A 4th of July Tribute to Chris Beutler,
by Rick Hoppe, Mayor Beutler’s Chief of Staff
Rick Hoppe is my first guest columnist. I hope you enjoy his excellent column about Lincoln’s greatest mayor.
Columnist E.J. Dionne points out that America’s national holiday is unique. Most nations celebrate a decisive battle or stirring military victory. The 4th of July is a memorial to the Declaration of Independence, in Dionne’s words, “an essay on why our country exists.” Our national holiday is not a military celebration. It is a celebration of ideas.
A day that celebrates ideas is the perfect moment to pay tribute to my friend, my mentor, and our Mayor, Chris Beutler. In my 30 years in government and politics, I have never met anyone more dedicated to the power of ideas than Chris Beutler, and because of that devotion, Lincoln is a city transformed.
When Chris Beutler took office in 2007, young professionals were leaving the community at an alarming rate in search of jobs and opportunities. Our new Mayor championed the idea that a new city neighborhood could serve as a hub for entrepreneurs and tech businesses — a place where young professionals could work, live and play. The West Haymarket, anchored by the Pinnacle Bank Arena, was the realization of that idea. Now Lincoln is a destination, rather than a stepping-stone, for young professionals across the country.
That accomplishment alone could have been Mayor Beutler’s legacy. But that was only the beginning of the ideas that have made Lincoln what it is today.
In an irony that makes those of us who love the man smile, the Mayor, who only recently got a smart phone, was also the Mayor who made Lincoln a gig city. He knew that faster broadband speeds were essential to Lincoln’s competitiveness for jobs and innovation. A system of fiber conduits built at the Mayor’s direction attracted new internet providers, increasing competition and broadband speed.
Sustainability was an idea that hadn’t quite taken hold at City Hall before Chris Beutler. The Mayor championed the cardboard recycling ban that dramatically increased the community’s recycling rate. His investment in alternate fuel vehicles, as well as energy efficient streetlights and parking garages lights, greatly reduced the city’s carbon footprint. The N Street bikeway connected key trail segments and made bicycles a more viable means of transportation. The Mayor’s Environmental Action Plan became the blueprint for the city’s sustainable future.
Chris Beutler believed passionately in the idea that public spaces serve to unify a city, creating gathering spots and instilling community pride. The Mayor’s ingenuity in creating these spaces gave us Tower Square with a sculpture by world renowned artist Jun Kanenko, Union Plaza, a new Airport Entryway, a revitalized Centennial Mall, a new West O entryway and public art across the city.
Perhaps his boldest idea was to merge the philosophies of sustainability and public spaces in the Prairie Corridor on Haines Branch. I vividly remember a day in 2007 as we sketched out his campaign for Mayor when Chris outlined his plan for the largest tall grass prairie in North America. Yes, it was intriguing. But to an old pol like me, it seemed like a candidate daydreaming out loud. I was wrong. Because of Chris Beutler’s vision and never say die passion, that “daydream” is now one of the nation’s great natural wonders.
Chris’s ideas weren’t always as big as the Prairie Corridor or the Arena. But they were important to the people whose lives were so positively impacted. Star Tran’s low-income bus pass allows our low-income residents to get to work and school affordably. The Stronger, Safer Neighborhoods program and neglected building ordinance strengthened neighborhoods by giving the city the tools to address problem properties and make neighborhoods more vibrant and attractive. The Development Services Center cut government red tape and created a one-stop shop for the city’s entrepreneurs and builders.
The Mayor often said our time in office was short and that we had to take advantage of every moment. That’s why Chris’s idea lists were never ending and meticulously updated after and interesting news article caught his eye or he had an inspiration. There was little fanfare in the Beutler Administration. Our celebrations of success involved crossing off completed actions in our strategic plan. In the Beutler Administration, you got it done and then you moved on.
Chris’s idea that parks, libraries, pools, senior centers, and neighborhood services are essential to a thriving community was put to the test in 2011. The national recession had devastated city revenues, and we faced a $9.3 million budget shortfall. Budget cuts of that magnitude would have profoundly impacted Lincoln’s quality of life for decades to come.
After several budgets with program cuts, Chris drew a line. He told me that we either believed in what we were doing, or we didn’t. If we did, we had no choice. We had to raise taxes, and if the consequence was being voted out of office, so be it.
Political courage is often in short supply, but never with Chris Beutler.
Despite the relentlessness of his political critics, the Mayor didn’t flinch. With the help of the fearless Democrats on the City Council (Jonathan Cook, the late Jane Snyder, Gene Carroll, Doug Emery and Carl Eskridge), we implemented a 10% property tax increase and a $6 million annual surcharge on LES bills. It seemed like political suicide, but Chris Beutler and the Democratic Council moved boldly forward, knowing they were risking their political futures for the good of Lincoln.
It was one of the most courageous acts I have ever witnessed in politics.
The pantheon of ideas was so important to Chris Beutler that he sought out leaders who didn’t think like he did. He encouraged his team to be innovative and to challenge the status quo. That’s why he brought extraordinarily talented and accomplished people into the Mayor’s office like Trish Owen, Mike Lang, Jon Carlson, Milo Mumgaard, Miki Esposito, Patty Pansing Brooks, Frank Uhlarik, Molly Burton, and Brandon Bayer. It was an amazing culture in which to work.
Chris purposely chose people for his Mayoral staff who would challenge him. And challenge him we did. Under any other Mayor, his Chief of Staff and his longest serving policy aide, Denise Pearce, would have been fired for insubordination. Those who know me know I can be a handful, and Denise’s intelligence and passion for good policy meant Chris Beutler had to argue with this own team — a lot. Instead Chris “tolerated” us for the entire 12 years of the Administration. He wanted his ideas subjected to intense scrutiny to ensure the best policy would emerge.
As I set watching the 4th of July fireworks tonight, they have taken on a special meaning for me. The blazing streaks across the sky celebrate our great nation, but I also see them symbols of an ever-hopeful city, one where endless optimism and opportunity abound. They blaze a trail to a dynamic and prosperous future that was started by a great Mayor and a great man.
Thanks Chris. It was an amazing run.