Saturday, June 21, 2008 | 2 a.m.
When he was just 18 years old and finishing his first semester of college in Reno, Steven Horsford returned to Las Vegas, took his three siblings from his mother, who was a drug addict, and got a job.
He was the receptionist at a medical clinic during the day, cleaned up the place at night, and cared for his siblings. Two of them were in preschool, the other in elementary school.
Horsford enrolled at UNLV and studied when he could.
This was his life for six or seven months.
Then his father, long absent, was murdered.
“And, I decided at that moment ...” Horsford said, his voice breaking off as he tried to power through this story.
“I wasn’t going to allow that to be my fate or to allow other people in my family to live like that. I said I want to go back to school, and I told my mom to take care of my siblings. And she did.”
He said he doesn’t like to dwell on these things.
When asked, though, it comes out, and it’s devastating to listen to, only leavened by the fact that his mother has been sober for 15 years now, and his siblings are good and strong and responsible people with healthy relationships, he said proudly.
Horsford ran in a crowded Democratic primary in 2004 and won a state Senate seat, replacing the legendary Joe Neal. He’s now the leader of his caucus, which is just one vote shy of being in the majority. He’s stepped out as a critic of Gov. Jim Gibbons and his call for a special legislative session to cut spending. It starts next week.
At 35, he’s the youngest minority leader in modern Nevada history and only the second African-American to hold the post.
The Horsford story is so literally unbelievable, so Hallmark-uplifting, that Nevadans who know him, including Democrats and Republicans, business and labor, eagerly talk about him.
Pete Ernaut, a Republican lobbyist for the public affairs and advertising firm R&R Partners and a former chief of staff to former Gov. Kenny Guinn, wanted to change the subject during a recent interview to volunteer his assessment of the state senator.
Horsford is bright, thoughtful and the future of the Democratic Party, said Ernaut, though his kind words aren’t surprising. Horsford left R&R as one of its chief lobbyists, when he was still in his 20s, to head up the Culinary Training Academy, a Strip hotel-Culinary Union partnership that then merged with Nevada Partners, another nonprofit organization that provides job training and other services for working-class families.
He manages 100 employees and an annual budget of $8 million and is overseen by a board of trustees. They’ve just finished a $12 million capital expansion project. It’s the type of experience, combined with years as a legislator and lobbyist with ties to business and labor, that could train a person to be governor of a state such as Nevada.
Nevada politics is a small and cloistered world, and Horsford is smack in the middle of it, at the nexus of politics, policy, business, labor, media.
“He knows the process,” one lobbyist said. “He knows the process and the players,” another said.
And they seemed satisfied that one of their own is running the Senate Democratic caucus.
If his legacy will amount to anything, this will be Horsford’s great challenge: to keep at arm’s length his many friends, “the players,” who know “the process.” At times, he’ll need to learn to deliver bad news to them.
Horsford knows this, and he and his friends know the question is coming: Is he too close? They gave similar and equally savvy answers.
Horsford said he has strong convictions and isn’t easily influenced. His wife, Sonya, a no-nonsense woman who’s an instructor in educational leadership at UNLV, is a grounding influence, as are the three young children they are raising together, he said.
Horsford recalled a speech he gave last year on the floor of the Senate, just as the upper house was set to pass an appropriations bill that he argued provided too little money for schools and too much money for the favorite charities of prominent Nevadans, including lobbyist/developer Harvey Whittemore and liquor magnate Larry Ruvo.
Billy Vassiliadis, who runs R&R Partners, mentioned the same floor speech and also turned to Horsford’s prominent role — he’s given the lion’s share of credit by people who witnessed it — in pushing for charter school legislation and the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, working pro bono on the issue in the 1997 and 1999 sessions. He took on the powerful teachers union to do so, as well as skeptics in both parties.
“I think Steven is all about change,” said Culinary Union head D. Taylor, who helped get him hired as chief executive of the Culinary Training Academy. “He’s a perfect example of someone who can be part of a political process, and yet promote change. He could have remained as a lobbyist, done this and that, and he chose to come work in West Las Vegas a few blocks from where his father was killed.”
Of Horsford’s relationship with the power players, Vassiliadis said:
“They’ve seen him with them, and they’ve seen him work against them. They like him better when he’s with them.”
That’s another way of saying only Nixon could go to China — an old phrase in politics referring to the fact that only Richard Nixon could normalize relations with the Asian power because no one could ever attack Nixon for being soft on communism.
By the same token, perhaps only Horsford can force the extreme change needed on Nevada government, because he’ll look his friends in the eye and tell them they have no choice, and they’ll listen and do his bidding, or at least lower their asking price.
And Horsford suggested he wants to bring big change.
“What I want to do is build a blueprint for what Nevada is going to look like 10 and 20 years from now, and work toward that methodically,” he says.
The blueprint will sound appealing to most Nevadans, and is itself a savvy stroke of constituency politics: Tax reform that would ensure “entities not contributing their share” start doing so. By this, he means the big out-of-state corporations, such as Wal-Mart, that pay a small payroll tax but little else; a “world-class education for every child, make it a priority in action, not talk”; a friendly business climate that offers broadly shared prosperity, and a “smarter, streamlined” government that works for all.
It’s the type of agenda his old friends — and clients and current benefactors — in the gaming industry could get behind, and it has a sheen of post-partisanship, with a nod to his right (streamlined government), a nod to his left (money for education), and neither and both.
He talks about returning civility to the legislative process and working across the aisle.
In this, he’s learned some things from his newest mentor, Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama. From the Obama campaign, where he also learned about running a field operation in the run-up to the intensely competitive January caucus, he also seems to appreciate the benefits of bottom-up politics, of using a big base of activists to carry a candidate and a movement and drive politics in the direction of his blueprint.
Horsford announced Friday what he calls “Nevada Speaks,” a series of town-hall meetings that will allow residents to sound off. He’ll ask Republicans to join him.
Can Horsford excite people in the same way Obama has?
A recent speech before an AFL-CIO political convention suggested he at least knows what’s required — he was a high school and college debater and in the drama club in high school (dramas, not musicals, he said with a laugh, until he remembered performing in “Fame.”)
The speech was elegantly written, tackled broad themes and was crafted for his labor audience, with nods toward health care, retirement security and safe and dignified workplaces. He referenced Samuel Gompers and Martin Luther King.
“A year from now we can wake up in a Nevada and an America where the young adult children of working families can go to work instead of war, college instead of conflict.”
That Horsford can do well is no longer in question. His is a story of success, having traveled a short distance but a lifetime from that horrible murder scene 16 years ago. He has real influence. The question now: How will he use it?