splash on the scene since moving here in 2012 with his wife, attorney and South Omaha native Lauren Micek Vargas. He was soon appointed to the Omaha Public Schools board. He co-founded New Leaders Council Omaha. Now he’s running for the Nebraska Legislative District 7 seat. The bi-lingual candidate has been pressing lots of flesh and knocking on lots of doors to better know the constituents and issues he’s vying to represent. The majority of residents in that district are Latino. The demographics roughly parallel those of the Subdistrict 9 OPS Board of Education seat he holds until his term ends this year. Should he win his state senate bid, this outlier would be the first Latino from Omaha to serve in the Nebraska Legislature and only the second Latino ever to serve in the Unicameral.

 

Tony Vargas beats the bushes for votes in pursuit of history

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

 

Nebraska Legislative District 7 candidate Tony Vargas canvasses homes wearing shoes with soles worn to the nub. Even though his feet get wet on rainy days, he intentionally sticks with that same beat-up footwear.

“It is a reminder that if I’m not knocking on doors, I’m not doing enough,” said Vargas, 32. “There is no substitute for hard work. People in our community are working their tails off trying to provide for themselves and their families and so I should be doing the same thing, which means meeting people where they’re at. There’s no substitute for that type of engagement.”

This bilingual son of Peruvian immigrants is nearing the end of his Omaha Public Schools Board of Education term representing Subdistrict 9.,which encompasses the same heavily Latino South Omaha area as Legislature District 7.

The former New York City public school teacher knows what it took for his family to make it in America. His father is a machinist shop steward and leader in his local union. His mother worked on assembly lines.

“It wasn’t until later in life my family had some success. I’m fully aware of all the struggles and sacrifices my parents made and I carry that with me in everything I do. My parents emphasized it was great our getting closer to the middle class but it didn’t mean anything unless we were helping others do the same.”

A life of public service has followed for Vargas.

“My parents instilled you can’t sit idly by and watch. I worked with Habitat for Humanity all throughout high school doing builds in my community and across the nation. In college I did service work. I became a public school teacher in a lower income community because I wanted to be where it reminded me of places I grew up and where I felt my skills would be most impactful.”

He was a Teach for America adviser and Leadership for Educational Equity’s director of policy and advocacy.

His wife, attorney Lauren Micek Vargas, is a South Omaha native who was a pubic school special education teacher, She worked for Legal Aid Nebraska before joining the Douglas County Public Defender Office. The couple moved here in 2012 so Lauren could finish law school at Creighton University. They have a home in Little Italy and attend St. Frances Cabrini Church. In 2013 Vargas felt called to apply for the vacant OPS Subdistrict 9 board seat. He was appointed over three others to complete the position’s remaining term.

Vargas is now vying for incumbent Nicole Fox’s District 7 state senate seat that she won by appointment when Jeremy Nordquist’s vacated the office. Vargas decisively won the spring primary – taking 10 of 12 precincts – over Fox and runner up John Synowiecki, who is a past District 7 representative. Vargas and Synowiecki both registered Democrats, are facing off in the nonpartisan Nov. 8 general election.

If elected Vargas would be the first Latino state senator from Omaha and only the second ever in the Unicameral. The potential history is not lost on Vargas.

“To me it does mean something and since my district is one of the state’s largest Latino populations, the topic does come up. But what really comes up is how I’m working to earn people’s votes and respect. My wife and I have been knocking on doors for a year. People are excited we are working to understand what their lives look and feel like. Still, some people do remark, ‘And you’ll be the first Latino elected from Omaha to this office.’ and that makes it a little more exciting for them.

“As much as I want to be a voice for the Latino community, I’m serving all people-all populations in my district.”

Vargas said his melting pot experience dovetails with the “very diverse district” he seeks to serve.

“I have many different identities that matter to me: my Latino identity; my immigrant identity; my working-class labor family identity; my public service-public school teaching identity. All those things keep me grounded. One thing my background really taught me is that in our current system there are haves and have nots and it tends to be much harsher on communities in poverty and of color. If we don’t find pathways to support them, we’re not improving our entire city.

“The same real problems I saw affecting people in New York I see in my community now. There are pockets seeing some growth, strength and development. But I see the majority of people still struggling in similar ways to how my family did.”

He said people are voicing “concerns around barriers to accessing quality health care, housing and not making high enough wages or getting enough hours from employers. I am hearing about underemployment and unemployment and the impact it has on kids and families.” Education inequities at inner city schools is another pressing issue. He’s proud of the track record he and his school board mates achieved.

“I think what we’ve done on the school board is really a step in the right direction in terms of improving infrastructure and the safety of our schools, closing the achievement gap in our neighborhoods, improving community engagement, holding the district accountable to what we do well and what we don’t do well and passing a strategic plan.”

His campaign stresses voter education.

As a founding board member of New Leaders Council Omaha, he trains millennials to be Next Gen leaders like himself.

Visit http://www.vargasfornebraska.com.

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U.S.-Cuba begin a dance of possible reconciliation


When President Barack Obama announced plans for the United States to begin the process of normalizing relations with Cuba the news reverberated throughout the world.  The two nations were once friends but have officially and often tangibly been antagonists and flat-out enemies for decades due to Cold War tensions that found them on opposite sides of the doctrinal divide.  Their respective governments have remained bitter foes despite the passage of time and despite the fact the two countries are geographically close neighbors with shared history, culture, and interests.  The prospect of letting bygones be bygones has deep import for people with a vested interest, personal and/or professional, in seeing relations renewed.  Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, a sociology professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, is one of those people. He’s not Cuban but he’s made the study of Cuba, where he’s traveled extensively, a big part of his academic career.  He’s a strong advocate for the U.S.-Cuba letting go of the past and finding a way forward together.  Lazaro Spindola is another person for whom the prospect of renewed relations means a, lot but this native of Cuba is cautious and downright skeptical when it comes to trusting Cuba to live up to its part of any diplomatic measures that encourage cooperation and reconiliation.  My El Perico story was originally published a couple months ago in the flush of this international development.  The piece provides a micro look at a loggershead issue that may finally move beyond vitriol and impasse to a sustainable, quid-pro-quo relationship based on mutual respect.  Only time will tell.
U.S.-Cuba begin a dance of possible reconciliation
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico

 

President Barack Obama’s announcement the U.S. is moving to normalize relations with Cuba holds promise for healing between conflicting nations that were once friends.

Since breaking diplomatic relations in 1961, the United States and Cuba have tread a cycle of acrimony and treachery. These Cold War antagonists became distant enemies despite their close proximity. In response to perceived human rights abuses, America enacted economic sanctions that blocked commerce. Cuba retaliated by jailing dissidents and expelling “undesirables.”

