Picking the top 10 – it must be 10! – Nevada political stories of the year is always a tortuous task.
But choose I must, and choose I have, as you will see below (along with a few extra honorable mentions, leaving out too many, I’m sure.) Please argue with my choices or rankings in the comments section. It’s always more difficult in a non-election year, but I expect not everyone will agree with me (he said with a bit of understatement). So what’s ranked too high? Or too low? What did I leave off? What shouldn’t be on there?
Bring the criticism.
As usual, I am transparent in what “top” means: The story has to reverberate – that is, there must be a likelihood it will have impact on Nevada beyond 2013, too. And the news in some way must affect the entire state, although I would argue that most huge stories that affect Clark County have an impact on the state, too. (No offense to my Washoe and rural friends.)
On to the list:
NO. 1: THE DISASTROUS DEMOCRATIC LEADERSHIP OF SESSION ‘13
I’ve said it before and will again: The leadership in Carson City was the worst in all of the sessions I have covered since 1987. It’s not so much that state Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis and Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick weren’t earnest or diligent. They set the bar high – we will do tax reform! – but they promised more than talk and delivered only…talk. They cowered on the margin tax, let state Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson chew scenery and ended by surrendering and withdrawing even their modest proposals. Thanks to their performance, and that of their lieutenants, Gov. Brian Sandoval came out looking as if he was the one who increased education spending. Well done. And worst of all, we now have the prospect of tax policy being set where it never should be but now must be: the ballot. But maybe there’s a silver lining for the Democrats: They can say they extracted money from mining, business and gaming, which will have to spend a fortune to stop the margin tax. Huzzahs!
NO. 2: HARRY DOES DC
Think about it: Of the five leaders in DC, who was the strongest in 2013? The president? Barely in the top 5. Speaker John Boehner? You must not drink tea. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Only thing he got was a primary opponent. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi? Come on. No, Prince Harry dominated the dialogue this year, even though Senator Reid made his usual share (maybe greater share in ’13?) of absurd remarks. But he just keeps going, indomitably, telling the president to shut down the government before staring down Boehner and telling POTUS when to open it again. He changed Senate tradition – for good or ill we won’t know for some time – with the nuclear option. And he continues to behave as if he doesn’t much care what anyone thinks, except that they think he’s running for re-election and may well become the longest-serving majority leader in Senate history.
NO. 3: STEVEN BROOKS RATTLES THE STATE
It began on a late January Saturday with news of an arrest and didn’t end until two months later with the first expulsion in the history of Nevada. It began as a tragicomedy, with Steven Brooks’ bizarre ramblings and shirtless interview, and ended with him sitting for months in a California jail. It began with vague threats against the speaker and ended with the entire Legislative Building almost on lockdown. Why does this story rank so high? Because it hung over the session for half its duration like an ominous cloud, with staff fearing for their safety, Kirkpatrick wondering what might come next and Brooks' colleagues shaken by what had happened. Brooks himself may already have been forgotten, but what he did and what happened to him also raised the issue of mental health in a way nobody expected and in a way that the patient-dumping scandal could not. This was one of their own, clearly disturbed, acting aberrantly and affecting the legislative process. I think my sentiments are similar to everyone who went through it: I hope I never experience anything like it again.
NO. 4: THE GOVERNOR’S TEFLON REMAINS UNSCRATCHED
Nevada’s economy arguably is rebounding more slowly than any in the country. The patient-dumping story just gets worse and worse. He is the only governor to expand Medicaid and erect an exchange for a program that is manifestly unpopular. And yet, yet, Gov. Brian Sandoval towers over the Nevada political world like a colossus, seemingly unable to make a false move, his glory enhanced by his supposed foes’ ineptitude. He has tremendous political talents, which allowed him to navigate the Legislature and the patient-dumping scandal. Yes, there are nattering nabobs on the right because of his asterisk-laden no-new-tax pledge and Obamacare. But they are a small minority – his numbers are robust across the board – and his true innate skill is his likability. Ronald Reagan would be jealous. I still think his team has put him in a cocoon to protect his viability within the national political system, rarely allowing him to step on any land mines, not that he wouldn’t step over them with ease. But while it’s still early to judge what kind of governor he has been – his economic development plans are incomplete at best – Sandoval is the most powerful man in the state, without any foreseeable opponent and thrilled to have such weak political enemies.
