SUN FILE PHOTO
Sunday, Sept. 28, 2008 | 2 a.m.
In Today's Sun
In his first ad of his reelection campaign, Rep. Jon Porter stands next to a field of gleaming solar tiles and says he helped build the world’s third-largest solar facility right here in Nevada.
The reference is to Porter’s time as mayor of Boulder City two decades ago — and his claim that he helped build the plant is one that many public officials can make.
“We all worked on these things,” said Iris Bletsch, a former city councilwoman and mayor. “I don’t think there is any one person that can really take credit for that.”
Yet Porter did help, and it’s important to him to take some credit because, locked in a tough reelection battle, he needs to show he has initiative and can get things done, friends and former colleagues say.
In truth, however, that image is somewhat out of character for Porter. His quarter-century of public service has shown that although he is an agreeable man, community minded, his list of accomplishments is modest.
Since arriving in Washington in 2003, Porter has hewed to a conservative belief that government is a thing to be restrained, curtailed. Less is more.
By comparison, Dina Titus, Porter’s Democratic rival, believes activist government is good government.
The difference between them gives voters a clear choice in the 3rd Congressional District, which encompasses southern and eastern Clark County.
In many ways, Porter’s view of government mirrors his personality. Friends and associates describe him as quiet, subdued, even shy, a man who entered politics reluctantly, pushed to do so at the last minute in Boulder City.
To raise a family, he and his wife, Dianne, had moved in 1978 to Boulder City from Sioux City, Iowa, where the two were students at Briar Cliff College.
Porter’s parents had relocated to Boulder City a few years earlier, opening an appliance store similar to the one the family had run in their hometown of Humboldt, Iowa.
Porter had sampled philosophy, theology and business courses in college but never graduated. He was undecided about his future and, with the birth of his son, began working in the family store. The money wasn’t enough.
“It was very difficult to support my family,” Porter said. “I knew the days of the small mom and pop appliance stores were gone.”
So he took night classes in Las Vegas to become an insurance agent, which, he said, Boulder City needed. He was licensed in 1983 and started work as an agent for Farmers Insurance.
That year town elders recruited Porter to run for City Council. He had been active in the city’s Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce and, at age 26, was considered a young, fresh face.
“He had the right attitude, he was a good listener,” said Bob Ferraro, a former city councilman and mayor involved in the recruiting effort. “If asked for input, he was capable of providing it. He was never arrogant, never forward. He was always a gentleman.”
Boulder City Fire Chief Bob Sears also saw promise. “He showed he was interested in people and he knew how to solve problems,” Sears said. “A lot of politicians have big egos. He never had that. He wanted to get involved in the community, and I said we need that. I said, ‘Get your feet in there.’ ”
But Porter wasn’t sure. He called Bruce Woodbury, who had recently been appointed Clark County commissioner. Porter was concerned about balancing his family and business obligations with public office. “I told him it was not easy,” Woodbury said. “I told him to expect a lot of long workdays, but that he could do like I did and take a certain amount of work home and do it while his kids were doing their homework.”
Even with Woodbury’s blessing, Porter remained undecided on filing day. Ferraro persuaded him to file just minutes before the deadline.
The major issue of the day — urban sprawl — had been largely settled by voters themselves in 1979. With Boulder City’s population nearly doubling from 1970 to 1980 (from 5,200 to 9,500), voters passed a “controlled growth” initiative to curb development.
Developers occasionally challenged the council but the law had already been set, Ferraro said.
The council was not known as a political proving ground. “I don’t recall anybody that was overly ambitious in making their views or thoughts known,” Ferraro said. “It was a chance to work through problems and come to rational decisions. We didn’t have a lot of rancor or disagreement on council.”
Porter’s council colleagues recall him as a consensus builder who helped in the city’s efforts to move its aging airport from the center of town to a larger area south of the city. He also prevented the relocation of the city’s post office to a busy intersection out of concern for seniors, said Eric Lundgaard, a former councilman and mayor.
Sears recalled Porter’s role in the “Penny Power Project,” an effort in 1985 to set a Guinness record by laying the longest continuous line of pennies across town. It was part of the celebration surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Hoover Dam’s dedication.
Porter, who had been a registered independent, joined the Republican Party at Woodbury’s urging. “I was told I could never win office in Nevada as a Republican,” Porter said. “I didn’t know what a Republican was. People would ask me why I was a Republican. I said because I respect Bruce Woodbury, the highest elected official I know.”
He also sought other powerful posts, raising his profile. For instance, he won a seat on the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority board. He delighted in the annual trips to Washington to visit with Nevada’s congressional delegation, Bletsch said.
“Jon wasn’t one to go charging through the crowd,” Bletsch said. ”He wasn’t the life of the party. But he knew where he wanted to go and he did what he needed to do. He met the right people and served on the right committees.”
In Boulder City, the mayor — a largely ceremonial post — is selected from the ranks of the City Council. Fellow council members chose Porter to serve two two-year terms, from 1987 to 1991. The mayor essentially served as the town spokesman, in addition to being a voting council member.
Negotiations for the government land on which the gleaming Nevada Solar One power plant now sits were on and off for about 30 years before Porter, as mayor, took the case to the Legislature, winning the right in 1991 for Boulder City to seek the purchase of 107,500 acres in the Eldorado Valley from the federal government. The sale went through four years later, when Porter was in the state Senate.
The plant opened in 2007, when Porter was well into his third term in Congress.
Porter concedes that many public officials deserve credit for Solar One. “When you have five people, it’s a team,” Porter said in an interview last week. “I wasn’t there when it finished but I was there at the beginning. We had a vision ... and I’m proud to have carried that banner.”
In 1988 Porter was promoted by Farmers Insurance to district manager. His marriage, however, had ended. He filed for divorce three years earlier and the proceedings were unpleasant, with fights over child support and health insurance. (Porter said he has a good relationship with his children and speaks to them daily.)
By most accounts, Porter threw himself into work. He relished his role as mayor, assisting in the evacuation of Henderson after an industrial explosion there. He recalled fighting, along with the council, to keep developers and gaming operators out of Boulder City. There was also the effort to prevent a hazardous waste dump from opening in the Eldorado Valley, he said.
His tenure on the council, he said, gave him “perspective on the decisions you make, because they have an immediate impact.” But by 1993, in the middle of his fifth two-year term on the City Council, Porter resigned. And though he said he had no immediate plans to seek higher office at the time, he would go on to campaign for the state Senate seat being vacated by Hal Smith.
Republican Party operatives liked his profile and urged him to run. He did, and won.
Besides, he says his time on council had taught him something else: “All roads lead to Carson City.”