Las Vegas Sun

April 18, 2014

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Dina not nearly done

For some people it's hip-hop. For others it's country music. The first few notes have them harrumphing before changing the channel.

For some in Nevada, it's Dina Titus' voice.

Although it's the equivalent of not voting for someone because she's too tall, a number of voters throughout Nevada's gubernatorial race openly expressed their disdain for the Democratic nominee based on, of all things, her Georgia drawl.

It's Southern, but for many, not exactly charming.

Eric Herzik, a UNR political scientist, said that - while a petty issue - Titus' voice was a tipping point for some voters. "It didn't cut for her, I'll put it that way," he said.

For Wendi Stewart, a registered Democrat who was interviewed by the Sun on Tuesday, that was the case. "She has a Southern accent and she's

running for governor of Nevada? Well, we don't have Southern accents here."

Gary Gray, a Democratic consultant and longtime Titus friend, said those bothered by Titus' voice used it as an excuse for their general dislike of the candidate.

"I don't think people can always quite put their finger on why they don't like a candidate," he said. "So they point to something else and say, 'That's it.' "

Steve Redlinger, another Democratic consultant, said the voice issue smacked of sexism.

"If you're a strong woman, sometimes your qualities can be turned against you," he said. "A man with a demanding voice probably doesn't catch as much flak as a woman."

Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes gubernatorial races around the country for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, found the accent issue odd given Nevada's transient population.

"Maybe voters suspected she ought not to have it anymore," she quipped. "She's been there for some time."

In fact, Titus has been here for 30 years - so long that she says she doesn't even hear her own accent anymore. And after three decades in the Silver State, she's firing back.

"Eighty percent of the people in Nevada come from somewhere else," she said. "You've got lots of accents."

Titus said she recently called a man who had complained about her accent in a letter to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

"He was from Brooklyn," she exclaimed - in, of course, her Georgia drawl.

Sun reporter J. Patrick Coolican contributed to this story.

Anyone who thought Dina Titus was going to wander the Nevada desert in an introspective stupor after losing the governor's race was badly mistaken.

In a wide-ranging interview Thursday with the Sun, her eyes showed disappointment, but she also clearly feels liberated from the verbal constraints she put on herself during the campaign.

She launched the haymakers she's famous - and infamous - for, against foes past and present, including the man who defeated her, Republican Rep. Jim Gibbons.

Titus also performed her own thumbnail analysis of her defeat, one remarkably devoid of self-criticism or regret.

Some Nevada Democrats and others, however, questioned her campaign style.

Titus has never cared much about those voices, however. And while the gubernatorial race is over, she still has her sights set on Gibbons.

"I wouldn't be surprised if he got indicted while in office," she said, referring to alleged influence-peddling revealed late in the campaign in a Wall Street Journal story that detailed Gibbons' relationship with a government contractor. If that story had broken sooner, she said, the revelations would have destroyed Gibbons' campaign.

Nevadans should be prepared for cronyism from their state government with Gibbons as governor, she said.

"One thing that does worry me is that the state will become a cash cow for a very small handful of people - every contract, every appointment, every whatever," she said. "They'll all go to a very small, select group. It's going to be Katie-bar-the-door."

Robert Uithoven, Gibbons' campaign manager, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Titus' distaste for Gibbons is visceral now, which should make for compelling political theater in the next legislative session, where Titus again will be the Senate minority leader after winning re-election to that post Thursday.

"Personally, I will never forgive him for telling outright lies about me," she said.

Regardless, Titus now must deal with the reality of a Gibbons administration .

She attributed her loss in part to Gibbons' huge financial advantage, which he used to distort her record, she said.

Titus said she also had other disadvantages that she could not overcome: She's a Democrat from Southern Nevada, and a woman.

"It's a disappointment to me," she said of the sexism she perceived. "I thought we'd outgrown that, but it's out there."

She said the glass ceiling still applies to women attempting to attain the position of chief executive. She cited media descriptions of her as "shrill" and condescending depictions of her style of dress, which no man would face on the campaign trail, she said.

Titus said the divide in Nevada between northern and southern, and between urban and rural, also was too great for her to overcome. Her strategic determination not to lose the race because she ignored rural areas, she now believes, was a fool's errand.

"I could have gotten just about the same number of votes if I never would have set foot outside of Clark County," she said. "I think it's very hard for Democrats in a governor's race. You can lead a horse to the water but you can't make him drink."

Gibbons effectively exploited some impolitic statements about Northern Nevada that Titus made in the '90s during fights in the Legislature.

"And everywhere I went people are so worried about the shift to the south, the water to the south and the power to the south - that I think that played a big factor in the governor's race. Maybe I underestimated that fear," she said.

Rural Nevadans consider Las Vegans, and Democrats especially, "the enemy," she said. Her assertion is belied by the election of former Govs. Bob Miller and Richard Bryan, who won votes statewide.

To win future statewide elections, Democrats must turn their attention to turnout in Clark County, she said. Other counties' turnouts Tuesday dwarfed that of Clark County.

"That's our challenge, to try to figure out how to get the votes out down here, not worry so much about how to switch them in the rurals because I don't think you can do it," she said.

Some Nevada Democrats and independent political analysts sympathized with Titus' plight as a candidate. They noted Gibbons' enormous financial advantage, with which he used to define Titus as anti-northern and a big-taxing liberal who would give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

"The easiest answer is money," said Eric Herzik, a UNR political scientist. "Gibbons, right after the primaries, was able to run ads that put Titus on the defensive. He defined Dina Titus. And Titus is much better on offense than defense."

David Damore, a UNLV political scientist, agreed with Titus that sexism still can affect elections' outcomes.

"My feeling is that it's this double standard that still exists in politics," he said. "An aggressive woman comes off as shrill and an aggressive man comes off as assertive."

Similarly, Gary Gray, a Nevada Democratic consultant, said: "This is a tough deal for any woman, and the higher the office the tougher the job gets.

"You have to prove yourself as tough enough to do the job and likable enough to get elected. Dina proved the first part but by doing that made herself a bit unlikable to some voters."

For that, Democrats and analysts said, Titus bears ultimate responsibility. Several people said that Titus failed to woo Democrats who voted for her Democratic primary opponent, Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson.

Moreover, she failed to soften her public image, said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

"Maybe fundamentally her problem was people didn't warm up to her, found her off-putting," Duffy said. "Maybe there was no Southern charm to go with the Southern accent."

Titus, though, said there's nothing more off-putting than a politician who tries on a fake personality.

So don't expect Titus to become some Southern belle or to keep her Southern drawl to herself. After the interview, Titus was on her way to the Senate Democrats' caucus, where, she assured, she already had the votes lined up to retain her leadership post.

And so the campaign goes on for Dina Titus.

The only real difference, she said, is no more suits.

"I can go back to penny loafers and socks," she said. "Now that's a good thing."

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