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April 19, 2014

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Rebecca Lambe: The force behind state Democrats’ success

Reid credits her with turnaround, but she has her critics in the party

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Tiffany Brown

One way Rebecca Lambe helped rebuild the state Democratic Party after 2002 was to get Democrats to run for local offices, which she saw as steppingstones to future state races.

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The Nevada Democratic Party’s recent success is often credited to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

But when Reid is asked who should get credit for the party’s resurgence — 100,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, control of the state Senate and Assembly, a 12-point victory for Barack Obama in November — he largely points to a 38-year-old adviser and strategist virtually unknown outside Democratic inner circles.

Rebecca Lambe has emerged as one of the most powerful figures in Nevada politics since her arrival in 2002. Within the party she wields her influence with a quiet intensity, and elected officials, consultants and lobbyists regard her as the voice of Harry Reid.

“Rebecca Lambe has been a genius in Nevada politics,” Reid said in a statement to the Sun. “Because of the work she has done over the last several cycles, the Nevada Democratic Party is stronger than it has ever been.”

It was Lambe who first approached Reid about securing an early presidential caucus for Nevada and pushed to hold presidential debates in the state, both of which are credited with energizing the party. According to Democratic political operatives, Lambe is also responsible for much of the strategic thinking behind effective — and often brutal — “coordinated campaigns” that culminated in the Democratic trouncing of Republicans in 2008.

“She became, without a doubt, the linchpin in rebuilding this party,” said Billy Vassiliadis, the Democratic political guru. “It has led to the kind of years we’ve had the last two elections.”

Republican political consultant Pete Ernaut called Lambe “the single most important hire Democrats have made in turning their ship around.”

For her part, Lambe deflects much of the praise, crediting others — and no one more than Reid.

“This is a vision had by Sen. Reid. I’m here to help implement it,” she said. “It’s a culmination of the work of a lot of people — it took donors, allies and activists to move the ball forward.”

Along the way Lambe has stepped on toes and offended members of the party — perhaps an inevitability given the internecine nature of party politics. Some of these dissenters see Lambe as an all-powerful figure who pulls the strings of party players and circumvents its elected executive board — a view fueled by the fact that Lambe’s work is carried out behind the scenes and beyond the public eye.

She is notoriously wary of granting interviews and is rarely quoted in state or national news media.

“Everyone knows she’s the one who decides what happens in the state party,” one critic said. “I think there’s a frustration. I’ve seen some good activists who want to throw up their hands, and walk away.”

•••

Nevada Democrats’ low point came in 2002.

Republicans carried all six constitutional offices. Republican Jon Porter had won the race for the newly created congressional seat, defeating Dario Herrera, the former Reid golden boy who would later go to prison on corruption charges.

The base was dispirited, and the party was ineffectual.

A longtime political consultant described the party’s overall effort to elect candidates that year as “nothing more than the figment of someone’s imagination.”

Vassiliadis described the party as a feudal state with various “warlords” — candidates and labor organizations and activists — running their own programs, sometimes at cross-purposes.

“The day after the debacle of 2002, I drove down to Searchlight and met with Sen. Reid for a few hours,” Vassiliadis said. “He did what he always does: ‘Let’s get off the mat and fight back.’

“We discussed that day the need to professionalize the party, bring some folks in here who knew what they were doing — real pros,” Vassiliadis said.

Reid could raise the money. But one question remained: Who should head it?

Some thought the role should be filled in-state, by someone who knew the landscape and the players.

Others argued against that idea, saying there was no one without scars from the infighting.

Reid and Susan McCue, his then-chief of staff, discussed the job with Lambe.

Before getting an offer, Lambe moved to the state. “I had fallen in love along the way,” she said, referring to Mark Jolley, a high school friend she had kept in touch with over the years.

Lambe and Jolley, a former Republican politico who works as a marketing executive for a health care company, married in 2003. They have two children, 5 and 3.

In February of that year, Lambe started as executive director of the Nevada Democratic Party.

•••

Lambe grew up in Anchorage, Alaska. Her mom stayed at home, while her father worked as a geologist.

At 18, she left home to attend the University of Missouri, Columbia, with plans to become a journalist. At college she got her first taste of campaigning as a campus volunteer for the Missouri Democratic Party. (She graduated from the university in 1993, with a degree in journalism and political science, and later earned a law degree.)

Over the next decade she rose through the Missouri party’s ranks, eventually becoming deputy chief of staff to Gov. Mel Carnahan and working on his U.S. Senate race.

Carnahan died in a plane crash weeks before the Senate election, but still defeated incumbent Sen. John Ashcroft. Carnahan’s wife, Jean, was appointed to the seat and Lambe served as her state director.

Two years later, Lambe managed Jean Carnahan’s reelection campaign, losing by 0.2 percent of the vote.

