Odds Favor Heller, Laxalt in 2018

First things first: Sen. Dean Heller is likely to be re-elected, and Attorney General Adam Laxalt is probably going to be the next governor.

Yes, it’s March 2017, so perhaps you should discount what anyone — candidates, pundits — says until filing closes in a year. But the GOP pair, with a ticket underpinned by state Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson for lieutenant governor and Laxalt deputy Wes Duncan for attorney general, is formidable.

The Democrats have a large statewide registration advantage – 90,000 or so. But as of right now they have only Possible Candidates and no Real Candidates.

Sure, Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak could win for governor. So, perhaps, could entrepreneur and possible self-funder Steve Cloobeck. And maybe ex-Treasurer Kate Marshall or Caesars executive Jan Jones could defeat Heller if either were to run.

But if this were before the flop in Hold ‘Em, I like the GOP’s hand much better than the Democrats’. Starting with a Heller and a Laxalt in the pocket is better than the voter registration and Trump cards the Democrats are holding.

In poker parlance, the Democrats don’t have many outs; in political argot, they need someone to get in.

That’s one of the reasons I found the poll numbers released by Democratic-aligned groups last week so fascinating. (I am long over complaints about polls by partisan groups not being credible. If the internals look good, that’s what’s important.)

Although I believe the numbers are accurate – the pollster is legit – they are almost a cry for help. A song comes to mind – somebody, not just anybody….

As I wrote Friday, the numbers are ominous for Heller, the second consecutive public poll to show him underwater and even under President Trump. And Laxalt, while his conservative bona fides have been marvelously crafted to scare Heller and Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison out of the governor’s race, is still not a widely known quantity.

Heller is weak, and Laxalt could be vulnerable to the right candidate. That’s what the poll says.

Digging deeper into the numbers – I obtained the crosstabs – there’s more provocative information:

—-Although Trump is holding his base very well in Nevada – 86 percent of Republicans say he is doing an “excellent” or “good” job, only 58 percent of his own party say Heller is doing so. Heller’s numbers among non-major party voters are a real warning beacon: Only 25 percent say he is doing an “excellent” or “good” job. Remember, registered voters who decline to be Democrats or Republicans represent about a quarter of the Nevada electorate. These findings confirm my suspicions that Heller’s dancing on Trump support during the campaign hurt him with the base, and Democrats and indies either find him to be a windsock or, ironically, because of his 100 percent support of the president so far, a rubber stamp for him.

—-The regional breakdowns also are ominous for the senior senator: The excellent/good numbers in Clark (32 percent), Washoe (33 percent) and the rurals (41 percent) are abysmal. If you are a Republican and 45 percent of cow county voters think you are doing a “poor” or “just fair” job, I think it’s time to look for the panic button. Among Republicans, Dean Heller is no Adam Laxalt.

—-Heller’s numbers among Hispanics are devastating: 22 percent view him as doing an excellent/good job and 63 percent say poor/just fair. (Caveat: The subsamples in any poll are small, so there is a much larger margin of error. But these are awful, with no help from any error margin.) No wonder I hear chatter about Rep. Ruben Kihuen leaving the House in his rookie year….

I could go on, but suffice to say the senator is not doing well across any demographic measured in the poll. So what of Laxalt? The survey on the attorney general was only a so-called thermometer test – that is, whether voters feel warmly or cooly toward him.

—-It’s interesting that 44 percent have no opinion of or do not know Laxalt, whose star has risen and whose party bonafides for a pol under 40 have not been this impressive since the guy he defeated, Ross Miller. Even 37 percent of Republicans had no opinion.

—-The 0-100 thermometer scale reveals Nevadans essentially divided so far on how they feel about the attorney general elected in 2014. Nineteen percent rated him above 50 degrees and 19 percent below. These numbers are mimicked in Clark (15-15), slightly worse in Washoe (22-31) and much better in the rurals (33-18). So Laxalt is not that well known, people in the urban areas (he lost both Clark and Washoe to Miller) are still meh about him and the rurals are solid but not overwhelming (at least not yet).

There are no wild cards in Hold ‘Em, but there are bad beats. And so many cards could come up to ruin the GOP’s starting hand – or bolster it.

If Trump’s numbers improve, it will be very difficult to defeat either Laxalt or Heller, all other things being equal. But if Trump is in the low 40s or worse a year from now, it’s possible a second- or third-tier candidate could win either of those races (maybe just anybody?), which is good for the Democrats because that’s what it looks as if they will have.

I also wonder if the time is finally ripe for someone to run down the middle – that is, an independent candidate to take advantage of the surge in nonpartisan registration and disgust with the major parties. Could an independent win a major race in Nevada?

There are other unknowns, too – voter registration trends, the post-Reid machine, Sheldon Adelson’s financial commitment, Treasurer Dan Schwartz’s possible gubernatorial candidacy. But the poll itself shows the Democrats are not quite dead yet, which is why it was released.

Yes, there are 600 days to go. So take all of this with as many grains of salt as Ben Carson thought there were inside the pyramids.

In Hold ‘Em terms, the flop has been dealt, but the dealer has yet to turn over the cards to determine if the Democrats’ lesser hand has been helped. Maybe the GOP’s hole cards aren’t as strong as they look before the new cards are flipped up, but I’d rather be in their seat than the Democrats’ right now.

“Four Of A Kind – Poker Hand” by Poker Photos is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Disclosure: Stephen Cloobeck has donated to The Nevada Independent. You can see a full list of donors here.



Abolish the Death Penalty

by Randy Fiedler

Who gets the death penalty? The answer is not, as many suppose, every murderer. The Supreme Court decided in 1976 that murder, by itself, is not enough to warrant the death penalty. But also consider: Between 2000 and 2012 in Clark and Washoe Counties, there were 1,256 murder cases; only twenty-three received a death sentence. Sentencing all of those murderers to death would make Nevada, already one of the largest per capita death rows, the actual largest death row in the country.

