Small casino and tavern operators caution Nevada regulators about expanding online gaming

A cross-section of Nevada gaming operators has voiced opposition to expanding the state’s online gaming regulations, saying any proposed changes should be explored by the governor’s Gaming Policy Committee and ultimately approved by state lawmakers.

In a four-page letter sent last week to the chairmen of the Nevada Gaming Control Board and Nevada Gaming Commission, nearly 30 small casino owners, tavern operators and CEOs outlined reasons they believe online gaming would damage their business operations.

The letter originated in the corporate offices of Red Rock Resorts and is viewed by its signers as a preemptive measure even as regulators have delayed any plans to change the state’s online gaming guidelines as spelled out in Gaming Regulation 5A.

Red Rock Resorts CEO Frank Fertitta III and Vice Chairman Lorenzo Fertitta, whose company operates the Station Casinos properties throughout the Las Vegas Valley, signed the letter.

A company spokesman declined to comment on the letter. Station Casinos backed Ultimate Poker, Nevada’s online power website. The business folded after 19 months after falling short of projections.

“We want there to be a discussion, not just throw the doors open,” said Andrew Diss, vice president of government affairs for Meruelo Gaming, the company that owns the Grand Sierra in Reno and the Sahara in Las Vegas. Meruelo Gaming CEO Alex Meruelo was one of the executives who signed the letter.

Diss was the only representative from any of the companies listed as signers who would comment publicly. He said the group believes any changes concerning online gaming expansion are policy matters.

“We believe (the Gaming Policy Committee) is the proper venue,” Diss said.

In the letter, gaming executives wrote, “We strongly oppose any expansion of online gaming in Nevada. In your potential consideration of online gaming, we ask that you are deliberate in determining if online gaming is needed to grow Nevada’s economy, helpful to our local communities and consistent with our long-established regulatory framework.”

Among the concerns raised in the letter were fears that online gaming would undermine investments made by gaming developers in physical gaming locations, cannibalize small operator gaming revenue and weaken the state’s public policy and regulatory framework.

Gaming executives also expressed support for restricted gaming operations – 15 or fewer slot machines – believing licensing of out-of-state online gaming companies could damage those businesses. 

Former Gov. Brian Sandoval reinstituted the Gaming Policy Committee in 2011 after a nearly 20-year absence. He directed the 12-person panel, which the governor chairs, to create policy advice for the Legislature on four issues during his two terms – internet gaming, daily fantasy sports, eSports and legal marijuana.

Gov. Steve Sisolak has not reinstated the panel, which includes regulators, members of the gaming industry, tribal gaming leaders, lawmakers and other stakeholders.

“We believe the policy committee will be a much more inclusive way,” Diss said.

The Gaming Control Board had scheduled a public workshop in May to discuss 15 suggested changes to the regulations, including removing provisions that limit interactive gaming to just poker and changing the rules requiring in-person registration for mobile sports betting accounts. But the meeting was cancelled, and board Chairman Brin Gibson said at the time the workshop would be rescheduled after the Legislature adjourned in June. 

Regulators have scheduled a workshop for Wednesday, but it is focused on “amending the definition of wagering accounts.”

Gibson acknowledged receiving the letter but declined to comment on Monday. On Tuesday, in a statement released by the Control Board, Gibson said he “appreciates the exchange of ideas on topics of importance to the state’s gaming industry.”

The state’s largest casino operators – MGM Resorts International, Caesars Entertainment, Wynn Resorts, Las Vegas Sands and Boyd Gaming – were not represented in the letter. Other than Las Vegas Sands, the companies have online gaming operations in states outside Nevada, mostly through mobile sports betting.

A spokesman for Boyd Gaming said he was aware of the letter but declined to comment. Boyd, through its partnership with sports betting operator FanDuel, operates legal online casinos in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where the company also operates traditional casinos.

Online gaming expansion has become a growing topic nationwide after two states, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, reported higher than normal online gaming revenues last year when casinos nationwide were closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Michigan launched legal online gaming in January, joining New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Delaware with full-scale online casinos. Nevada legalized online poker in 2013 but there is just one such site – World Series of Poker, which is run by Caesars. The state’s small population has been one reason cited for online poker not flourishing.

According to the American Gaming Association (AGA), online gaming revenue in the U.S. was $1.69 billion in the first six months of the year, a 165.8 percent increase compared to the same six-month period in 2020.

“Online gaming has been approved in states with a limited number of commercial casinos, some without any commercial casinos at all,” gaming executives wrote. “In states with limited land-based gaming properties, online gaming may capture gaming tax revenue for the state that it otherwise would not receive by providing easier access to gaming entertainment.”

Other signatures on the letter included downtown Las Vegas casino operators Derek Stevens (Circa Casino Resort, D Las Vegas, and Golden Gate), Kenny Epstein (El Cortez) and Jonathan Jossel (Plaza).

Golden Entertainment CEO Blake Sartini also signed the letter. Golden operates the Strat in downtown Las Vegas, casinos in the Las Vegas Valley, Laughlin and Pahrump, and a statewide slot machine route business along with a robust restricted gaming tavern operation.

Northern Nevada casino operators Anthony Marnell III (Nugget Casino Resort), Ferenc Szony (Truckee Gaming), Jeff Siri (Club Cal Neva), Rob Mederios (Boomtown), J Grant Lincoln (Baldini’s) and John Farahi (Monarch Casino Resort), were also among the signers.

Grand Sierra Resort owner Alex Meruelo helps fund challenger to judge involved in contentious case involving casino

Billionaire Alex Meruelo, owner of the Grand Sierra Resort and Sahara Las Vegas casinos, is the primary financial backer of a Washoe County judicial candidate challenging a sitting judge who has ruled against his properties in the past.

Businesses associated with Meruelo, a Cuban-American billionaire who also owns the National Hockey League’s Arizona Coyotes, have contributed a total of $110,000 to the campaign of Kathleen Sigurdson, a private practice attorney attempting to unseat incumbent Judge Elliott Sattler in Washoe County District Court. Sattler was appointed to the bench by former Gov. Brian Sandoval in 2013 after a two-decade career in the Washoe County district attorney’s office.

