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The healthcare war: Round and round it goes again, and where it stops, nobody knows

August 18, 2018 Leave a comment

The healthcare war:

Round and round it goes again, and where it stops, nobody knows

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

As we go to press with this issue, the Republican-led attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare struggles on..

One of the most controversial things the GOP plan broached was severely cutting Medicaid, the nation’s largest health care program. Critics see it as an entitlement grown far beyond its original scope. Most recipients are children, mothers, the disabled and the elderly. The proposed $770 billion cut – spread out over several years – would have impacted millions, particularly the working poor in rural regions, who account for many of those added to the rolls through the ACA’s Medicaid expansion.

One World Community Health Centers CEO Andrea Skolkin said far from an automatic hand-out, qualifying for Medicaid is actually “very difficult.” She added, “There’s a lot of myths about Medicaid and who’s eligible to be enrolled. If you’re an able-bodied adult, you’re not really eligible. You really have to be an advocate for yourself in getting enrolled with all the paperwork because you have to prove your income. It’s an arduous process.”

The program, said Skolkin, places severe limits on not only eligibility, but coverage for certain things. Any tightening of eligibility and reduction of spending, she said, would result in even less access to care.

“As Medicaid ratchets down what it pays to providers, providers are less likely to want to accept Medicaid and so this vulnerable population doesn’t have as much choice of provider of where to get care, and that’s a problem.”

Currently, one in five Americans is enrolled in the program. In Nebraska, which refused Medicaid expansion, one in eight or some 230,000 people are enrolled. Skolkin estimates about 70,000 Nebraskans fall in the gaps – either not eligible for the marketplace or not covered by a private plan or by Medicaid.

Nebraska Methodist Health System vice president and CFO Jeff Francis was most troubled that “draconian cuts” to Medicaid were even on the table for so long.

“The thing that still looms out there that bothers me is that there wasn’t much budge on that,” Francis said. “I  understand the partisan divisions on that, but at the end of the day that degree of cut to Medicaid is going to really impact individuals and individuals’ coverage. In Nebraska we get a bit of a double whammy, no matter what happens with the cuts because, one, we weren’t a Medicaid expansion state, so we’ve not benefited at all from some of the expanded coverage in federal dollars that went along with that. And, two, historically we’ve been lower on the Medicaid spending spectrum, and so as that translates into cuts and block grants for the states, Nebraska’s going to get hit pretty hard.”

Medicaid is crucial for millions getting treatment for maladies, and Skolkin said, “It also has an impact on long-term care in a tremendous way.”

Low weight new babies, infant mortality, STD and teen pregnancy rates are at crisis levels. The opioid epidemic got highlighted in the recent care plan debates. Mental illness is increasingly recognized as an acute public health problem. In the proposed Medicaid cut, some public schools would have lost funding for screenings and other care that students from low income families rely on.

In this high needs scenario, cutting access to care means some people will delay or defer treatment, and those with conditions that could be prevented or controlled will get sicker, while others will seek care in emergency rooms, all of which puts more pressure on providers. The system’s closely interwoven nature is such that pulling hard on one strand, like public health, will fray or undo other strands in this fragile crazy quilt.

“The tapestry doesn’t work without all the threads,” said One World pediatric nursing practitioner Sara Miller.

Nebraska Medicine CEO Dr. Daniel DeBehnke appreciates how those outside the industry often fail to see just what a tightly-knit fabric it is.

“I don’t know if it’s a disconnect or just a reflection of the complexity of it,” DeBehnke said.

In the event of cuts, he said, “low income individuals are going to need to make really tough choices about how to pay for a roof over their head and feed their family and pay for healthcare, and some may put off healthcare, and that has several domino effects. People become less healthy and when they do access healthcare, they require more services. Once they do require services, a lot of that financial burden gets shifted to the facilities caring for them, be it a local clinic, provider or large health system.”

Sara Miller envisions “life expectancy decreasing because you don’t have the opportunity to intervene in the early years, especially for kids to have healthy habits, and to do preventive medicine, so that folks don’t have diabetes or high cholesterol by the time they’re in their mid-20s.” She added, “My fear most is for the families that it affects and their deciding between food and electricity and healthcare. That’s a decision nobody should ever have to make.”

