Lincoln Mayor profile: Leirion Gaylor Baird running for re-election

The position of mayor, several city council seats and other citywide offices will be on the May 2 General Election ballot.
Published: Mar. 17, 2023 at 11:28 AM CDT|Updated: May. 1, 2023 at 9:20 AM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - Incumbent mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird is seeking a second term leading the Capital City. The former city council member is the highest ranking Democrat in Nebraska, the lone Democrat in the race for mayor and has the backing of her party. She’s facing off against Republican Suzanne Geist.

Gaylor Baird has been endorsed by the Lincoln Fire Fighters Association.

10/11 NOW sent a questionnaire to all candidates and did not edit responses. Read Leirion Gaylor Baird’s replies below and view other candidate profiles here.

Public Service History: I have over 15 years of experience serving in Lincoln city government to keep our families safe, our infrastructure strong, and our quality of life vibrant. Before voters elected me as mayor in 2019, I served on the Lincoln City Council and on the Lincoln/Lancaster County Planning Commission for six years each. My public service also includes a long history of volunteerism. I am a current member of Mourning Hope’s Board of Trustees, and have served on the Lincoln Community Foundation’s Board of Directors; University of Nebraska Medical Center Chancellor’s Board of Counselors; Lincoln Public Schools Superintendent’s Community Advisory Council; Family Service Lincoln’s Board of Directors; Pioneers Park Nature Center Board; and Friends of the Lincoln Children’s Museum. My husband and I are past Co-Chairs of Friendship Home’s annual campaign and proud alumni of Leadership Lincoln’s Executive Program.

Briefly explain why you’re running for the office of Lincoln Mayor. I care deeply about our community. Lincoln is where my husband and I are raising our children – this is our home. Making this city the best possible home for everyone, a home where anyone can build their lives and livelihoods, has been my focus for more than a decade. We’ve accomplished so much together – Lincoln is a top-ranked city in the country for safety, economic well-being, and quality of life. Still, there’s more to do. I am running for mayor to make Lincoln an even better place to call home.

What would you identify as the three biggest challenges facing Lincoln residents? Why, and how would you make improvements? One of the biggest challenges we face is the same that many across the country are experiencing: rising costs. While the factors that contribute to this are largely out of our control at the local level, my administration supports economic growth and development in Lincoln that create new jobs that help our community members achieve financial security. We also invest directly in training and educational resources that enable workers to develop new skills and credentials needed to obtain good-paying jobs. During my first term as mayor, we invested $13.5M in federal funds to support credentialing and training programs in high demand fields like welding, IT, manufacturing, nursing, and child care, as well as to build our new American Job Center that connects job-seekers with new employment opportunities.

While Lincoln is still relatively affordable compared to many cities across the country, housing prices present another challenge. My administration addresses this challenge by partnering with the private sector to increase the supply of residential housing stock, thereby easing pressure on the overall housing market. We accelerate progress towards this goal by investing in infrastructure like streets and water and by continuing to streamline our permitting process to provide fast turnaround times on development reviews and permits. Since taking office, my administration has increased the pace of residential building permits issued to well above the ten year average of 1,891 new residential units per year. In fact, in 2022 alone, we permitted 3,173 new residential units in the city of Lincoln – the highest number in 50 years. In addition to increasing the overall supply of housing, we must continue the work begun with my administration’s affordable housing action plan to ensure everyone in our community has the opportunity to enjoy the good life here in Lincoln.

Long term, our greatest challenge as a growing community is developing a second source of water for our city, an undertaking that will be the most significant public works project in our city’s history. While we have adequate water supply for the next two decades, we must begin now to secure the additional capacity of this resource that is fundamental to our community’s growth, resilience, and vitality. That’s why I convened the Mayor’s Water Source Advisory Council last summer to evaluate our options and earlier this year accepted their recommendation that we build a wellfield and treatment facility on the Missouri River. Securing a second source of water for Lincoln will continue to be a focus going forward.

