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One Helluva Broad: Mary Galligan Cornett

June 9, 2012 2 comments

I never met the late Mary Galligan Cornett during her long, legendary tenure as Omaha City Clerk, only when she’d been retired some years, but her reputation as a cantankerous, bigger-than-life personality preceded her and I was not disappointed when I finally did catch up with her.  Sheds lost none of her bite or her blunt, blue-streak manner of speaking.  She’s gone now but she’s definitely one of my most unforgettable characters.  My profile of her appeared in the New Horizons in 2002.

 City of Omaha Seal

 

One Helluva Broad: Mary Galligan Cornett

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

For more than half-a-century, Mary Galligan Cornett gave as good as she got with the boys at City Hall.

In her colorful 53-year civil service career she saw hundreds of elected officials come and go. In a 1961 to 1997 reign as Omaha City Clerk she served 13 mayors (counting acting and interim chiefs) and dozens of council members. She saw Omaha transition from the commission form of government to the city charter home rule system to the present structure featuring district council elections. She was a stabilizing presence as Omaha endured scandals, bitter fights over equal rights and public works and abrupt changes in leadership. She helped Omaha retain its Triple AAA credit rating by selling bonds in New York’s financial district.

Along the way, she earned a reputation as a tough woman valued for the knowledge and history she brought to city business and as one not to be trifled with in the political wrangling game. This blunt, unadorned woman, who says of the wrinkles in her face — “I’ve earned every one” — is one helluva broad.

Unafraid to speak her mind and uncowed by the rough-and-tumble maneuvers of smoke-filled, back-room deliberating, Cornett was a trailblazer in the male fraternity called politics. For years, she was among only a handful of women city clerks in major U.S. metropolises. So, how did she survive under so many different regimes and surrounded by so many powerful men of often clashing politics and personalities? “Very simple, I became one of the good old boys. I made friends with their wives, their secretaries and their mistresses, and I got along just fine,” she said from her terraced antique and bric-a-brac-filled home on the busy Northwest Radial Highway. As former City Councilman Subby Anzaldo said, “Having Mary in a group of men was not uncomfortable. If a cross word flew out of someone’s mouth it wasn’t a situation where you had to worry about it. Mary understood and she could throw a few out herself if she had to. She was one of a kind. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”

At her home, family photographs are prominently displayed in the living room, where the pet dog and cat roam freely. Most pictures are of Cornett’s only child, Irene A. Cornett (Stranglin), now a 10-year veteran with the Omaha police force and the new mother of twin girls. Cornett raised Irene alone after the death of her husband, surety executive Bob Cornett, in 1976. Slowed by a broken hip suffered last March, she has a nurse tech, Raissa Franklin, help at home. About her patient, Franklin said jokingly, “She’s ornery. She’s worse than the agitator in the washing machine.” Ever the politician, the chain-smoking Cornett recently had pictures of herself taken sans cigarettes. After the photo session Cornett called out, “Raissa, honey, could you hand me a pack of cigarettes now that the photographer is gone?”

As far as being a woman in a man’s world, Cornett had only to look at the domineering women in her own life for role models.

Both of her grandmothers worked outside the home in addition to raising families. Her maternal grandma came from sturdy ranch stock and went on to become a music teacher in towns across Nebraska. Her paternal matriarch was a railroad brakeman as well as a seamstress. Her mother was a political operative and helped run the family produce business.

“I grew up with the idea a woman could be anything she wanted to be,” said Cornett. That’s why when she started working at City Hall as a building clerk in 1945 she chafed at the resistance she met from the all-male contractors who had to go through her to obtain permits. “Well, the men contractors had a hard time with that because they didn’t think a woman could look at a set of blueprints and figure out anything. It was a whole new thing for them. They had a hard time accepting it and I had a hard time accepting their chauvinism. My attitude was, ‘The hell with it. I’m here. I’m the one that issues the permits. Show me your (expletive) blueprints. Take me or leave me.’ I think I’ve always felt that way.”

