Republican gubernatorial candidate Lombardo asserts role in 10,000 deportations

As the Republican gubernatorial primary heats up, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo is trying to reframe a decision he made two years ago to withdraw his agency from a jail-based immigration enforcement partnership known as 287(g) and is asserting on the campaign trail that he has played a role in deporting 10,000 people.

Withdrawal from the agreement — which came after a California judge’s ruling against core elements of partnerships between federal immigration authorities and local jurisdictions, and after groups including that ACLU argued they led to unconstitutional, warrantless arrests — was celebrated by immigrant advocates as an unexpected victory at the time. But in the primary’s race to the right, he’s eagerly trying to shed the moniker of “Sanctuary Joe” and criticism from Republican primary frontrunner Dean Heller that “Las Vegas became a sanctuary city.”

“I bet you can ask any other candidate when you confront them in the future, ask them how many people they removed from the State of Nevada. Ask them,” Lombardo told the Southern Hills Republican Women club in July, to applause, according to recordings reviewed by The Nevada Independent. “I’m talking about saying, eh, 10,000. I’m comfortable with that number.” 

Lombardo recently tweeted that he “developed an internal system to identify and report illegal immigrants” after the ACLU sued to prevent police from using an allegedly error-ridden national database. The tweet was the first time ACLU representatives said they had heard mention of the system, and said it raises concerns.

“It seems to be, at best, non transparent, and at worst, an egregious violation of civil rights, and something that really flies in the face of the notion of being transparent and being open with the public about what's going on,” said Athar Haseebullah, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada.

Michael Kagan, director of the UNLV Immigration Clinic that defends people facing deportation, said immigrant advocates have long suspected cooperation was still happening between police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on an informal or ad hoc basis, even after Metro withdrew from the formal partnership two years ago. His concern is that instead of prioritizing people who are serious threats to public safety, Metro may be turning over people who do not have legal status but have otherwise lived quiet lives in the community before encountering police.

“He personally, as well as his department, has typically tried to assure people that we only turn people over to ICE if they have a serious criminal record,” Kagan said. “Now he's telling the public that there's actually a massive deportation secret line running through Las Vegas Metro, which is pretty scary for the very large number of immigrants living in Clark County who would have to worry about that if they ever need to call the police.”

Asked for comment on whether he thinks his system erodes trust among the immigrant community, Lombardo's campaign responded that he "has played a key role in keeping our communities safe and will continue to utilize every available resource to do so."

"There will always be organizations that advocate for those who commit violent crimes against our communities and they will, no doubt, continue to bring lawsuits against law enforcement agencies doing the hard work to keep us safe," the campaign said in a statement.

Metro and immigration enforcement

Advocates for immigrants have for years decried the ways in which local police assist federal agencies with immigration enforcement. Such a close relationship can lead to minor infractions landing immigrants in the deportation pipeline even if they are far from “the worst of the worst” — a group that Lombardo identified in 2019 as the focus for removal.  

Opponents say it can also chill the relationship between police and the immigrant community, deterring undocumented people from calling the police for serious crimes because they fear being referred for deportation. And critics argue that police should not be diverted from the work of local crime prevention to do the job of the federal government.

An estimated 7 percent of Nevada’s population is undocumented, or about 210,000 individuals.

The issue came to a head in 2019, when a judge in the Central District of California ruled that ICE should not be requesting police agencies hold people in jail longer than they otherwise would be for the issue that led to their arrest, unless the state had a law authorizing civil immigration arrests. It also blocked ICE from making such requests based on databases with insufficient information to establish probable cause that a person was in the country illegally.

That struck at the heart of programs such as 287(g), through which ICE placed requests called “detainers” for people who had been booked in local jails. Local police would typically detain the person beyond the initial term in jail so that ICE agents had the opportunity to pick the person up and take them to immigration detention.

In October 2019, the ACLU sent a letter to Lombardo laying out the reasons they believed his agency’s 287(g) partnership was unlawful.

“LVMPD should immediately cease its practice of detaining individuals beyond the time at which they are entitled to release from custody on the purported authority of ICE detainers,” wrote Sherrie Royster, the ACLU of Nevada’s then-legal director.

Less than two weeks later, Lombardo announced that the agency was ending its 287(g) arrangement, although he added that the court ruling was a “setback” and the agency indicated it would “continue to work with ICE at the Clark County Detention Center in removing persons without legal status who have committed violent crimes.”

“I am optimistic that this change will not hinder LVMPD’s ability to fight violent crime,” Lombardo said at the time.

Among the concerns the ACLU raised in its 2019 letter complaining about the partnership were flaws in a database ICE was using to identify people who should be the subject of a detainer. Lombardo honed in on that point when asked by a Nevada Independent reporter for details about the internal system for identifying undocumented immigrants that he has touted on the campaign trail.

“We can no longer use that database. The judge decided it was unconstitutional, it was flawed. The data was flawed,” he said last month after a campaign office opening event in Las Vegas.  “So subsequently, instead of relying on a database, just picking up the phone now. We simplify it and talk directly to ICE to determine whether the person that we have in custody is an interest of theirs, and whether they wish to remove them.”

Kagan said he doesn’t think such phone calls would violate the California order. But Haseebullah said the ACLU’s concerns extended beyond the database and involved the way detainers can spur arrests without valid warrants in violation of the Fourth Amendment. 

“They've now twisted it and attempted to make it seem as if it was just simply some sort of flawed database item, and he corrected it internally somehow without telling anyone, all under a shroud and cloud of secrecy,” he said. “And so we're eager to see what the internal system is that he's developed, and that has not been shared with the public.”

The Nevada Independent has placed a public records request with Metro seeking further documentation about what the system looks like.

Different audiences, different messages

Lombardo has taken differing tones when describing his immigration actions on the campaign trail.

At an event with the civil rights organization NAACP in mid-July, Lombardo argued that the 287(g) program was not as draconian as it is sometimes described, and that the number of detainer requests that led to deportation peaked at just 42 percent during the Obama administration. He also chafed that he was quoted in a newspaper article as supporting “zero tolerance to undocumented immigrants,” saying that “is absolutely false” and the point he had been trying to make was that his agency only works to connect people with ICE after they have been arrested for another reason.  

But later that month, speaking to the Republican women’s group, Lombardo made his assertion that he had contributed to 10,000 immigrants being removed from the country. On Sept. 9, he tweeted that he would “ensure sanctuary cities are banned,” and on Sept. 10, he tweeted that “a ‘zero tolerance’ policy for illegal immigration & as your Gov. I'll implement that policy across the state to protect you, your children, & your grandchildren.”

Asked what he meant by zero tolerance, Lombardo's campaign issued a statement on Wednesday saying the candidate has a "zero tolerance policy for violent criminals and believes illegal immigrants that commit a violent crime should be deported just like any American citizen that commits a violent crime should be put behind bars."

Haseebullah said the public shouldn’t find out about a number of deportations so big only because a campaign is happening.

“That in and of itself is shocking because ... public statements, up until this point, that the sheriff and that Metro provided weren't sort of boasting or bragging about that, but now all of a sudden it's, I've deported over 10,000 people or close to it,” Haseebullah said. “That's a huge number of potential people that participate in our economy … that is information that should have been shared versus their public statements that they simply weren't going to participate in this program.”

Kagan said that he thinks the number is likely an overstatement and an example of campaign “puffery,” based on his analysis of a database of immigration data maintained by Syracuse University. But he added that the statements could dissuade people who need help from law enforcement from reaching out. 

“He's putting people in danger in order to run for office,” he said.

Jannelle Calderon contributed to this report. Updated at 6:26 p.m. to add comment from Lombardo's campaign.

Lombardo’s law enforcement background highlighted in new PAC ad blitz

Republican gubernatorial candidate and Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo is getting a boost through a new political action committee’s significant, six-figure advertising blitz touting his law enforcement bonafides.

The ad, paid for by Better Nevada PAC, juxtaposes footage of “radical, anti-police riots” in other cities during protests against police brutality last year with idyllic footage of Lombardo talking and walking through suburban parks and neighborhoods.

“Joe Lombardo made our rights as law-abiding citizens his first priority. He's a conservative leader, not a follower,” the ad states. “Good luck defunding the police with Sheriff Joe Lombardo as our next governor.”