What, if anything, should the city do to improve the process of repairing streets? Streets support safety, economic growth, and quality of life. I have a proven track record of street investment and improving operations. My administration proposed and passed a Highway Allocation bond package adding $25M in street funding. Since taking office in 2019, capital street investment is $211M – the highest for any four-year period in the history of Lincoln. That has built and improved 141 lane miles of residential streets and 123 lane miles of arterial streets. Still, there’s more to do because streets require ongoing maintenance and investment. The voter-approved sales tax for streets has played an important role in providing funding for street improvements. It expires in 2025, and it will be important to have a robust community conversation to determine if voters want to continue that funding for this important purpose.

What can be done to improve housing affordability? A key strategy in addressing the complex issue of housing affordability is to grow our community’s overall housing supply. To this end, my administration has facilitated and incentivized record levels of residential development. Increasing the number of available homes helps keep prices affordable/[increasing the number of homes in our city takes pressure off of the local housing market and helps keep the cost of housing in check]. Our work to support the private sector in growing Lincoln’s housing stock is resulting in historic levels of residential construction. The combined number of housing construction permits the City issued in 2021-2022 exceeds the number of residential permits issued in Lincoln during any other two-year period since the 1970s.

As part of our strategy to grow Lincoln, we have increased funding to build more street and water infrastructure that helps build more homes across the community. Finally, we have added staff and streamlined city operations to help move projects through the review and development process swifty and effectively to help keep building costs down.

Beyond these daily efforts to support the creation of housing at every price point, we are well ahead of schedule to meet my administration’s ambitious goal to create 5,000 new or rehabilitated affordable housing units by 2030. In just two years, my administration has incentivized over 1,200 new or rehabilitated units. With the help of the City Council we have invested over $1 million annually to support construction of new affordable housing - including single family, townhomes, and apartments. To preserve and enhance the quality of our existing affordable housing stock, we recently launched a rental rehabilitation program in the South of Downtown neighborhood. The first phase of this multi-year program will improve 100 older dwellings and ensure they will remain affordable even after they are improved and updated.

Do you think Lincoln is a safe place to live? Provide your detailed plan to handle crime and manage public safety, while addressing funding for both Lincoln Police and Lincoln Fire and Rescue. Safety statistics and data show that Lincoln is a very safe place to live. For example, the violent crime rate in Lincoln is at a 30-year low, despite the fact that our city has grown by 100,000 in population during that period. Last year, our LFR team saved the lives of residents experiencing non-traumatic cardiac arrest at a rate more than twice the national average. When fires broke out in homes last year, LFR saved on average 98% of the value of the property. So, by multiple measures, Lincoln is a safe place to call home.

To keep it that way, we must continue to make public safety our number one priority. I have a proven track record of investing in services and personnel that protect families, businesses, and homes in our community. Since 2019, my administration has added 31 police personnel and increased officer pay to protect our community. We have opened new team stations as Lincoln grows to ensure fast and effective emergency response. We’ve added 28 fire department team members along with ten replacement fire engines and three new ambulances to provide fast medical and emergency response across Lincoln. Our City’s budget also includes investments in mental health services, child safety and family health programs, along with infrastructure for safe and clean water. We will continue to invest in public safety and expand our strategies and operations to make a safe community even safer.

How should Lincoln work to attract new business and support and increase the number of small businesses? Public-private partnerships are key to our success in starting, growing, and attracting new businesses. My administration partners with the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce and provides half of the funding for our joint efforts known as the Lincoln Partnership for Economic Development (LPED). Through LPED, we work to identify and prepare sites for new or expanding businesses, developing the infrastructure and incentives that move projects forward. Through LPED’s Launch LNK program, we also invest in start-ups, helping them attract additional capital to grow their innovative ideas into successful local businesses. Lincoln has so much to offer entrepreneurs. Our convenient technology access as a gigabit city, coupled with connections to some of the world’s leading researchers at the University of Nebraska, along with an entrepreneurship ecosystem and network of business leaders, make Lincoln an ideal place for entrepreneurs to succeed and grow.