An American embargo cut-off a much-prized Cuban export to the U.S. – cigars (except those smuggled in) – and denied Cubans U.S. goods and investments. Cuban exiles bitter over losing land and businesses to Fidel Castro’s communist regime generally oppose U.S. concessions. However, most Cuban-Americans support the countries doing business together, says University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado. Neb.’s small exile community reflects the idealogical-generational divide among this population, with many younger, liberal Cubans favoring restored relations and many older, conservative Cubans resisting it.

Stalemate critics have long contended the countries share too many mutual interests to not have full relations. Benjamin-Alvarado lauded the intermediary role Pope Francis and the Vatican played in bringing the two sides together for diplomatic talks that broke the impasse.

Renewal of natural geopolitical-cultural-historic ties may signal a move past angry rhetoric and punitive policy to find conditional avenues for resuming free travel and trade. It won’t come easy, though.

“The fact is we didn’t have to become the type of enemies we were, but we have been, and so that’s going to take some work,” Benjamin-Alvarado says. “This is a clear indicator to me it’s always been possible and that it’s been a choice we’ve made as opposed to something we couldn’t avoid.”

 

He echoes Obama in saying this new approach is an admission that America’s policy of isolating and economically strangling Cuba failed and that Cuba’s made positive changes.

“Cuba’s changed remarkably in the last 20 years. They’ve transitioned from Fidel to Raul, they’ve reintroduced private property and the ability of individuals to serve as owners of small businesses, they’ve given people more economic independence. Does that mean they’re going to have more political freedoms and liberties? I’m not exactly sure…but the fact is change is afoot, and I think by making changes in tandem with the Cubans we’ll begin to see that happening.”

Nebraska Latino American Commission executive director Lazaro Spindola is a skeptic.

“Diplomacy will obviously have a better chance with this new approach,” says Spindola, who was born in Cuba and fled with his family in 1961 at age 9. “On the other hand, free trade is a very arbitrary definition, and all I see is free flow of American dollars to Cuba – by way of remittances or purchasing Cuban goods. As far as free travel, I see the same one-sided approach of free travel from the United States to Cuba but not from Cuba to the U.S.”

He’s willing to support restored relations “provided there is a mutual concession of benefits that favor the Cuban people,” adding, “”If the Cuban government is willing to yield some ground, I would be willing to meet halfway. Compromise is the base of democracy.”

Some view Cuba’s recent release of political prisoners as a sign it is serious about doing the right thing. Spindola cautions that regimes like Cuba’s “have a knack for softening or hardening relations with other countries depending on their political convenience.” He fears renewed trade might provide Cuba “with an injection of resources and energy that could further delay positive reforms.”

He and Benjamin-Alvarado agree renewed trade with Cuba could benefit the Neb. ag industry, though Spindola questions Cuba’s capacity to live up to its end of any deals.

What happens going forward, Benjamin-Alvarado says, “is a dance” where each side looks to the other for concessions.

“At the end of the day it’s going to have play out through Congress, The Cuban government, in order to have full normalization of relations with the United States, has to right now subject itself, unless the law changes, to certain provisions of U.S. law contained in the Helms-Burton Act. It says essentially the Castro brothers have to be out of the government, there have to be free and fair elections, there must be a free and open market economy and other requirements must be met.

“I don’t see this law being overturned anytime soon and so that will slow the process of a full normalization, but there is still a lot of room the Cubans could operate under in order to facilitate trade.”

Meanwhile, Obama may use executive action to speed things along as ambassadors lay the groundwork for more exchanges.

“The president will have the ability to kind of tailor certain interactions,” he says, “Having embassies where we can have an actual voice and opportunity to directly interact on an ongoing basis will help to establish a baseline and foundation for better relations across the board.”

Finding a new normal falls to new leadership in 2017, when Raul Castro is to step down and Obama’s elected successor takes office. Benjamin-Alvarado says whoever inherits this reunification needs to proceed in a fair and bilateral way.

“It’s going to take a lot more for them to trust us. I mean, we’ve been trying to screw them for the last 54 years and now all of a sudden we’re friends. I think that trust is a combination of confidence and reliability. But it will take time. They have to have confidence in us we’re going to be an honest broker with them, that just as they’re going to be transparent we’re going to be transparent, and that we’re going to be above board and open in our objectives and not try to undermine and engage in subterfuge as we have.

“It has to be an organic process generated by both sides so there isn’t one dictating to the other. It’s going to have to be a measured, step-by-step process that allows both sides to become comfortable with how they function and operate and to develop confidence over time.”

Benjamin-Alvarado, who’s traveled extensively in Cuba and plans going again in the spring, says he will measure progress “by the extent to which the Cubans begin engaging formal U.S. government bodies like the Department of Commerce and the Department of State,” adding, “It’s going to depend on how do we get each other on board and accustomed to how each of us does business, not only in terms of actual trade, but the areas in which we begin to relate to one another as regional partners and neighbors.”

Sports fans like Benjamin-Alvarado also can’t help but wonder what thawed relations might mean for the deep pool of baseball, boxing and track talent in Cuba, many of whose best athletes have defected.

2nd District Congressional race gives voters two distinct styles in incumbent Lee Terry and challenger Brad Ashford

October 31, 2014 Leave a comment

The Reader Oct. 30 - Nov. 5, 2014

 

I rarely write about politics.  Here is an exception.  It’s a cover story for The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/) about the two men vying for Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional seat in the U.S. House of Representatives: Republican incumbent Lee Terry and Democratic challenger Brad Ashford.

 

2nd District Congressional race gives voters two distinct styles in incumbent Lee Terry and challenger Brad Ashford

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)

 

 

 

 

At the end of the day, voters want a choice. If nothing else, the tight Nebraska 2nd Congressional District race pitting incumbent Lee Terry against challenger Brad Ashford gives voters a distinct option.

Pre-election surveys indicate a neck-and-neck battle between these local boys made good from high profile Omaha families. Politicos have long viewed Terry as a vulnerable target. He nearly lost to John Ewing in 2012. The GOP poured millions into his campaign and even though the national Democratic Party declined to support Ewing, the challenger lost by only two percent of the popular vote. Ashford is getting some support from his national party headquarters in this race but his campaign’s still being outspent thanks to the Terry camp’s deep coffers and the GOP sinking big money into the race.

Terry is the 52-year-old hard-line Republican whose eight terms in the U.S. House of Representatives give voters a 16-year resume to consider. This Boomer weaned on the right wing philosophies of his father, former Omaha television anchor and commentator, Lee Terry Sr., and shaped by the doctrine of his political hero, Ronald Reagan, tows the traditional Republican Party line.

“I have a basic pro business, job creation conservative view and I’ve always stayed pretty loyal to that philosophy,” says Terry, who worked as a private practice attorney and served on the Omaha City Council before entering Congress in 1998.

Terry, with endorsements from law enforcement and veterans groups, is a staunch law and order guy and big military advocate. Given his father’s strong GOP leanings, Terry doesn’t have to look far for influences.

