After close to a year on the ground, Democratic presidential campaigns enter home stretch as Nevada’s caucus nears

Democratic presidential candidates appear on stage with Harry Reid

With less than six weeks until Nevada’s Democratic presidential caucus, campaigns are kicking into high gear on the ground here in the Silver State, the third in the country to host its presidential nominating contest.

By the time Feb. 22 rolls around, several candidates will have been campaigning for a full year and some of their staffers on the ground will have been here nearly as long. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s team landed earliest in Nevada, in January 2019, and she was one of the first candidates to visit the state. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has built up, by far, the largest staff on the ground in the last year, with a team double the size of those assembled by his closest competitors.

At the same time, former Vice President Joe Biden has maintained an edge in the polls here, while former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has been looking to introduce himself to voters and make inroads with Nevada’s communities of color as he tries to grow his support here to match what he has seen in Iowa. 

Then there are the rest of the candidates who have invested time and money in Nevada — billionaire Tom Steyer, who has spent millions on television ads in the state that may have earned him a recent and sudden surge in the race; New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, whose mom lives here and who has been the most frequent visitor to the state; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who is ramping up in Nevada as she has been gaining support elsewhere; tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who has a moderately sized staff and has invested some time here; and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who has one staffer stationed here despite his late entry into the race.

Four other candidates have visited the state less frequently or skipped it altogether and have not yet placed staff on the ground here.

Read on for a look at how candidates have been campaigning in the Silver State over the last year and how it could position them for a possible victory here.

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event inside Harbor Palace Seafood Restaurant in Las Vegas on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Joe Biden

The former vice president is no stranger to Nevada. Not only was he a familiar presence on the campaign trail in 2008 and 2012 as Barack Obama’s running mate, the 77-year-old Democratic presidential hopeful has been campaigning in the state for decades.

“The first Nevada Democrat I ever campaigned for, I was a 31 or 32 year old kid, and I came out to campaign for a guy named Harry Reid,” Biden told a packed room at the Nevada State Democratic Party’s First In The West event at the Bellagio in November.

That familiarity has buoyed Biden — at least so far — in the Silver State. Recent polls have shown the former vice president with anywhere from a 6- to 10-point lead in the state over his Democratic opponents. He also leads, by far, in prominent endorsements here, with the support of Rep. Dina Titus, state Sen. Yvanna Cancela (now a senior adviser on the campaign), Assemblywoman Shannon Bilbray-Axelrod, Assemblywoman Susie Martinez, former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan, former Gov. Bob Miller, former Rep. Jim Bilbray, and former Rep. Shelley Berkley.

While his campaign didn’t officially announce its first hires here until May — he only officially launched his campaign in April — he’s since built up a team of about 50 people here, a similar sized operation to two of the other top-tier campaigns. The campaign has six offices in the Silver State, including one that just opened in Carson City.

Biden’s first visit of the campaign to the state was also in May. The former vice president hosted a rally at the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades Local 159 in Henderson. He has since made eight more trips to the state, including, most recently, campaign stops in Sparks and Las Vegas this weekend. He also has toured the Techren Solar Project near Boulder City and spoken at a town hall hosted by the politically powerful Culinary Union. He is also one of two candidates still in the race to have campaigned in Elko.

The former vice president has run two ads in the state, backed by the campaign’s $6 million buy across the four early nominating states. Both have contrasted Biden’s vision for the future of the United States against President Donald Trump’s.

While in Nevada, Biden has weighed in on a number of state-specific issues — but it hasn’t always gone smoothly for him. He received significant pushback from supporters of recreational marijuana when he said at a November town hall that his position against legalizing the drug hadn’t changed and that there “hasn’t been enough evidence that has been acquired as to whether or not (marijuana) is a gateway drug.” Later that month, Biden told The Nevada Independent that he doesn’t believe marijuana is a gateway drug and that there is “no evidence I’ve seen that suggests that.”

Biden has also promised to hold the Department of Energy responsible for its actions on nuclear waste in Nevada, including shipments of high-level radioactive waste the state discovered last year that were supposed to be low-level waste, and repeatedly stressed his opposition to the construction of a long-term, high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.

He said he believes that the federal Wire Act should only apply to sports betting, not to all forms of interstate gambling, as the Justice Department indicated in an opinion last year. He also opposes decriminalizing sex work nationally, though he has said he wouldn’t impinge on Nevada’s decision to allow prositution in certain jurisdictions.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a town hall at the Victory Missionary Baptist Church on Saturday, July 6, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Bernie Sanders

Sanders needs little introduction in Nevada, where he came in only about 5 percentage points behind Hillary Clinton in the state’s Democratic caucus in 2016. Four years ago, his campaign was scrappy, grassroots and insurgent — and it came together last minute. This time, Sanders started early, hiring a team of experienced political operatives who have worked to focus the grassroots enthusiasm for the Vermont senator to try to propel him to victory.

Since announcing his first Nevada hires at the end of March, Sanders has brought on more than 100 staffers in the Silver State, which puts his team at nearly double the size of other top-polling candidates. The campaign also has opened 10 offices, with at least three more slated to open in the near future.

The Vermont senator’s first rally of his 2020 campaign, at Morrell Park in Henderson back in March, drew a crowd of more than a thousand. Since then, he has made 10 trips to the state, during which he has spoken at the LGBTQ Center of Las Vegas, hosted an event at the Washoe Tribe’s Stewart Community Center and attended a town hall with Culinary Union members. He is one of two candidates still in the race to have visited Elko, hosting a town hall at Elko High School in December.

Despite concerns about how a heart attack he suffered in Las Vegas in October would affect his presidential campaign, Sanders has continued to keep an aggressive campaign schedule and has remained near the top in Nevada polls, trailing Biden by anywhere from 6- to 10-points.

Sanders has received a number of grassroots level endorsements, though his biggest high-profile endorsements have come from Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom, a longtime Sanders supporter, and Clark County School District Board of Trustees President Lola Brooks. He has not yet run any television ads in the state.

The Vermont senator has also weighed in on a number of issues of particular relevance to Nevada during his campaign. Early on, his campaign released a video highlighting tribal opposition to storing high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, a position Sanders also shares, and both he and his campaign have spent significant time and energy talking about Native American issues. He was also the first presidential candidate to come out against oil and gas drilling in Nevada’s Ruby Mountains.

Sanders has been less willing to take positions on some other niche issues affecting the state, demurring on the issue of sex work and declining to comment on a Justice Department opinion this year on online gambling. 

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks to a crowd at a Las Vegas campaign rally on Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019. (Jeff Scheid//The Nevada Independent)

Elizabeth Warren

Warren, the senior senator from Massachusetts, probably wouldn’t even be running for president if it hadn’t been for a call from a Nevadan.

Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wanted to know if Warren, at the time a not very well known professor at Harvard Law, would join a new commission approved by Congress overseeing the Wall Street bailout. She said yes, and a month later found herself in Las Vegas chairing the first field hearing of the Congressional Oversight Panel. She went on to help set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, run for U.S. Senate, and now seek the office of president of the United States.

Warren’s first hires landed on the ground in Nevada in the spring, and her campaign now has about 50 staffers in the state and 10 offices. Her first trip to the state was in February to host a campaign rally at Springs Preserve, which was attended by about 500 people.

Since then, the Massachusetts senator has slowly climbed in the polls in Nevada, from 10 percent support in March to a high of 22 points at the end of October. Her average hovers in the high teens, behind Biden and Sanders.

Over the last year, Warren has traveled to the Silver State 10 times, marching in the Las Vegas Pride Parade in October, attending a “Westside Pride” Black Community Summit at Nevada Partners in November and participating in a town hall with Culinary Union members in December.

Warren’s top endorsers in the Silver State include Assemblyman Howard Watts, Assemblywoman Heidi Swank, Controller Catherine Byrne, DNC Committeeman Alex Goff and DNC Committeewoman Allison Stephens. She has not yet run any television ads in the state.

