Sunday, Oct. 5, 2008 | 2 a.m.
In Today's Sun
The Legislature was finished with its business — or so it thought.
It was June 2001 and lawmakers had spent countless hours redrawing the boundaries of legislative districts to reflect the 2000 Census. Rapid growth during the previous decade had given Southern Nevada a new congressional seat, and leaders from both parties had finally reached a compromise on where it would go and what it would look like.
The compromise collapsed for a variety of reasons, but many legislators pointed to one: Fair or not, they blamed one of their own for holding out for boundaries that would best boost his run in the new district. That was state Sen. Jon Porter.
Eight months earlier he had run against Rep. Shelley Berkley, the Democratic incumbent in Nevada’s 1st Congressional District, and lost by 7.5 percentage points. Porter would have a better chance running in a new district without an incumbent — and which promised Republican-rich neighborhoods.
It was a rare flash of ambition for a small-town insurance agent who had come to Carson City in 1994 after serving ten years in Boulder City as a councilman and mayor. Like his personality, Porter’s tenure as councilman and state lawmaker was quiet, making his angling for the new congressional seat all the more remarkable.
With the clock running down, Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, a Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, a Republican, cut a gentleman’s agreement on the new district. Under the deal, Perkins and his caucus would sign off on plans to enlarge the size of the Legislature, ensuring Northern Nevada retained power despite losing population. In return, Raggio would sell his caucus on a slight Democratic voter-registration edge in the new congressional district.
Porter wasn’t pleased. Neither were national Republicans, who put pressure on Raggio to do everything in his power to give the presumptive candidate an edge. The roadblock though, according to those involved in the negotiations, was Republican Sen. Ann O’Connell, a fiscal conservative from Southern Nevada who opposed expanding the Legislature.
Gov. Kenny Guinn was forced to call a special session so that lawmakers could finish drawing the map. Porter got to this point in his political career after resigning in 1993 from the Boulder City Council. Not long afterward, he kicked off his campaign for the state Senate seat being vacated by Hal Smith. Republican operatives liked his profile and recruited him to run.
“Too many people run today who are just hacks and looking for a place to land in the universe,” said Steve Wark, a consultant involved in the recruitment. “Then there’s this successful guy with a successful insurance company, who did a fine job as a councilman and mayor. He was well-liked. People thought of him as conscientious and fair and approachable. It’s a great combination for a legislator.”
Porter’s views on government were already formed. “It’s interfering, starting to take away some of (people’s) own personal freedoms,” he said at the time. In his first campaign, he advocated term limits and stiffer penalties for criminals. He won in 1994, and quickly found his place in Carson City the following year, drawing on his experience as a city councilman. “He wasn’t a neophyte,” O’Connell said. “It takes awhile to learn where the restrooms are before you understand the process. He had an advantage: he knew the process already.”
In his first term, he ascended to majority whip and vice chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Las Vegas Review-Journal, using an informal poll of lobbyists, gave him an “A” rating in his first session, based on his understanding of issues and his moderate, bipartisan views.
Porter was active on education and growth debates.
He introduced legislation to study the breakup of the state’s countywide school districts, and Clark County’s in particular. (He sat on an eight-member study panel of legislators that ultimately decided against breaking up the districts.) Later, he co-sponsored legislation that enabled the creation of charter schools.
On growth, Porter proposed a 21-member Southern Nevada Planning Authority to study growth requirements in Clark County, a measure opposed as unnecessary bureaucracy by county commissioners. He won, and, after the 1997 session, announced he had requested a packaged of six bills to manage and pay for growth. The announcement, he said at the time, was intended to force the group, composed of local governments, to hammer out solutions before the next session.
Porter says he has always been a consensus builder.
“I always try to seek common ground,” he said in an interview last month. “I try very hard to bring people together, and I try to bring people together who have the wisdom and the information.”
Wark said, “One of the things that’s always been important for Jon is to weigh decisions, to bounce ideas off other people. He doesn’t launch out into the deep end and scream for everybody to follow him.”
Some colleagues saw that as a lack of leadership.
“Jon is a very friendly, amiable person and he wasn’t out to make enemies,” said state Sen. Bob Coffin, a Democrat. “The only problem there is if you don’t make a few enemies you know you haven’t pushed somebody hard enough.”
As an assemblywoman, Chris Giunchigliani, a Democrat, worked with Porter on growth issues but said he had a tendency to draw out issues through study. “I believe I’m elected to make the tough decisions,” she said in 1999. “Jon is more likely to say, ‘Let me check with so-and-so.’ “
Others saw it as a virtue, especially in a place rife with partisanship.
“Jon was much more a compromiser,” O’Connell said. “Some of us have pretty strong feelings one way. We’re much more brittle when it comes to bending.”
Porter himself argues that his approach has seen his district and Nevada in good stead. He worked with Perkins and Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson, both Democrats, to start Nevada State College. He created a fund providing health care, job training and housing for foster children when they transition into adulthood. And he chaired the board of Las Vegas Events, a private group contracted to oversee and coordinate the city’s largest special events.
After having been reelected in 1998 to Carson City, Porter ran against Berkley in 2000, after his friend, Sen. Mark James, opted out.
Even though Democrats in the district outnumbered Republicans by more than 40,000 voters, Porter felt the timing was right. “He had not expressed dissatisfaction with being a state senator,” Wark said. “I always looked at his desire to run for Congress as something that was right for him at the time. Jon always seemed pretty sure of the fact that where he was where he wanted to be at that moment.”
Porter’s candidacy was backed heavily by national Republicans, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who held several fundraisers for him in Las Vegas. Still, Porter trailed by double digits in the polls for the length of the race. He and Berkley jousted over Yucca Mountain, education and prescription drugs, but as the campaign came to a close, Porter remained unknown to more than 20 percent of the district’s voters.
Berkley won convincingly and Porter returned to Carson City, where the Legislature would soon take up the task of creating the 3rd Congressional District. After the Perkins-Raggio agreement collapsed, lawmakers reconvened for a special session. In the end, Berkley and Rep. Jim Gibbons ended up with safe districts for their parties, while the new district would be competitive, evenly split in registration.
Porter dismissed legislators who blamed him for the special session.
“If I had any say, the district wouldn’t have been evenly split,” Porter said. “I appreciate them giving me that much (credit) but I think they’re mistaken. Leadership drew the lines.”
In fact, one of the Republicans’ redistricting consultants was Mike Slanker, who would then become Porter’s campaign manager.
And with that, Porter was off and running for a congressional seat, and two weeks after that special session, he was holding his first fundraiser.