Sunday, July 27, 2008 | 2 a.m.
When Gov. Jim Gibbons hunted for land here to build a retirement home last year, he chose wisely.
His 40-acre plot outside Elko rests at the base of the Ruby Mountains, northeastern Nevada’s great and largely unknown wonder. Not far from Gibbons’ plot is Lamoille Canyon, the “Yosemite of Nevada,” a deep majesty carved by ancient glaciers and now home to Himalayan snowcocks and bighorn sheep that drink from a generous lake.
Gibbons’ land sits above the verdant Lamoille Valley. Cattle graze and occasionally saunter down the gravel roads, and the lightning storms are a show in the sky.
It would be a great place to live out his years.
And so it will be a bitter irony if Gibbons is forced to retire early because of this place, to end his career as Nevada’s governor after a single term because the people who once supported him so passionately, his rural Republican base, have abandoned him.
Although Elko voters amounted to just 2.8 percent of Gibbons’ 2006 statewide total, the county is emblematic of the attitudes of Republican rural Nevada. And without rural Nevada, Gibbons is finished.
In Elko they’ve tired of his tenure, with its endless melodramas, and they say he’s forgotten them.
Gibbons beat his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Dina Titus, here by more than 40 percentage points, but recently Elko has played host to two Gibbons imbroglios.
He found himself engaged in a fight with the local newspaper over his divorce from his wife, Dawn Gibbons. More recently, the elected Republican assessor said Gibbons and his attorney had pressured him into giving a tax break to Gibbons for his Elko land by designating it agricultural even though the assessor didn’t think it should qualify.
The ranching community here is sharply divided on whether Gibbons’ retirement land should get the special agricultural tax rate. Overall, however, his popularity in this county of 50,000 people and 17,000 square miles is slowly evaporating, prominent Republicans say.
“I think he’s lost considerable support in our area,” said Charlie Myers, a Republican member of the Elko County Commission.
That’s the going assumption, held by other Elko Republicans, from an assemblyman to another member of the County Commission, from ranchers to businessmen. Mention Rep. Dean Heller, the Republican who replaced Gibbons in Congress, and several nod their heads and say he could beat Gibbons in Elko County in a 2010 primary. Heller has said he’s focused only on winning reelection this November against Democrat Jill Derby.
To be sure, many in Elko remain strong supporters who want Gibbons to succeed. In a county so overwhelmingly Republican that Democrats often fail to field candidates, the fear is that his struggles will lead to the election of a Clark County Democrat as governor in 2010.
For residents of Elko, this is the nightmare scenario, combining regional, cultural and political antipathies. Validly or not, they see the triumph of Southern Nevada Democrats as a threat to their way of life.
So, many in Elko still stand behind Gibbons.
Glen and Casey Guttry own Good Morning Furniture, a store of fine pieces that no doubt benefits from Elko’s continued strong economy. With the value of the dollar in the basement and endless geopolitical uncertainty, investors have flocked to precious metals as sound investments. With its rich gold deposits, Elko County is thriving, as evidenced by the Toronto investment bankers drinking Picon cocktails and dining on heavy Basque food at the Star restaurant in downtown Elko last week.
Glen Guttry is with Gibbons all the way: “I think he’s sympathetic to our issues. He supports mining and low taxes.”
Guttry said Gibbons has gotten “a raw deal,” and his wife, Casey, agreed. “He’s catching a lot of grief for things that aren’t his cause. His personal life is his personal life,” she said, referring to Gibbons’ divorce.
But they couldn’t deny the recent unpleasantness.
The Gibbons’ marital problems blew up when the local Elko Daily Free Press published an unsigned editorial that accused Jim Gibbons of having an inappropriate relationship with a married woman. Gibbons responded with a letter to the editor that offered a sharp denial, a move widely seen by political observers as ill-advised.
Indeed, Casey Guttry said Gibbons should keep his private life private: “It just adds to his chaos. He should just zip the lip.”