While in Nevada, Warren has promised that she would not fund the construction of a high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain if elected president and expressed unease about the expansion of online gaming. She was also the first Democratic presidential hopeful to come out against the military’s proposed expansion into Nevada’s Desert National Wildlife Refuge, setting off a wave of similar declarations from other candidates.

Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, speaks during a campaign event at Madhouse Coffee in Las Vegas on Monday, April 8, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Pete Buttigieg

A latecomer to the state, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana has rapidly expanded his campaign operation since his first hire this summer and now has 55 staffers, making his the second largest staff only behind Sanders’. He also has 12 offices across the state, the most of any other presidential campaign here.

Buttigieg’s first trip to the state was on April 8, less than a week before officially launching his presidential campaign. The former South Bend mayor attended a meet and greet at Madhouse Coffee and a roundtable discussion at Veterans Village. From that first visit, Buttigieg has acknowledged that his path is “admittedly not a traditional way to get into presidential politics.” But, as he has gained traction in other early states and nationally, he has won over supporters here as well, polling in the high single digits.

In his nine trips to the state, Buttigieg has joined UAW members in a picket at the GM Reno Parts Distribution Center, toured a grow house and a dispensary, spoke at the Human Rights Campaign’s Las Vegas dinner and attended a roundtable at UMC, one day after the second anniversary of the Las Vegas shooting. He also was only one of two candidates to attend the Nevada State Democratic Party’s Keep Nevada Blue event in Reno, where he became the first candidate to officially file to participate in the caucus.

Buttigieg has been making a particular effort to reach out to communities of color in recent trips to the Silver State. In December, he attended an APIA town hall, a Latino community leaders roundtable, and a “black empowerment” conversation, where he faced tough questions. He also met with members of the powerful Culinary Union on Saturday.

Though the former South Bend mayor has received endorsements from a number of grassroots community leaders, he hasn’t secured much in the way of big-ticket supporters, with Wells Mayor Layla Walz and former state Sen. Patricia Farley two of his prominent endorsers.

In an effort to boost his name identification, Buttigieg went up with his first television ad in Nevada in December, a biographical spot highlighting his military service in Afghanistan and experience as mayor. He released a second TV ad last week focusing on his “Medicare for all who want it” health plan, a more conservative approach to the single-payer health care system some of his opponents favor.

While in Nevada, Buttigieg has made promises to not allocate funding to construct a high-level nuclear waste repository and said he would work to restore trust between Nevada and the Department of Energy. He hasn’t endorsed legalizing sex work nationaly, but said he wouldn’t as president stop Nevada from continuing to allow it.

Tom Steyer, center, founder of NextGen America, speaks during a panel discussion on immigration at the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Tom Steyer

Steyer, a billionaire who previously ran the progressive advocacy group NextGen, has taken a simple approach since launching his presidential campaign in July: Blanket the airwaves in the four early voting states with ads. He has spent $10.3 million on television and radio advertisements in Nevada, with an additional $270,000 booked, according to Politico.

Those ads have ranged from purely positive, biographical spots, in which Steyer introduces himself as a candidate, to contrast ads that have sought to position the billionaire as a viable alternative to President Donald Trump. He’s also run ads on a number of specific policy issues including climate change, the economy and term limits.

And those ads might just be working. A Fox News poll released Thursday showed Steyer surging to 12 percent support in Nevada, putting him 6 points ahead of Buttigieg, neck-and-neck with Warren, and only 5- and 11-points behind Sanders and Biden, respectively. That’s a significant leap from where Steyer was in the fall, when he was hovering in the mid to low single digits.

Steyer has visited the state six times since launching his campaign this summer. During those trips, he has joined UAW members in a picket at the GM Reno Parts Distribution Center and met with DREAMer moms. But he’s generally been a frequent visitor to the state as part of his work with NextGen and another group he founded, Need to Impeach. Since 2017, he has visited the state 13 times to host town halls, canvass kickoffs and other election-related events.

Steyer announced his first Nevada hire, state director Jocelyn Sida, at the end of August and his since hired 38 staffers and opened 4 offices, with more slated to open in the future. While he has received some community-level endorsements, Steyer has not yet received the support of any prominent Nevadans.

Steyer has taken a keen interest in Nevada issues, both prior to and during his candidacy. In 2018, he backed a ballot measure to put a requirement that Nevada raise its Renewable Portfolio Standard to 50 percent by 2030 into the state’s constitution, which passed with 59 percent support.

He opposes the construction of a high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain and has said that he would like to see the pot industry regulated through a combination of state and federal regulations, similar to the liquor industry. He has not weighed in on the issue of online gambling across state lines.

Presidential candidate Andrew Yang speaks during a rally at the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 525 union hall in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Andrew Yang

Though one of the earliest candidates to announce back in 2017, Yang didn’t begin staffing up in Nevada until mid-August last year. He now has a small team of 16 staffers — and plans to get to 20 by the end of the month — with three field offices, two in Las Vegas and one in Reno.

Yang’s first rally in the state was at Springs Preserve on April 23, part of his nationwide Humanity First tour. He also attended a meet-and-greet with SEIU Local 1107 the following day. Since launching his campaign, he’s been to Nevada four times and held rallies at the Rio, the Clark County Library and Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 525, among other locations. He was one of two candidates to attend the progressive People’s Forum in October.

Yang has not received any top-tier endorsements in the Silver State, nor has he run any television ads.

He has, however, developed some policies out of his visits to Nevada. After he was asked why MMA fighters aren’t allowed to unionize, Yang released a plan specifically to help them. He also released a plan to federally regulate online poker in response to a question about why online poker is state regulated and only legal in some states. (Some of Yang’s top donors from Nevada are professional gamblers.)

At the People’s Forum, Yang received some blowback for saying that he doesn’t have a “terrific answer” on Yucca Mountain. However, he told The Nevada Independent that he believes nuclear waste is a “national problem” and “should not be saddled with the people here in Nevada.”

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaks during a rally in Las Vegas on Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Amy Klobuchar

Though she has been campaigning aggressively in Iowa — she just had 99 “day of action” events in each of the Hawkeye State’s 99 counties — Klobuchar has only recently begun to turn her attention to Nevada.

It’s not to say that she hasn’t visited the state. She has, both early and often. During her first visit to the state in early April, she hosted a meet-and-greet with voters, toured a local middle school and spoke at a labor conference. She was also one of the earliest candidates to visit Northern Nevada, attending a veterans roundtable at the Fox Brewpub in early May. This weekend she met with members of the Culinary Union, marking her 10th visit to the state.

But the Minnesota senator just started staffing up in Nevada, announcing her first two hires, a state director and political director, at the end of November. She has also opened a campaign headquarters in Las Vegas.

On the trail here, Klobuchar often talks about her friendships with the two women who represent Nevada in the U.S. Senate, Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen, and peppers her speeches with other Nevada-specific references, talking often about Reid and electoral and legislative victories in the SIlver State. She has not received any major endorsements or run any television ads in Nevada.

Like many of her fellow Democratic presidential contenders, Klobuchar has stressed her opposition to building a high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. She also supports legalizing marijuana.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, left, during the Boulder City parade on Thursday, July 4, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Cory Booker

Booker, the junior U.S. senator from New Jersey, wants to win Nevada’s Feb. 22 caucus. Of course he wants to be president. But he also wants to win the state where his mom, Carolyn, has lived since 2013.

“We are doing what we believe we need to do to win Nevada,” Booker told the Independent in a podcast interview last month. “It is very personal to me, the state where my mom will caucus.”

Booker’s first memory of Las Vegas is from a cross-country road trip with his grandparents, who became one of the first families to buy into one of the Del Webb communities here. His parents moved to Las Vegas seven years ago, shortly before his father passed away.

Since launching his presidential campaign at the beginning of February, Booker has been to Nevada 11 times, more than any other Democratic presidential hopeful still in the race. His first campaign stop, on Feb. 24, was to Nevada Partners where he hosted a “Conversation with Cory” event.

Booker was also in Las Vegas for the 4th of July — cooking pancakes and marching in the 71st Annual Boulder City Damboree Parade — and Rep. Steven Horsford’s Labor Day barbecue at Craig Ranch Regional Park. He’s the only candidate to have toured a correctional center, Florence McClure, in Nevada and one of a handful of candidates to have met with the Douglas County Democrats in person at their office in Minden in April.