Exacerbating it all, DeBehnke said, is the “skyrocketing” cost of care.

“We should be focusing on that as well and not just in cutting the dollars that go for healthcare – but how can we decrease the cost of healthcare, the cost of prescription drugs driving a lot of the cost. How can we drive healthcare systems like ours and others to be more efficient and cost-conscious. We’re working on that every single day because we know that’s how we’re going to be paid in the future,” DeBehnke said. “But there are all those other things we should be working on as well so that we pay less for healthcare as opposed to just giving less money for healthcare.”

No matter where this all lands, he said, “When we talk about Nebraska Medicine and our mission, we’ll take care of anybody that walks in our door. That’s who we are and that’s what we do and we’re big enough to be able to do that.”

As a Federally Qualified Health Center, One World takes anyone, too, but it doesn’t have as deep of pockets as Nebraska Medicine.

“When we have increases in numbers like we have seen – we cared for over 18,000 patients last year who were uninsured, which is more than half of all of our patients – that’s an increasing burden as an organization in trying to leverage other funds so we can take care of all people,” Skolkin said. “If Medicaid reduces what it reimburses for certain services, again that’s a reduction to every provider, including us. So, whether you need an x-ray or some lab work. as things get reduced we get less payment for that and then it just has a ripple effect.

“So, cuts do impact us and at some point we won’t be able to provide the extent of care we provide. I would hate to see that happen, but at some point you have to be able to make your budget.”

DeBehnke said no matter what happens, “there’s going to be people left behind,” adding, “The idea that I hope legislators are thinking about is how do we leave the least amount behind.”

Jeff Francis said this is no time to be complacent even as Nebraska Methodist Health System is “operating well under the Affordable Care Act.” He added, “It took some time for us to be able to understand it. We’re now into the fourth year of the federal exchanges and the insurance aspects of it. Other parts of it we’ve been operating under for about six years. And so it’s going on. We’re seeing better outcomes because the focus is on quality and outcomes as opposed to just the fee for service or being paid for services.”

But just as the ACA was never meant to be a panacea for all the system’s faults, Francis said major cuts to public health would have negative consequences.

“To the extent there are less insured and so people are doing less preventive, that would be a step backwards from a public health standpoint. We still have the vulnerable populations – those with chronic conditions, in some cases multiple chronic conditions, those with mental health challenges, the working poor.”

Methodist Health and others are working to fill the gaps where they can.

“We’re reaching out to try and address that,” Francis said “by opening up a community health center in downtown Omaha to work with other entities-services to reach vulnerable populations. That center is going to have Lutheran Family Services associated with it to try to deal with that behavioral health component.”

The center is part of the Kountze Commons project on the former KETV site at 26th and Douglas. It’s an expansion of existing Kountze Memorial Lutheran Church health and food services.

Andy Hale, Vice President of Advocacy for the Nebraska Hospital Association, said his organization has been lobbying the state’s congressional delegation to “ensure all Americans can access the compassionate, patient-centered and affordable healthcare they deserve.”

“Nebraska’s hospitals serve as the safety net in each of their communities,” Hale said.

Hospital programs benefit the state, he said, by “providing free care to individuals unable to pay, absorbing the unpaid costs of public programs such as Medicare and Medicaid,” as well as “subsidizing health services reimbursed at amounts below the cost of providing the care … and incurring bad debt from individuals that choose not to pay their bills,” according to Hale.

Hale said hospitals serving more rural regions typically to treat “older, poorer, sicker populations” who tend to be on Medicare or Medicaid.

“Medicaid plays a critical role for Americans who live in small towns and rural areas,” Hale said. “Almost half of all children living in small towns and rural areas receive their health coverage through Medicaid. Research shows Medicaid provides families with access to necessary health services.”

He said any drastic cuts will be felt most in rural areas.

“Many hospital margins are already thin, but when you begin cutting reimbursement rates, it hits their bottom lines and drives those hospitals to significant losses.”

One World’s Andrea Skolkin said even in this repeal and replace mania, vital aspects of public care should not be lost in the shuffle.

“The expansion of Medicaid funding for children through CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) expires on September 30. All of these things are tied together.”