Nevada, and specifically Las Vegas and Reno, saw heated and at times violent protests against police brutality in the immediate aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis — more than two dozen police were injured (including the paralyzation of Shay Mikalonis) while dozens more protesters were arrested or forcibly dispersed from protest areas. More than 24 businesses in downtown Las Vegas were damaged by vandalism, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

The ads are produced and paid for by Better Nevada PAC, a political action committee registered last month that has not yet filed any campaign finance reports with the secretary of state’s office (the deadline to do so comes at the end of the calendar year). Nevada law allows state-based political action committees to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money.

According to a spending summary shared with The Nevada Independent, the group will spend north of $171,000 combined through ads placed on broadcast, cable and radio platforms primarily in the Reno and Las Vegas media markets.Lombardo, who officially launched his gubernatorial campaign in late June, is part of a potentially crowded Republican primary for the right to face off against incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak.

Though the candidate filing period doesn’t open until March, several major candidates who have already jumped in the race include North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, Reno attorney Joey Gilbert and businessman Guy Nohra. Former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei are also weighing possible gubernatorial bids.

Rural counties team up with GOP governor candidate Gilbert’s law firm to oppose COVID restrictions

Update: During a meeting of the Lander County Board of Commissioners on Oct. 14, County Manager Bert Ramos announced that Republican candidate for governor and Reno-based lawyer Joey Gilbert stepped down from his partnership with the county.

“He felt that it was bringing undue hardship on the county and not staying focused on what the true intention behind it [was],” Ramos said.

A records request filed by The Nevada Independent found that Lander County had contracted with Gilbert’s law firm to represent the county “in relation to voter integrity and election fraud in the State of Nevada, as it affects Lander County and the residents of Lander County.”

Ramos also said Gilbert did not bill the county for any expenses. During the meeting, the commissioners approved agreements with Las Vegas-based law firm Jennings & Fulton and Frisco-based law firm Bundren Law Group to replace the previous retainer agreement with Gilbert’s firm.

***

Multiple rural counties have partnered with a law firm run by Republican candidate for governor Joey Gilbert — a Reno attorney who has challenged COVID-19 restrictions in Nevada and who appeared outside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection — to explore litigation challenging state COVID-19 guidelines.

Late last month, Lander County commissioners approved a $50,000 retainer agreement with Gilbert’s firm, and on Wednesday, White Pine County commissioners approved a motion to ​​engage with Gilbert’s firm “to explore options to protect the rights of White Pine County residents and businesses against outside entities.”

During the Wednesday county commission meeting, Gilbert railed against Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak and the state’s COVID-19 emergency declaration, enacted by Sisolak in March 2020, as he pitched his services to the county.

“What I'm looking for is just to at least open up an interest and see if there's an appetite for pushing back against [Sisolak],” Gilbert told the commissioners over Zoom. “I have all the data, I have the experts, I have everybody to take the governor to court of law, and put my experts against whoever he has.”

Gilbert did not respond to a request for comment made through email on Wednesday afternoon and a call to his office regarding his involvement with the counties.

Gilbert, a 45-year-old retired professional boxer, has aligned himself closely with former President Donald Trump and has openly questioned the validity of the 2020 election results, despite a lack of evidence of substantial fraud. He hopes to challenge Sisolak in 2022 but must first win in a crowded Republican primary that also includes Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo and North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee.

The commissioners discussed partnering with Gilbert’s firm to explore a lawsuit aimed at challenging the ongoing state of emergency, as Gilbert repeatedly said he had data proving that there should not be any public health emergency related to COVID-19 — though he did not describe any data in detail. He also called the emergency declaration a “power grab” by Sisolak.

Gilbert said he has data from America’s Frontline Doctors — a pro-Trump medical group whose founder was at the Jan. 6 insurrection and that says it advocates for doctors to have more independence from the government — “that shows that by every known metric available,” including hospitalizations and deaths, Nevada is not in a state of emergency. 

Gilbert is representing the group in a lawsuit challenging California’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for university students and another lawsuit challenging approval of COVID-19 vaccines for children under the age of 16. An investigation conducted by Time Magazine found that the group spread misinformation about COVID-19 and had scammed people by collecting fees from them for medical consultations and prescriptions and then not delivering them.

Gilbert has previously filed several unsuccessful and ongoing lawsuits against Sisolak, the state and Clark County School District challenging mask mandates and other restrictions intended to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 — including a lawsuit filed in November 2020 on behalf of Central Cinema of Ely in White Pine County challenging the constitutionality of Sisolak’s emergency directives.

“I just think that this stuff with the kids, and with anything that's happening with them — testing, masking, any vaccines, anything like that — should be a matter of choice … and not the governor forcing any kind of mandate down anybody's throat,” Gilbert told the commissioners.

Gilbert suggested two different options to help the county push back against COVID-19 restrictions: He could represent a business or two that are “tired of having to wear a mask or tired of their employees having to get tested or vaccinated,” or he could represent the county itself.

Gilbert noted that litigation on behalf of the county, rather than a local businesses, might have a diminished chance of succeeding at the district court level.

“We want to sue [Sisolak] as a county, we'd have to sue him in Carson City. That makes things, the stakes a little higher because I don't know how the judges in Carson City would act,” Gilbert said. “I'm pretty, pretty sure I know how the judge in White Pine County would act because I've been in front of him and he's been nothing but excellent, with regards to how he feels that this emergency has just been elongated and continued for far too long.”

White Pine County is under the jurisdiction of the Nevada Seventh Judicial District Court, which also serves Eureka County and Lincoln County. The court’s two judges, Steve Dobrescu and Gary Fairman, both previously served as prosecutors in White Pine County.

In a 4-1 vote, White Pine county commissioner Richard Howe voted against the motion to engage with Gilbert’s firm.

“I don't think we as a county should jump on board with your law firm and get in the middle of a political firestorm,” Howe said.

Following Howe’s comments, Gilbert seemed to step back from his requests of the county.

“I don't care if he — I've got so much work to do. I don't even necessarily need. I just am trying to be available if you need me,” Gilbert said. “There's other firms you could use. I just think you need to challenge this guy's emergency.”

However, Commissioner Ian Bullis said that Gilbert approached him as part of Gilbert’s efforts to push back on COVID-19 restrictions from the state.

“He has been looking for entities willing to partner with him and join the fight, and he wanted an opportunity to share his thoughts with us. And I said, ‘Go for it,’” Bullis said.

The county’s decision to engage with Gilbert’s law firm did not include approval of any specific civil actions or of a retainer agreement with the firm — meaning the county’s relationship with Gilbert does not involve the exchange of any money.

White Pine County, which includes the City of Ely, is located centrally along the state’s eastern border and is home to roughly 9,000 people. In the 2020 election, 78 percent of the roughly 4,400 votes cast in the presidential race were for Trump.

Similar effort in Lander County

Gilbert's proposals have been making headway — but also raising questions — in other rural counties.

During an Aug. 26 meeting of the Lander County Board of Commissioners, several attendees argued with the commissioners and county manager about the purpose of a $50,000 retainer agreement with Gilbert’s law firm that was approved by commissioners during the meeting.

Lander County resident Jenny Martin said the contract with Gilbert seemed “disingenuous,” and multiple attendees raised issues based on Gilbert’s ongoing campaign for governor.

At the meeting, County Manager Bert Ramos said Gilbert’s legal team was being hired for a specific purpose, but repeatedly declined to identify that purpose and said the county had attorney-client privilege with the firm.

“What we're looking into is attorney-client privilege. So we cannot put that on the agenda to be approved because then we've lost attorney-client privilege,” Ramos said.

Last week, Lander County Clerk Sadie Sullivan told The Nevada Independent that the county had hired a legal team in connection with the commissioners’ proposed audit of the county’s voting machines. But Sullivan said she is unaware whether Gilbert’s legal team is the same one related to the audit.

In response to a public records request seeking a copy of the county’s retainer agreement with Gilbert’s law firm, the county’s recorder told The Nevada Independent that her office has not yet received the contract from the county manager. And Ramos, the county manager, has not responded to requests for comment on the proposed election audit, nor to a records request filed on Tuesday for the retainer.

Gilbert also has connections with the county from earlier this year. In May, the county hosted a “patriotic social gathering” that featured Gilbert as a guest speaker and celebrated the county’s membership in the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association — an organization founded by a former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack, who has ties to a far-right militia group called the Oath Keepers.

Gilbert was also scheduled to be a guest speaker at a similar gathering in rural Elko County, but ultimately missed the event.

