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September 20, 2014

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With the dirt flying, party backing away

GOP support for Gov. Jim Gibbons erodes after wife’s allegations revealed in filing

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Tiffany Brown

Dawn Gibbons appears by her husband’s side during an October 2006 news conference. She filed papers in court Wednesday (May 28, 2008) that are apparently an argument to open the couple’s sealed divorce filing.

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  • Gov. Jim Gibbons' response when asked about his wife's allegations that he has a girlfriend.
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Gov. Jim Gibbons’ political future turned bleak Wednesday as prominent Republicans said his support in the party is quickly disintegrating in the wake of the latest court filing in his divorce.

Although the sentiment has been building quietly for months, explosive court papers filed by his estranged wife Wednesday gave party regulars freedom to speak openly about the governor’s future, saying he would be pressured into not seeking reelection or face a primary challenge.

“Is he viable? Who’s going to prop him up? Not the party,” said Steve Wark, a longtime activist. “Does he have the money to be a viable candidate? Certainly not.” Sen. Warren Hardy, R-Henderson, said he continues to support and respect the governor and wishes him well during a trying time. But he also said party activists have approached him about running for governor in 2010, which can be taken only as a sign of frustration among the Republican rank and file. (Hardy said he has no interest and wouldn’t consider running against Gibbons.)

At the Republican state convention in Reno recently, Gibbons said he will seek reelection. The decision may no longer be his, however.

Republicans say serious discussions are taking place around the state among political and business leaders about how to extricate the party from the increasingly messy divorce proceeding between Dawn and Jim Gibbons. They say Jim Gibbons has handled the matter poorly by attempting to evict the first lady from the mansion and not settling the matter quickly and quietly.

The governor’s short but eventful tenure has been marked by unforeseen challenges, as well as problems of his own making. His political appointments have drawn fire and he has been politically tone-deaf to severe problems facing the state, including the foreclosure crisis and Southern Nevadans’ deteriorating confidence in the health care system following a hepatitis C outbreak at a well-known medical clinic. An FBI investigation of his relationship with a defense contractor remains unresolved.

At the same time, his tenure has been beset with bad fortune: the worst Nevada economy in decades and the need to cut essential services, such as education and health care.

Now he faces an increasingly public divorce that is turning nasty.

Wednesday’s filing by Dawn Gibbons’ attorney Cal Dunlap, a former district attorney who is said to love a public fight, is ostensibly an argument to open the now-sealed divorce filing. In fact, however, it’s clearly part of an aggressive media strategy to paint the governor as a cold, philandering liar.

“Despite his disingenuous, shallow, and transparent protestations that his relationship with another man’s wife is a mere friendship, his infatuation and involvement with the other woman is the real, concealed and undisclosed reason for his voluntary departure from the marriage,” the court filing states.

The filing comes after an editorial in the Elko Daily Press alleged that Gibbons was having an affair with an unidentified woman. (Gibbons responded to the item with a strongly worded letter to the editor saying the woman is just a friend.)

Dawn Gibbons, meanwhile, has shown up in a few sympathetic media profiles.

The court documents do not name Gibbons’ alleged mistress, calling her a frequent “bar, lunch, dinner, and even grocery store companion” with a “striking resemblance” to Chrissy Mazzeo, the woman who accused then-Congressman Gibbons in 2006 of getting drunk and making a pass at her in a Las Vegas parking garage during the final weeks of his race for governor.

Republicans fear the spectacle will become even more public.

“The toothpaste is out of the tube,” Wark said.

Robert Uithoven, who ran Gibbons’ congressional office and his gubernatorial campaign, said the governor must steel himself for an ugly public feud and stay focused on the state’s business. “I care a lot for the Gibbons family and this is sad, and in a way it’s disgusting, how one side wants this played out like it’s the most important issue in the state. I don’t think most citizens of this state want this.”

To be sure, many Republicans are publicly standing behind him. Even that support, though, seems tepid.

When asked if the divorce would affect Gibbons’ political future, Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, said, “It’s up to the people when they vote for him.”

The reelection, Cegavske said, “is two years away. We have to wait and see what happens then. To speculate, right now, I think it’s premature.”

Joe Brown, the Republican national committeeman, said he believes the governor still has some strong support in the state.

Chuck Muth, a longtime conservative activist, said Republicans he talks to are aghast at the public nature of the divorce and have begun discussing limiting the damage and finding someone else to run in 2010.

Other Republicans, including a prominent lobbyist, a political operative and a state legislator, echoed Muth’s comments but declined to do so publicly.

Sen. Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, intimated that the governor and his allies would begin fighting back.

“All I see so far is that he has wanted to keep this out of public discussion, which is the normal reaction given they have a son and family members potentially embarrassed by whatever ‘he said/she said’ is involved. That kind of discretion takes two, and it appears Mrs. Gibbons has no interest in that. I imagine sometime in the next couple of days, we’ll see the ‘he said’ portion of it.”

There is little doubt that the governor’s divorce has become a distraction.

At a news conference held Wednesday evening in Las Vegas to discuss a program for teachers buying their first homes, a TV reporter asked Gibbons what the nearly dozen members of the press had apparently come for:

“Governor, there’s an allegation out there made by your wife that you have a girlfriend ...”

Gibbons responded: “Let me just say — let me just answer your question. First of all, I have answered this. You can read my response in the Elko Daily Free Press,” he said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to discuss my personal problems in the public. And I’m not going to do so.”

The reporter then started to ask a follow-up question.

“Governor, does the FBI probe have anything to do with you not ...?”

“Absolutely not,” the governor interrupted. “That’s a phony, facetious question to be asking.”

His spokesman stepped in front of the podium.

“And that’s going to do our press conference.”

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