Armed with her sharp tongue, astute mind and vast experience, she had the ear of mayors and council members. According to her successor, current City Clerk Buster Brown, whom she trained, “If she had something to say, people listened. Yes, she influenced decisions behind-the-scenes. She was an institution. She knew the ins-and-outs.” Rather than challenge her “strong personality,” he said, officials would “back away.” Former City Councilman Robert Cunningham said, “She handled things with authority. She was respected.” In her capacity as clerk and confidante,  Cornett was the keeper of city records and secrets. She recalls how attorney Eddie Shaston, an associate of former Mayor A.V. Sorensen, “always said ‘I was the woman that knew and never talked.’”

Retired since 1997, Cornett is not telling tales out-of-school now, at least not on the record. If she did tell her story, the 77-year-old said she’d borrow the title from the Frank Sinatra anthem, “I Did It My Way.” The only trouble with that, she asked rhetorically, is “which of my lives would I be talking about? My private life? My political life? My life as a bondswoman?” To which Pat Wright, a friend and former assistant who popped over during a recent interview quipped, “Where does one stop and the other end? Sometimes you don’t even know,” which prompted Cornett to reply, “I know that.” Wright added, “Cornetts real. She tells it like it is.”

No doubt, Cornett thrived in the political arena because public service was, in a sense, a birthright by virtue of her family’s longtime involvement in the field. Her Irish-Scottish immigrant family’s political legacy extends back to the town’s wild-and-whooly beginnings to a pair of paternal grand uncles: former fire chief Jack J. Galligan and former police chief Michael Dempsey. Then there was her mother, Fairrie Irene Cameron Galligan, a wheel in the state and Midwest Democratic central committees. Mary often accompanied her to conventions, even meeting future president Harry S. Truman in Kansas City when he was still a ward leader for the Tom Pendergast machine. There was also a familial tie to the politically active Warners of Nebraska. “Everyone in my family, on both sides, was in politics,” Cornett said. “That’s been my whole life.”

Public service has been a passionate thing for the Cornett clan. “It was and it still is with me” she said. “My family at one time were all immigrants and this was the country that welcomed them. They felt they owed it something because of the freedom and the education and the employment they found here. And for all of that, there’s gotta be some payback. And, so, I think the whole family felt a personal responsibility to be part of government and to devote a lot of their lives to it. I devoted my entire life to it.” Politics also suited Cornett’s gregariousness. She said her capacity for getting along with people and putting aside personal differences for the public good is “an ability you have to have” to succeed in politics. Her skill at mixing with people from all walks of life and her hunger for being right in the thick of the action is why it all came naturally to her.

“I guess I’m a people person. I guess that’s why I picked this as my retirement house,” she said, referring to her residence. “It’s right on the street. Life goes on. There isn’t a time the rescue squad isn’t going that-a-way or a fire truck isn’t going this-a-way or a police car isn’t going another way. I can lay in bed and tell from the traffic what time it is.”

Cornett likes the neighborhood and its mix of young families and retirees. “I lived for many years in a big home at 61st and Decatur and I hated it. Everybody went to bed at like 8:30 or 9, and being a night owl, I’d be up till 1 or 2 in the morning. Also, I cannot imagine living in one of these retirement places where everybody’s old, where there’s no children, where there’s no dogs or cats. Why would you want to shut yourself off from the world? You’ve got to have some life going on around you,” she said above the din of rushing traffic and barking dogs outside.

For her, city government was where the action was. How apt then that this lifelong devotee of Italian grand opera found herself immersed in the drama and machinations of big city politics, with all its brokering, backstabbing and symbolic bloodletting. Because politics truly is in her blood, she still keeps close tabs on City Hall. Asked if leaders still come to her for counsel, she answered, “Let’s put it this way, I get a lot of telephone calls. I still have an excellent grapevine together. Remember, it’s been 53 years or so building it. I can tell you what’s going on in every (expletive) department down there. I keep track of things.”

