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January 30, 2015

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Berkley reflects on her 14-year congressional career, ethics probe, what comes next


Karoun Demirjian

Rep. Shelley Berkley conducts office business in her home on Capitol Hill. After her failed Senate bid, the house has been put up for sale.

Shelley Berkley doesn’t believe in long goodbyes.

In the month since she lost her U.S. Senate bid — a campaign for which she gave up her safe seat in the U.S. House — Berkley has cleared out her congressional office.

She has given or thrown away all but the most precious of the Las Vegas kitsch around which she fashioned an endearingly garish persona on Capitol Hill.

Even the giant cardboard cutout of Liberace that stood by her desk, she said, “has gone to that big piano bar in the sky.”

Her house — which is currently doubling as an office for her employees because their temporary cubicles are just too dreary — is up for sale.

“I have been in public office continuously for 20 years, and collectively for substantially more than that,” Berkley said in an interview at her home on Wednesday. “I love public service, and I think I would have been a very effective senator.

“But I have always thought of this as a job with a long commute. The commute is over — I’m coming home.”

Berkley’s loss to Dean Heller brings her 14-year congressional career to a close in a few weeks.

Berkley is proud of her service, and she wants her constituents to remember it for all the things she helped deliver to Nevada — such as the country’s newest Veterans Affairs hospital — and how hard she worked on the issues yet to be resolved.

“I’m very worried about what’s happening in Israel. That’s a big issue for me, and I’m sorry that my voice won’t be here. I think on Yucca Mountain we’re in good shape as long as Barack Obama’s the president. I’m concerned about renewable energy, which is a tremendous passion of mine. ... And if I am pushing any one thing, it’s the sales tax deduction and making that permanent. That would be the one thing that I’m pushing before I go,” she said.

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Dean Heller and Shelley Berkley, candidates for Nevada's U.S. Senate seat, debate on the "Ralston Reports" television program at the KSNV-Channel 3 studios Monday, Oct. 15, 2012.

But as she brings this chapter to a close, Berkley has unfinished business. Much of her fate rests in the hands of 10 members of Congress and whether or not they choose in the next few weeks to clear her of ethics allegations that could otherwise define her legacy as they did her Senate election.

“I think it would be unjust to leave a very stellar career with this hanging over my head,” Berkley said. “It’s important for me to clear my name.”

Berkley was dealt a close loss by what she now calls the Republican Party’s “brilliant strategy,” adding that she hopes “Democrats learned from it and will use it themselves in the future.”

For months, Berkley was pummeled over ethics allegations concerning her husband’s nephrology practice, campaign donations and her official advocacy on federal funding for kidney care. The allegations initially appeared in The New York Times and then morphed into a full investigation by the House Ethics Committee, which still is pending.

The Republican Party and the Heller campaign seized on it, blanketing the airwaves with attack ads. Over the course of the campaign, Berkley’s alleged ethics problems metastasized into a theme, as Republicans aired ads questioning Berkley’s husband’s home sales and a trip she took to Venice as part of a congressional delegation.

“Cute commercial — that also was just horrendous,” Berkley said, with more than a twinge of sarcasm in her voice as she decried the content of the ads as false. “If not for (the ethics issue), I think I would have won substantially. There’s not a doubt in my mind.”

Twenty months ago, Berkley had no idea that the Senate campaign she launched to confront Heller on issues like equal pay, women’s health, Social Security and Medicare would instead turn into a reckoning over her own demons — ones that she maintains never existed.

“I think that the Republicans decided early on that they couldn’t beat me on the issues, and they chose a different path,” she said.

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Senate candidate Shelley Berkley delivers her concession speech during the Nevada State Democrats' election night party early Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012 at Mandalay Bay.

That choice led Berkley down an intensely personal road, as voters scrutinized a relationship that has paralleled and may define her congressional career.

Berkley and Dr. Larry Lehrner married just two months after she was first sworn in as a U.S. congresswoman in 1999.

“In that first year, I was learning all the issues, plus I was running for re-election immediately plus getting used to a new marriage,” Berkley said. “We have never spent more than two weeks in the same city since we got married 14 years ago. We counted it up the other day.”

