Election Preview: Board of Regents candidates from the education realm face off against outsiders who think the board needs a new perspective

regents meeting

Candidates for the Nevada Board of Regents will be entering an unprecedented higher education landscape if elected — campuses that look like ghost towns, millions of dollars in budget cuts after years of progress and continuing fallout from the global health crisis. 

Some of the responsibilities of the job, which pays $80 per meeting attended and has a six-year term, are the same as they were before the pandemic such as making leadership appointments for the state's seven higher education institutions and for Desert Research Institute. Candidates expect to inherit new issues if elected, including a $135 million cut to the Nevada System of Higher Education budget from the special legislative session in the summer.

Some issues they likely will have to deal with — ranging from changes that may come with the outcome of Ballot Question 1, which will determine whether the elected board is put under the oversight of the Legislature per Assembly Joint Resolution No. 5 to unknown consequences from the continuing pandemic — are yet to be seen. 

Despite the uncertainties, candidates say they are looking to diversify higher education programs in order to help further diversify the state's economy, make higher education more affordable and move forward with plans for the UNLV Medical School.

The four open seats pit candidates who have a history working in education against community members who would say they want to add a new perspective to higher education.

District 2

The race for District 2, which covers a part of Las Vegas and the southwest corner of the City of North Las Vegas, features a 30-year politician versus a former regent.

Lois Tarkanian, who termed out of her 14-year run on the Las Vegas City Council last year, said her experience on the City Council and as a trustee with the Clark County School District for 12 years, particularly in addressing the district's finances, will help her address concerns as a regent.

Tarkanian thinks Question 1 is an example of "don't throw the baby out with the bathwater" and says that she would be able to address many of the concerns about regents that motivated the creation of the ballot measure, such as members lacking experience in education and mismanagement of finances.

"I feel I have a working relationship. The years that I've had in education and on the city council, you had to work with other people in the community," she said. "I just think I have had a lot of experience with that and I could help."

Tarkanian, the wife of the late, legendary UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian and mother of future Douglas County Commissioner Danny Tarkanian, joined the race in part to continue work she did as a councilwoman on the Las Vegas Medical District with the long-awaited development of the UNLV Medical School. 

While donors are looking to create a private development corporation to largely bypass the wait and red tape that comes with working with regents and elected officials, Tarkanian said she has many connections with stakeholders and can help facilitate conversations. She said she's already talked with donors and stakeholders throughout the process of creating the plan for the medical school.

Tarkanian said she would need to see the regents’ current financial situation to decide how to move forward as a regent amid the $135 million budget cut and find creative solutions to cut costs and possibly add funds to the medical school's development. 

Tarkanian said her passion for education is a crucial factor in how she would serve as a regent if elected.

"The most important thing is I have passion and persistence," she said. "I've stuck with things until we got 'em and we got 'em right."

Tarkanian spoke highly of her challenger, Bret Whipple, but said that based on her conversations with him, she has more passion for the job. 

Whipple, an attorney at Justice Law Center, served as regent from 2002 to 2008 and at one point chaired the board. Now that he has two college-aged children, who were in elementary school during his first term, he said he's looking to return and help improve the system.

As a regent, Whipple boasted about efforts made to improve the student experience statewide. Whipple pointed to his participation in orchestrating a "one-stop-shop" technology system in 2008 for students to use when registering for classes, paying tuition and completing other tasks, a system he recently used as a parent when his daughter was paying and registering for classes. He also helped create common course numbering that allows students to transfer 100 percent of their credits across higher education institutions in the state.

"I just want to continue to make the system a strong system for the entire state that all of our children can be proud of," he said. "People tend to be critical sometimes of our state, but I think we've got an amazing system here, and I was glad to be part of it. And I think I made it much better after when I left, and I'm just hoping to be involved with things that I can improve."

Whipple highlighted the UNLV Medical School and COVID as "hot topics" regents will have to address if elected but said there are other important issues that get less attention, similar to the technology issue he addressed in his first term, that he would learn about as a regent and work to solve.  

Whipple, 57, said that he has "time and energy" to be a regent that might be more difficult for 86-year-old Tarkanian. He said in his first tenure, he didn't just "show up and vote" — he put in time outside of meetings researching and made extra commitments, such as when he made himself the chair of the committee choosing the technology system.

Despite challenges facing the higher education system, Whipple said, he was proud to be a part of what he characterizes as a strong and affordable higher education system and hopes to rejoin.

"Nevada is one of those states that anybody can move to and if you're willing to work hard, you can really succeed," he said. "I'm just very proud of the fact that … you don't have to come from a blueblood family to get into our universities. You don't have to be a millionaire to go to school. You can go to school here and still work and you can make it."

