Indy 2020: Sanders wins what may be Nevada’s last Democratic presidential caucus

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


Hello, and welcome to Indy 2020, a biweekly newsletter focused on the 2020 election in Nevada. Now that the caucus is over, this newsletter will be going on hiatus until campaigning in Nevada picks up again. But be sure to subscribe and tell your friends so they can join us when we return.

Well, we made it! I was trying to do the math and I think, conservatively, I’ve been working somewhere in the ballpark of 96 hours a week since the beginning of the month, written some 40-plus stories and done some two dozen TV and radio hits. I am incredibly sleep-deprived and so ready for the world’s longest nap, but it’s been a rewarding experience and I’m grateful to all the Indy’s loyal readers for following along — and to my colleagues for helping me out on the 2020 beat this last week.

This newsletter will be a truncated version of our usual format — without the usual campaign nuggets and down ballot news — so apologies in advance for that. But we’ll go through some things to think about post-caucus as we move forward into South Carolina’s primary next week and Super Tuesday after that.

You know the drill. Email any tips, thoughts, questions, comments, suggestions and who you think the Baby Yoda to Mike Bloomberg’s Mandalorian is to megan@thenindy.com. Without further ado, a download of the recent 2020 happenings in Nevada.


TOP OF MIND

The results are in: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ win on Saturday wasn’t a huge surprise, but the margin was. He received 46.8 percent of delegates to the county convention with a 26.4-percentage-point margin over former Vice President Joe Biden, who came in second with 20.4 percent. Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg came in third with 13.9 percent, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren fourth at 9.8 percent, California billionaire Tom Steyer fifth at 4.6 percent and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar at 4.2 percent

This means Sanders should leave Nevada with 24 delegates, Biden with nine delegates and Buttigieg with three. The delegate math is kind of complicated, but essentially you have to clear 15 percent statewide in order to qualify for two types of delegates, known as at-large and PLEO (Party Leaders and Elected Officials) delegates, and only Sanders and Biden were able to do that. Buttigieg’s three delegates come from the pool of delegates allocated based on congressional districts — he came in second in the 2nd Congressional District (Northern Nevada), notching him two delegates, and third in the 3rd Congressional District (mostly suburban Clark County), netting him another one.

This tweet thread from Geoffrey Skelley over FiveThirtyEight breaks it all down.

So how did Bernie win? Mainly, a lot of early and smart organizing, and he had the money to do it. By Caucus Day he had more than 250 staffers on the ground, nearly double the size of the second largest team. (Biden had about 130 staffers here as of Caucus Day.) That allowed Sanders to both devote staffers to organizing in smaller pockets — i.e. Muslims for Bernie, Native outreach efforts and a final push for Culinary Union members — as well as just blanket the state. I sat down with Sanders’ team yesterday to talk about their final get-out-the-caucus strategy, which wasn’t so much nuance as brute force.

“One thing that’s up that’s a major trap about a caucus is people end up twisting themselves up, trying to figure out the puzzle and the strategy of all of it,” Peter Koltak, a senior adviser to the campaign, told me. “At some point it’s like if you hit hard everywhere, then you’re going to win.”

More on that from me here.

Nuggets from entrance polls: There is so much interesting information out of the entrance polls for Nevada’s caucus. Sanders won almost every single demographic: those aged 17 to 64, Latinos, white voters, women, men, Democrats, independents, first-time caucusgoers and previous caucusgoers, those with and without a college degree and union and nonunion households. Biden only won black voters, those 65 and older and those who oppose Medicare for all. If you want to explore this more, the Washington Post has a good article that sums it up in a really easy to read way.

An end to the caucus? By all accounts, Nevada’s caucus went relatively smoothly on Saturday — especially compared to Iowa’s caucus. For one, the Google Forms-based calculator used to transfer the results of early voting back to caucusgoers’ home precincts to be counted alongside their neighbors’ presidential preferences on Caucus Day appeared to work. There were some isolated reports of errors with the tool — my colleague Daniel Rothberg reported from Sparks High School that at one precinct the iPad reported zero realigned caucusgoers in the early vote — and other issues, including the late delivery of paper lists of early voters to some precincts, which caused some precincts not to check for double voters.

Had it been a close race, there might have been more fretting over these errors. So far, the only campaign to have actively complained about them is Buttigieg’s team, as I first reported yesterday. (The campaign sent the letter on Saturday just before midnight, at which point it appeared that Biden and Buttigieg were neck-and-neck for second in the race.)

All the same, former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, the architect of Nevada’s early caucus, called for all states to switch to primaries on Sunday.

I explored the ups and downs of what might very well have been Nevada’s last caucus in this piece, which published today.

Moving forward: So what happens now? Well, Sanders’ bump in Nevada is buoying him in South Carolina, a state where Biden had long held a lead. The latest polls have him at an average of about 21.4 percent to Biden’s 26.8 percent. But all eyes are on Super Tuesday, where Sanders could build an insurmountable lead.


