Omaha Councilman Fred Conley reflects on public service past, future

Published: Feb. 21, 2020 at 12:53 PM CST
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The Omaha City Council did not have African-American representation until 1981, when Fred Conley became the first African American councilmember to represent the North Omaha community.

But it only happened after state law on how Omaha held elections was changed.

Decades ago when voters went to the polls to elect members of the Omaha City Council, they cast their ballots in a citywide at-large election. Conley ran for city council twice under this format and lost both times.

“Of course you had maybe 30, 40 people running but because of the area and low turnout you never really had a shot at being in the top 14 or something to that effect,” Conley said. “So you never had a shot for this area to be represented.”

That changed in the 1970s when State Sen. Ernie Chambers led an effort to amend the at-large elections to district elections.

“I think it was a very important piece of legislation that allowed an area that had never been represented on the City Council to have a chance to be represented,” Conley said.

Afterward, Conley became the first African American to sit on the Omaha City Council. When he was elected to represent Omaha’s second district on the city’s north side, there were many people who did not realize the importance of the moment, he recalled.

“We had not been represented for such a long time, I’m not sure a great number of people understood the historic nature of having the legislature pass a piece of legislation that would require all areas to be represented on the council, he said.

Conley himself did not stop to think about the new political ground that had been broken. He had been involved in his community for years before he was elected to the council — now he could continue that work in a citywide forum.

“I wanted to continue doing that and this time I could have some input in terms of what happened down at City Hall,” he said.

In 1988, Conley made another political first by becoming the city’s first African-American acting mayor when Mayor Bernie Simon died in office.

“That month was very hectic cause Bernie had quite a schedule. So I would be picked up by 6 in the morning and go to midnight every night, so I didn’t have a lot of time to focus on that - it was really carrying out the duties of the office,” he said.

Conley said he is happy to see the diversity on the current council and he believes they all know the job they do will affect more than voters in their district.

“I think it is doing a good job. I think Ben Gray is doing a good job on the council. I think sometimes people misunderstand that you can’t do everything — you’re one of seven. You try to bring your viewpoint to the front on issues that affect not just north Omaha, but the entire city,” he said.

Conley said he wants to continue to serve and now has plans to run for the Nebraska Legislature, hoping to take over the District 11 seat held by Chambers.