Mike McDonnell and Kathleen Kauth talk Property Taxes, Knocking Doors, and Switching Parties at Pachyderm Luncheon
Sen. Mike McDonnell (left) answers a question during Q&A with Sen. Kathleen Kauth and Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine.

Mike McDonnell and Kathleen Kauth talk Property Taxes, Knocking Doors, and Switching Parties at Pachyderm Luncheon

The guest speakers at Monday’s Pachyderm Luncheon in Omaha were state senators Mike McDonnell and Kathleen Kauth. McDonnell was elected to the Nebraska legislature in 2016 as a rarity in politics — a firefighter, union leader, and a democrat who also happened to be “pro-life from conception to natural death and in-between.” This placed him at odds with fellow Democrats with bills like Kauth’s Let Them Grow Act, which enacted a limit on abortions after 12 weeks.

Mike McDonnell

“At one point, the Democratic party 20 years ago had a pro-life caucus on the state level,” McDonnell told me. “So you look at how how far they’ve gone, I believe the wrong way.”

In March of this year, McDonnell’s vote led Nebraska Democrats to censure him. By April, he was a Republican.

“A lot of people really went out of their way to spend time with me from the Republican party,” McDonnell said. “I was overwhelmed. I did not expect that kind of turnout. I didn’t expect the kind words. I didn’t expect the support with the emails and the text messages.”

Kauth and McDonnell were both introduced by another former Democrat, Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine. Kleine became a Republican in 2020 in the wake of a year of riots that included protests outside his own home in Omaha.

Don Kleine

“Somebody asked me about Mr. Bragg, the DA in New York,” Kleine said. “I said, ‘Thank God we don’t live in New York.’ And it should make people realize, whether it’s New York or Seattle or Portland or LA or St. Louis or Minneapolis or Philadelphia, you get what you get when you elect a DA that’s not pro law enforcement.”

The atmosphere among the Republicans gathered for the luncheon seemed to be a stark contrast from the Democrat gatherings Kleine and McDonnell were accustomed to. The luncheon opened with the singing of “God Bless America” and the Nebraska fight song. “It was really funny sitting between Senator McDonnell and Don Kleine,” Kauth said, “Don leaned over during the songs and said, ‘Can you imagine this happening at the Democrat party?’ To which Mike said, ‘No.’”

Special Session & Property Taxes

Kauth and McDonnell are two of 18 state senators working with Gov. Jim Pillen on property taxes in a series of seven meetings, which will precede a special session of the legislature that is expected later this summer.

Kathleen Kauth

“Property taxes are destroying people in this state,” Kauth said. “Every week, I get an email from one of my constituents saying, ‘We are going to lose our home. We have to plan to move out by July, because we can no longer afford it, because our escrow company called, said property taxes went up. It’s an extra $200 or $300 a month.'”

“I’m more optimistic, more encouraged and excited that we are going to have something to announce on July 8,” McDonnell said, referring to the date of their final meeting. “We believe we have 33 people that are going to support that plan, and at that point we’ll move into a special session at probably the end of July or beginning of August.”

The property tax relief proposals include two legislative bills introduced by McDonnell in the last session — a 5% annual cap on property valuation increases (LB 1362) and an exemption from K-12 education costs from property taxes for those who have owned their homes for 10 years or more (LB 1361). The tax cuts would be offset by reductions in sales tax exemptions, which total $6.9 billion in Nebraska.

Many Republicans had hoped that a special session would include moving Nebraska’s electoral votes in Presidential elections to a “winner-take-all” system, which McDonnell said that he does not support.

Open Ears, Knocking Doors

Both Kauth and McDonnell talked about the importance of meeting face-to-face with constituents when campaigning door-to-door in their districts, even those who disagree with them. McDonnell recalled one constituent who told him, “There is no effing way I will ever vote for you.” McDonnell responded, “OK, I’m going to put you down as a ‘maybe.'”

“A Democrat literally opened the door and said, ‘oh I hate you,'” Kauth recalled among the 8250 doors she knocked on since the send of September. “I give her such credit, because she engaged in conversation with me for 30 minutes. And by the end of the conversation, she was arguing my point. She said, ‘Well you know kids, they’re always changing their minds, … and they try on different things until they figure out who they are.’ And [I said], ‘so that’s why you don’t cut off their genitals and give them experimental irreversible drugs.’ And this light bulb went off.”

A run for Mayor?

Most of the Q&A was directed at McDonnell, who has been rumored since at least 2022 to be planning a run for Mayor against incumbent Jean Stothert. One guest noted an abundance of “Mike for Mayor” signs that had popped up in the Westside neighborhood. Former Mayor Hal Daub asked McDonnell about his opposition to a proposed Omaha streetcar, for which Mayor Stothert has strongly advocated.

“I don’t believe we have a real number for construction,” McDonnell said. “Is it $440 million? Is it $600 million? Are we using TIF? Are we taking bonds? Are we truly taking a $50 million note from the Mutual Omaha Building and the parking garage? … Some people have said this can be transformative, this could be the greatest thing ever. Other people came and said, we think it’s a ‘streetcar named disaster.’ So I said as your state senator, my vote is ‘no’ with the information that I have today, but also I will make sure I’m trying to be as fair as possible for those people that love the streetcar.”

The next Mayor’s race isn’t until next year, with a deadline to file in February 2025, so voters may have some time to wait before McDonnell makes an official announcement.

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