One Helluva Broad: Mary Galligan Cornett
I never met the late Mary Galligan Cornett during her long, legendary tenure as Omaha City Clerk, only when she’d been retired some years, but her reputation as a cantankerous, bigger-than-life personality preceded her and I was not disappointed when I finally did catch up with her. Sheds lost none of her bite or her blunt, blue-streak manner of speaking. She’s gone now but she’s definitely one of my most unforgettable characters. My profile of her appeared in the New Horizons in 2002.
One Helluva Broad: Mary Galligan Cornett
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
For more than half-a-century, Mary Galligan Cornett gave as good as she got with the boys at City Hall.
In her colorful 53-year civil service career she saw hundreds of elected officials come and go. In a 1961 to 1997 reign as Omaha City Clerk she served 13 mayors (counting acting and interim chiefs) and dozens of council members. She saw Omaha transition from the commission form of government to the city charter home rule system to the present structure featuring district council elections. She was a stabilizing presence as Omaha endured scandals, bitter fights over equal rights and public works and abrupt changes in leadership. She helped Omaha retain its Triple AAA credit rating by selling bonds in New York’s financial district.
Along the way, she earned a reputation as a tough woman valued for the knowledge and history she brought to city business and as one not to be trifled with in the political wrangling game. This blunt, unadorned woman, who says of the wrinkles in her face — “I’ve earned every one” — is one helluva broad.
Unafraid to speak her mind and uncowed by the rough-and-tumble maneuvers of smoke-filled, back-room deliberating, Cornett was a trailblazer in the male fraternity called politics. For years, she was among only a handful of women city clerks in major U.S. metropolises. So, how did she survive under so many different regimes and surrounded by so many powerful men of often clashing politics and personalities? “Very simple, I became one of the good old boys. I made friends with their wives, their secretaries and their mistresses, and I got along just fine,” she said from her terraced antique and bric-a-brac-filled home on the busy Northwest Radial Highway. As former City Councilman Subby Anzaldo said, “Having Mary in a group of men was not uncomfortable. If a cross word flew out of someone’s mouth it wasn’t a situation where you had to worry about it. Mary understood and she could throw a few out herself if she had to. She was one of a kind. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”
At her home, family photographs are prominently displayed in the living room, where the pet dog and cat roam freely. Most pictures are of Cornett’s only child, Irene A. Cornett (Stranglin), now a 10-year veteran with the Omaha police force and the new mother of twin girls. Cornett raised Irene alone after the death of her husband, surety executive Bob Cornett, in 1976. Slowed by a broken hip suffered last March, she has a nurse tech, Raissa Franklin, help at home. About her patient, Franklin said jokingly, “She’s ornery. She’s worse than the agitator in the washing machine.” Ever the politician, the chain-smoking Cornett recently had pictures of herself taken sans cigarettes. After the photo session Cornett called out, “Raissa, honey, could you hand me a pack of cigarettes now that the photographer is gone?”
As far as being a woman in a man’s world, Cornett had only to look at the domineering women in her own life for role models.
Both of her grandmothers worked outside the home in addition to raising families. Her maternal grandma came from sturdy ranch stock and went on to become a music teacher in towns across Nebraska. Her paternal matriarch was a railroad brakeman as well as a seamstress. Her mother was a political operative and helped run the family produce business.
“I grew up with the idea a woman could be anything she wanted to be,” said Cornett. That’s why when she started working at City Hall as a building clerk in 1945 she chafed at the resistance she met from the all-male contractors who had to go through her to obtain permits. “Well, the men contractors had a hard time with that because they didn’t think a woman could look at a set of blueprints and figure out anything. It was a whole new thing for them. They had a hard time accepting it and I had a hard time accepting their chauvinism. My attitude was, ‘The hell with it. I’m here. I’m the one that issues the permits. Show me your (expletive) blueprints. Take me or leave me.’ I think I’ve always felt that way.”
