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Brenda Council: A public servant’s life

June 26, 2017 3 comments

Brenda Council: A Public Servant’s Life
Appearing in the July 2017 issue of the New Horizons
©by Leo Adam Biga

Community. Service. Family. Home.

All recurrent themes for Brenda (Warren) Council, a familiar civic figure with various firsts to her name.

•First African-American female senior counsel at Union Pacific
•First female football official in the state of Nebraska
•First four-time president of the Omaha School Board
•First black female Omaha City Council member

Along with Tanya Cook, she was the first black woman to serve in the Nebraska Legislature.

Featured multiple times in Ebony Magazine, the lifelong Democrat garnered broad support for two Omaha mayoral bids. The second, in 1997, came within 800 votes of victory. Had she won, she’d have been the city’s first female mayor. In 2008, she succeeded living legend Ernie Chambers in the state senate seat he held since 1970 until term-limited out.

Those who know Council call her “dynamic,” “high achieving,” “hard working,” “caring,” “committed” and “community focused.”

The fall
She had a thriving legal career (after U.P. she worked for Kutak Rock and had her own firm), a strong track record of public service, a sterling reputation.

Then, a casino gambling addiction caught up with her in 2012 as she sought re-election to the Nebraska Legislature. Unusual activity on her campaign account trigged an investigation that found she repeatedly borrowed funds. The law permits candidates to borrow and repay campaign account monies (she repaid them in part) as long as they report it, which she didn’t. Her actions made headlines and resulted in misdemeanor charges for misuse of funds. She plead guilty and paid a fine. Her opponent, Chambers, openly disparaged her. She lost the election and in 2014, she plead guilty to felony wire fraud charges. She received three years court-supervised probation. The Nebraska Supreme Court disbarred her.

She’s never denied what she did.

Council’s back serving her community again leading a Women’s Fund of Omaha project. She’s in a good place now, but things got tough.

“I watched what I had built through work, passion and commitment threatened by what I did,” she said. “I can’t think of anything more terrifying. There were times I was mad. I asked, ‘God, how did you let this happen to me?’ I’m really a good person, I’ve never hurt anybody in my life.’ Then I got into GA (Gamblers Anonymous). As a 12-stepper, you’ve got to connect to your Higher Power. I’ve always been a spiritual person. I’ve been a member of the same church for 52 years. But as a result of this, I realized although I had been attending church, I had disconnected from my Higher Power.”

She’s glad to have found support for her addiction.

“I’m a committed, devoted, servant of Gamblers Anonymous, and I’m so grateful.”

She does want to set the record straight about what she did and didn’t do that got her in trouble.

“I never went out and solicited money to feed my campaign account so that I could access it. I make no bones about it – what I did was to enable me to gamble, but what i did not do is I didn’t take anybody’s money.”

Council understands what she did was improper.

“I see where the question of trust is paramount and legitimate.”

Redemption
About two years after that “embarrassment,” she joined the Women’s Fund of Omaha as coordinator of its Adolescent Health Project aimed at reducing teen pregnancies and STDS. The project addresses issues of deep concern to Council, who’s long advocated for comprehensive sex ed.

As important as she considers the work to be for women and families, she regards it as her own lifesaver.

“It’s provided an opportunity for me to move forward with my life and to show I’m still the public servant. I’m still Brenda, and I’m going to be out there working hard for the community serving in whatever capacity I can.”

For her, the work’s more than a job, it’s affirmation.

“I really enjoy the folks I work with, and I’m just so pleased with the progress we’ve made. But I know I owe it all to the fact that people who know me know who I am and they know I’m not a deceitful or distrustful or dishonest person. As a gambler, was I? Yeah.

“I’m so blessed that through the work I’ve done and the relationships I’ve built, people are supportive.”

Addiction, she’s come to realize, compels people to act out-of-character.

“What I was doing was totally contrary to the way I was raised. My daddy valued a dollar. I was a tight wad. I saved. I (still) had some of the first money I ever made. It wasn’t until it was starkly put in front of me – the compulsive patterns of my behavior – I realized, ‘Damn, that’s what I’ve been doing.'”

Before that rude awakening, she said, she “rationalized” her binge gambling as “‘I’m not hurting anybody, it’s my money.’ I discovered that what I thought at the time was an outlet, an enjoyment, not harming anybody, was an insidious, compulsive addiction that I denied.”

She took heart that even after coming clean, the people that meant the most to her still had her back.

“They understood and appreciated gambling wasn’t who I was, it’s something that happened. I am so blessed with an incredible family and close friends who have stood there steadfast supporting, encouraging.”

Her husband Otha Kenneth Council stood by her through it all. They celebrate 32 years of marriage this fall.

Home is where the heart is
The ties that bind are so tight with Brenda that despite extensive travels and offers to take jobs elsewhere, she considers herself “a North Omaha kid.” Except for undergraduate studies at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and working for the National Labor Relations Board in Kansas City, Omaha’s remained home. Even when in K.C., she made frequent visits home.

“Practically every weekend I was driving back to Omaha. I had I-29 like memorized. I never missed one of my brother Tommy’s football games.”

Since moving back in 1980, she’s lived within a few blocks of where she grew up at 24th and Pinkney.

She came up in a strict home where both parents, Evelyn and Willis Warren Sr., worked. Her mother retired after 25 years at the VA hospital. Her father caught the No. 7 Crosstown bus to work at Swift packing company in South Omaha for 40 years. Her father especially expected Brenda and her siblings to study hard and get good grades.

“In addition to education, service was also something my father in particular placed a heavy emphasis on. He was a firm believer that to whom much is given, much is expected. We were raised to respect and assist our elders.”

Her family lived in a two-story house in an era when redlining practices and restrictive housing covenants prevented African-Americans from living outside the area. She attended mostly black Lothrop elementary school and Horace Mann Junior High.

Her coming of age coincided with 1960s’ racial unrest, the civil rights movement, the Black Power movement, the Panthers, Malcolm, MLK, Vietnam, rock ‘n’ roll.

In North O she experienced a tight-knit, insular community where almost any service or product could be found. The live black music venues then prevalent on North 24th Street beckoned her. As an under-age fan, she snuck into Allen’s Showcase, McGill’s Blue Room, the Offbeat Lounge and the Carnation Ballroom to see her idols. She got to know the late Buddy Miles that way.

“Incredible entertainment came through. Those were the days.”

Music impresario Paul Allen appreciated her spunk in catching shows.

“He always called me ‘Little Girl.’ He often joked about the times he caught me sneaking into the Showcase. They had some great musicians.”

Years later she operated her own live music venue there – BJ’s Showcase. She now resides in the former home of Omaha nightclub impresario Shirley Jordan. The columned, cream stucco, hacienda-style abode was built as a party place and includes a sunken living room.

In addition to music, sports is another passion. Council was a fireplug point guard for Forrest Roper-coached Hawkettes AAU teams. She admired the late Roper.

“He had a tremendous impact on me and other young women. He, like my parents, stressed the importance of education and refraining from engaging in negative activity. For many of the members of the team, their first travel outside of Omaha was when Forrest took us to play in tournaments.”

Council didn’t get to play high school basketball in those pre-Title IX days. But she stayed close to the game as a recreational player and coach and later as an official. She and Otha refereed many high school hoops games together. Her contributions to athletics got her elected to the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame.

