GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham looking to attend Laxalt Basque Fry as former AG eyes Senate race

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said Wednesday he hopes to attend former Attorney General Adam Laxalt’s Basque Fry in August as Senate Republicans hope to win back the majority in the midterm elections by focusing on conservative issues that they argue resonate with Latinos in Nevada and other swing states.

“I’m looking at that,” Graham said. “I don’t know if I can make it. Adam’s a good guy and would be a good candidate for us out there.”

Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, would not rule out attending.

So far, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) is the only confirmed Republican senator set to attend. Sen Ted Cruz (R-TX) said he was invited but can’t make it due to his schedule. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said he has no plans to attend. Both have attended in the past. 

Laxalt, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2018, is considering running against Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), who is seeking re-election after her first term in office. 

Scott confirmed that he had spoken with Laxalt, former Sen. Dean Heller and other potential candidates that he would not name. Heller now appears to be laying the groundwork to run for governor.  

“I've talked to quite a few people in Nevada,” Scott said. “Ultimately, it's a personal decision whether people want to run or not.”

President Joe Biden won Nevada by just two percentage points and the NRSC is eyeing Cortez Masto’s seat as it looks to pick up the one seat Republicans need to break the Senate’s 50-50 party split. For the moment, Democrats control the chamber through Vice President Kamala Harris, who can break tie votes. 

On Thursday, the NRSC released a poll conducted in Spanish of 1,200 Latino voters in eight swing states, including Nevada, that it believes shows that Latinos are allied with the GOP on issues such as immigration and capitalism. 

While the poll only included 300 Latinos from Nevada, Scott argued that the survey shows that the GOP can connect with Latinos and win them over. That's something Scott prides himself in doing after winning a close Senate race in 2018. Scott beat his Democratic opponent by 10,033 votes.

“If you look at this poll, they're like a typical Republican,” Scott said Wednesday. “They're aspirational. They have a faith in God. They care about freedom. They care about opportunity. They're not into big government. They want the rule of law, and they want good schools. That's a Republican.”

Jazmin Vargas, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, said that the poll didn’t reflect the unpopularity of Republicans’ policies with Latinos. She cited Republican opposition to the American Rescue Plan, which was enacted in March and provided $4 billion for Nevada and direct payments of $1,400 for most individuals. 

“A fake poll from the NRSC won’t change Senate Republicans’ record of attacking Latinos’ access to affordable care, their refusal to support DREAMers, and their unanimous vote against a coronavirus relief package that has provided direct economic relief to millions of Latino families and small businesses,” Vargas said, adding that a poll in April showed that 76 percent of Latinos approve of the law.

“Latinos will hold every Senate Republican accountable for their toxic agenda in November next year,” Vargas continued.

Conducted by OnMessage Inc., a Virginia-based Republican political polling and consulting firm, the NRSC poll also had respondents from Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. 

The survey found that 63 percent of those polled agreed that “capitalism is the best form of government because it gives people the freedom to work and achieve their potential.”

The question reflects Republicans’ strategy to paint Democrats as too liberal. It also comes after the leadership of the Nevada Democratic Party was taken over by a slate of Democratic Socialist candidates in March.

On immigration, 72 percent agreed that the government “should do what is necessary to control our southern border and stop the surge of illegal immigration happening right now.” 

Another 69 percent opposed “allowing illegal immigrants to receive the same welfare and unemployment benefits as citizens.” 

Fifty-eight percent also said they agreed that too many people were living off of government assistance.

Scott, who also served as Florida governor, said he planned to use the poll to show his fellow Republicans what is possible when it comes to talking to Latino voters.

“I did it in my races, so there's no reason we can't do it across the country,” Scott said.

Scott said he did not know if there would be a contentious primary for the GOP nomination in Nevada, but he said that tough primaries can help fortify a candidate for the general election. 

Asked whether he believes former President Donald Trump would play a role, Scott said he hopes he does, adding that Trump remains popular with GOP voters.

“If you look around the country, his agenda is very popular,” Scott said. “So I think he can be helpful.”

Trump’s endorsement could give any contender an edge in the primary, and Laxalt, who won Trump’s backing for his 2018 gubernatorial bid, helped lead an effort in Nevada to spread false claims that improprieties in the state's election led to Trump’s defeat. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has also eyed Laxalt for the Senate race. 

But with a recent rise in nonpartisan voter registration, a candidate that embraces the idea that the election was stolen could run the risk of turning off independent voters in a general election.

Graham said that Trump and other Republican candidates would be wise to move on from the 2020 election.

“I think there comes a point where you need to pivot forward,” Graham said. “Generally speaking, 2022 is about ‘what are you going to do for me and my family.’”

Graham said Trump is not the first politician to have a hard time letting go of a campaign. 

“He's got some legitimate concerns, but he will be well-served, I think, by looking forward,” Graham said. “Time will tell.”

Major rollback of bill curbing police collaboration with immigration officials; other bills die at deadline

A bill that initially proposed barring much of the collaboration between federal immigration authorities and local law enforcement has survived a deadline but in a heavily watered down form, illustrating how politically dicey the issue has been even for Democratic lawmakers in session after session.

AB376, sponsored by Assemblywoman Selena Torres (D-Las Vegas), was rid of language that draws a bright line between immigration enforcement and local police in the name of rebuilding trust between police and immigrant communities. What remains is a proposed Keep Nevada Working Task Force charged with finding ways to strengthen the immigrant workforce, a call for the attorney general to develop model policies on immigration issues and half a million dollars to support deportation defense through UNLV’s Boyd School of Law.

“I think that we've got some really good work out of the amendments that we made on the legislation,” Torres said in a brief interview on Tuesday. Asked if she was disappointed about losing other provisions, she added “I think we're in a good spot.” 

Erika Castro, organizing director for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, said the provisions that have been watered down are the ones she and other immigrant advocates were excited about, adding that their priority now is to maintain what’s left of the bill in the Senate.

“And that Governor Sisolak actually signs it into law,” she added. 

The bill’s transformation was one of the more dramatic ahead of Tuesday’s deadline for bills to pass out of their first house. Four bills died, and more than a dozen  — including AB376 — were re-referred to money committees, where it’s possible a lack of money to implement them could seal their fate.

Assembly Majority Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno), who is listed as the sponsor of the primary amendment excising the bill’s most controversial provisions, said the proposal to send half a million dollars to the UNLV Immigration Clinic was aimed to “help our helpers who are out there in the trenches.” She said the clinic reported being unable to meet the demand for pro bono legal services for unaccompanied children and others facing deportation.

“If they feel like they're being detained illegally, they feel like they're being harassed, they have a place to go and get help,” she said. “And so ultimately, this was our solution about how we make the system more fair, more just for them.”

As in Washington D.C., where Congress has repeatedly failed to accomplish comprehensive immigration reform and where the issue is sometimes described as a “third rail” too controversial to meaningfully address, immigration policy has been an albatross in at least the last three Democrat-controlled sessions in Carson City.

The decades-long lack of reform, despite which political party is in power, continues to erode trust and hope among immigrants, said Castro. Some Nevada immigrants expressed a sense of optimism when President Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump last year, but skepticism remains. 

“We've been waiting for a form of relief at a federal lever level for over 30 years now,” said Castro, who is a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. “We really need our elected officials to keep their promises that they made on the campaign trail, now that they're actually in office and have the power to be able to do something.”

In 2017, a bill to bar cooperation between law enforcement and local police died without a hearing after quickly being branded a “sanctuary bill” by Republican leaders. In 2019, lawmakers gutted a bill from Torres calling for reports about how serious the underlying crimes were for people who were arrested and ended up in deportation proceedings; the bill ultimately enacted a provision requiring jail staff to tell inmates why they are asking questions about immigration status.

Castro noted the repeated attempts to address collaboration between local law enforcement agencies and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the state level and said that although the most recent effort through AB376 has been watered down, it’s significant progress from previous years. 

“This is the furthest that we've gotten with a piece of legislation like this,” she said. “And we're gonna continue to come back until it actually becomes a law, because I think at the end of the day, deportations are not stopping whether we have a Democratic president. So we're going to continue to bring these policies forward because our communities deserve and they need that relief.”

This session, Torres’ bill faced opposition from law enforcement and critics who again argued it would make Nevada a “sanctuary state” and repel tourists.

Assemblyman Edgar Flores (D-Las Vegas), who chairs the committee from which Torres’ bill passed in its original form a few weeks ago before being amended, acknowledged that changes to programs such as 287(g) agreements between local and federal law enforcement are difficult to explain and people are “afraid of that conversation.” In recent years, Republicans such as 2018 gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt have rallied around the criticism that Democrats are trying to implement sanctuary policies, and some Democrats have shied away from responding to those statements.

“I think immigration is such an intimidating topic for anybody. Doesn't matter what side of the aisle you're on,” Flores said in an interview. “And it's a very heavy lift. Because politically, it's so easy for it to be turned into something it’s not.”

For now, Castro and other immigrant advocates and organizations are focused on helping raise support to shepherd the bill all the way to Sisolak’s desk and working with state leaders to ensure that a potential fourth attempt to pass legislation such as AB376 doesn’t get stuck in the process. “Our communities have waited enough, especially with the pandemic, knowing that they were left out of any financial resources, any support,” Castro said. “Being in a state where we have the largest population of immigrants per capita, I think that puts us in a place where we really need to be intentional about how we're including and supporting our undocumented communities.”

Bills sent to budget committees

Budget committees in the Assembly and Senate typically serve two roles — reviewing every part of the state’s executive budget, while also holding jurisdiction over any bill that includes direct spending or a potential fiscal impact to the state.

But on deadline days, those committees serve another role — lifeboats for contentious or complex bills that would otherwise sink by deadline day. That said, referrals to budget committees don’t guarantee anything, and can often be the final stop for bills with large fiscal impacts or that draw too much opposition during the session. 

Here’s a look at some of the major bills that were referred to budget committees on Tuesday:

Cannabis

SB235 proposes a single, streamlined dispensary license in place of the current system, in which most dispensaries have both a medical and a recreational license. But a compromise from the bill’s earlier version raised further questions about whether consolidating licenses would reduce revenue. 

Another bill, AB322, allows for permitting events where cannabis can be sold or consumed but could require more staff resources to process additional licenses. Another, AB341, authorizes cannabis consumption lounges, but regulators anticipate it would also require the Cannabis Compliance Board to staff up to meet the higher regulatory and enforcement workload. 

Health care

SB201, sponsored by an interim committee studying prescription drug prices, would require the licensure and regulation of any pharmaceutical sales representatives. An amendment to the bill adopted Tuesday requires that any licensure funds (between $500 and $800 per year) only account for the costs of licensing and regulating the profession, or improving transparency on the price of prescription drugs, and wouldn’t revert to the state’s main budget account.

A fiscal note on the bill submitted by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Public and Behavioral Health Division estimated that it would cost the state around $250,000 every year to implement the bill and regulate the estimated 3,800 pharmaceutical sales representatives active in the state.

Another pharmaceutical drug-related measure expanding the state’s existing drug price reporting database, SB380, was similarly amended and referred to a budget committee on Tuesday. While no dollar amount was listed on a fiscal note attached to the bill by the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency wrote that the state’s current drug pricing transparency database “will not meet the requirements” of the bill.

And the bill by Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno creating a statewide occupational licensing board for professional midwives (AB387) was similarly yanked to a budget committee after being amended on Tuesday.

The state Department of Public and Behavioral Health estimated that the agency would need around $450,000 every two-year budget cycle to hire staff to implement provisions of the original bill.

Decriminalizing traffic tickets

A bill by Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen (D-Las Vegas) aimed at decriminalizing traffic tickets — the fifth time in five sessions lawmakers have brought the concept forward — was referred to the Assembly budget committee on Tuesday, after legislators adopted a lengthy amendment.  

Local governments have long argued against the bill, saying that fees and fines from traffic tickets make up a substantial portion of their annual budgets. Clark County, for example, estimated that the measure would lead to a $12.75 million annual reduction in revenue.

Election bills

Though it technically happened late Monday, lawmakers agreed to send two major election-related bills sponsored by Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) to the Assembly budget committee.

AB321, which would make Nevada’s expanded mail voting system in place for the 2020 election a permanent feature, carries a somewhat hefty price tag — the secretary of state’s office estimated that the measure would cost up to $17.3 million to set up for the 2022 election cycle, and $7.7 million in future election cycles.

AB126, which aims to move Nevada up the presidential preference primary calendar, was also tagged with a $5.2 million price tag from the secretary of state’s office.

Bills that actually died:

By the end of the evening, only four bills actually died by Tuesday’s deadline for first house passage, withering on the proverbial vine that is the Secretary’s Desk. Three of the four failed measures (excluding SB314) would have required a two-thirds vote as they increased taxes. They included:

  • SB314, a bill by Sen. Dina Neal that aimed to place more regulations and customer protections around high-volume marketplace sellers — defined as any person who makes or enters into 200 or more transactions through an online marketplace such as Etsy or Amazon.
  • SB170, a bill sponsored by the Legislative Committee on Public Lands that looked to change the registration process for off-highway vehicles. The bill required a two-thirds majority to pass.
  • SB405, a bill from the Governor’s Office of Finance that would have removed caps on funding that the state’s Public Utilities Commission and Office of Consumer Advocate receive from regulated providers of electric and natural gas service (such as NV Energy and Southwest Gas). It instead would have authorized both agencies to set funding levels (calculated in mills based on operating revenue) based on what was needed to fund agency operations. The bill required a two-thirds majority to pass.
  • SB407, a bill from the Governor’s Office of Finance that would have required professional apiaries (beekeepers) pay an annual registration fee and register with the state — while exempting hobbyist beekeepers. The bill required a two-thirds majority to pass.

Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez contributed to this report.

Updated on 4/21/2021 at 5:55 p.m. to add statements from Erika Castro.

What Happened Here: How the Battle Born state's fight against the virus turned into one against itself

Steve Waclo and his wife, Zita, have long loved the Hawaiian islands.

Last February, over the course of four days, they took a train ride around a farm on Kauai, sipped margaritas on Oahu, snorkeled with tropical fish off the coast of Maui and visited lava flows on the Big Island. The island cruise was a much-needed respite from the snowy Carson City winter for the retired couple.

As their ship clipped across the Pacific Ocean to Ensenada, Mexico, the final port of call on their cruise, the captain came in over the intercom: They had received word from the mainland that multiple passengers on the previous leg of the ship’s voyage had fallen ill with COVID-19, which was at the time still in the early stages of spreading across the globe. The ship, the Grand Princess, would be changing course and returning to San Francisco, its port of departure, immediately.

At first, the couple didn’t see any reason for alarm. No cases of the new virus had been identified onboard, and the early return seemed precautionary. The most substantial change was that they had to be served at the buffet. But when they reached the Bay Area, they watched with interest as the Coast Guard airlifted test kits onto one of the top decks of their ship.

Shortly after, all passengers were ordered confined to their cabins, their meals delivered to them on trays at their doors and the news of their fate delivered to them largely by the national media. Information on the boat itself was scarce.

“We didn’t know where we were going to go. We were out in the ocean going around, which was kind of disturbing,” Zita Waclo said. “Nobody told us even when we were going to get off the ship.”

The Waclos found themselves entirely at the mercy of the federal, state and local government officials back on land who were struggling to figure out what should be done with them and their fellow passengers.

As the Grand Princess held 50 miles off the coast of Northern California with 3,533 passengers and crew members, President Donald Trump made his preference known: that the boat stay where it was. At the time, 238 people in the United States had tested positive for the virus; results from the airlifted test kits showed the ship would add 21 more to that total.

“I like the numbers being where they are,” Trump said during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. “I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.”

Two days later, on March 8, state health officials in Nevada finally received the full list of the names and contact information for the 49 Nevadans on the ship. (A 50th, the spouse of another passenger, was later identified.) As the Grand Princess docked at the Port of Oakland the next day, state officials scrambled to prepare to bring the Nevadans home so they wouldn’t be sent to an out-of-state military base to quarantine. The final decision, though, was up to Gov. Steve Sisolak.

“You have a situation where there’s this new virus. People are really fearful and scared. You have a group of Nevadans who are on this cruise ship. You want to protect the residents back home, so you don't want to bring in potentially infected folks back into your state, but you also are worried about these Nevadans who are now stuck on this ship and then being told they're going to go to an army base and then, potentially, an army base in a state very far away,” Michelle White, the governor’s chief of staff, said.

The next day, Sisolak emailed the passengers directly to let them know his decision: They would be coming home. In the email, he acknowledged their frustrations and anxiety over the lack of information they had received and said he felt the same.

“I can assure you that my frustration will be loudly and clearly expressed to leaders in Washington D.C.,” he wrote.

Back on the ship, the Waclos watched from their stateroom balcony as ambulances, buses and trucks lined up at the docks in Oakland. Below them, National Guardsmen readied supplies and rearranged tents. People needing medical attention were carried off the ship. It brought the gravity of the situation into focus.

“Watching the ambulances back up and the stretchers being taken off, we realized this is serious business, people are dying,” Steve Waclo said. “We could potentially die if we do something wrong, if someone slips up.”

When the Waclos were finally told one morning it was their turn to disembark, they had no idea where they were going. It wasn’t until they were on a bus to the Oakland International Airport they were told they wouldn’t be heading straight home to Nevada but rather flown to the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, in Southern California. Federal officials wanted to test all the passengers for COVID-19 before sending them elsewhere.

At home, state officials felt equally in the dark as the federal government provided them with an ever-changing timetable for when the Nevadans could return. 

Local health districts made preparations to receive the passengers once they landed on Nevada soil, including securing the personal protective equipment and vehicles needed to transport them home. A representative of McCarran International Airport voiced concerns about even being able to receive the Southern Nevadans when the time came because of flight restrictions associated with a planned visit by Trump that week. State officials sent out flurries of emails each day informing local officials and airport representatives that the Nevadans were coming, not coming, then coming, and then not coming again. 

This went on for four days.

“I completely understand the frustration with the lack of timely detailed information from the feds as I too share in this sentiment,” Malinda Southard, manager of the state’s Public Health Preparedness Program, wrote in an email to Clark County’s fire chief on March 11, a Wednesday. “Best I can do is keep pushing us forward to get our residents home soon and safely.”

In Washoe County, local health officials were eager for their residents to be home. They had gone to the airport three times in anticipation of the passengers’ arrival, only to be called off. Officials just hoped that when the operation was finally a go it wouldn’t be in the middle of the snowstorm expected to roll in that weekend.

Of course, it was.

“I have confirmation we have a dedicated plane out of Miramar tomorrow just for Nevada residents. US HHS confirms there are no more maybe’s probably’s hopefully’s — our people are coming home tomorrow!!” Southard wrote in an email to state health officials on Saturday.

That night, nearly two feet of snow piled up in Incline Village, half a foot in Northwest Reno and an inch elsewhere in town. Ski resorts shuttered as an avalanche warning was issued. Washoe County Health District staffers scouted their neighborhoods the next morning to figure out if the roads were passable; they even had to go buy snow chains first thing that morning for one of the vehicles.

After days of anticipation, the plane touched down in Reno at 12:27 p.m. on March 15. The Northern Nevadans, at least, were home and the Southern Nevadans, who were on the same plane, soon would be, too.

Many of the Washoe County residents needed help getting down the stairs and out of the plane before they were loaded into two vans. One of them, staffed by health district employees Jim English and Wes Rubio, would make stops in Reno before heading over Mt. Rose Summit to Incline Village. English read the directions and checked in on the passengers while Rubio drove. 

Both were suited up in white, full-body hazmat suits, full face respirators and gloves as they plowed through the snow with a van full of weary, N95-wearing, COVID-exposed passengers. An unmarked sheriff’s car trailed them to make sure there was no trouble.

At each stop, they battled snow flurries and their respirators iced over in the freezing temperatures. At one point, they swapped their transit van for a four-wheel-drive Jeep Cherokee in a passenger’s Galena cul-de-sac to make it over the summit to Incline through four inches of snow. They had to keep driving. There was nowhere else for the passengers to go.

“We were trying to do as best we could to protect the public and those people that were on that on that bus just to at least get them home,” Rubio said. “It was a massive effort.”

The repatriation of the Grand Princess passengers was not only a massive effort but also the first major challenge in the pandemic where local, state and federal officials were asked to work together to solve a pressing public health problem. They would be asked to overcome many more together in the months to come, from ramping up testing and contact tracing efforts to deploying a mass vaccination campaign.

“That was a big test,” White said. “Then, it only got harder.”

For state and local officials in Nevada, the repatriation effort was largely a success story, a proof of concept that they could work together and communicate effectively to achieve a common goal. Despite their frustrations with the lack of information onboard the Grand Princess and at Miramar, the Waclos praised the state’s response. Once they were home, Carson City Health and Human Services called them every morning during the 14-day quarantine period to check in on them and offered to bring any food and medicine they needed; the governor even called once to see how they were doing.

“I was very impressed by the Washoe County people and the Carson City people,” Zita Waclo said. “They were ready for us, and they really followed up very well.”

The coming months, however, would strain relationships between state and local governments as they struggled to address a daunting public health crisis with few resources and what much of the time felt like little to no support from the federal government. 

Sometimes the adversity brought them together as they allied to face a grim future in the face of no centralized national response strategy. The Grand Princess incident, they say, should have been a harbinger of what was to come in the way of federal communication and support during the course of the pandemic. It also showed that state and local governments could work cooperatively to meet the needs of everyday Nevadans.

But the adversity also sometimes wrenched them apart, widening a growing political divide in the state and turning existing cracks in differences in beliefs over the role of state and local governments into deep chasms. Sisolak’s COVID-19 response plan, formed in the absence of a national response framework, caused rural governments long known for rebelling against the federal government to direct their ire instead toward the state. And even when the state and local governments agreed about how to best address the pandemic, underresourced and overworked officials often struggled to effectively communicate with each other, leaving wounds and eroding trust.

There’s a term doctors use to describe what happens to COVID-19 patients when their immune systems go into overdrive: It’s called a cytokine storm. When it happens, the body’s immune system turns against itself and starts to attack healthy tissue and organs.

It’s not unlike the position Nevada has often found itself in over the last year.


There’s an oft-repeated phrase in the emergency response world about how disasters should be managed: They’re supposed to be locally executed, state managed and federally supported. 

But, from the get-go, state officials in Nevada say federal support was lacking in the pandemic response. The tone was set at the top, they say, with Trump’s comments downplaying the seriousness of the virus and supporting unproven treatments. This seeped down to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, which clashed with the state over more mundane, bureaucratic public health policies, including whether asymptomatic individuals should be tested and which COVID-19 tests were reliable enough to use in nursing homes.

“There was never a time when our decisions, the governor’s decisions, at the state level and our partnership with the local governments was not undermined by the mixed messages or new messages coming out of the federal government,” Caleb Cage, Nevada’s COVID-19 response director, said.

Cage, the former head of the state’s Division of Emergency Management under Gov. Brian Sandoval, said the first step in any emergency response is to move past collective denial by getting everyone’s buy-in on the seriousness of the situation. That’s much more easily done with something like the response to a wildfire, where the threat is readily apparent, than it is for a pandemic, where the threat is an invisible pathogen.

That collective buy-in, however, never happened. Instead, Trump painted Democrats’ response to the virus as part two of the January 2020 impeachment trial in an attempt to cost him his re-election; Democrats, meanwhile, were eager to point out all the ways in which they believed Trump was failing to lead on the pandemic.

“Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus — you know that, right? — coronavirus, they’re politicizing it,” Trump said at a rally in South Carolina on Feb. 28. “... And this is their new hoax.”

The politicization of the virus, Cage said, created an incentive for people to stay in the denial phase, hindering the federal government’s ability to move to the collective response phase.

From the state’s perspective, it was trying to communicate one thing to the general public and having it constantly contradicted by federal leadership. A week after Nevada made the decision to shut down nonessential businesses on March 17, 2020, the president was still drawing parallels between COVID-19 and the flu. (Scientists believe COVID-19 may be 10 times more deadly than the flu, though the exact mortality rate is still unknown.)

“We lose thousands of people a year to the flu. We never turn the country off,” Trump said at a Fox News virtual town hall on March 24. “We lose much more than that to automobile accidents. We didn’t call up the automobile companies and say, ‘Stop making cars. We don’t want any cars anymore.’”

The politicization of the virus made it more difficult for the state to get widespread buy-in from everyday Nevadans on the importance of key parts of the state’s pandemic response, too. On one hand, there was Sisolak, the state’s Democratic governor, advocating the importance of mask-wearing; on the other, there was Trump, the Republican president, waffling on the benefits of masks. Even though the scientific evidence only supports one of those two positions, the issue felt — and continues to feel — political to many because of the differences in the way that Republicans and Democrats spoke about masks.

The divide in messaging over public safety measures became, perhaps, the clearest when Trump rallied thousands of supporters in Minden and Henderson in September in defiance of Nevada’s COVID-19 health and safety rules. Dave Fogerson, who at the time managed Douglas County’s pandemic response as deputy fire chief at the East Fork Fire Protection District, said the event put him in a difficult position.

Officials at the county — which is home to more than twice as many Republicans as Democrats — made clear that the event would go on. The local paper, the Record-Courier, summarized the county’s position as this: “Spokeswoman Melissa Blosser said that after careful consideration and weighing the authority of state directives versus First Amendment rights, the county ultimately decided to welcome the sitting President of the United States to our community.” 

Privately, though, Fogerson said that people who supported the event were calling to apologize.

“‘Hey, sorry we’re doing this. We want to do this because how often does the president come to town? But we understand what we need to do to keep this going,’” Fogerson recalled them saying. “In the end, the county gave me an award when I left Douglas County for all those efforts — even though we were, it seemed like, on opposite ends of the spectrum — because of trying to do that balance of, ‘Here's where we need to go and here's what you need to do to get there.’” 

For state health officials, the pandemic brought a significant shift in the kind of communication they were used to having with their federal counterparts. For one, inconsistent communication from the federal government about what was expected made it difficult for state health officials to do their jobs, Richard Whitley, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, said.

“They weren’t responding to us as a state in the same way that we were familiar with,” Whitley said. “All of those seemed to be in flux and seemed to be being changed while we were needing, perhaps, that relationship to be at its strongest.”

One example state health officials point to from the beginning of the pandemic was the conflicting guidance they received from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about which individuals coming in by plane needed to be quarantined. 

In one instance, state health officials struggled to get contact information from the CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine (DGMQ) for three passengers on a Las Vegas-bound Korean Air flight who had recently been in China. The state only discovered the situation after news outlets reported the flight had been diverted to Los Angeles, one of three airports that was screening for COVID-19 at the time.

State officials said that CDC representatives they spoke with seemed not to be aware of their own agency’s latest travel guidance. Melissa Peek-Bullock, the state’s epidemiologist, said one federal official even hung up on her.

“It wasn’t clear that everybody within the organization understood that guidance,” Peek-Bullock said. “The inconsistent messages that were coming from CDC to the states made it very difficult and frustrating for us early on.”

The situation prompted Whitley to pen a letter to the CDC expressing his concern.

