Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Chris Beutler: The NNN Interview - Part 1

by Kyle Michaelis
The biggest election in Nebraska in 2007 is the race for mayor of Lincoln, the state's capital city and its second-largest population center. The race will be decided in a May 1st election after an April 3rd primary whittles the field down to two challengers.

Last week, the New Nebraska Network enjoyed the opportunity to sit down with longtime State Sen. Chris Beutler - a proven visionary and a personal favorite in Nebraska politics - who is seeking the mayor's office after serving the city of Lincoln for almost a quarter century in the state legislature. What follows is the first in a two-part interview:

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Michaelis: Sen. Beutler, I want to thank you for your time this morning. For a local race, I think it’s safe to say that your campaign is really breaking some new ground in Nebraska politics with its use of technology and new media. There’s the video content on your website. There’s your profile on MySpace. And, let’s face it, here you are doing an interview for a blog like the New Nebraska Network. What do you think it says about you and your campaign that you’re trying these new avenues of connecting with voters?
Beutler: I hope it’s a new way of saying the same thing about myself. I want to be accessible to people. When I ran for the legislature, I went out door-to-door because you could do that in a legislative-sized race. I went to every door in the district. I’ve always used every means possible to contact people and to give them the opportunity to express their opinions. And, these are new ways of contacting people.

I think you need to go to where people live, and some people live on the Internet now. They live on MySpace. They live on the various websites – go to your blog. Communication is extremely important to leadership, and to the extent that I can take that leadership and try to communicate on every level with every possible person by every means possible, I think that’s the way to go.
For the last decade, Lincoln has a history of being pretty hard on its mayors. When sitting mayor Mike Johanns first ran for Governor, he did not win the city of Lincoln. He was followed in office by Don Weseley and then Coleen Seng – both of whom had significant problems with the local press and just in public opinion in general. Now, there’s a lot of talk about Lincoln needing new leadership with a new attitude in city government. But, do you have any concerns that the attitude of the community itself might be a part of the problem?
I do have a lot of concerns with the negativism in Lincoln right now. It seems to be building on itself and feeding itself. It’s becoming destructive. When you have a city council person that’s putting in a national magazine language to the effect that this is not a good place to do business, that’s not helpful.

Lincoln is – I think - a hard city to govern. You have some political elements that are maybe unique in the sense that you have a large number of neighborhood associations that are active politically. You have neighborhood associations in other cities but leadership in this city requires incorporating them into the political dialogue.

Instead of having one strong business association, you have two in this city. You have the Chamber of Commerce and you have LIBA [Lincoln Independent Business Association]. They don’t always agree with each other. They take different attitudes toward city government – one, a very critical attitude toward city government. Then, you have...all of the independent thinkers over at the University. Other cities have Universities but still most cities do not on the scale that we have. That’s another part of the political dialogue in this city.

So, it is…a hard city to govern. For that reason, I’ve suggested – you may have seen on our website – this MOVE Council. We have not heretofore brought all those political elements together at one table and asked them to sit around and make some compromises on some of the priorities of the city and to work on a strategic plan that we can call the city’s strategic plan. To devise the necessary compromises on prioritization - on public contribution to projects. We haven’t gotten together in the most meaningful political sense all of the elements to move forward on an economic development plan or a vision for the city. Whether that vision incorporates elements in addition to economic development…in today’s world, everything you do in a city relates to economic development….

But, one of the very most important things to me is changing the tenor of the debate in this city. Changing it from constant bickering and negativism to something much more positive.
The lack of leadership in city government is a pretty consistent theme in all the campaigns for mayor. In this regard, what most seems to distinguish you from your chief opponent, City Councilman Ken Svoboda, is that he wants to lay that blame squarely at the Mayor’s door – as if everything else is perfectly fine. How deep would you say the problems in city government run, and is a new mayor really going to be enough to change the way things get done in Lincoln?
Well, I think the problem is not only in the mayor’s office, but it’s also in the city council. And, I don’t think people on the city council escape responsibility by claiming to be in the minority. You know, for example, I was always in the minority in the legislature. I was never in the majority. Yet, I could get things done. I could work with people and change visions to realities at the legislative level. And, at the city council level, they’re a legislative body. They have the power to offer amendments, to offer ordinances, to change policies, to change this city’s direction. And they have not done that.