If not every murderer gets the death penalty, how do we choose those who do? And, how do we ensure that we choose fairly? As the Nevada legislature weighs abolishing the death penalty, the answer matters. But answering these questions has proven extremely difficult.

In fact, when the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty in 1972, it was because there was no satisfactory answer to these questions. Justice Stewart described how the death penalty was cruel and unusual “in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual.” The Supreme Court’s abolition began a forty-five year experiment in creating a fair and just death penalty system. The states immediately began passing new laws, with greater procedural protections intended to end the arbitrary application of the death penalty. Nevada was part of this wave, despite not having had an execution since 1961.

When the Supreme Court blessed the return of the death penalty, it was with the understanding that more procedure, and more protections, meant the end of randomness. As time passed, the Supreme Court crafted and adjusted additional protections. These protections were necessary compromises between two competing questions: the state’s question, “may we execute this person?” and the defendant’s rejoinder, “is this fair?” Historically, the answer has been: “the state may execute this person, but only if it is fair.” The result has been a gradual slowing of the process, adding more protections and more procedures.

But forty years of experimenting have not solved the problems of fairness. The two most important factors that determine whether someone will receive the death penalty are race and geography—factors unrelated to the crime. Nevada’s experience is no different. Despite constituting roughly eight percent of Nevada’s overall population, African-Americans make up roughly forty percent of its death row population. Clark County sends more people to death row than almost every other county in the country, ranking sixth.

The death penalty remains unreliable. Stories of innocent people wrongfully sentenced to death are easy to find. For example, Roberto Miranda’s public defender was bad enough that, after Miranda was exonerated from death row, Clark County awarded him a five-million-dollar settlement. Miranda’s case is only one example of a thirty-year saga: as reflected by a series of reports commissioned by the Nevada Supreme Court, the state suffered from a crisis of ineffective appointed attorneys, despite the fact that effective assistance of counsel is a constitutional right.

The death penalty experiment has also failed to produce a more effective death penalty. In the forty years since the Supreme Court brought back the death penalty, studies have failed to show that the death penalty actually deters crime any better than its alternative, life without the possibility of parole. This lack of evidence must be weighed against the cost of the death penalty, which takes resources away from other law enforcement activities. In 2014, the Nevada legislature performed an audit on the death penalty. Adding together the costs of capital trials, appeals, and incarceration, death penalty cases are much more costly than non-death penalty cases: on average, half a million dollars more costly. This added cost is necessitated by the additional procedural requirements for death penalty cases. This money, however, could be used for law enforcement activity that does have a known deterrent effect.

It is easy to imagine that we have a good answer to the question, “who gets the death penalty?” We imagine a death penalty, endowed with moral justice, swiftly and righteously inflicted on the worst of the worst, vindicating both the offense to society and the victims. We imagine a punishment that deters crime, that saves lives by conveying a message to others that our society will not tolerate the intolerable. And we imagine a punishment constructed with procedural safeguards that reliably distinguish between the guilty and the innocent, and that can distinguish those who “deserve” the death penalty and those who don’t. For forty years, the State of Nevada has tinkered with the machinery of death in an attempt to make this idea of the death penalty a reality.

For forty years, the State of Nevada has failed. What we have created instead of the death penalty of our imagination is a slow, bureaucratic machine, procedurally necessary, but irrevocably unfair. The death penalty is not, and never will be, what we want it to be. The death penalty was arbitrary forty-five years ago when the Supreme Court abolished it. It remains arbitrary today.

As the Nevada legislature considers whether to abolish the death penalty, it needs to consider the death penalty as it is, not as we wish it were. In practice, the death penalty is arbitrary, expensive, and not a deterrent. It serves no purpose other than to pose unanswerable question of its own fairness. Who gets the death penalty? It’s time for the answer to be, “no one.”

Randy Fiedler is a public defender who represents Nevada death row inmates in state and federal post-conviction proceedings. The views expressed herein are his own and not the views of his employer.

Featured image: An electric chair in Texas. Photo from Wikipedia licensed under Creative Commons.

A call for tolerance, gratitude, and optimism

by Assemblyman Keith Pickard

I have served as a member of the Nevada Assembly for nearly one month, representing the constituents of Assembly District 22. I feel honored and blessed to have the opportunity to serve them and all the citizens of Nevada.

Nevada is an emerging leader in the country in a number of ways, whether it is creating high paying and high quality jobs, or paving the way in innovative education that actually helps our students learn. I am proud to have played a role in helping to build on those reforms this legislative session.  I have to admit, however, I’ve also been disappointed by the defamatory remarks that too often mark the political discourse.

I write today to encourage my colleagues in Carson City, the media, and those that speak out on political issues, to use a new voice. A voice of true tolerance and appreciation for the great work done by those with whom we may disagree.

Recently, an editorial in the Las Vegas Review Journal spoke of intellectual intolerance in universities across the country. It noted that those that call for diversity in thought seem least likely of all to tolerate those of us who speak of traditional values and who don’t fit within their definition of what it means to be colorful.

We also see this venom in mainstream media. Even NPR, the former bastion of balanced, unbiased reporting, now uses harsh word choices and one-sided interviews to disparage and detract. Similar examples abound. These news outlets have become unabashed advocates of a particular side rather than reporters of facts. They focus on doubts, rather than the potential of people.

I recently read the writings of a hero of mine, Gordon B. Hinckley, from whom I borrow today. He recalled his father telling him, “Cynics do not contribute, skeptics do not create, doubters do not achieve.”

