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August 21, 2014

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Workhorse, or stalking-horse?

As Nevada’s attorney general takes a deliberate approach to her job, some observers wonder where her priorities lie

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CATHLEEN ALLISON / SPECIAL TO THE LAS VEGAS SUN

Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto at her Carson City office.

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Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto poses with Deputy Attorney General Biray Dogan following a swearing-in ceremony on Thursday. Speculation that Cortez Masto may run for governor in 2010 is rife, but she has been noncommittal so far.

Beyond the Sun

Catherine Cortez Masto is always well-prepared and articulate. She’s graced with an angular face framed by a bob of jet-black hair and wears fine suits. With a little practice, she would make great television: the tough, youthful but mature attorney general, standing on the steps of a corrupt mortgage lender or corporate polluter, railing on behalf of the great state of Nevada.

But like Melville’s Bartleby in “Bartleby the Scrivener,” she would prefer not to.

She pursues popular initiatives with little fanfare, head down, studying, avoiding conflict. It’s her style. It’s who she is.

Or, just maybe, it’s a calculated step toward the Governor’s Mansion. Only Cortez Masto knows for sure.

To hear Cortez Masto and her many supporters tell it, she’s a workhorse, not a show horse.

“I don’t take a stance to score political points. That’s not what I’m about. That’s not why the people hired me. If I do take a stand on something, it’s because I’ve thoroughly researched it,” she said in an interview Thursday at her Reno office.

Secretary of State Ross Miller lauded his fellow Democrat, also first elected in 2006. “When it comes to Catherine, people mistake her being well-reasoned, deliberative and thoughtful for being passive,” Miller said. “In fact, she’s been incredibly effective.”

The 44-year-old Cortez Masto is quietly diligent, hardworking and an effective manager in the process of repairing the morale of the office, which has had three leaders in 3 1/2 years, say her many advocates, who include her staff, legislators and lobbyists — Republican and Democrat alike.

“She’s not looking for headlines, she’s looking for solutions,” said Assemblyman Bernie Anderson, a Sparks Democrat and longtime chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Cortez Masto is about as close as it comes to political royalty here. Her father, Manny Cortez, was a beloved county commissioner who went on to run the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. He was close to power brokers on both sides of the aisle, including Democrat Billy Vassiliadis and Republican Sig Rogich. They cleared the field for Cortez Masto, counseled her and helped her raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Strip on her way to a crushing victory that included winning traditionally Republican rural areas.

And yet, with the legendary discipline and rigor that have marked her entire career, Cortez Masto paints a portrait of herself as an entirely apolitical professional, an image that seems odd given her lineage.

In the Sun interview, she spoke of her agenda and her accomplishments in a language sometimes thick with inscrutable bureaucratic management jargon. A former assistant county manager and briefly chief of staff to former Gov. Bob Miller, Cortez Masto spoke about organizational structure, management training and succession plans: “The state has classified and unclassified positions. Most of my office positions are unclassified, all my attorneys, all of my investigators and even some of my senior staff and support people. So that makes a difference for people.”

She spoke of her role on innumerable blue ribbon panels, “working groups,” a “statewide community coalition board.” Each has numerous “action items.”

She highlighted her key issues, which likely poll as well or better than apple pie: confronting methamphetamine and prescription drug abuse, stopping senior abuse and neglect, advocating for abused children and domestic violence victims, nabbing Internet sexual predators and identity thieves, and the controversial “Teaching Tolerance Task Force.”

She’s taken a rural tour and read to children.

At times, Cortez Masto has been forced to consider controversial issues, principally the merger between UnitedHealth Group and Sierra Health Services, which, once approved, created a giant health insurance company that will dominate the market.

Merger critics, including doctors and the nurses union, hoped Cortez Masto would block the move, which they feared would place too much power in the hands of one company. They pointed to the company’s spotty record, including the accusation that UnitedHealth had 130,000 claims-handling violations in California alone.

Cortez Masto decided she didn’t have standing to stop it in court, but got the newly merged company to agree to give $15 million for health care programs in Nevada.

A business lobbyist, who said Cortez Masto’s legal reasoning was dead-on, called her performance “masterful.”

For some Democrats, though, Cortez Masto’s reluctance to take on powerful enemies is wearing a little thin.

“She’s not been an activist attorney general like we’ve had in the past,” said Las Vegas state Sen. Dina Titus, who cited Frankie Sue Del Papa’s aggressive and public tenure as the model.