DeBehnke would like whatever process follows this latest effort to undo the ACA to be deliberate.

“President Trump said at the beginning of all this, ‘Who would have thought this was so complex?’ Well, we’ve all known it’s this complex and we’ve been trying to warn it’s this complex all along,” DeBehnke said. “As opposed to rushing to try to get something done because it was a campaign promise lawmakers made to their constituents, let’s take our time and try to figure it out and get it right. Obamacare wasn’t perfect either. There are good things we can pull from there that are in the right direction.”

Behind-the-scenes, executives like DeBehnke and Francis are bending elected officials’ ears.

“We’re wanting to make sure legislators and policymakers keep that longer view perspective. I think that’s coming out in some of the town halls the senators and congressman are hearing,” Francis said.

Meanwhile, the leadership of Nebraska Medicaid is in transition. Longtime director Calder Lynch left for a federal job in May. Former deputy director Rocky Thompson is serving as interim head until a permanent replacement is found.

Andrea Skolkin is unsettled, too, by the unknown but feels something like universal care will emerge and retain a public health haven.

“We are having those conversations – trying to make our representatives aware of the patient base we care for and what the impacts of cuts would be. Many of our patients, almost all of them, fall into this vulnerable bracket. If you cut too hard, then that social compact becomes less available for the people that need it most.

“I do believe there will be something for everyone. I think Medicaid is still going to be there. There’s a lot of argument-dialogue going around right now. It hasn’t been as productive as it could be. But I am hopeful it will end in the right place. Whether the Affordable Care Act is repealed or not, there has to be a safety net in place for people who are more vulnerable.”

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

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Roger Garcia: Servant Leader

August 8, 2018 Leave a comment

Garcia Makes Community Service his Life’s Work

©by Leo Adam Biga

Origiinally appeared in Omaha Magazne

 

Roger Garcia fits squarely in the mix of young professionals taking their turn at leading Omaha.

As a former special assistant to Mayor Jim Suttle on urban affairs and community engagement, Garcia kept close tabs on issues impacting Latinos. Today, he continues doing the same as a community volunteer and activist with his eyes set on earning a master’s degree in public administration to prepare for the non-profit leadership role he expects to assume one day.

His community focus right now extends to serving on the boards of Justice for Our Neighbors Nebraska,the  Nebraska Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Brown-Black Coalition of Greater Omaha. He also works with the Latino Academic Achievement Council and the South Omaha Violence Prevention-Intervention Initiative.

He chairs the Nebraska Democratic Party Latino Caucus, which actively addresses issues like redistricting and immigration.

He’s so busy he’s had to hand over the reins of the Omaha Metro Young Latinos Professional Association he founded and led.

His deep concern and involvement keep him attuned to what’s going on and to where he and the organizations he represents can help.

“I do need to know what’s going on in the community and to see where we can help out if at all possible,” he says.

Everywhere he looks, he sees young professional making a difference.

“It’s definitely a growing community that’s being sought after more and more. Lots of people are wanting to know where we stand and what our opinions are. They want us to get involved because we bring that new energy or new mind frame. Our technology-social media skills are in demand.

“I think it’s a population that will definitely gain in influence. Clearly, we’re the leaders of tomorrow.”

He’s glad the distraction of the mayoral recall election has passed and the city administration and the community can move forward as one.

“Luckily that’s over and we can focus on just bettering the community.”

For Garcia, there’s no higher calling than public service.

“I love working with people, I love trying to help people better themselves. It’s just something I truly enjoy doing. I’m blessed to have the opportunity to serve.”

Roger Garcia: A Young Man on the Move

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico (el-perico.com)

 

Roger Garcia is a young man in a hurry.

He took a job in Mayor Jim Suttle’s office last June at age 22, a full year short of graduating from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Now, eight months into his position as Community Liaison this dual psychology and Latino/Latin American Studies major is slated to earn his bachelor’s degree in May.

He can hardly wait. Next up is an Omaha Board of Education bid and then either law school or pursuing his master’s in psychology, an educational-career path he said he chose “because of my love of interacting with people, which ultimately leads to a love of helping people and serving people.”