Glenn Guttry echoed that advice: “I think he’s been at the wrong place at the wrong time, too many times.”
(During the past few years, Gibbons has found himself on a luxury yacht, at nightclubs, at fancy restaurants and at the Reno rodeo, often photographed in unflattering situations.)
Ben Kieckhefer, the governor’s spokesman and one of a new batch of advisers hoping to get the governor back on track, said he thinks Elko residents will come to the same conclusion that Glen and Casey Guttry have, that Gibbons has kept his word and advocated for them.
“Gov. Gibbons is the very same person voters in Elko supported” by more than 40 points, Kieckhefer said. “He promised to be a fiscally responsible governor, which he’s executed beautifully. He’s provided strong conservative leadership.”
Gibbons, with legislative approval, has balanced the state’s budget by enacting more than $1 billion in spending cuts in the past year, avoiding any tax increases — an achievement that warms hearts in strongly anti-tax Elko.
Kieckhefer acknowledged the governor’s low approval rating, which hovers below that of President Bush’s historic bottom, but he said all politicians suffer the same fate during recessions.
But interviews with members of Elko’s political elite suggest something deeper than a mere reaction to a cyclical economy, which, in any case, is still fairly robust in Elko.
Assemblyman John Carpenter has represented Elko in the Legislature for more than 20 years. He reared seven children and once owned 50,000 acres of ranch land, but retired and now owns and manages with his wife, Roseann, a restaurant and RV park in town. One morning last week, Roseann upbraided him for his soiled hat and shirt. He’d been digging a ditch.
Carpenter was careful with his words, choosing to quote constituents rather than offer his own opinions.
“I think he’s got support on his no new taxes stand, but they’re disenchanted with his private life,” Carpenter said. “We have quite a few people who don’t agree with his moral values.”
Carpenter said Gibbons has been responsive on some issues, including wildfires and grazing, but silent on others. He said he rarely hears from the governor’s office, unless he initiates contact.
He said everything rides on Gibbons’ performance during the next legislative session, which is expected to be a bare-knuckle fight, with a potential budget hole of $1 billion.
Gibbons will likely do battle with Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, who’s considered a contender for her party’s nomination for governor. Buckley is one of those Las Vegas Democrats, but listen closely to what Carpenter said about her:
“I talk to her easy,” Carpenter said. “She’s a pretty smart lady.”
Asked if he’d ever consider voting for her, Carpenter grinned and quipped, “I’m sure not saying I won’t.”
Unlike Carpenter, other Elko Republicans say Gibbons’ private life is a nonissue.
Instead, Myers, the county commissioner, said his constituents think that especially on appointments to boards and commissions, the governor has turned his back on Elko, which supported him so strongly in 2006.
Tom Gust, on the state transportation board, was a favorite of Elko residents and was not reappointed. There’s also a fight brewing with the governor over appointments to the wildlife board, which is not a trifling matter here because of avid hunting, fishing and other sporting communities.
“When he’s making appointments, I think, he needs to remember he took Elko County and he needs to look at Elko County and review capabilities of people out here, and we have good people out here,” Myers said.
John Ellison, owner of Ellison Electric in town, is one of the most popular Republicans here, on the County Commission eight years and considered Carpenter’s natural successor.
Sitting at his desk inside his cramped office, whose walls are adorned with photos of Ellison with famous Republicans, he called the governor’s divorce “a mess” and tragic for all concerned. Though still a strong Gibbons supporter, Ellison said the governor needs to be more active on matters important in the region.
“He needs to get back in and look at rural Nevada issues,” he said. These include cricket control, gas prices and payment in lieu of taxes, which is money the government gives to rural counties because it owns so much rural land.
“He should be beating the drums to get the Legislature to act on these issues, to get our delegation to act in Washington,” Ellison said.
Some of the rank and file are more blunt. Ken Wellington is a retired Metro Police officer who moved to Elko. His wife is a small-business woman and Wellington is a Republican civic activist and volunteer serving on the County Commission’s wildlife advisory board.