“My father’s a huge influence. But for my father I wouldn’t be in Congress or probably even care about politics,” he says. “As a kid my parents were very active in political work. I remember handing our fliers at polling places probably in the first grade and getting political lectures from my dad about how Ted Kennedy was going to hurt small businesses with his whatever legislation. That was our dinner table talk,”

“My dad knows his stuff, he does his research and he develops very strong opinions. When I was growing up he would tape his Sunday morning political show on Saturday and I would always go down to the station when they would film it.”

At one taping Terry met Sen. Roman Hruska, R-Neb. Hruska’s autograph went up next to Evil Knievel’s on his bedroom door at home.

Meeting Hruska, under whom Ashford served as an intern, was big but Terry says “someone that is legendary to me is Ronald Reagan.” Though he never met the two-term President he says the 1984 Reagan presidential campaign offered him a job but he turned it down to pursue a law degree at Creighton University.

 

 

Like Terry, the 64-year-old Ashford is a CU law grad. His wife, Omaha attorney and businesswoman Ann Ferlic Ashford, was a law classmate of Terry’s. The two men go back and they once shared the same party in common, though in sharp contrast to Terry, Ashford’s unbound by party affiliation. For this race though he’s a Democrat after previous forays as a Republican and Independent.

Where Terry was steeped in conservative Republican values, Ashford was immersed in his Republican family’s’ progressive social views. His grandfather Otto Swanson started the now defunct family business, Nebraska Clothing Company, and co-founded the National Conference of Christians and Jews (now known as Inclusive Communities) to counteract a boycott of local Jewish businesses. This social justice legacy became more than an anecdote for Ashford.

“It was a big part of how we were brought up,” he says. “We were tutored on how to watch for discrimination and intolerance. We didn’t live it in the sense that we suffered from it but we certainly were schooled in it and told that was a high value proposition – that when you see it you should try to find out what’s causing it and try to eradicate it.”

He grew up in Augustana Lutheran Church, which moved from conservative to liberal in the aftermath of the documentary A Time for Burning that focused on the rupture within the congregation when its new pastor attempted interracial fellowship there.

Ashford’s rising-tide-lifts-all-ships attitude formed from his family’s principles and business practices.

“For everybody to do well everybody has to have a bite at the apple. The economic growth of the country after World War II did pervade in society and today it’s not the case. You have very few people gaining economic power and most everybody else kind of struggling along. That’s really what’s happening. People have to have a better shot at success and there’s all sorts of obstacles to that, like student loans that are higher than mortgages and the banks getting bailed out while the middle class didn’t.

“Government has a role in evening out the inequality a little bit, making sure the middle class isn’t left out. If they’re left out than you can’t buy a tie and shirt from the clothing store and then the clothing store goes out of business and all the people that work there are unemployed.”

 

 

His 16-year record in the nonpartisan Nebraska Unicameral includes building coalitions that created tax credits for corporations when Omaha was at-risk of losing big business, advocating for intervention resources to help at-risk youth and crafting juvenile justice reforms.

Ashford’s prison reform work, including expansion of mental health programs and vocational training and finding community-based alternatives for nonviolent offenders, has been a target of Terry and his supporters. Pro-Terry ads by the National Republican Congressional Committee have raised ire for linking Ashford’s support of the good time law with the murders Nikko Jenkins was convicted of committing shortly after his early prison release in 2013. The tattooed face of Jenkins, an African-American, and blunt references to his horrific crimes strike many as exploitative. The ad’s been sharply criticized as being in poor taste, even by some prominent Republicans.

Terry’s own campaign is running ads with Jenkins’ image that suggest Ashford’s prison reform actions lead to “assault, robbery and murder.” Ashford is deeply offended the Terry camp has taken a reactionary approach playing on people’s emotions.

“I don’t understand how he cannot disavow such racially-charged ads,” Ashford says. “I mean, he’s really taken us back to the Bush-Dukakis race and the Willie Horton ads. In a town like Omaha that’s trying so hard to overcome decades of racial issues, he’s trying to mine the fears of people. That’s a hard one for me to accept. Why would we want to revisit those days? And that’s what he’s doing.

“I can’t imagine ever doing an ad that would cause people to be fearful
or I would never stand for such a thing.”

Terry says he does disapprove of the NRCC ad: “That’s a horrible ad, I hate it, I wouldn’t have done that. I totally disown that Nikko Jenkins ad.” Despite calls from outside his campaign for it to be removed, it’s kept running. Terry offers no apology for his own ads that use similar loaded images and language that blame Ashford for violent crime.

“Everything I’ve brought up in my commercials has been about his record. We’ve used good time but if you go back and look at my ads that I paid to produce and put on the air, we never mention Jenkins’ name and we never talk about that crime, and that’s out of respect for the victims’ families as well as the fact I didn’t want to glorify a mass murderer.

“But we always talk about how he (Ashford) bottled up good time and bad consequences occurred. That’s fair to talk about.”

Ashford believes it’s a crass strategy to distract voters.

“He’s trying to divert attention away from his lack of productiveness into trying to create fear among the electorate with his ads. He’s trying to convey that the laws of Neb. allow violent criminals to walk out willy nilly, which is absolutely not true. That’s a complex issue. It’s hard to answer that in a 30-second ad, so what we’re trying to say is we do have a good record on public safety.”

Ashford, who often uses “we’ to mean “I,” defends his own record.

“Certainly prison reform, the one issue they’re criticizing me on, is probably one of our greatest successes. We took an issue the governor had literally turned his back on and created a series of bills that will I think for a generation set the course for a prison system that’s smarter on crime and that will keep the public safer. That was very hard to do in the wake of Nikko Jenkins but we had actually started prior to that.

“When someone says you’re soft on crime it really doesn’t matter if you are or aren’t because if they have enough money to say you’re soft on crime than people will say, “He’s soft on crime.’ We’ve had a very balanced approach in the Legislature, we’ve been tough on gang crimes and sexual predators but we’re trying to find a way to get non-violent offenders into community-based services so they won’t get further into the system.”

 

 

When it comes to their respective records in public office, Ashford feels his achievements as a Neb. lawmaker far surpass anything Terry’s done as a congressman, saying of his opponent. “He can’t touch me.”

“Lee is not an effective representative. He has a very slim record.”

Ashford gained an unusually strong endorsement from the Omaha World-Herald that could have been written by his campaign.

“Well, they’ve been watching me,” he says of the paper. “One thing about the Legislature, we’re under the microscope of the press every day. We’re a very open, transparent kind of place unlike Congress where so much is done behind the scenes. So my record’s pretty much out there. I enjoy working on issues and I stick with issues. I don’t like taking partisan votes unless the partisan vote is something I believe in.

“Terry doesn’t have a record of any real consequence. The only thing he has is to attack. He’s a party guy. That’s the game he plays. I think that’s the main difference – I don’t care about parties. I don’t care really at all about parties other than I realize it’s a mechanism to get elected. I agree with the Democrats on lots of issues, certainly social issues, gay rights, immigration, but I’m sure I won’t agree with them on everything.”