The contributions make up the vast majority of all those made to Sigurdson’s campaign (which in total raised $120,000 since the start of the year) and has helped keep her competitive against the better-funded Sattler, who has cumulatively raised more than $175,000 and spent about $114,000 over the last nine months.

A spokesman for Meruelo — who purchased the Reno-based Grand Sierra Resort in 2011 and the former SLS Las Vegas in 2017 — said the contributions came as the company was impressed with Sigurdson's history and qualifications.

"We met Ms. Sigurdson after she filed to run, and were very impressed with her experience and believe she is the best fit for the bench," GSR spokesman Andrew Diss said in an email. "We employ several thousand team members in Washoe County, so helping to elect qualified judges is an important responsibility to ensure our employees and their families are treated fairly in the court room."

Sigurdson did not return a request for comment on Wednesday.

But the contributions, which are Meruelo’s most extensive in a Nevada race since similar large contributions to gubernatorial candidates Steve Sisolak and Adam Laxalt, come amid a complex, expensive and longstanding legal fight between the Grand Sierra Resort and a group of condominium owners in the hotel.

The case, initially filed in 2012, alleges that the Reno-based casino engaged in a “series of illegal and unethical business practices in an attempt to force appellants to sell their units.” The case went before Sattler, who ruled in favor of the condominium owners after the casino company allegedly refused to follow rules of procedure and other court orders. Sattler ultimately granted $8 million in compensatory damages in mid-2014, before initially scheduling a hearing for additional punitive damages.

But those punitive damages were never awarded. Sattler ultimately reversed and dismissed the case, after attorneys for the casino successfully filed a subject matter jurisdiction claim, which held that the plaintiffs (condominium owners) should have mediated their claims before filing suit. In his order, Sattler expressed some regret over the reversal; writing that the result was “inimical and unjust after the course of the Defendants’ conduct throughout this litigation,” adding that they took a “lackadaisical and inappropriate approach” to court rules and orders.

“The Defendants have done everything possible to make the proceedings unjust, dilatory, and costly in abject contravention of (Nevada court rules),” he wrote in a 2014 order. “The Court is bound to following the law and its application and interpretation by the Supreme Court. Should this Court feel it had the authority to decide the issue presented based on what was ‘fair’ or ‘just’ it would deny the Motion out of hand. The Defendants clearly do not deserve the result they will receive, but it is the law.”

Sattler’s decision to dismiss the case was appealed to the state Supreme Court, where in February 2018 a three-judge panel issued an order reversing and remanding the decision to dismiss, sending the original lawsuit back to District Court. The court wrote in its order (authored by Justices James Hardesty, Ron Parraguirre and Lidia Stiglich) that attorneys for the GSR spent four years arguing the case without ever bringing up the state law requiring mediation until after the District Court has already ordered $8 million in damages.

The case is still pending in Washoe County District Court.

While the case was pending, businesses associated with Meruelo helped fund the campaign of Sattler’s challenger: Sigurdson.

The personal injury attorney, who is making her first bid for public office, reported receiving $20,000 from the two Meruelo-owned casinos in January and February 2020, and then received another $90,000 from nine entities all registered or associated with Meruelo on Sept. 14, 2020.

Those companies included the following: Meruelo Media Holdings, KLOS Radio, KPWR Radio, KDAY Radio, Herman Weissker Inc., Cantamar Property Management, Herman Weissker Power, Inc., One Call Construction Services and Doty Bros. Equipment Company. All of those companies are based in California and are affiliated with Meruelo.

The cash infusion helped fund television ads — Sigurdson’s campaign reported several five-figure expenditures with Reno-area television stations on Sept. 18, just four days after the contributions were made.

The contest between Sattler and Sigurdson is one of just a handful of competitive judicial race for District Court seats in Washoe County.

Updated on Thursday, Oct. 22 to include a quote from a Grand Sierra Resort spokesman. Updated on Friday, Oct. 23, to correct that there are more than one competitive judicial races for district court seats in Washoe County.

Election results: Primary narrows pool of candidates seeking a hand in the future of Nevada schools

The June 9 primary thinned the field of candidates for a range of posts overseeing education in Nevada, clearing some challengers for incumbents but also dimming the hopes of some former elected officials hoping to make political comebacks.

Below are highlights of races for urban school boards, the Board of Regents overseeing higher education and the state school board. Check back for updates as additional results come in.

Regent race shows frontrunners pulling ahead, competitive races for second slot for general

regents meeting
Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents quarterly meeting at UNLV on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Clear frontrunners have emerged in each of the three primaries for a seat on the Board of Regents, but it's a tight race to fill the second spot on the ballot in November, according to preliminary results released Wednesday. 

The top two candidates from each district will head to the general election, but the complete ballot won't be settled until official results are finalized June 19. That’s when all ballots from delayed in-person voting in Clark County and mailed-in ballots are counted. 

Of the five candidates for District 10 in Northern Nevada, it appears Kevin Melcher will be facing off against either Joseph Arrascada or Vince Lombardi in the general election. 

A former regent for District 8 from 2010 to 2016, Melcher has 28.7 percent of the vote. 

"I'm very pleased obviously to be where I'm at in the primary election, and I look forward to moving on in the general," Melcher said Wednesday. "I have four good opponents to run against, and they all ran a good campaign, and I'm happy to be where I'm at."

He said he will keep his campaign focused on his leadership experience and follow the same grassroots campaign strategy he used for the primary.

Arrascada, who has been outspoken about wheelchair accessibility in Mackay stadium at UNR, and Lombardi, a faculty member at the UNR medical school, are neck and neck for second place with 21.9 percent of the vote and 20.6 percent respectively.

Andrew Diss, an executive at Grand Sierra Resort who had endorsements from the Culinary Union and the Nevada State Education Association and led the money race, has 17.2 percent of the vote. John McKendricks, the executive director of the Reno campus of a private Christian school, has 11.7 percent.

District 5 in Southern Nevada originally included incumbent Sam Lieberman, who was running for his second term, but his death in early April leaves the seat between Patrick Boylan, a former member on the Nevada State Board of Education, Kevin Child, a former Clark County School District trustee, and Nick "Doc" Spirtos, the medical director at Women’s Cancer Center in Las Vegas. Spirtos ran against Lieberman in 2014.