Growing up, first in Los Angeles, then in Schuyler and Columbus, Neb., Garcia was precocious, alway excelling in school and involved in community activities. His parents’ split-up in L.A. precipitated his Honduran immigrant mother Margarita coming to Neb. with Roger and his two older brothers. His mother had a cousin living in Schuyler.

The culture shock was profound.

“It was completely different going from a humongous city to a tiny Midwestern town of about 6,000 at that point,” said Garcia. “I had never seen snow, I had never seen cows. The demographics were completely different. I was just one of about three maybe four Latinos in my class. Today, if you go to Schuyler it’s like 95 percent or more Latinos in the elementary school. It’s pretty interesting how it’s changed.

“It did require adjusting but ultimately I truly liked the Nebraska lifestyle, even the small town lifestyle.”

After two years in Schuyler, where his mother worked in a meatpacking plant, the family moved to Columbus. The Garcias again found themselves part of a small minority community.

“Being a Latino newcomer, especially to those small towns, there’s a lot of good experiences and there’s a lot of bad experiences as well,” he said. “I don’t like to dwell on the bad experiences but they did happen. Of course, there’s a lot of racism in smaller towns, going as far as violent acts I saw towards my friends. Luckily no physical violence was done to me but there were things like random yelling at me and my family.

“But there’s a lot of good things that came from living in those small towns. It’s a great peaceful atmosphere. Most of my friends were Caucasian and I learned a lot from them and their families. And I am bicultural as far as having that small town Nebraska experience and learning the cultures of my parents.”

His father’s from Mexico and his step-father’s from Guatemala. His dad’s been out of his life for some time, his mother only remarried a few years ago and his brothers don’t share his passion for education. His mom pushed him to achieve.

“She’s always promoted my getting an education and she’s been there for me through my process,” he said. “She always wanted me to get those straight As and that really influenced my desire for knowledge in general, something that’s very big in my life. I love to read — history, literature. I have a passion for knowledge and learning.”

His interest in politics and government was stoked by the events of 9/11. He became a news junkie fixated on U.S. policies, issues. Upon graduating high school and enrolling at UNO his interest shifted to events closer to home. Two important figures in his life became UNO’s Lourdes Gouveia and Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, who gave direction to his social justice bent.

“They got me involved in some political and voter mobilization campaigns. I learned a lot about policy that directly affects the Latino community. So they’ve definitely been mentors to me. I appreciate both of them.”

Garcia became an advocate and organizer with grassroots initiatives aimed at overturning anti-immigrant legislation. His role: educating the community about the impact of bills and encouraging people to participate by letting their voices be heard.

“I have a passion and a drive to just help people, stand up for them, in an educated and professional manner of course. I need to be informed on the topics.”

He worked with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies, the Anti-Defamation League and the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute. His interest and experience coalesced when he worked on the Suttle campaign doing bilingual phone calls, canvasing South 24th St. and connecting then-candidate Suttle with local Latino leaders.

After Suttle’s victory Garcia posed ideas to the new mayor and staff about interacting with the Latino community and they liked his ideas so much, he said, “they offered me a position.” He chairs the South Omaha Advisory Committee he created himself.

“One of my main objectives coming into this is just making sure people within the community have a direct line of communication to the mayor’s office,” said Garcia. “Some people feel detached from government, that it’s hard to get straight answers, so I wanted to make sure people felt they could contact us directly and they had a source that would reliably reply to them.

Since the mayor can’t be everywhere, as a community liaison I can go to meetings for him. That’s a big part of it, being in the community, seeing what the needs are, what the happenings are.

“That’s why it’s so important to meet so many organizations and people, so they can feel comfortable that if they have any question they can just call me and they will get an answer. Sometimes I’ll join a committee or a board just to be at the ground level in the community with some projects, helping out in whatever we can utilizing city services.”

There’s no where he’d rather be.

“Doing community service is just something I love to do, so to incorporate it into my job, that’s beautiful.”

Red tape, red flags – H-1B Visas pose real consequences

June 8, 2018 2 comments

Red tape, red flags – H-1B Visas pose real consequences

©Story by Leo Adam Biga

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally appeared in the May-June 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com)

 

“People need to understand [H-1B] is particularly vital for small states like ours where we’ve got low unemployment and a high need for STEM jobs,” says Amy Peck, an immigration attorney with Jackson Lewis, P.C.

