Democrats desperate for fresh faces cast 37-year-old Heath Mello as a pragmatic, next-generation leader who could win in the Nebraska heartland. Yet his anti-abortion stance has become a flashpoint for the national party.
If Mello prevails on Tuesday in his bid for Omaha mayor, it's a promising sign, he says, for a candidate "with a proven record of working bipartisan and tackling some big issues and, yes, to some extent, is a pro-life Catholic Democrat." He is challenging Republican incumbent Jean Stothert.
Mello's bid has exposed the cultural divisions within the party over the decades-old issue of abortion, and proved a major embarrassment for the new party chairman, Tom Perez. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, an abortion rights supporter, insists that there is room in the party for abortion foes.
Top Democrats had planned a stop in Omaha at a rally for Mello, but abortion rights groups were outraged. National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League President Ilyse Hogue called the DNC's promotion of Mello "not only disappointing, it is politically stupid."
Caught off-guard, Perez reversed himself, saying "every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman's right to make her own choices," and called on Democrats to speak with "one voice."
At the April 20 rally in Omaha, Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who sought the Democratic presidential nomination last year, endorsed Mello, telling thousands, "Maybe, just maybe, it's time to change one-party rule in Nebraska. And we can start right here by electing Heath Mello as the next mayor."
Perez, who had been scheduled to attend, instead campaigned for a Georgia candidate. The party chairman's actions angered several moderate Democrats and frustrated others as the party struggles for relevance. In the last decade, Democrats have lost about 1,000 elected posts from the White House to Congress to the 50 statehouses, a power deficit the party has not seen nationally in 90 years.
In Nebraska, where Republicans control every congressional and statewide office, Democrats don't have the luxury of being choosy, Mello supporter Abbie Raikes said.
"As liberals in Nebraska, you become accustomed to making compromises," said Raikes, a 45-year-old public health professor at University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.
Raikes, talking with Mello in her near-west Omaha neighborhood last week, supports him in part for plans to promote affordable housing, not because he backed a half-dozen abortion restrictions during eight years in the legislature. After all, the highest-ranking Democrat outside of the state legislature is the mayor of Lincoln.
Democrats must invite new faces with diverse viewpoints into its leadership, said Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, who described Perez's reaction to Mello as "really damaging."
"Requiring everybody to fit some purity test is a recipe for disaster," said Ryan, a former abortion-rights opponent who unsuccessfully challenged Pelosi for Democratic leader last year. "There are going to be people who are Democrats who may not check all the boxes. But they are with you 80 percent of the time and can win in tough places."
Anti-abortion Democrats have almost disappeared in Congress. Only three senators fit the description, and all three — Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — are up for re-election next year in states President Donald Trump won in 2016.
Pelosi last week told The Washington Post that abortion should not be a litmus test for Democrats.
In the state legislature, Mello represented an older, ethnically diverse, working-class district in south Omaha, a few miles from the nation's onetime railroad and meatpacking epicenter. But Mello has projected what he calls a "pro-growth, progressive, future-focused" style, which reflects Omaha's moderate tendency.
He favors a government partnership with private industry, a concept often associated with Republicans, for Omaha's crumbling streets. He also has campaigned heavily in Omaha's troubled north side, where most of the city's homicides occur.
Mello's campaign fundraising co-chairwoman, Andy Holland, is the past president of Planned Parenthood of Nebraska. The aspiring mayor also has the support of self-described conservative Mike Kozlik, a lawyer who met Mello last week as the candidate strolled door-to-door through the elegant Dundee neighborhood west of downtown.
"Too often Democrats want to coddle people. Mello comes from working stock," said Kozlik, 64, a south Omaha native whose family struggled during his youth. "He understands the working man."
A Democratic mayor could give the party a leg up in Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District, more than two-thirds of which is in Omaha, as the party hopes to claw its way back to the majority next year. And in a state that apportions its presidential electoral votes by congressional district, the mayor's office could be an important Democratic foothold.
Democrat Barack Obama carried the district in 2008, but lost it in 2012, as did 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton.
This story has been corrected to show the former Planned Parenthood of NE president's last name is Holland, not Stanley.