Boylan leads with 37.6 percent of the vote as of Friday, but Spirtos, who has 33 percent, and Child, who has 29.3 percent, are close behind. 

The candidates have done limited campaigning prior to the primary. None reported any fundraising or spending in the first quarter. Only Child reported having any available cash, ending the period with $1,046 in cash on hand. 

In Southern Nevada’s District 3, Byron Brooks, a veteran and managing partner at Brooks Brothers Bail Bonds, is leading with 31.8 percent of the vote. He is followed by Swadeep Nigam with 23.6 percent, Lachelle Fisher with 23.3 percent and Stephen Silberkraus with 21.3 percent.

Both Brooks and Silberkraus lost their most recent races for the Legislature in 2018. Nigam has also lost races for two different Assembly Districts in 2012 and 2016. 

This is Fisher's first race. She has been running her campaign primarily on her Facebook page and doesn't have a campaign website.

Only Silberkraus, a Republican former assemblyman who represented District 29 from 2014 to 2016, did any campaign fundraising in the first quarter. He raised over $4,500 and spent almost double that on advertising and office and volunteer expenses.  

Silberkraus has endorsements from the Clark County Education Association and the Clark County Black Caucus. Nigam, the former commissioner of the Nevada Equal Rights Commission, has the support of the Culinary Union and NSEA.

With the third candidate withdrawn in District 2, Bret Whipple and Lois Tarkanian will go straight to the general election. 

Whipple held the seat in the mid-2000s and at one point chaired the board but lost his re-election bid in 2008 to a political novice after doing little campaigning and expecting to win

Tarkanian, the widow of celebrated UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian and mother of frequent GOP candidate Danny Tarkanian, termed out last year as the Ward 1 representative on the Las Vegas City Council. 

Only Tarkanian reported any fundraising in the first quarter. 

— Savanna Strott

Two candidates are on track to skip the general election in the nonpartisan State Board of Education race, while two districts remain too close to call

Students use Chromebooks during a tour of Roger D. Gehring Academy of Science and Technology in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Nevada State Board of Education races appear to be all but settled for unopposed candidate Katie Coombs in District 2 and incumbent Felicia Ortiz in District 3. But in Districts 1 and 4, the contests are still too close to call.

The state board, chaired by Elaine Wynn, works in tandem with the Nevada Department of Education to implement administrative regulations, determine course standards, and set graduation requirements.

There are four elected seats on the board, and all four are up for election this year. As they are non-partisan positions, the two highest performing candidates in the primary will go on to face off in the general election in November.

In District 1, which includes portions of the Las Vegas Valley, five candidates competed for those two spots.

Candidates Tim Hughes and Angelo Casino are currently in the lead after initial results have been released. Hughes, the vice president of TNTP, a teacher training program, has 37.8 percent of the vote while Casino sits at 23.8 percent.

Hughes felt good about his standing after Wednesday morning’s results were released.

“I’m feeling, obviously, optimistic. I know there’s still many more of those to be counted as they trickle in from sort of the postmark date,” he said. “I spent a lot of time engaging with families and community members and educators, you know, who are all very concerned about making sure we have a high quality of education, and that’s really been my top priority in this campaign, so it really will continue to be the focus in the general election.”

Candidates Michael Robison and Aaron Mason sit at 15.1 and 14.2 percent of the vote, respectively. The final candidate, Steve Esh, has 9.2 percent.

In Northern Nevada’s Katie Coombs has effectively won the District 2 seat. Coombs was the only candidate on the ballot and has been endorsed by the Culinary Union as well as the Nevada State Education Association.

In District 3 in Southern Nevada, incumbent Felicia Ortiz took on two competitors and has a strong lead.

Ortiz received 63 percent of the vote, with James-Newman coming in second at 24.3 percent. 

Ortiz said she was up late on Tuesday waiting for results and woke up several times in the night to check as well. In an interview on Wednesday morning, she said she was feeling very good about where she stood.

“I’m super excited with the results. I was praying for getting over that 50 percent because we have so much work to do that I just want to be able to focus on the work and not have to think about the election,” Ortiz said. “That’s awesome. I hope that sticks.”

If Ortiz can stay above 51 percent, she will automatically win the seat and won’t need to compete in November’s general election.

“I’m going to focus on helping some of the other education candidates to win and keep their seats,” she said. “It’s going to be a really, really hard year. It’s already been a hard year.”

Central Nevada and northern Clark County’s District 4 also saw an incumbent defending his seat. Board Vice President Mark Newburn’s self-funded campaign has put him in what appears to be a close race with challenger Rene Cantu, the executive director of Jobs for Nevada’s Graduates (JAG Nevada).

Newburn has 35.6 percent of the vote after election night while Cantu took a narrow lead Tuesday at 35.8 percent. Elementary school teacher and instructor at the College of Southern Nevada Vincent Richardson trails behind in the District 4 race with 28.6 percent of the vote.

— Kristyn Leonard

Frontrunners emerge in Washoe County School Board race, including first openly LGBT member  

Huffaker Elementary School in Reno as seen on Friday, March 6, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

A few sleepy candidates who waited long hours for election results on Tuesday night celebrated the long-awaited news of their leads on Wednesday morning. 

Kurt Thigpen is the presumptive winner for the seat on the board for District D with 52.5 percent of the vote and Diane Nicolet is advancing with a significant lead in the race for the At-Large District G, with 43.5 percent of the vote. District A incumbent Scott Kelley also leads the race for his re-election with 33.5 percent of the vote, followed by Jeff Church at 23.3 percent and Lisa Genasci at 21.9 percent. 

“I’m really surprised,” Thigpen said in a phone call with The Nevada Independent Wednesday morning. “I’m very grateful for all the support and all the volunteers that we’ve had that helped us reach people, especially during the pandemic. So I’m feeling really good.” 

Although Thigpen has over 50 percent of the vote in the nonpartisan race, marking him the outright seat-holder, he said he won’t declare victory until all the votes are in by June 19, making time for mail-in ballots to arrive at the voter registrar’s office. 

With Thigpen’s presumptive win comes a notable achievement and milestone for the school board — the first LGBTQ board member. 