Of the smaller campaigns, Booker has one of the bigger staffs, with more than 20 paid, full-time staffers, including some who were hired as early as March. The campaign has two offices in Nevada, in Reno and Las Vegas, and is in the process of opening an additional Las Vegas office and securing other office space by the end of the month.

Booker has a few notable Nevada endorsers, including Assemblywoman Selena Torres, North Las Vegas City Councilwoman Pamela Goynes-Brown and the Clark County Black Caucus. Torres had chosen former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro as her first pick, but realigned her support to Booker when Castro dropped out of the race.

The New Jersey senator released his first television ad in Nevada, as well as other markets across the nation, on the day of the December Democratic debate. In it, he made a pitch for his campaign, despite the fact that he did not qualify for the debate stage. Booker has been struggling in the polls in early states, including Nevada where he is hovering in the low single digits.

Booker supports decriminalizing marijuana nationwide and has said that he wants to help Nevada and other states that have already legalized marijuana on a state-by-state basis by passing legislation to increase marijuana businesses’ access to banks, allow veterans to access medical marijuana through the VA system and expunge pot convictions.

He supports online gambling and disagrees with the Justice Department opinion prohibiting all gambling across state lines. He favors decriminalizing sex work, though he believes the federal government should play a support role to the states and allow them to develop their own laws and regulations.

Booker has also promised not to fund a high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain if elected president, calling it a “very personal” issue to him since his mom lives in the state.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, left, during a presidential campaign stop at Expertise Cosmetology Institute in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Deval Patrick

When Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts, launched his late-to-the-game candidacy in mid-November, his first official trip was to the Silver State.

“It’s a little strange to be in a hall where every other candidate but mine has a cheering section already organized,” Patrick said, to the few stragglers who had remained to hear him speak at the Nevada State Democratic Party’s First In The West event at the Bellagio.

During his second trip to the state in December, he toured Expertise Cosmetology Institute and the Vegas Roots Community Garden and grabbed lunch at Gritz Cafe, where he had to be introduced to patrons.

“This is Deval Patrick,” said William McCurdy, a political strategist and father of Nevada State Democratic Party Chair William McCurdy II. “He’s running for president of the United States.”

In December, Patrick brought on Matthew DeFalco as his state director. DeFalo, who worked on Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton’s presidential campaign earlier this year, is the sole member of Patrick’s team in Nevada, and the campaign does not have any offices in the state or prominent endorsements.

He has, however, begun to run television ads in an effort to introduce himself to voters in Nevada and the other three early states.

Other candidates

The four other Democratic presidential hopefuls remaining in the race have spent significantly less time and resources campaigning in the Silver State. None of the four candidates have staffers on the ground in Nevada.

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet has made four trips to the state, participating in AFSCME’s 2020 Public Service Forum in August, swinging through Northern Nevada in August, speaking at the HLTH Conference in October and attending the state Democratic Party’s First In The West Event event in November.

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard visited Nevada early, in March, to host a town hall at the Asian Cultural Center and attend a meet-and-greet luau at United Way of Southern Nevada. In May, she toured Veterans Village, and her last visit to the state was in August for the AFSCME forum.

Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney has been to Nevada twice, for the AFSCME forum and the First In The West event.

Former New York City Michael Bloomberg has not visited the state and has said he is not campaigning in Nevada or any of the other three early voting states. He is also the only Democratic presidential hopeful whose name will not appear on Nevada’s presidential preference card.

Indy 2020: Candidates close out 2019 with final round of visits, setting stage for race to the finish in 2020

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Your Nevada 2020 election newsletter. Please read, forward and subscribe.


Good morning, and welcome to Indy 2020, a biweekly newsletter focused on the 2020 presidential election in Nevada. A reminder that email subscribers get early access to this newsletter, so be sure to subscribe and tell your friends. It’ll be peachy.

Merry Christmas Eve and happy Hanukkah! Going to keep this introduction short because I know you’re probably traveling or wrapping presents or, if you don’t celebrate, hopefully enjoying a bit of peace and solitude.

Some brief, unimportant thoughts that won’t spoil anything for you: Babu Frik is good. D-0 is extremely relatable. Zorii wasn’t given enough screen time. And I actually liked Episode IX?

As always, a reminder to reach out to me with any tips, story ideas, comments, suggestions and your thoughts on the Star War at megan@thenvindy.com.

Without further ado, a download of the recent 2020 happenings in Nevada.


TOP OF MIND

The ad wars begin (continue?): South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg went up on television with his first statewide ad last week, a 30-second spot serves to introduce him to voters in the Silver State. I originally thought this made Buttigieg the first of the top four highest polling candidates to go up on the air in Nevada, but turns out former Vice President Joe Biden quietly went up with a two-day buy in October in the four early states.

Buttigieg is also out with his first Spanish radio and digital ads in Nevada, talking about the first day after Donald Trump’s presidency.

The same day, Biden released his second TV ad in Nevada last week, a minute-long spot called the “Soul of America” that contrasts the former vice president with Trump.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker also went up on Thursday with his first television ad, which ran in Nevada and other markets across the nation during the Democratic debate.

And on Monday, billionaire Tom Steyer released his first Spanish language ad in Nevada, which will run in Las Vegas and Reno. The 30-second ad, called "Poder Económico," focuses on the 2008 financial crisis and touts the work that Steyer and his wife Kat undertook to found a nonprofit community bank as putting power back in the hands of the people.

Mayor Pete courts voters of color: Buttigieg is doing well in Iowa. And New Hampshire. The only problem? Those states are white. Really white. And Buttigieg has faced a lot of skepticism about his ability to appeal to voters of color.

Enter Nevada, the most diverse early voting state. Buttigieg spent much of his recent trip to Las Vegas courting the state’s voters of color, attending a Latino community leaders roundtable, an AAPI town hall and what was billed as a “black empowerment conversation.” But it was far from smooth sailing for the mayor, who faced significant skepticism at that meeting with black community leaders.

“I worry about your record, and how I can trust you as a voter because I vote with my life,” attendee Alexis Taylor told Buttigieg. “If I’m giving you my vote, it’s because my life is now in your hands, quite literally. How are you going to accomplish these things if you do not support getting money out of politics?”

My colleague Jacob Solis was there and has all the details.

Postmortem on the Culinary visits: We talked a little bit in last week’s newsletter about the relatively tepid reception that Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren received during a visit to the Culinary Union. Her town hall with the union was followed by two others with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Biden, who received much warmer receptions. (It’s not necessarily that union members didn’t like her — they still may not know her yet.)

Both Warren and Sanders had to contend with the Medicare-for-all question, but they handled it very differently. Warren argued that the way that union members experience their health care won’t change under Medicare-for-all, only the funding mechanism will change. The “1 percent” and big corporations will pay for it, she said. Sanders was more direct, arguing that switching to Medicare-for-all would add $12,000 to their paychecks. Biden, meanwhile, had to address the Cadillac tax, a portion of the Affordable Care Act the union has long hated. He said he was “confident” Senate Republicans would repeal it even before he got into office.

I covered Sanders’ and Biden’s visits and then stepped back to take a look at the three events as a whole.

Bernie + AOC: Sanders returned to Las Vegas on Saturday to host a rally with New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at Chaparral High School. In her introduction of the Vermont senator, Ocasio-Cortez talked about the so-called “radical” ideas that she and Sanders have.

"I'm happy to be a dangerous woman,” she said. “We should all be dangerous.”

While in town, Ocasio-Cortez also keynoted a Spanish language town hall at the Parkdale Recreation Center in Las Vegas on Sunday.

Cory returns for a two-day swing: Booker, during a two-day swing out to the state last week, hosted a “Conversation with Cory” event at Cheyenne High School, and helped kick off the state’s launch of “AAPIs for Cory” by attending a “Boba with Booker” and their first Tagalog caucus training. He also attended a roundtable discussion hosted by Mi Familia Vota and attended a community service event with Three Square Food Bank. The visit marked his tenth to the state this year.