She also bore witness to trying times for her community. She was at Horace Mann when students filed out in protest of a young black man shot to death by police. The peaceful protest turned heated before Ernie Chambers helped quell the agitated crowd. She saw the the looting and fires when North 24th burned in the 1969 riot following the police shooting death of Vivian Strong.

She was at the Bryant Center when the riot broke out.

“I actually drove through the rioting on 24th Street on my way to pick my mother up from work. I will never forget how I headed west on Hamilton Street to be met by a police barricade at 30th. The police approached my car, shined their flashlights in the faces of my friends who were riding with me. They were not going to let me past until I pleaded with them to allow me go pick up my mother.”‘

Council graduated from Omaha Central High School in 1971 during tense times at the racially diverse school.

She watched the once bustling North 24th business district left-in-shambles and struggle to recover. Railroad and packing house jobs vanished. The North Freeway severed the community. Generational poverty set in. Gangs brought unprecedented violence. Incarceration rates for black males soared along with black teen pregnancies and STDS. Single-parent households became the norm. Educational achievement lagged.

She dealt with many of these issues as an elected official. She sees progress in northeast Omaha but questions where it goes from here.

“I’m definitely encouraged by the development that has occurred. However, the overwhelming majority of the development, particularly along 24th Street, is the result of not-for-profit investment. If we are to revive the Near North Side we must have private, for-profit investment with a focus on African-American entrepreneurship.”

Wherever life’s taken her, North O’s been her sanctuary.

“She absolutely loves North Omaha,” her brother Thomas Warren said. “Her purpose has been service and she’s always put North Omaha first.”

Warren, former Omaha police chief and current president-CEO of the Urban League of Nebraska, said his sister’s path serving the community inspired his own.

Council’s husband, Otha, echoed many when he said, “She’s never forgotten about where she came from. She’s committed to serving North Omaha and making sure people here have a better place to live.”

From education to law
Back at UNL she was thinking her career path would be an an educator, not an attorney or public officer holder.

“I made a career decision when I was in the third grade to be a school teacher. I had some genetic predisposition for that. My mother’s two oldest sisters and a younger brother were educators. My mother’s oldest sister, Geraldine Gilliam, was the first black teacher to integrate the staffs of the Topeka Public Schools after Brown vs, Board of Education. She was really a proponent of education and educators, and I really just wanted to be like her. So much so that when my younger siblings. Thomas and Debbie, and I would come home from school, I would make them play school with me before they could go outside. I’d use old teachers’ manuals and flash cards my aunts sent me.

“The game was they’d start at the top of the steps and if they answered correctly they moved down the steps and when they got to the bottom they could go outside. They used to hate me that I’d make them do that, but I always teased them as we got older at how prepared they were academically. Both of them did well.”

Thomas Warren was Omaha’s first black police chief. Debbie White is a retired medical professional. An older sibling, Willis Warren Jr., is deceased.

Brenda earned her teaching degree from UNL. She also got turned on to the prospect of studying the law and using it as a tool to improve conditions for blacks.

“My perspective was education, education, education. I firmly believed in it as the path upwards.”

She said she gained an appreciation for how “the law has an impact on everything you do in life and if you can affect changes in the law, you can create new opportunity and address problems.”

Council did her due diligence and applied to the Creighton law school. She got accepted. She applied for an affirmative action scholarship and received it.

“I graduated from Nebraska on August 17, 1974 and I started Creighton law school August 23. I really fell in love with the law. I went to law school with every intention of being a social justice lawyer, so that passion with constitutional law meshed. If you’re addressing the issues defined as social justice issues, constitutional questions are more than likely involved.”

She thought she’d change the world.

“You go in there with this idealistic perspective and then you start facing reality.”

One reality check involved two career choices straight out of law school. She applied for a national fellowship to work in a legal aid office. She wanted Omaha but only Dayton was open. Meanwhile, she was offered a job with the National Labor Relations Board in Kansas City. Then the fellowship came through for the Omaha Legal Aid office, but she’d already accepted the K.C. job.

“I’m a person of my word and my commitment, and so I went to Kansas City.”

With a little help from her friends
Helping her make tough calls were elders.

“I was blessed to come at a time that I had a tremendous number of mentors – people I could go to for advice and counsel. They’d talk you through these decisions. One of my major mentors was the late (activist-journalist) Charles B. Washington.”

Others were Mary Dean Harvey, Beverly Blackburn, Rowena Moore. Though she didn’t have much interaction with her, Council also admired Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown.

But it was Washington, for whom a North Omaha library branch is named, who opened her horizons.

“This guy introduced me and so many other young people in North Omaha to some of the most influential African-Americans of our time. Through Charlie, I had sit-downs with the late Harold Washington, the late Barbara Jordan, the late Mary Frances Berry, Lerone Bennett Jr., Tony Brown. I mean, he made a point of exposing us to many critical minds and civil rights, social justice advocates. Because of the relationships and the introductions he made for me, I was featured the first time in Ebony Magazine.”

Council, and two of her girlfriends, Kathy J. Trotter and Terri Goodwin, were so often seen in the company of Washington they were called “Charlie’s Angels.”

Though Council reluctantly went to K.C., it was a good experience.

“It certainly aided in my maturation, my independence.”

Her return to Omaha to work at Union Pacific, she said, “was a Charles Washington-influenced opportunity.”

“In 1979 my dad died and then in 1980 my mother’s mother died. I was in Kansas City and my oldest brother returned from Vietnam not in a good place, so he couldn’t really provide our mother much support. I was waffling about staying in Kansas City. I called Charlie (Washington) and said, ‘I need to look at getting back to Omaha.’ By this time I had three years doing labor law. He knew the personnel director at U.P. He sent in my resume and I got an interview.”

U.P.’s then-general counsel, Valerie Scott, hired Council. The two women became close colleagues and friends.

Entry into public life
Confidantes prodded Council to seek public office for the first time when she made her initial bid for the Omaha School Board in 1982.

“Ruth Thomas, who had served on the board and knew of my passion for education, was among those who approached me about it. I didn’t know anything about running for public office, but I had the benefit of having met and become friends with one of the greatest political minds of his time, the late Sonny Foster. He was a political genius. He volunteered to help me with my school board campaign.”

Council wanted to redress the board’s decision to eliminate summer school as part of budget cuts.

“That disturbed me because it disproportionately hurt youth in my district who needed remedial studies and enhancement opportunities. Their parents couldn’t afford to send them to special science or math camps. So, I ran, and in the primary got thumped. Sonny (Foster) said, ‘Between now and November, you’ve got to go to every house in this district and let them know who you are and what you’ll do.'”

She said she pounded the pavement and knocked on doors and when the general election rolled around, she “closed an incredible gap” to win. She was 28.

Finding a soulmate
Otha, whom she was just friends with at the time, showed up unexpectedly at her place on election night. He was co-owner of an Arby’s franchise.

“Election night, my campaign manager Sonny Foster, my dear friend and law school classmate Fred Conley and a couple other folks were at my house awaiting the results. Out of nowhere, a knock on the door and there’s Otha with a six-foot Arby’s submarine sandwich. He said, ‘I thought you might need something to eat.’ He took a seat and just sat there for the rest of the evening.

“The results came in and were favorable. People trickled out. The only ones left were me, Sonny and Otha.”

The two men made quite a contrast: the gregarious Sonny and the quiet Otha.

“I discovered later Otha thought Sonny and I had a thing. That was the furthest thing from the truth.”