Lander County, which includes Battle Mountain, is located in central Nevada and is home to fewer than 6,000 people. In the 2020 election, nearly 80 percent (2,198 votes) of the 2,765 votes cast in the presidential race were for Trump, and all five of the county’s commissioners are Republican.

PAC led by former Lt. Gov. Hutchison reloads ahead of 2022 midterms with $2 million contribution

One of the top Republican-supporting political action committees of the 2020 election cycle is already close to matching its prior fundraising totals more than a year and a half away from the 2022 midterms thanks to a major $2 million contribution by a prominent Las Vegas real estate developer.

The Stronger Nevada PAC, which is led by former Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, reported raising a sizable $2.1 million between April 1 and the end of June 2021 — approaching the total amount raised by the PAC ($2.6 million) through the two years of the 2020 election cycle (Nevada law allows state-based political action committees to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money).

In a statement, Hutchison — who strongly considered a gubernatorial run in 2022 but opted to endorse Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo —  said the group will be “fully engaged” in the 2022 midterm election cycle and promised to go “even bigger next year.”

“Our fundraising efforts have gone well, and we expect more Nevadans to join our efforts to protect and strengthen Nevada,” he said in a statement to The Nevada Independent.

Ahead of the 2020 elections, the PAC spent nearly $2 million on a targeted suite of television, digital and mail advertising focused on an open Nevada Supreme Court seat and a handful of swing legislative races — taking credit for assisting with Republican down-ballot success.

Political activity by the PAC has been slower in recent months, though the PAC has run a handful of ads on Facebook attacking Critical Race Theory, accusing Democrats of discrediting election integrity and lobbing several thinly veiled attacks against Sisolak. None of the ads so far has mentioned Lombardo, or other Republican gubernatorial candidates.

Driving the PAC’s fundraising total was a $2 million contribution made on June 29 by Sedona Magnet LLC, a company registered in Nevada in November 2020 that lists prominent Las Vegas businessman Robert T. Bigelow as its sole officer (Sedona Magnet LLC also lists the same address as Bigelow Aerospace).

Perhaps best-known for a decades-long interest in UFOs, Bigelow — described by The New York Times as a “maverick Las Vegas real estate and aerospace mogul with billionaire allure” — is the owner of extended stay apartment chain Budget Suites of America and hundreds of other properties and real estate developments. Bigelow's company has pushed back against state and federal eviction moratoriums — filing “at least 46 eviction actions in Texas and Arizona and obtained court judgments in its favor in half of those cases.”

As a political donor, Bigelow has given primarily to Republican candidates and causes, but has also made contributions to figures on the other side of the political aisle — including nearly $20,000 to then-Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak in 2011. The $2 million contribution to Stronger Nevada PAC, however, dwarfs the $124,000 cumulative given in past decades to state-level candidates and organizations.

A call to Bigelow Aerospace regarding the donation was not returned on Thursday. 

Bigelow (through Sedona Magnet LLC) wasn’t the only major contributor to the Stronger Nevada PAC — the organization also received a $100,000 contribution from SBW Capital LLC, a corporate entity affiliated with formerly incarcerated sports bettor and developer Billy Walters. The same entity — along with nine others linked to Walters — also gave a maximum $10,000 contributions (for a total of $100,000) to Sisolak ahead of the 2018 election.

Stronger Nevada PAC also received a $25,000 contribution from Joseph Otting, a Las Vegas-based banking executive who served as the federal Comptroller of the Currency under President Donald Trump from 2017 to 2020.

In the 2020 election cycle, the PAC received several large contributions from 501(c)4 nonprofit advocacy and social welfare organizations — which are not required to reveal their donors. It received nearly $1 million from American Exceptionalism Institute, Inc. 

A recent report by the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington indicated that Nevada Gold Mines — a joint venture between mining companies Newmont and Barrick — contributed $750,000 to American Exceptionalism Institute, most likely for political activities in Nevada. The Nevada Gold Mines company separately contributed $500,000 to the PAC last year as well.

Federal judge rejects effort to block ‘ghost gun’ ban filed by pro-firearms group

A federal judge has denied initial efforts by a pro-firearms organization to block enactment of a recently passed law banning the sale and production of so-called ‘ghost guns,’ including homemade firearms or assembled firearms without a serial number.

Judge Miranda Du’s opinion issued on Monday found that arguments made by the Delaware-based Firearms Policy Coalition and several individual gun owners in the lawsuit failed to meet the high burden required for the court to block implementation of the new law.

The ruling is a win for legislative Democrats and gun control advocates who viewed passage of the bill, AB286, as one of the most prominent gun violence prevention measures adopted by the 2021 Legislature.

In the order, Du rejected the two prongs of Firearms Policy Coalition’s argument — that the law burdened Second Amendment rights to firearm ownership and constituted a violation of the Constitution’s Takings Clause, which generally sets limits on the government’s ability to seize private property for public use without just compensation.

“Because AB 286 targets only unserialized firearms that are not within a categorical exception, that bypass background checks by virtue of self-assembly, and that are untraceable without a serial number, the Court finds that AB 286 is a reasonable fit for achieving the government’s objectives of decreasing the threat that unserialized firearms pose to public safety and preserving law enforcement’s ability to trace firearms related to violent crimes,” the order stated.

The bill, AB286, was sponsored by Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui (D-Las Vegas) and was approved on straight-party line votes in the Assembly and Senate.

It generally prohibits a person from possessing, purchasing, transporting or receiving any unfinished frame or receiver of a firearm, or assembling any firearm not imprinted with a serial number. A person found violating those provisions once the bill takes effect next year will be guilty of a gross misdemeanor, with repeat offenses punishable as a Category D felony.

The measure allows for some exemptions, including for a person who is a licensed firearms importer or manufacturer, who is part of a law enforcement agency, or if the unfinished frame or receiver has already been imprinted with a serial number. It would also exempt any firearm that has been rendered permanently inoperable or is considered an antique or a collector’s item.

Advocates of the measure said it would help stem a rising tide of untraceable homemade ‘ghost guns’ — the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms estimated that law enforcement nationally collected roughly 10,000 such firearms in 2019. Still, Clark County Sheriff and Republican gubernatorial candidate Joe Lombardo said at a recent forum that the state’s largest police force only tracked six instances of homemade, non-serialized firearms over the past 12 months — adding that none of the firearms were used in a crime, and most were found in the Las Vegas Strip corridor.

But only three days after Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, signed the bill into law in early June, the Firearms Policy Coalition filed a lawsuit challenging the bill as unconstitutional. FPC spokesman Adam Kraut said in a statement at the time that the bill “violates Nevadans’ Second Amendment rights and unlawfully deprives them of their property, in violation of the Constitution.”

“In order for a law-abiding individual to exercise their Second Amendment rights, they must have the ability to possess firearms, including those they build themselves,” Kraut said in a statement in June.

In her order, Du (who was nominated to the federal bench by then-President Obama in 2012) found that the language in AB286 did not constitute a Second Amendment violation because individual gun owners could still purchase and use fully furnished firearms or firearm assembly kits as long as they come equipped with a serial number — finding the law “does not severely burden Second Amendment protected conduct, but merely regulates it.”

Du also did not find merit in FPC’s arguments that the measure would constitute an unconstitutional “taking” prohibited by the Fifth Amendment, saying the measure does not “deny all economically beneficial or productive use of unserialized firearms” because it only affects the sale or production of such products inside state lines.

“While the Court is sympathetic to the economic loss Plaintiffs assert, it is not clear based on the record the extent or certainty of that economic loss,” the order states. “Because AB 286 provides an approximate 10-month period for persons to sell unserialized firearms and constituent parts to firearms importers, manufacturers, or licensed dealers beginning June 7, 2021, the possibility of recouping a potential economic loss was — and remains as of the date of this order — possible.”

Du also wrote that the stated intent of the new legislation — public safety — could be considered a “valid exercise of the government’s police power,” adding that “public safety and the importance of firearm tracing necessitates the prohibition of Individual Plaintiffs’ unserialized firearms and constituent parts at issue, and thus not a taking.”

In a statement, FPC called the decision “misguided” and promised a review and potential appeal. “Today's order is wrong as a matter of law and reduces the fundamental human right to keep and bear arms to a mere privilege,” the organization said in an email. “FPC's appellate counsel are reviewing this horribly flawed order and are authorized [to] take any and all appropriate actions to protect the Second Amendment rights of Nevada residents.”