NO. 5: NV ENERGY POWERS THROUGH
I’ve seen a lot in 25 years-plus covering Nevada legislative sessions. But I have never seen a bill replaced by en entirely different bill and jammed out of committee, with the Senate majority leader – U.S. not Nevada – driving the juice train. NV Energy has some great lobbyists, but Prince Harry was the lead on this one, trading the end of coal as we know it for the beginning of renewables as we have never known them. Lawmakers nodded quietly, for the most part, and climbed aboard the juice train, galvanized by the power (pun intended) and, to some extent, by the policy, which dramatically overhauls the energy economy in the state. It was masterful, too, muting opposition by getting most enviros and progressives on board. And then came the coup de grace near session’s end, with Warren Buffett’s stunning buyout of the company. That was unexpected. No one really knows what it means, except that there only will be one shareholder and when you get your summer bill, you can scream, “Buffett!”
NO. 6: ADELSON SAYS NO TO WEB GAMING
They have never been a merry band, these gaming moguls. But this year, you saw a phenomenon that has never heretofore occurred. Yes, Steve Wynn used to consume all of the oxygen in the gaming world. But Wynn was mostly about pronouncements that provoked action and response, not actual deeds when it came to politics. Now, his new best friend in Obamahate and Macaulove, Sheldon Adelson, has sent a temblor through the industry by waging an all-out crusade to stop web gaming – the industry that major companies believe can help solve their debt problems and is the new frontier for an industry always looking for new frontiers. Like many of his ventures into politics – paycheck protection, Newt Gingrich – this Adelson move seems quixotic. Even if he is right about problem gambling and land-based cannibalization – and many think he is not – this is a huge story inside the biggest industry in Nevada and one that has national and international implications going forward.
NO. 7: THE LEGISLATURE ENABLES
Amid its myriad failures, lawmakers continued a tradition, hamstrung by Gov. No New Taxes Except Sunsets and Fees, of enabling local governments to raise taxes. The gas tax in Clark County. The More Cops tax (see below) in Clark County. The education renovation tax in Washoe County. Refusing to grant locals home rule while passing the buck to them in selective ways leads to inchoate policies that only go to reveal politicians without backbones. The Washoe AB 46 jerryrigging was the worst, with Sandoval and Republicans refusing to accept that a measure to rehab crumbling Washoe schools is needed and throwing it to a body (the County Commission) that not only has no jurisdiction over education but whose makeup (80 percent GOP) all but guaranteed its failure. So those who voted for it could claim to be for education but against taxes knowing full well what the outcome would be. This wink, wink, nudge, nudge way of legislating will have consequences for years to come.
NO. 8: MORE COPS BECOMES FEWER COPS
It started at a quarter-cent and now is in about its fifth iteration at a lower number, having caused convulsions in the local political system in the South and helped nudge a sheriff into retirement. Doug Gillespie could not have known when tried to tap into a decade-old quarter-cent approved by voters of the storm that would follow. Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak took on Gillespie almost from the start and managed to scare enough of his colleagues into either opposition or inaction to either kill or delay the imposition. When have you ever known a sheriff to come before the commission on the morning of an important vote, believing he has the votes only to find out he is one short? It may be a stretch to say More Cops caused an open sheriff’s seat, but you could see the exhaustion and frustration on Gillespie’s face. Add in the further highlighting of the rift between Sisolak and Tom Collins and the long-term implications if it does or doesn’t pass.
NO. 9: CLARK COUNTY HAS DRAIN OF BRAINS
Rarely does it happen that in one year, the most important government in Nevada loses its best financial mind, its longtime airport boss, the water czar and a nonpareil elections overseer. George Stevens, Randy Walker, Pat Mulroy and Larry Lomax all told their bosses they had had enough, leaving Southern Nevada with new leaders in water and aviation – are there two more important areas? -- and voids to fill during an approaching election season that could be dicey (oh, those outside groups) and in fiscal dealings as one of the state’s more knowledgeable guys is departing. In some cases, the transition should be seamless – e.g. Rosemary Vassiliadis has been de facto running the airport for some time. But Joseph Gloria has never really run an election, no one can really fill Stevens’ shoes and the Larry Brown-John Entsminger tussle over Mulroy’s job is yet to be resolved. Maybe the impact will be minimal. We’ll know in 2014.
