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What's next for Heath Mello?

What's next for Heath Mello?


Heath Mello was elected to the Legislature when he was 28.

At age 33, he was chairman of the Appropriations Committee, building state government's biennial budgets.

At the end of this year, Mello will be term-limited out of the nonpartisan Legislature at the age of 37, still a young man, still harboring a passion for public service.

So, what next?

"I look forward to spending more time with my family," Mello said during an interview in his first-floor Capitol office early one morning as the 2016 legislative session wound down to a close.

Mello and his wife, Catherine, have a 2-year-old daughter, Angelina, and a son, John, born six months ago.

"We will decompress after a tough legislative session," he said.

But, yes, there remains a desire to be engaged in public service, "somewhere and sometime in my future," whether it be statewide or local.

And, yes, Mello acknowledged, "a number of people are encouraging me" to do that. Perhaps very soon.

A year from now, Omaha will elect a mayor and fill City Council slots.  

Mello won't go there during this interview, but there's plenty of evidence traveling under the radar that he's being urged to consider a bid for mayor in 2017.  

Mayor Jean Stothert is expected to seek-re-election next spring.

It's a nonpartisan race. Stothert is a Republican; Mello is a Democrat; Omaha is a competitive -- and expensive -- battleground.

But so much for speculation about what might lie down the road; let's center on the eight-year legislative ride.


Consequential state senator; natural hands-on (literally) politician, connecting with a pat on the back, a hand on the shoulder, occasionally a mini-shoulder rub. 

"I learned a lot and I grew a lot here," Mello said.

Mello represents a predominantly South Omaha district (which includes northern portions of Bellevue), a diverse community whose energy centers in its neighborhoods.  

"Everything matters when you represent everyday working people who want government to work for them," he said. "We tried to do everything we could to connect with them and favorably impact their lives."

That priority was on vivid display during the final day of the 2016 session when Mello led a successful effort to override Gov. Pete Ricketts' veto of a bill allowing young undocumented immigrants who have been granted lawful presence in the United States to acquire professional and occupational licenses to work in the state. 

Many of those kids grew up in South Omaha.

The appropriations chairmanship arrived in 2013 by the margin of a single vote.

First Omaha senator to chair the budget-building committee; first Democrat in 65 years; second youngest appropriations chairman ever.

"I hope senators will look back and be able to acknowledge that I kept my promises to be fair, balanced and steer the state toward a responsible fiscal course," Mello said.

As committee chairman, he said, he has tried to focus on taking the long view, building relationships, striving toward consensus, moving the state forward.  

"You really rolled the dice," he told senators during his farewell speech to the Legislature on Wednesday.

Mello describes himself as "a pragmatic centrist (and) a lifelong student of wanting to learn."

"I try to build consensus," he said. "I want to be able to bring people together to solve problems.

"Somewhere in the middle lies a solution if you bring people together.

"Most issues are neither black nor white; it's about shades of gray."

The simplest description is be a doer.

"It's better to build consensus even if the policy is not exactly what you wanted," Mello said. "That's progress, rather having something blow up in your face.

"A pragmatic approach to governing yields tremendous results," he said.

And that belief would be "the driving factor in whatever I may do in the future," Mello said.

As appropriations chairman, Mello has worked with two Republican governors and the relationships have been different.

"Gov. (Dave) Heineman and I had a significant number of disagreements," he said. "I tried to focus on policy; he focused on politics."

But, he said, the relationship was not personally adversarial.

"I think Gov. Ricketts and I have a positive working relationship and I have a positive relationship with his staff," Mello said.

There have been disagreements on a couple of issues, he said, "but also very healthy policy discussions that have been refreshing."

"Governing is much more difficult than campaigning," Mello said.

Mello came to his final legislative session with a full plate of bills: workforce development, early childhood education, Innovation Campus, consumer protection, immigration policy, prison reform, cooperative efforts on school funding, property taxes, redistricting reform.

The pace of prison reform remains a concern for Mello as the clock ticks down on his final eight months in office.

"There have been steps toward progress," he said, "but I want to see corrections reform move faster through the planning phase and into implementation."

Prison overcrowding, staffing and programming are urgent issues that need to be addressed, he said.

Looking back, Mello said one of the bonuses of serving in the Legislature is the opportunity to "take a much broader view of the state and consider the impact in Scottsbluff as much as the impact in South Omaha."

And be able to do something about it. 

His final legislative day was "a bittersweet moment," Mello said.

The only thing he won't miss is the hourlong commute.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or

On Twitter @LJSDon.


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