Clark County Sheriff Lombardo announces run for governor as Republican; says he’ll veto new taxes, take ‘law and order’ tack

Citing his law enforcement credentials and a need to end one-party rule in state government, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo on Monday officially launched his gubernatorial campaign with promises to veto tax increases and roll back many of the policies instituted under Gov. Steve Sisolak and legislative Democrats.

Lombardo, 58, officially announced his campaign for governor at a speech at Rancho High School in Las Vegas — where he graduated from in 1980 — and promised that if elected governor, he would serve as a check on legislative Democrats on issues from taxes to elections and education.

“I have been elected twice as a conservative in our state's bluest county. I have never compromised on principles to get elected, and won’t do so now,” said Lombardo, whose previous sheriff campaigns were in nonpartisan races. “Today, I'm standing here to announce my candidacy for governor, because if we don't put an end to the single-party rule eroding our state of the values, laws and opportunities to make Nevada great, we won't have a lot left to fight for.”

Much of Lombardo’s speech on Monday previewed his coming campaign messaging — including calling Sisolak the “most partisan governor in Nevada history” and saying Sisolak has copied the “worst policies of some of the most liberal governors in the country.” Lombardo also promised to block any effort to teach critical race theory in public schools, to back efforts requiring identification to vote and rolling back several Democrat-backed election changes including ballot collection and expanded mail voting.

Lombardo, who plans to embark on a statewide campaign launch tour this week, joins what may become a crowded Republican primary to take on incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak in the 2022 midterms. 

Other announced candidates include North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, a recent convert to the Republican Party, and Reno attorney Joey Gilbert, who argues that Trump actually won the last election. Rep. Mark Amodei and former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller are also weighing potential bids. Former Lieutenant Governor Mark Hutchison, once considered a potential candidate, has endorsed Lombardo.

Lombardo, who is in his second term as Clark County sheriff, hinted that one of his major campaign themes will be his law enforcement experience. He said that “police reform is needed” but that legislators were moving too fast and creating an “environment where the police are handcuffed.”

“What we currently have is ... a sense up in Carson City that we're more concerned with felons’ rights, lessening penalties associated with crime and handcuffing the police,” he told reporters after the event. “That's a paradigm, or that's a program that just doesn't breed success into the future. We have to change that.”

After his Las Vegas kickoff, Lombardo headed to a Reno wine bar in the evening, holding a meet-and-greet at the Napa-Sonoma restaurant. He pitched his candidacy to the roughly 40 people in attendance, mirroring his rhetoric in Las Vegas, and took questions from attendees on elections, guns, education and more.

Former educator Sandy Horning, 77, said she appreciated Lombardo’s background in law enforcement and had a strong grasp on improving schooling across the state. 

“He knows what’s going on in the streets … he’s very impressive with education,” the Reno resident said. “I think he hit all the high spots.”

Carson City high schooler Jessica Gonzalez, 16, said she liked Lombardo’s speech but sought more detail on what his campaign hopes to achieve. 

“I wanted him to go more in depth on how he’s going to defend our rights and how he’s going to explain to the younger people how he is going to reach them,” she said.

A cadre of Democrat-aligned groups including the Democratic Governors Association and Nevada Democratic Victory issued statements on Monday panning Lombardo’s announcement. DGA Executive Director Noam Lee accused him of walking “every partisan ideological line as he’s pretended to represent the constituents he promised to serve and protect while trying to avoid estranging the Republican base he needs for his pending political career.”

Asked by reporters on Monday if he would seek the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, Lombardo said “seek” is an “arbitrary word” but would accept the former president’s endorsement if offered.

“If I receive it, I'll embrace it. Sure,” he said. “You know, anybody that's willing to endorse me and what I believe in, and the direction I want to go in, I'm not going to turn them away.”

Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo announces his candidacy to run for Nevada governor during a news conference in Las Vegas on Monday, June 28, 2021. Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Taxes

In addition to pledging to veto any new taxes, Lombardo said he would oppose any efforts to introduce a state income tax, raise property taxes or any other efforts to “advance public policy that would make Bernie Sanders blush.”

Asked whether he would seek to repeal or lower any existing state taxes, Lombardo said that would be a “matter of evaluation as we move forward” and promised to evaluate all existing tax sources. He said the state needed to develop a “tax environment” to attract other industries outside the casino industry to help to diversify the state’s economy.

“You have to be living in a cave not to see that the casino, the mother milk of our economy, will not continue to support us in perpetuity into the future,” he said.

Elections

In his remarks, Lombardo pledged to “undo the reckless partisan policies out of Carson City, and replace them with election law that is transparent, honest and fair.” 

He promised to support requiring some form of identification to vote, eliminate ballot collection or “ballot harvesting” where non-familial individuals are allowed to turn in mail ballots, and to repeal the “new practice of mailing ballots to people who did not request them.”

That’s a reference to AB321, a bill permanently expanding and enshrining expanded mail voting used in the 2020 election that passed on party lines in the 2021 legislative session. The bill was signed into law by Sisolak earlier this month, making Nevada the sixth state to adopt a largely all-mail voting system.

Lombardo also said he would support a bipartisan “election integrity commission” to oversee elections and “guarantee fairness,” and the creation of a non-partisan or bipartisan redistricting commission to draw new boundary lines for congressional and legislative districts.

Asked by reporters if he believed that the 2020 election in Nevada was accurate, Lombardo said he wasn’t “privy” to the data but believed the current electoral system “makes it easy for people to commit fraud.”

“Your question is, ‘Do I think there was fraud in everything?’ I'm not even going to give you an answer on that,” he said. “My concern is moving forward and how we can better make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”

The Trump campaign and Nevada Republican Party filed lawsuits and repeatedly made claims of fraud in the weeks and months following the state’s 2020 election. All of the lawsuits failed to make headway in state and federal courts, and Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske’s office released two reports finding no evidence of “wide-spread fraud” in the 2020 election.

Immigration 

Among the challenges Lombardo will face in a Republican primary is defending himself over his 2019 decision to withdraw from the 287(g) collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. His decision came after a lawsuit from the ACLU and a subsequent court ruling in California that determined “detainers” — holding people in local custody for extra time to allow ICE to detain them — constituted a new arrest and violated the Fourth Amendment’s protection against warrantless arrests.

Immigrant advocates, who argue that local police should stay out of immigration enforcement so immigrants can report crime to police without fear of detainment or deportation during the interaction, have said that Metro continues less-formal collaborations with ICE absent the title. Lombardo said that after withdrawing from the program, Metro “dedicated more internal resources to … identifying and deporting violent criminals.” 

“There's been a lot of rhetoric out there that I have created a sanctuary jurisdiction. That is absolutely not true,” Lombardo said. “What we did is adjust, moved resources and addressed the problem to move forward, versus backing up and say, ‘We raised our hands and gave up.’” 

Guns

Lombardo has also struck a more moderate tone on firearm issues, telling the Nevada Firearms Coalition during a question-and-answer panel last week that he supports universal background checks on firearm purchases, opposed “constitutional carry” and tepid support for limits on high capacity magazines.

“I'm a strong supporter of the Second Amendment,” he said. “This isn't rhetoric. I've carried a gun every day for more than 30 years in the Army as a cop and as your sheriff. I will always support the rights of law-abiding citizens to responsibly own and carry guns.”

Policing and criminal justice reforms

Lombardo took aim at Democratic state leaders for being “more concerned with felons rights, lessening penalties associated with crime and handcuffing the police,” and said he would distinguish himself from his Republican primary opponents by taking the “law and order lane.”

“Yes, police reform is needed ... I appreciate that and we have looked at that, but it's adapting too fast,” he said. “We have created an environment where the police are handcuffed and have an inability to do their job.”

Lawmakers in 2019 passed a comprehensive bill aimed at reducing penalties for certain crimes and ultimately reducing the prison population. The goal is to use the hundreds of millions of dollars in anticipated savings for “reinvestment” activities, such as better preparing inmates for reentering the community.

In 2021, lawmakers passed a bill to decriminalize low-level traffic offenses on near-unanimous votes and decriminalized jaywalking unanimously, making it a civil infraction without the possibility of arrest. On policing, they passed a bill requiring ample warning to protesters before deploying tear gas, calling for data collection on the demographics of people stopped for traffic violations and requiring police maintain an “early warning system” for “bias indicators or other problematic behavior” among officers. 

Progressives have characterized the policing reforms as largely just codifying Metro’s existing policies and not going far enough, while police agencies and certain police unions have framed them as demoralizing for officers and part of an anti-police narrative.