Whipple said he's mostly relying on word of mouth for his campaign, along with name recognition from his previous term as regent 12 years ago. Whipple expected to win his 2008 re-election bid against newcomer Robert Blakely but lost by 7 percentage points after doing little campaigning, including not sending out mailers or having a website. 

Like the first period, Whipple reported no donations or expenses for the second period and had no available cash. 

Tarkanian said she has been sending out mailers and will soon start calling voters. She said she has been touting her endorsements from three sitting county commissioners, including Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick, and three sitting Las Vegas City Council members, including Mayor Carolyn Goodman and Michele Fiore, in her campaign materials.

In the second quarter, Tarkanian raised $4,000 with $2,000 coming from herself and the rest from Las Vegas developer Ernest A. Becker III. She spent more than $17,000, almost $3,000 of which was spent on advertising and the rest mostly on consultants. She had $747 in available cash at the end of the quarter.

District 3

Both candidates for District 3, which includes the UNLV campus and a part of Henderson, have run unsuccessfully in Republican primaries: Swadeep Nigam in 2012 and 2016 for two different Assembly districts and Byron Brooks in 2018 for Senate District 20.

For Nigam, education was his "ticket to prosperity" and is his motivation for running for regent. Coming from a family of educators, Nigam has been a member of the Advanced Technologies Academy advisory board and a scholarship creator and donor for high school seniors in Southern Nevada.

"I'm about education. That's the reason I want to make a difference, especially in this city where UNLV is one of the top campus when it comes to diverse student population," he said. "My goal is to make sure everyone has access to different financial opportunities ... while paying for the college costs." 

A former commissioner of the Nevada Equal Rights Commission that handles the state's employment discrimination complaints, Nigam would like to work on securing more private-sector funding for scholarships amid the rising costs of going to college. He said he would also try to stop annual cost increases or implement a tuition freeze for students for their first five years.

Nigam, a financial analyst for a Las Vegas law firm, has financial experience in both the private sector as a former manager of a health care company and the public sector through his work with the Las Vegas Valley Water District where he supervised the budget as it grew from $150 million to close to $1 billion. He said he knows how to support necessary programs even during economic rough patches and budget cuts.

If elected, Nigam said he would consider delaying university capital projects and future programs to save money.

"[With] my unique professional background coupled with my passion and dedication to higher education policy, I will bring some good, exceptional support to the existing board," he said.

Nigam, who has advanced degrees in economics and finance, said that voters have told him that they're concerned his opponent, Brooks, doesn't have a college degree. 

Although he doesn't have a degree, Brooks attended California State University San Marcos where he studied literature, putting himself through school after leaving the military. He said he participated in a graduation ceremony, but got caught up in working and never went back for three credits in Spanish required for his degree.

"If anybody understands the struggles that students have, some of the things that they have to deal with while they're going to school at the same time, it's me," he said. "Even though there are certainly things that people would like to achieve from an education standpoint, it doesn't mean that they're not dealing with challenges … and I believe that's why we have to have resources."

Brooks, a principal managing partner for a Henderson spa, said he sees regents as facilitators and hopes to use the position to empower students, including older students who may be trying to get into a new field or move up in their own. He would like to provide resources to help them move through coursework quickly and efficiently while they address other challenges of being a nontraditional college student.

As a seven-year mentor for the Veteran Treatment Court and a member of the school organization team (SOT) for his son's elementary school, Brooks said that being involved in the community made him want to run for regent.

"Voters should take a look at me and be confident in knowing that if they choose to elect me,  then I'm going to continue in the same manner that I have for the last seven years and really make this about where I can serve and what I can do to facilitate the needs of others," he said. "[I'm going to] make sure campuses have what they need for student success."

Brooks said his experience overseeing multi-million dollar projects for the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of State will transfer well to being a regent. If elected, he said he would listen and learn from the other regents, figure out the status of various issues and work to help solve them.

Neither Nigam nor Brooks reported raising or spending any funds in the first period, but Nigam dominated in fundraising in the second quarter. He raised $16,400, with his biggest donation being $2,000 from Aurangzeb Nagy, a Las Vegas neurosurgeon. He reported two separate gifts of $1,000 from other Las Vegas residents in the medical fields and two separate gifts of $1,000 from two Vegas businessmen. He also received an in-kind donation of $400 in consulting services from Sanjay Palherkar and $600 in graphic design and staffing services from Red Chimp Media.