(Del Papa praised Cortez Masto in an interview, calling her “very well thought of.”)

Sen. Bob Coffin, another Las Vegas Democrat, used cryptic language, though his meaning was clear: “What happens when people come to Carson City is they all become better friends.”

The liberal blogger Hugh Jackson recently wrote: “If anybody knows anybody who knows Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, could you please tell them to tell her to take an interest in the (Public Utility Commission’s) duties, obligations and responsibilities to protect the public interest?”

Democrats, many of whom asked to remain anonymous so they could speak more freely, said they were frustrated by the pace of an investigation into Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, the Republican former state treasurer accused of misusing state funds and destroying documents. They want Cortez Masto to take on Gov. Jim Gibbons and attack his budget cuts as a danger to public safety. They wanted her to speak out about Clark County’s officer-involved shooting inquest process, which underwent reform last year without her voice.

They say they had hoped she would be a more forceful and public advocate on behalf of consumers, the environment, workers and the downtrodden.

The critics’ models here are the aggressive attorneys general around the country of the recent past, including the now-disgraced Eliot Spitzer, but also Andrew Cuomo of New York, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Lisa Madigan of Illinois and Marc Dann of Ohio.

“The state attorneys general have broad powers to oppose unfair and deceptive trade practices,” said Peter Swire, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a law professor at Ohio State University. “That gives an attorney general latitude to test what seems unfair.”

The issues she could pursue are numerous, in addition to the ones mentioned by Democrats.

She could look into recent reports of a flawed worker safety regulatory regime; investigate the widespread prostitution in Strip casinos and whether Metro Police are properly pursuing the issue; join Sen. Harry Reid in his opposition to coal plants; examine the proliferation of sham companies that incorporate here; look into the governor’s legal defense fund; delve into the legality of the tip-sharing policy at Wynn Las Vegas opposed by dealers there; and take a more public role in the recent hepatitis C scare and the ongoing foreclosure crisis.

Cortez Masto says she’ll be joining the fray on some of these issues, including coal plants, hepatitis C and the foreclosure mess, in good time, after she’s weighed the evidence and the law. Just not yet.

She noted, correctly, that she doesn’t have the same resources as other attorneys general.

Still, she seems to take a narrower view of her office than many attorneys general.

When listing her priorities, she seems most focused on providing effective representation for state agencies and working with law enforcement on issues such as the meth scourge and protection of women and children.

Not surprisingly, Republicans applaud her view of the office. Gerald Gardner, a former senior lawyer in the attorney general’s office who is now an assistant district attorney in Carson City, said, “My impression is that she sees the job as defined by statute and the Constitution, as counsel to the state officials and agencies, and executing a limited prosecutorial function, and not much more.”

State Sen. Bob Beers, the most libertarian member of the Legislature in his opposition to government intervention in the free market, said, “She’s doing her job. Those other issues, what would she do?”

Rogich, a former aide to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and an adviser to Gibbons, said, “I’m impressed with everything she does, really. She does a great job in her official capacity and is someone we can be proud of.”

It’s not the kind of praise usually sought after by up-and-coming Democratic officeholders, which would seem to offer evidence that indeed, she’s not a politician but a quietly effective consensus builder and a competent professional.

But then the question of her plans comes up and with it, a possible run for governor in 2010.

“I can tell you a lot of people have talked to me about that,” she replied during the interview. “When I originally ran I felt the A.G.’s office afforded me the opportunity to do the things I thought we should be addressing. I am 14 months into my first term and that’s been my focus.

“I honestly think it’s too early and wouldn’t be fair to the people who elected me if I was out there saying I want to be governor. It’s not something I have any intention of doing right now.

“In (2010) when I look back and make that decision, where I want to go, if I want to seek a second term, or if I’m even able to do that, or move on to something else, I’ll take a look at it then.”

It’s the type of answer often heard at Tim Russert’s table on “Meet the Press” from a politician almost certainly planning a race for a higher office, in her case governor in 2010.

The suspicion is only bolstered when Rogich is asked if he would support her if she ran for governor: “I can’t speculate because we don’t know what she’s going to do.”

In that light, Cortez Masto’s press-shy, modest tenure as attorney general, in which she’s avoided big fights and powerful enemies, isn’t apolitical at all. It’s a plan, and it’s entirely political.

Sun reporters Mary Manning and Alex Richards contributed to this report.

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