Berkley remains poised and with an almost rehearsed cool as she describes her reaction to how her marriage was portrayed as an instrument of corruption during the campaign.

“I am not bitter. I am not angry,” she said. “I understand that they play to win. This is hardball.”

But she cannot maintain the veneer when describing her husband’s feelings.

“It was an unprecedented attack on my husband, who didn’t deserve that,” she said. “He feels very used, very insulted and angry.”

Berkley won’t admit how much of that anger she shares privately. Nor will she say whether she has talked, or will talk, to the ethics committee as her husband did a few weeks ago. She was admonished by the committee recently for being too open about those proceedings, she said.

She does, however, appear to still be wrestling with the result of the campaign. She would have won, she has said these past few weeks, if the none-of-the-above option hadn’t been available. If that final commercial about the trip to Venice hadn’t run the last weekend. If 17-year-olds had been allowed to vote.

“I had quite the rock star status at the Sun Youth Forum,” she said.

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Students take photos with Congresswoman Shelley Berkley during the annual Las Vegas Sun Youth Forum at the Las Vegas Convention Center Tuesday, November 20, 2012.

It’s hard not to think about, Berkley said, when everyone keeps telling her how much they are going to miss her.

“That may be one of the most difficult things to deal with: I’m on the floor voting, and my colleagues, they’ll come up and go, ‘Shelley! I’m going to miss you! I love you!’ What’s wrong with them?” she said, throwing up her arms to pantomime the hugs.

“I became very, very close with the other women running for the Senate. That’s sad for me, too, because they’ve been just terrific with the, ‘Oh, we wanted you there with us!’ And it’s just — please, no more, no more.”

Describing her colleagues’ goodbyes is the one moment in her hourlong interview with the Sun when Berkley started to choke up — just for a second.

But it was clear her guard is still up, a learned response through the campaign that may stay with her as long as these ethics allegations do.

“I knew I was a strong woman. But I discovered an inner resolve that heretofore I never knew existed,” Berkley said. “I don’t think there’s anything I can’t do and that election proved it to me.”

What Berkley will do next, however, she hasn’t quite decided. Ideally though, it won’t have anything to do with fundraising, though it has long been trumpeted as one of her greatest political strengths.

“Frankly, I’ve spent the last 14 years raising money, and I wouldn’t mind a little break with that,” Berkley said. “That was probably the least attractive part of the job — even though, frankly, it was my social life.”

Berkley hasn’t ruled out running for office again and speaks favorably of continuing a life in public service.

“Luckily, I’m not in a position where I have to go to work tomorrow in order to pay the rent next week. So I can take a step back and see what it is that I want to do,” Berkley said. “It has to be fulfilling for me. I’m not interested in a title. I believe in public service and how I can best use my acquired knowledge, background and talents for the greater good.”

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Shelley Berkley sits in her Washington, D.C., house. After her failed Senate bid, the house is for sale.

But then again, maybe not.

“I think we’ve talked about this a few times, I used to use it in my speech, and after about the 10th time, you would probably go, ‘Uggggggh,’ but look, I’m the granddaughter of immigrants who came to this country and couldn’t speak English. For me, public service was my way of giving something back to this country ... for taking us in and giving us the opportunities that we’ve had,” Berkley said. “Frankly, I feel I’ve repaid that debt to this country that my family has.”

Berkley also wouldn’t rule out the idea of potentially leaving Las Vegas again for a next job. Her husband has only a few years left before he plans on retiring, and though Berkley maintains Nevada will always be home, she seems to be setting her sights on an arena Nevada just isn’t known for.

“I love foreign policy,” Berkley said when asked what issue from her 14-year congressional tenure was her favorite.

The only concrete commitment Berkley seems to have made is to not commit herself too quickly.

“This is my way of thinking. I decided to run for the state Senate in 1984. I was supposed to win it hands-down and I ended up losing it. I was heartbroken. I thought my public service life was over, and I was in my very early 30s,” Berkley, now 61, said.

“Then, 10 months later, I had Sam,” she said of her youngest child. “If I had won that election, I never would have had Sam. If you asked me if I would trade 12 years in the state Senate for one day of Sam — although there are days I would have — the answer is, no! The point is, it all worked out. And I am most confident that it will all work out again.”