Otha’s persistent wooing finally won her over when he drove her to the airport in the dead of winter. He got the door, handled the bags and even had a cup of hot chocolate for her. “He was such a Boy Scout.” From then on, she said, “he became my ‘hot chocolate’ and we began to spend more time together.”

“Our officiating (sports) together definitely strengthened our bond. Otha encouraged me to become an official because I grasped the rules so quickly when he was taking the exams while we were dating. Believe me, officiating can really test your patience and understanding.”

The couple have two children from his first marriage and five grandchildren. He has a landscaping-snow removal business and he owns-manages rental properties. He was by her side for all her subsequent political runs.

They also share a passion for service, community and family. They met when she volunteered with the Boy Scouts while he was this areas’s district commissioner.

“Family has always been incredibly important,” Council said, and I was fortunate to marry into a family that equally values family. We just got back from my husband’s 41st annual family reunion in Marianna, Arkansas. He’s one of 13 children, so it’s a huge family.”

A family migration story
Her extensive family on her father’s side has branches extending into Canada. Council said her father’s people relocated from Alabama to northeast Texas before settling in the Oklahoma Territory as part of the Exodusters migration. They faced hazards both natural and manmade.

“My father’s father drowned during a flash flood while trying to get the cattle across the creek. The current washed him and his horse down stream and his body was never recovered. My grandmother remarried a man with the last name of Gordon.”

Racial tensions worsened. The Ku Klux Klan was on the rise. A 1919 race riot in Omaha resulted in William Brown being lynched and the courthouse being burned. The “Black Wall Street” district of Tulsa, Oklahoma was burned down in 1921. Malcolm X’s family fled Omaha in 1925 after the Klan threatened his preacher father.

Some years before, African-Americans looking to escape hate were presented with an intriguing opportunity and Council’s paternal family ran with it.

Canada recruited Americans to settle the prairie provinces by offering homesteads. Canada advertised in Kansas and Oklahoma, never expecting the huge migration of African-Americans that followed.

“My dad’s stepfather took advantage of this new opportunity and moved the family to Winnipeg, Alberta, but left my father to be raised by one of my grandmother’s sisters in Oklahoma.”

Generations later, she said, her people are “spread all over” Canada, including Vancouver. where a first cousin Council’s gotten to know lives.

Brenda attended a Pioneer Family Reunion of descendants of black families who fled Oklahoma for Canada. She visited a recreated Canadian black settlement and learned of tragedy and triumph. A great aunt named Love was murdered with her child at the hands of her husband.

An uncle, Robert Gordon, was among the few black lumberjacks. Only his Paul Bunyan-like strength helped him survive. “He caught hell initially until he pummeled a few guys and became infamous – you don’t mess with Robert Gordon,” said Council. She met the tall, broad-shouldered man and said he still cut an imposing figure in old age.

Unfortunately, black pioneers were made to feel unwelcome. Eventually, no more were allowed in.

“So many were coming across,” she said, “ordinances were enacted by the border communities. One such ordinance read, ‘From this day forward, no more Negroes will be allowed to enter Canada because they’re deemed undesirable for the climate and culture …’ Everybody tells me, ‘Brenda, you ought to write this story.’ I do know i’ve got to put it down at some point.”

An uncommon political life
Her political life would make a good book, too. Her baptism-by-fire on the school board was just the start.

“I had some really up moments and I had some really down moments. A down moment was being the lone dissenting vote on closing Tech High. I presented diplomas to the last graduating class.”

A budget shortfall and concurrent need to consolidate district offices led to Tech’s closure and its reuse as district headquarters.

“One of the things I was most proud of was advocating for the adoption of a sex education curriculum in 1985. Thirty years later, here I am back pushing OPS to adopt an updated sex ed curriculum (through the Women’s Fund initiative). It’s kind of deja vu.”

Another thing she “took pride in, was the naming of Skinner elementary school after Eugene Skinner, both her grade school and junior high principal.” She said, “He had an incredible impact on me. Gene Skinner was a giant.” Yet another of the community stalwarts in her life. “I was impacted by so many of them,” she said.

Council displayed her own leadership abilities in office.
She not only became president of the Omaha School Board but president of the National Association of Black School Board Members.

“I got the knowledge of what was effective in other school districts and brought it back.”

She and former Omaha Public Schools assistant superintendent Don Benning got the district to begin its “nationally recognized Adopt-a-School program.

“We knew you improve educational outcomes when everybody’s got a stake in it and you have to involve business, parents, faith community. The program was a vehicle to get people who were otherwise not connected to schools involved in the schools. It’s still doing that.”

She agonized over running for the City Council in 1993.

“My passion is education and I believe I was making a difference. I was in my fourth term as school board president. We were moving on some things. I was torn. When Fred Conley announced he was not going to seek reelection, I honestly looked at who was going to be running and thought our district deserves better. That’s why I ran. I didn’t want a political career. I’ve never seen myself as a politician. I’m a public servant.

“Now, am I partisan? Yeah.”

A confluence of events led her to run for mayor only one year into her only City Council term. Then-mayor P.J. Morgan unexpectedly resigned with three years left. The city charter then allowed for the Council to choose someone among its ranks to finish the term but Brenda opposed this approach.

“I had to convince three other people we need to pursue a special election to change the charter because it’s not fair to the citizens that essentially an entire term is decided by seven people. I was able to convince the requisite number of City Council members to go for a special election and the results were what I predicted Omahans wanted. The charter was changed. I achieved my objective.”

She didn’t plan to run for mayor until Hal Daub announced his candidacy.

“I was like, ‘Whoa, there’s too much happening in this city to put it in the hands of someone who hadn’t lived in Omaha in years. The next mayor should be somebody who knows what’s been going on and been working on it.’ I just didn’t think it was fair and right and just for someone who in my opinion was a career politician to take an opportunity to come back. So I said, ‘I’m going to run, too.’ It was a special election in December of 1994. What made it problematic was there were mid-term elections a month before. I struggled to find campaign staff and team for my first citywide race.”

She got “soundly defeated” but “came a lot closer than people expected.” She was “perfectly content” to serve on the City Council with no future mayoral bid in mind until politicos shared data suggesting a near majority of Omahans would vote for her in a new election.

“I was pleasingly surprised.”

Confident she could muster enough support to unseat Daub, she took him on in the ’97 election only to suffer an historically narrow loss.

“That election night was one of the most painful nights of my life,” she said, “not for me personally but for all the people who invested so much of their being into supporting an individual they entrusted to address the issues that were critical to them.”

The thing she disliked the most about the process was having to make fundraising calls.

Mrs. Council goes to Lincoln
Eleven years elapsed before she sought public office again. During the hiatus she was a judge on the Nebraska Commission of Industrial Relations. In 2008 she entered the race for Nebraska legislative District 11.

“The same thing that motivated me to run for mayor is what motivated me to run for the legislature,” she said.
“It should be somebody representing this district who’s worked in this district, been in touch on a daily basis with the issues that affect residents and has the skills, knowledge and experience to make a difference. Again, no disrespect, I knew some of the people who were going to run and I was like, ‘That’s not going to get it.’ Call it arrogance or whatever, but I feel that passionate about the people in this district and what they deserve.”

She knew her expertise was a good match for the legislative process and “its interconnectedness with the law.” She also saw “an opportunity to address some things that may not have been on the front burner.”

Council won a seat at the table in the mostly white male Unicameral alongside fellow African-American Tanya Cook, who was communications manager for one of Council’s earlier elective office runs.