Armed with her sharp tongue, astute mind and vast experience, she had the ear of mayors and council members. According to her successor, current City Clerk Buster Brown, whom she trained, “If she had something to say, people listened. Yes, she influenced decisions behind-the-scenes. She was an institution. She knew the ins-and-outs.” Rather than challenge her “strong personality,” he said, officials would “back away.” Former City Councilman Robert Cunningham said, “She handled things with authority. She was respected.” In her capacity as clerk and confidante, Cornett was the keeper of city records and secrets. She recalls how attorney Eddie Shaston, an associate of former Mayor A.V. Sorensen, “always said ‘I was the woman that knew and never talked.’”
Retired since 1997, Cornett is not telling tales out-of-school now, at least not on the record. If she did tell her story, the 77-year-old said she’d borrow the title from the Frank Sinatra anthem, “I Did It My Way.” The only trouble with that, she asked rhetorically, is “which of my lives would I be talking about? My private life? My political life? My life as a bondswoman?” To which Pat Wright, a friend and former assistant who popped over during a recent interview quipped, “Where does one stop and the other end? Sometimes you don’t even know,” which prompted Cornett to reply, “I know that.” Wright added, “Cornetts real. She tells it like it is.”
No doubt, Cornett thrived in the political arena because public service was, in a sense, a birthright by virtue of her family’s longtime involvement in the field. Her Irish-Scottish immigrant family’s political legacy extends back to the town’s wild-and-whooly beginnings to a pair of paternal grand uncles: former fire chief Jack J. Galligan and former police chief Michael Dempsey. Then there was her mother, Fairrie Irene Cameron Galligan, a wheel in the state and Midwest Democratic central committees. Mary often accompanied her to conventions, even meeting future president Harry S. Truman in Kansas City when he was still a ward leader for the Tom Pendergast machine. There was also a familial tie to the politically active Warners of Nebraska. “Everyone in my family, on both sides, was in politics,” Cornett said. “That’s been my whole life.”
Public service has been a passionate thing for the Cornett clan. “It was and it still is with me” she said. “My family at one time were all immigrants and this was the country that welcomed them. They felt they owed it something because of the freedom and the education and the employment they found here. And for all of that, there’s gotta be some payback. And, so, I think the whole family felt a personal responsibility to be part of government and to devote a lot of their lives to it. I devoted my entire life to it.” Politics also suited Cornett’s gregariousness. She said her capacity for getting along with people and putting aside personal differences for the public good is “an ability you have to have” to succeed in politics. Her skill at mixing with people from all walks of life and her hunger for being right in the thick of the action is why it all came naturally to her.
“I guess I’m a people person. I guess that’s why I picked this as my retirement house,” she said, referring to her residence. “It’s right on the street. Life goes on. There isn’t a time the rescue squad isn’t going that-a-way or a fire truck isn’t going this-a-way or a police car isn’t going another way. I can lay in bed and tell from the traffic what time it is.”
Cornett likes the neighborhood and its mix of young families and retirees. “I lived for many years in a big home at 61st and Decatur and I hated it. Everybody went to bed at like 8:30 or 9, and being a night owl, I’d be up till 1 or 2 in the morning. Also, I cannot imagine living in one of these retirement places where everybody’s old, where there’s no children, where there’s no dogs or cats. Why would you want to shut yourself off from the world? You’ve got to have some life going on around you,” she said above the din of rushing traffic and barking dogs outside.
For her, city government was where the action was. How apt then that this lifelong devotee of Italian grand opera found herself immersed in the drama and machinations of big city politics, with all its brokering, backstabbing and symbolic bloodletting. Because politics truly is in her blood, she still keeps close tabs on City Hall. Asked if leaders still come to her for counsel, she answered, “Let’s put it this way, I get a lot of telephone calls. I still have an excellent grapevine together. Remember, it’s been 53 years or so building it. I can tell you what’s going on in every (expletive) department down there. I keep track of things.”