NO. 10: THE STATE GOP FOLLIES CONTINUE
There’s no business like the show business the state Republican Party consistently provides. Consider: A state chairman who occasionally is on retainer to the Culinary union, who the governor and senator don’t want there, who falsely claims it was his idea to bring the national convention here, whose political director did a background check on the new chairman of the Clark County party. Whew. The party has no respect anywhere, and it has no money, either. It has laid off employees, barely had a social media presence until lately and has essentially been blackballed by any Republican who matters. It will be interesting to see how successful third-party groups are in registering voters and affecting campaigns. But the state party is not part of the equation when it comes to campaigns; it is a comic sideshow that only hurts Nevada’s national image and could damage lower ticket candidates. Of course, we also can’t forget the amazing effusions from Pat Hickey (about minority turnout and his “yellow” wife) and especially from Jim Wheeler (gift that keeps on giving) and Michele Fiore (she goes to pickets and packs heat!). Can hardly wait to see what the GOP has in store for ’14.
Status quo muni elections: Yes, John Lee beat Shari Buck. But everyone saw that coming, and is it a win if you inherit a bankrupt company?
Tony Hsieh takes over downtown Las Vegas: Zappos literally occupied City Hall and Hsieh metaphorically became the mayor. Long-term impact.
Mining meets its match: At the beginning of Session ’13, Democrats wanted to kill SJR 15, taking mining taxation out of the Constitution. By the end, a Republican, Roberson, had ensured it would be and raised taxing the industry. Now about what happens after it passes….
Culinary turns up the heat on the Strip, in DC: The most potent Democratic special interest bluffed about staying on the sidelines in 2012. Not so sure it’s bluff in 2014. Contract disputes, Obamacare disputes. And in 2013, a well-funded foe surfaced in the form of The Alliance to Protect Nevada Jobs. Doubt those folks are going away soon.
Key races take shape: Erin Bilbray made it official. Lucy Flores was The Choice, then she was not, now she is again. Sue Lowden became the potential fly in the Mark Hutchison anointment. Roberson recruited. GOP primaries developed. Still, no one has filed yet.
End of an era: Frank Fahrenkopf, who I once said would only last a year with those gaming folks, stepped down after 18 years helming the AGA. Now it’s up to travel industry PR man Geoff Freeman to chart a new course. I make no predictions.
Patient-dumping nightmare: The only thing more embarrassing than all of the reporting being done from California was the scandal itself, which illuminated years of neglect in the worst way possible. I don’t know if an 18-member panel can help, but some of the answers are simple (money) while others are not so (time to focus on locals and community-based support).
Gun politics come to Nevada: State Sen. Justin Jones’ background check bill sparked intense debate in Carson City, bringing Newtown victims and Michael Bloomberg’s group into the state, with predictable results. “Real” Nevadans showed up to fight the measure, and Gov. Brian Sandoval was never going to sign it. Oh, and there were two shootings in Reno.
North-South drumbeat gets louder: They are meeting frequently, Democrats and Republicans. The chamber is at the forefront. Education funding, roads, medical school. KSNV did a week-long series. Is it all sound and fury or harbinger?
The margin tax battle lines are drawn: The teachers seeded the campaign with $1 million. The gamers, miners, retailers and chamber formed a PAC that will have much more than that. The Democrats hid from the media like stalwart education supporters. The Education Initiative will be the most important contest of 2014 by far. Get ready.
The recovery cometh? All stories about the economy affect the political world. If the economy had stagnated or gotten worse, the entire dynamic going into 2014 would be different. It hasn’t. Unemployment is down to 9 percent. And even if the fundamentals of the economy may not be so strong, it appears things are getting so much better all the time.
The Sun sets? Yes, if the Las Vegas Sun disappears, it will affect coverage of more than just Harry Reid. And while no one says it will vanish, save Brian Greenspun, the RJ clearly sees an opportunity to finish off the Sun. The end of this story, which could come in 2014, will have an impact on the election.
Dean Heller’s No Labels year: After narrowly defeating Rep. Shelley Berkley last year, the junior senator spent 2013 flopping on immigration, pushing his inane “No Budget No Pay” bill, voting against gun control, proposing unemployment insurance extension and voting with Ted Cruz on budget issues. I’m not sure who he wants to be: The second coming of Chic Hecht or a key swing vote on major issues.
Carson City tilting left? A gay marriage prohibition undone? Pot sold in shops? Both could be coming soon to the state where libertarians roam free. Is it a sign of things to come? Not on guns or taxes, it seems.