Lombardo also addressed interactions between police and protesters — an issue that came up in the summer of 2020 amid frequent racial justice demonstrations.

“While Portland, Seattle in Baltimore gave into rioters, looters and vandals, we instituted a zero tolerance policy for violence,” Lombardo said. “Let me be clear, I will always stand up for the rights of anyone to peacefully protest. But if you intend to bring harm to our people, our communities, or those visiting in our community, you will face the full force of the law.”

At least six people face charges for graffiti, breaking windows and other property damage to a federal courthouse at one of the protests in Las Vegas last summer. Las Vegas police say they handled 318 protests last year, and updated their police and protest response protocols that year, including only deploying pepper spray if approved by a supervisor.

Death penalty

Lombardo expressed support for the continued use of the death penalty as a way to curb crime, as the Clark County district attorney's office is currently pushing for the execution of Zane Floyd, who was convicted of killing four people inside a Las Vegas grocery store two decades ago. Floyd would be the first execution in the state since 2006.

“I believe that there's a need for it,” Lombardo said. “I believe that it's a natural deterrent in the mindset of a criminal, and it's a solution for individuals that have committed egregious crimes against society.”

Lawmakers made the most significant progress to date on an effort to repeal the death penalty during the 2021 session, as members of the Assembly voted 26-16 along party lines to pass a bill that would abolish the penalty. However, the measure was spiked by the governor and Democratic leaders in the Senate, after Sisolak said that the penalty was warranted in extreme circumstances.

Education

Lombardo criticized Sisolak on education policy, saying the Democratic governor has failed to provide a plan to reduce class size and opposes school choice, although the sheriff offered only broad-strokes statements about his own plans for K-12 and higher education.

On his website, Lombardo says he supports school choice and wants to expand Opportunity Scholarships, a tax credit-funded program that gives lower-income students scholarships to attend private K-12 schools. Democrats backed legislation in 2021 to preserve funding for the program as part of a compromise to raise taxes on the mining industry, after previously barring new entrants to the program.

Lombardo also nodded to building out workforce development programs.

“We must bring back and focus on trades so Nevada can attract good paying manufacturing jobs, and we must do a better job of keeping our best and brightest right here in Nevada,” Lombardo said.

He also invoked a topic that in recent months has exploded in popularity on conservative media outlets such as Fox News and has spurred states to limit how teachers approach issues such as racism and sexism — critical race theory. State officials have said the decades-old academic study area of critical race theory is not included in state academic standards, although concepts such as social justice and diversity are.

“As governor, I will block any time to force critical race theory on our public school children,” Lombardo said. “We can teach our children to respect each other, and treat everyone with dignity.”

Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo announces his candidacy to run for Nevada governor during a news conference in Las Vegas on Monday, June 28, 2021. Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Background

Lombardo, the son of an Air Force Veteran, was born in Japan before moving to Las Vegas in 1976 and graduating from Rancho High School in 1980. Hired by Metro in 1988 after serving in the Army and National Guard from 1980 to 1986, Lombardo steadily rose through the ranks of the state’s largest police force before being hired as assistant sheriff in 2011.

After nearly 30 years at Metro, Lombardo opted to run for Clark County sheriff in 2014. Described as a “policy wonk” by the Las Vegas Sun, Lombardo won endorsements from multiple former sheriffs including Doug Gillespie, Bill Young and Ralph Lamb, and ultimately won the nonpartisan race on a narrow 51 to 49 percent split over Retired Metro Captain Larry Burns — who was endorsed by the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, which represents rank-and-file Metro officers.

In his first term, Lombardo took steps to decentralize operations for detectives and to re-open shuttered substations closed because of budget cuts.

Lombardo also attracted international attention and notoriety as the face of law enforcement response to the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, which left 60 people dead and nearly 550 people injured. For weeks, Lombardo oversaw the investigation and provided information to the public and news media on details of the mass shooting, though his office fought efforts by the Las Vegas Review-Journal to release public records related to the event.

Lombardo won re-election to a second term in 2018, winning the nonpartisan race outright with more than 73 percent of the vote. His first campaign ad included appearances by former Gov. Brian Sandoval, and prominent state Democrats including former state Sen. Yvanna Cancela and Clark County Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick.

Lombardo bucks GOP line on guns, supports universal background checks but pushes back on recent gun control bills

Republican gubernatorial candidate and Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo eschewed traditional GOP orthodoxy on firearm issues by voicing support for universal background checks on firearms sales, but also promising to repeal or restrict other gun control measures approved in past years by Democrats in the Legislature if elected.

Lombardo, who plans to kick off his campaign on Monday in Las Vegas, struck a more moderate tone than some Republican candidates on firearms issues in an hour-long Zoom question-and-answer session with members of the Nevada Firearms Coalition, the state affiliate of the National Rifle Association. Moderator Randi Thompson, the group’s lobbyist, noted that police tend to be more hesitant to encourage gun ownership “because they're dealing with it every day.”

“It's tough to be an officer and be pro gun,” she said. “But I know that you're there, protecting the people and you want to keep the honest people honest, and you want to put the bad guys behind bars and that's really all we can ask you to do at the end of the day.”

During the panel, the sheriff of the state’s largest county reiterated his support of universal background checks (while criticizing the state’s 2016 ballot background check ballot initiative as poorly written) as well as limits on certain high-capacity magazines. But Lombardo said that if elected governor, he would be willing to revisit and potentially repeal several gun control measures passed in recent legislative sessions, including the state’s so-called ‘Red Flag’ law and a measure banning so-called “ghost guns,” which are homemade firearms without serial numbers.

The deep dive into firearm policy issues and Lombardo’s more moderate stances — which included opposition to “constitutional carry” and tepid support for limits on high capacity ammunition magazines — is likely to strike a stark dividing line between the sheriff and other Republican gubernatorial hopefuls. 

North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, a recent convert to the Republican Party who has adopted some of former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, and Reno attorney Joey Gilbert, who argues that Trump actually won the last election, have already announced bids to challenge Democratic incumbent Gov. Steve Sisolak in 2022. Rep. Mark Amodei and former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller are also weighing bids for the office.

Lombardo also previewed parts of his upcoming campaign message, saying the job of law enforcement has become “extremely challenging” because of calls to defund the police, adding that officers don’t want to give the same effort to their jobs if they feel they are not supported by the people they serve. He also took a jab at Sisolak’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and some of the progressive policies discussed in the Legislature. 

“Bail reform, sentencing reform, handcuffing of police, all that matters. And that's indicative of the crime rates that are occurring across the United States right now,” he said. “The crooks are getting more rights than the victims.”

Below are other highlights from the forum.

Ghost guns

Lombardo fielded several questions on AB286, a bill banning so-called ‘ghost guns,’ that recently passed the Legislature on party lines with all Republicans opposed. The measure generally prohibits an individual from possessing, purchasing, transporting or receiving any unfinished frame or receiver of a firearm, or assembling any firearm not imprinted with a serial number. 

Lombardo said that Las Vegas police have only tracked six instances of homemade, non-serialized firearms over the past 12 months. He said none of the firearms were used in a crime, and most were found in the Las Vegas Strip corridor.

The sheriff — who is named in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law — said his department was neutral on the bill because “we enforce the laws, we don’t make them in the law enforcement community” but that he would “absolutely deny” the bill as governor.

Lombardo added that Las Vegas police wouldn’t be zealous in enforcement of the new law.

“We are not proactive as a police department, nor would I give direction with the police department, to be proactive in that space,” he said.

Red flag orders

Lombardo said he would be open to repealing the state’s so-called “Red Flag” or extreme risk protection order law, which gives family members and law enforcement the ability to petition a judge for a court order that allows for the seizure and suspension of firearm possession rights for up to a year, even if the person has not been arrested or convicted of a crime.

The sheriff said that law enforcement found the law to be “frustrating,” saying that the process only involved the court system and the state’s firearm sales background check system but not patrol officers, who “have no idea whether you're a prohibited person when we encounter you.”

Lombardo said that Metro has seen only two applications for the extended protection orders since the law was passed in 2019, and both of them were never processed by the state. He said that patrol officers typically don’t have a lot of knowledge about a person’s mental state to make that kind of evaluation.

“I think that law has gotten too convoluted. It's amiss in its original intent, and it's not benefiting either side of the house,” he said. “So to answer your question, yes, I would consider repealing it.”