ON THE INDY

The results story: In case you missed our results story, the final updated version is here. In it, a look at how each Democratic presidential hopeful did and how they addressed their wins and losses on Saturday night.

Our Caucus Day live blog: I know the caucus is well over by now, but my colleagues did a fantastic job running the live blog on Saturday. I’d like to give a shout out to all of them — Jackie Valley, Kristyn Leonard, Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez, Joey Lovato, Shannon Miller, Michelle Rindels, Riley Snyder, Tabitha Mueller, Luz Gray, Daniel Rothberg and Jacob Solis. Please take a look at their excellent work here. (They also did a great live blog on Friday ahead of the caucus, which you can read here.)

Precinct 1612: On Saturday, I embedded myself within one precinct at Durango High School to observe the caucus from start to finish. Things went relatively smoothly, except for a minor hiccup with figuring out how to orient the iPad and a minor scuffle between the precinct chair and an observer, who tried to interject during the caucus process. But if you want to see how the caucus is generally supposed to work, I’d recommend checking out my tick-tock on the process.

The rural Nevada impact: Daniel Rothberg and Tabitha Mueller did an excellent job with this story looking at how support in rural Nevada can turn the tides in the caucus. Even though the caucus is over, this is really important context to have as you look at the county-by-county results, which show Buttigieg won Douglas, Pershing, Nye and Lincoln counties and Steyer won Mineral County. Sanders won all of the other counties.

Trump in town: My colleague Jackie Valley followed around President Donald Trump for two days in Las Vegas, including his appearance at a Hope for Prisoners graduation on Thursday and a rally on Friday.

Biden on Obama-era deportations: Biden, more than a month after hinting his opposition to President Barack Obama’s controversial deportation policy at a town hall in Las Vegas, walked back those comments in an interview with me on Friday. More on my chat with him here.

Some caucus photo essays: Indy photographers fanned out across the state to observe the caucus process on Saturday. They got some fantastic shots that are really worth checking out. We also put together a photo essay of candidates making their final pitches to voters ahead of Saturday’s caucus here.

And so many other stories: If I listed all of the stories we’ve written in the last several weeks long, you’d never finish this newsletter! So if you’re interested, please check out the rest of our coverage — from the debate to outside spending in Nevada — here.


OTHER REQUIRED READING

  • Warren’s supporters struggled to make up their minds in Nevada (Slate)
  • After his big Nevada win, is anyone going to be able to beat Bernie Sanders? (BuzzFeed News)
  • Sanders wins big with Latino voters in Nevada (PBS NewsHour)
  • Takeaways from the caucus (Washington Post)

Smart, early organizing in communities of color helped propel Sanders to victory in Nevada

As the politically powerful Culinary Union warned that Bernie Sanders would “end'' their union health care if elected president, the Vermont senator’s campaign was quietly canvassing their rank-and-file membership.

In the three weeks leading up to Saturday’s Democratic presidential nominating contest in Nevada, a team of a couple dozen organizers fanned out across the Las Vegas Strip to properties where casino workers unable to leave work to caucus would be able to participate at at-large precincts while on shift, including the Bellagio, Harrah’s, Mandalay Bay, Paris, Park MGM, the Rio and Wynn. 

The Sanders campaign had been courting the predominantly immigrant, working-class Culinary members at their homes — knocking on their doors, sending mailers, calling them and running ads on their TVs — for months. But in the home stretch, the campaign took its final pitch right to the employee entrances of the hotels where workers would be able to caucus. It was a strategy adapted from the campaign’s successful efforts organizing immigrant meatpackers in Iowa.

“A lot of people are busy, they're coming into work or they're leaving and trying to get home,” said Sarah Michelsen, Sanders’ state director. “But they would stop and have conversations with us because they were like, ‘What are you doing here? Why are you standing in the parking garage?’”

They talked about health care, sure. The union opposes Sanders’ Medicare-for-all plan on the basis that it would replace their members’ much-loved health insurance with a government-run system they fear wouldn’t provide as good of benefits as their gold-standard plan. But campaign organizers also talked about the Vermont senator’s plans to provide free college for all, address climate change and bolster unions.

The campaign had no idea whether their organizing efforts would work, especially with the union actively circulating anti-Sanders flyers. Heading into Saturday’s caucus, the campaign’s only hope was that Sanders would receive at least 15 percent support in each of the seven at-large Strip precincts, which would qualify him for delegates to the county convention out of those sites.

Sanders ended up winning five of the seven Strip precincts, not only suggesting that rank-and-file Culinary members rejected their union’s messaging on Sanders but that an overwhelmingly female, multi-racial group of voters was able to get behind his ambitious, progressive agenda. It also proved how effective the campaign’s leave-no-stone-unturned approach to organizing in historically underrepresented, low-turnout communities could be.

“This was the chance to really create that narrative and really prove that theory of the case,” Michelsen said. “We knew that this was going to be a really very important piece of the momentum that we needed to build to win.”