 

 

Ashford almost goes so far to say Terry is a Republican mouthpiece.

“You can take a guy like Lee Terry who’s totally ineffective and get him elected simply by dumping $3 or 4 million into a place like Omaha and trashing the opponent. That’s what he’s done for two or three elections that I’ve followed closely.”

Terry takes exception to suggestions he’s done little in office and is strictly a party man.

“I handed an 18-page paper to the Omaha World-Herald showing all the things I’ve been able to accomplish, including pass six bills out of the House this year. Sometimes being effective means not letting a bill go forward. There’s two instances in the last session where the leadership wanted to bring up a bill and when I went in and educated them on how bad each bill really was they pulled the language out. One was Medicare supplemental and the other one was cyber security.

“Sixteen years ago I wouldn’t have had the credibility or the relationship or the knowledge to be able to just walk into the Speaker’s office or the Majority Leader’s office and say, ‘Here’s where you’re wrong.’ Not only did I walk in, but I also brought it up in conference in front of everybody and took on the Majority Leader in front of all my colleagues. Now I didn’t run to the press and brag about that because I also believe in Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment – Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”

In terms of crafting legislation Terry, who’s chairman of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, says much of what he’s done “started as a bill but ended up an amendment to a different bill or to a bigger bill of the same theme.” As committee chair he and Democrat Jan Schakowsy from Chicago pushed through the Global Investment in American Jobs Act of 2013. The bill tasks the Department of Commerce to lead an interagency review and make recommendations to Congress on ways to make the U.S. more competitive in attracting foreign investment.

“When people say I don’t get along with the other side, well I worked with the most partisan, liberal person on our committee and got a bill done, negotiated, passed through committee, passed through the House. It’s sitting on (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid’s desk right now.”

Ashford has pledged to be led by what his local constituents say rather than be swayed by special interests and to build coalitions with colleagues from both parties as a wedge to help break gridlock.

“What I’m trying to tell people is that it is possible to make change by making government more responsive. That linkage between people and their government has been interrupted by special interests on all sides of the political spectrum. It’s really cut off individuals from their government.”

He says he’s interested in “developing policies around what’s going to help the entire society.” Even though he feels the Democrats were wrong “to push the Affordable Care Act through the way they did” he advocates fixing glaring problems with Obamacare and knocks Terry for repeatedly voting to repeal the law, which he says “only perpetuates the problem.” Terry, who like Ashford favors universal access, concedes he’s voted for ACA’s repeal but he says most of his votes concerning the law have been to amend it.

 

 

 

 

Ashford considers immigration reform an issue that will help the entire society “because it will bring more dollars into circulation,” adding, “Immigrants are hard workers, they’ll pay taxes, they’ll lend their efforts to the general prosperity of the country.”

He favors a stepped approach to immigration reform.

“You have to build a bill from the ground up in a bipartisan way, like the Senate bill on immigration reform, which identifies different classes of immigrants. Each class of immigrant would have certain legal status and with that status comes certain rights and responsibilities. So a DREAMer would have certain rights and obligations that are different from adults, for example, that would clearly show what they have to do to gain legal status. The same with adults and with people that just want to get work permits. I think it has to be very carefully constructed.”

Terry says his own view has evolved from forced expulsion to a more stepped approach that leads to citizenship for some and work permits for others, for example.

“In the last year or two since there’s been a lot of discussion and we now realize there’s a great deal of overlap and it’s not as divided as it appears or appeared in the past.”

On the other hand Terry says “there are four or five issues where it is really tough” to find bipartisan consensus on “because we are principally completely different. Like raising taxes just so you can bring up more revenue so you can spend more. I’m not going to support that. Now if you say, OK. let’s find a way to a balanced budget and let’s put everything on the table,’ then we could probably come up with a plan to get us to a balanced budget. But when you sit there and say we need more revenue and we need to increase taxes, you’re right, I’m going to differ with that and I’m just going to say no.”

The 2nd District foes agree that movement on big issues will only come when elected officials stay out of their ideological silos long enough to hear what the other side says and make necessary concessions.

Terry says, “We have to be able to get together on these. Reasonable people from both sides of the aisle can sit down and come to an agreement on these big deals, and the only way to get us to a balanced budget and really secure Medicare and Social Security for the future is if both parties are at the table.”

“In any of these issues in order to make change you have to convince your colleagues of the basic assumptions and if you can’t get people to do that you’re not going to be effective in making legislation,” says Ashford, who feels global warming is a good example. It turns out he and Terry share similar views on the subject.

“It does exist and we in Neb. should be extremely worried about it,” Ashford says, “because our economic driver is ag and agriculture relies on the environment and as the environment changes our ability to produce products, crops, whatever it is, also is impacted. There’s so much to learn about it. You have to be open-minded about it and
understand there is no one answer.”

Terry says, “I’m not the naysayer, I do believe there is climate change.
I do believe mankind has responsibility in this. I will not go to man-is- 100-percent” responsible. Now I am not in the camp that says we should just shut off fossil fuels. I do think we should be more energy efficient. I think we should use less of our resources and use resources like natural gas which have less emissions than gasoline.”

With the Nov. 4 election looming large each candidate is dealing with campaign fatigue, his own and voters’.

Ashford is upbeat, encouraged by a surge of Democrats who voted early. “It’s a close election, it’s expensive, my opponent has more resources than we do. But I think our message is getting out there. We have a chance to win, I’m hopeful we’re going to win, I believe we’re going to win.”

Meanwhile, Terry isn’t even considering the possibility he won’t be returned to office by voters. “I refuse to even think about it. The reality is my gut’s telling me things are going our way. When I’m out and about there’ an urgency in the feedback I’m getting of you’ve got to get out there and do this. The last three weeks I’ve really felt a shift.”

Should he not win re-election, does he have any plans? “No, there is no plan. My plan is to work my ass off and win.”

Have curiosity-will travel spirit brought Tanya Cook to Ukraine

October 18, 2014 Leave a comment

Nebraska State Sen. Tanya Cook made history some years ago when she and Brenda Council became the first African-American women to serve in the Nebraksa Legislature. Council is no longer in office but Cook is still there, fighting the good fight for her District 13 constituents.  A well-traveled woman in terms of politics and geography, she served as an official observer of the May 25 Ukrainian presidential election.  Her reflections about that experience are the core content of this short story for Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/).

