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September 1, 2014

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Could speaker be the next governor?

Buckley’s rare resume an asset, but she’d have to widen appeal

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BRAD HORN / NEVADA APPEAL

Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, right, speaks with Dr. Mary Pierczynski, Carson City School District Superintendent at the Nevada Legislature. Education has been a key issue for Buckley during her career.

Face to Face

Barbara Buckley was a freshman assemblywoman in 1995 when legislators and lobbyists were trying to hammer out a law related to the Navy “Tailhook” sexual assault scandal in Las Vegas.

A compromise reached in the state Senate nearly collapsed in the Assembly.

“We were trying to figure out who to work with,” gaming lobbyist Billy Vassiliadis said. “There she was: An attorney, smart, credible, no baggage, and she put it to bed.”

He was referring to the neophyte Buckley, who saved the deal.

Vassiliadis says another longtime lobbyist, Harvey Whittemore, remarked as they were leaving the negotiating room: “Man is (Buckley) smart, and are we gonna be in trouble.” It was a joke, Vassiliadis said, “but it was said out of respect.”

That’s been the Las Vegas Democrat’s reputation ever since: The tough negotiator who knows the details and doesn’t countenance fools. And, Whittemore’s prediction proved true: Since she became the first woman speaker in the history of the Nevada Assembly, the lobbyists, who’ve long run things in Nevada, aren’t using her office as a boys’ club locker room.

For Buckley, it’s been a swift rise. She had moved here from Philadelphia and cleaned hotel rooms at the old MGM, worked through UNLV and made Law Review at the University of Arizona law school.

After arriving in the Assembly, she rose to majority leader quickly. She forged relationships with key liberal interest groups and the gaming industry and has held an iron grip on a 27-15 majority. Her Democratic colleagues appreciate that she delegates responsibility and shares credit.

In the past few months, as the state has fallen deeper into a financial mess, an economic malaise and a worsening set of health, education and welfare dilemmas, she’s taken an increasingly public role as an opponent of Gov. Jim Gibbons.

The whispers of a 2010 run for governor are now in the open, with the state’s political insiders chattering after a potential Democratic rival, Clark County Commission Chairman Rory Reid, commissioned a poll that showed him beating Buckley and Gibbons.

(Reid has known Buckley for at least 15 years and has always respected her intelligence and knowledge of issues, he said.)

The questions Buckley must answer: Can she convert her mastery of the legislative process and become a popular leader — a governor?

Can the insider become a woman of the people? Can she connect with voters on TV and take part in the rituals of retail politics? The answer isn’t clear.

With the election 28 months away, it may seem like idle speculation, but such political undercurrents will influence the 2009 legislative session, during which the state will face a projected $1 billion budget deficit.

In 2005, former speaker Richard Perkins entered the legislative session much as Buckley will next year, with establishment support and money for the 2006 governor’s race, but he was swept away when he couldn’t read the political winds.

The winner of that battle was state Sen. Dina Titus, who went on to win the Democratic nomination. Republicans like making the comparison: Both are women from Southern Nevada who voted to raise taxes and have accents (Buckley still retains some of her Philly, though it’s no Georgia Titus drawl.)

(Buckley allies say the comparison wouldn’t be made if they were men.)

Buckley’s closest friend in the Assembly, Reno Democrat Sheila Leslie, praised the speaker’s intelligence and collaborative leadership style. She brushed aside the Buckley-Titus comparison.

Buckley’s story, beginning on the bottom rung of Nevada’s ladder — and literally cleaning it — is appealing, and the image of her young son running around the speaker’s office will resonate with TV viewers, especially working women who can relate to the struggle balancing work and child care.

And unlike Titus, Buckley enjoys the advantage of majority status, giving her a longer legislative resume on issues from education, health and mental health to consumer protection. (Her withering gaze on the payday loan industry is an every-session ritual.)

Some of that legislative legacy is being dismantled because of the more than $1 billion in cuts. In an interview, Buckley seemed genuinely affected by it. As a longtime advocate for women, children and the disabled — she also heads up the nonprofit Clark County Legal Services — she’s well-positioned to be a statewide voice during the next legislative session.

So the potential for a run for governor is there. Equally important, she raised $175,000 last year and no doubt has collected several hundred thousand more already this year. (Elected officials report their fundraising in August.)

A Democratic insider who was granted anonymity to speak freely questioned her potential: “She’s a very good inside player. Might be one of the best. But she’s yet to broaden her appeal.”

Another Democrat said some party insiders would rather see Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto running atop the ticket, with her law enforcement bona fides, Nevada roots and lack of a voting record on taxes.

Buckley said her only electoral focus is on winning reelection.

Whatever she decides, Buckley is intent on forcing big change on Nevada government, beginning next session: “The system needs to be overhauled.”

In a speech before the special legislative session last month that aired across the state, she tried to grab Nevada by the shirt collar and give it a good yank.

“And so here’s my pledge to you beyond this special session: I will do everything in my power, after meeting my constitutional duties and fiduciary responsibilities, to never do this again,” she said, referring to the state’s cyclical fiscal crises.

She said the state needs to prioritize spending and consider fundamental tax reform, though the state’s strong cohort of anti-tax crusaders, including Gibbons, will oppose any tax increase.

Ben Kieckhefer, a spokesman for the governor, said the governor respects Buckley and the office she holds and wants a better relationship with her. He added that there’s no evidence states with different tax systems — meaning less reliant on gaming and sales — are any better off than Nevada right now.

In the interview, Buckley was vague about what this all means for the next session. She said in the short term she would host public gatherings to discuss the state’s future. This way, she can gauge public opinion and develop her statewide persona.

Gloom and doom doesn’t sell, so Buckley will have to watch her tone. She’s banking on Nevadans’ being fed up and looking for a new way forward: “I think most people want a better quality of life in Nevada,” she said.

But here’s a key question, one that may determine her future and the state’s future: Are Nevadans willing to pay more for it?

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