One recent search on the popular monster.com job searching database revealed more than 30 software development jobs in Omaha posted within one month—jobs for a field where the overall unemployment rate is 1.6 percent.

That’s why many in IT or other STEM-related fields paid attention when, in July 2017, President Donald Trump signed the “Buy American-Hire American” executive order, which subjects already hard-to-obtain work visas to even greater scrutiny.

This was a blow to those employers recruiting skilled labor on H-1B visas. The visa allows for 65,000 employees to be hired from abroad and 20,000 to be hired from students enrolled in U.S. colleges (under the H-1B advanced degree exemption). More than 200,000 applications are expected for H-1B visas in 2018.The application process opens on April 3, and, if the trend continues as it has in the past several years, applications will only be accepted for five to seven days.

Unlike hiring an employee from the United States, when the start date is often two weeks from the acceptance of a job offer, the earliest an H-1 B-status employee could begin work is Oct. 1…if the application is accepted.

Fortunately, there are plenty of folks who can help navigate the legal system. On behalf of clients, Peck fields increasing government reviewer challenges.

One of the biggest impacts this executive order may make is that employees seeking an extension to an H-1B visa will now face the same scrutiny they faced to obtain the visa.

“When we file extensions on cases that got approved without challenge before, they now get challenged even though the facts have not changed,” Peck says.

That means an employee on an H-1B visa who has worked hard, innovated, and generated income for a company could be denied an extension and the company could lose an employee for no reason other than checking the wrong box
on the paperwork.

Each denied visa extension would cost a company a skilled, trained worker, filing fees, lawyer fees, and much more.

“This change is very disturbing to employers who want to keep a good employee but fear they may lose them during the extension process,” says Omaha immigration attorney Mark Curley. “Foreign workers feel less secure in their employment. They understand their H-1B extensions could be denied.

“Employers could lose a good employee after three years if [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] re-adjudicates the petition and determines the occupation or employee do not meet H-1B requirements…There is already a backlog in the employment-based green card process for applicants from India and China working high IT-related jobs in Omaha.”

“The H-1B is a specialty occupation visa with very specific requirements,” Peck says. “The job must require at least a bachelor’s degree in a specific field or related field. The government has certain wage levels you’re required to pay. A very sophisticated analysis goes into that.

“So, this is not something employers are eager to do. Often, it can be the last resort because they can’t get U.S. workers to do the job. As an economy we rely on this visa category in ways many people don’t want to admit and would like to deny.”

Vetting is done by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services center officers. Requests for evidence usually challenge specialty occupation designations.

“We spend a lot of time and effort with employers to describe what the job is,” Peck says. “We cross reference that with the government database. Then we look within the company sponsoring the H-1B to determine if others in that job have a similar degree and we use that to support our submission. The vast majority of our cases are getting approved, but we’re having to really fight. It’s taking all of our skills, tools, and resources to maneuver successfully in this environment.”

First Data is among several Nebraska employers using H-1B visas due to a shortage of skilled U.S.-born workers.

“There’s a myth employers are undercutting the U.S. labor market by hiring H-1Bs, and it really isn’t the case because with H-1B labor there is a cost involved not present with a U.S. worker,” Peck says. “The filing fee alone if you’re an employer with 25 or more employees is $2,460. If you want your case expedited you add another $1,225—and then attorney fees on top of that.”

Pending federal legislation aims to further scrutinize H-1B visas.

“The practical effect will be fewer petitions filed,” Curley says. “It will decrease the number of foreign students who enroll in U.S. colleges and universities.”

One thing is certain. H-1Bs are a hot item—as a topic of business and political discussion.

Amy Peck


This article was printed in the April/May 2018 edition of B2B.

Heartland Dreamers have their say in nation’s capitol

March 24, 2018 1 comment

Heartland Dreamers have their say in nation’s capitol

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico (el-perico.com)

Self-described social justice warrior, activist and community organizer Amor Habbab-Mills cannot sit idly by while lawmakers decide her fate as a Dreamer and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient.

