Thursday, June 11, 2009 | 2 a.m.
John Oceguera is expected to be the next speaker of the Nevada Assembly.
But the Democratic veteran may have a hurdle to clear first: Surviving a challenge from within his own party in the 2010 elections.
Construction subcontractors ended the legislative session last week furious with Oceguera because the veteran lawmaker and his colleagues successfully stopped a bill crucial to the building industry.
The legislation would have limited the rights of homeowners to sue developers over construction defects, a practice builders and subcontractors say is rife with abuse and burying their businesses in expensive, baseless lawsuits while lawyers get rich.
Now, subcontractors are pledging to find a Democrat to run against Oceguera in his district, according to two construction industry sources. The district has 4,600 more Democrats than Republicans, so they will have to find a Democrat.
One subcontractor tried to be subtle, but was not very: “John might be the speaker, maybe he won’t be,” said Darren Wilson of Sierra Air Conditioning and a board member of the Nevada Subcontractors Association. Wilson said he thinks Oceguera carried water for friends in the trial lawyer lobby while turning his back on struggling homebuilders.
Oceguera said he was trying to work with the subcontractors to strike a compromise: “No good deed goes unpunished, because I was trying to work all parties. I’ve served in the Legislature for 10 years and my constituent service and outreach to them on a continual basis will convince voters to send me back to the Legislature.”
The possibility that the man presumed to be the next Assembly speaker, who has roughly $1 million in his campaign account, could face a fellow Democrat in a primary over a narrow special interest issue is just one of the ways that 2010 is shaping up as a rare, wild and wide-open election.
“Anybody who would want to predict 2010 is crazy,” said Pete Ernaut, former chief of staff of Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn and now lobbyist for R&R Partners, the advertising and public affairs firm.
“It’s just going to be a free-for-all,” Ernaut said. “For anyone who enjoys politics, this is gonna be one of the most interesting election cycles in our lifetimes.”
Where to begin?
Gov. Jim Gibbons will face at least two opponents in his own Republican primary: former state Sen. Joe Heck, a physician and Army reservist; and outgoing North Las Vegas Mayor Mike Montandon.
Gibbons is a weak sitting governor — his polling is sagging, even within his own party, and his marriage is ending in a nasty public divorce.
Establishment Republicans are desperate to find a solid choice to replace Gibbons, though they are not settled on either Heck or Montandon. Their dream choices are Rep. Dean Heller, the conservative who represents the 2nd Congressional District, and Judge Brian Sandoval, a former attorney general who was placed on the federal bench by former President George W. Bush.
Adding to the mix is the likelihood that the ballot will feature two Reids in the Democratic primary, with U.S. Sen. Harry Reid up for reelection and Clark County Commission Chairman Rory Reid likely running for governor against current Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, also widely expected to run.
If father and son both win, they would also be on the November ballot together.
Politicos are wondering if two Reids on the ballot could be better for both or worse for both. And whether voters would objectively weigh the merits of each one separately.
Another wild card: The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada has threatened to go to the voters with a ballot initiative increasing taxes on the gold mining industry, which is enjoying good times because of record prices for gold — more than $900 an ounce thanks to uncertainty in the economy — and a friendly tax and regulatory environment in Nevada, which is one of the few places in the world to mine the mineral.
State legislators, at the urging of Sen. Reid and more than two dozen lobbyists, shied away from a single industry adjustment that might have extracted more tax revenue from gold mining.
If the liberal group carries out its threat and goes to the voters, Democrats who are nominally environmentalists, including Sen. Reid, will be forced to take a position on the issue, which will make Reid deeply uncomfortable given his long-standing support for the industry in the face of grass-roots Democrats’ desire to more heavily tax mining.
And, finally, for the ultimate in a topsy-turvy election season, voter-approved term limits will take effect for the first time, opening 10 of the state Assembly’s 42 seats. The Senate will have seven of 21 seats open.
The two political parties, which have had trouble recruiting a few viable candidates per year, have rarely had to find so many candidates.
This unique circumstance will give interest groups immense opportunity to control the next legislative session if they can own the open seats by finding good candidates.
Victoria Riley, executive director of the Nevada Justice Association, which represents trial lawyers, said, “Anyone advising their clients well is explaining the pivotal nature of this election cycle.”
The Legislature most years has little turnover, giving interest groups and their lobbyists the ability to build long-term relationships with legislative leaders.
But in the next election, certain interests could exert considerable control over the process if they help elect a basket of new legislators.
If Ernaut, the R&R lobbyist, was not salivating, he at least sounded eager: “The prize of all prizes: The ability to shake the Etch A Sketch and start over.”
With so much turnover, expect interest groups to be more involved in recruiting candidates, raising money and even planning and devising campaigns, several lobbyists said.
Expect lobby shops, including R&R Partners, which also includes prominent Democrat and Harry Reid-backer Billy Vassiliadis, to be more involved in campaigns.
The need to engage is not lost on legislators, either. Oceguera acknowledged that his candidacy for speaker relies on his ability to consolidate control over his caucus, which will include a bevy of new legislators.
In the unlikely event subcontractors both make good on their threat and then find someone to beat Oceguera, there could be a wide-open field for Assembly speaker.
Lobbyists for big business, who have exerted immense influence over the Legislature in Carson City since the state’s founding, said they were resigned to Democratic control of both houses of the Legislature. Currently, Democrats control the Assembly 28-14, and the Senate 12-9.
So, business lobbyists are considering a retro strategy reminiscent of corporate America’s establishment of the Democratic Leadership Council in the 1980s.
That business-backed group helped move the Democratic Party to the center, and launched a little-known governor named Bill Clinton, who went on to become the most business-friendly Democrat since President John F. Kennedy.
In Nevada, business lobbyists are considering finding “business-friendly” Democrats who will be more willing to listen to the arguments of gaming, mining and business generally.
Organized labor also expects to be fully invested in the reelection of Sen. Reid and in the campaign for governor by Buckley or Rory Reid, as well as in legislative races. One major reason is that labor came away from the 2009 legislative session disappointed that Democrats, newly in control, could not deliver more to their friends in the trade unions.
Whoever controls the Legislature could dominate Nevada politics for years because lawmakers will have to redraw legislative and congressional districts, including the potential addition of a new congressional district because of growth.
Another new factor in 2010: The primary will be moved back from August to June, meaning the general election will be fought out for another 60 days. That means more money, more mail, more TV, more attacks.
Add it up, and 2010 is a political junkie’s dream.