Pessimism is endemic today. We are daily fed a diet of character assassination, faultfinding, and gloom. Rather than focusing their attention on the good all around us, these purveyors of doom seek only to tear down, to disparage and complain. This sort of treatment does nothing at all to improve our state. As a wise man once said, “no misfortune is so bad that whining about it won’t make it worse.”

My goal today is to call everyone to common action. To not waste time over-analyzing the past or fretting about the future. To avoid ad hominem attacks that belittle and focus our attention and our words on the issues, with suggestions for improvement. And to those that are the focus of negative speech, to persevere with an attitude of gratitude.

I am not asking for silence or that anyone should refrain from calls for correction. Strength comes with change; wise is the one who changes after making a mistake. What I am asking for is optimism. Nearly everyone in the Legislature is here for the same reason: to strive for works of good for this great state.  There is reason for optimism all around us.

So, I ask everyone to join me in an effort to elevate the conversation. The journalist Jenkins Lloyd Jones wrote, “Most putts don’t drop. Most beef is tough. Most children grow up to be just people. Life is like an old-time rail journey – delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed. The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride.”

To learn more about freshman Republican and successor of retired five-term Republican Assemblyman Lynn Stewart, read The Nevada Independent’s pre-session profile.



I will not apologize

by Dan Schwartz, Nevada State Treasurer
Dear Fellow Nevadans,
“Defiant,” “deceptive,” “rogue,” and “misleading”: these are all words that have been used to describe me in the last few weeks. Some say I have a hidden agenda, but my agenda is in the open for anyone and everyone to see.
I seek only to improve programs that benefit Nevada families and the youth of our state; and for that, I will not apologize.
Everything I do and have done as the Nevada State Treasurer, is for you – fellow Nevadans. I was voted into office to represent you, and I will support your interests, needs, and constitutional rights to the best of my ability now and in the future.
A bill was proposed by Assemblyman Anderson that the Nevada State Treasurer should no longer exist as an elected seat. Absurd, after my office has proven time and time again the value of elected leadership in working toward a collective goal. Over the past two years, we have tripled returns on over $3 billion in various government portfolios. We revamped College Savings, returned Unclaimed Property in 20 instead of 120 days, fought for ESAs, and questioned a project that could have cost taxpayers $175 million in defaulted bonds. The people of Nevada are perfectly capable of electing a State Treasurer rather than asking the Governor to appoint the position.
What is important to you? Your job? Your reputation? Or like me, is your family most important? The children of our state have been given short shrift for far too long. We’ve seen our education system failing Nevada students. We must do something to create a culture of learning in Nevada.
Education Savings Accounts are a step in the right direction. A parent should not only have the right to choose where their child goes to school, but be given the means to do so. Nevada parents, don’t you want the best for your children?
I came under fire for implementing College Kick Start incentives to improve the program’s success. If we didn’t take steps to expand the current program, we would’ve come back with the same stale results as the previous year. Instead, those incentives produced an enormous increase in college savings accounts claimed and opened.
For any of this programming to work effectively, I need smart, competent people in my corner. My office has operated under the assumption that it’s “all hands on deck” to implement and operate our legislatively mandated programming. The Public Information Officer position was created out of a need to function effectively. We weren’t required to bring the hiring to vote because the Governor’s Finance Office already approved spending the extra salary savings we accrued. This is an already established legislative process we followed because it was the simple, straightforward route.
I answer only to my fellow Nevadans. I do not seek to serve anyone else. I’m looking out for the best interest of Nevada families, particularly Nevada children. They are our future, so we must do all we can to create a system that allows children to thrive. These same children will someday be our future leaders, and I will not allow the future of Nevada to be held back by a tangled web of bureaucracy.
Featured image: Dan Schwartz at Gov. Sandoval’s State of the State address in January 2017. Photo by David Calvert.

Common sense says secret tape of attorney general must be made public

The state of shock that pervaded the Nevada political world after the disclosure of a secret recording of the attorney general has mostly subsided.

Even in the incestuous Nevada political arena, the revelation that the state’s chief gaming enforcer surreptitiously recorded the state’s top law enforcement officer because of suspicions of the latter’s fealty to Sheldon Adelson was a stunner. But now that head-shaking has yielded to a logical follow-up: What exactly is on that tape?

It’s a good question, and one that goes to the heart of the state’s public records law.

Forget the statute for a moment (I’ll get to it). Common sense says if one of the state’s top regulators, A.G. Burnett, surreptitiously records the attorney general, Adam Laxalt, because he suspects foul play – the FBI later found no crime had been committed – the public has a right to hear the tape.

Try arguing with that proposition.

The Nevada Independent has made a public records request of the control board. It was rejected. The state Democratic Party, operating under an imperative that may have more to do with Laxalt’s frontrunner status for governor than its concern for open government, has since made similar requests of the state and feds.

The gaming folks snubbed our records request saying the recording was not made in the course of regular board processes. But, the board went on to say, even if it were a public record by virtue of state law, it would be confidential because of attorney-client privilege.

That, of course, is easily remedied. Burnett and/or Laxalt could agree to waive confidentiality. You would think both would want to quell speculation about what was said. But, thus far, no.

The question is whether the open records law or attorney-client privilege takes higher precedence. Barry Smith, the head of the state press association, thinks it’s the former.

I think any plain reading of Nevada law would show the tape is a public record,” he told me last week. “The statute says everything is open unless it’s specifically made confidential, and I don’t see the tape covered by the exceptions cited by the Gaming Control Board.”

Smith explained that even though the board cited the law and said the tape “doesn’t fall under ‘organization, operation, policy or any other activity” of the agency,’” that can’t be right. Or as he put it, “How can that be?”

Laxalt wanted to talk to Burnett about whether the board should intervene in a lawsuit involving Adelson, his largest donor. Such a request clearly falls under the “policy” or at least “other activity” of the control board.

Indeed, the board has had a longstanding policy of NOT filing briefs to affect private civil disputes involving licensees. That’s common sense, too.

