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August 30, 2014

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Nevada’s Top 10 political stories of the decade

Jon Ralston recounts the scandals, leadership changes and economic shifts

As the 21st century dawned, even though the state was evenly split in voter registration, Republicans controlled the state’s most important offices, inhabiting five of the six constitutional slots.

Harry Reid held the obscure position of minority whip, toiling in relative anonymity on the U.S. Senate floor; John Ensign was out of office, having been ousted by Reid in a memorably close 1998 election; and Jim Gibbons was in his second undistinguished term in Congress, seemingly poised to be a backbencher in a safe district for life.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman had been in office for six months, a colorful but bit player on the political scene, having wrested control of the council from Michael McDonald after an eleventh-hour decision by Lynette Boggs McDonald to side with His Honor on his appointment choice of Michael Mack, a local pawnbroker. The Clark County Commission had recently added a dynamic young pol named Dario Herrera, seen as a rising Democratic star and future state or federal leader. And the Legislature was led by a pair of longtime inside players — Assembly Speaker Joe Dini and Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio — two northerners who decided everything in the session’s waning days, slicing up pork and programs and rarely having to raise taxes to do so.

Ten years later, as the first decade of the new millennium expires, the changes have been profound.

Democrats have seized control of the state in voter registration and constitutional offices (four of six), but face ominous electoral skies as the second decade begins. Reid has become, perhaps, the most powerful Nevadan in the country’s history while Ensign has risen to potential presidential contender status only to be felled by a metastasizing personal indiscretion. Gibbons has become the most talked-about governor in state annals in almost all pejorative ways, while Goodman has become the most colorful, dynamic and Teflon pol in anyone’s memory. And the decade has featured the two largest tax increases in history, the first sparking a conflagration that scorched the state’s political landscape.

Along the way, several politicians have strutted and fretted their hours on the decade’s stage only to be heard no more. They disappeared via scandal (McDonald, Mack, Herrera) or death (Controller Kathy Augustine) or promise unfulfilled (Speaker Richard Perkins) or electoral elimination (Rep. Jon Porter, Boggs McDonald).

What are the stories that defined the first decade of the new century in Nevada? Here they are in order, although the rankings are only slightly more subjective than the choices.

No. 1: The sting that won’t go away

In 2002, Herrera (Congress) and his commission colleague Erin Kenny (lieutenant governor) lost bids for higher office. But the pain of those losses was mild compared with what occurred the following year when they and two other commissioners, one current (Mary Kincaid-Chauncey) and one former (Lance Malone), were ensnared in a federal probe that became known as

G-Sting, a relatively penny ante but sordid corruption scandal involving payoffs from strip mogul Mike Galardi. All eventually went to prison, with Kenny turning on her former comrades and testifying against them in court. Only Malone remains imprisoned, but the effects of the case were far-reaching, cementing in a cynical public’s mind that unethical behavior suffuses the most powerful local government board in Nevada and forcing gubernatorial hopeful Rory Reid, the current commission chairman, to play the reformer as he seeks higher office with his unfortunate title as an anchor.

No. 2: The leader who didn’t fail (yet)

Harry Reid went from minority whip to minority leader (after Tom was Daschled in 2004) and to majority leader after the 2006 balloting. In so doing, he became potentially more powerful than Nevada senatorial legends such as Pat McCarran and Alan Bible, and spent much of the decade being a foil, sometimes effectively, sometimes not, to Bush 43. He seemed to vitiate his impact with intemperate statements, calling the president “a loser” and declaring the Iraq war “is lost,” thus continuing a pattern of extemporaneous rhetorical vomiting that probably made many of his supporters want to gag and to gag him, too. But Reid’s power to dictate Senate business, his ability to bring home bacon and his control over the Democratic Party (he brought the presidential caucus here with expert backroom maneuvering) could not be questioned. But whether that was a blessing or a curse has come into question this year as his association with the new administration’s agenda, the possibility of Reid Fatigue after 40 years in public life and his acknowledged limitations have put his re-election in serious jeopardy.

No. 3: The guards, they are a changin’

Nevada has always been seen as a relative backwater compared with many states that have long had women and minorities in leadership positions. But the past decade in Nevada has witnessed several dramatic changes and two prominent firsts: The first female Assembly speaker, Barbara Buckley, a dominant legislative force who might well have been governor if she had not opted out for personal reasons; and the first black Senate majority leader, Steven Horsford, who is also the youngest. Women also have ascended to other high-profile spots, including the election in 2008 of Dina Titus to Congress. The rise of the South — both legislative leaders are from Clark County — also must be noted. The effects of term limits, imposed by fiat rather than electoral changes, also have begun to have an effect, shifting leadership in Carson City and eventually in local governments, too.

No. 4: The great tax bonfire of 2003

Those who experienced it will never forget it and still have flashbacks, including lawmakers who still remembered the consequences during the 2009 session’s tax debate. It took one regular session, two special sessions and a state Supreme Court decision that will live in infamy before the $836 million tax increase was enacted 6 1/2 years ago. The reverberations were felt long afterward, affecting a slew of political careers, including high court justices who are no longer there (Deborah Agosti, Nancy Becker) and lawmakers who still have the issue raised in campaigns — Titus suffered in 2006 when she ran against Gibbons, who dubbed her “Dina Taxes.” Rarely has partisanship so infected the legislative process and the disease imported from D.C. continues to linger in Carson City.