And win in Nevada he did. Sanders emerged from Saturday’s caucus not only with 46.8 percent support but a 26 percentage point lead over his next closest competitor, former Vice President Joe Biden. Political observers in Nevada anticipated a Sanders win, but they didn’t anticipate exactly how much he would win by.

“He ended up running away with it,” said Laura Martin, the executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.

Political activist Cornel West, left, introduces presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders during the opening of the Bernie 2020 East Las Vegas Office grand opening on Saturday, July 6, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The Sanders organization

For the Sanders campaign, there was no complex calculus about where to devote resources ahead of Nevada’s caucus. Where other campaigns had to be strategic about where they spent their time and money, Sanders, who raised $25.2 million in the last fundraising quarter, could afford to be and spend everywhere. The campaign began staffing up in Nevada in March and had more than 250 staffers on the ground by Caucus Day, outnumbering the next-biggest presidential campaign team by nearly two to one.

“One thing that's up that's a major trap about a caucus is people end up twisting themselves up, trying to figure out the puzzle and the strategy of all of it,” said Peter Koltak, a senior adviser to the campaign. “At some point it's like if you hit hard everywhere, then you're going to win.”

But there was at least some logic to it. For instance, the campaign deployed what Michelsen described as a full “Election Day-style turnout mechanism” for each of the four days of early voting last week ahead of the caucus. That included hosting get-out-the-vote events in both Northern and Southern Nevada, including a “Unidos con Bernie” soccer tournament in East Las Vegas, and then giving supporters rides to the polls.

“We made a Bernie trophy for them and then we drove them to the polls,” Michelsen said. “It was a community event that felt natural to them in the way that they normally gather, and then they got to have the exciting civic experience of voting together as a community during the early vote.”

In total, the campaign estimates that it gave dozens of rides to voters, including from five mosques, the popular Filipino supermarket Seafood City, and the popular Latino supermarket Cardenas Market.

The success of that final get-out-the-caucus effort was, in part, predicated on the time and money spent on a massive field organizing effort — what Michelsen referred to as the “sweat equity” of the campaign — that knocked a half million doors between when it started in June and Caucus Day. 

“People recognize that and they see that when they've seen you at their door multiple times, when they're used to getting your literature on their door, when you've called them over and over, when you're starting to get to know them,” Michelsen said.

They also engaged in an extensive relational organizing effort, a hub-and-spoke strategy where Sanders supporters reached out to their personal networks and used their social capital to persuade friends and family members to caucus for the Vermont senator. That effort, campaign aides believe, proved particularly critical to Sanders’ successes among voters of color. Entrance polls show that Sanders won 51 percent of voters who identify as Hispanic or Latino and 27 percent of voters who identify as black.

“What is often forgotten is that particularly in Latino communities and communities of color, the networks are very strong, the family bonds,” said Susana Cervantes, Sanders’ field director in Nevada. “It just comes down to finding supporters and then asking them to talk to their friends, family and neighbors. I know it sounds simple, but that's what it comes down to.”

Even operatives working on rival campaigns were impressed by the Sanders operation.

"I can say without a doubt they were the only campaign that really took the hashtag #WeMatter seriously,” said Megan Jones, a longtime political consultant in Nevada who worked on California Sen. Kamala Harris’s campaign. “They were invested deeply in all parts of the communities that they were organizing in.”

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders greets a supporter at a Mijente's El Chisme 2020 event at UNLV in Las Vegas
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders greets a supporter at a Mijente's El Chisme 2020 event at UNLV in Las Vegas on Saturday Sept. 14, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Courting communities of color

While Biden bested Sanders among black voters, no other candidate came close to approaching the level of support that Sanders — nicknamed Tío Bernie, or Uncle Bernie — received from Latino voters. Precinct-level data also show that he was by far the most popular candidate in the predominantly Latino neighborhoods in East Las Vegas, which is also where Sanders opened his first campaign office in July.

The campaign attributes those successes, in part, to young Latino supporters winning over their parents and grandparents.

“The first generation depends on their kids who are growing up here to help them. You grow up having influence and your parents listen to you because they depend on you,” Cervantes said. “It's very powerful to have all this youth behind us, especially in the Latino community.”

Cecia Alvarado, state director for the Latino voting rights organization Mi Familia Vota, said that Sanders was able to appeal to the Latino community in a deep and authentic way that other candidates were not. She also noted the way that he strategically used surrogates to boost his campaign — and not just Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who hosted a Spanish-language town hall for Sanders in Las Vegas in December, but also José La Luz, a Puerto Rican labor activist who attended several events on Sanders’ behalf in Las Vegas this week.

“The lack of investment in our community has shown in the past, always,” Alvarado said. “I think with Senator Sanders campaign we learned when you invest in the Latino community, when you are talking with Latinos about immigration, about health care, they show up.”