Any way you slice it, the tape is a public record. What about attorney-client privilege?

“I don’t think it applies here,” Smith said. “I’m not a lawyer, but I think if I tape-recorded a conversation with my attorney and then turned the tape over to police, I would have a hard time arguing that it was private.”

I’m not a lawyer, either. But it seems obvious: Burnett waived confidentiality when he turned the tape over to a third party, the FBI, and also when he talked to others about it before taking that step.

Think about the argument that is being made: The chairman can talk privately about a tape he made of the attorney general talking about a policy of manifest public interest, but all other Nevadans don’t have a right to know what was said?

I’m not sure whether that contention is more George Orwell or Lewis Carroll.

A few people have imputed partisan motives or have tried to discredit the messenger — or both. That is S.O.P. in any story involving a high-profile elected official, especially one preparing to run for the state’s highest executive office. And that’s why the Democrats, who know Laxalt is a formidable gubernatorial contender, are all over it.

Whatever your take on any of that, there are serious legal and transparency issues at stake here.

The attorney general serves as counsel to the control board, which made a legal determination that the tape should remain private. Did he have a hand in that decision?

I asked the board’s records custodian, Barbara Bolton, whether she sought outside legal advice because of Laxalt’s involvement, an obvious conflict of interest.

Her response: “No, the written response regarding the public records request was handled in the same manner as any other public records request the Board receives. In this particular instance, because the information sought, on its face, is confidential (pursuant to NRS 463.120 and/or NRS 49.095), which is consistent with Chairman Burnett’s prior public response, no outside legal advice was necessary.”

And no legal advice was sought on whether it was an ipso facto public record? No, Bolton said.

So this wall is made of stone.

Will a lawsuit be necessary to bring it down? Any enterprising attorneys want to volunteer to help a nonprofit push for full transparency in government? Any lawmakers want to actually do their oversight jobs and get to the bottom of things?

It’s not about Burnett or Laxalt, Democrats or Republicans, Sheldon Adelson or me.

It’s about making public what should be public and letting the chips fall where they may.


Bundy trial testimony on tense standoff after stand down order underlines lack of agency communication

His world narrowed and intensified through the scope of his high-powered rifle, Bureau of Land Management Special Agent Scott Swanson watched armed figures in tan and black caps on a distant highway bridge and said he felt an imminent threat.

 Anticipating fire, he sighted in the figure in the black cap.

“It appeared to me he was bringing his weapon up to his shoulder,” Swanson testified Thursday in U.S. District Court.

 Swanson squeezed the slack from the trigger. A hair more pressure and his weapon would have fired through a swirling wind toward an armed man standing near unarmed citizens with traffic slowly flowing past on the northbound lanes of Interstate 15.

 This is how close agents and protesters came to sparking a bloodbath on April 12, 2014 near Bunkerville during the tensest moments of the BLM’s attempted impoundment of rancher Cliven Bundy’s cattle.

 The man in the black cap, Swanson said, was making furtive movements from behind a concrete barrier and at one point briefly raised his weapon into a firing position. The agent said he felt his safety and that of his fellow officers was threatened, and his testimony on direct examination was filled with drama and emotion.

 “At one point I said a prayer and asked God to take care of my wife and children if I didn’t make it out,” Swanson recalled. “I said an ‘Our Father’ and went back to work.”

 No shots were fired in the standoff — a fact which, with each added prosecution witness, appears increasingly miraculous.

 The showdown came at the end of weeks of mostly peaceful protest following Bundy’s call for a “Range War Emergency.” It was precipitated by his refusal to pay $1 million in grazing fees and assessments that had accumulated during his two-decade legal battle with the federal government. Using contract cowboys, the BLM was attempting to round up cattle and carry out a court order.

 By April 12, the ratio of guns to good sense was about even.

 At a briefing on the night of April 11, the FBI shared intelligence information indicating the Bundy standoff was attracting dozens of armed militia members. Although the FBI intelligence report on militia activity associated with the Bundy standoff has been mentioned repeatedly in court, to date none of the six defendants has been described as a member or associate of an extremist organization.

 Dramatic testimony aside, the legal issues may not be as simple as the fear federal law enforcement officers felt that day. The standoff occurred hours after the decision was made to stand down, pack up and depart the impoundment site to avoid potential violence.

 They were supposed to bug out. Instead, they hunkered down after Bundy announced to the crowd that it was time to get his cows. Protesters — some of them armed — began crossing Interstate 15 and moving toward Toquop Wash and the federal corral.

 Metro officials, including then-Sheriff Doug Gillespie, eventually intervened. Cooler heads were in the process of prevailing when the rifle-pointing started. This may be why there’s evidence that police officers and Nevada Highway Patrol troopers were calm while BLM rangers and a unit of officers from the U.S. National Park Service looked like they were defending Fort Apache.

The lack of comprehensive communication between agencies that day deserves serious study. At times during testimony jurors could have been forgiven for wondering just who was in charge.

 On cross examination, Swanson admitted he repeatedly refused orders from superiors to put away his weapon, stand down and prepare to leave the impoundment site.

 “I told him that I had an immediate threat in front of me,” Swanson testified.

 It didn’t keep some others from packing up — or turning their backs to the immediate threat Swanson said he believed was present.

 Although he eventually backed away from his position, Swanson told jurors, “I still felt like there was a threat in front of us.”

 The jury has already seen photos of the defendants carrying weapons. They include the man in the black cap, defendant Eric Parker of Idaho, positioned on the northbound bridge pointing his rifle through a jersey barrier toward the officers.

 Swanson wasn’t alone in feeling fear that day. U.S. Park Police Officer Brandon Novotny also prayed and thought of his family before taking his position in the wash as part of a four-person riot team. Armed with a tear-gas launcher, he said the incident pegged the fear meter and he came to believe he would probably “not walk away from the wash that day.”

