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July 23, 2014

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Divorce as political spectacle

Governor may have asked for privacy, but observers say his actions invite public scrutiny

When word of marital trouble in the Governor’s Mansion seeped out, Gov. Jim Gibbons’ allies hoped for as quiet a divorce as possible.

That clearly is not how things have gone.

Custody of the Governor’s Mansion is in dispute. At least part of the proceedings will be secret — but the debate over that has been extremely public. And Dawn Gibbons’ attorney has not been hesitant to make statements to the media.

One Republican political consultant compared the story to the swarm of small earthquakes that shook Reno recently, putting people on edge. “Everyone’s anxious. All these little statements coming out, people are wondering if this is going to lead to something much bigger.”

On Friday, attorneys for the governor filed for divorce, citing incompatibility as grounds for ending the marriage. The governor also asked that Dawn Gibbons pay his attorney fees. Later his attorneys asked a judge to rule on whether he or Dawn Gibbons should be living in the Governor’s Mansion, as she had for weeks, while he stays at the couple’s home in Reno.

Chuck Muth, a conservative activist, posted an entry on his influential blog, muthstruths.com, headlined: “This Is Gonna Get Ugly.”

“It appears that any hope for this matter being resolved quickly and quietly has now vanished. The spectacle of a long, drawn-out, ugly public divorce appears to be in the cards,” he wrote.

In an interview, Muth said the governor bears some responsibility for how the divorce is playing out in public.

“With how badly this is being handled, I lean toward blaming the governor on this,” Muth said. “He has the most to lose. He has the greater responsibility to make sure this does not spin out of control.”

Asked about the realities of a public divorce, Cal Dunlap, Dawn Gibbons’ attorney and former Washoe County district attorney, said: “I don’t care about the politics. I’m representing the interest of my client.”

“Any matrimonial matter can be settled,” Dunlap added. “There’s often a disagreement over the terms. And that’s what will determine this matter. Not anything else.”

Gibbons succeeded in getting parts of the divorce filings sealed, as allowed under state law. Dunlap, who said the decision to seal some records was made by the judge before he was aware of it, has not decided whether to challenge the statute under which the judge made the decision.

He said, though, that Dawn Gibbons thinks the public has a right to know about the matter.

“When a person assumes public office, the pleadings, if not the trial, should be open to the public,” Dunlap said. Open proceedings, he said, allow the public to judge the character of elected officials.

In Friday’s statement, the governor’s attorneys said they would not answer any questions and asked the public to respect his privacy.

Many of the governor’s allies contacted for this story would not speak on the record, partly for fear of going against his wishes.

However, their views were typified by a veteran political observer who said, “This is being handled horribly.”

Pointing out that Dawn Gibbons has said publicly she doesn’t know why her husband of 21 years is divorcing her, the source added: “It’s clear she doesn’t want to divorce him. He seems like the bad guy. I’m sure there’s another side to the story, but it’s not clear what that might be.”

And in the meantime, no one is publicly defending the governor.

Muth said it isn’t the divorce itself that is potentially damaging to the political career of Jim Gibbons, a former congressman not yet halfway through his first term as governor.

“A divorce, I think, people could take,” he said. It’s the ancillary issues — asking for attorney fees, sealing documents and asking for an order forcing Dawn Gibbons to leave the Governor’s Mansion — that could lead to a perception problem for the governor.

“They could all be legitimate, legally, but the way he’s handling this doesn’t look good,” Muth said.

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