After years directing the clerk’s office, which besides keeping records supports the functions and enforces the rules of the City Council, she has a rather proprietary feeling about that august body. The last council she worked with had a contentious relationship with former Mayor Hal Daub, whom she felt was not well served by some members, which makes her glad the present council, with its five new faces, is working so well with Mayor Mike Fahey. “I’m very proud of the new council. I think they’re doing a very good job. This council and the mayor are communicating. I think that’s a necessary part of good government. You can disagree, but you need to communicate at least your disagreements.”
In Cornett’s view the previous council “made life miserable for Mayor Daub,” adding: “I always felt very sorry for Daub. Did he make mistakes? Yes. Could he have maybe communicated with two or three of them better? Yes. But there were four of ‘em on that council that no matter what he would have done they would never have moved off what they wanted. And it wasn’t a matter of what was best for the city or what was good for the taxpayer. It was a matter of their own personal egos and their desire to stay in power. Well, you know what happened to most of ‘em? They were beaten out in the last election.”
In past administrations Cornett became a liaison or conduit between mayors and councils locked in stalemates. “When some mayors were not talking to certain council members they used me as a go-between,” she said. “They about wore my voice out, too.” She also frequently sat in on cabinet meetings.
One of Cornett’s closest cronies in city government was the late Herb Fitle, the longtime city attorney with whom she enjoyed a salty relationship that sometimes found them feuding. As years passed, Cornett and Fitle, along with officials George Ireland and S.P. Benson, became the wise old sages in city government. Cornett and Fitle were “the staunchest supporters and absolute protectors” of the city charter that came into effect in the late-1950s.
“We had a long, long tenure together,” she said. “If we stood together, all hell and high heaven could not have moved us — I don’t care if it was mayors, councils, outside influences, whatever. But our disagreements also were legend. He’d write his opinions and although I wasn’t an attorney I sometimes wouldn’t agree with his opinion and I wasn’t very amiss to tell him so.
“Once, we disagreed over some political or legal issue and we stopped talking to each other. I’d send my assistants up to his office for answers and he’d send his attorneys down to my office for answers. Well, the help got tired of that and came to me and said, ‘Look, you guys have got to stop this. We can’t take it anymore.’ I said, ‘OK, fine.’ It was near Christmas and we used to have this event called The Christmas Sing where we all gathered in the council chambers with an orchestra to sing carols, and so I asked someone to get peace doves. While this program was going on I said to Herb, ‘I think we should make up,’ and I let the birds go. They were scared as hell and flew all over the place. Well, it turned out they were pigeons and, you know, they pooped on everybody and everything…the musicians, the councilmen, the chairs, the desks. I think it took the night help two or three hours to clean up.”
Despite the mess, her goodwill gesture was accepted and The Great Cornett-Fitle feud ceased.
In her watchdog role with the council Cornett provided oversight to ensure proceedings followed protocol. She served as sergeant of arms, called roll, recorded results and supplied information requested by councilmen on resolutions, ordinances, liquor licenses, etc.. The job also involved training new council members in how municipal government operates. Not everyone comes prepared to govern. “You get newly elected officials that never saw a charter before,” she said. Former councilman Subby Anzaldo said her influence was felt. “She had input. We came to her for answers. She told it like it was. She was like the eighth council member.”
She provided continuity when, in 1981, the move from at-large to district elections brought seven new council members and a new mayor into office and then, in the late 1980s-early 1990s, when Omaha went through six mayors due to recall, death, defeat, election, resignation. At times like those, City Clerk Buster Brown said, “She was very vital to making sure city government ran smoothly.” The way she sees it, she helped by “just being there.”
Then there’s the delicate matter of sorting out potential conflicts of interest. As Cornett explained, “Everybody comes to government bringing their own baggage in terms of outside influences. There may be something in the charter that can favor an official in getting a contract” or a business advantage. “Will officials try to use their influence? Of course they will. In my downstairs office at home I have reams of settled rulings on certain sections of the charter where somebody tried to do something they couldn’t (legally) do.”