With President Donald Trump’s deadline for Congress to revamp DACA unmet last fall, she organized a September 10 rally in South Omaha. Dreamers and allies gathered to show solidarity. She then shared her story in a Lincoln Journal-Star op-ed and in the locally produced documentary and play We Are Dreamers.

“It was great because people got to know a little more about our struggle,” she said.

Two weeks ago, with the March 5 deadline looming and redoubled U.S. immigration enforcement efforts placing more undocumented residents in detention, awaiting possible deportation, tensions ran high. True to her “drive to speak up against injustice,” she led a group of Nebraska Dreamers to Washington D.C. to join United We Dream demonstrations demanding Congress act to pass protections and paths for citizenship. It did not.

Thus, those affected like her remain in limbo with DACA provisions slated to end pending a new program.

She’s in the process of obtaining her Green Card.

Before she and her fellow travelers could make the trip, they had to find funds to cover air fare. United We Dream picked-up meals. She donated the hotel tab.

“We raised $1,676,” she said. “It was nice to see our community had our backs and they wanted us to go to D.C. This trip was so important to me and the local movement.”

The Omaha contingent arrived Feb. 28 and returned March 6. They were joined by activists from Centro Hispano in Columbus, Nebraska. The groups coordinated schedule to walk in a planned march.

“My goal was to be there when the Dream Act passed. I had a lot of hope the government would act on March 5 or before,” she said. “I wanted to be there to witness history happen. It did not happen. It was sad. But it was good to be there with other Dreamers. We just get each other. We know exactly what each other has been through. We all share the same heartbreak, the same roadblocks, the same fears.

“The trip opened our eyes about what’s going on in our government and how the Trump administration is pushing its racist agenda on our community.’

She won’t soon forget the experience of rubbing shoulders with thousands of kindred spirits, voicing pro-DACA chants, carrying signs with slogans, and seeing some protesters engage in acts of civil disobedience that resulted in arrest. All unfolding in front of national symbols of power, including the White House.

“It was empowering. It was a breath of fresh air and a reminder we’re not alone in the fight. it made me feel not as afraid, not as worried. It put things into perspective.

“The march was really the highlight of the visit. That’s why we went there. We walked to Capitol Hill. We had an ‘artivism’ moment where we put some paper flowers on the ground that read: ‘We Rose Unafraid.’ We wanted to beautify the word undocumented to bring attention that we’re not afraid” (and not apologetic).

“It was a great experience. It opened my eyes to how much support we actually have,” trip participant David Dominguez-Lopez said.

The local group plead their case to Nebraska Republican Congressman Don Bacon.

“We did a (peaceful) office takeover of Rep. Bacon’s office,” Habbab-Mills said. “We went there because he’s said he supports Dreamers. We appreciate that. But we don’t appreciate him supporting bills, such as the Secure and Succeed Act, that will harm our community.”

The proposed legislation seeks to secure the border, end chain migration, cancel the visa lottery and find a permanent solution for DACA tied to building a wall.

“We were there sharing our stories, chanting and asking him to not vote for the Secure Act. It’s this horrible bill that would build a stupid wall, give more money to the Department of Homeland Security so they can do raids and put more agents on the street.”

Given the Republican majority’s anti-immigration stance, Habbab-Mills is leery of promises. Distrust intensified when leaked government memos revealed discussions to use the National Guard to maintain border security

She’s concerned “more families are going to be apart” in the wake of immigration crackdowns.

“On a personal level, if my mom were to get pulled over by a cop who does not like immigrants, she faces a good chance of being deported. The fact I cannot help her, breaks my heart. Under the current political climate, we need a way to protect family members under attack.”

Another goal of the trip was “to plant the seed of social justice with the Dreamers who went,” she said, “and that’s what’s happened,” adding, “Everyone’s ready to get things going back home to stop the Secure Act.”

“it inspired me to learn more and be active in my community and to work with Amor and the rest of the ‘D.C. gang,'” said Dominguez-Lopez.

Habbab-Mills traces her own social activism to seeing disparity growing up in Mexico City and to doing Inclusive Communities camps here. She earned high marks at Duchesne Academy and Creighton University. She founded the advocacy group Nebraska Dreamers. She works as a legal assistant at a law firm and is eying law school. She hopes to practice immigration and human rights law.