“It’s frustrating watching this guy,” Wellington said. “So many little things, and it just adds up. I can’t believe I supported that man. I’m disgusted.”
Wellington said he was only half-joking when he told his Democratic mother, “We would have been better off with a Democrat from Clark County.”
Kieckhefer thinks these former supporters, with time and care, will come home.
“Ultimately, when the voters of Elko County step into the voting booth in 2010, and they’re looking at Jim Gibbons, and they’re comparing him to whomever the Democrats put up, they’ll look at his commitment to low taxes, to mining, to small business and to ranching, and they’ll see he’s done a good job. He’s kept his promises to them.
“That’s probably something they’re not used to from a politician.”
Still, there’s a bitterness that’s unmistakable.
“I got as much acreage as he does, and I’m not allowed to get the tax break, and I’ve got water and horses,” Wellington said, referring to Gibbons’ disputed tax break for his land.
That brings us full circle, via the Lamoille Highway, from Elko past Spring Creek to Lamoille and Gibbons’ land.
If you get a flat tire on the way, drivers of no fewer than four vehicles — trucks all — will offer help.
In the center of the village sits O’Carroll’s, a simple wooden structure, like a pub in the old country, though with a healthy front porch. The ranchers here drink domestics, compare notes on tractors and the effects of the recent rain on their hay. It’s probably no exaggeration to say there are no piercings, no tattoos and no Democrats.
Mention you’re from Las Vegas, and mention you want to talk about Gibbons, and snickers erupt.
Some of the ranchers think Gibbons should get his tax break, if not because they like the man, but because they want county assessors to continue reading the law in an expansive way.
Gibbons bought the land last year for $575,000. Although he isn’t using it for agriculture, he leased the land back to the original owner, former District Judge Jerry Carr Whitehead, who uses it for grazing. Whitehead, another controversial figure in this valley, left the bench while under federal investigation in 1996. He didn’t return a call from the Las Vegas Sun.
According to Joe Aguirre, the Republican county assessor who has accused Gibbons of putting him in an awkward spot by allegedly asking for a tax break he didn’t deserve, Gibbons’ 40 acres must yield at least $5,000 in revenue to be classified agricultural. Whitehead wrote checks totaling about $5,700 to Gibbons in exchange for the land. Gibbons and his attorney, state Tax Commission member John Marvel, think that constitutes the necessary $5,000 in agricultural revenue.
Critics of the governor, including state Democrats who’ve launched an official ethics complaint, say the land, about half of which is good for grazing, isn’t close to being worth $5,700 in agricultural revenue. They contend Whitehead overpaid.
For some in the ranching community, allowing leased land such as Gibbons’ to be classified agricultural will help struggling ranchers and farmers. That’s because a more expansive, liberal interpretation of the law, one more likely to grant the tax break, would make the land more valuable — other wealthy outsiders would be willing to pay a premium, as Gibbons did, if a tax break came with it.
But to others, Gibbons has threatened the integrity of the program, and, thus, potentially, the program itself.
Carpenter said he is no expert on the statute, but added, “It was put in there for guys really in agriculture and ranching.”
O’Carroll’s filled up one day last week as the rain came down, and Mike Gallagher stood at the side of the bar sipping a drink. Gallagher is a prominent Elko resident from a prominent ranching family — his mother is on the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents. He owns 1,000 acres, as well as the city’s Ford dealership. Gallagher regularly hosts fundraisers, including one for Gibbons when he was in Congress.
Here is what Gallagher said in O’Carroll’s about Gibbons: “It’s a ranching community. People are down to earth. I can’t see him fitting in. A lot of the stuff he’s pulled lately put a sour taste in our mouths.”
Gallagher has a water project in mind for Northern Nevada. Gallagher said he and his brother met with Gibbons for an hour to try to explain the project. He said the governor seemed detached, “out in left field.”
The governor is “a laughingstock,” he said.
Dean Heller’s name came up.
“Dean would be a credible candidate.”