Brooks raised $1,900 in the second period with a $500 donation from Las Vegas City Councilwoman Victoria Seaman and another $1,000 from Seaman and her husband. 

Of his $1,500 expenses, Brooks spent $500 on Facebook ads and $1,000 at a consultant business which left him with $400 in cash on hand. Nigam spent about $2,400, of which $1,750 was spent on Facebook advertising. He also made a few small payments of less than $50 each for special events to Hispanics in Politics, Nevada Republican Club (formerly the Nevada Republican Men's Club) and Southern Hills Republican Women's Group. He had about $13,000 in available cash at the end of the period.

District 5

Dr. Nick Spirtos originally ran for the District 5 seat, covering parts of Las Vegas and North Las Vegas, in 2014 and lost in the general election to Sam Lieberman. When he chose to run against Lieberman again, he said winning wasn't on his agenda — he wanted to bring attention to his platform through campaign events and "light a fire" under Lieberman to get him to take his issues to the regents. 

But Lieberman's death in early April left the race without an incumbent — and left Spirtos thinking "somebody better step it up."

One of Spirtos' priorities if elected would be the development of the UNLV Medical School. He said he wouldn't try to stop any plans already in place, including the private development corporation, if he takes the seat, but would participate in future discussions if plans fall through. A former member of the UNLV School of Medicine Community Advisory Board, Spirtos said the medical school is not only important as a physician training center but also as an "economic engine" that would create jobs and help foster another industry outside of tourism.

The medical director of the Women’s Cancer Center in Las Vegas, Spirtos said he would also like to develop programs with incentives to keep Nevada's best students pursuing degrees in state and would like to devote more funding to the recruitment of high quality faculty and researchers.

Spirtos said he's interested in implementing different grading systems that allow students to explore various fields without worrying about being punished with a bad grade for taking a risk. For example, he pointed to Brown University, which allows students to take most classes as a satisfactory/no credit option instead of receiving a letter grade.

"You have kids who are not taking classes that may be difficult, and they're not taking classes that they don't think they're going to do well in. And college to me seems that that should be the time that you have to explore and to expand your horizons," he said.

A first generation American born of Greek immigrants, Spirtos said he is a firm believer in affirmative action policies to give disadvantaged students opportunities to advance themselves, whether that be studying at a university or a trade school. In higher education, affirmative action policies aim to increase the representation of groups that have historically been excluded from educational opportunities. 

"I truly believe one of the issues that needs to be addressed is how to graduate the kids who come into the program … first with the affirmative action, disadvantaged students, and then all the students and look at ways that you might allow them to achieve, be more successful," he said.

Spirtos said his position on affirmative action is a major distinction from his opponent, Patrick Boylan, a semi-retired safety and security consultant and former adjunct professor at the College of Southern Nevada. When asked about his stance on affirmative action, Boylan said that his belief is that all people are equal and that "pandering to minorities tactics" are just candidates "using minorities to get votes."

One priority for Boylan if he is elected will be diversifying and expanding programs in critical fields such as health care, information technology and manufacturing which will in term diversify the Silver State's economy, which has 33 percent of Nevada jobs relying on the tourism industry

"I also believe that there's a great need that we could fulfill and not just depend on this gaming industry. You can see how it's hit us now it's affected us," he said. "It's ridiculous we depend only on one industry. So I want to change that."

Boylan wants to expand UNLV's masters program in crisis and emergency management, a program he went through, so Nevada can have more expertise to address a wide variety of emergencies.

A former member of the Nevada State Board of Education in the early 2000s, Boylan said he would work with the Legislature and the governor to get more funding for higher education, particularly from the marijuana industry. He said he would seek to cut back on administrative and utility costs when dealing with budget cuts during the pandemic. 

Boylan, who was a candidate in Democratic primaries for Assembly District 15 in 2010 and Congressional District 1 in 2016 and was a board member for the Winchester Township in Las Vegas, said he wants to use elected positions to help his community and work collaboratively with fellow civil servants to find solutions.

"I've worked for my neighborhood, and people in my town and my state. I will do what's right for education. That's our future, those are our leaders," he said. "I want to do something that will help make us the best, make Nevada and the education in Nevada the best."

Spirtos didn't report any fundraising or spending in the first quarter, but reported about $15,700 in the second quarter, $14,700 of which was his own money. The remaining $1,000 came from $500 donations from IBEW Local Union 357 and the Clark County Firefighters PAC.

Of the $14,700 he spent, a little more than half went to consulting services and the rest went to advertising. He had $1,000 in cash on hand at the end of the period.

Boylan reported no fundraising or spending in the first and second quarter and reported no cash on hand.