Meanwhile, she amplifies Dreamer’s voices for change.

“If we’re not the ones speaking up, who else will? We want people to know we are educated and even though we cannot vote, we have the power to influence people on how they vote. Social media is huge for us.

“Bringing awareness to the issues is a way of creating change. Planting that seed will bloom into a more just society one day. I think it’s a duty to speak up when something’s not right. If i don’t, I’m part of the problem.”

Follow Nebraska Dreamers on Facebook.

A series commemorating Black History Month – North Omaha stories Part II

February 8, 2018 Leave a comment

 
Commemorating Black History Month
Links to North Omaha stories from 1998 through 2018.
Articles on social justice, civil rights, race, history, faith, family, community, business, politics. education, art, music, theater, film, culture, et cetera
 
A weekly four-part series
This week: Part II –  Faith, family, community, business, politics

 

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/11/16/interfaith-journ…rfaith-walk-work/

Good Shepherds of North Omaha: Ministers and Churches Making a …

https://leoadambiga.com/…/the-shepherds-of-northomahaministers-and- churches-making-a-difference-in-area-of-great-need/

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/30/two-blended-hous…houses-unidvided

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/11/14/small-but-mighty…idst-differences

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/09/16/everyones-welcom…g-bread-together/

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/02/02/upon-this-rock-h…trinity-lutheran/

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/31/gimme-shelter-sa…en-for-searchers

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/01/09/an-open-invitati…-catholic-church

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/15/everything-old-i…-church-in-omaha/

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/03/10/the-sweet-sounds…ts-freedom-choir/

Sacred Heart Freedom Choir | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories

https://leoadambiga.com/tag/sacred-heart-freedom-choir/‎

Salem’s Voices of Victory Gospel Choir Gets Justified with the Lord …

https://leoadambiga.com/…/salems-voices-of-victory-gospel-choir-gets- justified-with-the-lord/

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/11/the-myers-legacy…ng-and-community/

A Homecoming Like No Other – The Reader

http://thereader.com/news/a-homecoming-like-no-other/

Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now, and All …

https://leoadambiga.com/…/nativeomahadays-a-black-is-beautiful- celebration-now-and-all-the-days-gone-by/

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/11/back-in-the-day-…party-all-in-one

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/05/how-one-family-d…-during-the-days/

Bryant-Fisher | Omaha Magazine

http://omahamagazine.com/articles/tag/bryant-fisher/.

A Family Thing – The Reader | Omaha, Nebraska

http://thereader.com/news/a_family_thing/.

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/11/big-mama’s-keeps…ve-ins-and-dives/

Big Mama, Bigger Heart | Omaha Magazine

http://omahamagazine.com/articles/big-mama-bigger-heart/

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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.

Cautionary tales of cinema, the culture war and Donald Trump

January 28, 2017 2 comments

Cautionary tales of cinema, culture war and Donald Trump

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

 

As a film buff and cultural journalist I naturally look for connections between cinema and social-political currents. There’s been much written about the parallels between a certain 1950s film’s fictional themes and today’s real-life the rise of Donald Trump to the seat of American power. I refer to Elia Kazan’s scathing 1957 “A Face in the Crowd” written by Budd Schulberg (the two previously teamed for “On the Waterfront”) that imagines a narcissist reprobate named Lonesome Rhodes, magnificently played by Andy Griffith, seducing segments of the nation through his insistent, cloying presence in the media and coming to a position of high influence. Only in “A Face in the Crowd” this egoist is exposed for the fraud and monster he is by those closest to him. But nothing dramatic like that happened in the case of Trump. So far. Instead of being called out and brought down, Trump rode waves of racism, classism, isolationism and xenophobia to win his party’s nomination and eventually the presidency. I mean, plenty of people outside the Trump camp pointed out reasons why he is unfit for the job but those cautionary notes about his character were variously ignored, dismissed, discounted and countered by Trumpsters who would stop at nothing to see their champion of alternative facts gain the Oval Office. What the Kazan-Schulberg film failed to anticipate is that unlike in the 1950s, when there were very limited primary means of people getting information – print, radio and TV – the number of news, information and opinion channels has exponentially increased. Where Rhodes used radio and especially TV to fool people into loving him and then became the victim of that same medium, Trump largely bypassed traditional media and used social media to directly appeal to his base and thus build a movement unaffected by the three major networks or PBS or CNN. We are far past the time when an Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite or Ted Koppel or some other trusted media news figure can make a difference by taking an editorial stand. There are far too many clamoring voices for any one pundit to count in the culture war being fought.

