Omaha Mayoral Origin Stories
This blog post was written with the help of volunteer community member James Van Ormer
As we gear up for Omaha’s mayoral primary next week, we wanted to take a look at some of Omaha’s past mayors from various eras to answer the question: What makes a mayor? The following three portraits tell the stories of three men who came from very different beginnings and left very different legacies in Omaha…
The earliest mayor we will discuss is Champion Spalding Chase (1820-1898). Chase was born on a farm in Cornish, NH to Clement and Olive Chase and was the tenth of Clement’s seventeen children. His unusual first name came from his grandfather, Champion Spaulding, a veteran of the Revolutionary War. Chase would live up to both this illustrious name and military lineage, by serving in the Union Army and going on to become mayor of Omaha three times between 1874 and 1884.
According to his own genealogy and autobiography, his first work was as a teacher, first in Cornish, then at the Academy in Amsterdam, New York, and finally serving as vice-principal of the seminary in West Harwick, NY. Chase’s public career began in 1847, when he passed the bar in New York and was chosen as a delegate to the National River and Harbor Convention in Chicago. This Convention was one of the largest of the time and later became famous as the site of Abraham Lincoln’s first political address. Chase must have enjoyed the west, because he moved to the territory of Wisconsin the next year, where he married and established a law practice in 1849. He was chosen to represent Wisconsin at the first Republican National Convention in 1856 and served in the State Senate and as a District Attorney.
In 1862, he was appointed Paymaster for the Union Army. He was commissioned as a Major by President Lincoln—a personal request from Champion’s cousin Salmon Chase, who served as Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary. Chase served mostly in the west and was a part of General Grant’s staff when the Union Army took Vicksburg in 1863. He was honorably discharged in January 1866, having attained the rank of Lt. Colonel.
After leaving the Army, Chase moved to Omaha and became Nebraska’s first Attorney General, upon its admission as a state in 1867. He served as a regent for Brownell Hall and the University of Nebraska before running his first successful mayoral campaign in 1874.
James C. “Cowboy Jim” Dahlman (1856-1930) was the Texas-born, deeply corrupt “perpetual mayor” of Omaha from 1906-1918 and again from 1921-1930.
Growing up on a cattle ranch, he thought of himself as a cowboy from the earliest stages of life, and not without justification. As he once said, “I was raised with a rope in one hand, spurs on my heels, and a six-shooter on my hip.”4
And in DeWitt County, where he was raised, violence was simply a regular part of life, where factions would regularly battle in shootouts—he recalled seeing “as many as seven men” killed in a single fight in his youth.
At the age of 22, he moved to northwestern Nebraska near the Niobrara River to help manage a cattle ranch owned by Zeke Newman. There, he would handle upwards of 15,000 heads of cattle and handle enormous amounts of money. On one such venture, he was tasked with escorting $300,000 (Over $7M in today’s money) to a trade in Oregon. Eventually he moved himself to Chadron, Nebraska, as it developed into a small town, where he ran a meat market.
Chadron was where Dahlman first set foot on the political stage, first being elected to Chadron’s city council, then as sheriff in 1888, and finally mayor in 1894. As he progressed in local politics, his interest in larger-scale politics came to the forefront. He met and befriended William Jennings Bryan, and worked on Silas Holcomb’s successful campaign for the Nebraska governorship in 1895, for which Dahlman was rewarded with a job as oil inspector, and later secretary of the state board of transportation, further increasing his political influence. As Dahlman’s political career grew in scope, he moved to Lincoln and became chairman of the Nebraska state democratic committee, as well as the Nebraska representative for the DNC during William Jennings Bryan’s first presidential campaign.
In 1899 Dahlman moved to Omaha, and in 1906 he ran his first successful mayoral campaign against Erastus A. Benson.
Of the three mayors discussed here, Edward Zorinsky (1928-1987) was the only one to spend his childhood in Omaha. He was the son of Hymie and Sonia Zorinsky, both of whom were born in Russia and immigrated to the United States earlier in the century.
He grew up in midtown Omaha at 4181 Wakeley Street. After graduating from Central High in 1945, he enrolled in courses first at the University of Minnesota, then Creighton University, and finally at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he finished with a degree in chemistry. After graduation, he returned to Omaha to work as vice president at the family business, H.Z. Vending and Sales, a candy and tobacco selling company his father had founded at 12th and Douglas.
Prior to his mayoral bid in 1973, he had been very active in Omaha military, civic, and commercial circles, spending 14 years in the Military Police Corps Reserve, serving on the OPPD Board of Directors and as membership chairman for the Downtown Optimists, serving as President of the Nebraska Association of Tobacco Distributors, and being awarded “Outstanding Business Executive in the Wholesale Tobacco Industry” in 1966.
 Chase, Champion. Genealogy of Champion Spalding Chase and Mary Sophronia Butterfield, his wife. Albany, Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1894. p. 6. https://archive.org/details/genealogyofchamp00chas/page/10/mode/2up Accessed 1 April 2021.
 Ibid, p. 9-10.
 Ibid. p. 10.
 “Mayor Dahlman Is Dead.” Omaha World-Herald, 22 Jan. 1930, p. 12.
7 “United States Census, 1940. https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QSQ-G9M1-SJX4?i=43&personaUrl=%2Fark%3A%2F61903%2F1%3A1%3AK99H-LH8. Accessed 1 April 2021.
8 Omaha Polk City Directories. DCHS Archive.
9 “Zorinsky, Edward (1928-1987).” https://bioguide.congress.gov/search/bio/z000013. Accessed 1 April 2021.