“I understand this is a rapidly evolving situation; however, I am concerned about the breakdown between the communication the states have received from the CDC, and information provided to the CDC DGMQ,” Whitley wrote in a Feb. 11 letter. “Our state relies on DGMQ to assist in the response to travelers, and the lack of communication in this circumstance created frustration and confusion for all those involved.”

State health officials also saw politics seep into their everyday work. For instance, they were shocked when Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, directly telephoned Nevada’s chief medical officer, Dr. Ihsan Azzam, in early March to request his help in getting Adam Laxalt, the former attorney general of Nevada and a prominent Trump supporter, tested for COVID-19 after he was possibly exposed at the Conservative Political Action Conference but showing no symptoms. At the time, the CDC’s own guidance restricted testing to symptomatic individuals.

“We do everything possible to treat all people the same, focusing on their risk and not on who they are in terms of importance,” Whitley said. “That’s not a population approach. That’s a privileged approach, and so they set a tone for that.”

State health officials were also wary when the federal government quietly changed the rules to require hospitals to directly report COVID-19 data to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services instead of to both HHS and the CDC, and asked nursing homes to directly report their data to the federal government instead of to the state. Those moves made it challenging for the state to get its hands on valuable COVID-19 data, Whitley said.

“We had to figure out our own ways of collecting the data and identifying where the opportunities for intervention were and where the problems were, with not direct assistance from the federal government,” Whitley said.

The state also directly clashed with the federal government in its policymaking as well. The CDC, for instance, released new guidelines in August that said asymptomatic people should not “necessarily” be tested for COVID-19. The move prompted an immediate backlash from Nevada health officials, who made it clear the state would continue asymptomatic testing.

“When you really have large widespread outbreaks of pandemic, this is the time to test more, not the time to test less,” Azzam said.

Nevada also made the decision in late June to follow in the footsteps of more than a dozen other states and enact a mask requirement in the absence of any federal rule. It wasn’t until late January, a little more than a week after President Joe Biden took office, that the CDC finally issued its first mask order, for travelers only.

“We kept on asking the CDC, ‘Should we start implementing masking for everybody?’ and we were told, ‘No, we don’t really need that,’” Azzam said. “If we don’t know who is spreading the virus, it’s better to mask everyone. You can’t prevent 100 percent transmission, but you can prevent a reasonable amount and reduce infection.”

State health officials’ biggest dust-up with federal health officials, though, came in October. The federal government had directly distributed antigen tests — a type of COVID-19 test helpful in identifying people with COVID-19 but generally less accurate for those who don’t have the virus than the gold-standard PCR tests — to nursing homes, with what state officials described as very little guidance on how to use them appropriately. Nursing homes were also given no guidance on how to report the results of those antigen tests to the state to be counted in its COVID-19 data, state officials said.

As state health officials scrambled to develop that reporting mechanism, they noticed that the antigen tests were coming back with a high percentage of false positives. Among 39 positive antigen tests sent for confirmatory PCR testing, 60 percent came back negative for the virus.

State officials’ immediate concern was that some nursing home residents were incorrectly being identified as positive for COVID-19 and sequestered with true COVID-positive patients, thereby exposing them to a virus they didn’t actually have. So state health officials issued a directive to nursing homes to stop the use of the antigen tests as they looked into the issue further.

In a scathing letter in response to that decision, Adm. Brett Giroir, the Trump administration’s COVID-19 testing czar, accused state health officials of “a lack of knowledge or bias” and said their decision would “endanger the lives of our most vulnerable.” He added the federal government would “take appropriate steps” if state health officials did not “cease the improper unilateral prohibition” on use of the antigen tests.

“Your Department’s across-the-board ban on POC antigen tests in such settings is based on speculation,” Giroir wrote. “It may cost lives.”

In response to those threats, state health officials rescinded their directive while reiterating their concerns over use of the tests and asked the federal government to reconsider its stance. (One federal official did, however, note in an email to state health officials the CDC does not recommend that nursing homes group asymptomatic patients into a COVID ward based on a single antigen test; rather, those individuals should be considered presumptive positive and isolated with precautions until a confirmatory PCR test is performed.)

What could have been a civil back and forth over a policy difference turned into a heated clash. Peek-Bullock described the federal government’s response to the state’s decision on the antigen tests as “very unusual.”

State officials say that even when they believe the federal government was genuinely trying to help, it often did so in a way that subverted the state’s role in the pandemic response. For instance, when hospitals struggled to secure PPE early on, the federal government provided it directly to hospitals and other health care providers, instead of sending it to the state to then be sent to the counties to then be distributed to hospitals — the usual chain of custody.

“I believe in their minds they were doing it to fight bureaucracy,” Cage said. “But there's a reason this framework is in place, and that's because these private hospitals, public hospitals, aspects of the health care system in the state are asking us for resources, and we don't know how to prioritize the resources if the federal government is going around us.”

But the federal government was critically helpful to the state in one primary area: funding. As of early March, it has provided nearly $25 billion in federal aid to Nevada with $4.1 billion more on the way from the American Rescue Plan. State and local officials say that federal funding — approved by both Republican and Democratic-controlled congressional chambers and signed into law by both Republican and Democratic presidents — was key to their pandemic response efforts.

And, a year since the pandemic began, the federal-state relationship is healing. State officials say they have seen a night and day difference in their relationships with their federal counterparts since Biden took office earlier this year. They report that communication has significantly improved with federal officials — U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra met with Sisolak at the Capitol in Carson City this week — and when they have a request, such as federal support to catch up on a vaccination data-entry backlog earlier this year, it’s usually granted.

They say it isn’t because Biden is a Democrat, either.

“The difference in mutual respect, collaboration, willingness to have hard conversations, willingness to work together, willingness to not worry about who gets blamed for what and all of this — that’s just the starting point,” said Cage, who worked previously under two Republican governors and is a lifelong Republican voter. “The previous administration had what I believe will be long remembered as the poorest disaster response in the nation’s history.”


The state’s frustrations with the federal government, however, have a parallel: Local governments’ frustrations with the state.

The root causes of each are strikingly similar. Local governments, charged with executing the finer points of the state’s overall pandemic response, say they often found themselves struggling to play catch-up when the state publicly announced its latest COVID-19 health and safety policy because they had been given little advance warning. They also grappled to keep up with ever-shifting state policies about which establishments could be open, to what extent they could be open and the timetable for those rules. Some think the state struggled to be collaborative in its response as the pandemic drew on, unwilling to cede its decision-making authority even when circumstances may have necessitated different solutions for different parts of the state.

The frustrations date back to the state’s initial decision to close schools and shutter nonessential businesses in mid-March of last year. To some extent, counties understood the hurried nature of the decision: The state was in an emergency situation and was reacting to a constantly developing situation. But they still found themselves in the uncomfortable position of trying to provide guidance on a local level — to residents and businesses alike — to policies they themselves had just learned about.

“I still remember when we closed everything down and schools were closed, we met in Douglas at 7 o’clock the next morning to, ‘Oh my God, did you hear that yesterday? What are we going to do? How are we going to take care of this?’” said Fogerson, the former deputy fire chief from Douglas County. “Kind of having a panic moment because we were being reactionary.”

Local officials say they often scrambled before each state press conference to figure out what was going to be announced before it was released publicly. In the early days of the pandemic, local officials say they often received no advance information about what policies were going to be announced; they were happy when they started getting even an hour or two’s notice.

“When I was in Douglas, it was ‘What do you mean there is going to be a press conference at 3 o’clock today? Aren’t they going to tell us what it is? Why do we have to watch it on TV?’” Fogerson said. “Whereas now the governor’s office is leaning forward a bit more and getting some information out ahead of time.”

Because local officials had little warning about new state policies, particularly early on in the pandemic, they felt there wasn’t an opportunity for them to voice their concerns and have a consensus-building conversation with the state, which meant some local governments were charged with carrying out policies they didn’t agree with, believe in or understand. The state may not have needed counties’ permission to enact emergency policies under the law, but the state did need local buy-in for those policies to be most effective.

State officials acknowledge the frustrations of their local counterparts. But when they reflect on why they didn’t bring local governments into the fold earlier, they see themselves moving quickly to make choices deep in a crisis response mode that didn’t allow hours for multiple roundtables and scores of phone calls about each policy decision. White, the governor’s chief of staff, said there were dozens of consequential policy decisions the state was making each day.

“It is hard to loop in everyone who feels that they need to be looped in. I'm not saying that they shouldn't be. I'm not saying that their voices don't matter, that they wouldn't have great input,” she said. “But the reality is you have to make those decisions quickly. We have an incredibly small staff that can only make so many phone calls.”

On the flip side, the state’s attempts to centralize certain aspects of the public health response were complicated by the fact that public health in Nevada is historically decentralized. Public health services are provided at the local level in Clark and Washoe counties, as well as Carson City, which together make up more than 90 percent of the state’s population, while the state is responsible for managing public health for the remaining tenth of the population living across 14 rural Nevada counties.

While the localized public health delivery model can be quite effective, in the time of the pandemic it meant the state was often in the position of offering assistance to local health districts for contact tracing or testing, though the decision of whether to accept that help was left to local jurisdictions. That made it difficult, if not impossible, to have a standardized public health response across the state.

“There needs to be a level of statewide response consistency, yes, but there was great latitude and need for them to be completely different locally because they have different resources,” said Julia Peek, a deputy administrator in the Division of Public and Behavioral Health.

As the pandemic drew on, the state made several overtures to local governments to try to create that latitude on the emergency response side as well.

The first came in the form of a so-called Local Empowerment Advisory Panel, or LEAP, which was tasked last spring with assisting counties as they started to reopen businesses after the shutdown. Sisolak, during a late April press conference announcing the new body, said it would be a “disservice” to the state’s residents to pretend its urban and rural counties have the same needs.

When Eureka County Chairman J.J. Goicoechea was asked to join the panel as a representative of the state’s rural counties, he was optimistic. His urban counterpart on the panel was Clark County Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick, whom he had a longstanding collaborative relationship with and who had recommended him for the job.

But LEAP’s responsibilities ended up being much narrower than Goicoechea initially anticipated, centering primarily around drafting reopening guidelines for approval by the state.

“We thought we were going to have maybe a little more authority and we were going to approve this or approve that or do some things,” Goicoechea said. “It never really materialized.”

Once all businesses — save strip clubs, night clubs, day clubs and brothels — were allowed to reopen, LEAP essentially fell by the wayside. It was frustrating not only for Goicoechea but other local officials who believed the state was finally starting to get things right by delegating more authority to the rurals and bringing more people into the decision-making process.

“LEAP just dissolved, because we were no longer effective. We weren't being talked to,” Goicoechea said. “That’s the unfortunate thing.”

The governor’s office, however, said it was more that LEAP evolved.

“The input and interaction and coordination with a lot of those leaders who were a part of that group, I don’t think, has stopped at all,” White said. “I think things just take on a different form as we’re going through that response.”

In August, Sisolak announced a new pandemic response framework. This one, he said, would also take into consideration counties’ innate differences: Counties would be evaluated based on three criteria to determine whether they are at elevated risk for the spread of COVID-19 and, if so, they would be required to present a mitigation plan to a new statewide COVID-19 Mitigation and Management Task Force.

The task force, though, ended up doing more management than mitigation. The body spent its first several weeks determining whether bars in seven counties could reopen following a summer surge in cases. As cases began to climb in the fall, counties flagged at elevated risk of transmission spent significant time telling the task force about their plans for community-wide education about the virus and almost no time about any new mitigation measures, such as business closures or limits on gatherings, they planned to put in place.

In fact, in the more than seven months it has existed, the task force has only approved one concrete mitigation measure stricter than the statewide standards. In September, Washoe County proposed keeping its gathering sizes small as the state moved to allow larger events to take place.

“[The task force] made it fairly clear that with the increase in cases that we were seeing in Washoe County that the county needed to do something or the task force was going to do something to them,” Washoe County District Health Officer Kevin Dick said. “That perspective and understanding on the part of local leadership provided some leverage to get them to that commitment.”

Even under the task force model, some counties still felt like they were under the thumb of the state. Scott Lewis, director of emergency management for Nye County, said it sometimes felt like counties were children trying to appease their parents.

“What its intended goal was, as a state, what can we do to best remedy this as a collective team?” Lewis said. “And it was never that. It was always like a parental type of approach, and we had to come up with the magical words to make our parents happy with us.”

Cage, who chairs the task force, acknowledged the body did not work out in practice the way in which he had initially anticipated. Counties, for instance, largely did not bring forward to the task force individual mitigation measures during the fall surge, and the task force didn’t put them forward either; rather, Sisolak enacted a new “statewide pause” that limited occupancy at businesses and again limited gathering sizes homogeneously across all 17 counties.

“The governor always had reserved the right to do so, and that’s where we got in November,” Cage said. “So in a sense it worked as it should. My personal opinion is that the pressure locally was so much that there really wasn’t an appetite locally to put additional measures in place.”

While it may not have been a robust decision-making body, the task force has helped repair some relationships between the state and local governments by providing a regular forum for communication. Some local officials say the task force opened a line of communication to the state.

“From my perspective, and I can only speak for Lyon County, once they developed the task force and put Caleb Cage in charge of it, the majority of my communication complaints went away,” said Jeff Page, Lyon’s county manager. “We were getting good, direct positive feedback from Caleb and the task force as to what they were expecting, what the issues were and what the challenges the state was facing were.”

Dick echoed those sentiments, calling the task force “worthwhile overall.”

“I think that relationship between the health district and Caleb Cage and the members of the task force has really strengthened over time,” Dick said.


Nowhere was the state-local relationship, perhaps, more strained over the course of the pandemic than in rural Nevada, where individual liberty is prized and love of government is scarce.

