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July 23, 2014

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THE LEGISLATURE:

Power, luck, finesse bring gay rights win

With help from foes, partnership measure’s sponsor did everything right to land key vote of a GOP senator

Sen. Dennis Nolan

Sen. Dennis Nolan

Cashing In? seg. 4

Las Vegas hopes to cash in on President Barack Obama's visit. Jon talks with Harrah's Entertainment executive and former Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones and conservative activist Chuck Muth about Obama's appearances and more.

Domestic Partner Benefits

The biggest names in gaming call on lawmakers to override the governor's veto of domestic partner benefits. In Business talks with Harrah's Entertainment executive and former Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones about the effort.

Related Document (.pdf)

If you want to know how things get done at the Legislature, ask state Sen. Dennis Nolan.

The Las Vegas Republican cast the deciding vote to override a veto of Gov. Jim Gibbons, giving a fairly stunning victory to a drive to extend domestic partnership rights for gay and straight unmarried couples.

They can now pursue the same rights as married couples.

Nolan had been the subject of intense lobbying campaigns by both sides. Legislators and lobbyists say the outcome provides lessons in how to win at the Nevada Legislature:

• Get gaming on board.

• Have the good fortune to face tone-deaf opposition.

• Do the nuts-and-bolts groundwork.

From the top: The broad coalition of liberal interest groups said the tourism industry, and Harrah’s Entertainment in particular, was immensely helpful in the end.

“Things began to change significantly in a two-week period when it became front and center for a lot of people,” said Democratic state Sen. David Parks of Las Vegas, the bill’s sponsor.

“I’d always had support from Harrah’s, but I think between Jan Jones and Marybel Batjer, they really started helping to move things along,” Parks said, referring to Harrah’s lobbyists. Jones is a former mayor of Las Vegas.

Another lobbyist was more blunt: Harrah’s told Nolan it needed his vote.

“From a personal standpoint our leadership thought this was the right thing to do,” Jones said. “From a tourism perspective, we do a lot of marketing to the gay, lesbian and transgender market, and how effective would it be to say, ‘Give us your money, but we don’t believe in your rights’ ?”

Given the deep recession on the Strip, the industry could not afford a boycott or even the bad press associated with a failure of Nevada to live up to its reputation for live-and-let-live, she said.

It wasn’t just Harrah’s. Two of the state’s most important gaming lobbyists, Billy Vassiliadis and Pete Ernaut, were also important advocates.

“What helped Nolan a lot, I think, is that a lot of mainstream business folks stepped up, came out, came up, helped out,” Vassiliadis said, referring to Jones, as well as lobbyists from Wynn Resorts and MGM Mirage.

Some were committed to the issue as a cause, others were speaking on behalf of their employees, and all wanted to send a message to the substantial gay and lesbian tourist market: Nevada is inclusive.

That was the exact opposite of the message of the bill’s opponents — a message that was met with hostility from many who heard it.

“We owe a small debt of gratitude to the opponents,” said Michael Ginsburg, a central player on the legislation for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, known as PLAN.

“They launched a campaign against (Nolan) with horrible, nasty messages, and I think that strengthened his resolve to vote for it,” Ginsburg said.

Nolan noted the nastiness in his floor speech announcing that he was changing his vote and would vote to override the governor’s veto.

For the bill’s opponents, Gibbons was not much help either. The governor, who has become isolated from fellow Republicans in the Legislature, had very little leverage to lobby to sustain his veto.

And ultimately, Nolan found Gibbons’ veto message unpersuasive. Gibbons claimed the drive for domestic partnerships was an end-run around a voter-approved constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage.

Nolan said when he reexamined the debate over the marriage amendment, he noted that advocates specifically said they were not seeking to limit the creation of domestic partnerships or civil unions.

The bill lawmakers approved explicitly stated that the domestic partnership arrangement was not marriage. That language, which gave Republicans some cover, brings up the last point: Parks and the coalition behind him were remarkably savvy and disciplined, according to veteran lobbyists and legislators.

“He crafted the perfect bill and the message was built around it,” said James Wadhams, a Jones Vargas lobbyist with decades of experience in the Legislature. “This is not marriage. This is about domestic partnerships.

“It was probably, in the whole scheme of things, if you take your eye off budget and taxes, the play of the session,” he said.

Getting legislation passed is not rocketry. “Political Activism 101,” said Launce Rake, a PLAN spokesman.

Write a bill that upends objections. Get leadership on board. Build a coalition both inside and outside the building. Work the media. Take nothing for granted.

Parks told Majority Leader Steven Horsford he would be introducing it, so as not to blindside him with a controversial issue.

“He looked at me, smiled and said, ‘Go for it,’ ” Parks recalled.

Parks had a strong coalition behind him, including the ACLU of Nevada, PLAN, the Gay & Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada, the Human Rights Campaign and a host of other allies. Weekly and later daily conference calls helped them coordinate and plot strategy.

The Legislature’s Web site, which allows Nevadans to give their opinions on issues, was flooded with pro-domestic-partnership votes.

The day of the first Senate vote, many activists were in the halls of the Legislature for “Equality Days.” Parks said he had never seen such prepared citizen activists. They knew who their legislators were, had the talking points in hand and were respectful, he said.

Once the veto came and supporters needed two votes to override, Parks made a smart move: He told the activists to back off, knowing how much pressure Nolan was getting.

Parks supported Nolan’s pet cause: Making failure to wear a seat belt a primary offense. Nolan’s bill passed the Senate with help from Democrats.

During a legislative session that saw both painful tax increases and budget cuts, advocates of domestic partnerships said the victory renewed their faith in the process.

“I’ve never seen so many people from so many walks of life come together,” Vassiliadis said.

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