May 22, 1961-May 24, 1965
James Dworak succeeded Johnny Rosenblatt as
mayor of Omaha, and he wanted nothing more than success. He hoped to top Mr.
Rosenblatt’s popularity and record of achievement.
But clashes with the media, the city
council and business leaders halted progress during his administration.
Controversies involving the public safety department, urban renewal and race
relations led to a recall campaign. The final nail in his political coffin
came when Mr. Dworak, a former mortician, was indicted on bribery charges in
his fourth year of office.
Mr. Dworak was born in Omaha and graduated
from Tech High in 1943. Following four years in the Army Air Corps, he
attended Creighton University for two years. He earned a degree from the San
Francisco College of Mortuary Science. He joined his father and brother in
the family mortuary business and became a vice president.
When he announced his run for mayor, Mr.
Dworak stated, “The people who are for me are sick and tired of being
dictated to by a handful of financial and social giants who have held Omaha
in the palms of their hands for the past several years.” He upset the
candidate favored by most business leaders, squeezing out a 342-vote margin
over attorney James F. Green.
He became mayor a few months short of his
36th birthday, having served four years on the city council prior to his run
for mayor. At his swearing-in ceremony, Mr. Dworak, wearing his trademark
bow tie, said, “I approach the position with humility and a complete desire
to be the best mayor Omaha ever had.” City Council President Harry Trustin
expected “nothing but great success the next four years.”
But the four years of Mayor Dworak’s term
were rough and stormy. He had a contentious relationship with the
Omaha World-Herald, and at one time
published his own newspaper, countering what he considered unfair treatment
by the “local daily” and “dedicated to the unHeralded facts.”
While the first 18 months of the Dworak administration were not the smooth
ride he had hoped for, the road became especially rocky in early 1963 when
vetoes and veto overrides became commonplace. Shortly after the
World-Herald questioned the removal of
Captain Ted Janning as head of the vice unit, Mr. Dworak told construction
magnate Peter Kiewit, then owner of the newspaper, that none of his
representatives was welcome at City Hall. The next day he canceled all
subscriptions to the paper.
At the midpoint of Mr. Dworak’s term, the
World-Herald called him one of
city’s most controversial mayors, noting his propensity to prowl the city on
pre-dawn vice raids targeting dice games and illegal drinking. He had fired
public safety director Joseph Thornton just six months after luring him from
the FBI. He suspended and later demoted Police Chief C. Harold Ostler to
Mr. Dworak tangled with Ak-Sar-Ben leaders.
He wanted a tax on horse racing as a way to repay the track’s “drain on the
city,” and he favored annexing the racetrack.
Mr. Dworak had a tendency to assemble large
committees to study city problems. A 58-member bi-racial committee that
studied job and housing discrimination was assailed by some as too
cumbersome to accomplish anything substantive. The Rev. Rudolph McNair, a
4CL founder, led a group of 120 supporters through downtown Omaha to protest
the futility of the committee. The mayor attempted to prevent the march.
In early 1963 another large assemblage, the mayor’s Post Office Committee,
deliberated for just 50 minutes before unanimously recommending razing the
Post Office and offering the property for private development. Pushed by
some in the name of urban renewal, it was a decision still lamented by
Mayor Dworak claimed among the successes of
his administration construction of the Missouri River sewage treatment
plant; new swimming pools, golf courses and housing for the aged; revamping
the police communications system; and cooling racial unrest. “Omaha is a
better place because I was there,” said Mr. Dworak in one of his rare
returns to the city. Though he was sometimes ridiculed for his stubbornness,
Mr. Dworak had his supporters. City Clerk Mary Cornett described him as
“funny, kind, outgoing and considerate.”
Just six months prior to the bribery and
conspiracy charges that led to his ouster, the mayor was the target of a
recall effort, primarily due to vice squad shakeups. The bribery charges
were levied after Mayor Dworak agreed to accept a $25,000 campaign
contribution from Chicago developer John Coleman in exchange for not vetoing
a zoning change. Mr. Coleman wanted to build upscale townhomes at 81st and
City Councilmen Ernest Adams and Stephen
Novak and two others were found guilty of soliciting bribes. Mayor Dworak
was acquitted even though he was caught on tape agreeing to accept the
campaign contribution. Mr. Dworak claimed he was trying to entrap Mr.
A.V. Sorensen swamped the incumbent mayor
by nearly 24,000 votes in the 1965 election. Mr. Dworak left Omaha before he
was acquitted of charges in the Coleman case in February 1966. He moved to
California, where he lived the last half of his life in a sort of
self-imposed exile. He ran a retail carpet business, sold insurance, and
briefly operated a teen night club named The Morgue, with decor that
included coffins and mortuary furnishings. For a time he subsisted off
social security disability income.
He died at the Fresno (CA) Veterans
Administration Medical Center in 2002 at age 77 of complications from
Parkinson’s disease. The local newspaper, The Los Banos Enterprise,
said Mr. Dworak “loved to sing, laugh, tell jokes and stories.” He was
survived by sons Andrew and Alan, and daughters Michaela, Claudia, Jennifer