Initially, as Clark and Washoe counties were hit hard by the virus, rural counties were optimistic that they might be able to avoid the virus altogether. While urban America grappled with SARS scares in the early 2000s, rural America was largely untouched by the virus. Rural counties hoped their isolation and low population density would come in handy this time, too.

It quickly became clear that would not be the case as tiny Humboldt County, with a population of a little less than 17,000, became Nevada’s hardest-hit county, the result of a large family gathering that had exposed many individuals to the virus. As the virus began to spread across rural Nevada, public health experts and rural officials became increasingly concerned about the effect COVID-19 could have on those communities, owing to the fact that rural counties generally have older populations than urban ones and the dearth of medical care in rural counties.

For some rural health officials, the importance of community buy-in about mitigation measures quickly became evident. Rural Nevadans might not take kindly to rules being handed down to them from the federal or state governments, but they could be appealed to on an individual level to take steps to protect themselves and their community.

The rest of the country was grappling with how to balance individual liberty with the need for collective action too, but that tension was acute in the rural West.

“One of the things that makes our country special is all the choices that we have. To me, that is a very sacred thing. It is, I think, to all of us,” Dr. Charles Stringham, Humboldt County’s health officer, said. “But, as a result, when you fight the virus in the United States, your best weapon is information and also trying to encourage people by being compelling, because at no point did we ever have interest in encouraging people by regulating or legislating. We’ve just never really wanted to do that here in Humboldt County.”

Stringham’s approach was particularly introspective: If the residents of Humboldt County weren’t listening to him, he figured his message needed to be more compelling. He started a series of “Ask Me Anything About COVID-19” Zoom sessions to answer community members’ questions about vaccination, viral transmission and the efficacy of mask wearing, among others, in a commonsense, plainspoken way.

“My hope was that if people really did think that masks were ridiculous and that they didn’t work, and if people really did think that six feet seemed arbitrary, and that if people really did think that mutations in the virus would negate the effect of vaccinations, that they could call in and ask those questions and get real answers,” Stringham said.

During one of those Zoom calls in December, Stringham was asked why he and other members of the medical community were so focused on social distancing and mask wearing instead of advocating the benefits of, among other things, the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine. Stringham was calm and deliberate in his answer, saying he wished the drug would have worked to treat COVID-19 but that scientific studies didn’t bear that out. 

“There's always an assumption that if allopathic physicians don't do something, that it's because we're holstering that or we're sequestering it, we're not bringing that to bear,” Stringham told the man. “But the bottom line is that in allopathic medicine, we have to be able to prove that something has an effect.”

Another asked why the media makes such a big deal about COVID-19 deaths and not flu deaths. Stringham explained that 34,000 people in the U.S. died of the flu during the last flu season; at the time, 300,000 had died of COVID-19. He also noted that people who contract COVID-19 can go on to develop long-term health conditions that impair their quality of life.

“I can't even really talk about this without getting a little bit choked up,” Stringham said. “This is not the flu. It is not the flu. I wish it were, but it isn't.”

Other rural communities took a similar approach. In Ely, Mayor Nathan Robertson went on the local radio station every day to answer people’s questions about the virus, from technical inquiries about which businesses were allowed to be open and what assistance was available to broader questions about whether martial law had been declared and whether the National Guard would prevent people from getting to their doctor’s appointments in Salt Lake City.

“There was a real vacuum of just credible answers,” Robertson said.

As the state created new COVID-19 health and safety rules, the focus for some rural leaders was how to help their businesses comply. Robertson said Ely’s focus was on assisting businesses at the local level to avoid the state sending out compliance officers.

“Everybody was just kind of in an attitude of cooperation: ‘Hey, how can we help? Our goal is to make sure your business stays open,’” Robertson said. “We can’t afford to lose a single restaurant in our community. We can’t afford to lose any of our businesses. We’re so isolated.”

In Lyon County, Dr. Robin Titus, the county’s health officer and the Republican Assembly leader, advised local ranchers about how to group guest workers into pods so that if someone tested positive for COVID-19, they would know exactly who was exposed.

“They were paying attention. They were calling me,” Titus said. “They wanted to make sure things were safe.”

And though rural Nevada has earned a reputation for opposing the state’s COVID-19 health and safety rules, several rural officials say they believe their residents took the virus seriously when it counted. Titus said she has a 95-year-old patient who was very cautious about the virus and stayed home. Goicoechea, who is also Eureka County’s health officer, said his residents were “really good” at isolating and quarantining when they tested positive or someone in their household came down with the virus.

“They may be chipping their teeth on Main Street saying, ‘This is all fake. This is a hoax. I don’t believe in it,’” Goicoechea said. “But when we called them up and said, ‘You’re positive, I need you to shut ‘er down. You gotta stay home. Let us know what we can do,’ they went home and they stayed home and they cooperated.”

Of course, compliance wasn’t universal. Robertson acknowledged there were some instances in Ely where people called the sheriff alleging a business was discriminating against them because they weren’t wearing a mask. Law enforcement would inform them that businesses could put in place whatever rules they wanted and could kick them out for not following them.

“They were like, ‘Well, what do you mean? They didn’t let me in.’ And they’d say, ‘Well, this is a private business. They don’t have to,’” Robertson said.

Multiple rural officials also noted that there was always going to be some degree of pushback from their residents about the state’s rules simply because of the high price they place on individual freedoms. But they also believe that philosophy shouldn’t stop people from doing the right thing for their neighbors.

“You don’t have to choose either safety or freedom,” Stringham said. “You can absolutely have both, and that was the message that I was trying to deliver.”

But, because of the communication role they took on, some rural officials found themselves in the difficult position of trying to be the bridge between the state and their residents. They didn’t have great answers when their residents asked why the state had allowed casinos to open to 50 percent but churches were required to be limited to 50 people. They didn’t have great answers when residents asked why their kids couldn’t go to school but daycare centers were open. They didn’t have great answers for why casino restaurants remained closed while eateries across the street could open.

“That would be frustrating, because you would be getting calls from these businesses going, ‘Hey, my neighbor across the street, who’s got a restaurant, their restaurant is open. Why can’t mine be open?’” Robertson said. “There would be a lot of calls like that.”

They also didn’t have good answers for their residents about why certain statewide policies should be applied to them when they were experiencing a low level of case growth in their communities or could pinpoint where the case growth was coming from. In White Pine, most cases were traced back to specific gatherings, including a Halloween party and a softball game, Robertson said.

“When the sheriff’s office gets something from the county health officer and that says, ‘Hey, so-and-so tested positive,’ he knows exactly where that person is most of the time. He knows who they hang out with,” Robertson said. “He can say, ‘Well this is how you get ahold of so-and-so and here’s how we do this,’ and bing-bada-boom, it’s done.”

Rural officials who have tried to actively aid the pandemic response by getting their communities to follow the state’s health and safety protocols have often found themselves in the community’s crosshairs as a result.

“There’s some lifelong friends of mine who are very, very upset. I mean, they’re to the point where they don’t want to talk to me because they think I quote-unquote ‘drank the Kool Aid,’ if you will,” Goicoechea said. “But everything I’ve done is to protect people and to protect the economy. I’m not taking unnecessary risks but, at the same time, I’m willing to take some calculated risks because I know where the disease is spreading in my community.”

It didn’t help that the pandemic became a political issue, either. If conservative rural Nevada was already wary of government officials telling them what to do, they were particularly wary of a Democratic governor from Clark County telling them what to do — particularly when that message contradicted the one coming from their local officials and a Republican president most of them supported.

Lewis, Nye’s director of emergency management, said that though local officials have become more supportive of pandemic response efforts “because they see the light at the end of the tunnel,” it used to be “horrific” to come before the county commission at each of its meetings to give a COVID-19 update when many didn’t believe in the severity of the virus.

“The political side of it was probably one of the worst things to deal with when we’re trying to make sure we meet the state’s requirements, we meet the state mandates and yet our local governments were telling us just the opposite,” he said. “They wanted nothing to do with it. They didn’t want to hear the reports. They didn't believe in the masks. They didn’t believe in the numbers and what the numbers meant. The deaths were made up, and it was a huge conspiracy, and that was extremely disheartening.”

In fact, the political discord was so severe that several rural county commissions, starting with White Pine County, passed a series of similar resolutions opposing Sisolak’s emergency directives. Robertson, who leads the only incorporated city in White Pine, framed those measures as chest-thumping by a small contingent of politically motivated individuals.

“I mean, honestly, I think I got more support for just being level-headed and cool and attending to the issues than I would have by screaming and thumping my chest and sending nastygrams to Carson City,” Robertson said.

Goicoechea, who said that he was responsible for drafting 99 percent of the version of the resolution Eureka County passed in January, acknowledged the measure was a statement. But he said it’s also one that his constituents needed to hear.

“People needed to see it in writing,” Goicoechea. “I’m not going to make a demand, knowing that he has the authority granted in the Constitution of the state of Nevada and he was exhibiting that under his emergency powers. But I did want him to hear we want things to be done differently. We expect them to be done differently.”

Looking back, rural officials wish there had been more communication with the state early on.

“We’re the ones down on the frontlines trying to implement what you’re drawing down from the top,” Robertson said. “If you want to know how it’s going, if you want some help on ‘hey, how could this go better?’ talk to your mayors, talk to these people, talk to these county commissioners, and there could’ve been more of that.”

Now, the relationship between the state and rural Nevada may, in some ways, be worse than it has ever been. Rural officials believe there is a healing process that needs to happen.

“It’s too far into it. We’re 12 months in. If it had been six months: ‘Okay guys, let’s get back to work,’” Goicoechea said. “But now we’re 12 months in and I feel that maybe some folks are really starting to entrench: ‘Hey, you guys aren’t working for us and when you do come back, you think you’re just going to come out here and start dictating how we’re going to do this stuff?’ I’m very fearful that the relationship we’re having with the state agencies, there’s going to be a long time trying to build that back.”


Beyond the rural context, the relationships between the state and local governments have continued to have their hiccups.

In response to the state’s decision to expand gathering sizes in September, health district officials in Clark and Washoe counties sent a strongly worded letter to the state, saying that it was “inappropriate” for local health authorities to not be consulted in the state’s public health decision-making process. 

More than six months after the state’s first emergency directive, local health districts found out about the decision at the same time as the public.

“Our phones would just light up here. All of those businesses were calling us to find out what was going on, how they were affected, what they needed to do. We didn’t have any more information than they did,” Dick, Washoe County's health officer, said. “That was quite frustrating.”

While they were given slightly more notice before the state put in place its statewide pause this fall, concerns over communication remain. The state’s overtures to local governments — in the form of LEAP, or the task force — while positive have often felt like just that: overtures.

“I think there could be better communications, and more regular communications,” Dick said. “There have been opportunities for those dialogues and discussions but they haven’t been continued. There’s been some activity and initiative to make sure those communications happen and then they sort of go away.”

Counties say they still sometimes have to play catch up when it comes to the state’s policies. Lewis, Nye’s director of emergency management, said everyone had just gotten on board with the state’s tiered vaccination structure — though some believed it didn’t make the most sense for Nye — when the state announced that it was moving to a new, lane-based approach.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Lewis recalled thinking at the time. “Here we are toeing the line and the line came back and snapped us right in the butt.”

Even now, a year after the pandemic began, Lewis isn’t sure what exactly his role is supposed to be. With the ongoing rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, which is supposed to be managed at the local level, he still feels like he doesn’t have the flexibility he needs to make decisions at the county level.

“Every time we made a decision it was, ‘You can’t do that, you have to do what we tell you or what we’re giving you,’” Lewis said. “I’m like, ‘Well, no, no, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say I’m responsible for the decision and then take the ability away from me.’”

In Clark County, Sisolak and Kirkpatrick, the commission chair, have butted heads at points over the course of the pandemic, including after Kirkpatrick publicly pushed for the state to reopen businesses more quickly after the winter surge and Sisolak targeted Clark County for inequalities in the vaccine distribution process. For her part, though, Kirkpatrick says communication with the state has improved.

“Some days are harder than others, because we try to understand what’s behind the reasoning,” Kirkpatrick said. “But I will tell you there are a lot more meetings, a lot more conversations.” 

And then there’s Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, who during a CNN interview last year suggested the city serve as a “control group” to determine the benefits of social-distancing measures and recently said the governor’s prolonged emergency power “smacks of tyranny,” indicating that Sisolak had been unwilling to hear her input.

Sisolak, in an interview earlier this month, acknowledged his communication with local governments could have been better. But he also noted that there are hundreds of local government officials around the state and said it’s just not possible to communicate with all of them.

“Some of them were saying, ‘Wait a minute, why don’t you do this?’ or ‘Why don’t you do that?’ There’s 17 counties I’ve got to deal with, not just one,” Sisolak said. “They all want some attention, they all deserve some attention, and we can always do better.”

And, alluding to Goodman’s earlier comments, Sisolak said that he refused “to let the citizens, the residents of Nevada be used as test subjects or guinea pigs.” Whatever criticism he has received for his decisions during the pandemic — whether for being too strict or too lenient in the state’s rules — he bears.

“The buck has to stop with somebody and it stopped with me,” Sisolak said.

Still, multiple local officials said they give the state credit for the way it supported their pandemic response at the county level. Jeanne Freeman, public health preparedness program manager for Carson City Health and Human Services, said that trust between her agency and the state is deeper than it was before.

“They have their perspective and what they see, but then they have inquired, they have listened to us when we’ve said, ‘We see what you’re saying about that, but we’re not sure that’s really going to be how it’s going to work when we get it down to the local level,’” Freeman said. “We’ve met them in the middle. They have given a lot.”