 Although he recognized none of the defendants, Novotny swore he saw weapons pointed at him.

 Which made for dramatic testimony — right up until the moment he admitted under cross examination that he failed to mention it in his official incident report.

 John L. Smith is a longtime Las Vegas journalist and author. Contact him at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith

Feature photo of Nevada cows by jeff_bandy on iStock.com.

Lawmakers: Stay in Your Lanes!

Several years ago, a western desert state decided the federal government wasn’t doing the right thing when it came to enforcing immigration laws. That state’s legislature decided to pass its own laws intended to make things right, at least locally.

The right cheered.  The left wailed and gnashed its collective teeth.

That state, of course, was Arizona. Its state law, known as SB 1070, was struck down in 2012 by the US Supreme Court in Arizona v. United States.  In that case, the Supremes determined that the state laws unduly interfered with the federal legal structure, and that most of it was therefore “preempted” by federal law.  Justice Kennedy wrote for the Court, “The ordinary principles of preemption include the well settled proposition that a state law is preempted where it stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress.”

The left cheered. The right wailed and gnashed its collective teeth.

Today, several lawmakers from our own western desert state have decided the federal government isn’t doing the right thing when it comes to enforcing immigration laws. They’ve decided to attempt passage of our own laws intended to make things right, at least locally.

The left cheers. The right wails and gnashes…  You can of course see where this is headed.

SB223, an attempt by some incredibly foolish and short-sighted lawmakers to make Nevada a so-called “sanctuary state,” is profoundly bad policy. It ties the hands of local law enforcement in accessing federal resources in various law enforcement efforts, and forces them to actively obstruct the work of federal immigration officials. Various Democratic lawmakers object to this characterization, saying they’re only trying to free up local law enforcement to focus on local issues, but those folks either haven’t read the bill or aren’t being honest about what’s in it. And in a state where hundreds of millions of dollars spent on billionaires’ sports fantasies are justified because we need to “put Nevadans back to work,” incentivizing tens of thousands of new laborers to flood the job market from other states seems somewhat unwise.

But worse than the policy merits is the fact that SB233 is undoubtedly unconstitutional, especially after Arizona v. United States. It is rather obviously an “obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives” of federal law. And that makes debating immigration on the state level a colossal waste of time.

What happens when a legislature wastes time on things falling well outside of its competence or authority?

Meh. There’s always next session for that stuff. We have a base to keep riled up!

But our legislature isn’t the only government body in need of a little focus and discipline. We also have this:

Do President Trump, the FBI, and the U.S. Congress really have nothing better to do than be the state weed police? Is there any sane reason whatsoever for the federal government to screw around with local experiments in marijuana legalization, when so much else is on their plates?

Please don’t try to answer that, Mr. President.

To his credit, State Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford has called on the feds to butt out.  I hope Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who up until a few months ago seemed to relish any opportunity to battle federal overreach into what ought to be local regulation, is intellectually honest enough to keep up that aggressive pro-federalism stand no matter which party’s president is doing the overreaching.


I was sympathetic with Arizona’s efforts to help enforce and to supplement federal immigration laws, and yet I believe the Supreme Court was right to invalidate the state’s attempts. I voted against the legalization of recreational marijuana, and yet I object to the federal government’s “crackdown” on states that have chosen to legalize the drug.  

Our federal Constitution brilliantly defines separate roles and responsibilities for our different governments, setting up important boundaries between them. When governments try to do everything, they wind up doing nothing very well. When they reach into areas they’re unequipped to handle, we all lose, regardless of our policy disagreements.

Let foreign policy, including which foreign nationals we allow to enter and remain in our country, be determined in Washington. It’s not as if Nevada voters have no voice in national affairs. Let education, drug regulation, public land management, and the like stay close to home.  Our lawmakers on all levels will serve us best when they keep themselves in their Constitutionally assigned lanes.

A letter to Gov. Sandoval from a charter school teacher

By Alison Thomas

February 17, 2017

Dear Governor Sandoval,

My name is Alison Thomas. I am a proud life-long Nevada resident. I am also a teacher. It is my job in education that allowed us to cross paths several times. The first time I met you was just months after you were elected as our Governor. You came to my school, Nevada Connections Academy, and participated in a birthday party for Dr. Seuss.

Courtesy of Alison Thomas

That’s me… The Cat in the Hat. It was a really fun day! You read to dozens of students who were present in the room as well as 100+ students spread around the state using our online classrooms.

Courtesy of Alison Thomas

Two years later, we met again. Colleagues from Nevada Connections Academy and I were on a Southwest flight with you and former Lieutenant Governor Brian Krolicki. The two of you were on a visit to Southern Nevada to tour the Valley of Fire State Park. I remember this flight well because it was one of the bumpiest flights between the cities EVER, which says a lot because almost all of them are bumpy! I also remember it because you were kind enough to take a picture with us prior to boarding.

Courtesy of Alison Thomas

And then, just this past fall, my friend/colleague from Nevada Connections Academy and I were enjoying an early morning run on our day off from school for Veteran’s Day. Obviously you had a similar idea. We ran into you and your dogs, hiking on the Hunter Creek Trail.

My coworker and I bit our tongues because we both wanted to share the battle our school is waging with the State Public Charter School Authority and beg for your help, but we knew you were just trying to have a nice, quiet morning with your pups. So I write you now…

Nevada Connections Academy is an amazing educational option for students across Nevada. We’ve been operating since 2007. We started with a handful of staff and about 400 students. Now we are a staff of more than 100 people who work hard to serve more than 3200 students spanning the Silver State.