But the Sanders campaign didn’t reserve that level of investment just for the Latino community, though. Nine months ago, Miles Cooper, a political associate on Sanders campaign, and physician Zaffar Iqbal launched “Muslims for Bernie.” The group, which met on Sundays, focused on how to pitch Sanders’ message with a level of cultural fluency to Muslims, who make up less than 1 percent of the state’s population, that non-Muslims wouldn’t have.

“They did a lot of mosque visits, going to mosques at prayer time and reminding people about when they can vote, how they can vote,” Michelsen said. “It's different than if we just tabled at the mosque the week before the election.”

The campaign also spent time getting to know local issues and using Sanders’ platform to draw attention to them, particularly within Indigenous communities, who make up nearly 2 percent of the state’s population. The Sanders campaign released a video in May highlighting Native concerns over the possible construction of a long-term high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, and after meeting with tribal leaders after a campaign stop in Elko in December, Sanders came out against oil and gas drilling in the Ruby Mountains.

“It nets votes because people understand that it's real. If campaigns are super slick and are all about paid media and are all about the most poll-tested messaging, people can smell bullshit from a mile away,” Michelsen said. “We didn't meet every native American voter, but those are strong family networks too, and they could see the work that we were doing from the beginning.”

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders holds a rally in City Plaza in downtown Reno, Nev., on Wednesday, May 29, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Media and momentum

It wasn’t just smart organizing, either. The campaign also undertook a substantial paid media campaign that included sending mail to Latino households beginning in the late summer and continuing through February, as well as a digital campaign targeting all of the campaign’s audiences beginning in late November. According to The New York Times, Sanders spent about $407,000 just on Spanish-language ads in Nevada.

“We just sort of never said anything about it because we wanted to kind of fly under the radar with how aggressively we were coming on,” Koltak said. “By the time that we actually got to the TV wars, we'd actually already been communicating with people, both from an organizing perspective and a paid media perspective for a really long time.”

Of course, the momentum out of Iowa and New Hampshire helped Sanders here too. The Vermont senator won the popular votes in both states, with former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg close on his heels. But Nevada represented his first substantial margin of victory, separating him from what has been a crowded pack of Democratic presidential hopefuls over the course of the race.

“I used to joke with people like, we’re third and we’ll be ready for the handoff. What you hand us off is up to you,” Koltak said. “Luckily they handed us off a campaign with a little momentum coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire, and then because of the work we had already put in here and the demographics of the state and a variety of other factors, we were ready to take that and blow it up.”

And unlike many of his competitors, Sanders wasn’t starting from scratch in this Democratic presidential race. In fact, he only lost Nevada to Hillary Clinton by 5 percentage points in 2016, a far closer race than anyone had anticipated and positioning him well for this year’s contest.

“He has had time for his message to percolate since 2016,” said Annette Magnus, executive director of Battle Born Progress. “In 2016, people didn’t know who he was. Since 2016, he has been on the scene, he’s a known commodity, people understand what he’s talking about.”

But those who watch politics closely in the Silver State note that his message has a particular resonance and urgency now in a way that it didn’t four years ago, before Donald Trump became president. Clark County Democratic Party Chair Donna West pointed in particular to the issue of health care and the Trump administration’s efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act compared to Sanders’ Medicare-for-all policy.

“We’ve seen such a deterioration of the ACA and the attacks on it. There’s so much fear there about people having to pay more or losing coverage or knowing they or a loved one has a pre-existing condition and not having health insurance,” West said. “That message just comes on so strong, and I think it really resonated here.”

The question now is how that message will resonate through the rest of the nominating contests and, should he ultimately prove successful, among a general election electorate. Sanders’ thesis is that his campaign is expanding the electorate and bringing voters into the fold who might not have otherwise ordinarily participated in the electoral process. And it’s possible he’s right. More than 10,000 people newly registered as Democrats during early voting and more than 50 percent of early voters had never caucused before.

Jones said there are “plenty of downsides, frankly, to Bernie being the general election nominee.” But she does believe he is making an impact on Nevada's Democratic electorate.

“I would imagine that a large percentage are new caucusgoers for Bernie and new registrants to Bernie, which speaks to the power of organizing,” Jones said.

In analyzing the Vermont senator’s victory in Nevada, Sanders campaign aides talked a lot about that organizing heft. But there was one point they kept circling back to: his message.

“I think that we can talk about tactics and a strategy and all kinds of various campaign topics, but at the end of the day, people need something to vote for,” Cervantes said. “I could talk to my neighbors. I can talk to my family. I can do all of that. But people need to feel that there's something to vote for, and I think we have that. Bernie does that.”

Supporters listen as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally at Springs Preserve on Friday, Feb. 21, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Working class roots, experience as criminal prosecutor led Nicole Cannizzaro to top role in Senate

Just days into her second session as a state senator, Democrat Nicole Cannizzaro gaveled in a joint hearing on a bill to implement universal background checks on gun sales and transfers.