Lewis said there were some state officials with "really spectacular personalities" that "shined" during the pandemic who understood the difficult situation local officials were in.

"I understand there's both sides of that because they're obviously overworked," Lewis said. "There was that lack of compassion and empathy both ways."

And some local officials, despite their complaints, give Sisolak and the state credit for the difficult position they were in.

“Part of my respect for the governor is those tough decisions that he's made to protect the state of Nevada,” Dick said. “I really commend the governor and his courage for the decisions that he's made. But I haven't seen that type of leadership, for the most part, coming at the local level.”

If anything, the pandemic has underscored the importance of relationships — and highlighted how difficult it is to build them in the middle of a crisis situation if they weren’t already there.

“Theoretically we could’ve done listening tours and town halls and developed those relationships as much as we could,” Cage said. “But the resources and the time constraints were so extreme and really remain so extreme right now as we transition to the vaccination effort that there really just was not the mechanism, the capacity to do that.”

Fogerson, who was appointed the head of the state’s Division of Emergency Management this fall, says the value of relationships is something he tries to keep in mind as a local-turned-state official.

“At the state, your job is not to do. Your job is to support and enable the local providers,” Fogerson said. “I used to get very mad at state employees that would come down and tell me how to do something or, ‘Here, we’re going to do that for you.’ … It’s going back to that civics lesson of who really needs to be the sharp end of the stick and how do we help them to sharpen that stick better?”


For some in local government, it finally feels like things are looking up.

In February, Sisolak announced the state would be transitioning the responsibility for COVID-19 health and safety mitigation measures to the counties by May 1. Mask and social distance requirements will remain in place statewide, but it will soon be up to counties to figure out how many people can be inside a business and how large gatherings are allowed to be.

Several counties, at multiple meetings of the COVID-19 Mitigation and Management Task Force last week, voiced their intent to open businesses 100 percent as soon as they can. Most businesses across the state are allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity.

“We can do it safely. We have the plan. We’re ready. We’re looking forward to it,” Goicoechea, the Eureka County Commission chair, said. “We will be ready to go and open up safely in a big way as soon as he lets us.”

For the next couple of weeks, county staff will be working on their plans for the transition to local control and getting them approved by their county commissions. Those plans will then be presented to the task force sometime in mid-April.

“That’s one of the smart things about what the governor is doing is put that decision-making process back in the hands of the people in the state of Nevada to use the sense that they have to take care of themselves and their families, and businesses to take care of their business and their customers,” Page, Lyon’s county manager, said.

Local governments now find themselves grappling with the kinds of questions the state has been facing all along, including how to enforce any mitigation measures.

Once the transition to local control happens, the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration will continue to enforce statewide policies but doesn’t have the authority to enforce local policies. That will be left to local code enforcement officers, who may not have the bandwidth to routinely surveil stores, and sheriffs, who, as elected officials worried about their reelection bids, may not be interested in enforcing the measures. 

Counties are also pondering what happens if cases once again start to rise: Will the state step back in, or will it be up to them to put in place mitigation measures on their own?

“Go ahead and kick it out to local government control, see a spike in the summer, and then issue some kind of an emergency directive that we’re going to pull back some of these openings, you will have a complete uprising,” Goicoechea said. “That is my biggest fear.”

While Sisolak said the state would remain “flexible” and continue to monitor trends on a county level during the transition to local control, the goal of the new plan is for counties to take the reins and the state to step back. Still, Sisolak will retain the legal authority to issue new statewide emergency directives unless the Legislature takes action to limit the governor’s power.

Republican lawmakers have put forward legislation this session that would do just that, though those proposals have not yet been given hearings by Democrats, who control both chambers of the Legislature.

“There’s three branches of government for a reason and this extended emergency stuff really needs to be defined on what the governor’s role should be, and that’s the thing: There’s really no definition of it and that’s the problem,” said Titus, the Republican Assembly leader. “We're trying to put some bills forward to define it, but so far we haven’t gotten any traction with that.”

Counties, however, are finding that taking the reins from the state is easier said than done.

“I want people to open their businesses up to 100 percent capacity, but my fear is if that happens and then we get wave three of COVID and it’s more severe than wave one or two, do we go back to what we’ve been doing? That’s a concern,” Page said. “I’ve said this publicly: I thank God I’m not the governor. I can’t imagine making those types of decisions and impacting people’s lives.”

A year into the pandemic, Titus, who is also a family practice doctor in Lyon County, is of the mind that people are well-informed enough to be able to make choices about what behavior is safe or unsafe. She says it’s the kind of conversation she often has with her patients when discussing treatment options.

“Once a person has all the information, and I give them the information that I have, they have the right to refuse treatment. They have a right to self-determination, even if I didn’t agree with their decision, even if I thought they made a bad choice,” Titus said. “Once we’ve educated everybody as the government, once we give them good informed consent, they have the right to choose not to do that.”

There are, however, limits to that idea.

“You have the right to self-determination as long as it doesn’t impact those around you,” Titus said. “You have the right to get COVID if you want to. You have a right to make a bad choice and get sick, but if your choice then impacts the entire roomful of people that you’ve now exposed, I’m sorry, we have the right to remove you from that room.”

From top state officials down to everyday Nevadans, many are of the belief that the biggest challenge of the pandemic wasn’t the virus itself, but the lack of communication — and, by extension, the relationships, community and trust that come along with that — to respond to it.

Without communication, state and federal governments can’t cooperate, state and local governments can’t work together and governments at any level can’t effectively convey important, potentially life-saving, information to their citizens.

“Communication, it’s always going to be something we have to strive for in government to do a better job of,” Page said. “It’s always going to be our biggest failing.”

Part V coming Sunday, April 4.

Freshman Orientation: Assemblyman Andy Matthews

As in sessions past, The Nevada Independent is publishing a series of profiles featuring all the new lawmakers in the state. This is the ninth installment of more than a dozen. Check back in the coming days for additional stories on new legislators' backgrounds, interests and policy positions.

ASSEMBLYMAN ANDY MATTHEWS

  • Freshman Republican who succeeds Democratic Assemblywoman Shea Backus
  • Represents District 37, which is north of Summerlin and contains parts of Sun City Summerlin in Las Vegas
  • District 37 has a slight advantage in voter registration for Democrats (36.8 percent Democratic, 35.2 percent Republican and 21.8 percent nonpartisan in the 2020 election)
  • Matthews defeated three other candidates with 49 percent of the vote in the 2020 Republican primary, including former television journalist Michelle Mortensen, Jacob Deaville and Lisa Noeth.
  • He then defeated incumbent Assemblywoman Shea Backus in the 2020 general election, winning a little less than 51 percent of the vote.
  • He sits on the following committees: Government Affairs, Health and Human Services, Legislative Operations and Elections

FAMILY AND EDUCATION

Matthews was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He graduated from Boston University with a degree in journalism and worked as a sports journalist before entering the political field.

He and his fiancé Valerie live in Las Vegas.

CAREER

Andy Matthews never expected to be here.

For one, he thought he would be working on the other side of the Capitol Amphitheater after serving as policy director for former gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt’s 2018 campaign. But Laxalt lost the race to Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, and no job in the governor’s office materialized (Matthews described the loss as a “punch to the gut”).

But beyond that, 42-year-old Matthews never really expected to end up in the political field, much less in the Nevada Legislature. Born in Massachusetts and initially trained as a sports journalist before transitioning to the political realm, he says he “took the scenic route” to the Legislature.

“If you told me at 12 years old when I was living in rural Massachusetts, I would serve in the Nevada State Assembly someday, I’d probably ask you what a state assembly was, and ask you a lot of questions about how I got from point A to point B,” he said. “But I’m honored to be here, and it's been a great experience so far.”

Matthews was born in New Bedford, but grew up in a rural area (Freetown) about 50 miles south of Boston. A life-long Red Sox fan, Matthews played basketball and baseball in high school but moved away from athletics after getting a job at a local newspaper, writing up box scores and brief game summaries. In high school, he and another student helped start a student newspaper — the “Laker Pride,” named for the bodies of water around the area, not a reference to the Celtics’ main rival.

After graduating college with a journalism degree, Matthews worked at a variety of sports reporting jobs, including at FOX Sports and a stint for MLB.com (where, for an article, he went undercover and attended an open-to-the-public Red Sox tryout. Matthews says he was never “really in danger of making the team.”)

But his interests broadened beyond sports; first with the contentious circumstance around the 2000 presidential election, but also with the terror attack on 9/11. At the time, Matthews was living in Hoboken, New Jersey, with a view from his bedroom window into lower Manhattan. Working nights, he said he didn’t know about the attacks until his dad called him. He remembers pacing between the television and his bedroom window.

“I think the combination of those things in my early 20s for me put issues front and center in my life, in my mind, that I hadn't really given a whole lot of thought to before,” he said.

Matthews worked on a New Jersey political race in 2005, then moved to Nevada to work as campaign manager for former state lawmaker Bob Beers’ ultimately unsuccessful gubernatorial run in 2006. Deciding to stay in Nevada, Matthews was hired on as communications director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute (a nonprofit, pro-free market think tank) and eventually became the group’s director in 2011.

He said the organization was a great fit for him because of his political interests and background in communications skills, but at times he was frustrated that the group’s legislative advocacy didn’t translate into desired policy results.

Outside of “facetious barstool conversations,” Matthews said he hadn’t really considered a run for office himself, but a turning point came in 2015 after former Gov. Brian Sandoval (a Republican) pushed through a record-breaking package of new and extended taxes worth more than $1.1 billion.

“If we're not getting what we should be getting, in my view, out of the current crop of elected officials, maybe we need some different officials,” he said. “The best way to change policy sometimes is to change policy makers.”

So in 2016, Matthews decided to jump in the contentious Republican Party primary for the state’s 3rd Congressional District. With then-state Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson (who helped Sandoval shepherd through the tax package in 2015) and well-known and perennial conservative candidate Danny Tarkanian also in the race, Matthews said he hoped to run as a “new face principled outsider” — and carve out the middle ground between Tarkanian and Roberson.

But that pathway was largely closed off when firebrand then-Republican Assemblywoman Michele Fiore also decided to jump in the primary. Matthews says he continued to campaign hard, but ended up coming in fourth out of the seven-way contest (noting that he and Fiore combined had a vote share roughly equal to that of Tarkanian, who ended up winning the primary but losing to Democratic nominee Jacky Rosen).

After that election cycle, Matthews moved to the political orbit of former Attorney General Adam Laxalt, leading his Morning in Nevada PAC for a spell before moving to work on Laxalt’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign. 

But the 2018 election cycle was a nadir for Nevada Republicans, and Matthews said that though that loss stung, he figured political fortunes in a swing state such as Nevada would eventually swing back. Running for the Legislature, he said, was a way to get in on the ground floor.

“We're going to rebuild, one way or another, we're going to get stronger, and I'd love to be part of that,” he said. “So that as our party starts to gain strength and have more of a say, in the future, I can be at the table and try to try to shape things as best I can, in a way that aligns with the principles that I think we really ought to adhere to.”

Assemblyman Andy Mathews during the first day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

ON THE ISSUES

Taxes

Matthews is a signer of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, a written promise for federal and state candidates to oppose any and all tax increases without some kind of corresponding revenue-neutral tax cut. Matthews said that pledge includes the gaming and sales tax initiative petitions circulated by the Clark County Education Association and now before the state Legislature. 

“We need to rebuild our economy, and I do not believe saddling Nevadans with higher taxes is the way to do it,” he said.

Election security

Matthews plans to introduce a bill that would repeal AB4 from the state’s 2020 summer special session, which provided for sending out mail ballots to all active registered voters and also legalized ballot collection, the practice where individuals can collect and turn in absentee ballots for other voters (Republicans often refer to this practice as “ballot harvesting”).

He said he was fine with no-excuse absentee ballots, but that the practice of automatically mailing ballots to voters made the state’s election system “susceptible to fraud and error.” 

Asked whether he believed that massive voter fraud happened to a level that would have affected the outcome of the presidential race in Nevada, Matthews noted that there was some degree of “error, fraud, or irregularities” that happened in the election (citing statements made by Clark County Registrar Joe Gloria on discrepancies in a close county commission race).

But he said his primary focus is election security, and that he doesn’t want to get “bogged down” in whether “the outcome of one particular race (was) the proper outcome in terms of voter intent.”

“Right now under our system, it's designed in a way that makes it much, much easier than it should be to cheat if one wanted to,” he said. “And so, we can go back and forth all day on, did no one cheat, did one person cheat, did 200,000 people cheat? We don't know; no one knows; you don't know; I don't know. Because we have a system that's designed in such a way that we can't know. So my job as a legislator, it's to make sure that we have the proper systems in place to make sure that we do have an election that's secure.”

(The secretary of state’s office has said it did not see any evidence of “wide-spread fraud” in the 2020 election, though election officials have said they’re pursuing several individual cases of possible election-related fraud in the 2020 election).

Criminal justice reform

While critical of measures passed in recent sessions that he said “went much too far in terms of tying the hands of law enforcement,” Matthews said he was broadly supportive of efforts to reduce recidivism and help current and former inmates successfully adjust back into normal society.

“That's an area where I think we all can look at, because we are all going to benefit,” he said. “If someone comes out of our prison system after a number of years and doesn't have the skillset to find a job, there’s a very good chance that person may end up back in that cycle of disruptive behavior. That benefits nobody.”

