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August 21, 2014

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STATE GOVERNMENT :

As Democrats take power in upper house, old order fades

State of the State 2009

State of the State, part 2

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  • State of the State, part 2
  • State of the State, part 3
  • State of the State, part 4
  • State of the State, part 1
  • State of the State, part 5
  • State of the State, part 6

Sen. Warren Hardy glanced around his new office, a cramped affair more befitting a small town claims adjuster than an experienced state senator with nearly two decades in Carson City.

“Obviously we’d rather be in charge,” the Republican said with a chuckle. “You see my old office?” he said, referring to the fine space he had for years.

Change has come to Carson City, and it’s most evident in the state Senate, which Democrats now control after defeating two incumbent Republicans.

For years, the old-timers say, the place had a biennial rhythm, presided over by Sen. Bill Raggio, the long-serving Reno Republican and master of the upper chamber.

His lieutenants were powerful in their own right — the old bulls, mostly middle-aged men who were in the Senate for years.

This species was epitomized by Sen. Randolph Townsend, with a magnificent pompadour, a weightlifter physique and expensive, pinstriped, double-breasted suits. As the longtime chairman of the commerce and labor committee, he would welcome public testimony after an opening monologue delivered with a voice best described as senatorial basso-bombast.

The lobbyists waited in a sitting area outside his spacious corner office. He would appear in the doorway and wave them in, as if headmaster of telecom policy and the like. Townsend is serving his final session, forced out by term limits.

Last week, Sen. Maggie Carlton, the former Treasure Island waitress, was outfitting her new office, the one where Townsend spent so many years.

When lobbyists needed real privacy, they met in Raggio’s office just off the Senate floor. Some are Raggio’s law partners. His suite had many doors and a conference room, out of sight of opposition and press.

Now, Raggio is upstairs, his dwindled crew in a row down the hall.

On the other side, being in the majority has all kinds of perhaps predictable consequences: “I have a lot of new best friends,” said Sen. Mike Schneider, chairman of a newly created energy and transportation committee, a hothouse for hoped-for federal stimulus dollars.

Schneider has seen the disappearance of another Senate institution, a sometime rival within his caucus, Rep. Dina Titus, who won a seat in Congress in November after years as the Democrats’ minority leader.

New Majority Leader Steven Horsford, a Las Vegas Democrat, will bring a mellowing influence to the body, and a new energy to his caucus, say legislators and lobbyists on both sides of the aisle.

“He’s smart, a quick learner. He’ll do a good job,” said Sen. Mike McGinness, who added that he’s optimistic about the session.

Hardy was even more effusive. “Steven has done everything right in terms of building a bipartisan spirit,” he said.

This is due in part to Horsford’s talents for conciliation, but also to the perilous times. “There’s a spirit of bipartisanship because we’re in crisis here,” he said.

The Legislature will have to find $2 billion or more in new taxes or spending cuts to maintain schools and other services at current levels, so partisan gamesmanship will feel – and will be perceived by the public as – unseemly.

By all accounts, Horsford has courted Raggio, asked his advice and counsel, and even offered him one of the offices in the majority suite downstairs.

Raggio declined. But he’s had kind words for Horsford, the youngest majority leader in history, as well as the first black Senate leader.

For whatever mutual affinities they share, they also have a mutual need.

Any tax increase, which Horsford is certain to propose, will require two Republican votes to get two-thirds as the constitution mandates and also to override the expected veto of Gov. Jim Gibbons, the anti-tax Republican.

But Horsford wants more. He wants a definitive statement to the governor that the people’s representatives have spoken loudly: Gibbons’ proposed budget cuts, including almost 36 percent to higher education, will not stand.

Raggio, meanwhile, is known to be exhausted with Gibbons’ foibles, even though the two men are from the same party. He was attending to a family matter and did not appear at Gibbons’ state-of-the-state address on Thursday, an absence duly noted by the capital’s many Raggiologists.

More important, Raggio has spent more than three decades in the Senate, and he has a legacy, especially as a fierce advocate for higher education.

He’s not about to see Gibbons dismantle that legacy, even if it means joining with a Democrat to oppose his governor.

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