The hearing room was packed with hundreds of citizens eager to testify on the legislation, which proposed to implement a version of a ballot measure that voters had narrowly approved two years earlier but had never been implemented amid technical concerns. Democrats — having claimed the governor’s mansion and secured comfortable majorities in the Legislature — held all the power to rush it into law.

But Cannizzaro didn’t truncate the hearing as it carried on for eight hours. She heard out survivors of the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas as they shared heart-wrenching stories, but mostly the committee received testimony from opponents on everything from technical concerns to fears that it would lead to government confiscation of guns, politely cutting into impassioned testimony to let each person know when his or her two minutes were up and thanking each for his or her comments.

“She was very thoughtful and very patient with a lot of people. She made sure that everybody's voice was heard,” said Sen. Scott Hammond, a Republican on the committee. “There were no complaints from anybody that I heard of about how the meeting was done.”

It wasn’t until the following day that Cannizzaro, a prosecutor, rendered her verdict publicly on the legislation, delivering a searing rebuttal of criticisms raised by the legislation’s opponents.

“This is not about hating guns ... I think there are reasons why people have guns in their homes,” she said. “This bill is about saying that if you are a felon, if you are a domestic abuser, if you’re subject to a stalking order and you should not have a gun that you can’t go to a private seller on Craigslist and get it without going through a background check, and we should be that responsible.”

The bill passed and was quickly signed into law by Gov. Steve Sisolak, but only two weeks later, Cannizzaro would once again be thrust into the spotlight: Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson suddenly resigned after announcing that he would plead guilty to federal charges of misappropriation of campaign funds. The remaining members of the Senate Democratic Caucus quickly voted to make Cannizzaro their new leader, elevating a 36-year old sophomore to the top role in the Senate and making her the first woman in state history to occupy that post.

“There wasn't a single person who had any feelings that this is not the way we should go. We all knew that Nicole was our next leader,” said Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse. “Everybody at the table in the caucus wanted to make the motion.”

In her two years in the Legislature, Cannizzaro has earned a reputation as a fair, decisive leader who is still approachable and fosters collaboration. Her style differs from Atkinson who, as chair of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee last session, was known to scold witnesses who did not bring their concerns to him prior to a hearing and was not shy about revealing his own feelings about bills.

But she also views criminal justice reform through a distinct lens as a criminal prosecutor — a fact that critics fear could doom ambitious bills to move away from “tough on crime” policies and reduce the prison population.

Even Atkinson, shortly before resigning, said during a press conference announcing Democratic legislative priorities that he and other members of the caucus relied on Cannizzaro to “make us look good.”

“Someone mentioned the other day that they hoped I wasn’t intimidated by how smart she was,” he said. “And she can tell you, I’m not intimidated. When they told me how smart she was, I gave her more work.”

Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro on the first day of the 2019 legislative session on Monday, Feb. 4, 2019 in Carson City, Nev. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Working class roots

As a second-grader, Cannizzaro whiled away her afternoons at the Gourmet Cafe near the Las Vegas courthouse, where her mom worked as a waitress, staring wide-eyed at the suit-clad lawyers having business lunches.

Cannizzaro didn’t know anyone who wore suits to work. Her waitress mom and bartender dad both wore uniforms to work and saved the suits for weddings and funerals.

Though she had no idea what exactly lawyers did, she decided then and there to be one.

“I obviously didn't realize the kind of work that would go into that kind of career,” Cannizzaro said, “but I think when you're a little kid, and you're being exposed to the world and the things around you, those experiences can be impactful.”

In eighth grade, Cannizzaro penned a paper about how she was going to go to law school, become a law professor, and travel the world. Her mom told her that if that’s what she wanted, she needed to go to school and work hard.

Neither of her parents had graduated high school.

“They're immensely smart and caring and kind and have a work ethic of the kind of people that you just go, ‘Wow, how can you do so much in one day?’” Cannizzaro said. “But when you don't have that education, those opportunities just don't exist.”

So Cannizzaro’s mom made sure that her daughter sat down to finish her algebra homework and even assigned her extra book reports.

“Even though my mom couldn't have helped me solve my algebra problems, the fact that she made me sit down and do them I think was important,” Cannizzaro said.

Her dad bartended for more than two decades at the Holiday Inn, now Harrah’s. Cannizzaro said that her dad, who passed away several years ago from cancer, taught her about being a people person.

“Being able to make people laugh or smile — sorry,” she said, pausing to wipe away a tear, “being able to make people laugh and smile and engage with them and learn about what it is they do, I think is such a beautiful piece of what he taught me.”

Sean McDonald, who has known Cannizzaro and her family for about a decade and works with her husband, Nate Ring, a labor attorney who has lobbied before the Legislature, said that growing up in a working-class household continues to inform Cannizzaro’s worldview.

“In light of the fact that Nicole didn’t have everything handed to her on a silver platter growing up, I think she is constantly rooted in making sure we’re thinking about average, everyday Nevadans as opposed to the privileged few,” he said.