“I’m very proud of what we were able to accomplish in the one term I served in the legislature. I was focused and driven by what I could get done to move this community forward.”

She found satisfaction getting a New Markets Tax Credit program approved. She was frustrated when she got several pieces of legislation passed on the floor only to have then-Governor Heineman veto them. One would have required a lead poisoning test for children entering school. Another would have aided expansion of community gardens and incentivized healthy food stores to help address food desert issues.

“I was most proud of my Youth Conservation program legislation. Approximately 150 youth were employed in state parks across Nebraska during the summer of 2012, with a significant percentage of the youth being from North Omaha.”

Taking stock and moving on
Even after revelations of her addiction, she said, “there was still a tremendous amount of support for me to continue to serve in the legislature.”

Ending her political life was not nearly as hard as losing her license to practice law.

“Being disbarred,” she said, “it hurt, it really hurt.”

She does not plan to seek reinstatement of her license.

Today, she can acknowledge that when it all came out, “I wanted to stay in the shadows.” She said she wondered “is anybody going to give me a chance,” adding, “I know I come with some baggage.”

She’s found redemption at the Women’s Fund, whose Adolescent Health Project fits right in her wheelhouse.

“One of the first bills I introduced as a state senator was to mandate comprehensive sex education. One of the things I bring to the table is six years facilitating the Community Advisory Group for the Super Fund Site. We achieved some rather remarkable successes, including the formation of the Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance.”

She feels reducing unintended pregnancies is critical “if we’re ever going to have any meaningful, sustainable impact on reducing poverty,” in a community where single mother-headed households predominate.

Come what may, North Omaha is where her heart will always be.

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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.

North Omaha champion Frank Brown fights the good fight

January 15, 2012 16 comments

I did this profile of then-Omaha City Councilman Frank Brown in 2004 for The Reader (www.thereader.com) at a time when he was entrenched in his elected position though a frequent target of controversy.  As the representative for the largely African-American District 2, a long economically depressed district with a myriad of challenges facing it, he saw himself cut from the same cloth as his idol, Nebraska state senator Ernie Chambers.  As with any politician or public figure, some people liked him, some people didn’t.  Some thought he was doing an effective job focusing attention and resources on his district, some thought he wasn’t doing enough.  He had his loyal supporters and he had his outspoken detractors.  He was the third in a short line of black District 2 council members who were elected to office after Chambers got district elections instituted.  The first was Fred Conley.  Then came Brenda Council, who narrowly lost a mayoral bid.  For a time, it appeared Brown was untouchable in his seat on the council.  The former television reporter then faced a serious challenge in 2009 when another television professional, veteran photojournalist and public affairs host Ben Gray, took him on and squeaked out a win.  Brown went on to a position with an offshoot of the Omaha Housing Authority but was later forced to resign and now I’m not sure what he’s doing, though he remains a voice an dpresence in the community as host of his own public access TV show.

This blog features many of my stories about North Omaha and various African-American figures and institutions here, including a profile of Ben Gray.  In the coming months you can expect to see an extensive story on Ernie Chambers, the subject of a forthcoming biography by Tekla Johnson.

North Omaha champion Frank Brown fights the good fight

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Given its predominantly African-American demographics, any black elected representative from northeast Omaha is naturally expected to carry the torch of the civil rights struggle in addressing inner city and minority issues. Those historically consistent issues run the gamut from inadequate housing to high unemployment to poor health care to unequal representation to depressed living conditions to alleged police abuse. Since the mid-1960s State Sen. Ernie Chambers has been the one constant if often strident voice among state lawmakers about the plight of north Omaha’s disadvantaged residents. Other politicos have paid lip service or given short thrift to the needs and problems confronting the community, not surprising since until the start of district elections in 1981, which Chambers fought for, Omaha had no black City Council members.

Since district elections began, northeast Omaha’s District 2 has had three black City Council representatives. Fred Conley, an affable businessman, and Brenda Council, an astute attorney, may have raised the profile of District 2 challenges but neither was considered the firebrand crusader many envisioned when district elections were instituted. Instead, the two were viewed as bland coalition builders with moderate agendas that steered away from controversy and confrontation.

By contrast, current office holder Frank Brown, a former television news reporter, is seen as a different breed. Observers say Brown, a council member since 1997seems unafraid to articulate the root causes of northeast Omaha’s problems and to challenge public and private leaders in seeking drastic remedies to longstanding ills.

In addition to his Council position, he serves on the Omaha Housing Authority and police union boards. A Democrat, he has been a driving force on several issues: the installation of an independent public safety auditor in the wake of several police shootings that raised the black community’s ire; speeding-up work on the long delayed sewer separation project to alleviate chronic street-house flooding from north Omaha’s antiquated sewer system; and bringing Old Omaha’s widespread lead contamination problem to the forefront and making its cleanup a priority.

Known for his tenacity, he’s pushed hard recently for more accountability by the quasi-public MECA board. While his attempt to require mandatory minority representation on that and similar boards failed, his insistence that MECA leaders disclose previously unnanounced salary bonuses succeeded, despite or because of his ruffling some feathers. MECA board member and former Mayor Hal Daub, with whom Brown had his share of battles, said, “I really have nothing to say about Councilman Brown, and you can quote me on that.” 

Brown’s adamant call for full disclosure by MECA, which had board members bristling, is characteristic of his probing approach. “He can be pretty forceful when it comes to items that are especially meaningful to him,” said District 7 Councilman Chuck Sigerson, Jr. “He has a no-holds-barred style of asking questions, and that can be very beneficial and that can also put people on the spot, and sometimes people take it wrong. He doesn’t like to let people try and evade the questions…and if someone wants to stonewall him, they’re going to get re-asked the questions even more forcefully…”

Perhaps his most public victory — the public safety auditor — is proving a major frustration. Since being formed in 2001, support for it has withered among a majority of council members who contend it’s made little impact. In the city budget battle Brown fought to keep the auditor position alive. When the Council submitted a budget to Mayor Mike Fahey calling for its elimination, Fahey vetoed the measure, but a subsequent 5 to 4 Council vote overrode the veto.

Brown, who echoes north Omaha sentiment that the oversight of an independent auditor is needed as a safeguard against potential police abuse, feels criticism of the auditor’s effectiveness is unfair because the office is woefully under funded and staffed. “The auditor is limited. Her hands are tied. And that’s unfortunate,” he said. “My colleagues won’t give her the people and resources she needs to conduct investigations, so it’s doomed to fail. I say, Give her a chance because what have you got to lose? We pour millions into Rosenblatt Stadium, which is projected to lose $1 million a year, but it’s not OK to pay $250,000 for an auditor? There’s got to be give and take on both sides.”

The auditor’s current $150,000 budget has been supported the past two years by private funds. Despite the City Council’s recent vote to ax the position, Mayor Fahey has pledged he will find outside funding to keep it running.

With his bold, outspoken approach, Brown is viewed much closer in philosophy, rhetoric and practice to the aggressive, volatile Chambers than to the more placid Conley and Council. “Frank has a kind of persistence and political savvy his predecessors did not approach,” said the Rev. Everett Reynolds, president of the local NAACP. “Here’s a guy that’s helping the cause and, I would say, responding with much more gusto on behalf of minority, disenfranchised and poor folks. I don’t know that his predecessors dealt with critical issues as Frank has done. He faces the issues. He went some rounds with then Mayor Hal Daub in trying to get the city to deal with the sewers. His dealing with police-community relations stands out.” Rev. Larry Menyweather-Woods, a UNO Black Studies professor and retired pastor of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, said, “He’s been quite a significant player in trying to bring back to life the near north side. And there are certain issues — I’m talking about social justice and things of that nature — where Frank has been a leader. He’s been right out there.”