Deval in Nevada: Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick returned to Las Vegas last week after making his debut campaign appearance at the First-In-The-West event last month. He made stops at Gritz Cafe and Expertise Cosmetology Institute, before touring Vegas Roots Community Garden.

SEIU straw poll: Sanders is leading in a new straw poll of SEIU Local 1107 members who are registered Democrats in Nevada with 33 percent support. Warren is at 20 percent; Biden at 17 percent; tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Booker and Steyer at 7 percent each; Buttigieg is at 6 percent; and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro are at 2 percent each. (Biden and Warren were neck-and-neck in the last straw poll from August.)

SEIU Local 1107 represents about 19,000 workers in the health care and public sectors across the state.


ON THE INDY

The Indy is co-hosting the February Dem debate: In case you missed the big news for our little three-year-old nonprofit, The Nevada Independent will be co-hosting, with NBC/MSNBC, the Feb. 19 Democratic debate in Nevada. Details here.

Indian County positions itself for 2020: Native leaders are preparing to make a stand in the 2020 election — starting with Nevada’s Democratic presidential caucus in February. Their message to presidential hopefuls is simple: The Native vote matters too. In this deep dive, I explored what Native organizers are doing to position themselves as a force to be reckoned with.

Booker on the pod: Booker, while in town last week, sat down with me on the IndyMatters podcast. We talked about the influence of money on who qualifies for the debate stage, impeachment, mining, sex work and more.

Sisolak won’t endorse before caucus: Gov. Steve Sisolak, in a wide-ranging interview, told my colleagues Riley Snyder and Michelle Rindels that he has no plans to endorse before the state’s Democratic presidential caucus in February.

“I told them the important thing is really not my endorsement,” he said. “It’s the Culinary worker in the back of the house at the Mirage, or the guy working on the expansion of the convention center. Those are the endorsements that are going to really matter, the working men and women and you know, I don’t think my endorsement is as important as theirs, quite frankly.”

Warren slams Bloomberg: Warren, at event in Northern Nevada two weeks ago, accused former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire, of trying to “buy the election” and said that he was attempting to “skip the democracy part” of elections by relying on massive amounts of advertising.


CAMPAIGN NUGGETS

New endorsements

  • Assemblywoman Selena Torres endorsed Castro for president. She’s picking Booker as her second choice in case of realignment. (In Nevada’s caucus process, voters are given a chance to realign their preference in support of another candidate if their first-choice candidate doesn’t receive enough votes to be considered “viable” in the caucus.)
  • Castro was endorsed by West Wendover City Councilmember Kathy Durham.
  • Booker was endorsed by North Las Vegas City Councilwoman Pamela Goynes-Brown.
  • Yerington Paiute Tribe Chairman Laurie Thom endorsed Sanders for president last week. She will serve as one of his Nevada campaign co-chairs.
  • Former state Sen. Patricia Farley endorsed Buttigieg for president. (He also received the backing of a dozen Nevada veterans and military family members.)
  • The Stonewall Democratic Club and the Clark County Left Caucus endorsed Sanders for president.
  • For the latest on presidential endorsements, check out our tracker.

Upcoming candidate visits

  • Steyer will attend a meet and greet with local business leaders at an event hosted by ArtKore Print Group, a Latino-owned union print shop in Las Vegas, on Friday.
  • Booker will return to the Silver State on Monday for yet-to-be-announced events in Reno.
  • For the latest on presidential candidate visits, check out our visit tracker.

Surrogate stops

  • Biden senior adviser Symone Sanders hosted a trivia event and young professionals happy hour at Classic Jewel in Las Vegas on Dec. 12.
  • Sanders’ national surrogates Amy Vilela, Dr. Victoria Dooley, Rabyaah Althaibani and Helen Hong attended a “Women for Bernie” panel at the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas on Dec. 14 as part of a “Women for Bernie Weekend of Organizing” in Nevada and California.
  • Jill Biden, the wife of the former vice president, was in Nevada on Dec. 20 and 21. She attended two “Women for Biden” community events in Reno and Las Vegas (the latter event was attended by Rep. Dina Titus, who has endorsed Biden) and toured a veterans guest house with Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall.
  • John Bessler, Klobuchar's husband, was in Las Vegas on Dec. 21 and 22. He met with supporters, toured a Nevada Health Centers site, dropped off toys for kids at the 19th Annual Feeding Families philanthropic drive, talked to local women candidates running for municipal court and met with community leaders in Henderson.

Other election news

  • Booker filed his paperwork in person last week to participate in Nevada’s Democratic presidential caucus.
  • Booker recently launched the campaign’s bilingual caucus training program in Nevada and hosted its first “Caucus por Cory” training at the East Las Vegas Library on Dec. 14.
  • The Nevada State Democratic Party has continued to hold Spanish-language caucus trainings, most recently on Dec. 10 and 11.
  • Trump Victory hostd a “Stop the Madness” event at the Whitney Public Library in Las Vegas on Dec. 14 ahead of the House’s impeachment vote.
  • Steyer’s campaign held a weekend of action on Dec. 13 and 15 in Nevada and the other three early states. In Nevada, the team held 25 phone banking and 29 canvassing events during which they knocked on 5,000 doors and made 12,000 calls.
  • Castro tweeted out the news of the deadliest residential fire in Las Vegas history, which broke out early Saturday morning, and called for access to safe housing. 

DOWN BALLOT NEWS

Senate Dems snub Assembly members for former state party chair: The Nevada Senate Democratic Caucus announced last week that it is endorsing former state party Chairwoman Roberta Lange in the election to replace termed-out state Sen. David Parks — and not Ellen Spiegel or Richard Carrillo, two Assembly members running for the seat. My colleague Riley Snyder has more.


OTHER REQUIRED READING

New, expensive “Welcome to Nevada” sign installed near Hoover Dam bridge

Three photos of new Welcome to Nevada signs

Workers have finished installing three large, monument-style welcome signs near the state’s borders that each cost as much as a house.

The Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) announced last week that it installed a “Welcome to Nevada” sign along Interstate 11, right after the Hoover Dam Bridge, at a cost of just less than $400,000 — the median home price in the Reno-Sparks area in November. The new sign, which is nearly 20 feet tall and eight feet wide, is made out of concrete and has the state flag in the middle made to look like the shape of Nevada. 

“Aesthetically engaging monuments like the new ‘Welcome to Nevada’ sign showcase the state’s unique heritage and identity,” NDOT spokesman Tony Illia said in a press release. “It also makes a significant first impression, stimulating tourism and attracting visitors while cultivating civic pride.”

The three marquee welcome signs are in addition to cheaper ones added by the Nevada Department of Transportation starting in 2017 to replace the traditional “lone prospector” signs that featured a drawing of a miner. The standard-size roadway signs, which NDOT says cost between $250 and $950, were designed by high school artists and were placed at 25 different border crossings.

The contract for the Boulder City sign, which is classified as a “gateway monument” according to the original bid invitation, was awarded last year to Las Vegas Paving Corporation.

The engineer’s original estimated project cost was between $300,000 and $360,000, with the final total being $396,090. Out of the original four bidders for the contract, only two had bid amounts listed with the state; the runner-up was Wadley Construction Inc., which proposed building the sign for $539,902. 

Some critics have questioned the expense, including former state Sen. Patricia Farley. As CEO and owner of Southwest Specialties Inc. and CEO of Southwest Supply Company, which specialize in concrete, pavers, masonry, and concrete coatings, the cost of the structure seemed a little steep. 

“When I read this article and the $400k number, I instantly thought, there’s no way that was over $100K in material and labor,” Farley said in an email to The Nevada Independent. “If you look at a standard concrete tilt-up building the panels are typically 8” to 10” thick and approx. 26ft to 32ft tall and cost approx. $15.00 sf installed.  Also, I noticed, the concrete color is also not a big deal and cost approx. $25.00 more per yard of concrete at the batch plant.”     