In high school, Cannizzaro was on the swim team, ran track and participated in speech and debate. But those things cost money, so she got a job as a hostess at the Black Angus where her mom waitressed.

Cannizzaro said the job taught her about responsibility, decision-making and how to work with people.

“It is hard physically, and it is hard to stand there and get screamed at by people,” she said. “How you deal with that or how you cope with that I think is helpful.”

She continued to work as a waitress when she went to the University of Nevada, Reno, and became the first person in her immediate family to attend college. When she went to Boyd Law School, she finally gave up waitressing in favor of working as a research and teaching assistant.

She spent a summer in the Las Vegas city attorney’s office and another working for the chief justice of the Delaware Supreme Court. During the 2009 legislative session, she worked as a legal extern for lobbyist Sam McMullen.

McDonald, who met her that year, said he didn’t foresee her political future at the time.

“If I was asked ‘Is Nicole somebody who is heading to public office,’ I probably wouldn't put her on that list,” he said.

After stints at a small insurance defense firm and a commercial civil litigation firm, Cannizzaro joined the Clark County district attorney’s office. She did criminal appellate work as a law clerk, before moving into the juvenile division.

Short on space, the district attorney’s office assigned Cannizzaro to share an office with another new hire named Jason Frierson. The two had gotten to know each other during a prior legislative session.

“We clicked. We had a good working chemistry,” said Frierson, who has since become the Assembly speaker. “We certainly bonded over dealing with the emotional and intellectual challenges that come along with trying to protect children, but also respecting the children's rights.”

In that role, Cannizzaro said she worked on juvenile delinquency cases, including many cases with young girls involved in prostitution, as well as child welfare cases, in which the state gets involved with removing children from their parents.

“It's really tough work,” Cannizzaro said of her time in that division.

From there, she transferred into her current role as a deputy district attorney within the criminal division, where she handles a wide range of cases from misdemeanor domestic battery to robberies, sexual assaults and murder.

Though their paths diverged when Cannizzaro left to go to the criminal division, Frierson said Cannizzaro has proven herself in the district attorney’s office.

“She was compassionate and smart … I think she's just an effective lawyer in court,” Frierson said. “I think there's a certain presence. Not every lawyer is comfortable with that aspect of the job.”

Democratic Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro as seen on the floor of the state Senate on March 9, 2017. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Becoming a Democrat

Cannizzaro didn’t grow up in a political household. When her class held a mock presidential election in fourth grade, her parents refused to tell her whether they were backing Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush or Ross Perot.

“I distinctly remember very much wanting my parents to tell me, ‘What is it that you are? Who are you supporting? Who are you voting for?’ They refused,” Cannizzaro said. “I still don't know to this day who my parents voted for in that election.”

But Cannizzaro’s parents impressed on her the value of giving back to her community. Her family routinely brought donations to Safe Nest, a domestic violence shelter and counseling center, and put together Thanksgiving boxes even though her family didn’t have a lot for the holiday either.

Those experiences helped shape Cannizzaro’s political ideology.

“I don't know if there was a specific moment where I said, ‘I'm a Democrat,’” Cannizzaro said. “I think just the way that my parents allowed me to engage with the world and make my own decisions ... I think if I had come out and said I was a Republican and I was very conservative, they would have been equally supportive of that.”

It was only later in life that Cannizzaro found out her parents were Democrats, too.

But there were early signs that she would pursue public office. She was in student government during law school, and at her mom’s house, Cannizzaro recently found an old photo of herself in fourth grade holding up an “Elect Nicole Cannizzaro for Treasurer” sign done with stencils and markers.

Her 2009 externship at the Legislature planted the seed for her 2016 run. She worked on amendments to bills and did research about how similar proposals had worked out in other states.

“I think the actual experience of being here and watching the legislative session progress, really instilled in me that you can come here and do really good work, and it's interesting and it's impactful,” she said.

Her exposure to the legislative process, as well as dealing with changes the Legislature makes that affect her day job, prompted questions: “Why aren't we paying more attention to education? Why are we making these changes in the law?”

“If you ask that question too much, I'll warn you … eventually someone may say to you, ‘If you are that interested and passionate about it, maybe you should consider running,’” Cannizzaro said.

Chaired by Democratic Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro, members of the Assembly and Senate Judiciary committees listen during testimony on SB143 (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Political beginnings

After the 2014 midterm elections, when Democrats lost every race for statewide office and control of both houses of the Legislature, the party was looking to rebuild.

Peter Koltak, a top aide to former Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford, said the party’s path to reclaiming the majority ran straight through Senate District 6, a suburban northwest Las Vegas district last won by Republican Mark Hutchison by less than two percentage points, or a little more than 900 votes.

Hutchison ran successfully for lieutenant governor in 2014 and his appointed successor, Mark Lipparelli, opted to not run for a full term, leaving the district open and a prime target for both parties in 2016.

