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?’”