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October 22, 2014

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Dina Titus

A prevailing theme of the last legislative session was the ongoing battle between Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus and Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, two Democrats presumed to be running for governor.

This summer, after Perkins dropped out of the race, a Reno reporter asked

Titus whether she had shored up relations with Assembly Democrats who had rallied around Perkins.

Here was Titus' answer: "I don't have any hard feelings against them killing my property tax bill or giving my sex offender bill such a hard time or rolling my water bill into someone else's so I wouldn't get credit for it. So if I don't have hard feelings, I don't see how they could. Both sides have put it behind us and have got to move on."

There was the trademark Titus wit - drenched in sarcasm and completely gratuitous.

Titus' gifts are obvious, those who know her say. Smart, articulate, tireless. Moreover, she champions not just the politically rich demographic groups - educators and the elderly - but also those with no voice of their own: the mentally ill and the disabled.

What's inescapable, however, is the sharp verbal jab to the kidney, the sour country wit. It's especially striking when launched at friends and fellow Democrats.

Perhaps more than any candidate for governor in Nevada's recent history, Titus, a UNLV professor, has laid out an ambitious agenda for rescuing the state from its current place on "the bottom of all the good lists and the top of all bad lists," as she says.

She has called for renewable energy, a more diverse economy, as well as improved schools and health care, transportation and overall quality of life.

Now, voters must decide whether Titus can form the coalitions - public and legislative - required to enact that ambitious agenda.

Or, more bluntly: Can she lead?

"She's very tough. She's very knowledgeable. She's very prepared. She's very articulate," said Perkins, her former rival who is leaving the Assembly. Perkins said he worked closely with Titus throughout their careers, on school construction, truth-in-sentencing laws, the 2003 tax plan and money for the Southern Nevada Water Authority. He called the 2005 session an aberration and said it was bound to happen because they were rivals.

"She can be overly aggressive, almost to the point of being abrasive, but who wouldn't want someone like that, someone tough, to be their elected official?" he said.

At times, though, her toughness is directed to pointless ends. The night before her big win in the Democratic primary, she left a scolding voice mail for a young Democratic campaign worker who had the temerity to volunteer for her opponent, Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson: "You can be assured that I am not happy. So it's a bad choice that you have made, but let's just talk about it after tomorrow."

At the recent Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner, which should have been one of the crowning moments of her political life, a chunk of the large ballroom didn't stand when she was introduced. After the bruising Titus gave him, Gibson has yet to endorse her and couldn't bring himself to use her name in a recent interview.

State Sen. Mike Schneider, a longtime Democratic rival who challenged Titus' minority leader status twice, echoed Perkins, but was less sanguine: "She's smart, she'll work hard. She's more progressive. She'll come up with good ideas."

He doubted, though, whether she could create the legislative coalitions to enact her agenda: "That's her Achilles' heal, of course. Who's going to walk the gangplank for her when it comes right down to it?"

He suggested that, if elected, her best bet in the Legislature would be to "stay out of the building."

It is also well known in Democratic circles that there's no love lost between Titus and U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, who at least tacitly supported Gibson in the Democratic primary. Some Titus supporters relish the thought of a power center in the party distinct from Reid, who has come to dominate party politics. But Nevadans will have to consider whether Titus and Reid will work well together if she's elected, as governors and senators must on issues important to the state, such as the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.

To be sure, Titus has a legion of deeply devoted partisans who would run through a brick wall for her.

Matthew Dull, a professor of public administration at Virginia Tech, said, though, that "there's a difference between being a good partisan and a good executive. You don't have to be friends with people, but you have to persuade people that what you want to do is what they want to do. If you're used to punching people in the ribs, it's hard to get into the persuasion side of it."

As head of the Democratic caucus, Titus was ultimately responsible for being unable to achieve majority status, Schneider charged. He said opportunities had been squandered.

Billy Vassiliadis, chief executive of the advertising and public affairs firm R&R Partners, said he detected an element of sexism in all the talk about Titus' aggressiveness.

"I wonder how it would be written or perceived if she were a man," he said. "She's one of the most determined, driven, persistent people I've ever been around."

If elected, Titus would be Nevada's first woman governor.

Vassiliadis, a former student of Titus, said he's tired of hearing people say, "She's smart, she's tough, but ."

"But what? Isn't that enough? At what point does governing matter?" he said.

As minority leader, he said, Titus has had no choice but to be louder, more aggressive, more obstinate. "How did people view Newt Gingrich when he was in the minority? He was a bomb-thrower before he was a visionary."

Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, called her a worthy adversary: "She's hardworking. She's very knowledgeable and does her homework. She's a strong advocate of her issues. She's won some. I've won some," he said.

The reality, however, is that he has won most, and he has maintained his majority status. During the 1997 session, for instance, she was the second-most frequent dissenter in the Senate with 44 "nay" votes. Raggio voted "nay" just once, which indicates that he was busy passing legislation that she was opposing.

Titus has her share of legislative accomplishments, such as preserving Red Rock from development, consumer and environmental protection and money steered toward education, health care and social services.

But she has often been stymied. One of her biggest defeats was the so-called "ring around the valley," which aimed to create smarter growth policies in Southern Nevada.

She hadn't built the coalition required for such a far-reaching and visionary policy. Clark County Commissioner Yvonne Atkinson Gates, a Democrat, went so far as to hire a real estate consultant to testify against the legislation in Carson City.

Titus lashed out at the time: "Egos got involved. They got upset that I was stealing their thunder."

She has said in interviews that despite the defeat, she spurred debate about growth, although that's like Hillary Clinton saying she spurred debate about health care after her resounding political defeat on the issue in 1994.

Assemblywoman Barbara Buckley, a Perkins ally last session and the presumed next Assembly speaker, said many of Titus' accomplishments have been unheralded because they've helped the dispossessed, such as work on disability rights.

"You wonder how convenient it is to paint a woman in a negative way like this," Buckley said. "But the big picture is, she's absolutely the best person for the job."

Early in her Senate career, Titus' Democratic colleague Joe Neal was on the receiving end of the infamous Titus wit. During a debate about criminal penalties for gang-related offenses, she quipped: "In the time it took for Sen. Neal to make his remarks, three more people were murdered by street gangs."

At one point, the two stopped speaking. Titus called him a "dinosaur" and said, "For him to be effective he needs to stop this pouting."

The case of Neal, however, shows Titus can be gracious and can reconcile - traits she may need if she is to govern effectively.

When Neal retired, Titus gave him a send-off in a Senate floor speech: "Sen. Neal is much more than a role model. He is a man who has changed the face of this state. He is a man who has made history. Although he has left the Senate, if we know Sen. Neal, he will remain very much involved in public policy issues. He is going to keep calling it as he sees it, unbought and unbossed."

Neal, in a recent interview, returned the favor: "She would be the smartest governor we ever had, with the exception maybe only of (Mike) O'Callaghan." He praised her "integrity" and "steel-trap mind."

"You have to have vision and thinking. Titus has that."

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