Pressing the issue doesn’t guarantee victory. Brown is still at a loss for why his minority representation proposal was defeated but implies racism is at the core of the opposition. “Why are people afraid of diversity? I don’t know. People will accept money from women, minorities and poor folks, but when it comes to sitting at the same table they say no,” he said.

Brown’s hard-nosed reporting background may explain his unrelenting style. “Those of us that knew Frank when he was a reporter know that he has not changed much. He still has a very dogged approach in trying to get to the truth of issues,” said Omaha police officer Marlin McClarty, president of the Brothers of the Midwest Guardians, a black police association.

Brown’s news career also gave him a ringside seat into the political process. “I watched what works and what doesn’t work and what to say and what not to say,” Brown said. “His experience was invaluable,” said the NAACP’s Reynolds. “Even though it was his first time in public office he had watched others perform, which was a tremendous asset for him. All his years in the news business gathering information, talking to people and working with people, taught him how to sift through that which is authentic from that which is not.”

As a trained journalist, Brown holds the news media to a high standard. He’s been known to chew out reporters and editors when he feels they’ve distorted his stance or somehow failed to measure up in his eyes. “It really hurts me to see when something as near and dear to me like reporting is not fair,” he said. 

He knocks the local news media for portraying his relationship with Councilman Franklin Thompson, the black Democrat from largely white District 6, as contentious. For his part, Brown said he has no enmity for Thompson. “I’m not at loggerheads with the guy at all. We may have some different views, but that’s not even a blip on my radar screen. The news media makes more of a perceived controversy than there really is. I’m not sitting at home saying, I bested Franklin Thompson today…I’m not even keeping a scorecard.”

The two most recently sparred over the naming of a walkway, with Thompson favoring Omaha’s Heisman Trophy heritage and Brown, who won, advocating Martin Luther King’s legacy. Brown faulted the Omaha World-Herald’s take on the so-called walkway “flap,” saying, “It wasn’t a flap at all, yet people were calling me at home saying the World-Herald reporter just had interviewed them and asked a bunch of negative questions and the first one was, ‘Why is Frank Brown doing this to Franklin Thompson?’ If I want to create a negative story, I’ll ask negative questions. Then, when I see an editorial cartoon in the paper that is tied to the ‘controversy,’ I know it’s a full-court press against me. People’s hatred comes out. They say, Oh, that Frank Brown is just all over the place and he hates white people, and they have no idea what’s in my heart and soul. If this is the tone the paper is taking, what else am I supposed to think?”

Brown said his sometimes stormy relationship with the media has mellowed somewhat. “Oh, it’s still lumpy at times,” he said, “but it’s different now than what it was. They’ll come after me no matter what, and if I say something goofy I deserve it, but all I want is balance and fairness.” 

One thing he feels can’t be questioned is his dedication to north Omaha, where he grew up and still resides. However, he’s the first to say he cannot impact all the quandaries facing his district and minorities at large. To date, he’s won and lost his share of battles but even when a measure he backs is defeated or a motion he opposes is approved, his supporters admire the tenacity he shows in going down swinging.

“I feel Frank is willing to put himself out there — on the spot — for what he feels is right,” said Midwest Guardians president Marlin McClarty.

“You know, I try and fight the good fight,” said Brown, who knows well where northeast Omaha stands. “It’s neglected. It’s been neglected,” he said of his district. “The way government looks at impoverished areas is they blame the blight on the people who live there. They criticize north Omaha but what does government do — the government puts all the public housing projects practically…in one district. They place social service programs in one area. So, they create a poor district and they tell people, Well, you should lift yourself up by the bootstraps and join us. Well, how can you do that when you can’t achieve? I mean, you can, but when you remove people from Logan-Fontenelle (a large housing project razed in recent years) and you don’t improve the surrounding area where people live, than what expectations can you have? You’ve got to create a positive environment.”

Long regarded as the other side of the tracks, the northeast district lost whatever economic-political clout it had in the wake of two events. The late 1960s riots there caused property damage and engendered a perception of fear that drove out many business owners and residents. Perhaps even more disruptive, the North Freeway construction in the 1970s razed hundreds of homes, in the process driving out many more residents, and imposed a daunting physical-psychological barrier that drove a wedge through the heart of a formerly unified community.

“The North Freeway dispersed families and divided the area,” Brown said, “and we still haven’t recovered from it. It took out thousands of residents. How do you recover from that? It’s a slow process. Government doesn’t think about long term effects to a viable area.”

 

 

 Some of North Omaha’s desolation

 

The loss of people, spending power and cohesion led to the decline of North 24th Street, the traditional cultural-commercial strip that coursed with pedestrian-vehicular traffic day and night. As people moved out, businesses closed and pockets of blight took hold in the form of abandoned structures and vacant lots. Brown said if the area is to be made attractive again to investors, more households and amenities need to be in place. He feels the only way to attract more home buyers and business owners is to increase the stock of quality affordable houses, increase the pool of decent indigenous jobs and spruce up the community.

“Businesses will not come into north Omaha unless there are more rooftops and consumers and workers. That’s just basic economics,” he said. “People in the area want to work, but the lack of transportation is a major issue. If you don’t have jobs and businesses in the area, than how can people go to work in the first place?”

Thirty years or more have passed since the district’s decline took root and not a single comprehensive plan has surfaced to address the situation. Brown has no plan either, but he sees a need for one in an area that to date has seen sporadic redevelopment in isolated commercial-residential federal block grant-funded projects. Any assurances being made by city flaks and community leaders about the burgeoning riverfront development sparking a northeast Omaha revival is met with extreme skepticism by Brown, who demands proof he’s yet to see.

“Everyone’s waiting and waiting and waiting, but how long will we wait? I’d like them to show me how the future’s bright. I want someone to point out to me how the area northwest of the arena-convention center is improving because of the development going on. Has anyone shown you where it’s improved? The truth is there never was a plan to improve northwest of the riverfront development. There should have been a massive plan and time schedules and dollars.”

That is not to say no progress has been made. New housing developments, community centers and commercial properties have sprung up in recent years in a variety of neighborhoods that heretofore saw little change for decades. There is the Fontenelle View town home project just west of the intersection of Fontenelle Boulevard and Ames Avenue. The latest project, Miami Heights, is a 24-block mixed residential-commercial development going up in the Salem Baptist Church neighborhood. A number of southern style-soul food restaurants have opened along North 16th Street and surrounding areas. But until an overarching initiative is in place that ties various redevelopment efforts into a grand, sweeping design, Brown suspects many areas in need of revitalization will remain untouched because they fall outside any targeted development zone.

“Even if there was such a plan…the dollars were never there to complete it. Somehow or other we’ve got to thread the needle and bring these efforts together,” he said. To pull it off, he said, government entities and private investors need to collaborate. “It’s always been left up to government, but it’s also going to take private investors to take a look at the area and say, We’re going to make a commitment there. They should not be afraid of the poor people in the area because they’re great people and they’ll work. They just need a chance.”