The other two monument-style gateway signs measure 14 feet tall and are located along State Route 28 by Crystal Bay on the north shore of Lake Tahoe and on U.S. 395 south of Gardnerville near Topaz Lake. One is rectangular and made out of concrete with the design of the state flag in the shape of Nevada while the second has a bottom half made of stone and concrete and the top made of slatted metal with the same Nevada shape as the others. 

GOP state Senate candidate asked 2016 opponent for forgiveness on recall efforts, help with job search

Carrie Buck meets with principals

Republican state Senate candidate Dr. Carrie Buck sent multiple text messages to Democratic state Sen. Joyce Woodhouse earlier this year expressing regret for her role in an earlier attempt to recall Woodhouse and asking for her help in applying for a high-profile position with the state.

Buck, who ran against Woodhouse in 2016 and announced her intent to run for the term-limited senator’s seat again last week, was listed on documents filed by recall organizers in late 2017 as the candidate to replace the incumbent in a drawn-out and ultimately failed recall effort.

Buck sent several text messages to the senator throughout late January and February 2019, ahead of a state Supreme Court hearing on the Republican-backed efforts to recall Woodhouse and fellow Democratic Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro.

The messages, which Woodhouse provided to The Nevada Independent and were confirmed as legitimate by Buck, include requests for an in-person meeting and feedback on her resume as part of her application for the role of state superintendent — saying that she could “improve efficiencies” at the state Department of Education because of her experience running a charter school network and as a teacher in the Clark County School District.

Buck was one of 33 applicants for the position of state superintendent; Gov. Steve Sisolak eventually appointed Jhone Ebert to the position in March.

The text messages also include an apology for her role in the attempted recalls, and to “mend things and see how I can help.”

“I’m not a recall candidate as signatures were not qualified and I don’t want to run for state senate ever again,” she wrote in a text message sent on Feb. 13. “I truly thought this was over a year ago. I would love the opportunity to sit face to face with you and apologize.”

Woodhouse, who declined the requests for a meeting at the time, said in a statement on Wednesday that she thought the text messages were “highly inappropriate and unprofessional,” raising concerns with Buck’s request to apply for a “position she wasn’t qualified for” in the midst of legal efforts to dismiss the recall efforts.

“From my point of view, the entire proposal felt very transactional,” she said in an email. “The texts were unseemly and unbecoming of someone who aspires to be a public servant.”

In an interview, Buck said she had sent the text messages as a “peace offering,” with no “malicious intent.”

“I just wanted to put politics aside, and sit down with the woman, and see what can we do to help kids,” she said. 

Buck also said that she decided to mount another run for the state Senate seat after securing permanent employment with the Pinecrest Academy, getting family support and seeing less education “accountability.” 

She said that part of her reason for reaching out was to bury the hatchet with Woodhouse, whom she accused of interfering in her attempts to gain employment elsewhere, but declined to name specific roles she had applied for.

“There’s a vendetta there on her part,” Buck said.

Asked to comment on the allegation, Woodhouse said, "The only job I have ever prevented Carrie Buck from getting was representing District 5 in the State Senate."

The recalls, which were funded by the Republican State Leadership Committee and championed by former Republican Senate Leader Michael Roberson, initially targeted Woodhouse, Cannizzaro and Republican-turned-independent Sen. Patricia Farley. 

The initial paperwork filed to recall Woodhouse was spearheaded by former Republican Assemblyman Stephen Silberkraus, who listed Buck as the intended replacement for Woodhouse if the recall attempt was successful and a special election was held. Buck said she “absolutely” regretted her role in the process, but noted that the recall effort was already “in motion” when she was asked if her name could be added to the recall documents.

Democratic lawmakers sharply criticized the attempted recalls as an abuse of the system; stating that they were filed more for political reasons than any personal malfeasance or abuse of office. The recall efforts targeting Woodhouse and Cannizzaro were initially deemed to have enough signatures to trigger a special election, but a District Court judge reversed that decision and declared the recalls dead after determining hundreds of so-called “post submittal strike requests” (requests by voters to remove their name from a recall petition after it was filed with the secretary of state’s office) were legitimate.

A last-chance appeal filed to the state Supreme Court was heard in March 2019, with the state’s highest court ruling in favor of the Democratic senators and finally ending the recall attempts in April 2019.

Inspired in part by the recall efforts, state lawmakers in 2019 approved a bill making various changes to the recall process and adding additional barriers before a recall election can be verified.

Buck narrowly lost her bid against Woodhouse in the 2016 election, with the incumbent squeaking out a 469-vote win out of more than 54,000 cast. Woodhouse is barred from running again because of legislative term limits; the Senate Democratic Caucus has endorsed literary nonprofit worker Kristee Watson in her bid for the seat. Buck was endorsed by the Senate Republican Caucus on Tuesday; a spokesman for the caucus declined to comment on the text messages.

Carrie Buck/Joyce Woodhouse text exchange by Riley Snyder on Scribd

State Senate recall case targeting Democrats argued before Supreme Court

Attorneys on both sides of attempted recalls of two Democratic state senators argued for what could be the final time before the Nevada Supreme Court on Monday, part of a last-chance appeal that could either drive a final nail in the coffin of the recall efforts or result in an unprecedented special recall election.

In oral arguments before the justices on Monday, attorneys Marc Elias and Michael K. Wall made their final pitches to the seven members of the state's highest court, as part of an appeal made by backers of the recalls challenging a Clark County District Court’s decision finding signatures for the recalls were insufficient for a special election.

Although the court’s decision will likely come in weeks or even months, it will determine whether the 18-month-plus process to qualify the recalls are finally squashed, or if Republicans will be given a long shot attempt to unseat two Democratic lawmakers and move the balance of power in the state Senate from a 13-8 Democratic majority to a narrow 11-10 split between the parties.

At the heart of the 30-minute oral argument was debate over so-called “post submittal strike requests,” which are forms allowing people who initially signed the recall petition to remove their names from the list after the petition is turned in to state officials.

Clark County Judge Jerry Wiese ruled in March 2018 that the state law allowing the strike requests was constitutional — despite a challenge by attorneys for the recall organizations — reducing the total signature count to below the threshold needed for a special recall election. But backers of the recall efforts appealed in May, asking the state Supreme Court to overturn Wiese’s decision on the withdrawn signatures and requiring a full verification of all petition signatures, which could — depending on if several alleged incorrectly stricken signatures are added back — bring the number of signatures to recall Woodhouse to the required level.

Attorney Mark Wall argues for backers of recall efforts against Democratic Sens. Joyce Woodhouse and Nicole Cannizzaro at the Nevada Supreme Court in Carson City on March 3, 2019 (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Wall, an attorney with the firm of Hutchison and Steffen, urged members of the court to follow the plain language of the state Constitution, which holds that if the target of a recall doesn’t resign within five days after a recall petition is filed, a special election “shall be ordered” within 30 days for an election.

“The Constitution demands that,” Wall said. “The Legislature can’t get together and adopt a statute and amend it in 2001 in a manner that allows them to stop the recall election. That’s not a statute that is in aid of the recall. That’s a statute that undoes the recall, and makes the recall almost an impossibility.”

Wall said that recall provisions were effectively “denied if it’s delayed,” saying that the post-submission withdrawal requests were akin to a game where the other player continues to play and score after time runs out.

“A withdrawal is like a voter in a regular election changing their mind multiple times before they vote in a poll,” he said. “A strike request is like somebody going to the polls and voting, and then having second thoughts and saying I want to withdraw my vote.”

But Justices Elissa Cadish and James Hardesty both noted that if the court granted the request of the recall backers, the court would be effectively granting a path forward for a recall election despite a full count of the submitted signatures showing that the number of valid signatures was below the threshold, with or without the challenged withdrawn signatures.

“I guess the question is, if we were to agree with your point, we would be sanctioning a recall based upon verified signatures that did not meet the constitutional or statutory requirements,” Hardesty said.

Under Nevada law, qualifying a recall election is a tall order. A successful petition requires signatures from 25 percent of voters who cast a ballot in the last election of the targeted office-holder, gathered within a 90-day period. Signatures are reviewed by local and state election officials, who take out invalid signatures in order to determine whether or not the petition hits the required threshold.