They have not come to grips with the major problems of the city…..the lack of roads infrastructure financing money, the failure to come to grips with the budget problems in a long-term meaningful way, and the failure to come to grips with quality management problems of one type or another that have been persistent in our current city culture. All of those things are both the responsibility of the city council and the mayor and - in my opinion - they have sat around and waited - and waited - and hesitated on these major questions and not come to grips with them.

So, a major theme in my campaign is strong leadership and strong leadership means coming to grips with these major problems and moving ahead.
There seems to be a certain perception that the winner of this race will be the candidate who best succeeds at separating himself from Mayor Seng and the perceived failures in city government under her watch. Now, Councilman Svoboda seems to be relying on your being a Democrat - like Mayor Seng - to position you as closest to her record in the eyes of voters. Yet…Svoboda has been in office throughout Seng’s entire term – even serving as Chair of the City Council. If voters really are unhappy with the way things are being done in the city, which do you think they’re more likely to pursue – a change in party or a change in personnel?
I think the voters of the city of Lincoln are a very independent sort. And, frankly, I don’t think they give much weight to party labels. At least, not the vast majority of them. I think they’re going to look to the individual leadership characteristics of the candidates who are offered to them, and I think they’re going to choose the person that they think will provide the strongest leadership and who is offering the best opportunities to solve these on-going problems and restore confidence in city government.

I don’t think there’s been a time in recent history in this city when people have more wanted city government to be restored to a positive system in their minds. I think, right now, they see one unhappy circumstance after another – whether its fire trucks or Verizon or complaints from businesses that they can’t get through the permitting processes. There’s just a number of things that cry out for quality management. I think people want to know that their city government is operating again in an intelligent, efficient manner before they’re going to be willing to go ahead and look at things like strategic plans and visions and to consider city involvement in those kinds of bigger, futuristic items.

I see the movement in the next two years as a kind of two-step process: one, restoring competence in city government and, then, from that point, working with a broad community strategic plan to move forward to new things and better things and a broader vision of the community. Again - I’m repeating myself, but it’s so important that competence in government be restored first.
Now, on the campaign trail, you’ve often talked about Lincoln’s need for a leader “with vision and grit who comes from outside city politics.” What makes these qualities the most important for Lincoln’s next mayor, and why are you that leader?
Those qualities are important because we’re going to be faced with a number of tough decisions. Solving the infrastructure financing problem will involve tough decisions. Solving the budget problem will involve – in the short term - expenditure cuts, and those will be tough decisions. I vow – I promise - to set the budget straight next year without increasing property taxes because I don’t think any mayor can take office and solve a problem by increasing property taxes and have any credibility for the future. So, those will be hard decisions for me because…most of the services we provide are good services. I would be reluctant to [cut them], but I will do it if it’s necessary to – again - restore credibility in government…..

Working with directors and middle-level managers to get going with some performance standards and benchmarks and changing the way they do things so that processes can move ahead more efficiently and effectively, that will also be hard work and some hard decision-making. So - in the short term - a number of the decisions that need to be made are just difficult decisions by any standard.

My history has been one of being willing to make tough decisions at the legislative level. You’ve worked statewide. You know about the water issue. You know how tough that is. And, you know that I spoke up on that issue. My history in the legislature has been taking up those issues that other people don’t want to deal with and dealing with them – whether it’s campaign finance reform or restructuring the court system….