 

Brad Ashford Reflects on Recent Omaha Mayoral Primary Loss and the Politics He Espouses

April 19, 2013 Leave a comment

 

Mayoral candidates come and go.  Some turn up, if not every election cycle, than most.  Others are one-trick ponies.  Some are real contenders, others are pretenders. Whatever the chemistry is that has the requiste magic to advance someone through a primary into a general election and to then propel that person onto winning the office is clearly something that some candidates have and others don’t.  It doesn’t mean you can’t acquire it, whether that’s more spending power or a more appealing brand or image.  Nebraska State Sen. Brad Ashford is a curious blend of being a longtime, well-known, and respected politcal figure in the state but one who steers away from stamping himself as this or that.  Voters tend to like clarity.  He’s been a Democrat and a Republican and he just ran in the April 2 Omaha mayoral primary as an independent.  And got creamed.   He’s a liberal or progressive on social issues and a conservative on other issues.  He’s definitely his own man.  And he’s still very much serving the state in the Nebraska Legislature.  He’s also not closed the door on future bids for elected office.  This story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) has Ashford reflecting on his poor showing and describing who he is as a politician, lawmaker, and public servant.

 

 

 

Brad Ashford

 

Brad Ashford Reflects on Recent Omaha Mayoral Primary Loss and the Politics He Espouses

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

State Sen. Brad Ashford‘s poor showing in the April 2 Omaha mayoral primary isn’t deterring him from future elected office bids.

The one-time Democrat and long-time Republican ignored advisors and ran as an independent against major party-backed opponents. He garnered 13 percent of the vote in a low turnout, off-cycle election. Though officially a nonpartisan race the two candidates who advanced as finalists to the May 14 general election, Omaha City Councilwoman Jean Stothert and Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle, are a registered Republican and Democrat, respectively.

Ashford also finished behind Republican Dave Nabity and barely ahead of another Republican, Dan Welch. He concedes his independent bid against a stacked deck was a miscalculation.

“I was warned, I didn’t believe it,” Ashford says. “With three Republicans in the race all spending over $300,000 in the campaign it drew a tremendous number of Republican voters to the polls. I think that was really it. The three candidates were really pushing. I didn’t see that, I saw them canceling each other out and in effect it increased the turnout. From a political strategy point of view we just didn’t anticipate the onslaught of Republican voters.”

He feels abysmal voter turnout east of 72nd Street hurt him. He criticizes off-year elections for city council and mayor as “inane,” adding, “What it does is give special interests and big contributors much more sway in what happens than is appropriate.” He intends introducing a bill in the Unicameral next year to place the city elections on the same cycle as county and presidential elections.

Despite the disappointing finish, he says, “I’m still very much interested in running for another office. I’m energized by the people. I think my interests at this point would be to run for some sort of statewide race. I’ll look at what options are available.”

Should he decide to test the waters he says, “I’ll again confront the question, ‘Can you run as an independent? George Norris (the legendary early 20th state senator) did it. That’s a long time ago. But I still think there are numbers of voters who are dissatisfied with partisan gridlock and so, yeah, I will look at a statewide race.”

Ashford, whose current legislative term concludes at the end of 2014, when term limits force him out, doesn’t like being bound by party politics.

“I don’t think party hardly at all. It never enters my mind and it never did when I was running as a Republican. I certainly didn’t think about the Republican platform, most of which I don’t agree with on social issues.

“I’m a social justice guy. I’m into inclusivity. I’m unabashed in that regard. I support gay rights. I’ve supported gay rights since the ’80s when I worked on hate crimes legislation. On immigration I’ve always supported a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who are here.”

As head of the Omaha Housing Authority he supported efforts to get residents into their own homes. As a state senator he’s supported prenatal care for immigrant women. he changed his view from pro-death to anti-death penalty and he’s sought ways to limit illegal guns on the street. As a candidate he advocated for a career academy serving inner city youths. As a legislator he’s working on overhauling a juvenile justice and detention system he describes as “in the dark ages.”

He says he considers his views “more pro business” than liberal. “The more people that are part of the American Dream the better the country is, the more business that’s being done.”. He favors merging city-county government and building stronger relationships between the Omaha mayor’s office and the Legislature.

 

 

Ashford and Sen. Ernie Chambers conferring

 

This state representative from District 20 in Omaha hails from a legacy family that did well in business (Nebraska Clothing Company) and championed diversity. His grandfather Otto Swanson helped form the state chapter of the National Council of Christians and Jews (now Inclusive Communities). His grandfather’s example made an impression.

“I think he just instilled in me this whole sense that you’ve got to always be making sure people are not discriminated against and I think Omaha still has vestiges of discrimination. I think we’re a segregated city, certainly as it relates to African Americans. We’re paying the price for it.”

He says his campaigning showed him “people are excited about Omaha but they don’t understand why we have such restrictive laws on gay rights. I know the vast majority of people I talk to support much more progressive policies when it comes to immigration and gay rights and other things. I think people are more progressive on social issues than what politicians give them credit for.

“I think the more you stand up for those issues forthrightly the more people will follow you. The public is looking for people who are willing to take a tough stand. You can’t be wishy-washy. I think it’s incumbent upon someone like myself to continue the effort, to team up with other progressive people.”

He’s not looking for a political appointment from whomever wins the mayoral seat.

“I like both Jim Suttle and Jean Stothert. I wish them both well. But I would not be interested in any kind of appointment. i have to be out there mixing it up running for office and trying to get my ideas out there. I don’t want to be subsumed by somebody else’s ideas.”

 

Free Radical Ernie Chambers the Subject of New Biography by Author Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson

December 5, 2012 3 comments

 

Ernie Chambers.  His name variously polarizes, raises blood pressure, inspires, confounds, sparks discussion and debate, and generally elicits some kind of response .  If you’re a Nebraskan, past or present, than you not only know the name but the context for why the mere mention makes it virtually impossible to take a neutral stand about this vociferous, independent, lone wolf figure who is an open book in some ways and an enigma in other ways.  His name’s traveled widely outside Nebraska as well.  He first gained local and national noteriety back in the 1960s for his stirring presence in the documentary A Time for Burning.  He parlayed the stage that gave him and his grassroots work as activist, advocate, guardian, and spokesperson for Omaha’s African-American community to win election to the Nebraska Legislature.  He served as that body’s only black representative for 38 years, finally leaving office because of term limits, but he’s just returned to his old District 11 seat after defeating incumbant Brenda Council in the Nov. 6 general election.  When he was in office before he took many controversial and brave stands and he never, ever backed down from a fight, often employing his sharp wit and procedural mastery to humble opponents and win concessions.  He’s back alright, armed with much the same rhetoric he’s used since the  height of the black power and civil rights movements, which begs the question:  What does the 75-year-old social justice warhorse have to offer his district in an era when many of his constituents need more education, relevant job skills, living wage jobs, and transportation solutions and want economic development in North Omaha that includes them, not excludes them?  Is he in touch with younger generation and professional blacks who perhaps see things differently than he does and want specific, tangible progress now?  This story doesn’t address those things but a future story I write just might.  Instead, the following piece for an upcoming issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com) looks at a new political biography about Chambers by Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson, who offers some insights and opinions about the man she’s long admired.  The book is aptly titled, Free Radical: Ermest Chambers, Black Power and the Politics of Race.

Ernie Chambers, ©photo courtesy the Nebraska Legislature

Free Radical Ernie Chambers the Subject of New Biography by Author Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally apepared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

It’s fitting a new book taking the measure of Nebraska politico legend Ernie Chambers is out just as this old social justice warhorse has proven he still owns the people’s will.