Attorney Marc Elias awaits oral arguments before the Nevada Supreme Court on Monday, March 4, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Elias, representing the state senators, said it would create a truly “absurd result” if the court were to rely on signature numbers garnered by signature sampling when it had a full count already available.

“If you take a step back, the objection coming from the other side is that we should remain blind to what the actual number of signatures is, and that we should only go with the statistical estimate of the signature number, rather than the actual of the signature number,” he said.

He said complaints by recall backers about alleged errors made by the county register on signature count should be invalid, as the case could not drag on forever as parties fought over a small batch of signatures with questionable validity.

“I've been involved in a lot of election disputes, and I've won some and I've lost some,” he said. “But at some point, the counting stops. You don't get to just keep telling the court, 'well, keep counting until I get the number that  I want.'”

Funded by the Republican State Leadership Committee and championed by former Republican state Senate Leader Michael Roberson, recall efforts against Democratic Sens. Joyce Woodhouse, Nicole Cannizzaro and Republican-turned-independent Sen. Patricia Farley were launched in the fall of 2017. Taking advantage of Nevada’s lack of a requirement for grounds to bring a recall, backers of the efforts used largely partisan language to support the recalls, including citing the targeted senators’ support for a so-called “sanctuary state” bill and other measures supported by Democrats in the 2017 session.

The petitions targeting Woodhouse and Cannizzaro were initially declared to have enough signatures to qualify for special recall elections, but Democratic group challenges and inclusion of the post-submittal strike requests drew the number of valid signatures for both petitions below the needed threshold.

Both Cannizzaro and Woodhouse said in interviews that they were confident with their cases heading into the oral arguments, and both said they were prepared for the contingency of having to run in a special election if the court reversed the District Court’s decision.

“We’ve always known that there are any number of ways in which this could ultimately end, and if we have to run in an election, then I stand ready and willing to do so,” Cannizzaro said.

Both seats will be on the ballot in 2020, though Woodhouse is prohibited from running again due to term limits.

The two senators introduced a bill draft request last June related to recall elections, but no final legislation has been introduced. Cannizzaro said the bill was still being worked on, while referencing an audit of the Nevada secretary of state’s office that found a better sampling methodology would have resulted in the recall petitions not being declared initially sufficient for a special election.

Woodhouse, who attended the hearing along with Cannizzaro and nearly half a dozen other state senators, said she was prepared to finish out her term regardless of whether or not a special election happens, but sounded some notes of frustration at the long-running legal battle over the recalls.

“It’s just unfortunate that it’s dragged on like this, and so much effort and expertise and money has been expended on something that is ridiculous,” she said. “The will of the voters put Senator Cannizzaro and I in the office, and we haven’t done anything wrong, so the recalls are just inappropriate.”

Jacob Solis contributed to this story.

Lawmakers again take up bill to allow doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs to terminally ill patients

Scanned images as seen in the imaging room during a ribbon cutting event at Dignity Health West Flamingo Campus, 9892 W. Flamingo Road, on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017.

A deeply divisive bill that would allow terminally ill patients to take life-ending drugs as prescribed by their doctors resurfaced in the Legislature on Monday after facing opposition from Republicans and Democrats when it was proposed two years ago.

The legislation, which was heard in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee during an emotional three-hour hearing on Monday, would allow patients diagnosed with a condition that cannot be cured and will result in death within six months to self-administer a controlled substance as prescribed by a physician to end his or her life. To be eligible, the patient would have to be at least 18, competent, a Nevada resident, diagnosed with a terminal condition by two physicians and voluntarily affirm that no one is coercing him or her in making the decision.

Similar legislation divided Republicans and Democrats last session when it passed 11-10 in the Senate. Democrats largely supported the measure, as did Republican Sen. Pete Goicoechea and nonpartisan Sen. Patricia Farley, while most Republicans were in opposition, along with Democratic Sens. Aaron Ford and Mo Denis.

The bill never made it to a final vote in 2017 after it died in an Assembly committee, but former Gov. Brian Sandoval would have been unlikely to sign the measure into law because he opposes the policy. A spokeswoman for Gov. Steve Sisolak did not answer a question about whether the governor would sign a physician-aid-in-dying bill into law.

“As is the case with all other bills going through the legislative process, the governor looks forward to reviewing this legislation,” Sisolak spokeswoman Helen Kalla said in an email.

Under Nevada law, terminally ill patients are only allowed to refuse treatment to keep them alive or resuscitate them but not to actively take a drug to end their lives.

To date, six states and the District of Columbia have passed similar physician-aid-in-dying laws, including California, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. Supporters often refer to such laws as “death with dignity,” while opponents characterize them as “physician-assisted suicide.”

A poll taken by the left-leaning Public Policy Polling firm in 2017 found that 72 percent of the 602 Nevadans sampled support legislation that would “allow a terminally ill adult patient to obtain a physician's prescription for medication to end his or her life, voluntarily and with informed choice.”

The legislation, SB165, specifically affirms the right of terminally ill patients “who have suffered prolonged and unbearable pain as well as the loss of physical control at the end of their lives” to a “peaceful and dignified death.” Supporters of the measure, including state Sen. David Parks who introduced the legislation, argued during the hearing that it would give agency to patients suffering from a terminal disease to end their lives on their terms.

“I have been asked by people from all across Nevada in many different legislative districts to pass this legislation,” Parks said. “Some are cancer patients who want to have the peace of mind knowing they can control their final days. Others are Nevadans who are healthy now but want to know if they are diagnosed with a terminal illness and after exploring all traditional options they will have a legal safe and peaceful option to them available to them to control the end of their life on their own terms.”

Advocate Dan Diaz, whose wife Brittany Maynard attracted national attention after she moved to Oregon to take advantage of the state’s physician-aid-in-dying law when she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, told lawmakers on the committee that it is not a “right to life or a right to choose situation” for terminally ill patients.

“Brittany’s option is only between two different methods of dying,” said Diaz, who now travels around the country pushing for other states to enact laws like Oregon’s. “One would be gentle. The other would be filled with unrelenting pain.”

During the hearing, supporters argued that the bill would just create one additional option for terminally ill patients by establishing best practice guidelines with appropriate safeguards. No physician would be required to participate in the process of ending his or her patient’s life under the legislation.

Under the legislation, the cause of death of a patient who chooses to self-administer a life-ending drug would be listed as the terminal condition with which he or she was diagnosed, something that supporters argue is accurate because the patient wouldn’t be asking for drugs from a physician if not for his or her terminal condition. But opponents argue that the act of someone taking his or her life should be ruled a suicide, no matter the circumstances.

Opponents of the bill also argued that the legislation doesn’t protect grieving patients who may not be of sound mind after receiving a terminal diagnosis to make a decision to end their lives and could allow relatives to take advantage of their dying family members. They also expressed concerns that it puts too much power in the hands of doctors and creates perverse incentives for insurance companies to encourage patients to choose death over costly, ongoing treatment.

“I’m the guy that had the two cases where the insurance companies told me by telephone that they would not accept the transfer of my two patients to California and Oregon, respectively, but, ‘By the way have you talked to them about assisted suicide?’” Dr. Brian Callister told lawmakers. “This is not about freedom and choice and autonomy.”

Kristen Hanson, an advocate with the Patients Rights Action Fund opposing the legislation, said that she was there testifying on behalf of her husband, J.J., who was diagnosed with glioblastoma, the most aggressive form of brain cancer. She said that three different doctors told them that he had four months left to live, but they didn’t listen.

“J.J. had great success with treatment … During that time our son created priceless memories with him,” said Hanson, who added that if the measure had been law at the time her husband could’ve had the legal drugs on his nightstand.

“If he had suicide pills, he said that he might have taken them,” Hanson said.

The Nevada State Medical Association testified as neutral on the legislation because the American Medical Association believes that physician-aid-in-dying proposals conflict with medical ethics.

“Physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer,” O’Mara said, reading from the AMA’s code of medical ethics opinion.

