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December 18, 2014

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Gibbons had chance to silence his critics

But his actions in days leading up to Friday’s session left some furious

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Tiffany Brown

Gov. Jim Gibbons went back and forth in his stands on state budget cuts as Friday’s special session neared last week. Even his closest allies were caught off guard.

Gov. Jim Gibbons came close, tantalizingly close, to getting the fresh start he so badly needed.

But then there’s the back story, a story of Gibbons doing his best Gibbons, which is to say, he kept making a mess of the slate he was trying to wipe clean.

When all was said and done during a tumultuous 24 hours at the end of a week, after speaking to the state about Nevada’s fiscal crisis and convening a special legislative session, his closest Republican allies in the Legislature were furious with him.

Gibbons has been beset by political and personal crises during the past two months, most of his own making, including a divorce, the revelation that he was using his state cell phone to exchange more than 800 text messages with a married woman during the 2007 legislative session, and a raft of bad news about Nevada’s foundering economy.

He called a special legislative session two weeks ago, directing legislators to cut an additional $250 million from the ailing state budget after he’d cut $914 million in the previous nine months.

The political motivation was plain as day: Change the subject from the salacious divorce and his rapidly diminishing stature and show the governor as a strong executive.

And during the past two weeks and the past few days, even though he never consulted key legislators about the special session and then was forced to delay it, he indeed had his moments.

His televised speech to the state Thursday night allowed him to show empathy for Nevadans experiencing tough times, call on legislators to act responsibly, redouble on his promise not to raise taxes, and refuse to back any cut in teacher pay increases or signing bonuses.

For Nevadans who don’t pay close attention to politics, he likely came off as a decisive and responsible leader.

Gibbons also managed to dump two senior staffers, Chief of Staff Mike Dayton and Chief Operating Officer Dianne Cornwall, whose infighting and perceived incompetence had become deeply distracting to the administration.

Gibbons was said to be getting advice from Sig Rogich and Robert Uithoven, two experienced political hands.

Josh Hicks, the governor’s counsel and widely perceived to be the most competent member of his staff, was named chief of staff. Hicks and Gibbons’ allies are scouring resumes and reaching out for new talent with this sales pitch: Yes, rehabilitating this administration will be difficult, but if they get it done, the glory and satisfaction will be sweet indeed.

So the governor had made an attractive public appeal and cleaned house, readying himself for a brutal 2009 legislative session that will face more fiscal hardship. And, if he could oversee a productive 2009 session, then a spot as the Republican nominee in the 2010 governor’s race — which seemed totally far-fetched a few weeks ago — suddenly wasn’t out of the question.

But instead, he deeply angered Republican allies with his typical scattershot approach, which seemed to have no regard for the collateral damage of his words and actions.

When Gibbons called the special session two weeks ago, he persuaded state Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio and Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert, a Reno Republican, to sign off on delaying a cost-of-living raise for teachers, an incendiary issue and one for which legislators of both parties immediately said they didn’t have the votes.

And yet, in his speech Thursday, Gibbons spoke like a fiery union rep for the teachers and said he wouldn’t break promises to teachers. Education is his highest priority, and he would not renege on the raises, he said piously.

Raggio was livid.

Gansert, who had changed her mind on cost-of-living adjustments and had come out against delaying them several days ago, was asked whether she and Raggio had been “thrown under the bus,” to echo the phrase being bandied about the Legislature. Gansert nodded slightly and replied: “I don’t know how to respond to that.”

Gibbons also criticized the size of the budget passed in 2007 as “overpromising.”

For Raggio, who has long been a lonely defender of the governor, this was the nightmare scenario. Raggio’s facing a primary challenge from former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, who is running to the right of Raggio, the warhorse of Republican and state politics. No doubt Raggio fears Angle will use the governor’s criticism against Raggio.

Raggio rebuked Gibbons publicly Friday, noting that the Legislature used the governor’s own proposed budget as its blueprint last year.

Friday morning, Gibbons met with Raggio in the Senate leader’s office. Gibbons was said to be largely absent from the budget-cutting negotiations between Raggio and Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, all week. But now, at the final hour, he wanted to negotiate a legislative plan to delay purchasing textbooks, which would save $45 million. In Gibbons’ Thursday speech, he came out against it.

“The time to negotiate is over,” Raggio told the governor, according to a person familiar with the conversation.

Raggio told the governor the Assembly and Senate were going to pass their package of cuts, and the governor was free to veto it.

“If you do that, it will be the quickest override in state history,” Raggio said, according to the source.

Raggio delivered it in a firm tone. But for a sitting governor, it was the equivalent of a dressing down.

Gibbons also waved the white flag frequently: He wanted to close Nevada State Prison, save money for textbooks, propose a spending cap for next session. All were ideas he embraced in interviews last week or in his speech. By Friday, he had retreated from them all.

And then there are those photos. Gibbons, who filed for divorce from his wife, Dawn, in May, was again spotted with a woman not his wife, holding hands and hugging. This time, at the Reno Rodeo, one of Northern Nevada’s most important sporting and cultural events, and presumably one at which the governor would normally serve as an ambassador.

The photos, published Friday in the Nevada Appeal, which is Carson City’s daily, showed him hugging the woman — a former Playboy model — in the rodeo parking lot. A news cycle that should have been dominated by stories of the governor leading was instead given over, at least partially, to his dating life, or whatever.

(The governor’s response to a question from the Sun’s Cy Ryan was typically bizarre: “You can talk to Leslie,” he said, referring to Leslie Durant, the woman in question. “But I think she will tell you if (there’s something that) takes the romance out of a friendship it’s being there when her child is born. I held her hand when her child was born. That’s how close a friend we are.”)

Those close to Gibbons were dejected by the governor’s risky behavior in such a public place.

“Indefensible,” a source close to the governor said.

In the end, what might have been an opportunity for a surge in public popularity and a profusion of new clout and command landed with a fairly dull thud.

And so rather than getting a bounce, a Republican lobbyist said, Gibbons will get a “dead cat bounce.”

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