Other proposals

Other bills that Matthews plans to introduce this session include the following:

  • A measure that would allow local jurisdictions to opt-in to the 287(g) program, a federal partnership between local police and federal immigration officials to place “detainers” on people not legally in the country but arrested or taken into police custody for non-immigration related reasons. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department opted out of the program in 2019 after a federal court case enjoined ICE from issuing so-called detainers without “explicit state statute authorizing civil immigration arrests.”
  • A measure creating a state-level REINS Act, a proposal championed by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul essentially requiring significant regulations with a major financial impact to be approved explicitly by the Legislature, as opposed to an executive branch agency. Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker implemented a similar program in that state
  • A measure to increase penalties for public agencies that fail to comply with public record law violations
  • A bill to subject the collective bargaining process between government employee unions and local government employers to requirements in the state’s Open Meeting Law
  • A measure allowing creation of “charter agencies,” a concept promoted by former Controller Ron Knecht and the Nevada Policy Research Institute to rework state government agencies by giving them broad policy goals and “allowing agency directors to determine the best means of achieving those objectives.”

Matthews acknowledged that many of his bills will likely not move very far in a Legislature and governor’s office controlled by Democrats. He said that while he hopes to attract bipartisan support for at least some of his proposals (including the bills aimed at improving government function), there was still some value to be gained by at least introducing the concepts.

“If I can move the needle at least on the conversation on some of these things, there's value in that as well,” he said. “If a particular bill doesn't get implemented in this particular legislative session, at least (we’re) beginning the conversation, and maybe changing some minds, and hopefully taking a step toward a place down the road.”

Nick Trutanich on election integrity, unemployment fraud and what’s next after two years as U.S. attorney

Just two years into his service as the U.S. attorney for the District of Nevada, Nick Trutanich is hanging up his hat at the end of the week.

Trutanich was one of 56 Trump-nominated and Senate-confirmed Department of Justice officials who were asked to resign by the incoming Biden administration. It’s a typical move during the transfer of presidential power but bittersweet for Trutanich, whose career has included several years at the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles and a stint for the DOJ in Iraq.

“It's something that, obviously, I was expecting, but I would have loved to have more time in the office to continue the great work that we've been doing over the last several years,” he told The Nevada Independent

Trutanich plans to announce a move into the private sector in Nevada next month, and says he has no intentions of running for office. He served four years as chief of staff for Republican former Attorney General Adam Laxalt and was nominated by a Republican president but declined to reveal his party affiliation in an interview on Monday, saying the job puts him at the service of all Americans and not one party or the other.

“The appointment jobs ... are fantastic because you get to do work and serve,” he said. “But all of the other stuff associated with politics really is not in the mix. And it's fantastic. And that's why it's been such a privilege and an honor to serve in this role.”

The U.S. attorney is similar to the state attorney general, but prosecutes federal criminal cases and represents the U.S. in court when the federal government is sued. Another key difference is that the job is not subject to the typically feisty elections that define the state attorney general role, although he had to wait six months from his nomination to the point of confirmation.

“It's tough on the family. It's tough on the person going through it,” he said. “It's just a lot of waiting and hoping that the Senate, with all of the priorities of the day, takes time to get a confirmation up for a vote.”

Asked about his biggest accomplishment, he points to internal organization — helping to professionalize the office and hire a good group of prosecutors to carry out the day-to-day work — and being flexible enough to respond to the emergent issues in the state, including extremism, the opioid epidemic and human trafficking. 

“The thing that I'm most proud of is that the office had its priorities right. We were nimble enough to sort of stay on the heartbeat of what was going on in Nevada,” he said. 

Election fraud

Trutanich declined to say whether there are any ongoing investigations stemming from the 2020 election in Nevada, although his office has a role in looking into it.

“Our job is to prosecute voter suppression, should it occur, and prosecute voter fraud, should it occur,” he said.

A longstanding “non-interference policy” from the DOJ clarifies that elections — even ones for federal races — are run by state and county officials and the U.S. attorney’s offices do not get involved until the results are certified. That means announcements about indictments are made after certification except in limited circumstances, and that addressing fraud in real time, and ensuring the election is free and fair, is the job of state and local authorities. 

“The department's job ... is very discrete. And sometimes people misinterpret that,” he said. “But it is to charge cases looking backwards … so that in the next election cycle, the public is aware that the department is going after those types of cases.”

His office is part of an election integrity task force that involves the secretary of state’s office, the FBI and other state officials. Trutanich also appointed a district election officer announced in October — something he said happens in all districts and every election — and assigned the task to another prosecutor in the office after she moved on.

The task force evaluated claims as they came in before and after the election. He hasn’t charged any cases yet and said he can’t confirm or deny whether any more are coming, but he said he thinks his office fulfilled its mission during a highly charged election.

“The job in this office is to be a steady hand and sort of chart a course through rough waters and make sure that the department carries out its mission,” he said. “That's exactly what we did, and sort of tune out what's going on in the media and put our heads down and do the work.”

Pandemic aid fraud

Nevada is one of 11 districts in the country assigned a special prosecutor because the state has been designated a hotspot for unemployment fraud. So far, Trutanich’s office has prosecuted a handful of Paycheck Protection Program cases and several unemployment fraud cases involving a total of 15-20 defendants.

He expects there will be more, and that prosecutions could be continuing for years to come. 

“We're full with pandemic-related fraud,” he said. “There's more work than there is resources for it.”

Cases of unemployment fraud so far have been “happenstance encounters with law enforcement, that then our investigators at the FBI, Secret Service worked with our prosecutors to sort of pull on those threads and build more complex cases,” he said. 

One example is a defendant found with unemployment benefit debit cards that weren’t his, and further investigation led authorities to question his girlfriend, a mail carrier, for further suspicious activity.

He said he has “every confidence” that DETR employees are doing their best under the circumstances, and are battling fraud, but acknowledges that that is “cold comfort” for Nevadans foiled from getting the benefits they need.

“I worked in the state government and public servants wake up every morning trying to do their best,” he said. “What I view my role is in there is to deter fraudsters ... so that that might end up giving some break to those employees that are trying to pull apart legitimate claim versus fraudulent claim.”

Beyond the “bottom up” approach happening in Nevada with not only the special prosecutor but also other staff from a white collar crime unit, he said there is a “big data dump” at the main Department of Justice office where information from cases at all state unemployment systems is under review to develop organizational cases from top down. 

“We've been prioritizing those and trying to drag them through that grand jury as quick as possible,” he said. “But I can't say when we're going to get the full scope because it could be years.” 

Extremism

Trutanich said his office works with a Joint Terrorism Task Force and fields tips from organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League to address violent extremism. Collaboration is key when 85 percent of law enforcement resources are at the local and state level and the federal system accounts for just 15 percent, he said. 

Trutanich pointed out two instances when his office tackled the issue. One is an ongoing case involving alleged members of the Boogaloo movement, who were accused of trying to instigate violence against law enforcement and protesters during Black Lives Matter demonstrations over the summer.

“The three individuals were arrested just miles away from those protests,” he said. “I think that overt action, that disruption, likely saved a significant amount of violence, perhaps lives, that night.”

Another was Conor Climo, who was arrested in 2019. The U.S. attorney’s office had been monitoring his online activity for months but decided to take action shortly after shootings in Dayton and El Paso and found bomb-making materials in his possession.

Climo pleaded guilty and was sentenced late last year.

“That case disrupted somebody that was on the path potentially, if his schematics were to be believed, attack a Jewish synagogue or a LBGTQ bar on Fremont Street,” he said. 

What’s next

Trutanich said he’s most proud of helping address a 40 percent vacancy rate in his office — double that of any other district in the country. He’s hired 75 people in the office and believes that early ramp-up is going to put the office in a strong position going forward.

“As those prosecutors develop, they're going to bring more complex cases, they're going to bring more impactful cases. And I'm really excited for that,” he said.

He’s also proud of bringing in grants from the DOJ into the state, as well as resources for  special prosecutors in unemployment fraud, domestic violence and missing and murdered indigenous women. 

“An important part of being a U.S. attorney, in addition to serving the people of Nevada, is going back to main Justice and fighting for the district and fighting for resources for your office and fighting for resources for nonprofits, service providers that do amazing work,” he said. “We've been really successful at that. I'd say I'd put our record on that against any other district in the country.”

After he leaves, an acting U.S. attorney will take over — likely someone from inside the office  — until a president-nominated and Senate-confirmed pick is finalized. That could be months away. 

Trutanich said it’s key to have a U.S. attorney’s office that is firing on all cylinders.

“The Department of Justice, through the U.S. Attorney's Office, has the ability to make Nevadans’ lives better, safer communities, getting high level drug traffickers off the street, getting human traffickers behind bars where they deserve to be, and combating the opioid epidemic,” he said. “That's why this office needs to run properly — because it has a real impact on the people of Nevada.”

Nevada seeks dismissal of Laxalt election lawsuit that claims noncitizens infiltrated state voter rolls

Attorneys for the state of Nevada are seeking the dismissal of a lawsuit against the secretary of state regarding voter roll maintenance, asserting that the court does not have jurisdiction over the subject matter and that the plaintiffs have misrepresented the secretary of state’s role in maintaining voter rolls.

In the motion to dismiss filed in the First Judicial Court in Carson City on Thursday, Gregory Zunino, deputy solicitor general for the state, wrote that the plaintiffs’ claim that Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske has failed to establish a system to verify citizenship in the state’s voter registration process was “demonstrably false.”

“Plaintiffs have no legal right to invoke this Court’s subject matter jurisdiction in their mission to seize partial control of the Office of the Secretary of State,” Zunino wrote.

The lawsuit, filed in December by former Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt, names three plaintiffs — former Republican Assemblyman Al Kramer, former Washoe County District Attorney Dick Gammick and Roger William Norman — who claim that the alleged failure of the secretary of state to keep noncitizens off the voter rolls caused their votes to be diluted and discounted because “noncitizens are on the voter rolls and have voted in the past.”

Zunino wrote that it is the counties, not the state, that maintain voter rolls, meaning the responsibility to remove noncitizens from the lists falls to the county clerks. He also noted that the secretary of state merely maintains a centralized database of voter information collected from the 17 county clerks.

The plaintiffs pointed to the state’s new automatic voter registration system, which has added thousands of new voters since last January, as a potential opportunity for noncitizens to be added to the voter roll.

However, the system does have protections against the registration of noncitizens, including a citizenship question on the primary Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) form. Zunino wrote in the state’s filing that following the 2018 election, Cegavske worked with the DMV and attorney general to develop procedures for filtering noncitizens out of the voter registration process, including the exclusion of Driver Authorization Card holders, who are commonly noncitizens, from the automatic registration process.

Zunino also questioned the plaintiffs’ choice of attorney, arguing that Laxalt, who previously served as counsel for Cegavske in his capacity as attorney general, presents “an appearance of impropriety and conflict” because the plaintiffs claim that they have relied exclusively upon “public” records.

“Plaintiffs’ counsel may have access to non-public and privileged information regarding the Secretary’s efforts to address DMV voter registration processes in 2017 and 2018,” he wrote. “Insofar as Plaintiffs have engaged an attorney who may possess information acquired from an attorney-client relationship, their choice of counsel is problematic.”

Zunino also wrote that the plaintiffs lack standing in the court and that their demands for systemic and routine checks on voter citizenship represent a matter of policy that should be considered by the Legislature rather than addressed by the District Court.

That argument stems in part from the plaintiffs’ inability to prove injury by way of vote dilution, as the plaintiffs represent just three of more than 1.4 million votes cast by Nevadans in the last election. Zunino wrote that the plaintiffs aired a generalized and speculative grievance that any voter could raise, meaning that the plaintiffs have not proven any specific injury needed for standing.

He further noted that the generalized grievance about the operation of government raises policy questions that should not be handled by the court, but should instead be addressed by legislators and executives.

This session, Republican legislators are pushing for election reforms, although officials of the Assembly Republican Caucus said the group’s official position is that the recent election was not “fraudulent.”

Assembly members John Ellison (R-Elko), Jim Wheeler (R-Minden) and Jill Dickman (R-Sparks) are sponsoring AB137, which would require proof of identity for voting in person. And several Republican legislators are sponsoring AB134, which would repeal a law that calls for widespread distribution of mail-in ballots to active voters during states of emergency.

Democratic leaders have expressed interest in making the broad distribution of mail-in ballots standard, even in non-emergency times, in order to ease participation in elections.

Behind the Bar: Following the Blockchains money trail, Capitol Police severely understaffed and return of ‘Death with Dignity’

Behind the Bar is The Nevada Independent’s newsletter devoted to comprehensive and accessible coverage of the 2021 Legislature. 

In this edition: We track campaign contributions from Blockchains LLC, including to a PAC run by Treasurer Zach Conine. Capitol Police are also severely understaffed, and the “death with dignity” bill is back after falling short in 2019.

Check this link to manage your newsletter subscriptions. The newsletter is published on Mondays and Thursdays.