Background checks

Lombardo said he supports universal background checks.

“People that shouldn't have guns shouldn't have the ability to get guns,” he said. “There's always that mantra that folks are going to get them, no matter what; the universal background check isn't going to fix it. That doesn't mean you don't create a system that could prevent bad guys from getting guns.”

But he said he was neutral on a 2016 state ballot question on the matter because it was “poorly written.”

The ballot initiative, Question 1, passed by less than one percentage point after being opposed by all 16 other county sheriffs and most Republican officials in the state. It called for private party transfers of guns to go through licensed dealers for a background check, but there were questions about whether it could be enforced because it called for the FBI to do the checks and the FBI declined.

Lombardo said that he’s been carrying a gun for 34 years during his military service and police career, but that there should be requirements to ensure responsible and safe gun ownership.

“It’s a very huge responsibility to own a firearm. No matter how some people see it, in my opinion, it’s a huge responsibility,” he said.

Concealed carry backlog

Lombardo gave a detailed response to why applicants for concealed carry permits are experiencing significant delays in booking an appointment and having applications processed.

In Clark County, there has been a sharp increase in applications for concealed carry permits. Lombardo said that from 2017 to 2019, the county was averaging about 16,000 such applications a year, but received 37,000 in 2020, and is keeping up a similar pace in 2021.

He said he transferred four employees and a supervisor to the unit to address the application backlog, and then a few weeks ago, added another six people to the task. He said he is also increasing the number of appointments available.

But he said multiple required steps involving data transfers to the state, as well as limitations in technology — including the high costs of machines that can take fingerprints — slow the process.

“I guarantee you your viewers are going to be frustrated and they're going to be, ‘what are you talking about? It's 2021. Technology is here and it should be a lot easier to do,’” he said. “But the government is quite often years and light years behind.”

Constitutional carry

Lombardo said he opposes making Nevada a “constitutional carry” state, in which residents need not obtain a concealed weapons permit to have a gun on their person.

That’s because he supports the training requirements involved in obtaining a permit, which entail completion of an eight-hour CCW safety course and registration with the local law enforcement. Officials screen out prohibited people, including individuals who have felony convictions, are subject to restraining orders or have any of a host of other disqualifying factors.

Lombardo said the requirements are not overly onerous, and thinks mandating training as a prerequisite for a permit ensures that people actually get training.

“If we don’t require it, people won’t do it. more often than not,” he said.

High capacity magazine bans

Asked about his 2016 comments to the Las Vegas Sun in support of limits on high-capacity magazine sales, Lombardo said he never specified a number of rounds and that about 30 bullets per magazine, or the manufacturer's intended specifications, were “probably about right.” 

He said his comments at the time were more focused on a law enforcement perspective, noting that the October 1 mass shooter had thousands of rounds of ammunition available in his hotel room, and that the breaks required to reload a gun gives law enforcement a window of opportunity to stop a shooter.

“When we encounter a critical incident or mass shooting, the only time we've ever had the upper hand in that, besides an overwhelming force …is if it was an individual officer when an assailant or suspect had to change the magazine, we have one or two seconds to intervene, hopefully stop the threat,” he said. “That was the context of that question.”

If elected governor, Lombardo said the issue of banning high-capacity magazines was a “non-starter” and “not even a discussion for me to have.”

Nine U.S. states and Washington, D.C. have implemented bans on large capacity magazines.

Why he’s running

Lombardo said the state has not put enough emphasis on Pre-K education — something that he says could “change our ranking from 50 to 25 overnight.” And he said the state is not putting enough emphasis on training people for “blue collar” trades, particularly in high school and at the community college level. 

Lombardo called for reinstating accountability measures, such as the mandate that students learn to read by grade three. Previously, Nevada law called for children to be retained if they could not read at grade level by third grade, but the mandate was eliminated in 2019.

Lombardo also said that the current arrangement in which Democrats control both houses of the Legislature and hold the governor’s post is a “failed system” that goes against the values of push and pull between two parties.

He also asserted that the politically powerful Culinary Union and the teacher’s union are running the state government rather than the governor and the Legislature.

He specifically faulted Sisolak’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, saying decisions about capacity limits in businesses were not grounded in science. The subjective nature of the restrictions made it hard for the people who have to enforce those rules, according to the sheriff.

“It was too willy nilly. He was moving the goalposts on a continual basis,” Lombardo said.

Sisolak ‘damn proud’ of Legislature, will sign state public option bill, explains death penalty decision

Gov. Steve Sisolak said on Tuesday that he is “damn proud of what this Legislature did” and thinks it was “a very productive session,” highlighting priority policies that he will likely run on during the 2022 midterm election.

The first-term Democrat rattled off a list of accomplishments during the 120-day session that ended Monday, including distributing $100 million in grants to small businesses, earmarking federal funds to modernize the unemployment system, passing a bill that guarantees many hospitality workers the “right to return” to their old jobs and passing measures that expand voting opportunities.

He also says he’s “110 percent” sure he will run for re-election in 2022, saying he thinks the state is on the upswing after a turbulent year responding to the pandemic.

“I think we have an opportunity to build a new Nevada in the future, and I want to be part of that,” he said.

Below are highlights from a wide-ranging interview Sisolak conducted with reporters from his Carson City office.

Gov. Steve Sisolak with Chief of Staff Michelle White and Senior Adviser Scott Gilles at a roundtable discussion with reporters about the 2021 session in Carson City on June 1, 2021. Photo by David Calvert.

State public option

Sisolak confirmed Tuesday that he will sign Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro’s SB420, legislation that will make Nevada one of the first states in the nation to adopt a state-managed public health insurance option.

The governor’s commitment to sign the bill dashes the hopes of opponents urging a veto after a contentious legislative journey for the bill, which requires insurers that bid to provide coverage to the state’s Medicaid population to also offer a public option plan resembling existing qualified health plans on the state health insurance exchange system. The bill also calls for an actuarial study and for the public options to become available starting in 2026.

“It's not something that you flip a switch and happens overnight,” Sisolak said. “But anytime there's an opportunity to get health care coverage available for more Nevadans is certainly something that I'm interested in.”

Special sessions

Sisolak said he has not scheduled a legislative special session focused on how the state should spend the coming $2.7 billion in federal American Rescue Plan dollars and hundreds of other federal COVID relief funding streams coming into the state. 

Nevada lawmakers ended the regular session without a clear plan on the coming federal windfall — though lawmakers approved legislation, SB461, earmarking $335 million of the federal dollars to the unemployment trust fund aimed at avoiding any automatic hikes in unemployment taxes paid by businesses.

The legislation also includes millions more in direct spending on specific public health, food insecurity and other programs, while also creating a “waterfall” of funding priorities for future use of the federal dollars.

Will that be enough to avoid a special session? Sisolak demurred, saying his office was still working through the U.S. Treasury guidance on how the federal dollars can be spent and for now was taking a “wait and see” approach. The governor added that a fall special session will be necessary to complete the state’s redistricting process, after delays in compiling and reporting U.S. Census data caused by the pandemic.

“When there's a session necessary, we'll call it,” he said.

Tax initiative petitions

Part of the deal to pass a bill imposing a new tax on the mining industry involved the Clark County Education Association teacher’s union withdrawing two proposed ballot measures that would raise sales and gaming taxes. Lawmakers amended a bill in the waning hours of the session to explicitly authorize such petitions to be withdrawn within 90 days of an election, even after they have qualified for the ballot.

“I'm gonna trust that any commitment that they made to me or to my staff, they're gonna follow through on,” Sisolak said.

CCEA Executive Director John Vellardita said after the bill’s first hearing but before a vote that “if we get a deal, we will keep our word.”

But Sisolak said he wasn’t sure exactly when that would happen or if it would be right at the allowable deadline for withdrawal.

“I would hope we don't have to wait ‘til 90 days right before,” Sisolak said. “Hopefully it will be sooner than that. I don't know how much sooner.”

Asked if he was worried that the strategy of filing an initiative petition to try to force certain actions from policymakers would become commonplace, the governor said he hoped not.

“I don't believe in legislating by initiative petition,” he said. “The public's input is certainly required, it's necessary and sought out. But that's why we elect people. I don't think that the initiative petition process is the most effective way to get results. And I hope that that's not what this causes.”

Death penalty

After what was arguably the highest profile bill to die in the legislative process — a measure advanced by the Assembly on party lines to abolish the death penalty — Sisolak said nobody has yet approached him asking for him to impose a moratorium on capital punishment.