Lawmakers did not take any immediate action on the bill on Monday, and a vote on whether to advance it to the full Senate will be held at a later date.

Public careers, private lives: Part-time lawmakers must navigate inevitable conflicts

Every two years for four months, 63 lawmakers travel from all corners of Nevada where they meet as members of a part-time, citizen Legislature.

Most leave behind spouses, children, and careers, but bring a rich diversity of experiences — and, sometimes, conflicts — from back home.

Nevada’s lawmakers are tasked with squeezing two years’ worth of legislative business — including approving an $8.9 billion budget — into 120 days. Nevada is one of only four states with a Legislature that meets every other year; the other 46 have annual sessions.

The benefit of a citizen legislature, at least in theory, is that lawmakers bring a variety of career and life experiences to the lawmaking process; unlike career politicians, they must live with the laws they create when they return. The reality is more complicated.

“I think that’s the ideal, but unfortunately I think what has become of the citizen Legislature … [is] only people who have the ability to actually serve, versus maybe the most qualified people to serve,” said Democratic former Assemblyman Justin Watkins, adding that the peculiarity of Nevada’s system “results in people that have an idea towards a career in politics, not a career that they then apply into politics.”

And then there are conflicts of interest. Doctors, for example, may bring a wealth of real-world knowledge to the table when it comes to crafting health-care policy, but also create laws that could directly benefit them in their line of work.

The short session, coupled with the facts that lawmakers are relatively inexperienced compared to those in decades past and have limited staff, pushes off a significant amount of power to Nevada’s full-time governor and lobbyists who roam the halls of the Legislature.

Although they understand the ideal of laypeople making up the Legislature, some former lawmakers say they’d prefer the role was full-time so they could give it their all.

“It would be easier honestly if it was a job,” said former independent state Sen. Patricia Farley, “so if you went and did it, it was your profession.”

Assemblywoman Shannon Bilbray with her family on opening day of the 2017 legislative session on Feb. 6, 2017. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Careers and conflicts

In Nevada, the Legislature is often an entry-level job. Politicians typically get their start in the Legislature and later run for the Las Vegas City Council or the Clark County Commission, positions that represent a larger number of constituents than does a state Assembly or Senate seat.

“In most any other state you would leave, say, the City Council and run for the Legislature,” said Eric Herzik, chair of the University of Nevada, Reno’s political science department.

Although the part-time model is attractive because it doesn’t involve full-time professional politicians, the reality is not always so rosy. Lawmakers’ day jobs mean the Legislature is rife with conflicts of interest. While lawmakers typically disclose obvious conflicts of interest on legislation, they only sometimes abstain from voting.

This session, Democratic Clark County Deputy District Attorney Nicole Cannizzaro will chair the Senate Judiciary Committee and another employee of Southern Nevada’s most powerful prosecutor, Democrat Melanie Scheible, will sit on it. The committee will deal with issues that their boss, Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson, has expressed clear positions on: the death penalty and Marsy’s Law, for example.

Two Republican doctors, Sen. Joe Hardy and Assemblywoman Robin Titus, will again join legislative health committees and deal with bills that will affect their day-to-day operations — such as ones regulating opioid prescriptions.

And two Democratic educators, Brittney Miller and Selena Torres, will be members of the Assembly Education Committee. They’ll bring with them a wealth of subject-specific knowledge, but also potential conflicts as they vote on bills that will directly affect their day jobs — including a budget that gives them raises.

There will also be less obvious potential conflicts. For instance, Republican state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer is director of client relations for the lobbying firm McDonald Carano, which is already slated to represent dozens of clients this session ranging from a water authority to two medicine boards.

Some lawmakers will also continue to hold jobs in state and local government as they serve in the Legislature, something that has been a legal point of contention over the years. The Nevada Policy Research Institute, which has been outspoken on the topic, argues that all public employees are members of the executive branch and that also serving in the Legislature violates the separation of powers principle.

“The nice thing about a citizen legislature is you have people who really have to live under the rules they are then creating. You don’t have an elitist class that then gets to impose rules and exempt themselves,” NPRI spokesman Michael Schaus said. “Of course that benefit kind of goes out of the door when you do have people who are part of the government.”

NPRI filed a lawsuit against Republican state Sen. Heidi Gansert last session for working as the University of Nevada, Reno’s executive director of external relations. Schaus said that the plaintiff in the case — a man who said that he believed he would be able to fill Gansert’s position were she not occupying it — decided not to go through with an appeal after a lower court dismissed the case.

This session, more than a dozen lawmakers will work for state or local agencies or are retired public employees drawing government pensions. That group includes state Sen. Dallas Harris, an administrative attorney with the Public Utilities Commission; Assemblyman Mike Sprinkle, a Reno firefighter; and state Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, a retired public educator.

Though NPRI takes particular exception to public employees serving in the Legislature because of the power that executive branch wields, others argue that it’s no different than the conflicts created by those in private business.

“You do have government workers who get conservatives all upset,” Herzik said. “Meanwhile, they have no problem with the head of the builders association down south, or Mark Amodei, who was in the Senate and [president] of the mining association.”

Children at the Nevada Legislature on March 9, 2017. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The citizen legislature

The challenges posed by a citizen, part-time Legislature today weren’t as apparent when Nevada’s Constitution was drafted in 1864. By 1870, the population was only a little more than 42,000 — most of it in Northern Nevada — and state government was a more limited affair.

“Certainly it was the intention of the Nevada founders to have a really limited legislative body, and, for easily 100 years, it wasn’t an issue,” Herzik said. “Nevada had an incredibly small population. Prior to World War II, it was overwhelmingly concentrated in the northern part of the state. Government didn’t do much anyway.”

That changed over the decades as Southern Nevada’s population surpassed Northern Nevada’s. Today, nearly three-quarters of Nevada’s lawmakers hail from the Las Vegas Valley and make the trek to Carson City every other year for the legislative session.

Those from Elko and Pahrump face similar travel difficulties, and even the 30-minute drive from Reno or Sparks can take its toll on Northern Nevada legislators, especially after long days or in bad weather.

Some lawmakers choose to move their families up with them for the legislative session. After much research into schools and housing, Watkins brought up his wife and two daughters — then in 2nd grade and preschool — for the 2017 session.

The family approached it as an adventure, taking advantage of the weekends to visit historic Virginia City and San Francisco and learn to ski. But with his girls getting older and school demands growing, he realized the toll that all the moving would take on their academic performance.

“In a nutshell, that’s the reason that I didn’t run for re-election,” he said. “Whatever challenges we faced with my daughter in 2nd grade, we thought that they were only going to be amplified for a 3rd and 1st grader.”

Other lawmakers shell out hundreds of dollars each weekend on flights home to Las Vegas, though doing so becomes increasingly difficult as the session progresses with committee hearings that stretch into the weekends. For lawmakers with kids at home, that may mean missing important milestones.

“There was a legislator who missed his daughter’s prom because — think about when proms are — they’re closing out the budget and whatnot. He couldn’t get the flight home,” Herzik said. “There’s a terrific burden on these people.”

Watkins said he wouldn’t have considered serving in the first place if he had to live apart from his family — having them with him helped strike a healthier work-life balance.

“I don’t fault anybody who does and I think in all honesty you may be a more effective legislator if you don’t relocate with your family. But just who I am as a person, I just can’t,” said Watkins, who has no plans to return to the Legislature. “If my family had stayed in Vegas, I think that the amount of time I offer to each of those aspects of my life would have been unequal in a way that would have been harmful either to my business or to my relationship with my kids.”

Watkins said his situation was easier because he owns his own law firm. It’s more complicated for people who have to seek permission from an employer and might forgo career advancement for years as they invest in their legislative work.

“Imagine going into an employer and saying, ‘Hey, I really want this job I’m passionate about it but I’m going to leave for four months every two years,” said Elliot Anderson, a former Democratic lawmaker who did not run for re-election and instead is focusing on his legal career, with plans to clerk for a Nevada Supreme Court justice in the fall. “It’s not a recipe for success.”

