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October 20, 2014

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Behind the smiles, a rough start for the new governor

With so many options, it is hard to choose the most eccentric episode of Gov. Jim Gibbons' first week in office. There was the midnight swearing-in amid dark broodings about terrorist attacks. There was the governor's all-nighter after unknowingly consuming a caffeinated energy drink. There was the ban on alcohol in the Governor's Mansion, the surprise medical condition and the attempt to undo an appointment made by his predecessor that will likely lead to a legal battle.

For the Republican Gibbons, elected with fewer than 50 percent of the votes, it was an inauspicious start.

"Strange first week? That's putting it lightly," conservative activist Chuck Muth said.

"It's starting off like a sitcom," said a prominent Republican who didn't want to be named for fear of angering the new governor. "It's weird, bizarre and, frankly, a little creepy."

Michael Green, the Nevada historian, said, "I don't remember any Nevada governor starting off this ridiculously."

Nevada political observers are wondering what exactly is going on in the Governor's Mansion, and whether Gibbons can get back on track.

"You only have one first week, and this is the time when you start your agenda," said Eric Herzik, a UNR political scientist.

Brent Boynton, the governor's spokesman, disputed the notion that the Gibbons team was adrift, although he conceded he has been busy during his first week answering questions about diverse topics.

A review of the strange:

The governor is sworn in seconds after midnight Jan. 1 at his home, citing the need for a "seamless transition" given the potential for terrorist attacks, especially in light of the recent execution of Saddam Hussein.

To some, it seems a bit theatrical.

The formal inaugural ceremony in Carson City breaks a 35-year tradition and doesn't include outgoing Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn. In one of Gibbons' first acts, his hand shakes as he's signing a proclamation. The culprit, he tells the Reno Gazette-Journal, is an energy drink:

"Caffeine does me a number, and I drank one of these energy drinks last night that Dawn said had no calories, no sugar and no nothing. But she didn't tell me, because she didn't know, that it was 100 percent caffeine. We thought it was a diet drink. Some diet - diet from sleep."

Gibbons seems to have missed the Red Bull/Rock Star craze that swept the country the past few years.

Later, Gibbons reveals he has a chronic neurological condition that causes tremors. That led to this unfortunate statement from Boynton: "This is nothing that should affect the governor's performance. He is not a brain surgeon."

Caffeine exacerbates the condition, alcohol calms it.

Too bad, because first lady Dawn Gibbons then says she's banning alcohol from mansion parties and events sponsored by the governor and his office, assuming people would attend dry cocktail receptions, like this were Utah or something. She backs off a bit, which only seems natural given that the reception hall adjacent to the mansion is named after Larry Ruvo, the Las Vegas liquor magnate.

The first lady's comments also drew snickers because alcohol was seen as a catalyst for an alleged incident during the campaign when a Las Vegas cocktail waitress accused Gibbons of assaulting her.

Gibbons then appoints Randall Sayre to a seat on the Gaming Control Board, even though Guinn had already filled that vacant seat with Keith Munro, his former chief of staff, who was set to take office Jan. 1.

The new governor argued Guinn's appointment was invalid because Gibbons had taken office at the stroke of midnight Jan. 1. Because the vacancies began Jan. 1, he's entitled to make his own appointments.

In fact, as the Associated Press reported, "An antsy Gibbons was watching the clock so closely that he prodded his wife, Dawn, to hurry up and join him in their living room, where Chief Justice Bill Maupin delivered Gibbons' oath of office, saying, 'Any time, Dawn.'

"Gibbons began stating his oath about a minute before midnight." The governor's chief of staff, Mike Dayton, said Gibbons completed the oath at 12 seconds after midnight. How did he know? He had seen a clock on a coffee table in the room.

Guinn's backers argue that the appointment became official during those 12 seconds. Munro has thus far shown no signs of backing down. If he was considering it before, he probably isn't anymore, after a Gibbons spokeswoman said Munro's presence on the board would be potentially corrupting. The conflict will likely end up in court.

More damaging for Gibbons, however, was that the entire "Any time, Dawn" episode suggested that he had a different rationale for the dead-of-night swearing-in than the threat of a terrorist attack.

"It put the midnight swearing-in in a very different light," Herzik said.

Boynton denied that the midnight oath was related to the appointment conflict: "That was not the intent. It may help with the legal rationale. But that was not the intent."

Regardless, the appointment conflict has furthered already deep divisions in the Republican Party between Guinn and Gibbons factions, Muth said.

In the meantime, the Gibbons agenda, still largely unformed, remains in stasis.

"The governor will lay out his agenda in the State of the State speech," Boynton said. "You'll hear the same themes you heard in the campaign: an emphasis on education and on being fiscally conservative."

For many statewide political observers, the Monty Python atmosphere comes as no surprise.

"What did you expect?" said Dave Damore, a UNLV political scientist.

Billy Vassiliadis, the chief executive of R&R Partners, the advertising and public affairs firm, said Gibbons and his campaign staff were brilliant in their ability to keep the focus of the governor's race on his opponent, state Sen. Dina Titus, and the idea that she would raise taxes. Only now are we getting to know Jim Gibbons, he said: "We're just getting the first glimpse of Jim Gibbons and his world."

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