More broadly, we must continue to build an environment in which businesses can flourish. That means ensuring public safety to protect their property and investments, providing infrastructure like streets and water lines that facilitate economic growth, and offering a quality of life that will attract and retain a talented workforce. My administration has prioritized and invested in catalyst projects that grow Lincoln’s quality of life and bring more events, business, and people into our community. These new

projects underway include a youth ballfields complex, downtown Music District, and park in the South Haymarket. We are also working with private sector partners to secure funding for a much-needed convention center in Lincoln. In addition, we must offer excellent customer service to our businesses from City Hall. That’s why, in my first term, I added city staff to ensure fast turnaround times for permits and reviews which resulted in a record-setting number of construction permits processed.

Explain any changes you would make to current snow removal procedures. Since I took office in 2019, we have dramatically improved the way we clear streets during winter weather. For example, we added ten new “super-combo” plow trucks that can perform multiple snow fighting operations without returning to base to be refitted. We have expanded and improved performance by adding private contractors to help plow residential streets. Previously, residential street plowing waited until arterials and emergency/school routes were plowed. Now, we can deploy additional plows immediately into residential areas as needed. We also have added vehicle trackers and new computer software systems that manage the plowing teams out in the community, enabling the teams to be deployed faster and more efficiently. We are able to see in real time what has been plowed and where to modify operations in order to provide best service. Our winter operations team leaders also use weather software and tracking to monitor incoming storms and prepare before they even arrive. Our teams are spreading ice-melting brine and salt hours ahead of the storm to keep streets safer and allow faster and easier removal of the snow and ice when it falls.

When should Lincoln’s COVID-19 health emergency expire? Our emergency declaration for the floods in 2019 is still active though the waters have long since subsided. This is because there are still federal reimbursement dollars on the table, and we must keep our emergency declaration active to access those reimbursements. Similarly, we are waiting to understand what reimbursements may still be available to our community for COVID-19. Our Critical Incident Management Team is gathering all the necessary information to make a final recommendation related to the end of the local emergency declaration. We are working closely with the Lancaster County Emergency Management Department, which to this point has said that leaving the declaration in place provides our community with the best opportunity to access state and federal funds to support the work we’ve done to address the pandemic.

Should implementing Directed Health Measures remain the authority of the Lincoln-Lancaster County health director? Yes. When faced with a public health crisis, public health officials are the best qualified to determine if temporary measures are necessary to protect the community. During the pandemic, Lincoln / Lancaster County ranked as one of the safest places to be in the country and fastest to recover economically. The Health Director’s flexibility to fine-tune decisions to meet the needs of local businesses and families was one of the biggest reasons, and her ability to respond quickly saved lives and livelihoods.

Do you support any changes to current local firearm regulations? As the only city of the primary class in the state, Lincoln has unique needs when it comes to ensuring responsible gun ownership, and we have local laws in place to address those needs. There have been efforts at the State Legislature to remove our local control, and I do not support those changes. Our Police Union and Lincoln Police Department leadership have testified in opposition to the Legislature’s efforts to weaken both state and local laws. Lincoln and Omaha police chiefs have stated their opposition to these efforts, which they say will compromise the safety of our officers and our communities.

Would you support an LGBTQ fairness ordinance ballot initiative? I do support providing the protections that were adopted by the City Council last year and the subject of recent resident initiative petitions. I have publicly testified in favor of state legislation that would secure LGBTQ rights to equal treatment in the workplace and housing more broadly for all Nebraskans. While I do not support the idea that we should vote on basic human rights, this is under discussion in Lincoln because our State Legislature has failed to act. To be successful, a ballot initiative would need ample resources in order to overcome well-funded opposition. I would support a ballot initiative that brings together community stakeholders and the necessary resources for victory.

A handful of Nebraska municipalities have outlawed abortion by local ordinance. Would you support a such a move in Lincoln? No. Decisions about whether and when to start a family are deeply personal and belong with an individual in consultation with their physician, family, and faith.