Omaha—On my first morning here in Nebraska, I walked right into a glass wall. “Wow! Didn’t see that coming,” I thought, as the blood poured down my nose. So I have some sense of what it must have been like for Heath Mello, the young Democrat trying to get elected mayor of the biggest city in one of the country’s deepest-red states, when Tom Perez and the Democratic National Committee threw him under the bus last week.
Mello, who finished three points behind Republican incumbent Jean Stothert in the five-way, nonpartisan primary on April 4, has been attracting national attention—and support—from progressives for months now. Our Revolution first endorsed Mello on March 9 as one of two dozen candidates the group is backing in 2017. Daily Kos jumped in after the primary, pointing out that in addition to offering the chance to flip City Hall (Omaha makes up most of Nebraska’s Second Congressional District, which the Democrats lost by just over one point), “a good showing” in the race “will energize progressives and encourage strong candidates to run” in 2018.
An Omaha native first elected to Nebraska’s unicameral legislature in 2008 at the age of 29, Mello successfully led the fight to overturn Republican Governor Pete Ricketts’s veto of a bill permitting young people in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to obtain a driver’s license. Last year, he again put together a coalition that managed to reverse another of Ricketts’s vetoes—this time of a bill allowing young undocumented immigrants to apply for professional or commercial licenses. In Nebraska, which resettled more refugees per capita in 2016 than any other state, that kind of leadership stands out. As does Mello’s outspoken emphasis—unusual in a state dominated by Big Agriculture, and which still gets most of its energy from coal—on fighting climate change and protecting the environment. Likewise his record on LGBTQ issues, including a call for a law to ban discrimination in housing and employment. With strong union support from firefighters, teachers, and city workers, the Sierra Club’s enthusiastic endorsement, and the backing of an array of Democratic heavyweights, from former senator Ben Nelson to former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, Mello was beginning to look like the party’s best chance for a win after disappointments in Kansas and Georgia.