He also said he doesn’t believe he has the individual power to grant clemency for people on death row who fall outside of a category he thinks the death penalty should exist for — the most egregious cases, such as mass shootings and terrorism.

Sisolak’s chief of staff, Michelle White, said the governor had wanted to meet with people on both sides of the issue, including families of victims and of people on death row, but those talks did not happen before the session.

“There were no conversations with our office leading up to this legislative session on the death penalty,” she said. “There was no outreach saying, 'we're going to do this and so we want to get some input on this.'”

Sisolak said he was uncomfortable making such a momentous decision in an environment where many legislative meetings were remote and public comment was taken in short increments over the phone. 

“It's different when you're sitting face to face with someone you see them, the family member,” he said. “And I'm not talking necessarily about the large groups, I'm talking about the family members who lost a loved one as a result of a mass shooting.”

He said there was “zero” consideration about being seen as soft on crime when Republican Joe Lombardo, the sheriff in Clark County, is planning to run for governor.

“When I make legislative decisions, they have nothing to do with my political opponents,” he said.

Opportunity Scholarships

The compromise by which the mining tax was approved involved funding authorization for a program many Democrats dislike — the tax credit-funded Opportunity Scholarship program that supports low-income children attending private schools. The bill brings funding back up to 2019 levels, reversing an arrangement that lets no new children enroll and effectively begins a phase-out of the program.

Asked if he thinks the program should be a permanent fixture in Nevada, Sisolak noted that one Legislature can’t bind a future Legislature.

“There were a lot of discussions leading up to that. It wasn't easy,” he said. “Good governance is all about compromise. I mean, it's not just getting your way all the time.”

Asked if he would include it in the recommended budget he will put forward if he is re-elected ahead of the 2023 session, he said he hasn’t thought about the budget for next session but will “definitely” be talking to his top staffers about what the budget will look like.

“This was an agreement that was made,” he said. “I'm going to follow through with my side of the agreement, all the terms that were made.”

Gov. Steve Sisolak speaks at a roundtable discussion with reporters about the 2021 session in Carson City on June 1, 2021. Photo by David Calvert.

Innovation Zones

Though the concept was downgraded to an interim study, Sisolak said he is still a believer in “Innovation Zones,” the proposed semi-autonomous corporate-backed governmental structure sought by Blockchains, Inc.

No bill was ever introduced, but draft language around the “Innovation Zone” concept drew opposition from state lawmakers in both parties, rural communities concerned about proposed water usage and even became the butt of jokes for late-night TV hosts.

Sisolak acknowledged that the bill was a “heavy lift” but said he was still a supporter of the concept mentioned during his January State of the State address, saying that it put no state money at risk and could help with economic development. He said building support for the bill was difficult with the Legislature largely closed to the public and in-person meetings.

“I think the concept was misunderstood because the detractors put it out there like it's a company town, and you're given control of the government. That's not at all what it was,” he said. “But in the midst of a 120-day session, when I was in the initial discussions on Innovation Zones, I wasn't contemplating having a pandemic.”

Raises for state workers

Some lawmakers spoke out against a plan to give raises up to 3 percent for state workers covered by collective bargaining agreements, and 1 percent to those without. It’s the first budget approved since state workers were authorized to unionize.

“I guess what I find disturbing is because this becomes a reward and an incentive to put everyone under a collective bargaining unit, because we don't pay them if they don't,” Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) said before voting against a bill implementing state employee pay. “And to me that seems to be a little inappropriate.”

Asked whether the arrangement is fair, Sisolak said it’s not collective bargaining if everybody gets the same thing.

“I've been involved with different parts of collective bargaining for a long time. That's what collective bargaining is,” he said. “Different units came forward with different proposals and different requests and made cases and they came to agreements. And I'm no one to stop that.” 

SNWA turf removal

While cautioning that he wanted to read the bill for any last-minute amendments, Sisolak indicated that he also will sign a proposal backed by the Southern Nevada Water Authority that would generally prohibit non-functional grass outside of single-family residences in Clark County starting in 2027. The bill would remove about 5,000 acres of unused grasses, which uses about 10 percent of Nevada’s 300,000 acre-foot water allocation from the Colorado River. 

Sisolak called the idea behind AB356 a “great policy,” saying that anyone who flies into Las Vegas can see the infamous “bathtub ring” on the shores of Lake Mead and see the need for water conservation in Southern Nevada.

“I think that it's incumbent upon us, for the next generation, to be more conscious of our conservation and natural resources, water being particularly important,” he said.

Mixed signals from governor, election considerations blamed for failure of death penalty repeal effort

After more than 20 years of trying to ban the state’s death penalty, and following former death penalty stronghold Virginia's repeal of capital punishment in mid-March, activists hoped that the 2021 legislative session would finally be the time for Nevada to end capital punishment. 

But in spite of the state's Democratic trifecta, those efforts culminated in one of the biggest heartbreaks of the session for criminal justice reform advocates when the bill was spiked by Gov. Steve Sisolak and legislative Democratic leaders earlier this month. 

Though no one has been executed in the state since 2006, the Clark County district attorney's office is now pushing for the execution of Zane Floyd, who was convicted of killing four people inside a Las Vegas grocery store two decades ago. Advocates said the move made passing a repeal even more urgent this session.

So why did repeal fail?

No single cause of death is named on the legislative coroner's report, but interviews with involved parties suggest a combination of factors — ranging from personal belief, mixed gubernatorial signals, potential election-related considerations and the fact that the two senators responsible for hearing the bill work for the Clark County district attorney — helped kill the measure and keep Nevada as one of 24 states with the death penalty.

The entire debate takes place against the backdrop of a state still closely divided in party registration, with some top senators — including Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) — winning election by a single percentage point. Republicans flipped several legislative seats in the 2020 election, and Gov. Steve Sisolak’s expected re-election challenger in 2022 is Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo — a candidate likely to highlight a message of law and order. 

Those political dynamics make public opinion a key consideration, but the data has been somewhat inconclusive. A 2017 poll commissioned by The Nevada Independent indicated that most Nevadans support the death penalty, but advocates have long questioned whether the solid tilt toward capital punishment had to do with the way the poll question was phrased.

Anti-death penalty activists commissioned a new survey released earlier this year that showed much closer results — and even a slight lean toward abolition — when questions were phrased differently.

Past legislative sessions have often seen a small group of progressive Democrats introduce capital punishment repeal bills, but the measures never advanced far, with leadership hesitant to push a politically dicey issue through the process in the face of a likely veto. In 2017, Gov. Brian Sandoval signaled opposition to a repeal bill, and after getting one committee hearing it was never brought up for a vote.

So, when Assembly members this session voted on party lines to abolish the death penalty, with Republicans opposed, activists celebrated the measure’s move out of committee to a floor vote, the furthest the concept had ever traveled in the Legislative Building. They said the bill was essential to doing away with an "eye for an eye" mentality and a practice they say does not help hurting families move on from violence, disproportionately affects people of color and is an expensive endeavor that could lead to killing innocent people.

Opponents, including Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson and individuals who have lost loved ones to violence, however, pushed back against the repeal, saying the death penalty is necessary as a prosecutorial tool and should be an option for individuals who committed atrocities such as the October 1 shooting. 

“There are differences between perpetrators and crimes,” Wolfson told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in April. “I strongly believe that the death penalty should be reserved for the very rare and extreme circumstances. … The solution is to engage and refine the law, not abandon an option the voters support.”

During a hearing on the measure in late March, lawmakers also heard from Jennifer Otremba, who described the murder of her 15-year-old daughter Alyssa in 2011 near her Las Vegas home. Javier Righetti, who was 19 at the time of the killing, received a death sentence in 2017.

"He did not consider Alyssa’s life. Why should his life be considered?,” Otremba said. “I waited five and a half years for justice for my daughter, and if I have to continue to fight politicians for the rest of my life to ensure that justice is served, then I will do that."

The measure had faced an uncertain future in the Democrat-controlled Senate — which is helmed by Cannizzaro, a prosecuting attorney for the Clark County district attorney. Cannizzaro was repeatedly noncommittal when asked whether she would allow the bill to get a hearing if it passed the Assembly, including in a Nevada Independent forum ahead of the session in January, and maintained that noncommittal stance for months.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas), a fellow prosecutor in the district attorney’s office and the key gatekeeper on the decision to give the bill a hearing, had appeared willing to give the bill a chance. Prior to the session, she had indicated her support for efforts to abolish the death penalty, and said just two weeks before the bill died that she would be willing to hear it if an amendment was brought forward addressing the concerns expressed by Sisolak.

