James J. Dworak
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 captain.
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 preservationists.
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 Farnam Streets.
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. Coleman
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 and Paula.