“It gives me great pride,” he said. “I think having a school board that is very diverse in perspective and life experiences and ideas is going to be crucial. I hope to be a voice, certainly for all students, but to speak to the experiences of LGBT students ... and create a more inclusive school district.” 

Nicolet is also processing the news of her lead in the race for the at-large District G seat that spans the western region of the county. 

“I’m thrilled and I’m honored and a little scared,” she said in a phone call with The Nevada Independent Wednesday morning. 

This is Nicolet’s second time running for a seat on the board after losing in 2012 in the race for District E. However, she was appointed to the board for a few months in 2016. 

Kelley feels confident in his first place spot and looks forward to knowing who his opponent will be for the general election in November. 

“I’m feeling good,” Kelley wrote in a text message to The Nevada Independent. “I know there are still many ballots to be counted but I’m confident my lead will hold and perhaps even improve.” 

Meanwhile, Church is in the lead to become Kelley’s opponent.

Church said he felt “good and bad” knowing he could become the second name on the ballot for the seat. 

“I really, really would support anybody except the incumbent… I would much rather go up against the 19-year-old kid,” he said, referring to candidate Jack Heinemann, who garnered 11.4 percent of the vote.

Church cited Kelly’s support for previous Washoe County School District Superintendent Traci Davis and budgets approved by Kelley during his eight years on the board as reasons. 

Kelley refutes the allegation he supported Davis by recalling instances in which he voted against the proposed 2018-2020 contract for the then-superintendent and in 2017 when he was one of two trustees who voted against classifying Davis’ job performance as “accomplished.”

If he moves forward in the election, Church plans to do a “full court press” in campaigning and reaching voters. His ideas for change range from pay raises for teachers, shifting the funds allocated for building new schools from the 2016 ballot measure WC-1 to hiring more teachers, and even a “living academy” for “at-risk kids” where homeless students or students whose parents work the night shift could stay, instead of “running amok.” 

“I’m for change, I am the best candidate to get her done,” he said.

Genasci feels energized by the results and said she hopes the pandemic can serve as a catalyst for unity and transparency among the school board trustees. 

“We have to prioritize transparency and eliminate conspiracies and speculation,” she said in a phone call with The Nevada Independent Wednesday afternoon. “We’re in a time where there’s not time for that. We have to be raw, fact-based and we have to move forward with tangible and sustainable goals. And I think that sometimes we got lost in this ‘he said, she said’ — there’s just no time for that.” 

Genasci also believes that the best way for the school district to move forward amid pandemic decisions regarding distance learning is to listen to teachers. 

“We are moving into uncharted territory,” she said, “with reduced budgets and the need for collective approaches to learning. This is an area that no school board member has been on. And many of our teachers who have really been beta testing this for the past few months with kids have the expert solutions and they will consider every single child’s needs.” 

Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez 

Updated at 5:51 p.m. 5/10/2020 to include comments from Lisa Genasci and clarify Scott Kelley's position on allegations from Jeff Church. Updated at 11:02 a.m. 5/11/2020 to reflect updated numbers.

Clark County School Board

  • In District A, Lisa Guzman leads with 26.1 percent of the vote, followed by Liberty Leavitt with 18.9 percent. The seat is open because current officeholder Deanna Wright is term-limited.
  • In District B, Katie Williams — a candidate who garnered attention as an outspoken conservative — leads with 23.9 percent of the vote. Union business manager Jeff Proffitt is in second place with 18.9 percent. The seat is open because current officeholder Chris Garvey is termed out.
  • In District C, Tameka Henry is ahead with 20.8 percent of the vote, with Evelyn Garcia Morales in a close second with about 20.3 percent of the vote. The seat is open because current officeholder Linda Young is termed out.
  • In District E, incumbent Lola Brooks has a modest lead with 21.6 percent of the vote, ahead of her next closest competitor, Alexis Salt, who has about 17.5 percent.

Election Preview: With no incumbents, regents race is between political novices

A women turns in her ballot

The position regent candidates will be in if they get the gig in November is a lot different than what they signed up for when they filed to be candidates in early March. 

Then, campuses were flooded with students and the Nevada System of Higher Education, which the 13 regents govern much like school district trustees, was riding a high of growth and improvement, most notably when UNLV  and UNR were granted “Tier 1” classifications at the end of 2018, designating them as institutions with “very high research.”

Now, the campuses have been empty for months with no students, conference attendees or sports fans in sight and the growth over the past few years risks being stalled by budget cuts from the economic impacts of the pandemic.

On top of this, the board might lose its “fourth-branch-of-government” status if a ballot measure to remove the regents from the Constitution is approved in November. Assembly Joint Resolution No. 5 seeks to place the board under the oversight of the Legislature, which critics argue could lead to at least some regents being appointed rather than elected to the board.

The primary on June 9 will narrow the pool to just two candidates for each of the four nonpartisan seats up for grabs. With no incumbents seeking re-election, the race for regent is between candidates who have attempted to run for other offices, most with little to no success.

Though the winners won’t have to deal with the most direct tough calls from the pandemic, such as the decision to go online for the fall semester, whoever is elected will make vital decisions about budget cuts and leadership appointments of the seven higher education institutions and Desert Research Institute over their six-year term as they determine how to jump back on the upward pre-pandemic stride.

District 10

The race for District 10, which covers most of Reno, boasts the most candidates, most money, and most campaigning, while other regent races lack in all three categories. It is the only seat where more than one candidate is raising and spending money and has a decent chunk of change to their name. 

Leading the money race is Andrew Diss, an executive at Grand Sierra Resorts and a member of the board of directors for the Nevada Resort Association. Despite only raising $5,250 in the first quarter — $2,000 in a loan Diss made to himself and $1,500 coming from Malena Raymond, Diss’ sister-in-law and the president of the Washoe County School Board — he has $30,800 in cash on hand and spent $500 on advertising.

Diss’ first political run came in 2012 when he lost to Republican Marsha Birkbigler for Washoe county commissioner for District 1. He now enjoys endorsements from the Culinary Union and the Nevada State Education Association.

But where his most serious challenger, Kevin Melcher, lacks endorsements, he makes up for in experience and spending. Melcher won his regent race in 2010 for District 8, which includes most of the western half of the state and parts of Clark County, with 53 percent of the vote, but he didn’t seek re-election in 2016. 