Governor, I know you sincerely want to raise Nevada’s graduation rate. I’ve devoted my career to working toward that same goal. But please consider what is being done by groups like the Charter Authority who are responding to your polices… Governor Sandoval, the Charter Authority is trying to close NCA simply because a single, flawed metric of graduation rate. It is unprecedented for a single metric to be the sole justification for an action of this magnitude.

This will actually make Nevada’s graduation rate worse, not better. Yes, closing down NCA and sending the 1600 high schoolers home will certainly raise the Charter School Authority’s graduation rate as the state measures it. But it will actually REDUCE the graduation rate for the state of Nevada. Many of them, perhaps the majority of them are unlikely to re-enroll anywhere else, but they won’t leave the state. They will be dropouts.

Yes, Governor Sandoval, our 4-year adjusted graduation rate is very low. Why? Mostly because 49.5% of our high school students enroll after their freshman year having already fallen behind in credits at another Nevada high school. There is NO accountability for these schools – and we know for a fact that these schools often counsel students to enroll in virtual school rather than drop out – which wipes away their accountability and places it unfairly on us.

Did you know that the school meets every single one of its performance criteria under its written charter? Did you know that in 2016 it was at or above the state proficiency average in reading in every single tested grade? Did you know that NCA student scores on the 10th grade science test were significantly above the state average?

Does this sound like a school that deserves to be shut down?

Governor Sandoval, this has to stop. Our families are terrified of losing their school, which for some is the best, last or only option they have. This fight has only made us an even better school. Our staff remains committed to serving our students despite the uncertainty we face every day.

Nevada Connections Academy is a good school. One data point does not detract from the impact we have had and will continue to have on our students. Please do not let the State Public Charter School Authority eliminate this choice from your state.


Alison Thomas

Nevada Connections Academy Teacher

To county commissioners on Red Rock, silence is golden

By Alan Snel

Imagine you live in a town where a developer wants to build on 2,000 acres where zoning allows 1,000 homes — one home for every two acres.

But the developer, through lawsuits and a settlement, is muscling local government to radically bend the zoning guidelines and allow not twice or three times the number of residential units under code but five times the number that is permissible.

In many places, local government would fight back.

It shouldn’t be complicated.

Except in Clark County, where the seven-member governing commission just won’t say no to a highly emotionally charged housing plan proposed near Las Vegas area’s cherished and beautiful Red Rock Canyon.

On Feb. 22, the commissioners voted, 5-2, to allow the developer to withdraw a new plan and to keep alive a 2011 proposal by Jim Rhodes and Gypsum Resources to build as many as 5,025 homes on 2,010 acres at a mining site atop Blue Diamond Hill outside the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. (Technically, the 2,010 acres is two parcels attached at a corner) in the canyon corridor .

The large number of proposed housing units for that site (even if it’s officially outside the federal Red Rock conservation area) in a canyon considered the region’s natural corridor jewel is laughable and obscene. It motivated more than 100 speakers to literally plea with county commissioners at the marathon judge-ordered hearing to reject the proposal last week. The speakers represented a rainbow of locals and canyon lovers, ranging from scientists and world-class rock climbers to photographers and one fella who read a poem. Petitions with nearly 50,000 names were submitted.

To understand how deep emotions cut, you have to understand that the entire Red Rock Canyon corridor, which runs in the shape of a “C” from outside of Summerlin to State Road 160, is considered sacred natural beauty for the more than 2 million residents in the Las Vegas valley. It’s a stunning multi-toned, evocative rock landscape amazingly close to the valley’s urban sprawl that spills out literally to the canyon’s doorstep. The feds, namely the Bureau of Land Management, oversee a big chunk of the canyon, including the popular scenic drive off State Road 159.

Rhodes’ site may not be pristine canyon land, but 5,000 homes on the site would have profound consequences for the experiences of millions of people who relish visiting the neighboring land and trails. It’s a mining site across from the cluster of houses in the Blue Diamond community that the BLM have not considered buying to add to its canyon land inventory.

The land is way too close to the hundreds of miles of hiking trails and mountain bike routes and vast stretches of mesmerizing scenery. It would appear that it would serve as a natural buffer to the federal Red Rock land.

After the last of the 130 speakers ended the seven-hour comment session last week, the county commissioners voted to allow Rhodes to withdraw his 2016 proposal and keep the 2011 plan still in play. (There’s even disagreement over whether the 2011 plan is still alive or expired. Save Red Rock, the nonprofit group that is fighting Rhodes’ plan, insists the 2011 plan expired.)

Typically, after residents spill passionate testimony for hours, members of the local governing board will offer comments and explain their vote.

Not in this case.

The county commissioners hardly even discussed the matter or addressed the points raised during the public comments.

In fact, opponents allege it appeared as if Commissioner Susan Brager, a real estate agent whose district includes the proposal, had discussed the commission action with a Rhodes representative, powerful Las Vegas lawyer Jay Brown, beforehand.

When asked at the meeting whether the applicant would like to withdraw the 2016 plan, Brown didn’t miss a beat and said, yes, without hesitation or discussion.

“Jay Brown answered so fast, ‘OK, yes, we’ll withdraw.’ Somebody had to have a conversation,” Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani told The Indy Tuesday. “This is political shenanigans.”

Justin Jones, Save Red Rock’s lawyer, put it this way about the commission vote, “It was absolutely orchestrated.”

On Wednesday, The Indy spoke with Brager, who vehemently denied she pre-arranged the deal with Brown to pull the 2016 plan off the table. Brager said Brown responded so quickly after she suggested the 2016 plan be withdrawn because he’s a veteran land lawyer who has been through that drill before.

As for not responding to the residents’ comments, Brager said she will have plenty to say at future meetings. Brager noted her position on the application is influenced by advice of district attorneys working on this case with the county who advised the commissioners the county would likely lose in court if the commission rejects the Rhodes proposal. And she said that just because she’s a real estate agent doesn’t mean she’s automatically in favor of the housing development. “I’m 70 years old. I don’t have to sell more houses.”

Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak also didn’t have much to say about people’s comments at the commission meeting, but he went into full damage control mode in the days that followed and posted this on his Facebook page: “The commission did not approve one home, one street light, one store, one road going into Blue Diamond Hill or Red Rock for that matter.”

Brager and Sisolak joined Commissioners Mary Beth Scow, Marilyn Kirkpatrick and Larry Brown to let the 2011 plan remain in play. Giunchigliani and Lawrence Weekly dissented.

To further agitate the masses, Sisolak went on KNPR Friday and appeared to say that the commission took its action because it didn’t want to draw a lawsuit, saying Rhodes’ lawyer might sue or a judge could award the developer even higher residential density at the site.

But shaping public policy based on fears of possible litigation and hypotheticals is no the way you run a county.

Giunchigliani theorized that Brager voted to withdraw the 2016 plan and keep the 2011 plan going because she is scared that she will be named in a lawsuit.

“Susan thought we’re going to be sued. Anyone will sue anyone these days,” Giunchigliani said.

Local residents who love that canyon were furious that the commissioners didn’t have the backbone to stand up for them.

Local climber Stephanie Forte, who owns a PR firm in Las Vegas, spoke for many when she said on Facebook that the commission took action on the Red Rock topic listed on the meeting agenda. The commissioners had pulled the rug out from under the Red Rock Canyon supporters by switching gears to the 2011 plan and allowing the 2016 plan to be withdrawn..

“That’s not the vote that was on the agenda. That’s not why we spent eight hours at the county building today testifying on the 2016 concept plan. What happened is that five of our elected officials who signed up for the job of making tough choices and to be the voice of the people opted to take the easy way out,” Forte wrote.

Las Vegas resident Hilarie Grey also used Facebook to express her displeasure with Brager.

“Beyond disappointed that my county commissioner Susan Brager voted with developers, against preserving Red Rock. Expected more from you,” Grey wrote.

And Summerlin resident Mark Antonuccio, who enjoys hiking Red Rock Canyon, also blasted the commissioners on Facebook.

“It is absurd to say that the development will not diminish Red Rock. 5000 homes and as many if not more cars, plus the light pollution. The low density housing was bad enough, but the expansion to 5000 homes is a travesty,” Antonuccio wrote. “I wonder why the County Commission approved this. Is nothing sacred? Answer: no.”

With a project generating so much rancor and volatility, any decision the county commissioners render will likely spur a lawsuit from either the developer or the opponents.

So what’s a commissioner to do? The BLM doesn’t appear to be interested in buying the land or swapping property.

Here’s a thought: How about standing up for residents and fight 5,000 homes in a canyon everyone agrees is the region’s most prized natural jewel?

Alan Snel, who has biked the Red Rock loop many times,  worked at the Las Vegas Review-Journal from November 2012 to February 2016 . He now lives in Vero Beach, FL.

Nevada women: Who are we, and where are we going?

Reno Women's March

On January 21st the Women’s March on Washington made history as one of the largest in our country’s history, channeling the passions and beliefs of over 2 million people across our country into a surging river of activists, marching to be heard and to inspire. And the marchers were heard, and they did inspire.

We Nevadans expected to see 2,000 marchers in Las Vegas. As reported by NPR, we saw 15,000. In Reno, they expected to yield a few hundred. By the day of the March, 3,000 had signed up on the event’s Facebook page. And then more than ten thousand showed up.

But now that the March is over, many have asked, now what? How do we keep this momentum?  How do we take activism, and make it action? How do we take protest, and make it policy? How do we take emotion, and make it energy, and stamina?

There is no better time to ask — and try to answer — these questions than the first day of Women’s History Month.

Now What?

State Sen. Pat Spearman is newly engaged in taking a symbolic, but important foundational step, answering the call to action. She has advanced a resolution that could make Nevada a leader in catalyzing women’s rights by ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment. (It is expected to be voted out of the Senate today.) The ERA failed to become a constitutional amendment in 1982 when it was unable to garner the last three states votes needed to enact its passage by the deadline.

What Spearman is proposing would make Nevada the first state since 1982 to ratify this legislation–at long last moving our country towards law that would, once and for all, enshrine women’s rights in the Constitution–thereby making it clear that all men, and women, are indeed created equal.

But what can the “average” woman do? (And is there such a thing?) We need to support Sen. Spearman, and we need to galvanize ourselves and others to remain engaged in the issues we care about as women.

The Backdrop

To frame the possibilities, it’s worth considering that Nevada is home to 2.9 million people, just under half of whom are female. That means, fellow women of Nevada, that we have more than 1.4 million sisters, mothers, daughters and girlfriends living alongside us. Perhaps, like me, many are transplants. We followed our parents, a dream, a job — or a man — to the Silver State. We planted our roots, and we grew.

But how we are doing at this moment in time is a matter of some debate. A blog post by The Guinn Center for Policy Priorities showed Nevada ranked near last in many measures of women’s well-being — especially on social issues such as health care and safety. On the other hand, the Center for American Progress gives Nevada a “B” for female economic security, based on the fact that the wage gap and poverty rates for women are slightly lower for Nevada (relative to other states).  This is likely the result of the fact that 48 percent of resort and gaming industry employees are women, and that these jobs have generally transparent pay scales. Unfortunately, women of color do not fare as well in these measures, with far more black and Hispanic women living in poverty here and garnering lower wages than their white counterparts.

But, whether rich or poor, old or young, we are all adventuresses of a sort, treading new ground for ourselves and our families by our mere presence here in the once Wild West. We are also likely (and simultaneously) shouldering the time-worn, universal duties that women around the world carry daily. We not only often work a job outside the home, we also manage our homes, our children, our parents, and our husbands.