Soon after, when Lambe arrived in Nevada, she found a party “without a lot of permanent structure.” There were two staffers, no voter file — information on registered voters that allows parties and campaigns to more precisely target individuals — and debt from the 2002 election.

Lambe invested in technology to build a voter file and in training for workers who walked the field with hand-held digital devices. The information they collected could be quickly uploaded and accessed by candidates statewide via the Internet.

Lambe and others within the party also decided to emphasize getting Democrats elected to local nonpartisan offices, city councils and county commissions. The reasoning was that local offices were important steppingstones.

Both the Clark County Commission and Las Vegas City Council are now entirely Democratic.

“It’s important that we build a strong bench and have good Democrats at every level of office,” Lambe said.

In 2004, Reid won reelection against a weak opponent and the party picked up a few Assembly seats, but failed to turn the state for its presidential candidate, John Kerry.

In 2005, Lambe became Reid’s Southern Nevada regional director, though she continued to advise the party on strategy. According to some political consultants, that’s when she began to assert herself, steering potential Democratic candidates to races and shaping campaign teams, even as she remained behind the scenes.

“When you’re talking about the anointing process” — where the state’s powers, from gaming companies to labor unions, line up behind a single candidate — “you’re largely talking about Rebecca Lambe,” said one senior Democratic official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. The official explained that if you’re a Democrat and want to run for a major office, you need to find out what Reid thinks. And to get that information, you talk to Lambe.

Lambe, who has direct access to Reid, denied there’s an “anointment” process. She said she does not tell candidates not to run, but does meet with them and give them advice.

“If you’ve got two good candidates running in a primary they can’t both be successful,” she said. “I want to make sure people know what their options are. That doesn’t prevent them from making their own decision and running if they want to.”

•••

In 2006, Democrats made more progress, picking up four constitutional offices, while losing close races to Porter and then-Rep. Jim Gibbons, who won the Governor’s Mansion. But by that point, the party had in place what would be the key to its turnaround — an early slot in the 2008 presidential selection process.

The caucus is now regarded as a major landmark in state political history, but in the beginning the “narrative” — a word Lambe uses frequently — was negative.

National political reporters said they wouldn’t visit the state and expressed skepticism over whether Nevada could pull off such an important political event. Lambe, who is a major fundraiser for the state party, had to hit up donors to fund the caucus. If it was a failure, those relationships would be damaged.

Two nationally televised Democratic debates were held in Nevada. And on caucus day, in January, more than 100,000 people participated, more than even the most optimistic had predicted.

In November an energized party unseated Porter, got a veto-proof majority in the Assembly, took control of the state Senate (defeating two possible Reid challengers, Republican state Sens. Joe Heck and Bob Beers, in the process) and gave Obama a comfortable victory.

But with those victories came a few wounds, some of which still fester.

Some say the party has become less democratic under Lambe, leading to a backlash by some grass-roots members. These party activists, who would not speak on the record for fear of retribution, blamed a lack of communication between the professionals such as Lambe and the volunteers.

“She’s become something like a bogeyman,” said one critic. “People don’t even know what she looks like but they know her name. Anything they don’t like, they attribute to her.”

Lambe inserted herself into the race to select a national party committeewoman but the candidate Lambe supported lost — some say because of the backlash against the establishment. (Lambe said when it became clear more than one candidate wanted the position, she became neutral.)

Lambe, according to those who have worked with her and know her well, takes the criticism personally.

Her response: “Activists are the backbone of this party. There’s no way we would be where we are without everyone’s involvement. That speaks doubly for activists.”

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas and the state party’s national committeeman, said the results speak for themselves — unprecedented grass-roots involvement during the early Democratic caucus. “The Nevada Democratic Party is now viewed as one of the best in the country,” he said.

Other Lambe defenders are less diplomatic.

Vassiliadis said the party, around 2002, was a “giant debating society.”

“Having a forum for complaining was better than winning,” he said. “For every one person that’s disgruntled, there are 100 new people involved.”

•••

Some cynics say all of Lambe’s work, all of the party-building, has merely been prelude to 2010, when Reid faces reelection.

As Senate majority leader, Reid is a national figure, and a national target. Even though no major Republican opponent has emerged to challenge him, his polling numbers are so low that his allies are nervous.

But Lambe said she’s no cynic. The party’s work has been about electing good candidates who will do what’s best for the public, she said.

On more than one occasion Lambe mentioned that during her time with Carnahan, the late Missouri governor, she worked with the Missouri Legislature to expand health care for children of the working poor. She said that victory, 11 years ago, still reminds her why she does what she does.

“We want to elect people who will do the right thing and are in a position to help, whether it’s children or currently unemployed workers or people who care about environmental issues,” she said.

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