Craig Howell is running out of business cards, the ones that say “Mayor's Office” above his name.
He packed up his office two weeks ago, threw the thank-you notes and the Team Suttle mementos into a big plastic tub and drove it home. He lugged the big plastic tub up the stairs, dumped it in a room and shut the door.
“Which room?” I ask. “The room where I put things when I don't want to unpack them,” he says and smiles.
Starting Tuesday, Craig Howell is unemployed. He is just one of the dozens of Omahans who got what Howell jokingly calls “the two-week notice from voters” when they chose Jean Stothert over his boss, Mayor Jim Suttle, on May 14.
Suttle got canned, and so Howell, the administration's chief service officer, did, too.
And yet Craig Howell is doing something that tends to get ignored as we focus on high-profile political controversies and argue on Facebook and yell on talk radio. He is doing something that we should embrace in a big, bipartisan bear hug.
Craig Howell is still working. In the three weeks since election night, he has worked with every community group, nonprofit and company that hasn't canceled on him. He has worked to sketch the future for a private-public partnership that gets food from local farms to hungry children, and another focused on grade-school literacy and another that attempts to help the homeless.
He's working because he's still being paid, though at $56,000 a year he isn't getting rich.
He's working even though he has no idea whether these programs will continue, change or die starting Tuesday.
He's working even though he could easily be sitting in his empty office, bellyaching about voters and polishing his résumé.
“I haven't even made a résumé yet,” Howell said last week in between meetings. “Look, this isn't a game. If I just viewed things as, 'Well, the election happened, that's it,' then nothing I have done would be sustained. And I want these things to continue, even if I don't.”
The day after election day — a day Suttle staffers must have wanted to spend in bed — Howell attended a previously scheduled meeting with neighborhood groups. Then he jumped into a series of conversations about urban food policy — the program, known as Farms to Omaha, is trying to get food grown by local farmers and gardeners into the mouths of Omaha's poorest kids.
And then he gathered with city librarians, University of Nebraska at Omaha administrators and officials from Building Bright Futures to talk about a grass-roots third-grade literacy effort. If third graders can't read at their grade level, “odds are that they will have some very serious problems into adulthood,” Howell said.
On Friday, he had a conference call in the morning. A lunch meeting in the afternoon.
To be sure, the tenor of those meetings has changed since May 14. Much of the conversation is now devoted to how to move forward once Craig and his boss are gone.
Who knows Mayor-elect Stothert? Who should reach out to her? How should they convince her that a Suttle-backed program is worth continuing?
Craig, 53, tried to do a bit of convincing himself. He typed up a five-page summary of what he has been working on the past three years. He included his name and cellphone number. He gave it to a Suttle staffer who promised to give it to a Stothert staffer. Craig hopes it reaches the as-yet-unnamed person in the Stothert administration who will take over his duties.
“If someone calls me for advice, that would be cool,” Craig says.
Craig hands me the five-page summary, and I find myself nodding my head as I read.
Community service projects to spruce up residential neighborhoods. An AmeriCorps-related project to retrain high school dropouts and unskilled workers. Food pantry drives. Flood cleanup along the Missouri River. And Craig's personal favorite: an idea he had to get Boy Scouts to clear snow off the driveways of older military veterans and young, wounded veterans.
Most of the accomplishments on the list have been led by community groups, neighborhood associations, nonprofits. They are the stars, Craig thinks. He envisions his role, government's role, as that of a good basketball point guard: seeing the whole floor, passing it to the open man, giving him a high-five after he dunks.
Most of the bullet points on this five-page summary are the type of things we once referred to as “good government” back before we all got so cynical that we decided there was no such thing.
Speaking of cynicism: There were undoubtedly double helpings of darkness in the offices occupied by Team Suttle following election night. That's only human.
But Craig Howell, more than most, seems to have sped past any post-election grief. He is known around the office as the constant optimist, the guy who will look for the rainbow when everybody else is complaining about the thunderstorm.
He will find a job soon, he tells me. He worked for AmeriCorps and other community groups before joining Suttle's staff. He will stay involved in community service in Omaha, even if he doesn't have as fancy a business card.
And yet he recently found himself going into the guest bedroom at his house, prying open that plastic tub and looking inside.
He read a thank-you note from a young volunteer. The volunteer was thanking Craig for the opportunity to help pick up trash along the Missouri River.
“Think about that,” Craig says.
And that made him think about a group of teenagers in the mayor's leadership class who visited a homeless shelter. They painted a mural. They met kids their own age who didn't have a home, or a closet or any clothes to put in that closet.
The teenagers went home and rifled through their own closets. Unprompted by the Mayor's Office, they went back to the homeless shelter the next week. They brought jeans, sneakers, sweaters.
And then Craig sat on the floor in his guest bedroom and thought about a call he once got on the day after a snowstorm. It was a Vietnam veteran asking him how much he owed the city. A young man had scooped his walk and disappeared.
That was a Boy Scout, Craig told him. And you don't owe us anything.
“I told him, 'You already paid.'”
There was a long pause. And then the Vietnam veteran told him that no one had ever thanked him before.
Craig sat on the floor of his guest bedroom, and he thought about that phone call, and you better believe that at that moment it didn't much matter whether he was a Democrat, a Republican or an independent.
He was an Omahan proud of the work he had done. He was an Omahan sad that this work had ended.
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