At the countless council meetings she oversaw, she heard everything from dissident voices to impassioned pleas to whimpers to cheers. Among those she had removed from the premises was a deputy sheriff who arrived with a warrant during a council session. When she informed the deputy it was not permissible to serve a sitting body but that he would instead have to wait until the meeting ended, he persisted, whereupon she called security, ordering police to “remove this man,” which they did, much to the deputy’s chagrin. Cornett said she was so upset that someone was “obstructing or interrupting MY council meeting” she never even “bothered to find out” who or what the warrant specified.
Another time, during the racially tense 1960s, Cornett recalls how marching civil rights demonstrators descending upon City Hall sent most officials scurrying for cover. Typical of Cornett, she stood her ground. As it turned out, the group included a large contingent of church-based elders whose intent was conciliatory. “With all the public officials having taken to the hills, I was the only one left, so the marchers came to my office. I called the switchboard and told them I didn’t want any calls and I told my staff to give these elderly ladies the cushions off their chairs to kneel on. That’s how I came to have a pray-in in my office.”
For the most part, however, Cornett plied her political savvy not in public view but behind-the-scenes. Of the many mayors she worked with, she said, “Almost every one of ‘em really cared about this city. I loved every one of ‘em, whether I fought with ‘em or not and whether they disliked me or not. Different mayors at different times had difficult personalities. I wouldn’t say who were my favorites, but I would say who taught me the most — A.V. Sorensen (1965-69). He made it a point to teach me…government, finances, investments, organization, management. He expected everything to be organized. He hated a messy desk.”
She said Sorensen was a model of efficiency who demanded subordinates follow suit. “If you couldn’t give him an answer in 5 minutes…forget it.” She recalls how when she and former City Council President Art Bradley questioned why he gave “both of us directives” to hunt up the same data, his honor replied — “‘Because you come back with different answers, and half way between the two of them is the truth.’ That was A.V.”
Sorensen restored faith in Omaha’s elected leadership in the wake of corruption at City Hall. His predecessor, the dashing young Jim Dworak (1961-65) was indicted but later acquitted on bribery and conspiracy charges involving rigged real estate zoning laws. Other city officials were convicted. While Cornett is convinced Dworak did not accept any bribes, she believes he was a victim of his own fast-living ways. “Wine, women and song were his problems. He just had too much too soon.”
Where Dworak was a free-wheeling playboy, Sorensen was a circumspect elder statesman. Tough facade aside, Cornett maintained a soft spot for old A.V. “I felt so close to him. He was one of the few people who hurt my feelings. He had been out of office a few months when he came to visit me. My office, for some reason, was all cluttered up. He didn’t say Hello or How are you? — no, he said, ‘I thought I taught you better than that,’ and walked out. Well, I sat there and cried.”
Another mayor whom Cornett says “taught me a great deal” was brash Hal Daub (1993-2001). She feels his greatest strength — a facile mind — often proved his undoing when combined with his impatience. “Hal is an extremely brilliant man,” she said. “He has almost a complete retentive memory for facts and figures. But he thinks so fast that he’s always jumping the gun on people.” The two respected each other enough that mere weeks after retiring from the clerk’ s office she accepted his request to assume an eight-month job researching issues related to city-county government merger, a subject she calls “near and dear to my heart.”
Over the years Cornett said she rejected notions of running for public office and spurned opportunities to enter the private sector. Life as an elected official held no interest, she said, because she “didn’t want to play the game” and disliked the idea of being beholden to “outside influences.” Besides, she added, elected officials don’t have the real control — civil service administrators do. The prospect of leaving City Hall altogether was equally unimaginable.
“I was offered two or three very good jobs paying twice what I made in city government, but I decided, no, that’s where I belonged.” It’s why she looked forward going to work every day and thought nothing of putting in overtime even though her post didn’t qualify her for extra pay.
“This sounds kind of corny, but I always felt the Lord put me in the right spot at the right time in my life,” she said. “Every day there were new problems. Every day there was something else. You never knew when you got there in the morning what was going to transpire. And, so, if you wanted an interesting life you couldn’t have had a better job. I loved every minute and I kept going as long as I could.”
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