A member of the Nevada State Board of Education, he raised $11,500 and spent $2,300 on advertising, which leaves him with just over $10,000 in available cash. 

If elected, Melcher said on his website that he wants to focus on technology and workforce development and investment in research. Diss’ website says he wants to improve the relationship between the board and the Legislature and publicly backs AJR5. Leaders of the Board of Regents testified in 2019 that they were neutral on the resolution but raised enough concerns about the measure that several lawmakers argued the regents' position was actually opposition.

Other challengers include John McKendricks, the executive director of the Reno campus of a private Christian school,  Vince Lombardi, a faculty member at the UNR medical school, and Joseph Arrascada, who has spoken to regents about wheelchair accessibility in Mackay stadium amid UNR’s lawsuit against the architect of the renovation. All three have never ran for office and have reported $0 in campaign fundraising.

District 3

The two main candidates for District 3, which encompasses part of Henderson and extends to UNLV, are both coming off losses in 2018 in bids for the Legislature. 

Candidates Byron Brooks, a managing partner at Brooks Brothers Bail Bonds and veteran, and Stephen Silberkraus, a one-term assemblyman in District 29, both lost their most recent runs as Republicans: Brooks in a primary for Senate District 20 and Silberkraus for Assembly District 29, though Silberkraus’ race was tighter, losing to incumbent Lesley Cohen in the general election by 5 percent whereas Brooks lost to Keith Pickard in the primary by almost 18 percent. 

Silberkraus led an attempt to recall Democratic state Sen. Joyce Woodhouse to replace her with a Republican in 2017, which Democrats responded to with a counter-recall effort and an intense lawsuit that eventually defeated the effort. Now, his campaign materials boast endorsements from Democrats such as County Commissioner Jim Gibson and former County Commissioner Mary Beth Scow.  

The third contender, Swadeep Nigam, lost his runs in Republican primaries in the 2012 and 2016 elections in two different Assembly districts. Nigam, the former commissioner of the Nevada Equal Rights Commission and a member of the Nevada State Osteopathic Medicine Board, ran for this regent seat when it was last open in 2014 and took about 11 percent of the vote in the primary.

Nigam’s and Brooks’ websites both highlight their focus on the need for affordable higher education while Silberkraus’ website emphasizes expanding science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs and online learning options. 

Nigam has scored coveted endorsements of the Culinary Union and NSEA, and Silberkraus has support of the Clark County Education Association and the Clark County Black Caucus.

But of the pool of contenders, which includes political newcomer Lachelle Fisher, only Silberkraus has done any campaign fundraising with $4,660 in the first quarter. He’s spent nearly two times that amount and has $20,000 on hand. 

District 2

After terming-out last year as the Ward 1 representative and mayor pro tempore on the Las Vegas City Council, Lois Tarkanian said she would consider running for regent because of her belief in the need for a medical school. Now she is. 

The district covers a part of Las Vegas and the southwest corner of the city of North Las Vegas and overlaps with a majority of Tarkanian’s old Ward 1 Las Vegas City Council area. Tarkanian, the widow of celebrated UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian and mother of recurring Republican hopeful Danny Tarkanian, wants to develop the Medical District in central Las Vegas, which she worked on during her time as councilwoman, and the UNLV medical school, which donors want to create using a private development corporation that would largely bypass the regents and elected officials. 

Tarkanian’s biggest challenger is Bret Whipple, an attorney at Justice Law Center and a former regent from the district who at one point chaired the board. 

During his time as regent in the mid-2000s, Whipple often clashed with then-Chancellor Jim Rogers. Rogers repeatedly called for an increase in taxes to support higher education, while Whipple argued the chancellor and regents should stay out of tax policy. In Whipple's penultimate year on the board, he and Regent James Dean Leavitt called for Rogers’ resignation after Rogers told the chairman in a letter that he would resign if Leavitt ever became vice chairman or chairman of the board. Rogers resigned and then rescinded his resignation two days later. 

Whipple lost his re-election bid to Robert Blakely, an insurance salesman with no political experience, in 2008 by 7 percentage points after doing little campaigning and expecting to win

At the end of the first quarter, Tarkanian raised $235, which she spent on office expenses, and has $14,000 on hand, and newcomer Bonnie Mae McDaniel reported $0 in fundraising. Whipple did not file with the Secretary of State and did not respond to a request to comment. 

District 5

A little over a month ago, the race for District 5, which covers parts of Las Vegas and North Las Vegas, looked different. Incumbent Sam Lieberman was running for his second term, but his death in early April leaves this seat without an incumbent even though Lieberman’s name will appear on the ballot.

Kevin Child, a real estate broker salesman and former trustee in Clark County, is hoping to take the seat. Child lost his re-election bid for trustee in 2018 by 38 percent to Irene Cepeda, who had never held office before. 

During his time as trustee, Child faced allegations of inappropriate behavior. Former Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky banned him from going on district property outside of his official duties as trustee. Child then filed a lawsuit against the Clark County School District and four trustees for defamation and conspiracy, which the Nevada Supreme Court dismissed earlier this year

Child’s filings show that he hasn’t raised or spent any funds on his campaign for regent but has $1,046 in cash on hand. 

Neither of Child’s opponents have received any funds in the first quarter. Patrick Boylan, a former member on the Nevada State Board of Education and a candidate in the Democratic primaries for Assembly District 15 in 2010 and Congressional District 1 in 2016, reported $0 in available cash.

Nick “Doc” Spirtos, who is medical director of the Women’s Cancer Center in Las Vegas and lost to Lieberman in the 2014 general election, reported $0 in campaign funds.

This story was updated at 3 p.m. on May 26, 2020 to clarify the position of regent leadership on AJR5.

Candidate filing closes, sets battlegrounds for control of Legislature, congressional races

A last minute rush of candidate filings drew the state’s two-week filing period to a close on Friday, setting the stage for important congressional, legislative and down-ballot races on the 2020 ballot.

Dozens of candidates — including 52 in populous Clark County — waited until the final day of the filing period to declare their candidacy. The end of filing means that campaign season — though hampered by the spread of the novel coronavirus — is officially underway ahead of the June 9 primary election and Nov. 3 general election.