In the Nov. 6 general election the 75-year-old Chambers demonstrated the pull he still maintains by decisively beating incumbent Brenda Council to regain his old state legislative seat. Public disclosure of Council’s misuse of campaign funds to support a gambling addiction undoubtedly hurt her. But she would likely have found Chambers a formidable opponent anyway.

Amid the struggle for racial equality in the 1960s, Chambers emerged as a black activist straight out of central casting. The longtime state senator was everything the white establishment feared or loathed: a young, brash, angry black man with an imposing physique, a rare eloquence, a brilliant mind, a devoted following and a dogged commitment. His goatee and muscle shirt effectively said, Fuck off.

When he saw a wrong he felt needed remedy he would not give in or remain silent, even in the face of surveillance, threat and arrest.

The Omaha native was forged from centuries of oppression and the black nationalist militancy of his times yet remained fiercely independent. He paid allegiance only to his grassroots, working poor base in northeast Omaha, whose District 11 residents elected him to nine terms in office. He stayed real cutting hair and holding court at Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop for many years. He was forced out of office in 2009 only because of term limits, a petition effort widely seen as targeting him specifically.

At a Nov. 3 Community Day rally in North Omaha Chambers said:

“I don’t come to these kind of gatherings regularly. It’s not easy for me, even though I enjoy being around my brothers and sisters. But I’m a solitary person. Basically, I am a loner, and experience has created that persona for me because I’m in situations where bad things can happen and if I’m relying on somebody else and they don’t come through – I know what I would do but I don’t know what somebody else would do. I can’t depend on anybody else.

“So if I see an issue that needs to be addressed it’s for me to address it. I don’t go to committees, I don’t go to organizations, I don’t ask anybody for anything, and it’s not that I’m ungrateful or unappreciative. I just have to survive and my survival depends ultimately on me. So that’s why I do what I do.”

Author Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson well captures his enigmatic essence in the main title of her political biography, Free Radical, as he’s been a singularly reactive yet stable force these many decades. The subtitle, Ernest Chambers, Black Power and the Politics of Race, refers to the context of his public service role.

Chambers was not the first black leader in Nebraska. Nor was he the first to hold public office. But he was the first to command wide respect and wield real power. During a 38-year run in the legislature that made him the longest-serving state senator in Unicameral history he mastered the art of statecraft. Trained as an attorney and possessing a facile mind even his critics admired, he adeptly manipulated legislative rules and procedures. Though he represented a small, poor constituency and uttered divisive rhetoric, fellow senators needed his support if they wanted their bills advanced. He couldn’t be ignored.

The arc of his political career is a major focus of Johnson, who at one point was in charge of his personal papers.

“She had access to information that other people didn’t have access to,” he says of his biographer.

Overall, he’s pleased with the final product and its depiction of his career.

“I don’t have any objection to what she did.”

In terms of fairly and accurately capturing his work as an elected official, he says it’s right on “as far as it went,” adding, “Many articles have been written that go into more depth on some things than Tekla wrote about in her book.” He says he understands “there are things someone will emphasize that I wouldn’t and there are things I would emphasize that they wouldn’t. But that’s the way it goes. No two people see a complex issue the same way. Even people called historians are really interpreters. They can’t write everything about everything, so they select what they think is important in order to convey the message they have in mind.”

He says he had little input into the manuscript.

“There may have been something when she got through that she sent and I dealt primarily with grammar and inconsequential things. I didn’t try to change the thrust of it or tell her what to write.”

Johnson confirms the same, saying she only sought his opinion on certain matters and even then they sometimes disagreed. In order to maintain her scholarly freedom she says she only began writing the book after she left his employ and then had little contact with him during the writing process.

In the end, he’s flattered his political life has been documented.

“I appreciate the fact that somebody thought enough of the work that I’ve done to compile material between two covers of a book and make that available to whomever may choose to read it.”

He says he’s doing interviews in support of the book “mainly because of Tekla, the amount of time and effort she put into the work, and I don’t want to say or do anything that would diminish in any respect what she has done or the value that I place on it.”

Perhaps the most telling vantage point of Chambers she gained came when she worked as his legislative aide.

“I actually got to see the day to day process,” she says of the experience.

 

bio_johnson_tekla.jpg

Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson

The book began as Johnson’s history thesis at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She served as a consultant to the Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha and helped catalog its collection. Today, she’s an assistant professor of history at Salem College (N.C.). Her Texas Tech University Press published book is available wherever books are sold.

Johnson says when she hit upon the idea of making Chambers her thesis study a professor told her, “That’d be great, except he won’t let you. He won’t let anybody that close to him.” She found a way in, however. “I decided to go to his office. I didn’t actually ask him. I talked to his legislative aide, Cynthia Grandberry, and said, ‘Look, I want to write my dissertation on Sen. Chambers,’ and she said, ‘Sure, if you help me clean up the office.'”

This was 2001.

“He produced such enormous volumes of materials that despite an excellent filing system he literally had overrun the file cabinets many years before. I actually spent the first two years of the project processing his papers,” says Johnson.

The project was a labor of love about a figure she idolized as a girl.

“I grew up knowing about Sen. Chambers. I’m from North Omaha and he was always sort of somewhere there in the background. As a young woman I would occasionally see him speaking at an event, especially if there was something dire that had happened in the community.”

Immersing herself in his vast collection she says she acquired a new appreciation for his advocacy and for how her own coming-of-age intersected with his work.

“One of the things I first noticed in working on the collection is that almost a third, but a full fourth for sure, of his papers are about police violence and killings, police harassment, complaints from citizens in North Omaha. It took up a large section of one of the four rooms his papers are housed in. It was enormous.

“I also found I traced back to myself. I came across police incidents that happened when I was young that I remembered Sen. Chambers speaking out against. One of those was when I was 10 years old and living in Lincoln (Neb.). On our corner Sherdell Lewis was shot (and killed). We knew him. My sister and I were his papergirls. He was shot on his doorway by Lincoln police. Shortly after the shooting the black community came to my mother’s house because they needed a place nearby (to mourn and vent).”

Johnson says many questioned whether the shooting was justified.

“I had totally forgotten about that. There’s a picture in the book of Sen. Chambers leading a protest march along with the victim’s mother.”

Similarly, she says Chambers was a vocal critic of the shooting of Vivian Strong that sparked urban unrest in Omaha in 1969 and of other cases where excessive force was used.

She says any understanding of him must start with “the deep dedication of North Omahans to Sen. Chambers because even at his own expense he would not back down when he felt like the community was endangered or when he felt there was no respect for the lives and the civil rights and human rights of people in the community.” She says coming from a bi-racial home (her father’s African American and her mother’s Caucasian) she “sort of got to peek” at how blacks and whites viewed Chambers from different lenses. She also got to know how he understood that his rails against police brutality played differently to different audiences.