I want to hear from you! Questions, comments, observations, jokes, what you think we should be covering or paying attention to. Email me at rsnyder@thenvindy.com.

~~~

If you missed the announcement on Friday, our entire legislative coverage page is now available in Spanish (direct link here).

This is a huge accomplishment, and ensures that features like the Sisolak Promise Tracker, legislator bios and our major issue tracker are available to readers in two languages. The project only happened this quickly because of the tireless work by Luz Gray, Jannelle Calderon, CJ Keeney and Michelle Rindels to handle translation and other tasks required to convert the page into a second language.

I bring this up not only because I want to promote the hard work of my colleagues, but also to highlight that the language gap can really keep Spanish-speaking Nevadans out of the normal legislative process.

Look, it’s hard enough to follow the Legislature in non-pandemic times, with the weird web of rules, arcane legal and procedural steps and all the other confusing process things that make it difficult to follow along if one is new to the process. 

Now imagine doing that in your non-native language. (If English is your first language, can you imagine trying to follow the Spanish-language equivalent of Kevin Powers?)

There is a concerted effort this year to get the Spanish-speaking community more involved in the Legislature (the #nvlegES hashtag has sprung up this session, and the Nevada Hispanic Legislative Caucus has taken steps to publicize issues that could be interesting to a Spanish-language audience).

But there is certainly a role for journalists to provide news, context and information to a primarily Spanish-speaking audience. This is a systemic problem — despite increasing diversity in the Legislature, the vast majority of full-time reporters covering the Legislature are white men (including myself).

This isn’t a problem that can be fixed overnight. But I think — hope — that continuing to publish and promote high-quality Spanish language content will get a broader audience interested in what happens in Carson City.

— Riley Snyder

Governor Steve Sisolak during a virtual signing ceremony for AB 106 inside the Capitol building in Carson City on Friday, Feb. 12, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Follow the Money: Blockchains LLC spread the wealth before Innovation Zone reveal

Local and national attention has been showered upon the proposal from Blockchains LLC to create autonomous, self-governing “Innovation Zones” since the proposal was first publicized in the first week of the legislative session.

Since then, few details have emerged from the governor’s office or state agencies about the “Innovation Zone” proposals, but it has raised many questions and attracted renewed attention as to why the company with more than 67,000 acres of land in Storey County is pushing for what seems like the 21st century equivalent of a “company town.”

But while the proposal may seem fantastical, the company and founder Jeff Berns aren’t exactly new faces to lawmakers or Gov. Steve Sisolak — both have made sizable political contributions since the company first came on the scene in 2018.

Many of the larger donations have been documented. Blockchains LLC made max contributions to Sisolak and Republican challenger Adam Laxalt during the 2018 governor’s race, and he made a $50,000 contribution to a political action committee (Home Means Nevada) affiliated with Sisolak. Berns also cut a $50,000 contribution to the Nevada State Democratic Party in 2019.

But the political contributions continued into the 2020 election cycle. Berns himself contributed an aggregate of $34,500 to 11 lawmakers, including three of the four legislative leaders and a $10,000 maximum contribution to Republican Assemblyman Jim Wheeler (R-Minden). Wheeler also received a $10,000 contribution from Mary Berns, the wife of Jeff Berns. Wheeler’s district includes the headquarters of Blockchains and potential future site of the “Innovation Zone.”

David Berns, former president of the company and brother of Jeff Berns, also made a $1,000 contribution to Assembly members Jill Tolles (R-Reno) and $1,500 to Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno).

Outside of direct contributions, Jeff Berns also made direct contributions to a political action committee affiliated with state Treasurer Zach Conine (Berns also contributed $10,000 to Conine’s campaign account in April 2020).

The PAC, “Let’s Get to Work Nevada,” is registered to Conine and his wife, Layke Martin, and reported receiving $60,000 in contributions from Jeff Berns in 2020 (out of $65,100 total raised through the year). It has little presence outside a bare-bones website, but contributed a combined $20,500 to primarily legislative Democratic candidates through 2020. 

In an email, Conine said the PAC was set up to support “candidates and causes that work to advance opportunities for all Nevadans through effective economic growth, strategic investments in infrastructure, and innovative ideas that move our State forward.”

“Jeff Berns shares this same vision, and I'm grateful for all of his support to help elect candidates who are dedicated to building a better and more inclusive Nevada,” he wrote in the email.

(Disclosure: The Nevada Independent has received donations of $35,000 from Blockchains and $375,000 from Jeff Berns. I’ve spoken to Berns twice — once for a story where the company purchased a small bank in Las Vegas, and the other time during an Indy fundraising event in February 2020. Berns was dressed as Jon Snow from Game of Thrones.)

Conine and the state Treasurer’s Office have been heavily involved in several aspects of Sisolak’s economy-focused legislative agenda (including implementation of a small business grant program approved by lawmakers last week), though his office and other state agencies have largely avoided commenting on the Innovation Zone proposal since the State of the State address.

While Berns has made campaign contributions to lawmakers in both parties, the focus on Democratic lawmakers and a PAC supporting them isn’t necessarily surprising given that Democrats control both legislative chambers. 

There hasn’t been much organized Republican push back quite yet on the proposal, though the Nevada Republican Party described the concept in a Facebook post as “Sisolak’s new plan to allow Big Tech to create their own governments in Nevada”.

— Riley Snyder

Capitol Police severely understaffed after year packed with protests

Low pay and long hours driven by frequent protests in the last year have left the state’s Capitol Police Division facing a severe staffing shortage.

During a legislative meeting on Thursday, officials from the Department of Public Safety revealed that of the division’s 21 full-time employee positions, nine are vacant and another seven officers have given notices to leave. The Capitol Police Division provides police services to state buildings in Carson City and Las Vegas, including the Capitol Building, Governor’s Mansion and the Grant Sawyer Building.

A recurrent topic throughout the meeting was the department’s recruitment struggles, which were noted by Sheri Brueggemann, the public safety department’s deputy director. 

“Again, the pay parity, so the issue with Capitol Police is they are below their sister agencies, which are below the local law enforcement,” Brueggemann said.

Those sister agencies, including the Highway Patrol and Parole and Probation division, along with local law enforcement all had to provide help to the Capitol Police last year, with some agencies sending officers from Las Vegas to Carson City, as the division dealt with an overwhelming number of protests.

From March to June last year, the division spent more than 500 overtime hours responding to demonstrations, as well as another 441 overtime hours policing demonstrations from July through February.

Brueggemann described how Capitol Police face a tough job as they are often the first responders to protests at government properties, and because officers in that division earn 15 percent less than officers in other departments agencies, retention is difficult.

But those struggles stretch far beyond the Capitol Police Division. Department of Public Safety turnover exceeded 100 percent in each of the last three years, reaching a high point last year when the number of sworn officers who left the department outnumbered the cadets hired by 81 to 60.

Aside from the pay disparity, the background investigation and hiring process also eliminates a large number of candidates. Mavis Affo, human resources manager for the department, said that it takes about 100 applicants to get five candidates to attend the training academy.

The department could work towards recruiting for each of its individual divisions specifically moving forward, after a state audit recommended that the parole division should adopt a formal plan for recruitment and retention.

— Sean Golonka 

Death with Dignity legislation is back after failing to pass in three prior sessions

Nevada lawmakers may once again take up the dicey issue of whether people should be able to take life-ending drugs if they have a terminal illness.

Democratic Sen. Dallas Harris’ Death with Dignity bill, SB105, dropped on Tuesday, and she said Democratic Assemblyman Edgar Flores will take up the issue on the Assembly side.

“Believe it or not, as a progressive, sometimes I'd like the government to get out of the way,” she said. “I just fundamentally believe people should have a right to do this in discussion with not one doctor, but two.” 

Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office was noncommittal Friday on whether he would sign or veto such a bill. The physician aid-in-dying concept has failed in recent sessions, including in 2019, when such a bill passed out of committee but never came up for a vote on the Senate floor, in spite of the celebrity endorsement of civil rights icon Dolores Huerta.

In 2017, it narrowly passed out of the Senate after a Republican and independent joined Democrats in support, but Democrats Aaron Ford and Mo Denis opposed it. It died in an Assembly committee.

And in 2015, a bill on the issue never came up for discussion. Republican Sen. Joe Hardy, a physician and member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, did not grant it a hearing in the committee he chaired.

Republican Sen. Ben Kieckhefer had been a co-sponsor of such legislation in the past, but said he ultimately grew more uncomfortable with the idea as time went on and switched his position.

“I've waffled,” he said. “I'm not embarrassed to say that when it comes to questions of life and death and the divine spark, that I struggle sometimes.”

Harris said some constraints that have been added to the legislation over time may help allay some of the concerns, potentially making Nevada the tenth state in the country that allows a right to die. She said she knows it won’t be an easy discussion.

“I understand the emotion behind it, right?” she said. “I mean, death is the one thing that unifies us all.”

— Michelle Rindels

Senate Majority Leader Nicole J. Cannizzaro on the fourth day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

What we’re reading

Journalists over-use the phrase “must-read,” but this Daniel Rothberg story on Blockchains, Innovation Zones and water rights is, well, a must-read.

Blockchains founder Jeff Berns also did an interview this week with the Associated Press.

Jannelle Calderon on a proposal by Assemblywoman Robin Titus (R-Wellington) to take derogatory language referring to people with disabilities out of the state Constitution.

Our stories on the hearing and signing of the highly touted bill allocating $50 million in grants to small businesses affected by the pandemic.

The number will likely change, but the $1.9 trillion federal aid measure currently before Congress would send $3.9 billion with a ‘b’ to Nevada, which has potentially major implications for the state budget.

That summer special session for redistricting will now likely be after late September, after the Census Bureau announced another delay in release of information needed to draw new district maps. (New York Times).

More national attention on Nevada’s majority-female Legislature (The Recount).

Rural counties want more secrecy on debating projects with major environmental effects. Open government groups and environmental groups say nuh-uh (Nevada Current).

Some transparency concerns with the closed session, though some advocates say remote meetings open testimony to more people (KUNR).

Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas) wants to close the “classic car loophole” (I always enjoy seeing crappy 90s sedans riding around with classic vehicle license plates, but that’s just me) (Las Vegas Sun).

Southwest Gas is already pushing back on Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen’s (D-Las Vegas) planned bill requiring them to file cost-benefit plans with the Public Utilities Commission every three years (Nevada Newsmakers).

There’s a lack of diversity in the marijuana industry (Las Vegas Review-Journal).

The boss did an AMA on Reddit

UPCOMING DEADLINES

Days to take action on Initiative Petitions before they go to the 2022 ballot: 26 (March 12, 2021)

Days Until Legislator Bill Introduction Deadline: 29 (March 15, 2021)

Days Until Sine Die: 106 (May 31, 2021)

Automatic voter registration system adds thousands of new voters, despite security concerns from critics

People wait at the DMV office in Henderson on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018

More than 140,000 people registered as new voters through Nevada’s automatic voter registration (AVR) system since it took effect in January last year, according to a new report.

After a majority of Nevada voters approved the system in 2018, AVR took effect in 2020, allowing individuals who complete certain DMV transactions such as driver’s license renewals to register to vote or have registration information updated unless they manually opt out.

The report, which was submitted to the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee by the secretary of state’s office, combined with data from the secretary of state’s office showed that AVR created 142,484 new Nevada voters last year. Those new registrations, along with updates to approximately 300,000 existing voter registrations, came by way of more than 580,000 DMV transactions that offered a voter registration opportunity.

The registration opportunities also resulted in 143,279 applicants selecting to opt out of the AVR system, and more than 50,000 applicants selecting a party affiliation.

The new voters registered by AVR last year represent 7.1 percent of the approximately two million voters registered in the state. Nevada is at record levels of voter registration, as there were approximately 250,000 more active voters in December 2020 than in December 2019, according to data from the secretary of state’s office. Besides the new AVR system, the introduction of same-day voter registration and interest in the presidential election last year helped boost the state’s registration numbers.

Critics, including Republican former Attorney General Adam Laxalt, have raised concerns that there are not enough back-end checks on the voter registration list to ensure non-citizens are not being registered through AVR.

Laxalt’s lawsuit against fellow Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske alleged that her office has failed to keep noncitizens from registering to vote in state elections because it “has not adopted systematic or routine checks of the citizenship of those on Nevada’s statewide voter registration list.” Laxalt’s case, filed in Carson City District Court, is pending.

Despite Laxalt’s claims, Nevada DMV spokesperson Kevin Malone has previously said there are safeguards in place to protect against the registration of ineligible voters.

The AVR system works by providing eligible voters with an “AVR Options” form after filling out their application for driving privileges, license renewal, or change of address. The form provides applicants with the option to opt-out of the voter registration process.

Applicants who are ineligible for AVR, such as those who will be under the age of 18 by the time of the next election or those who submit a permanent resident card for documentation, are sent a Notice of Ineligibility. 

The DMV application also includes a question about whether the applicant is a citizen, and holders of Driver Authorization Cards, which are commonly used by non-citizens, are excluded from the AVR process. 

As the process continues to create large numbers of new voters, AVR could receive attention in the upcoming legislative session. Several lawmakers, including Assemblyman John Ellison (R-Elko) and Senator Keith Pickard (R-Henderson), have requested bills addressing election security concerns, including proposals to enact voter ID laws. 

Extremism, with roots in the West, casts unease over Inauguration Day festivities

The seeds of discontent had been building for some time in the United States.

Then 2020 happened, bringing a pandemic, protests for racial equality and a presidential election, which exposed even deeper fault lines within the American populace. Brewing alongside increasingly partisan social media posts and terse political conversations among loved ones was an extremist movement.

In May, armed protesters in military fatigues gathered at the Governor’s Mansion to protest COVID-19 restrictions. In August, counter-protesters, some of them armed with military-style weapons, outnumbered protesters at a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Minden. Members of extremist groups appeared at pro-Trump campaign rallies and outside of the Legislature. 

Then, when election results didn’t tip in President Donald Trump’s favor, extremist groups, egged on by politicians and Trump himself, embraced false claims about voting fraud.

It culminated in a violent insurrection on hallowed grounds — the U.S. Capitol, where federal lawmakers were certifying the presidential election results.