Although Nevada does not have any non-judicial statewide races or U.S. Senate seats on the ballot, there is still plenty at stake, including Democrats attempting to hold on to two swing congressional seats held by Reps. Steven Horsford and Susie Lee, as well as control of the Legislature ahead of a redistricting session. 

Candidate filing also gives an early hint at the makeup of the 2021 Legislature — nine lawmakers did not attract a challenger and have, in effect, guaranteed re-election. Another four races will be decided during the primary election.

The last day of filing also held some surprises, including one incumbent lawmaker withdrawing hours before the close of filing, and perennial candidate Danny Tarkanian — who has lost bids for secretary of state, state Senate, U.S. Senate and two different House seats — filing to run for a seat on the Douglas County Commission against Commissioner Dave Nelson.

Here’s a look at highlights from the last two weeks of candidate filing:

Uncontested legislative races

At least nine state lawmakers will cruise to re-election without having to face a primary or general election opponent. The lawmakers, who include two Democratic state senators and three Democrats and four Republicans in the Assembly. They are:

  • Senate District 1 - Pat Spearman (D)
  • Senate District 3 - Chris Brooks (D)
  • Assembly District 1 - Daniele Monroe Moreno (D)
  • Assembly District 3 - Selena Torres (D)
  • Assembly District 13 - Tom Roberts (R)
  • Assembly District 22 - Melissa Hardy (R)
  • Assembly District 24 - Sarah Peters (D)
  • Assembly District 25 - Jill Tolles (R)
  • Assembly District 33 - John Ellison (R)

Several lawmakers drew challengers on the last day of filing, including Democratic Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson and Assemblywoman Bea Duran, who will face off against Republican candidates Edward “Eddie” Facey and Eric Krattiger, respectively, in the general election.

Republican Assemblyman Chris Edwards drew a primary challenger in his Mesquite-area district: Mesquite City Councilwoman Annie Black, who previously mounted an unsuccessful bid to lead the Nevada Republican Party last year.

Other last-minute filing moves included Carson City Republican Assemblyman Al Kramer withdrawing from his re-election bid, telling the Nevada Appeal that he anticipated spending much of his time caring for his 94-year-old mother-in-law in Toledo, Ohio. Former Assemblyman P.K. O’Neill, who Kramer beat in a 2016 primary, filed to run for the seat on Friday.

The most crowded race will be to replace termed-out Republican John Hambrick in Las Vegas’ Assembly District 2, where 10 candidates — five Republicans, four Democrats and one independent — have filed to run for the seat. The Assembly Republican caucus-backed Heidi Kasama is running against Jim Small, Christian Morehead and Erik Sexton, while the Democratic primary will be between Eva Littman, Radhika “RPF” Kunnel, Jennie Sherwood and Joe Valdes. Independent Garrett LeDuff will be on the general election ballot.  

Additionally, several legislative races will be decided during the primary election on June 9, as no other major or minor party candidates filed to run in those races. These include:

  • Senate District 7, where Democratic Senate caucus-backed Roberta Lange is facing off against two Democratic Assembly members, Richard Carrillo and Ellen Spiegel
  • Assembly District 20, where caucus-backed UNLV professor David Orentlicher will face off in a Democratic primary against four political newcomers: Michael McAuliffe, Emily Smith, Darren J. Welsh and Zachary Logan
  • Assembly District 26, where incumbent Republican Lisa Krasner is facing a primary challenge from Dale Conner
  • Assembly District 36, where incumbent Republican Gregory T. Hafen is facing a challenge from Joseph Bradley, who ran for the seat in 2018

Clark County School Board of Trustees

Four seats are up for grabs on the Clark County School Board of Trustees come November, positioning the governing body for a major shakeup.

Three existing trustees — Deanna Wright (District A), Chris Garvey (District B) and Linda Young (District C) — are termed out. Board President Lola Brooks, meanwhile, must win re-election to retain her District E seat.

So, without further ado, here’s the candidate field for the Clark County School Board seats:

Eight people filed to run for the District A seat, which represents a large chunk of Henderson. Amanda Kennedy, a former Clark County School District spokesperson, and Liberty Leavitt, wife of former Republican state lawmaker Michael Roberson, are among those vying to represent the district. The six other candidates are Andrew Cartwright, Kari Deike, Lisa Guzman, Jshauntae Marshall, Anand Nair and Michael Rowe.

The race to represent District B, which covers portions of the northwest valley and North Las Vegas, also drew eight candidates. They are Kasina Douglass-Boone, Cortland Hill, Jeffrey Proffitt, Chris Shank, Ebony Sherman, Jack Stanley, Bryan Wachter and Katie Williams. Last year, Williams made headlines when she alleged she was stripped of her Ms. Nevada title and disqualified from the Ms. America pageant for espousing her conservative views on social media.

Seven candidates will be competing for the chance to represent District C, which includes West Las Vegas and parts of North Las Vegas. The people who threw their names into the ring are Antonio Bowen, Barbara Dreyer, Carol Ferranti, Evelyn Garcia Morales, Tamea Henry, Walter Jones III and Noel Searles.

Meanwhile, Brooks, the incumbent and board president, has six challengers for her Summerlin-area seat in District E. They are Elysa Arroyo, Christopher Craig, Tiger Helgelien, Tracey Lewis, Cristina Robertson and Alexis Salt. Helgelien, a real-estate agent, is a member of the school organizational team at Palo Verde High School. Salt is a teacher in the Clark County School District.

Nevada Board of Regents

A former Las Vegas City councilwoman, an ex-Clark County school trustee and a State Board of Education member are among the people hoping to govern the state’s higher education system.

The four Nevada Board of Regents races drew a total of 16 candidates. Three people filed to run for regent in District 2, including former Las Vegas City Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian, attorney and former Regent Bret Whipple and Bonnie McDaniel. 

Four people — Stephen Silberkraus, Byron Brooks, Lachelle Fisher and Swadeep Nigam — filed to run for the District 3 regent seat. Silberkraus is a former Republican Assemblyman. 