No. 5: We’re No. 3, we’re No. 3, we’re No. 3

Nevada had never been much of a factor in presidential politics because of its small number of electoral votes. A quick stop on the way to California’s electoral vote riches, 10 times ours, was the most the state could hope for from reflexively pandering (“I hate Yucca Mountain, too!”) candidates. That all changed in 2007, though, when state Democrats, led by Harry Reid, persuaded the Democratic National Committee to change the rules. First, Nevada was sandwiched between Iowa and New Hampshire and eventually the state was placed third. The effect was immediate. The contenders were here regularly — and even stayed overnight. A CNN debate was sited in Las Vegas. The candidates begged to appear on “Face to Face.” It was a bonanza for the state, the media and the Democrats, who surged to a 100,000-vote registration edge over the GOP that mostly survives today.

No. 6: The late, great budget crisis

The national recession that began last year slowly affected Nevada’s economy and a state budget so dependent on gaming and sales taxes. The hemorrhaging resulted in two special sessions last year and will cause an inevitable one (at least) in 2010, too. The deficit has had an undeniable political impact, too, increasing tensions between the executive and legislative branches and providing a potential lifeline to a drowning Gibbons. The governor has been able to use the immense power of the executive branch in Nevada to appear to be a leader as lawmakers help him by squabbling among themselves and inadvertently making Gibbons look gubernatorial. The end-of-the-decade budget woes have helped tilt the state back toward the GOP and presumably would make being governor a less attractive job with a looming $2 billion-plus shortfall come 2011. But, from the looks of the prospective field, raw ambition trumps economic reality.

No. 7: The sad, short saga of Jim Gibbons

Gibbons’ campaign for governor was ho-hum — accuse Titus of being a tax-and-spend-liberal, push the illegal immigration hot button, rely on his northern and rural peeps for victory. That all changed the night of Oct. 13 when something — we will likely never know exactly what — occurred between him and Chrissy Mazzeo. From that day forward, Gibbons’ career has been a slow-motion train wreck, staying on the tracks long enough to win the race even after an illegal nanny accusation and an FBI probe surfaced, but running off the rails from Day One of his administration with a secret swearing-in ceremony that he misled the public about with a phony cover story about homeland security. The rest is history. Rhetorical gaffes aplenty. Lack of legislative engagement. Textgate. Filing for divorce, reports of other women. Staff shake-ups. Space denies me the ability to record it all. But he became so irrelevant that I dubbed him The Man Formerly Known as Governor, or Ø. His approval rating now hovers around 20 percent and most Republicans are praying he won’t make good on his commitment to seek a second term.

No. 8: The shooting star falls to Earth

The serendipitous retirement of Richard Bryan made Ensign a shoo-in to take his place in the U.S. Senate as the decade began. His friendship of convenience with former foe Reid made Harry Ensign a team that seemed likely to exist for many years and as Ensign ascended to the No. 4 position in the GOP leadership, Nevada seemed blessed. His telegenic good looks and glibness made him a natural frontman for the GOP on national television programs and rumblings of a long-shot White House bid surfaced. Then came June 16. The shocking admission that the moral crusader who had demanded Bill Clinton’s resignation and shunned Larry Craig was an adulterer. Then the information began trickling out over a period of weeks — it was a staffer, the wife of his best friend, who then began a crusade to extract money and revenge. As word of parental hush money and Ensign’s role in landing Doug Hampton jobs surfaced, the Senate Ethics Committee revved up and the Justice Department watched. Ensign is on political death row; the only mystery is the method of execution.

No. 9: The longest running show on Earth

Goodman could have had no idea a few months into his term as 2000 began just how much he would enjoy being mayor and just how natural a political talent he was. But after he dispatched McDonald from the council’s power summit early on, he soon realized that performing as a politician wasn’t much different from performing as a criminal defense lawyer: Say anything so long as you do it with panache and the ingenuous masses will eat it up. Denial of the mob’s existence morphed into denial that he was anything but a chronic inebriate who loved having a good time and wanted everyone else to as well. And despite his professed disdain for the media, no one has ever taken advantage of the Fourth Estate and chewed up more scenery just by opening his mouth than Goodman. That’s what makes him such a wild card in the unlikely event he should run for governor: He shouldn’t be able to get away with it, but he just might.

No. 10: From boom to (almost) bust

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, not only changed America and the national psyche but also on a more parochial scale, they exploded the myth that Nevada was invulnerable, that the grow-grow-grow, spend-spend-spend mentality could go on forever. 9/11 led to the Great Tax Non-Debate of 2003, with Gov. Kenny Guinn using it partly as justification for the massive increase. No course correction immediately followed, nor did any long-term planning after Guinn receded and the myopic Gibbons took over. But it came home to roost after Gov. No New Taxes prevailed in 2007 and then the recession hit last year and has grown ever-worse. The housing market’s implosion and the gaming industry’s retrenchment (CityCenter notwithstanding) have damaged the political elite’s psyche, too. Whether caution impedes vision, as seems likely, in a state no longer booming will play out in the coming campaign and legislative sessions.

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