Frierson advocates for criminal justice reform, equal pay in opening speech as Speaker

Nevada’s first African-American Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson mapped out a series of Democratic legislative priorities in remarks he delivered to the Assembly on Monday morning, including criminal justice reform and equal pay for women in the workplace.

Frierson praised the work the Republican-controlled Legislature accomplished last session to diversify Nevada’s tax structure and increase funding to education. But the priorities he laid out in his opening speech took a particularly liberal bent: protecting minorities, women and members of the LGBTQ community from discrimination in the workplace, reducing barriers for prior offenders to re-enter the workforce and creating economic security for families by establishing a living wage and paid family leave.

He also talked about the additional steps the Legislature needs to take on education, recruiting and retaining teachers, providing incentives for teachers to work in at-risk schools and improving test scores for children. Gov. Brian Sandoval’s budget includes measures to drive teachers to the neediest schools.

Frierson didn’t mention the state’s controversial Education Savings Accounts program by name, instead emphasizing the importance of investing “in an educational system that provides broad opportunities for all of Nevada’s children, not just a select few” — the talking point Democrats have been using over the last several weeks to push back on the program. Opponents of the program believe ESAs unfairly benefit children from wealthier families who can pay for private school when tuition exceeds the value of the ESA while taking funding away from the public school system.

“It’s the right thing to do for our children, and it’s the right thing to do for Nevada,” Frierson said. “We may not always agree on how to get there, but I believe we agree on where we’d like to be, and that is a promising future for all of Nevada’s children.”

Frierson also took a moment to acknowledge his roots growing up in a violent time in Compton, CA and his historic election as speaker of the Assembly. He noted the diversity of the 42-member Assembly, which includes 17 women, seven Hispanic and six African-American members this session.

“I embrace this opportunity and responsibility with the recognition that by breaking this ceiling, there is one less ‘first’ still to be achieved in Nevada’s history,” Frierson said. “I do not take this role in Nevada’s history lightly. I fully recognize that in selecting me as Speaker, our contribution to the richness of Nevada’s history means we send a message that Nevada embraces all who are committed to serving.”

Michelle Rindels contributed to this report.


Read the full text of Frierson’s speech below:

Thank you for such a warm and kind introduction on this historic day.  Words do not do my feelings justice in expressing how honored I am to join all of you on this journey and I am truly humbled by your confidence in me to lead you into and through this 79th Session of the Nevada Legislature.  

While we all ended up here on different journeys with unique experiences, we are united by our common desire to serve the people of Nevada.  My story began in Compton, California in a 917 square foot home.  My parents worked hard to provide me with a good education and a sense of security, even if there were gunshots and violence outside our doors.  In order for me to be standing before you today, I was fortunate to have my family and others in my life committed to helping to provide me with a fighting chance.  Under Order of Business 15, I will be able to fully introduce some of them who are here today, including my wife and children, my mother, brother, best friend and family.

We have much to be proud of in Nevada.  We stand in this body today as the most diverse legislative body in the country. I stand on the legacy of many to get to lead such a body.  Ten years ago yesterday, the Nevada Assembly selected Nevada’s first woman to be elected Speaker, Speaker Barbara Buckley.  In 2007, there were 13 female members of the Nevada Assembly and we, as a state, were richer because of their leadership and contributions.  Speaker Buckley, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for your leadership throughout the years, for your support and encouragement, and for being my friend.  I have learned so much from your example, including at the very least your commitment to the often overlooked skill of listening … listening to our colleagues, to our loved ones who know us so well, and even listening to those with whom we disagree.  You have and continue to leave your mark on this state and your legacy will live on through the many you have mentored.  Today, we can see the fruit of your labor.  Today, we have 17 women serving in the Nevada Assembly, and I’m confident that this number will continue to grow as we continue to embrace the rich contributions that women bring in all facets of leadership.  Not only have we added record numbers of women to our ranks, today, we also have 7 Latino members of the Assembly and 6 African American Assembly members.  Never has the Nevada Legislature been more representative of the wonderful diversity of our Silver State.  

I would be remiss if I did not thank a handful of leaders who helped me grow along the way.  To Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick — thank you for the opportunity to serve with you as Assistant Majority Leader.  Speaker John Oceguera and Majority Leader Marcus Conklin — thank you for encouraging me to take on more on responsibility for the team.  Majority Leader William Horne, you have, at every step of the way, been my friend and supporter.  You provided me with what every leader needs…consistent and steady, honest and tough love.  It will never be lost upon me that your becoming Nevada’s first African American Majority Leader paved the way for me to be here today.

I would also like to thank my current colleagues — Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton for the institutional knowledge you so generously share with me as I grow, Assemblywoman Irene Bustamante Adams for your steady prayers throughout the years and Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson, for your unwavering friendship.  Minority Leader Paul Anderson, thank you for your statesmanship and the love we share for this great state. I am looking forward to working with you to leave this institution better off than when we found it.