Cannizzaro had thought she might run in the distant future, but decided to reach out to the Senate Democratic Caucus that year after encouragement from her family and friends. It ended up being “the right opportunity at the right time,” she said.

She already had a clear list of priorities and support lined up, which impressed the caucus.

“She was one of the hardest working I’ve ever seen campaigning. She hardly took a day off of knocking doors, for at least a year. She would find time to do her fundraising while doing a full-time job,” Koltak said, adding that she “really proved to her voters but also to the people who are around here, the other legislators and stuff, that she was working hard to earn it.”

Democratic Sen. Melanie Scheible, then one of Cannizzaro’s newest colleagues at the district attorney’s office, volunteered on the campaign, and said she had the unique experience of getting to know Cannizzaro as both candidate and colleague at the same time.

She recalled drowning under a mountain of work and campaign commitments one day and sending an “SOS” text to Cannizzaro, who promptly dropped by her office, picked up a case file and handled a hearing, no questions asked.

“[It] just reminded me of how lucky I was, what a team player she was,” Scheible said. “I was just so, so thankful to her because she got it done without any hesitation.”

In the end, Cannizzaro ended up defeating former Republican Assemblywoman Victoria Seaman by about 2 percentage points, flipping control of the Senate to an 11-10 Democratic majority. The district is swingy enough that the two Assembly districts nestled within it split between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

“She had just like the perfect mix of skills and attitude for a tough race, a really tough race,” Koltak said. “It should be underscored just how tough that was.”

In the Legislature, Cannizzaro was appointed chairwoman of the Senate Legislative Operations and Elections Committee, and became vice chair of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee — a plum role for any legislator, much less a freshman.

Former Democratic Sen. Tick Segerblom, an unabashed progressive who chaired Judiciary Committee in 2017, said he was initially skeptical of Cannizzaro’s background as a prosecutor but was impressed by her abilities as a legislator and called her “fair-minded.”

“It actually was a good balance for me, because you know I’ll vote for anything, so to bounce things off of and get a good perspective was helpful,” he said.

Democrat Aaron Ford, who was Senate majority leader in 2017 before assuming his role as attorney general, said “deliberative” is the word he would use to describe her style.

“She knows how to get to the crux of an issue, she knows how to wade through non-issues that sometimes are presented in a way to muddy up the issues,” he said.

McDonald, who said he spoke with Cannizzaro often when she would return home to Las Vegas during the 2017 session, said she was often her harshest critic and worried about if she was measuring up as a freshman legislator.

“The fact that she was worried about whether she was doing a good job to me spoke volumes, because it was showing a degree of introspection and reflection,” he said.

Democratic Sens. Julia Ratti, Nicole Cannizzaro, Joyce Woodhouse, Marilyn Dondero Loop and Pat Spearman listen during oral arguments at the Nevada Supreme Court in Carson City on March 4, 2019 (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Fighting for survival

Though colleagues praised her performance as a freshman, more difficulties lay ahead. Months after the end of the session, a national Republican group launched an effort to recall her and two other senators.

The recall effort was, on the surface, based on the senator’s votes for “pro-felon and anti-business” legislation heard in the 2017 session, but successful recalls would have given Republicans a leg up in reclaiming control of the state Senate amid an unfavorable 2018 electoral map.

The three senators faced an expensive, off-season fight for political survival. Cannizzaro said she knows it’s her duty to go out and make the case to constituents that she’s the best person for the job, but the recalls frustrated her.

“I don't think that anybody wants to be the subject of a recall,” she said. “It’s the worst kind of political game. The thing that frustrates me the most is that this is exactly the kind of thing that people hate about politics.”

In total, more than $1 million went into collecting signatures for the recalls and the Democrat-led effort to defeat them. Although both the recalls against Cannizzaro and Woodhouse were initially found to have enough signatures to qualify for a special election, legal challenges on the signature-gathering process presented by Democrats were successful.

But the matter of whether a recall election should be held is still ongoing — recall backers have an ongoing appeal before the Nevada Supreme Court. Cannizzaro has indicated that she is still prepared to run in a special election should the higher court mandate one, but said the process has helped her get to know her district even better.

For Koltak, the silver lining of the recall effort was to bolster Cannizzaro’s campaign skills and allow her to run essentially an extra election in her first term, likely to set her up for success in 2020.

“It would be foolish to underestimate her skills as a campaigner and her skills in the Legislature,” Koltak said. “I wouldn’t f— with her, frankly, if I were on the other side, because she will beat you.”

Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro hugs former Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson after he delivered his resignation speech on the Senate floor on March 5, 2019 (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

Reshaping the session

With her leadership roles, Cannizzaro was “perceived to be the future of the Senate anyway,” Frierson said. But nobody expected what happened on March 6.

Cannizzaro said she learned just hours beforehand that Atkinson would be resigning his post and pleading guilty to a federal charge of wire fraud over hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars diverted to personal use.