“He knew it was hard to believe for whites who lived in west Omaha or small towns. because those things were so far out of their experiences.”

She admires how he never let go of what he deemed important. His response to allegations of extreme police misconduct is illustrative, she says.

“In most cases when there was a police killing in the community he would request an investigation by the city. If that wasn’t done, if it was deemed a no-fault killing, if nobody were to be held accountable, then he went to other authorities. There are several (incidents) documented in the book where he filed for federal investigations into killings with the Department of Justice.”

She says one of his lasting achievements was sponsoring and winning passage of legislation requiring a grand jury be convened and an investigation be done anytime someone dies in police custody or in jail.

“I remember him having said, “We’re tired of our people being killed.’ So this is definitely an important part of the book to me. What he says happened in North Omaha I know it happened. It was real.”

Bad things continue happening. He grieves for the gun violence plaguing his community today, much of it black on black. In too many cases innocent folks are caught in the crossfire.

“I can’t tell you all what it does to me when I see something horrible happen to a young person, to anybody,  but the helpless ones, the trusting ones, the ones who are trying for something better from us…they need help and we’re not there to offer it,” he said at the Nov. 3 rally.

In a public setting like the Community Day rally, the preacher’s son comes out in Chambers. the presumed agnostic, whose elocution has the melodic flair of the late jazz musician-radio host-lecturer Preston Love Sr. He holds an audience through his impassioned delivery and sheer magnetic presence. He sprinkles in metaphors and allegories from the Bible. It’s in settings like these the affinity between Chambers and the people becomes clear.

“He’s really in step with them. While Sen. Chambers didn’t form a group or join a group his ongoing dialogue with the community is the reason he maintained their trust and respect and why he actually was a liberating figure,” Johnson says. “To do that he insisted on passage of legislation that legislators could get collect calls, so he was able to get calls from all of his constituency. He also kept his job at the barbershop for years, in the summers and on the weekend, so people would have a place to come and talk with him personally.”

 Ernie Chambers, Bill Youngdahl in A Time for Burning

Ernie cutting heads and broadening minds in A Time for Burnng

 AP file photo

Ernie acting as watchdog and martyr for his people

Chambers himself says that even when he lost his legislative seat he was still the person District 11 residents turned to for help, not black elected officials. That doesn’t surprise Johnson, who says he long ago earned people’s trust.

“He wasn’t the first person to take the role of leader in the community. Charlie Washington was a point person before him community members would go to.

But Sen. Chambers, because of his unusual ability intellectually, rhetorically, in terms of statecraft and the law and just his down to earth nature, earned an enormous following.”

Another of his greatest achievements, say Johnson and others, was getting district elections for the Omaha City Council, the Omaha School Board and the Douglas County Board of Commissioners. It’s resulted in many black elected officials for North Omaha. His open disdain for many of those representatives, whom he considers stooges for the white power structure, has distanced him from portions of the black elite class. Chambers being Chambers, he doesn’t much care.

“I think what has happened is they have been absorbed by the Democratic party and he chose to remain independent and I think that is probably the biggest divide,” says Johnson. “He was and is utterly completely free.”

Johnson believes he arrived at a point where he realized that as the lone black representative in the legislature representing a poor black constituency, the most he could do was to be their voice.

“All the legislators have to list their occupation and for a number of years he listed barber, but I think when he changed his written vocation to ‘Defender of the Downtrodden,’ it actually marked a change and a decision on his part that sort of is fatalistic. He decided that because of the politics and power lobbying that go on within the formal political parties and because of his own independence and insistence on speaking for the most disenfranchised, the poorest, and insisting government should haven in place support for their needs, he got to the point when he thought he would not be able to change the way that government in Neb. functions with respect to low income people.

“I think it was also the point when he was refused chairmanship again and again of the judiciary committee.”

In terms of legacy, she says, “he was at once respected but feared and unpopular among some of the senators. He would stop their bills if he didn’t get some of what he wanted and what he wanted was legislation or concessions that protected his people, that didn’t allow, for example, the Omaha Housing Authority to go into closed session and make decisions without public input. He did all kinds of things like that. He fought tooth and nail legislation to reduce allocations to people on aid to families with dependent children. He really fought those battles.”

“He’d get so frustrated, saying, ‘Y’all don’t know what it takes to make it on $320.’ Yes, it was rhetoric but it was heartfelt. He’s seen people struggling and he felt it was within the power of the state legislature to provide some relief. He felt at times they didn’t do it because of petty politics, because of western Neb. versus eastern Neb., because of racism, because of just indifference, and that made him angry.”

Ernie holding court at the barbershop today, ©danielj-v.tumblr.com

She says even though he often stood alone, he knew how to play politics.

“He never compromised his principles but he is a politician. He would come in on the weekends during the summer when session was out – this is what I gained from being able to actually observe – because he wanted to read up on all the other bills. He read up on what the interests of the other senators were. He knew their backgrounds, he knew everything about them. It’s not just the rules he employed, he played politics in terms of, ‘Look, if you want something from me, if you don’t want me to stop your bill or to filibuster, then you’re going to have to provide some concessions to things my constituents need.'”

Johnson says, “I don’t think he could have been more effective by doing it any other way. They dubbed him Dean of the Legislature because he was maximum effective for that base. I think the only way he could have been more effective is if those other senators had read as much about him and learned as much about the community he served and actually taken an interest, and I’m not saying a few didn’t, in how do we raise the standard for everybody in the state. If they had taken that position and cooperated with him more then he could have been more effective.”

Chambers operated much like his black peers in other states.

“African-American legislators across the country tended to be fairly effective just like Sen. Chambers in stopping legislation and not as effective at passing legislation. The ones who tend to be the most effective in working for the community tended to be on the out with the majority because they were battling all the time and they were always having to stand firm.”

Johnson wishes Chambers prepared the way for a successor.

“I do have a critique of him and it’s something I’ve openly talked to him about. He didn’t groom anybody (to replace him). It’s something I wish would have happened.”

As far as legacy, she feels his efforts in making Neb. the first state to pass any resolution for divestment of state funds from South Africa in protest of its apartheid practices “may be the thing he’s remembered for.”

Though serving 38 years in the legislature involved “self-sacrifice” on his part, she says it clearly hurt him when he could not run in 2008.

“I think he was not just disappointed because he had to leave for four years but the subtext for his career, besides trying to end police violence and confronting racism, was to gain political power for his constituency relative to other legislative districts in the state. His having to leave office made him feel that what he’d worked for had gone backwards because he felt the will of the people was being overridden by term limits. His constituency couldn’t elect him if they wanted to.”

She notes he ran unopposed several times and that he kept running because “I don’t think he saw anybody else as talented as he was who could really do the job as well as he did. That and the fact people let him know they wanted him to run again.” Now that he’s returning to the legislature she’s fascinated by how he and his new colleagues will work together.