In District 5, incumbent Sam Lieberman is facing a challenge from three other candidates who filed — Nick “Doc” Spirtos, Patrick Boylan and Kevin Child, who served one controversy-filled year on the Clark County School Board of Trustees before losing his re-election bid. 

Five people filed to run for regent in District 10, including Kevin Melcher, a State Board of Education member. The other candidates are Andrew Diss, John McKendricks, University of Nevada, Reno professor Vince Lombardi and Joseph Arrascada.

District 10 is in Northern Nevada. The three other regent seats up for grabs are in Southern Nevada.

Congressional races

District 1: A long list of people, including some perennial candidates, have filed to run for office against Rep. Dina Titus in a heavily Democratic urban Las Vegas district. Among them is Kamau Bakari, an Independent American Party candidate known for rubbing elbows with rancher Cliven Bundy and who challenged Titus in 2014 and 2016 before making a losing long-shot bid for U.S. Senate in 2018. 

Others include Republican Joyce Bentley, who got about one-third of the vote in the district in 2018; Libertarian Robert Van Strawder, who ran in 2018; Democrat Allen Rheinhart, who ran long-shot bids for Senate in 2016 and 2018 after an unsuccessful run for governor in 2014; and Republican Eddie Hamilton, who’s run for a local, state or federal office virtually every calendar year in the past decade.

District 2: GOP Rep. Mark Amodei has attracted new and familiar challengers in his race for re-election to his Republican-leaning Northern Nevada district. They include Democrat Clint Koble, who garnered 42 percent of the vote when he ran for the seat in 2018.

Others who have filed include Democrat Patricia Ackerman, who unsuccessfully challenged Assemblyman Jim Wheeler in 2018, and Janine Hansen, a citizen lobbyist from the Independent American Party who has in the past run for lieutenant governor, state Senate and the 1st Congressional District.

District 3: Candidates who have filed to challenge Rep. Susie Lee in her swingy southern Nevada congressional district include Republican ex-professional wrestler Dan Rodimer, who was endorsed by former Attorney General Adam Laxalt and House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy.

Others running include former GOP state Treasurer Dan Schwartz, who lost the Republican primary for governor in 2018, and Republican Mindy Robinson, an actress who is dating former UFC fighter Randy Couture.

District 4: Rep. Steven Horsford won his 2018 race against former Rep. Cresent Hardy by about 8 percentage points, and is looking to continue holding this Democratic-tilting congressional seat that covers parts of rural Nevada and North Las Vegas against a parade of Republican challengers. He’ll face some opposition in a Democratic primary against candidates Christopher Kendall Colley, Jennifer Eason, Gregory Kempton and George Brucato.

On the Republican side, former Miss Nevada and businesswoman Lisa Song Sutton has racked up endorsements from several prominent state Republicans including Las Vegas City Council members Michele Fiore and Victoria Seaman. Others running in the Republican primary include former Assemblyman Jim Marchant, who was endorsed by several conservative U.S. House members, Nye County Commissioner Leo Blundo, Charles Navarro, Rosalie Bingham, Rebecca Wood and Samuel Peters. Both Marchant and Song Sutton were named to the National Republican Congressional Committee’s “On the Radar” list.

Under casino pressure, cannabis smoke gets in City Council’s eyes

Back in the dime bag days, the shadowed alley off Sahara Avenue near Las Vegas Boulevard ran behind Honest John’s and the Jolly Trolley, a pair of gaudy grind joints. The Trolley is best remembered for the mob guys who skimmed its slots and fought over nickels and dimes on their way to prison.

The alley was a bustling profit center for pimps and drug dealers. It may have made more than the casinos.

These days, the homely strip mall is anchored by the behemoth Bonanza Gift Shop, a 40,000-square-foot Costco of tchotchkes located in the heart of the action. If you wanted key chains, a dice clock or “I Lost My Ass in Vegas” T-shirt to take back home to Des Moines, it’s the place to go.

And the alley and surrounding Naked City neighborhood? It’s changed a little, but not very much.

“It’s where I used to pick up my drugs and hookers on Friday night,” an old friend said recently, laughing at what we now consider nostalgic. An extremely successful Las Vegas businessman, his tastes in fat smoke and skinny girls became more nuanced after he left the alley and went corporate.

Cannabis has gone corporate, too. It’s not only legal, but celebrated as a source of job creation and tax revenue for the Silver State. Locally, marijuana distribution licensees include some the best-connected people in the valley. 

I heard my old friend’s laughter echo Wednesday at City Hall as the Las Vegas City Council considered, and then sidelined, what by all appearances was a legal and reasonable attempt to secure a special use permit to open a cannabis dispensary in a 3,600-square-foot section of the gift shop otherwise devoted to all those souvenirs.

The applicant, CWNevada and L Chaim 24 Fremont Properties LLC, was represented at the meeting by owner Dr. Pejman Bady. It had already received approval from the City Planning Commission, an approval recommendation by staff, and a full vetting of the 12 requirements it needed to meet that were specific to its cannabis license. Company representative George Garcia called the request “a typical special use permit application. ... We stand before you ready, having met all the requirements of the city.”

Of course, Garcia knew better.

No issue is typical when Gaming Inc. takes an interest. Opposing the pot shop approval was a casino industry contingent led by Nevada Resort Association President Virginia Valentine, veteran gaming attorney Jeff Silver, and executives representing The Strat, SLS/Sahara, and Boyd Gaming. MGM Resorts was present in spirit for its ownership of a nearby outside concert and event site. The casino side also brought out Metro Capt. Laz Chavez to oppose the dispensary.

The cannabis companies in the area aren’t without their own political weight. Essence, which advertises itself as the only cannabis dispensary on the Strip, glows green and sits in a handsome building across the Boulevard from the Strat. Although the company has blended into behemoth Green Thumb Industries, former Tropicana CEO Alex Yemenidjian and son Armen Yemenidjian hold executive positions in the Illinois-based company, and Las Vegas Sun publisher Brian Greenspun is a former partner when Essence was locally owned. But that’s the business.

(As a reminder of how close those connections come to city hall, Mayor Carolyn Goodman noted that she has a son involved in the industry and dutifully abstained from discussing the agenda item. In full disclosure, while reporting this column I discovered that a niece works for the cannabis company.)

City preliminary approvals aside, their reasoning was pretty sound.