Let me also congratulate our 14 new members of the Nevada Assembly and welcome them along with a few of who, like me, took a little bit of time off in between serving.  I am excited to join you in the cause of moving Nevada forward together.  We are truly one Nevada, and together, we can accomplish great things. I believe that through collaboration, open minds and respect for the legislative institution, we can find the common ground.

It is with this foundation that I am blessed to become the first African American Speaker of the Nevada State Assembly.  I embrace this opportunity and responsibility with the recognition that by breaking this ceiling, there is one less “first” still to be achieved in Nevada’s history.  I do not take this role in Nevada’s history lightly — I fully recognize that in selecting me as Speaker, our contribution to the richness of Nevada’s history means we send a message that Nevada embraces all who are committed to serving.  This is about a journey to today rather than about me individually.  Booker T. Washington once said, "Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed."  This milestone reflects the obstacles that have been overcome, but also preparation for those obstacles we still have ahead of us.

I think we can all agree that there is simply no state like Nevada.  I arrived here almost 30 years ago from that small house in Compton, with a scholarship in my hands to play football and ambition to use the opportunities my mom and dad worked so hard to give me.  I came to Nevada, like many of you — in search of a fighting chance.  I am fortunate to have spent significant time throughout our entire state and enjoyed the richness that Nevada offers.  From Reno, to Ely, to Elko and North Las Vegas, I have developed an appreciation for Nevada’s people, and also Nevada’s precious landscape.  From the mining towns of Elko to the Red Rock Canyon landscapes of Southern Nevada and the crystal blue Lake Tahoe, I love Nevada.

Nevada has a diverse culture and lifestyle, with our gaming industry as well as the opportunity for small businesses to flourish.  We have the excitement and promise of the urban spirit, but also a feel of the new frontier.  This, my friends, is the richness of Nevada.  It is this broad range of experiences that we all bring to this building in service of the state we love and the citizens we represent.  

We are fortunate that we are picking up where leaders left off in 2015, taking steps to diversify our tax structure, so that, above all else, we could restore funding for our children in public schools.  Despite that significant bipartisan effort, our work is not done.  We still have kids falling behind, test scores that need improving and accountability in the classroom that must be part of the solution.  We still have underpaid and overworked teachers dipping into their own pockets to provide supplies and resources for the classroom.  We still struggle to recruit and retain the best teachers, and struggle to provide adequate incentives for teachers to take on the most challenging at-risk schools.  We as Nevadans have to make it a priority to pay our teachers competitively so that the best are attracted to Nevada.  We must invest in an educational system that provides broad opportunities for all of Nevada’s children, not just a select few.  It’s the right thing to do for our children, and it’s the right thing to do for Nevada.  We may not always agree on how to get there, but I believe we agree on where we’d like to be, and that is a promising future for all of Nevada’s children.

Providing students and teachers with the tools they need to be successful is yet only a part of the equation.  If there is not economic security for Nevada families, this effort will be for naught.  We have to create that economic security for families by addressing the need for a living wage, paid family leave and a continuation of the efforts to diversify our economic opportunities with new high tech and clean energy jobs.

We still have to work to create a workplace environment that embraces equal pay and is free from discrimination against minorities, women and members of the LGBTQ community.

I am passionate about our commitment to removing barriers to good paying jobs by reforming our criminal justice system. We can protect our community from the most violent offenders AND still allow for those who are not a danger to society to reenter the workforce and become full contributors to society. I know we can do that!

We also have a tremendous opportunity — no, an obligation — to be an example not only for Nevadans, but for the nation when it comes to restoring faith and confidence in our government.  

We need to make government work for Nevadans, improving efficiency, accountability and inclusiveness in government.  This means looking at the expansion of early voting, restoring the voting rights of those who have paid their debt to society, and improving transparency in government.

All of this and more I know we can accomplish, united in one cause…moving our state forward, for Nevadans.  It is our calling and the time is now!   At a time when political rhetoric and hyper partisanship have defined politics in D.C., we have an opportunity show the country what a citizen’s legislature and bipartisan government is capable of accomplishing … setting aside our differences for the good of the state in a way Nevadans can be proud of.

Nevada is my home all these years later and I am here standing in front of you, because I didn’t give up and neither should we, on making sure our kids and families have the tools they need to succeed.  I am here because I see the promise and opportunity in the faces of Nevada’s children in my own childhood, but we need to fight for it. Now, more than ever, we need to fight for our kids and for Nevadan‘s future. Just like those who were committed to giving me a fighting chance, I want to help Nevadans rise to the occasion.   I invite you to join me in this endeavor.  Join me and let’s show our citizens and the country why we love Nevada.  Again, thank you so very much and God bless you all.