Last year, Brown initiated a project in the heart of his district that he hopes spurs more urban renewal. Now under construction, the North Omaha Love’s Jazz Cultural Arts and Humanities Complex is slated to be a multi-use resource center promoting the richness of black culture — past and present — via arts appreciation, education and performance. The site of the complex, 24th and Lake, is significant as it sits in the hub of a once booming cultural scene that featured many clubs and bars, including the storied Dreamland Ballroom, where such black music greats as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Cab Calloway and Nat King Cole performed. The area is where Omaha’s own jazz and blues legend, Preston Love, for whom the complex is named, got his start. The strip is also where Brown’s late father co-owned and operated the popular M & M Lounge, a jumping joint for night owls and the first African-American owned bar in the state.

“Can North 24th Street revitalize itself? I can only hope so and I’m doing everything I can. The jazz center is a start. A lot of things have got to happen,” said Brown, who wants to see the community add to its popular Native Omaha Days homecoming celebration with an annual black expo patterned after one in Indianapolis.

His own attempts selling investors on North O have so far proven fruitless. “I’m constantly talking to businesses asking them to move in. I’ve brought developers into the area. They like what’s going on but they still roll up their plans and go home.” He said the area suffers from the lingering impression of being crime-ridden and, the assumption goes, unsafe to do business in. “There’s that perception, yes, but I think businesses that have been there and some new businesses that have moved in know that’s not the case. And that’s why I always ask developers to just give it a try here and to just work with me. But there is that perception.”
Chambers, now Brown’s vocal champion and powerful ally, came out against Brown when he ran for City Council in 1997. “I opposed him when he first ran because he had done a lot of reporting on the police and I thought that made him too close to them. He was also with that Jimmy Wilson Foundation (as executive director), and I thought that would skew his view,” he said. “But as he entered onto his work as a Councilman I developed a tremendous amount of respect for his knowledge, his integrity, his ability to work with others and, first and foremost, his skillful use of all those things to get things done. He shocked me.”

A longtime admirer of Chambers, who along with former State Sen. Gene Mahoney he regards as his political idols, Brown went to Chambers early on for advice.

“Oh, I remember it vividly,” Brown said, “and I took everything he said to heart, especially his comments about knowing the rules and reading everything, and I try and do that every day. You’ve got to read everything. Some things will pass by your desk and if you don’t pick it up and read it, it could affect a project in such a way that when you vote for it it will really hurt your district or the city. There’s so many nuances, twists and turns that you just have to read it and understand it.”

 

 

Ernie Chambers

 

 

The reservations Chambers had about Brown’s cozy relationship with the police and city hall were understandable, Brown said, and have “been a driving force to make me try and do some things to prove there was more to me than that.”

As the black community’s most visible torch bearer, Brown feels pressure doing the right thing for a constituency in great need and with little voice. No one agenda can take up his focus without him being accused of favoritism. “This is a lonely job,” he said. “It’s been a hot seat from day one and it gets hotter every day.”

From the start, Brown has put in long hours as a Councilman and he bristles at the notion he stretches what’s really a part-time job into a full-time gig. “I knew going into this there was a tremendous amount of issues in my district and that’s why I made the decision to put in 8 to 10 hours a day here down at city hall. I think you have to. Besides, my salary is probably higher than 50 percent of households in my family and so it would bother me to…work part-time for that amount.” Then there is his old-school attitude. “My dad was a great influence on me because he instilled my strong work ethic. He never missed a day of work and I’ve probably only missed two days of work my entire life. I’m down here reading and reading and reading…taking phone calls and meetings…and not taking vacations.”

Brown, who’s single, said being consumed by his work has extracted “a price. The job and the daily grind have taken their toll on me.” In holding an office many say is his for as long as he wants it, he said there is a danger of taking things for granted. “I’m going to be honest — it creeps into your mind, but you can’t think that way because if you let that distraction become a daily event then you become lax.” Politics can be an isolating experience. When everyone seemingly curries your favor, who can you trust? He’s recently lost some of his closet, most trusted advisors. “I lost a good friend of mine and then my father passed away. And then I lost my best friend, Vernon Breakfield. He was a person I would go to to bounce everything off of and he was brutally honest with me.”

Noncommittal as to how much longer he may want to serve on the City Council or what other political office he may seek, Brown said whatever he does “I’ll always have a fire to help people that’s burning inside me. Hopefully, I’ll be here for as long as people want me but if not the person that replaces me will have a big footprint to fill and will have to try to achieve a lot, and I think that’s good.”

“He’s done it in a way that pleases me and sets a very high standard and an example for anybody that will follow him,” Chambers said. “But I hope he stays there until at least I die.”

Man on fire: Activist Ben Gray’s flame burns bright

September 2, 2010 2 comments

A flame from a burning candle

Image via Wikipedia

Much has changed and not changed since I did this story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) profiling Ben Gray, who at the time was a television journalist in his adopted hometown of Omaha, Neb. Gray was an unabashed advocacy journalist who used the forum of a public affairs program he produced and hosted to confront social-political issues on him mind.  He’s always been an advocate and activist in the local African-American community, and since my story’s publication he’s immersed himself in those roles even more deeply, having left his career in TV to get himself elected an Omaha City Council member representing largely African-American District 2 and becoming a key player in the African-American Empowerment Network (see my stories about the Network on this blog site).  This article alludes to the growing tension between Gray and one of his heroes and mentors, former Nebraska State Sen. Ernie Chambers, a relationship that’s become more strained over time. Gray was not born in Omaha, and he didn’t grow up here.  The U.S. Air Force brought him here and he has devoted most of his adult life to serving the community and to improving conditions here for its most vulnerable residents.

 

Man on fire: Activist Ben Gray’s flame burns bright

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Ben Gray finds himself in “an uncomfortable position” these days for his vehement opposition to the Nebraska Legislature’s recently enacted schools reorganization plan. The law mandates a new learning community and the severing of the Omaha Public Schools into three racially identifiable districts. As co-chair of the community-based African American Achievement Council, Gray is a plaintiff in an NAACP-led civil rights lawsuit that challenges the action.

He’s secure with his denouncement of the school makeover plan as bad policy and, as the lawsuit contends, unconstitutional legislation that sanctions segregation. However, he’s uneasy his stance casts him as an adversary to a man he admires above all others — State Sen. Ernie Chambers — who crafted the key amendment to restructure OPS, a district Gray is adamant about preserving.

The venerable senator is regarded as “a great man” by Gray, veteran KETV Channel 7 photojournalist and host/producer of Kaleidoscope, the longest continuously aired public affairs program in Omaha television history.

It may surprise people to learn Gray, who’s fronted the show since 1979, didn’t originate it. He traces its start to 1969 or 1970 as a response to the riots in north Omaha and to general black discontent in the wake of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassinations and the slow progress of the War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Movement. Kaleidoscope featured rotating hosts until Gray found his niche.

He said public affairs programs like it emerged from the tumult of “constructive dialogue and confrontation from folks like Charlie Washington, Ernie Chambers, Welcome Bryant, Bertha Calloway, Dorothy Eure. They deserve the credit.” Once the show was his, he decided troublemakers like these “needed a forum so their ideas could be presented in their entirety rather than in sound bites. A lot of people were very angry at me because I gave Sen. Chambers that forum.”