After years directing the clerk’s office, which besides keeping records supports the functions and enforces the rules of the City Council, she has a rather proprietary feeling about that august body. The last council she worked with had a contentious relationship with former Mayor Hal Daub, whom she felt was not well served by some members, which makes her glad the present council, with its five new faces, is working so well with Mayor Mike Fahey. “I’m very proud of the new council. I think they’re doing a very good job. This council and the mayor are communicating. I think that’s a necessary part of good government. You can disagree, but you need to communicate at least your disagreements.”

In Cornett’s view the previous council “made life miserable for Mayor Daub,” adding: “I always felt very sorry for Daub. Did he make mistakes? Yes. Could he have maybe communicated with two or three of them better? Yes. But there were four of ‘em on that council that no matter what he would have done they would never have moved off what they wanted. And it wasn’t a matter of what was best for the city or what was good for the taxpayer. It was a matter of their own personal egos and their desire to stay in power. Well, you know what happened to most of ‘em? They were beaten out in the last election.”

In past administrations Cornett became a liaison or conduit between mayors and councils locked in stalemates. “When some mayors were not talking to certain council members they used me as a go-between,” she said. “They about wore my voice out, too.” She also frequently sat in on cabinet meetings.

One of Cornett’s closest cronies in city government was the late Herb Fitle, the longtime city attorney with whom she enjoyed a salty relationship that sometimes found them feuding. As years passed, Cornett and Fitle, along with officials George Ireland and S.P. Benson, became the wise old sages in city government. Cornett and Fitle were “the staunchest supporters and absolute protectors” of the city charter that came into effect in the late-1950s.

“We had a long, long tenure together,” she said. “If we stood together, all hell and high heaven could not have moved us — I don’t care if it was mayors, councils, outside influences, whatever. But our disagreements also were legend. He’d write his opinions and although I wasn’t an attorney I sometimes wouldn’t agree with his opinion and I wasn’t very amiss to tell him so.

“Once, we disagreed over some political or legal issue and we stopped talking to each other. I’d send my assistants up to his office for answers and he’d send his attorneys down to my office for answers. Well, the help got tired of that and came to me and said, ‘Look, you guys have got to stop this. We can’t take it anymore.’ I said, ‘OK, fine.’ It was near Christmas and we used to have this event called The Christmas Sing where we all gathered in the council chambers with an orchestra to sing carols, and so I asked someone to get peace doves. While this program was going on I said to Herb, ‘I think we should make up,’ and I let the birds go. They were scared as hell and flew all over the place. Well, it turned out they were pigeons and, you know, they pooped on everybody and everything…the musicians, the councilmen, the chairs, the desks. I think it took the night help two or three hours to clean up.”

Despite the mess, her goodwill gesture was accepted and The Great Cornett-Fitle feud ceased.

In her watchdog role with the council Cornett provided oversight to ensure proceedings followed protocol. She served as sergeant of arms, called roll, recorded results and supplied information requested by councilmen on resolutions, ordinances, liquor licenses, etc.. The job also involved training new council members in how municipal government operates. Not everyone comes prepared to govern. “You get newly elected officials that never saw a charter before,” she said. Former councilman Subby Anzaldo said her influence was felt. “She had input. We came to her for answers. She told it like it was. She was like the eighth council member.”

She provided continuity when, in 1981, the move from at-large to district elections brought seven new council members and a new mayor into office and then, in the late 1980s-early 1990s, when Omaha went through six mayors due to recall, death, defeat, election, resignation. At times like those, City Clerk Buster Brown said, “She was very vital to making sure city government ran smoothly.” The way she sees it, she helped by “just being there.”

Then there’s the delicate matter of sorting out potential conflicts of interest. As Cornett explained, “Everybody comes to government bringing their own baggage in terms of outside influences. There may be something in the charter that can favor an official in getting a contract” or a business advantage. “Will officials try to use their influence? Of course they will. In my downstairs office at home I have reams of settled rulings on certain sections of the charter where somebody tried to do something they couldn’t (legally) do.”