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  1. Good riddance! Personally, I cannot abide being represented by such as Berkley - morally, ethically and honestly bankrupt. Since moving here more than a quarter century ago, I have been represented by crooks, liars and thieves in just about every office, from city council to senator. Berkley was among the worst. Only Lance Malone was a bigger con man and cheater. Most of those who "represented" my district were "juiced" in by the "good-old-boy" network and, boy, were they doozies! Thankfully, because many like myself came from states where you didn't have to hold your nose when you went to the polls, that has changed somewhat but we still see the venal and corrupt being put in office in the Silver State. I am grateful to my fellow voters for coming to their senses and throwing out some of the trash; particularly Berkley!

  2. Congresswoman Shelley Berkley has lived a life of service, and will forever fondly be remembered for all the benevolent work she has done on our behalf here in Nevada, for all Americans, and for those on foreign shores. From my own personal experience, every time I have contacted her regarding my concerns, she was prompt to address them, and did favorably impact our community.

    During this time of the Festival of Lights, may the One Who Is the Light and Keeper/Giver of all Light, speak to Shelley's heart and guide her journey on this new path. May her good name be cleared, and her accusers be found out for their actions.

    The People have lost a true voice and advocate in the halls of Washington, D.C., and it will be sadly felt. None of us are perfect, we all make some missteps in this life, but few of us have been as persecuted publicly as Congresswoman Berkley has. May those who have shown no mercy receive what they have cruelly meeted out towards a fellow human being.

    May Congresswoman Shelley Berkley see much better days ahead, and her years of service be well remembered and greatly rewarded.

    Blessings and Peace,

  3. Proud of her service? Huh? She practices revisionist history. Bye.

  4. Commenter The_Next_Opinion has also noted the good Congresswoman Shelley Berkley has brought and about the publicly misconstrued missteps with, "Shelley Berkley was an advocate for the entire medical community in her district, not just her husband's practice. She's a defense hawk and an advocate for veterans.

    Did she give some advice to Sheldon Adelson back in the day about paying off the county commission if he wanted to get anything done? Probably, but she was just telling him the truth. She wasn't a politician at the time. She was a consultant. That commission was as dirty as the day is long and she was absolutely realistic in her advice."

    Both Nevada businesses and Citizens will now suffer due to the lack of political muscle and savy that Congresswoman Shelley Berkley has brought to the table in Washington, D.C. and abroad.

    There is no shame in all the good things she has done for Nevadans and Americans.

    Blessings and Peace,

  5. Interestingly, no critic of Berkley can name a single useful thing Dean Heller ever has done. But if any of them has a handicapped family member, he just voted to make them less than human by rejecting the UN treaty on people with disabilities. So, know that Dean Heller hates humanity, which makes him perfectly suited to Berkley's critics.

  6. As Michael Green was writing his comment, I just learned on CBS "Face the Nation," that the REPUBLICANS voted down the UN treaty (much like the USA's Americans with Disablilites Act). SHAME SHAME SHAME on Dean Heller!!!

    In their day, Republicans Bob Dole and President Bush DID VOTE FOR the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Republican Party is so dysfunctional and out of touch today that they are now doing HARM every step they make (with their own counsel).

    What an embarrassment for those who are politically registered Republicans, as well as all Americans. We all know that Congresswoman Shelley Berkley would never turn her back on the handicapped, veterans, and less fortunate, ever.

    Blessings and Peace,

  7. Comment removed by moderator. - -

  8. Heymikey, if you called me a Nazi, I'd probably ignore you. But, in fact, Berkley responded numerous times, not just when Heller's campaign truthfully said she was being investigated, but lied about her voting record and a congressional trip to Europe.

  9. No "probably" about it, Star. Berkley did try to get Adelson to bribe Clark County Commissioners and if you think she was merely a "consultant" at the time, you don't pay attention. Berkley was the general counsel for LV Sands - its top lawyer. You think lawyers don't know better than to advocate bribing public officials? I've said for years that Berkely should not have been in Congress - she should have been in jail. She's little more than a "white collar" criminal. Again, good riddance to her!