More than once, he said management’s alleged he or Chambers handled subjects unfairly, but never proved their claims. For 27 years Gray’s dealt straight-up, in his direct, eloquent, informed approach, based on his vast reading of American and African-American history, with tough stories. From police shootings to racial profiling cases, he’s called it like it is and he asserts, “Not a single person, not any of the police chiefs I’ve had on, can ever tell you they were treated unfairly on my show. Now, they were asked hard questions…but when you come to my television show it’s like coming to my living room and in my living room you are my guest and my guests don’t get treated disrespectfully. Now, they may get asked hard questions…” The show goes beyond local matters to discuss national-world affairs.

He’s patterned his on-air demeanor after three men: Charlie Washington, the late Omaha journalist-activist and host of Omaha Can We Do and To Be Equal; Gil Noble, host of New York’s Like It Is; and Tony Brown, of the syndicated Tony Brown’s Journal. “Charlie didn’t let you off the hook for anything. Charlie argued and debated with you. Charlie adopted that style and never deviated from it. Gil Noble never deviated. Tony Brown never deviated. Those are the guys I admire and respect. I modeled my confrontational style after theirs. Charlie and Tony were great friends I got to know very well. Gil was intimately involved with Malcolm X and he’s shared some of his Malcolm materials with me,” Gray said.

Unlike most of his colleagues Gray’s unapologetic to be both news reporter and news maker. He often takes public stands on the very issues he covers. He wishes more black journalists followed suit. But no issue’s drawn him so far out into the line of fire over such an extended time as the schools debate. The national media’s focus on the controversy as the poster case for the larger resegregation underway in American public schools, has made him a much sought-after quote. His characterization in the New York Times of LB 1024 and the amendment to break up the Omaha Public Schools as “a disaster” has been oft-repeated.

He’s sure with his choice to be an advocacy journalist.

“You have a choice of one of two things when you’re a professional journalist. That you’re going to satisfy yourself personally, i.e. move up the ladder and try and make network and make the big bucks, or to make a difference,” he said. “So, the question becomes, do I satisfy personal goals or do what others before me have done — and that is sacrifice for the greater good, for the greatest number? And that’s what’s driven my decisions.”

He invites trouble by bucking the-powers-that-be in pursuit of doing what he thinks right. His relationship with general managers at KETV, where he’s worked since 1973 after an Air Force stint brought him to Offutt, has often been strained; never more than in 1976 when he and others filed a complaint against Ch. 7 with the Federal Communications Commission. Dubbed by media as “the black coalition,” Gray said the group’s fight went beyond color to gender and equity issues.

“What we were complaining about,” he said, “was that at the time Kaleidoscope and some other public affairs shows on Ch. 7 were only on very early in the morning or very late at night and there were no African-Americans on the air in prime time and had not been for a considerable period of time and there had never been a woman main anchor in Omaha.

“We filed against the station’s license, which employees very seldom do. It was the only avenue we saw because we had a news director at that time who felt like he was going to put an end to what he thought were affirmative action hires. In other words, he didn’t care much for black folks or women” in television.

“Now, you want to talk about tense when we filed that complaint. All sorts of wild rumors went through the station — that black people were trying to take over Ch. 7, that black people were trying to get rid of white people there. I look back and I laugh now, but, man, those were some pretty contentious times. I mean, people were really pissed at us for doing that. Although it was highly unlikely, the possibility the station wouldn’t get its license (renewed) was there. Ch. 7 operated with a temporary license for almost two years as a result of our action.”

Gray and his fellow complainants lost the battle but won the war.

“The FCC finally dismissed our complaint (in 1977) but with this caveat: They said they found merit in our argument about public affairs programming and so they issued a ruling, that comes from us, that no public affairs programming can only be contiguous with early morning or late night hours. Ch. 7 changed the times of several of the programs” to reflect the ruling’s spirit.

Dissatisfied with what they saw as a window dressing remedy, the group contemplated a federal lawsuit when, Gray said, “I got a call from a very high-up person in Pulitzer Broadcasting who said, ‘Before you do anything like file a legal action, give us a month, and if you don’t like what you see…go ahead and file your suit.’ Well, Ch. 7 soon hired the first female anchor in prime time in Omaha with Marsha Ladendorf and then a whole slew of minorities followed after that. Carol Schrader and Michael Scott were two of the beneficiaries. The fact of the matter is we kicked in the door and it happened, and we’re proud of that.”

Along with a more diverse staff on and off camera, programs like Kaleidoscope were accorded more respect. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t had to fight to keep the show relevant, much less alive. “I’ve had so many battles,” he said. Current GM Joel Vilmenay has been “by far the biggest supporter because everybody else was trying to get it off the air or were indifferent about it,” he said. Having someone from management in his corner is such a new experience to Gray it took him aback.

“For awhile I didn’t know how to take somebody giving me advice and challenging me and chastising me all at the same time. What I like about Joel is he’s a tough taskmaster. Joel knows what he wants and his standards are high and that’s who you want to work for. When you’re challenged you either fall apart or rise to the occasion. Well, Kaleidoscope has been my baby for far too long for me not to rise to the occasion.”

Vilmenay encouraged his switch a few years ago from a Tony Brown-type discourse to the present This Week-panel format. Each week Gray “facilitates” a panel of talking heads — Brenda Council, Lee Terry Sr. and Jim Fogarty — offering liberal, conservative and moderate perspectives, respectively, on topical issues. Gray only occasionally weighs in with his left of center views, though not nearly as often as “some people want me to.” The show’s tackled the schools divide and what some see as Chambers’ betrayal of his ideals.

By opting to defy his longtime hero, Gray’s put himself on the hot seat. “I’ve chosen a course that’s not necessarily comfortable in opposing Sen. Chambers, but it’s right,” he said. “Again, when you have the kind of respect I have for him, it’s difficult to do, but at the same time when I think you’re wrong I have to call you on it. That’s just the way it is. I don’t think anybody should be above being questioned. And if that puts me on the opposite side of people who are friends or great associates or whatever the case may be, then that’s what it will have to be.”

Ironically, Gray’s doing what he admires in Chambers — raising a dissident voice for the marginalized. It’s not hard to imagine why Gray looks to him, the lone wolf black legislator who champions the underdog, as someone to emulate. Gray measures himself as a strong, outspoken, incisive African-American community activist in the context of the firebrand figure his mentor cuts.

“We don’t have enough men in our community who are willing to stand up and be men and take on issues in spite of the obstacles, in spite of the odds, in spite of who’s for you and who’s against you,” Gray said. “We don’t have enough men who say what really this is and lay everything on the table and keep their ethics and their integrity and their honesty intact. When you see that kind of nobleness in an individual you want to gravitate to that.

“Sen. Chambers does that and I’ve done everything I could to try and come close, because nobody can be Ernie, but at least come close to exemplify his willingness to put it all on the line…to be honest…to stand up against oppression and racism.”

When revealed last week that several Omaha North High School teachers staged racially offensive parodies, with some remarks targeting not only Chambers but students of color, the senator condemned their actions and asked that they be removed from their duties. Gray showed his solidarity by sending a highly critical letter to OPS and the media.

Gray considers Chambers the second most influential person in his life behind his older sister Mary Thompson, who raised Ben and his younger brother Doug in their hometown of Cleveland, Ohio after both parents died of cancer in the same year.

“I was 13-years-old and we were very poor. When your parents die and you’re a young person, grief comes later. What happens first is fear. Because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know if some other relative is going to take you in. You don’t know if you’re going to go to a foster home. You don’t know what tomorrow is going to be like,” he said.