The chaos transfixed the world’s eyes on the United States, which had not seen a breach of the Capitol in more than two centuries. Now, 20,000-some National Guard troops have descended upon Washington, D.C, ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday. 

Extremism is not new to this moment, and it is not isolated to one region of the country. In fact, FBI officials have warned of armed protests in all 50 state capitals ahead of and on Inauguration Day. But the West, including Nevada, has long been a hot spot for anti-government extremism that, especially in recent years, has often used violent rhetoric and urged on armed militias.

The images pouring out of the Capitol had echoes of armed confrontations seen in the West — and Nevada — throughout 2020 and during the past several years. In Nevada and elsewhere, these conflicts, like the Bundy Ranch standoff in 2014, have often centered on disputes over  federal public land. 

"The West has the preponderance of public lands in the country and that is the anchor point of the federal government,” said Leisl Carr Childers, a historian at Colorado State University. “And Westerners experience federal oversight more closely than any other group of Americans.”

But if some roots of extremism can be traced back to the West, the expressions of extremism in Nevada over the past year echoed the nation’s politics, centering around COVID-19 restrictions, Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of police killings and false claims of election fraud.

Political leaders in Nye County and Elko County, both hot spots for public lands disputes with the federal government, have protested state COVID-19 restrictions, spread conspiracy theories about the insurrection at the Capitol and challenged the election results, perpetuating the disinformation that has provoked many far-right extremists to take action.

Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League, said several factors contributed to right-wing extremist groups having a more visible presence across the country in 2020.

These groups, typically aligned against the federal government, embraced President Trump and often turned their ire toward local and state officials, particularly governors. He said 2020 offered a series of events that “provided a lot of opportunities for right-wing extremists to act out.” Then came the election, in which Trump and his supporters purposefully sowed doubt in the election.

“The ether was filled with claims that this upcoming election was going to be fraudulent — that there was going to be mass fraud,” Pitcavage said in an interview last week. 

The series of events that primed extremists in 2020 played out in every region of the U.S. Still, Pitcavage said, it was “not a coincidence that, of the statehouses stormed in 2020, the West had two of them.”

A shifting rebellion

When pro-Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, observers who study the West were both surprised and not. Armed militiamen had confronted law enforcement here in the recent past, despite Nevada’s Constitution forbidding private militia groups.

.The insurrection at the Capitol, a public symbol on public land, looked similar to the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon five years earlier. The takeover of the Oregon refuge, led by Ammon Bundy and aided by militiamen, was an apex of simmering public lands feuds across the West, including the armed Bundy Ranch standoff outside Las Vegas in 2014.

But James Skillen, an associate professor at Calvin University and the author of “This Land is My Land: Rebellion in the West,” saw those incidents as the culmination of something greater. 

When he watched the Bundy Ranch standoff unfold, his questions were less about the rancher, Cliven Bundy, who illegally grazed cattle on public land and was at the center of the dispute. They focused on a Fox News pundit, born in New York, who likely knew little about grazing fees. 

Skillen remembers asking: “Why is Sean Hannity so supportive? Why is he tripping over himself to think that Cliven Bundy is the most stand-up person?”

In the 1970s, public land disputes began flaring up in Nevada as a movement often referred to as the Sagebrush Rebellion took hold across the rural West. 

Federal public land comprises about 85 percent of the state’s land mass with roughly 67 percent of the state managed by one agency, the Bureau of Land Management, tasked with balancing economic activity and conservation on public land. As a result, the federal government plays an outsized role, especially in the rural West, over everything from grazing cattle to mining for gold.

The Sagebrush Rebellion, which came a few years after Congress passed legislation that aimed to protect more land for conservation and wildlife, sought to transfer federal public land to the states, a legally complicated and dubious task. At the request of ranchers and local politicians, state lawmakers, including in Nevada, passed legislation in support of the cause.

At the time, the Sagebrush Rebellion was a largely regional movement, Skillen said. There was no Twitter and few think tanks. Then things changed.

“What changes dramatically, already by the 1990s and then today,” he said, “is the unrest that we've seen is no longer just regional and it’s also no longer really just about land and resources. Those challenging the federal government are a coalition of people with really diverse interests.”

In 2014, the group that assembled in Bunkerville — about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas — proved that point. The people who showed up supporting Bundy, some bearing arms, didn’t just come from Nevada or neighboring Arizona and Utah. Some traveled thousands of miles from New England, galvanized by an anti-government mission in a very different locale. 

That’s what made the Bundy standoff such a groundbreaking event, said Cary Underwood, director of the Southern Nevada Counter Terrorism Center. 

“For the first time that I can remember in this, you saw a surge of militia adherence or extremist followers to one common rallying event,” he said. “They demonstrated their ability to communicate across militia groups.”

Extremism in the United States exists in many forms, with certain ideologies waxing and waning — but not completely disappearing — based on current events. But anti-government and racially motivated extremism, two components that live under a broad umbrella of extremism ideologies, account for a large share of domestic terrorism threats, according to the FBI. 

"Racially motivated violent extremists over recent years have been responsible for the most lethal activity in the U.S.,” FBI director Christopher Wray said during a House Homeland Security committee hearing in September. “Now this year, the domestic terrorism, lethal attacks we’ve had have, I think, all fit in the category of anti-government, anti-authority, which covers everything from anarchist violent extremists to militia types. We don’t really think in terms of left, right."

To Skillen, the Bundy standoff and the Malheur occupation signified that anti-government groups were increasingly organizing around similar causes, something he saw play out again when he watched armed Trump supporters storm the Capitol earlier this month.

“Ammon Bundy isn’t talking about land issues anymore,” Skillen said. “He's stopping high school football games over mask and social distancing requirements.”

The role of politicians 

Scholars say political rhetoric, amplified during a bitter election cycle, monthslong pandemic and  shaky economy, has fanned the flames of extremism. 

“I blame politicians more than social media,” said Arie Perliger, author of “American Zealots: Inside Right-Wing Domestic Terrorism” and a professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “When the president of the United States mentioned or embraced the Proud Boys in front of an audience of 120 million people in a presidential debate, that’s the problem.”

Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has assigned Trump some blame for the Capitol siege. On the eve of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, the Republican senator from Kentucky said, “The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people.”

Trump and his allies weren’t the only purveyors of such rhetoric. 

Local elected officials and political leaders, including former Nevada Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt, have spread false claims that the election was stolen. Others have perpetuated conspiracy theories about COVID-19 rather than debunked them.

The Capitol Hill violence, which disrupted the peaceful transition of power, wasn’t enough to stem the tide of inflammatory rhetoric. 

One day after the insurrection in Washington, D.C., Assemblyman John Ellison, a Republican who represents Elko County, said the rioters were not Trump supporters.

“They were Antifa — people dressed up as Trump supporters… They’ve got it on video,” he said in a Battle Born Media Networks interview. “It’s not about who wins an election but who steals the election. There will never be another free election in this country again if they don’t do something.” 

Meanwhile, a letter written by the Nye County Republican Party chairman, Chris Zimmerman, made national headlines, given that it stokes more false claims about the election. “Let me be clear: Trump will be president for another four years,” the message posted online Jan. 8 said. “Biden will not be president.”

Then, last week, the Nevada GOP tweeted that Democratic Attorney General Aaron Ford was “complicit in stealing the voice of 130,000 voters in our state,” suggesting widespread election fraud. 

Political leaders across the U.S., experts said, have created an atmosphere to prime supporters for extreme actions, and in some cases, failed to rebuke groups that have threatened violence. 

Pitcavage said politicians bear “tremendous amount of responsibility.”

“If despite all of the facts, all of the complete lack of evidence for any significant fraud, despite dozens of court cases being lost or thrown out, after all of these accusations of fraud were repeatedly refuted and rebutted, to continue to claim that the election was stolen becomes not simply partisan positioning, it actually begins to weaken the Democratic foundations of the country because they are based on trust,” he said.

What the future looks like

From a law enforcement perspective, expect to see federal, state and local agencies be on heightened alert for more anti-government extremism threats, especially this week as a new administration takes office, said Cary Underwood, who heads the Southern Nevada Counter Terrorism Center. 

“The emotions and beliefs are not going to go away,” he said. “The perception that folks feel wronged is not just going to dissipate just because the inauguration occurs.”

But Perliger said Trump’s departure from the White House may render him less helpful and, therefore, not as important to right-wing extremist groups that have aligned themselves with him.

“I think they needed him because they believe that he's in a tool that will allow them to almost dismantle the government from within,” he said. “... Yes, he will be some kind of a figurehead, some kind of a symbol maybe, but, again, he's not useful for them anymore so we’ll see.”

An open question is how the militia movement’s organization will be affected after being taken off of social media platforms, their primary arena for organizing, Pitcavage said. 

“For the first time in its history, it has witnessed significant de-platforming,” he said.

Over the past year, tech companies have banned militia groups from organizing on their platforms. And after the insurrection at the Capitol, Twitter permanently suspended Trump’s account “due to the risk of further incitement of violence.” Other companies did the same.

During the Trump administration, anti-public land extremism that specifically targeted the federal government was less of a threat than it was during the Obama administration. Trump appointed officials who were sympathetic to their concerns. 

This month, the Trump administration issued new grazing rights to Oregon ranchers who were convicted of arson and whose fight with the federal government helped sparked Malheur occupation. The administration took no action to stop the Bundy family from illegally grazing cattle in southern Nevada, even after a report chronicled unlawful irrigation ditches in Gold Butte National Monument. 

On Friday, E&E News reported that Cliven Bundy, in a recent interview, said that he believed the conflict around the Bundy Ranch and illegal grazing would continue in the coming years. 

“We’re going to have to go forward,” Bundy said. “If we have to walk forward towards guns, which we did at the Bundy Ranch, we have to do that. And we have to have faith.”

Laxalt files new lawsuit challenging Nevada's alleged inability to keep noncitizens off of voter rolls

Former Attorney General Adam Laxalt has filed a lawsuit against Secretary of State and fellow Republican Barbara Cegavske on behalf of several plaintiffs, including a former Republican legislator, over an alleged inability to keep noncitizens off the state’s list of registered voters.

The lawsuit, which was filed last week in Carson City District Court names three conservative-aligned plaintiffs — former Republican Assemblyman Al Kramer, former Washoe County District Attorney Dick Gammick and Roger William Norman — who say their votes were improperly diluted by an alleged failure to keep noncitizens from registering to vote in state elections.

“The Secretary of State, by not verifying the citizenship of those on the voter rolls, is allowing the dilution and discount of Plaintiffs' votes because noncitizens are on the voter rolls and have voted in the past,” the complaint states. “Thus, Plaintiffs’ right to participate in Nevada elections on an equal, undiluted basis has been infringed.”

While not directly challenging the state’s 2020 election results, the lawsuit is the latest legal broadside against the state and Cegavske’s conduct and oversight of election management, much of which stems from President Trump’s repeated and unsubstantiated claims of mass voter fraud in the 2020 election.

In a “Facts vs. Myths” document posted to the secretary of state’s website, Cegavske’s office wrote that as of Dec. 18, it has not been presented with any evidence that noncitizens voted in the 2020 election. The same document states that the office is pursuing several “isolated” cases but has not seen any evidence of “wide-spread fraud.”

The lawsuit claims the secretary of state’s office “has not adopted systematic or routine checks of the citizenship of those on Nevada’s statewide voter registration list,” despite past instances of noncitizens allegedly voting in the state and the “swelling” of the state’s voter rolls after passage of an automatic voter registration initiative in 2018. The state and DMV typically require the checking of a box stating a person’s citizenship, but the lawsuit essentially alleges that there is no back-end verification of citizenship status after the voter registration process is completed.

As evidence, it cites a handful of public reports about noncitizens attempting to vote in recent elections, including Cegavske’s 2017 announcement that the office had discovered that at least three non-citizens cast a vote in the most recent election (2016), and the arrest of a noncitizen in 2014 for voting in the 2010 and 2008 elections. Laxalt was serving as the state attorney general in 2016.

It also cites a “recent analysis” made on behalf of the Trump campaign as part of another lawsuit that alleged nearly 4,000 noncitizens voted in the state’s 2020 election, assertions that have been questioned by immigration law experts and were not included in the campaign’s election contest lawsuit because of timing issues.

“These published reports prove that noncitizens can and do end up on the statewide voter registration list,” the lawsuit states. “Yet the Secretary of State has not established a system to verify citizenship at any point in the voter registration process in Nevada.”

But that claim rests on thin evidence — the Trump campaign subpoenaed documents from the Nevada DMV showing a list of names and addresses of individuals who had over the past five years applied for a driver authorization card, which are offered to noncitizens as a way to legally drive on state roads. It then compared that list to a list of registered voters in the state, coming up with 3,987 alleged noncitizens who voted in the 2020 election.

But immigration experts say that applying for a driver authorization card isn’t sufficient proof of a lack of citizenship — individuals legally present in the country may have applied for a card, and then later obtained their citizenship without updating their license.

The lawsuit requests a judicial order requiring the secretary of state’s office to actively check the state list of registered voters with information detailing a person’s citizenship status, including but not limited to information from the Department of Homeland Security and its Systematic Alien Verification Entitlements program, or information about non-eligibility for jury duty because of a person’s immigration status.

Laxalt, the state’s former attorney general who was defeated in his gubernatorial bid against Democrat Steve Sisolak in 2018, has served as one of the public faces of the Trump campaign’s unsuccessful efforts to challenge the results of the state’s 2020 election in court.

Laxalt spoke at two press conferences arranged by the Trump campaign, one shortly after Election Day challenging alleged casting of improper mail ballots, and another in mid-November that asked a judge to award the state’s six electoral votes to Trump or declare them null over alleged issues with the election process. Judges dismissed both cases, citing a lack of evidence.

After leaving office after 2018, Laxalt joined the law firm of Cooper & Kirk and was named co-chair of Trump’s re-election campaign in Nevada. 

Other attorneys on the case include David O’Mara, who served as local counsel on several other failed election-related challenges arising out of the 2020 election.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The plaintiff is Roger William Norman, not Don Roger Norman.