Farley said it was a struggle to balance her legislative duties with her responsibilities as both a single mom and a construction business owner. As she raced out of drawn-out afternoon committee hearings to pick up her daughters from school or fretted whether the babysitter could keep watching the girls when floor sessions dragged past midnight, she also had to make payroll.

"For me, every decision I make, I have 60 families that could pay ... the ultimate price for that," she said. "I was not only doing legislative [work], but after that I had to look at receivables and payrolls and paychecks, or somebody hit somebody with a trailer. And my business wasn’t benefitting me from being there."

Assemblywoman Amber Joiner and her family on opening day of the 2017 legislative session on Feb. 6, 2017. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Lawmaker pay

Lawmakers are paid $150 for each of the first 60 days of the 120-day session, plus a $140 per diem allowance meant to cover housing, food and other living expenses. In all, that’s just short of $17,000 over a four-month session.

The financial arrangement is what has deterred former congressional candidate John Anzalone from seeking election to the Legislature. The pay doesn’t match what Anzalone makes as a high school principal in Las Vegas, which he said would put a burden on his young family. He would need to take an unpaid leave of absence from the school district to serve as a state lawmaker.

There are also calendar-related challenges. The session runs through early June, meaning Anzalone would miss a critical chunk of the academic year that includes springtime testing and high school graduation. Anzalone said he’s not sure how parents would feel about an absentee principal.

“Yes, in a way you’re working for a greater good, but on the other hand, people want to speak to the principal,” he said.

Nevada’s Legislature is technically part time, but with interim committees meeting throughout the off-season, political observers note that the lawmakers who treat it as a full-time job typically wield the most power.

“Instead of being a more democratic institution, you often have power concentrated in one or two leading legislators because they treat it as a full-time job,” Herzik said.

That’s why the Legislature has a high concentration of lawmakers with more flexible schedules, including retirees, small business owners and lawyers, whose firms are sometimes more than happy to boast that they have a legislator on staff. Others try but find that being a member of the Legislature just isn’t feasible.

“You’ve seen folks like Elliot [Anderson] and Amber [Joiner] and [Justin] Watkins and those folks who you’d think, ‘These are people I’d like to be legislators,’” said David Damore, a political science professor at UNLV. “It just wasn’t workable for them. People, they try. But it really affects who can do it.”

Money committee chairs Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, left, and Sen. Joyce Woodhouse on May 17, 2017. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Turnover in the Legislature

The difficulties associated with being a lawmaker contribute to the high turnover in the Legislature, a problem exacerbated when voters approved term limits in 1998. Since the limits kicked into effect in 2010 and capped service at 12 years in each house, Nevada has had between 15 to 21 freshman lawmakers join each session. This year, there are 17 out of 63, or 27 percent.

On the flip side, term limits have helped boost diversity within the Legislature. Nevada became the first state last year to have a female-majority Legislature and more than a third of lawmakers are people of color.

“We know that term limits obviously bring in new people, and I don’t think you can dispute how that’s transformed the Legislature in terms of the increased number of women and minorities,” Damore said. “That wouldn’t have happened with term limits.”

But turnover has also decreased the institutional knowledge within the Legislature. Democratic state Sen. David Parks, who is beginning his 12th legislative session, is term-limited and cannot run for re-election to the Senate in 2020. Democratic Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, who heads the budget committee, is on her 11th session — she ran for her current office after being term-limited in the Senate but will be term-limited in the Assembly after the 2020 election.

Although 17 lawmakers are just beginning their first terms, another 16 are only on their second. That lack of institutional knowledge among lawmakers gives veteran lobbyists and the executive branch an upper hand. Lawmakers typically rely on a single staff member, known as an attaché, for day-to-day help, and lean on their caucus’ staff for additional support.

“The governor controls all the data and all the agencies. It really strengthens the governor,” Herzik said. “What we do know in political science is the Nevada governor is not that strong on paper, but in practice he really is.”

Will it ever change?

Proponents of more frequent legislative sessions say it would raise the profile of the Legislature, giving the “people’s branch” more power instead of ceding it to the executive or judicial branches that can act year-round. Opponents say the biennial format keeps costs down, serves as a check on hasty decision-making and allows breathing room between sessions in which to study issues.

“[The Legislative Counsel Bureau] ramps up, like they’re ramping up now, hiring temporary administrative assistants, hiring more analysts and their people are earning overtime like no other,” Herzik said. “But if you went to a more professional yearly legislature, those positions would become permanent and that’s an increased cost and that’s real hard to sell in Nevada.”

A more palatable solution than an annual session might be changing the session to include 120 working days, rather than calendar days, and splitting it into one 90-day session and a shorter 30-day session in the off year — as a proposed constitutional amendment recommended last year. Another suggestion is tying legislator pay to the median income for Nevadans in an effort to help recruit and maintain a diverse pool of lawmakers.

Anderson would like to see the state paying lawmakers a base, year-round salary —  at least $60,000 a year — and health benefits, then prohibiting them from holding outside employment. That would allow lawmakers to delve more deeply into the issues they’ll work on during the session, and avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.

Watkins said he’s not bothered by the pay arrangement, but he wishes the legislative session corresponded more with the school year to ease the burden on parents. His proposal is having a 60-day session in Las Vegas one year, and a 60- or 90-day session the next year in Carson City, where summer weather is far more bearable than in Southern Nevada.

But with any major changes in the legislative structure far off at best, today’s politicians will continue to make the tough decision between pursuing what could be meaningful and impactful public service in the Legislature, and their goals for their personal and professional lives.

"It was difficult to choose between something that sometimes was the most fulfilling part of your life," Anderson said, but "when you realize it’s affecting your ability to save up for retirement, when it affects your ability to have health insurance, when it affects your ability to have a family … you really have to focus on the numbers and sense.”

Jackie Valley contributed to this report.

'No means no, Ruben' campaign launches to oppose Kihuen's City Council bid

Democratic Assemblywoman Heidi Swank and a left-leaning PAC are launching an organized campaign asking voters to oppose Las Vegas City Council candidate and former Rep. Ruben Kihuen, after he was formally censured by House Ethics officials over credible allegations of sexual misconduct by multiple women.

Swank and the “Nevada Values PAC” — which previously ran digital ads targeting Republican lieutenant governor candidate Michael Roberson — are behind a new website and political action committee called NoMeansNoRuben.com, which features graphic details and text messages released by a House Ethics Committee investigation into his inappropriate conduct around women. Kihuen announced his bid to replace retiring Councilman Bob Coffin on Tuesday.

“No matter how many times these women said no, he kept asking and asking, in more and more inappropriate ways,” the website states. “When we sent Ruben to Carson City and then Washington, he was supposed to use the power we gave him to move our country forward. Instead, he’s coming home in disgrace after using his position to sexually harass women who worked for him and with him.”

Kihuen announced last December that he would not run for re-election following publication of reports in BuzzFeed and The Nevada Independent that he had made consistent, unwanted advances toward at least three women, including a campaign staffer and lobbyist.

In a brief interview, Swank said she lived in the ward that Kihuen was seeking to represent, and was deeply troubled that the former congressman had not sufficiently apologized or taken responsibility for his actions.

“I guess for me, I feel that there hasn’t been learning demonstrated in that short amount of time. I feel he’s not taking seriously what he was found to be doing to staffers,” she said. “Personally, I feel as a woman, we need to stand by women who make true accusations. This is disrespectful of that.”

Swank said the PAC would run social media ads and send out mailers in both English and Spanish throughout the campaign, while acknowledging the difficulty in reaching voters in an off-year municipal election. Nevada Values PAC, which is also supporting the effort, is headed by former Republican-turned-Independent state Sen. Patricia Farley.

The campaign website states that it solely focused on opposing Kihuen and is not supporting other candidates in the race. Other announced candidates including former Assemblywoman Olivia Diaz, former city parks commissioner David Lopez, Melissa Clary and Shawn Mooneyham.

A primary election for City Council seats is scheduled for April 2, and unless a candidate takes a majority of the vote, the top two vote-getters will advance to a general election on June 11. Council members serve four-year terms and make about $79,000 a year in base pay, according to Transparent Nevada.