“I had an older sister who took us in and she took us when she already had five other children. She raised me and I was not the best of children — by a long shot. But she hung in there. She stuck with me. She’s the person I consider to be my greatest role model. I consider her my guardian angel. To say I love her wouldn’t do her service because she’s been everything to me and continues to be.

“And the other significant influence has been Sen. Chambers.”

 

 

Ernie Chambers
Despite that, Gray said, “People aren’t right all the time. Nobody is. And in this particular instance, knowing what I know about the school system — about the children and families in this district, I think he’s wrong on this, and I would be less than a man if I didn’t express my feelings and act on my feelings. No matter who it is. If it was my sister, it would be the same thing. Because I think it’s wrong.”
As outraged as he is by the damage he fears LB 1024’s learning community plan and OPS split will do, he’s upset by how these measures came to be fashioned in the first place. He believes lawmakers acted rashly, without proper deliberation and community input from those most invested in the issue and in the process.

“I think when you’re going to do something as delicate as this, when you’re talking about our children, you go slowly, you don’t go real fast. I think that’s where the mistakes were made.

“What really galls me more than anything is that the African American Achievement Council, the Latino Achievement Council, the Native American Achievement Council, the Ministerial Alliance and various groups that participated in the political process were not consulted. We did what legislators, the governor and other elected officials hoped we’d do. We engaged in the process. We went to Lincoln. We lobbied. We fought. We cajoled. We testified. We did all this.”

Yet, he said, “nobody came to us to find out what we do or what changes we have made in the district, which are numerous and ongoing and many of which are starting to bear serious fruit. To negate or dismiss all of the work done by plain citizens who just want to help is a travesty and a crime quite frankly. And then you do this (pass the new law) and you lock us out? You didn’t even ask us what we thought — those of us who are engaged?

“And all these folks now running around saying, ‘Yeah, this is a good idea and Ernie’s right,’ and so forth and so on, none of ‘em are engaged. None. Zero.”

Gray, who said he’s carefully read the new law, cites many things not accounted for in the bill’s language, including such basics as funding and hiring mechanisms, classroom assignments, grant stipulations, program operations and oversight responsibilities. He fears too many details have been ignored, too many consequences unaddressed, leaving in limbo and perhaps in jeopardy educators’ jobs and district programs hinging on grants or contracts.

“I don’t know if people realize, for example, the Omaha Public School District has about $30 million in grant programs that somehow have to get reapportioned or reapplied for. What’s going to happen to these programs? Who writes the grants? Who gets the grants now? There’s a teachers union contract that runs over into 2008 — what happens to it? Who’s going to negotiate a new contract? What happens to those teachers? How do we pick and choose which teachers and principals we keep and don’t keep? Who decides?

“What’s going to happen to the district’s Triple A bond rating? What about levee limits and bond rates? With our low property tax base, what kind of bonds can black and Latino districts float? What about insurance — with each new district being much smaller than OPS what kind of group rates will they qualify for? There’s a myriad of things I don’t think anybody thought about.”

He’s not so pessimistic he discounts a framework can be found that answers such questions. “Oh, there’s always a possibility,” he said. His point is that a huge education ball was put in motion without due diligence or foresight. “It should have been worked out before and not after the bill. Normally, when there’s a merger or an acquisition or a break up, the answers have all been worked out and in this instance nothing has been worked out. There’s just too many things we don’t know.” In the interim, some things, like a planned South Omaha Educare center, are on hold until there’s more clarity.

He distrusts and derides the hallmark of Chambers’ provision — local control. He sees little assurance of it when the board overseeing the new learning community will be appointees, not elected officials, installed by other appointees. He points out the suburban districts will have a majority on the board and thus a voting bloc over inner city districts. He contends creating black-Latino districts will isolate them and make them easy targets for unequal shares of the revenue pie.

He also cautions that local control failed the local Head Start program.

“We’ve lost parts of enough generations to not run the risk of doing something as foolish as this and risk damaging a school district or harming children for the sake of this fanciful notion of local control. I call it foolish because we haven’t thought about it, we haven’t talked about it,” he said.

 

Omaha City Council President Ben Gray began serving his two-year term in June. (Photo by Ryan Robertson KVNO News)

Omaha City Council President Ben Gray began serving his two-year term in June. (Photo by Ryan Robertson KVNO News)

 

 

Gray devotes much of his public-private life to education reform. He reveres educators and hopes his work, which sounds more like lecture than rant, rises to that higher calling. The African American Achievement Council he co-chairs with his wife Freddie J. Gray works in concert with OPS on initiatives to bring the performance of minority children in line with that of whites. Under his aegis the Council’s made textbook-curriculum changes infused with black history. He helped launch the Greeter program that brings black men into schools as role models. He gives frequent talks to students of color, mentors individuals, assists black scholarship programs, etc.

He helped frame the OPS argument for its One City – One School District school boundaries effort aimed at swallowing up suburban districts. Along with superintendent John Mackiel, Gray’s made himself a visible, audible point person in support of One City, One School at public forums. One reason Gray’s left caution behind is to defend Mackiel, whom he feels is falsely maligned by critics.

“I didn’t want to be involved in the One City, One School District fight, but I just could not see a white man the caliber of John Mackiel, with the dignity I think he has, fighting for all children out there on the stump by himself. It’s about fairness and doing the right thing with me and what was happening to him was unfair when I know what he was doing was the right thing.”

Gray’s position in forums is that black-Latino inner city schools suffer in comparison to white suburban schools due to an inequitable distribution of resources. He says race, class and white privilege enable the segregated housing and unequal employment patterns that breed segregation.

“We have to address the bedrock that is white privilege. First of all we have to name it. Whites are not going to accept it from me. They’re going to accept it from somebody who lives in their neighborhood and who looks like they do, That’s who’s going to drive this discussion — the Jonathan Kozols and other white authors who call the educational system in this country apartheid.

“And that discussion has to occur because if it doesn’t this country is not going to be long for existence. Joseph Lowry, the former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference said it best, ‘We may have come over here on different ships — we are on the same boat now. We better figure out how to fix this boat.’ I have to be optimistic.”

If nothing else, he said, the discord shows what happens in the absence of dialogue about the underlying issues. He sees people “slowly venturing into this uncharted territory,” adding his message is welcome in some parts of town and not others.

While he has “great faith the lawsuit is going to be successful,” he added, “I don’t put all my eggs in one basket. You just don’t sit back and wait. You do other things on the legislative and social justice end. There are already rumblings the legislature next year is going to do some fine tuning. I’m looking for legislative solutions. I hope we find dialogue somewhere, so that we don’t have to go to court.” He’s wary what decision a court might render. “You know, courts can do anything — from rule against us to rule for us. They have wide latitude. I think we all need to be concerned about what a judge will do.”

Students, parents and taxpayers face the surreal reality that once the new schools plan is implemented in 2008, every legislator that shaped or passed it will be out of office due to term limits. In this void, Gray said, “I don’t know who to talk to. I don’t know who’s going to be elected.” Chambers is among those whose term will expire. Before then, Gray hopes to get him to look deeper at the questions the plan poses. “I have to do a better job convincing him because Ernie has very strong convictions, very strong beliefs and you have to prove yourself to Ernie over and over again, and that’s not bad. It keeps you focused and it keeps you strong.”

No sweat for Gray, who shares with Ernie a passion for pumping iron, and carries with him two values from his military days, “discipline and completing the mission,” that ensure the schools plan “will not go unchallenged” by him. He vows it.

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