“I just want to be very clear that myself, and staff, became aware of this late the night before,” Cannizzaro said shortly after, “and we obviously, immediately, upon finding out that this was happening, acted quickly to put in an interim leadership structure so we can address what we need to do as a caucus, which is to move our priorities and our legislation.”

After assuming leadership, her first major test was shepherding Marcia Washington, the caucus-backed pick to replace Atkinson, through the Clark County Commission’s appointment process. They expressed some heartburn, but commissioners ultimately sided with the caucus on Washington, viewed as a temporary caretaker for the seat, and rejected Assemblywoman Dina Neal, who wants to run for the seat in 2020 — and who would have been a more permanent pick.

Through that appointment, Cannizzaro proved herself to be equally as adept as Atkinson was in establishing a specific vision for the caucus and executing it. But her style is different: She’s more disciplined than her predecessor in cultivating her public image and less prone to being short with witnesses.

Frierson said that he and Cannizzaro are similar in their approach to leadership.

“I think she shares my interest in advancing a measured approach to the policies we are considering,” Frierson said.

While Cannizzaro is widely respected among both lawmakers and lobbyists, her appointment has raised questions about where the Legislature will go this session — especially as it relates to criminal justice reform.

On the heels of a major, data-driven examination of Nevada’s prison system, lawmakers have proposed legislation reflecting 25 recommendations to reduce the prison population and refocus on rehabilitation. The bill has started out in the Assembly, where it has attracted strong pushback from prosecutors, including Cannizzaro’s colleagues from the Clark County district attorney’s office.

Some feel the momentum of the session has shifted away from criminal justice reform — at least as it was defined in the interim study — to a narrative that crime is out of control and penalties need to be ramped up. Without Atkinson as a check on "tough on crime" perspectives, Cannizzaro's points of view will be magnified.

"It’ll be difficult to keep the pressure on to move forward with these reforms," said Dayvid Figler, a Las Vegas criminal defense lawyer. "It’s almost like you need bipartisan support within your own party and you don’t have that here. And I don’t know that there’s a particularly vocal progressive wing in the Democratic Party right now that is sufficient to override this kind of 'but we have to keep our city safe' [perspective]."

Prosecutors also strongly objected last session to abolishing the death penalty — a proposal that has been introduced in both houses this session but has not yet been brought up for a hearing in Cannizzaro’s committee. She wouldn’t say whether she personally supported the death penalty nor would she commit to the fate of a ban bill.

“I'm not going to get into specifics about certain bills or where they would come, but obviously there's a process,” she said. “Just like with the gun bill, we have to go through our process to think about how these policies impact our constituents.”

Meanwhile, Cannizzaro has scheduled hearings for several pieces of legislation that dramatically ramp up criminal penalties. She held a hearing for a Republican-sponsored bill that would effectively double the prison sentences for serious crimes if they involved a deadly weapon, and her committee is sponsoring a bill that raises solicitation of prostitution for children under the age of 14 from a crime carrying a 1- to 4-year sentence, to a mandatory life sentence with the possibility of parole — and no option of claiming ignorance of the victim’s age as a defense.

Those bills have drawn a welcome audience from some Republicans, including Sen. Ira Hansen, who said he saw her as more of a “moderate” than other Democrats.

“In the brief time I’ve been able to serve with her on Judiciary, she’s been completely open to any ideas, her office is open,” he said. “If I want to talk to her, it’s always been ‘Come on in.’ So, I’m actually quite happy that they selected her to be the majority leader.”

Hammond, another Republican on the Judiciary Committee, says that the bills that she brings forward “don’t seem to be overly one-sided.”

“They seem to want to bring clarity to our legal system,” Hammond said. “I like that. I appreciate that.”

Asked about the perception that Cannizzaro’s background as a prosecutor makes her more conservative on criminal justice reform issues, Frierson, who also has a prosecutorial background from his work at the district attorney’s office and also in the attorney general’s office, said lawmakers’ goal should be advancing good policy.

“I don't see it as a liberal or a conservative issue. I see it as an issue related to fiscal responsibility, and that's how it's been viewed in other states,” Frierson said. “So I think they may be more comfortable with a prosecutor to make sure that that perspective is being taken into consideration, but we're not here to advance positions of our day jobs.”

Ford, who advocated last session for bills expanding the rights of ex-felons to vote and reducing the penalties for certain burglaries, said he couldn’t predict how Cannizzaro’s experience as a prosecutor would affect any single bill.

“Knowing Nicole — whatever the ultimate outcome is, it’s one that’s been deliberate, it’s one that is thoughtful, it’s one that has sought compromise and it is one that seeks to move the ball forward,” Ford said.

That’s how Cannizzaro describes her own process, even on bills with which she personally disagrees.

“We approach that with ‘let's have a dialogue about why this policy is good or bad’ and go from there. I don't think I close off any opportunities with respect to that,” she said. “This is not just about me. This is very much not about me individually and more about, ‘What do we want to accomplish and what do we want to do?’”