In light of these responsibilities, we also have a duty, one that is more global, more elemental:  to be engaged in efforts to change things for the better in our communities, our state, our nation. Whatever our beliefs, whatever our political party, whatever our cultural background or personal backstory, the weight of who we are needs to be brought to the scales of justice and set firmly on the side of good.

And anyone who has ever tangled with a woman knows just one can be a mighty force to be reckoned with. So what about a whole roomful of women? Or even one-tenth of the women in a city? Or a state? That’s a force of nature waiting to take things by storm.

Engage in the Halls of Political Power

The newly formed bipartisan Women’s Caucus at the Legislature aims to be just that — a force of nature — in lawmaking and policy shaping that benefits Nevada’s women and children. Women from all walks of life should seek to inform and support their efforts, to tap into their power to advance the issues we care about. The Nevada Legislature is a bright spot in the nation when it comes to the ratio of women:  we have a much higher proportion of female lawmakers representing us in the Assembly and Senate than the average (40 percent vs. an average of just 24 percent in state legislatures nationwide).

In the judicial branch, two out of the seven Nevada Supreme Court justices are women, and one out of the three Nevada Court of Appeals justices are women as well. This is promising as women make up 36% of the legal profession nationwide according to the American Bar Association, therefore making Nevada a fairly accurate reflection of the numbers of women that practice law at the judicial level.

Engage in the Channels of Commerce & Money, Board Rooms, and Workplace

Money is power. And the private sector in Nevada, by contrast, remains largely a men’s club. We need to empower ourselves and other women to secure good employment and positions of authority. While 48 percent of all resort and gaming industry employees are women, there are no female CEOs. Seeing this vacuum, former Isle of Capri Casinos CEO Virginia McDowell retired in April of 2016 in order to run Global Gaming Women, a nonprofit that mentors emerging female resort and gaming leaders in order to increase the number of female executives in the industry.

Another measure of female participation in the business sector is their representation on boards of directors. The number of women on boards is sparse at Nevada’s biggest companies, although strides are being made. Deloitte’s 2015 survey of executive board diversity nation-wide found that women made up only 12 percent of directors and 4 percent of board chairs. This despite the fact that organizations such as Catalyst have found that companies with more female board members tend to have better financial performance.

The five biggest private employers in Nevada range from zero females to 30 percent on their boards — and many of those have only one woman. Executive positions held by women in the biggest economic powers in the state–the resort and gaming industry, finance and banking, mining and real estate development–are disproportionately few, and women occupying important positions of thought leadership — academics, nonprofit heads — are also typically underrepresented.

In all of these domains, we can help each in a number of ways:  by doing our homework, speaking up with informed opinions, modeling civil discourse on issues — even when we disagree — and standing up for one another. What woman hasn’t been condescended to, interrupted, or talked over by a man in a meeting? What woman hasn’t presented an idea, only to have it ignored and then subsequently appropriated (i.e. rephrased) by a man, such that it suddenly seems like newly minted genius? What woman hasn’t realized she is so little regarded that she wasn’t even invited to a male-dominated decision-making meeting or meet-up?

Engage Where You Are

Women are speaking up in a many settings. I recently was told about a female chief financial officer for a Fortune 500 company who was pitched by a leading Wall Street bank for a major piece of investment banking business. She listened, and did her homework. And at the end of the meeting she pulled the senior managing director on the six-person team aside and civilly said, “Don’t ever come here again without a single woman on your side of the table.” Women investors are now asking how many women are on a company’s board, or what the company’s maternity and equal pay policies are–before they buy the stock.

In smaller settings, some women are dedicating themselves to helping other women be heard as part of their everyday work practice through “amplification.” This is a meeting strategy where when a woman makes a key point in a discussion, the other women present repeat it, giving credit to its author. This ensures that the idea is heard, and ensures credit cannot be given to someone else. This tactic can and could be deployed in any setting.

Whether you are a liberal feminist, a libertarian conservative, or something in between, it is important to remember that what we have in common can and should erase the hard lines that divide us culturally or socio-economically. Much more unites us than separates us, if we choose to see it. Our grandmothers (and some of our grandfathers!) struggled to give us the right to vote, the right to work, the right to own our own property, and the right to make our own financial decisions. We need to keep these noble ideals alive and actionable, and we need to amplify them for women who have not yet achieved full freedom and autonomy in their lives.

We need to hear what you care about, and what support, and what information you need to fully engage:

Here are the top five things I see that matter to all of the women in my life:

  1. Jobs. Mine, my husband’s and my children’s.
  2. Safety. Crime, terrorism and cybersecurity concern me. I want to feel safe in my home, and at work. I want my family to be safe.
  3. Justice and fairness. Same job, same pay. Our elders need to be cherished and respected. Our military veterans need to be honored and supported.
  4. The planet. I want my children to breathe clean air, marvel at the stars, be humbled by the majesty of the oceans and the creatures of this earth.
  5. Patriotism. Despite current political unrest, we have inherited the greatest country in the world. We must come together in the spirit of its creation and commit to working together to ensure its greatest ideals:  liberty and justice.

But what are your top issues? We want to cover them. What information do you want in order to be fully informed? What resources or support do you need to make your voice heard? We want to help meet women where they are, and help them fully engage.

I hope the women who read this will be inspired to find a cause, speak up, and take action.

Heather Murren is a former Wall Street analyst who has served on two presidential commissions. She wants to hear your feedback to this column and so do we. Make a comment below or we’d love for you to submit an op-ed at submissions@thenvindy.com.

Disclosure: Murren will be volunteering her time and expertise to The Nevada Independent as an analyst and special correspondent. You can read more about her in this welcome post by our editor, Jon Ralston. Murren is married to Jim Murren, Chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts International, a significant donor to The Nevada Independent.