Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012 | 2 a.m.
The lawmaker in line to lead the Assembly next year is in a race for his political life, battling in one of the most expensive Assembly races in state history. The result could be the first election defeat of a Nevada caucus leader since 1992.
So contested is the seat that Conklin ran television ads to reach the 36,000 voters in the district, something previously unheard of for an Assembly seat.
Typically, Nevada’s legislative leaders have had smooth re-election sailing. But this year, Conklin was hit with a one-two punch. First, court-drawn redistricting maps gave Conklin a district with a slight Republican edge — not the safe seat usually drawn for legislative leaders when lawmakers undertake that task.
Second, Republicans recruited Duncan, a well-spoken attorney and Air Force captain who served a tour in Iraq, helped prosecute members of terrorist organizations and came to the campaign with an apparently pristine resume — a ready-made curriculum vitae for political mailers.
Conklin, 43, was first elected to the Assembly in 2002 and served as majority leader last session. He faced a divided Democratic caucus before being picked to head the interim election transition for the caucus in January. He’s expected to be named speaker if he survives his re-election bid.
"This is an important race. This is a very tight race. Just by the sheer nature of the position I have in the Legislature, it's an important race to both sides," Conklin said.
Conklin points to that position and his experience when delivering his case to voters for his re-election.
He used his clout to shepherd through the Legislature bills on such issues as consumer protection and increasing penalties for mortgage fraud. He chaired a committee on education funding that concluded the Clark County School District is being shortchanged compared to the rest of the state — an issue on which Conklin promises to use his tenure to be an effective voice.
"My opponent does not have the experience I have working in a legislative capacity, working on subjects to advance ideas," said Conklin, an economist and associate director for the Lied Institute for Real Estate Studies at UNLV.
Duncan, 31, an attorney for a private law firm now and in the Air Force Reserves, moved to Nevada in 2007 when he was stationed at Nellis Air Force base as a member of the Judge Advocate General Corps. He served six months in Iraq, where he assisted prosecuting al-Qaida and other extremist groups.
In 2011, he passed the bar and decided to run for the Nevada Assembly seat.
He said he wants to serve the community, an outgrowth of his military service.
"I wanted to confront the challenges we face and jump in, instead of just complaining," he said.
He said his role as a newcomer would allow him to address big issues in Carson City, such as the looming costs of future public employee retirements. Those could be a potential drag on economic development, as businesses looking to move to Nevada worry that taxes would have to be increased to pay for the unfunded liability.
The state also needs more education reform, he said, but he doubts Conklin will tackle those big issues.
"Fundamentally, big things need to be done, tough choices need to be made," Duncan said. "I don’t see Marcus Conklin championing those causes.”
The most substantive policy debate between Conklin and Duncan concerns foreclosures and housing.
Last session, Conklin, working with Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, passed Assembly Bill 284, which named stiffer requirements, including potential criminal penalties for individuals, for financial institutions to produce proper paperwork before they start foreclosures. The bill was opposed by the banking industry.
When the law took effect in October, the number of foreclosure notices dropped dramatically. While many housing experts said banks should have their paperwork in order, they also said that preventing legitimate foreclosures wasn't necessarily good for the long-term health of the housing market.
Duncan said that bill, "in effect, is creating an artificial bubble in housing" by creating a "shadow inventory" of foreclosed homes that will eventually be forced on the market.
"I will say, the intent of AB284, to prevent fraud, was not a bad thing in itself," he said.
But the bill had the unintended consequence of essentially grinding foreclosures to a halt. He said that although he didn't want to abolish or eliminate the bill, "we need to cut back on civil and criminal penalties" and give banks a way of verifying documents without having the original signatures.
Conklin said he was open to considering changes to the law and has been working with bankers and real estate agents on ways to amend it. But he defended the law’s premise.
"AB284 was a fraud prevention bill. It couldn’t be any simpler than that," Conklin said.
He said making sure that forged documents aren't entering the real estate market "is essential to the free market."
"You have to protect the sanctity of the process," he said.
On taxes, both candidates are reticent to offer specifics just before the election.
Duncan notes that he hasn't signed the pledge not to raise taxes.
"One of the key features of being a legislator is prudence. You have to consider the circumstances, the facts and make an informed decision," he said. "I'm not saying I'm not going to raise taxes. We have to see what revenues are."
Conklin said all options need to be on the table.
"Anybody who has visited a class in a Clark County high school cannot walk away with any other sense than, 'How can they fit so many kids in a class?'" Conklin said.
Conklin said he would continue to look at efficiencies "and tying them to outcomes."
"The current revenue structure does not represent the transactions that take place in this economy," he said.
He also said the state's tax system "needs to be reviewed and, through reform, have the broadest, lowest rate as possible.”
The race has attracted significant attention from outside political groups seeking to either oust or protect Conklin.
Mailers in the district have tried to convince voters that Duncan wants to end Medicare and give tax breaks to millionaires — two distinctly federal issues that have nothing to do with the state Legislature.
Anonymous "push poll" telephone calls also have attacked Duncan for his Air Force service, he said.
Duncan prosecuted terrorists, but he also worked as a defense lawyer, representing service members accused of misconduct.
According to his Air Force Commendation Medal for Meritorious Service, Duncan helped a client accused of espionage avoid court martial in exchange for a discharge. The commendation also cited Duncan’s "spot-on defense (that) proved his client did not knowingly download child pornography, resulting in a full acquittal."
Duncan said that these calls are "disgraceful." Cases are assigned by a superior officer.
"You can't say, ‘No sorry, this is repugnant to me.’ You're sworn to follow orders," he said.
While outside political groups have come to Conklin’s aid, Duncan has the full backing of the Assembly Republican caucus — a group that unquestionably will remain in the minority next year.
The fact that the minority party would actively seek to oust a sitting legislative leader has raised some eyebrows.
Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey, R-Reno, has openly said that lobbyists urged him not to put resources into taking out Conklin.
Instead, some Republicans think it would have been more effective to put those resources toward narrowing the Democrats’ majority in the Legislature. Last year, their majority stood at 26 to 16.
Hickey said Conklin’s leadership position did not make him a target.
"I’m just trying to do my job as caucus leader," Hickey said. "I’d expect any Democrat counterpart to do the same."
Hickey said he was aware that his caucus’ support for Duncan could lead to some tension next session if they aren't successful in defeating Conklin.
Conklin "has done everything in his power to let people know if you do not to give to him, it would be remembered,” Hickey said. “If you gave to Wes Duncan, it might equally be remembered."
Not that there's anything wrong with that, Hickey said.
"I think that’s how politics works in the real world," he said.
Conklin denied he’d let campaign contributions govern his legislative strategy.
“I’ve never held a grudge against anyone for not giving campaign contribution, and I never will," he said.