At the countless council meetings she oversaw, she heard everything from dissident voices to impassioned pleas to whimpers to cheers. Among those she had removed from the premises was a deputy sheriff who arrived with a warrant during a council session. When she informed the deputy it was not permissible to serve a sitting body but that he would instead have to wait until the meeting ended, he persisted, whereupon she called security, ordering police to “remove this man,” which they did, much to the deputy’s chagrin. Cornett said she was so upset that someone was “obstructing or interrupting MY council meeting” she never even “bothered to find out” who or what the warrant specified.

Another time, during the racially tense 1960s, Cornett recalls how marching civil rights demonstrators descending upon City Hall sent most officials scurrying for cover. Typical of Cornett, she stood her ground. As it turned out, the group included a large contingent of church-based elders whose intent was conciliatory. “With all the public officials having taken to the hills, I was the only one left, so the marchers came to my office. I called the switchboard and told them I didn’t want any calls and I told my staff to give these elderly ladies the cushions off their chairs to kneel on. That’s how I came to have a pray-in in my office.”

For the most part, however, Cornett plied her political savvy not in public view but behind-the-scenes. Of the many mayors she worked with, she said, “Almost every one of ‘em really cared about this city. I loved every one of ‘em, whether I fought with ‘em or not and whether they disliked me or not. Different mayors at different times had difficult personalities. I wouldn’t say who were my favorites, but I would say who taught me the most — A.V. Sorensen (1965-69). He made it a point to teach me…government, finances, investments, organization, management. He expected everything to be organized. He hated a messy desk.”

She said Sorensen was a model of efficiency who demanded subordinates follow suit. “If you couldn’t give him an answer in 5 minutes…forget it.” She recalls how when she and former City Council President Art Bradley questioned why he gave “both of us directives” to hunt up the same data, his honor replied — “‘Because you come back with different answers, and half way between the two of them is the truth.’ That was A.V.”

Sorensen restored faith in Omaha’s elected leadership in the wake of corruption at City Hall. His predecessor, the dashing young Jim Dworak (1961-65) was indicted but later acquitted on bribery and conspiracy charges involving rigged real estate zoning laws. Other city officials were convicted. While Cornett is convinced Dworak did not accept any bribes, she believes he was a victim of his own fast-living ways. “Wine, women and song were his problems. He just had too much too soon.”

Where Dworak was a free-wheeling playboy, Sorensen was a circumspect elder statesman. Tough facade aside, Cornett maintained a soft spot for old A.V. “I felt so close to him. He was one of the few people who hurt my feelings. He had been out of office a few months when he came to visit me. My office, for some reason, was all cluttered up. He didn’t say Hello or How are you? — no, he said, ‘I thought I taught you better than that,’ and walked out. Well, I sat there and cried.”

Another mayor whom Cornett says “taught me a great deal” was brash Hal Daub (1993-2001). She feels his greatest strength — a facile mind — often proved his undoing when combined with his impatience. “Hal is an extremely brilliant man,” she said. “He has almost a complete retentive memory for facts and figures. But he thinks so fast that he’s always jumping the gun on people.” The two respected each other enough that mere weeks after retiring from the clerk’ s office she accepted his request to assume an eight-month job researching issues related to city-county government merger, a subject she calls “near and dear to my heart.”

Over the years Cornett said she rejected notions of running for public office and spurned opportunities to enter the private sector. Life as an elected official held no interest, she said, because she “didn’t want to play the game” and disliked the idea of being beholden to “outside influences.” Besides, she added, elected officials don’t have the real control — civil service administrators do. The prospect of leaving City Hall altogether was equally unimaginable.

“I was offered two or three very good jobs paying twice what I made in city government, but I decided, no, that’s where I belonged.” It’s why she looked forward going to work every day and thought nothing of putting in overtime even though her post didn’t qualify her for extra pay.

“This sounds kind of corny, but I always felt the Lord put me in the right spot at the right time in my life,” she said. “Every day there were new problems. Every day there was something else. You never knew when you got there in the morning what was going to transpire. And, so, if you wanted an interesting life you couldn’t have had a better job. I loved every minute and I kept going as long as I could.”

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.”

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