My column: The Brian Sandoval myth

As he prepares for Session ’13 and, inevitably, Campaign ’14, Gov. Brian Sandoval, he of the 60 percent approval rating, has established himself as one of the singularly politically skillful pols in Nevada history.

But he is not invincible.

Despite the governor’s early anointment for a second term, as Democrats prepare the spit for a sacrificial lamb, the Sandoval myth needs to be separated from the reality. I acknowledge he is a solid favorite for re-election. But let’s not forget the calendar, folks: It’s November 2012. Two years is not just the proverbial political eternity; it is plenty of time for the governor to come to Earth.

I am prompted to write about this by the news that Governing Magazine has consecrated Sandoval as one of the country’s top public officials and penned a flattering piece about him headlined, “The Helmsman.”

Let me say that no one has more regard for what Sandoval did to the inept Democratic leadership during Session ’11 than I – it was the old chess vs. checkers game, an unfair matchup as Steven Horsford and John Oceguera seemed more concerned with running for Congress than running their houses. There was no cohesion and no plan, except one the Democratic leaders sprung on everyone during the session’s denouement -- a stillborn tax overhaul that’s surprised no one and that the governor had already criticized before it became public.

Sandoval should be glad he is not judged by his enemies because he came to the governorship running against Rory Reid, who was saddled by his dad’s baggage and probably could have been dispatched in the Year of Reid the Elder, by any credible GOP nominee (no, that does not include then-Gov. Jim Gibbons, whom Sandoval erased). So he defeated Reid the Younger, he of the 40 percent negative rating coming in, and then outfoxed two Democratic leaders who simply were outclassed by the governor, whose preternatural affability and superb political skills were a marvel to behold.

But it is the mythmaking about that 2011 session, now repeated by Governing, which needs to be deconstructed and destroyed forever. As I wrote afterward, Sandoval was more lucky than good.

The Governing piece made it sound as if he was Bipartisan Brian, bridging troubled partisan waters with his leadership:

“And in an era of hyper-partisanship, the Republican governor forged a compromise to close the state’s massive budget hole with a Democratic Legislature. He relented on a campaign pledge not to raise taxes and agreed to extend sunsetting taxes on mining companies, a $620 million boon to state coffers. In return, Democratic leaders signed off on spending cuts, as well as education reforms that were on the governor’s to-do list: reforming teacher tenure and instituting performance pay for teachers.”

Oh?

And Sandoval’s quote to Governing is priceless, too: “We may not have agreed all the time, but we had a very good relationship. So when it came down to crunch time, we were able to get things done. I think it’s really important to listen to everyone and to see what their goals are. I think it paid dividends in the end.”

Really?

This is an alternate reality, folks. Sandoval deserves immense credit for bringing two critical issues to the forefront and getting action, however inconclusive so far: economic development and education reform.

But the budget? That’s a different story. Here’s what happened in the capital – I know because I was there for (too) much of it:

Lawmakers and the governor were headed for a train wreck the likes of which this state has never seen – and both sides were preparing for it. Horsford was hurling rhetorical bombs at Sandoval while the governor and his staff were preparing for an inevitable special session that might not have occurred until the fall. They were strategizing about sending lawmakers home to sulk and then calling them back just as schools were about to open – or not open.

It was bitter. It was nasty. It was anything but bipartisan.

Republican senators kept signing letters promising to stand by the governor’s “no new taxes” pledge. In that 11-10 house, there was no movement, no how.

And then….the state Supreme Court changed everything 10 days before the end of the session. The court ruled that a state grab of $62 million in local government money was unconstitutional, putting 10 times that amount in Sandoval’s budget at risk because of the gimmickry he had included in his no-tax spending plan.

Almost immediately, the governor's office put out the word Sandoval would consider lifting tax sunsets with $600 million to balance the budget. It was almost as if the governor, returning to his moderate roots, couldn’t wait to do so, thus infuriating some legislative Republicans who had blindly followed him and thrilling legislative Democrats who wanted the money for education.

They negotiated for a few days over reforms – to both sides’ credit, and especially the governor’s, they showed leadership in arriving at a reform-for-money deal that satisfied neither side. But that was the first sign of bipartisanship on the budget the entire session. The first.

Don’t forget, too: That decision came a few weeks after the state’s Economic Forum added $300 million to the budget that Gov. Not-So-Sunny had cut, still adhering to the pledge he foolishly adopted while thinking he had to get to the right of a political corpse named Jim Gibbons.

So when I hear about how bipartisan Sandoval was as he luckily avoided what might have been the most partisan-fueled budget debacle in state annals, I can only chuckle. But the governor's popularity continues to rise, as a Public Policy Polling survey last week showed him with robust numbers and crushing all comers.

And yet….

Sandoval also has to get through Session ’13 relatively unscathed. He confronts two new Democratic leaders – Speaker-to-be Marilyn Kirkpatrick and Senate Majority Leader-in-waiting Mo Denis, who are not as ambitious as their predecessors but are very different types. The governor always has an advantage but in Nevada, expect the unexpected.

Sandoval also may get lucky again if no viable opponent surfaces -- that's only part good fortune as that's what anointments are designed to do. See, Miller, Bob, and Guinn, Kenny.

Secretary of State Ross Miller has his eye on attorney general. Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak could self-fund (he would raise a lot of money from the Strip, too, because he would be at midterm), but it’s hard to win the top statewide office as a local government official.

Luckily for Sandoval, there is no Hispanic, female, top law enforcement officeholder with a lot of free media on the foreclosure crisis who might want to be governor. That might prove problematic for him.

So, kudos to the governor for getting that Public Official of the Year award. To have a 60 percent approval rating in arguably the country’s worst economy? Yes, that’s miraculous. And a testament to Sandoval’s persona (Gov. Sunny). You’d almost feel badly blaming him for anything, wouldn’t you? He’s so….nice. And he simply can’t be beaten.

Actually, that’s a myth, too. We’ll see if, as the editor says at the end of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

It’s the West, all right. But the legend of The Helmsman is not quite fact yet.