 

 A Face in the Crowd (film) movie poster

 

Then there’s the old but new phenomenon of some of the electorate and public turning a blind eye and ear to data, reason, even common sense out of sheer naked allegiance to ideas based in fear, not fact, and without the discernment to separate real news from false news or irrefutable facts from alternative facts.

Is there someone brave enough in the Trump inner circle to go rouge and reveal whatever may be the darkest, damning secrets and lies behind what we already know about his house of cards private business empire, his shady dealings, his fascist leanings? Or will it take someone in a prosecutorial or oversight role looking from the outside in to let in the light and awaken the sleeping masses of his supporters?

Two earlier films starring the same actor, one based on a famous novel. “All the King’s Men” and the other based on a hit play, “Born Yesterday,” have Broderick Crawford portray bellicose men whose blind ambition and power corrupts them absolutely. Whatever populist ideals they once espoused and perhaps even believed have been corroded by rank avarice. There are some obvious overtones with Trump in these characters and stories.

 

broderick-crawford

Broderick Crawford laying on couch and pointing in a scene from the film 'Born Yesterday', 1950.

Broderick Crawford laying on couch and pointing in a scene from the film ‘Born Yesterday’, 1950.

 

But the more I think about it, the film that most particularly speaks to the venal way Trump operates is “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), whose J.J. Hunsecker is the true antecedent of The Donald. The character of Hunsecker was patterned after such predatory real-life columnists as Walter Winchell, Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons who could make or break careers with their alternately golden and poison pens.
Sweet Smell Of Success

 

Alexander Mackendrick directed the black and white classic that he co-wrote with Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets. In the figure of Hunsecker, brilliantly played by Burt Lancaster, they imagine a vain, mean-spirited big city newspaper columnist who wields inordinate influence through his opinions, many of which are thinly veiled innuendoes, attacks and disparagements. Hunsecker cows people by threat, coercion, vendetta and the force of a bullying, overbearing personalty and a dark, sinister character that can neither tolerate the light of scrutiny nor the flame of truth. Hunsecker is at the center of his own world that he expects to orbit around him to pay him fealty. He’s also more than ready to do verbal battle with and to threaten acton against anyone he views as an opponent or obstacle. As far as Hunsecker’s concerned, your either with him or against him. There’s no middle ground. Hunsecker sees only black and white and he’s predisposed to see the worst and weaknesses in people because that’s what he preys upon in order to exert influence and to extort favors.

A figure like Hunsecker can only survive by appealing to the lowest common denominator, i.e. an uneducated population’s fears and resentments, and by parlaying the weird cult of celebrity and authority that attends anyone in the public eye. A Hunsecker can only rule if he’s aided and abetted by toadies, stooges and functionaries who gladly put aside morals and scruples to further his ends and their own agendas. And a Hunsecker is only as powerful as the public’s gullibility allows.

Does this sound like anyone who’s recently maneuvered his way into the halls of power in our present day real world?

The difference being that Hunsecker, just like his real-life inspirations, never got this much power. The closest that an American political reactionary got to this much power in the last century was Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who was nothing more than a gangster and opportunist posing as a public servant. McCarthy was undone in large part by how poorly he came off on television. Trump plays poorly in the media to those predisposed to dislike him but he apparently comes off well to those inclined to support him, which may speak to both the idealogical divide and the weird space occupied by reality TV figures and their followings. If Trump could get this far with so little to offer other than his huge personal bankroll and eventual big GOP dollars, then who’s to say someone even more outlandish or dangerous than Trump might not rally enough support to follow in his footsteps?

In these reactionary times amid decentralized new media and dumbed-down public education, the once unthinkable notion of a Trump coming to power in America has happened. What comes next may be even scarier.

 
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