Silver called Las Vegas Boulevard a “Yellow Brick Road” leading to downtown and dominated by casino investment, which made me wonder what he’d been smoking.

“And I know that the city and the county have had some disagreement about how long the Strip is,” Silver said. “But the Strip to me is where nonrestricted gaming is located. And that means that it’s taking it all the way past the Stratosphere hotel ... this is what we’re trying to protect. ... We don’t want a cannabis corridor on the Yellow Brick Road heading downtown. We already have what looks like to me to be a pretty heavy concentration of marijuana establishments.”

Golden Entertainment Vice President of Government Affairs Sean Higgins lamented the addition of yet another dispensary in the shadow of The Strat. He admitted  he took a keen interest in cannabis licensing before joining the casino company. But, hey, that was a couple years ago.

Higgins made The Strat sound more like a church than a gambling center when he spoke of the sacrilege of all the pot smoke wafting through the casino and on the streets of Naked City, which he admitted suffered from a crime and homeless problem. He reminded the council that four dispensaries stand within 1,000 feet of casino and 11 dot the area within a mile radius. And with $165 million invested or in the pipeline, The Strat is a major employer that holds plenty of drag on the far north end of the Strip.

“We are trying to revitalize this whole corridor,” Higgins said. “We’re working with the city, with the new archway, which is right on our property, which will be the grand entrance to the city of Las Vegas. We’re doing all those things, and we are vehemently opposed to putting a marijuana establishment, especially a recreational, at the gateway to the city of Las Vegas.”

He also illustrated the obvious: That the applicant was rushing to beat a November deadline before a new state law takes effect and mandates that future dispensaries open at least 1,500 feet from a nonrestricted gaming license.

But didn’t that just make the applicant a good businessman seeking the best location, location, location?

Perish the thought. The SLS/Sahara also weighed in with Government Affairs Director Andrew Diss reminding the council of the company’s substantial stake in the area. He also warned that one leg of a planned pedestrian bridge would empty out essentially at the front door of the proposed dispensary. And how would that look?

Again, didn’t that just make the applicant a good businessman with a great location, location, location?

Careful, smart guy.

In part because they’re hamstrung by marijuana’s outlaw federal status, in part I suspect because they crave a piece of the action, our corporate casino interests continue to send mixed messages when it comes to the cannabis crowd. They want their business, but can’t let them smoke on the property. They can’t have consumption lounges — and don’t want anyone else to start without them.

The proposed dispensary is in Ward 3, now represented by Councilwoman Olivia Diaz, who clearly felt the pressure. “I’m torn,” she said. “I feel like I love the people that are invested in this project, and I also love my downtown area command and the gaming (industry.) Right now we’re a family at odds.”

With council members Cedric Crear and Stavros Anthony against the measure, and fellow members Michele Fiore, Brian Knudsen and Victoria Seaman deferring to Diaz — thanks, guys! — that left Diaz feeling no love from the casino corporations.

In the end, the council punted and pushed the item onto a future agenda.

If you think the dispensary is a favorite for future approval, I suspect you’ve been spending some quality time in that alley.

Correction at 10:09 a.m. on 7/22/19: The original version of this column referred to George Garcia as "company attorney." It has been corrected to "company representative."

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal—”Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith

Grand Sierra Resort withdraws application to leave NV Energy, citing transmission shortage

The sign at NV Energy corporate headquarters

Grand Sierra Resort has withdrawn its application to leave NV Energy as an electric customer, the first high-profile withdrawal from the slew of companies that filed to leave the utility over the last two years.

In a letter sent to members of the Public Utilities Commission on Monday, attorneys for the Reno-based casino company wrote that they would be withdrawing their application to depart NV Energy’s electric service and purchase electric power from a new provider, ending a nearly five-month process and ensuring the company stays a customer of NV Energy.

In an email, Grand Sierra Resort representative Andrew Diss said the company was withdrawing the application because of “transmission capacity concerns” in Northern Nevada — an unexpected shortfall brought up as an issue in January by NV Energy.

The news is a welcome sign for the utility, which has made several moves this year to address the looming issue of more than a dozen businesses that have filed to leave its electric service over the past two years, allowed under a 2001 state law that requires departing businesses pay an “exit fee” to offset any unexpected costs that would otherwise be paid by other utility customers.

A total of 13 businesses have filed the so-called 704B applications with the PUC over the last two years, including the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and The Cosmopolitan so far in 2019. The utility has also offered a carrot to businesses flirting with leaving its service, announcing it would offer a revamped special reduced-cost rate on renewable energy for its largest customers. Already, the city of Las Vegas said it would likely take advantage of the program after an outside power wholesaler withdrew its pitch to take over electric service for the city.

Grand Sierra Resort filed its initial application in December along with the SLS Las Vegas, which are both owned by businessman Alex Mereulo, citing a desire to “capitalize on our state’s abundant natural resources.” Diss said SLS Las Vegas is continuing with its application to leave the utility.

The staff of the PUC estimated in March that the company’s electric load made up about 0.5 percent of the utility’s annual energy sales in Northern Nevada, and recommended a $2.2 million “impact fee” for the right to leave the utility’s service.

But that wasn’t the only obstacle to leaving NV Energy.

Similar to the process undertaken by NV Energy in applications of other businesses filing to leave the utility, the company filed an “alternative analysis” calling on the PUC to assess impact fees over a much longer period of time and to reject the application unless it specifically showed a public benefit. It projected that the suggested impact fee would not be enough to cover the costs to other customers, estimating that a departure would result in a $1 million shortfall despite the $2.2 million exit fee.

Shawn Elicegui, a consultant for the utility, wrote in accompanying testimony that approving the application would likely lead to higher rates for residential customers and more a reason for large customers to leave utility service, perpetuating the cycle.

“By placing upward pressure on rates in classes where customers are eligible to submit a 704B application, more of these customers may conclude it is in their economic interests to seek out an alternative energy provider and thus perpetuate additional upward pressure on rates,” he wrote.

The utility also identified shortfalls in Northern Nevada transmission capacity, saying it would likely need to commission a multi-year transmission study and build out additional capacity — likely costing hundreds of millions of dollars — if additional so-called 704B applications are approved.