During a brief interview with The Nevada Independent on Thursday, Scheible said she would have considered an amendment with a broad base of support, but that nothing came to fruition. 

Schedules are constantly moving, she said, adding that she tries to make sure there is always time to hear a bill, but "it takes a lot of people in this government to make such a sweeping change and so without full consensus, we weren't able to."

Scott Coffee, a public defender, said a proposed amendment that had been drafted but never released publicly tracked closely with what the governor said was palatable — making exceptions for mass shootings and terrorism. The organization Gun Violence Archive has set a definition of mass shooting as four people shot but not necessarily killed in a single event.

That’s partly why an abrupt announcement — memorialized in a series of synchronized press releases from the governor and legislative leaders — that Nevada leaders were scrapping the bill came as a shock to those working on the cause. 

Holly Welborn with the Nevada ACLU speaks during the "Protest & Vigil for Death Penalty Abolition" hosted by the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty, in front of the Legislative Building on May 17, 2021. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

Branden Cunningham and Mark Bettencourt, leaders of the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty, told The Nevada Independent that there were ongoing conversations surrounding an amendment to the bill prior to its demise. 

"From everything we heard, [Scheible] was willing to work and hear the bill," Cunningham said. "We had heard that she had set time aside to hear the bill … the calendar was open … and instead of a hearing we got the three statements that came out."

Coffee said the press releases announcing that the bill would not advance were a surprise to him. Up to that point, advocates were actively working on the issue, hoping to connect lawmakers with the pollster commissioned by the coalition to assuage concerns.

"I have to believe the concern was over losing Senate seats," Coffee said. "There's always another election. There's always another excuse."

He said he wishes the governor would have shown more initiative on the matter but ultimately blamed senators for not hearing the bill.

“The Senate got accommodated on everything they asked for,” Coffee said. “It's laughable to talk about how good we did on criminal justice reform when we can't get a vote on a platform issue.”

Shortly after the announcement that the bill was dead, Cannizzaro defended the progress the Legislature had made on bail reform and police use of force, challenging people who say the Legislature was not doing enough. Asked whether she was personally in favor of a bill with a carveout for crimes such as mass shootings, Cannizzaro demurred.

“I don't think that I am opposed to having conversations on this topic. That has been happening,” Cannizzaro said. “Obviously Chair Yeager worked to try to come up with some compromise, and we're just not going to be able to get there.”

Though she supports the abolition of the death penalty, Scheible said the decision to not hear the bill was part of a broader discussion.

"I do work in a team and part of my job as the chair of a committee is to ensure that I am making good policy decisions, not pushing my own personal agenda," she said. "Sometimes I get to do the things that I personally want, sometimes I do the things that we need as a state, the things that my body supports, that our coalition supports, and so it's a group effort."

That group effort started and ended with Sisolak, the state’s first Democratic governor in two decades after his election in 2018, but who also was chair of the Clark County Commission when the worst mass shooting in American history took place in his jurisdiction. Sisolak was at the forefront of the response to the 1 October massacre and has talked about the effect the incident had on him personally and on his views of capital punishment during his 2018 campaign and beyond.

Sisolak had previously affirmed without qualification that he opposed the death penalty, but he never formally endorsed the legislation. Asked about the bill as the session progressed, Sisolak stuck tightly to talking points — even reading from a prepared statement when asked an impromptu question about the Assembly passing the bill — to emphasize that he opposed capital punishment but believed the measure is necessary for specific situations, such as mass shootings.

Sisolak’s hesitation over the legislation was likely heightened by the coming entrance of Lombardo into the 2022 governor’s race, where Democrats — with Joe Biden in the White House — are generally expected to suffer some midterm losses. Republicans in state and nationwide have used a pro-police campaign message in recent election cycles, so a death penalty repeal may have added more fuel to that campaign fire.

Past governors — such as Brian Sandoval in 2015 and Kenny Guinn in 2003 — opted to wait until their second term in office, post-midterms, to tackle high-profile policy goals.

A protester holds a candle in front of the Legislative Building during the "Protest & Vigil for Death Penalty Abolition" hosted by the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty on May 17, 2021. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

Activists and advocates criticized lawmakers for not giving the bill a public hearing, though, calling the decision "undemocratic" during a protest and vigil last Monday.

"You have to answer to the people," Leslie Turner with the Mass Liberation Project said during the protest. "It doesn't make sense that the death penalty bill is dead now, with no explanation, no checking in with the community."

Cunningham said those pushing for the abolition of the death penalty spoke with various senators and that it seemed as though most of them were open to considering the legislation.

At least one Republican lawmaker was a likely supporter of the bill — Sen. Scott Hammond (R-Las Vegas).

"Generally I'm in favor of repealing it," he said in an interview on Tuesday. "I think it makes a lot of fiscal sense, I think it makes a lot of moral sense."

Though she was disappointed and frustrated by the death of the bill, Monique Normand, an anti-death penalty activist whose uncle was murdered in 2017, told reporters after the vigil and protest that the death penalty would not have brought her uncle back and the fight is far from over.

“People's lives are on the line,” she said. “We do have to hold [lawmakers] accountable and we can't just let them get away with, ‘you're gonna vote for us.’ No, we don't have to vote for anyone, we can withhold our votes, our votes matter. Our lives matter.”

Sources: Lombardo set to announce for governor

Undaunted by newly minted Republican Mayor John Lee’s announcement, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo has made the decision to run for governor, sources confirmed Thursday.

Lombardo will formally announce next month and has hired a trio of high-profile GOP operatives, including a former political director for Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee.

The campaign team will be led by Ryan Erwin, a well-respected consultant who oversaw Cresent Hardy’s shocking upset of Rep. Steven Horsford in 2014 and helped Joe Heck win a seat in Congress (and almost secure a U.S. Senate seat). Erwin was involved in efforts to pass Marsy’s Law here and elsewhere and recently was retained by Caitlyn Jenner’s campaign to oust California Gov. Gavin Newsom. I don’t know of a more even-keeled, thoughtful and straight-shooting consultant who has been involved in Nevada politics.

Erwin will be joined by his former partner, Mike Slanker, who has been a consultant to the likes of Brian Sandoval and Dean Heller and is a media expert whose ads have been known to cut (and cut deeply), and Chris Carr, an ex-Trump and RNC operative who will oversee the grassroots/ground game and is as well-regarded as anyone I know across partisan and geographic lines.

It’s a formidable team enhanced by ex-Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, who was interested in running for governor but has agreed to chair Lombardo’s campaign. Hutchison is a formidable fundraiser; his PAC helped the GOP pick up legislative seats last year.

I am reliably told that some gaming companies have informed Lombardo they will give him substantial support, although some will have to play both sides because Gov. Steve Sisolak has such power over their enterprises. It will be interesting to see, especially after a legislative session controlled by Democrats and one that has intermittently infuriated the Strip, whether any companies give only to Lombardo. (This would surprise me.)

The industry’s campaign contributions could well hinge on how the session ends and the resolution of a so-called right to return bill that is the Culinary union’s main objective and has caused a serious rift with and within the industry. 

Lombardo would have to be seen as a favorite in the primary with this kind of firepower and Lee's recent entry into the Republican party. The North Las Vegas mayor also has baggage, including a raft of votes as a Democratic legislator. But Lombardo’s two terms as sheriff notwithstanding, the sheriff’s ability to perform statewide and handle non-law enforcement issues remain uncertain. And he will have to deal with his own record as sheriff, too.

Filing does not open until next March, and I am still not persuaded that candidates who announce this early will actually file. And I am not convinced that Lee, who has floated more trial balloons than anyone in Nevada history before they lost ballast, will sign on the dotted line next year. At least, that is, for governor.

Sisolak is seen as vulnerable by the GOP here and nationally because of criticism he absorbed during the pandemic for health care protocols that were deleterious for the economy. But Democrats are banking on a rebounding economy to put some wind at Sisolak’s back, and a potential GOP primary is not optimal for Republicans. And who knows whether a Trumpian contender (who has not recently switched parties) might get in, making it even more interesting.

Lombardo’s decision, though, ensures this is going to be a very interesting year in Nevada politics, which, as one who has followed it for three and a half decades, almost goes without saying.