Many of the tough, tough decisions at the legislative level I’ve taken on because other people didn’t want to do it. And, that’s okay because what I get satisfaction out of is solving the hard problems. I enjoy working with public policy and complex problems. I enjoy that part of it a lot more than I enjoy campaigning.
The only element [you didn’t address] is “the new beginning” – bringing in someone from outside city politics. Is that absolutely essential in this election year in the mayor’s office?
I think that it is – especially in the context of this particular election because the main competition is Ken Svoboda. Ken Svoboda has sat on the city council and has watched all these things happening and has not taken initiative. The city is either going to choose Ken or myself, and I think there’s a significant contrast in the way that Ken and I look at things.

I believe in limited government. I believe in tight, disciplined, focused government. But, having said that, I believe in positive government. I believe that government needs to be responsibly responsive to the community and represent the community. And, government is responsible for seeing that economic development goes forward – seeing that there is a strong relationship, a partnership with business. But, not only with business – with the neighborhoods, with the non-profits, with all of the elements of a community. It’s the government that needs to see that we’re moving forward in all these different areas. I believe in positive government.

Ken, on the other hand, I think is philosophically and psychologically handicapped by his notion that government should be diminished. That government should “get out of the way,” as he frames it. That government shouldn’t take the leadership on economic development. That government shouldn’t be going to the legislature to solve the State Fair Park problem. That government shouldn’t get involved with the cable franchise. I don’t think he’s going to be able to effectively use the tool of government to move the city ahead because he doesn’t really believe in it. It’s a fundamental difference between the way we look at things.

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Stay tuned. The interview with Chris Beutler will continue later this week (click here for Part II) - exclusively at the New Nebraska Network.

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5 Comments:

Blogger SweetWillis said...

Does NNN offer Cliff's Notes for this 2-part interview? I really want to read this but I only have an hour for lunch.

3/14/2007  
Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...

Willis-

Take all the time you need. The interview's not going anywhere. (Of course, maybe that's your point.)

Enjoy your lunch and come again.

3/14/2007  
Anonymous queenb said...

question. So he refers to bringing someone from outside the community into local government...meaning a city administrator/manager position? Cuz that kind of means that the mayor would lose a little power. At least most CA's and CM's are hired to be a liason of the council and the department heads and the mayor is more of a ceremonial role
So is he saying that he wants a third party there to help with communication and efficiency? Has that been the problem? He emphasizes leadership and i really appreciate that. But is he going to empower those around him and or become sort of a dictator and run a tight ship.
What do you guys think we need more in local government, freedom or control? After saying that i kind of think there needs to be more control and a visionary goal. Something to give the city and future leaders a tangible thing to work towards...

Ok...now I'm just babbling :)

3/14/2007  
Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...

Divine Miss B-

Sen. Beutler was by no means advocating a city administrator. That idea was floated by Councilman Jon Camp, but all the mayoral candidates understandably pooh-poohed the concept because it would reduce the office they seek to a glorified Council member.

What I believe Beutler meant by "outside" was outside the current leadership of Lincoln's city government - essentially suggesting that replacing Mayor Seng with a City Councilman (Svoboda) who's been in office throughout her entire term with so little to show for himself and with no record of actual leadership wouldn't make a whole lot of sense.

As for the "vision-thing", I can't speak for Beutler but I walked away from the interview agreeing with him that we must first restore basic competence and confidence in government, then - a year or two down the road - city leaders can really start looking to the future with the people's trust restored.

It's not so much a question of freedom or control as it is one of timing and getting the city's ducks in a row.

By all means, babble away....

3/14/2007  
Anonymous Dave Sund said...

6 years ago, Omaha found itself at a similar crossroads. The need for growth was universally recognized by our candidates for mayor, but the direction offered by the candidates was quite different. Voters were fed up with the attitude in city hall - and they threw out Hal Daub and most of the City Council.

I see a lot of similarities in this race. Ken Svoboda comes from that particular breed of Republican that Hal Daub is - "my way or the highway." He believes that government itself is the problem. Beutler has the right ideas to move Lincoln forward, and I hope that the city of Lincoln elects him as mayor so he can bring the same sort of success to Lincoln that Mike Fahey has brought to our fair city.

3/14/2007  

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