Las Vegas Sun

November 24, 2014

Currently: 46° — Complete forecast | Log in | Create an account

Augustine lived up to her reputation

For 90 minutes, Kathy Augustine was everything people said she'd be: tough to the point of abrasive, lashing out at enemies - Democrats, Republicans, the media.

She was self-pitying and self-aggrandizing. "My party abandoned me and threw me to the wolves," said Augustine, the state's elected controller, who died Tuesday after a heart attack. She was 50.

"I'm not the first constitutional officer to be censured. Frankie Sue Del Papa was censured. It seems to be only sticking to me," said Augustine, who was impeached and convicted in late 2004 for using her office for political purposes. She was censured by the Nevada Senate, but not removed from office.

Rather than walk into the political wilderness, she was running for state treasurer.

Two weeks ago, I was in Northern Nevada, in part to meet Augustine for a profile I was writing. When I told people what I was doing, they always offered some smirk or sneer, followed by a remark that usually went something like, "Well, have fun with that." Rarely had I met someone who provoked such strong reactions.

But why?

No question, she was intense. She stared so hard at me that I couldn't look at her. She never seemed to blink, either. It was oddly exhilarating talking to her.

A native Californian, Augustine moved to Las Vegas in 1988 and ran for the Assembly in 1992. She sent out an infamous campaign mailer that showed a bad photograph of her African-American opponent, and the words, "There is a real difference."

Fourteen years later, she still defended it, pointing out that the ad also listed differences between the candidates on issues. Then she offered a clumsy defense: One of her oldest friends is black. She'd never felt any remorse, she said. And she won.

In a mailer for her 1994 state Senate run, Augustine accused her opponent, incumbent Lori Lipman Brown, of refusing to pledge allegiance to the flag and being against prayer. Turns out, Lipman Brown, who's Jewish, would leave the Senate chambers during the prayer because it was a prayer to Jesus Christ.

And the part about the Pledge of Allegiance? Just a flat lie.

But it worked, and Augustine became a state senator, though Lipman Brown won a defamation suit - decided years later - and Augustine had to acknowledge that her accusations were untrue.

The campaign tactics were all Sig Rogich's idea, she said two weeks ago, referring to the Republican political consultant.

Her eyes widened with rage when she talked about her censure for using state equipment for her 2002 re-election campaign for controller. Everybody does politics in their offices, she steadfastly maintained. For crying out loud, she seemed to be saying, they're political offices.

Then there was Paul Adams, the Republican Party chairman who pushed through a bylaw change to prevent the party from supporting - financially or otherwise - any candidate who had been impeached and convicted while in office. It was seen as a direct attack on Augustine, an attempt to distance the party from a tainted candidate.

"I'd served in public office for 10 years before he even came to the state of Nevada," she said of Adams, her voice thick with contempt.

The investigation into her political affairs began only six months after her husband at the time, Charles, died from a stroke in August 2003.

What was that like? I asked. You must have been just coming out of the shock from his death?

She ignored the question and switched the subject, saying the White House told her in January 2004 that she was a finalist to become treasurer of the United States. (The position is a largely ceremonial one, distinct from Treasury secretary.)

Right then, however, the investigation began. "It was definitely politically motivated," she said. Someone had it in for Kathy Augustine.

I asked again. Her husband was dead, she was being investigated: What was that like?

"I didn't even co-mingle the two in my mind," she said. "He was very supportive of what I was doing, and he was able to give me that outside opinion because he wasn't involved in it, and I really missed his outside counsel and advice, but, um "

Her voice broke suddenly, and she started to cry.

"I'm glad he wasn't around to see what happened," she said, her voice breaking again.

And then a look of terror came over her, as if her worst fears were being realized. She was a woman running for office and crying in front of a reporter.

I felt terrible for her, but I also was weirdly happy for her, too. Beneath it all, beneath the accusations and the attacks and the self-pity, beneath the carapace and the makeup, there was a human being.

She then looked almost relieved. It couldn't have been easy to always be "Kathy Augustine."

And I would have liked to have gotten to know her a little better.

Join the Discussion:

Check this out for a full explanation of our conversion to the LiveFyre commenting system and instructions on how to sign up for an account.

Full comments policy