“The body has changed because of term limits. The expertise that was there is no longer there. It hasn’t necessarily served Neb. well to have a constantly revolving, often times very young body at the helm. Who knows, maybe they’ll be more open to working with him. Maybe they’ll be less entrenched.”

An obvious advantage he’ll have, she says, is his vast experience.

Remarking on what people can expect from him, Chambers says, “For better or worse people have to see what it is that I am. They have to know what they’re getting if they come this way, and if they don’t like what it is I’m not the least offended. I probably wouldn’t like somebody like me. I would respect somebody like me. But likability is not an anything I cultivate because it doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t achieve anything.”

He simply promises to be the same person he’s always been, which is to say someone “who never yields, never wavers, never accepts handouts from anybody, and whose only loyalty to a group is to this community.”

Freddie Gray Stands Fast on Her Handling of Sebring Scandal, OPS School Board President Survives Vote to Continue Her Mission

August 21, 2012 Leave a comment

By definition, news happens without warning, which can make it tough for media periodicals that only come out once a month or once week.  I recently wrote a dual profile of an Omaha power couple – Omaha School Board President Freddie Gray and Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray – for the August issue of the New Horizons, a monthly newspaper I regularly contribute to.  That issue was put to bed when all hell broke loose concerning Freddie’s handling of the already controversial Nancy Sebring incident that saw Sebring resign shortly after being hired as Omaha Public Schools superintendent when sexually charged emails she exchanged with her lover came to light.  Newspaper reports revealed that Gray and school board counsel didn’t share some information they had about the emails with the rest of the board.  Gray suddenly found herself the target of allegations that she’d breached the public trust and some even called for her to resign or to be removed. Her side of the story is that she didn’t know the full extent of Sebring’s communications and, besides, this was a personnel issue that there’s a whole set of protocols for handling.  Also, Gray didn’t want to prejudice the board should they have had to convene a termination hearing over Sebring’s employment.  Sebring’s resignation saved herself and the district futther embarassment.  The timing of this brouhaha meant there was no chance to update or revise my story.  So be it.  But I did get the opportunity to do a new interview with Freddie after she was retained by the board in a special vote.  The result is this story for The Reader that tries to lay out what it was like for her to be on the receiving end of vitriol and rancor.  Through it all, she kept her composure and never engaged in the kind of name calling and reputation bashing that others subjected her to.  You can find my earlier, dual profile on Freddie and Ben Gray on this blog, under the title Gray Matters or in the Omaha Public Schools or Education categories.

Freddie Gray and her husband Ben Gray, ©kmtv.com

 

 

Freddie Gray Stands Fast on Her Handling of Sebring Scandal, OPS School Board President Survives Vote to Continue Her Mission

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Freddie Gray knows being second-guessed and scrutinized comes with the job of Omaha Public School Board President. But when she came under fire over her handling of the Nancy Sebring scandal she got more than she bargained for, including allegations she’d violated the public trust and calls for her resignation or removal.

Sebring is the former Des Moines Public Schools superintendent OPS hired in the spring only to resign after sexually charged emails she exchanged with her lover became public.

The controversy about what Gray did and didn’t do in response to the scandal culminated at an August 6 school board meeting where a special vote retained her by an 8 to 4 count.

Until the blow up Gray slipped under the radar as a veteran but low profile public servant. She certainly never found herself on the hot seat quite like this. Often overshadowed by her husband, Omaha city councilman and former television journalist Ben Gray, she endured a public referendum on her character despite a seven month record as board president even her detractors don’t fault.

Gray was appointed to the board in February 2008 to replace Karen Shepard and ran unopposed that fall to retain the seat. She serves on local, state and national education initiative boards. Her Omaha school board peers thought enough of her to name her president at the start of 2012. Amidst the recent storm that led to Gray facing removal she refused to say she erred and balked at apologizing.

“Whatever the pleasure of the board was going to be that night it was something I needed to live with,” she says, “but I was not going to compromise my integrity and myself and say I was wrong when that’s not true.

“You can’t buy me that way. I did the right thing, I know I did the right thing.”

©kvnonews.com

 

 

Gray asserts she and OPS board counsel Elizabeth Eynon-Korkda acted properly based on what they knew at the time about the nature of Sebring’s emails. Gray says she and Eynon-Korkda treated the matter as a personnel issue and therefore outside the board’s purview because Sebring was already a district employee when the emails surfaced as an issue.

“The personnel issue was the context of what was done and why it was done the way it was done,” says Gray, adding she “didn’t want to poison the well” and risk biasing the board should Sebring come before a termination hearing

When the full extent of the sexually charged emails came to light, Sebring stepped aside.

Gray can live with the “differing views” critics voice but she describes as “troubling” and “disturbing” the anonymous, expletive-filled postal letters and phone messages she says she’s received at home.

“There are people who took advantage of the situation. They didn’t talk about what the issue was, it was just name calling, ugliness. I have grandchildren that were exposed to language totally inappropriate for them to hear.

“I just find those people to be real cowards. You know, if you’ve got something to say to me then man up or woman up and say it to me.”

The negativity was counterbalanced by expressions of support, including her mate’s presence at the July 30 and August 6 school board meetings.

“I have a fabulous husband. He was very supportive. My family of course, not just my children but my sisters, my nieces and nephews. my extended family in Cleveland. The prayer chains people had going on. I had so many emails, phone messages, Facebook posts from people saying they had my back.”

She says her “trust and belief in a Supreme Being was never shaken” though “there was that question of why me and why now.”

Encouraging words too came, she says, from other school district leaders and from peers at the state and national levels. The morning that decided her school board presidency fate she spoke before an assembly of district principals who gave her a standing ovation upon her introduction.

“That blew my mind. I had no clue what to expect when I walked in that room. It was quite moving and a great way to start the day.”

She says perhaps the most hurtful thing in this episode was that her “very long line of public service,” including the Douglas County Board of Health, the African-American Achievement Council and years of mentoring, became obscured.

‘”In a very long history of being actively engaged with the community my detractors tried to define me by one thing. It was heartbreaking that people would do that. It was like everything else I had done in my life was valueless.”

She says she regrets the imbrogolio distracted from the “great progress the board’s been making” and to the “gains” the district’s made in graduation and truancy rates. Her overriding concern now, she says, is moving the district forward, something she expects to still be doing after this fall’s district elections. She’s running against fellow Democrat James M. English, a former OPS teacher and administrator .

Gray says no one can legitimately question her devotion to the district.

“My reason to be there is nothing more than pure academic success for all students . If you look at what I’ve done, the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met, the messages I’ve carried through the community, statewide and nationally you’ll see I’m working very hard for the children of Nebraska and specifically for children in my district.”

Gray oversaw the board’s recent hiring of interim superintendent Virginia Moon and will oversee its search to find a permanent replacement for the retiring John Mackiel. Though she concedes repair needs to be made to a divided board, particularly among members who wanted her out, she foresees no problem getting the work of the district done.

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