District 10

The race for the District 10 regent seat, covering most of Reno, features a life-long educator and former regent against a life-long Reno resident who says he wants to add some new perspective to the board. 

Kevin Melcher previously served as regent for District 8, which covers most of the western part of the state and parts of Clark County, from 2010 to 2016. He didn't seek re-election because he was moving back to Reno, where he was born and raised. Once District 10 incumbent and former Chairman Rick Trachok announced he wasn't seeking re-election, Melcher said several people asked him to run. 

A teacher and administrator in Elko's K-12 education system for 28 years and an appointed member of the Nevada State Board of Education, Melcher said his background in education and governance gives him an edge in the race and will allow him to pick up where he left off if elected.

Melcher said he doesn't have a narrow agenda as a regent to allow him to address all important issues brought to the board, but said funding issues will obviously have to be addressed. He said he would make necessary cuts while keeping UNLV and the UNR as "Tier 1" research institutions

"There's going to be a lot of decisions having to be made, tough decisions, and I believe my skills and networking will really help listening to all parties involved and try to come up with really good decisions by an entire board that will help the system move forward," he said.

He also would like to develop a better pipeline between K-12 schools, community colleges and universities and minimize the north-south and urban-rural divide in education.

"I don't believe anyone has the answer, but I think together, if we sit down and really work between the Legislature and the Board of Regents and the governor and all the people that are on campus — the staff, the faculty, the students — we'll come up with good answers," Melcher said. "There's a lot of smart minds out there and a lot of people have seen it done different ways, and we just have to find the best way for Nevada."

Melcher's opponent, Joseph Arrascada, was motivated to run for regent after two renovations of UNR's Mackay stadium in the last five years left the stadium noncompliant with regulations for the Americans with Disabilities Act — and put the project millions of dollars over budget. Arrascada, who has been using a wheelchair for 34 years, has spoken to regents about the stadium's accessibility issues after the failed renovations and UNR's $3.4 million lawsuit against the architect of the renovations.

Even though he knows much of the money for the stadium will be coming from donors, Arrascada said that it is "unfortunate" that so much money is going toward something not directly for education nor for the whole student body. He said he'd like to look into the misappropriation of funds as a regent.

"After my diagnosis of quadriplegia, I can empathize with hearing 'no.' Too often, I've been told no way too often," he said. "I want to say yes to students. I want to say yes to faculties, community members. I want to listen to them and respect their opinions … it's not happening now."

Arrascada said there's been a breakdown of communication between regents and the faculty, staff and students they serve as well as between regent themselves. He said there's a clear north-south divide on the board and the hostility between regents is palpable.

A worker at the Reno Veterans Administration Hospital and co-owner of a local community service agency, Arrascada said he exhibits qualities such as leadership, communication and passion that will benefit the board. 

"There needs to be a new direction, new thoughts, new ideas, a new set of eyes on the board, in which it can truly take the board to a new direction, new positive direction because that's what's desperately needed — an infusion of new ideas, new thoughts and a new mindset," he said.

Arrascada described the higher education system's financial situation during the pandemic as a "budget crisis" and said that he would try to keep cuts out of the classroom, specifically reducing red tape or departments that don't directly benefit students.

In the first quarter, Melcher topped all candidates in his district in fundraising and spending and again beat out Arrascada in both categories and cash on hand for the second quarter. He raised more than $11,300, propelled by a $5,000 donation from Michael Hitchcock, a UNR adjunct faculty member, and a $1,000 donation from Nora and Bruce James, who is a member on the advisory board for Sierra Nevada University, a private school, and the president and CEO of a technology investment company. 

Melcher spent $9,800 on almost completely advertising and had $11,500 in cash on hand at the end of the period.

Arrascada reported no fundraising or spending in the first quarter, but raised $9,200 in the second quarter. His biggest donations were from a family member, who gave $2,100, James Cryer, a car dealership owner who gave $2,000, and Western Nevada Supply Co., which donated $1,000. All of his $4,650 in expenses went to print advertising, leaving him with $4,200 in available cash.

Cannizzaro-led PAC gave Dem Senate leader donation from maxed-out contributors

State Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro accepted contributions earlier this year from her political action committee that was entirely funded by two fellow Democratic state senators who had already maxed out on contributions to her campaign.

Nevada law explicitly prohibits so-called “conduit contributions,” or donations made in the name of another person to get around contribution limits.

The law is also specific on making donations to PACs as a way to get around contribution limits, stating that it’s an illegal practice to “make a contribution to a committee for political action with the knowledge and intent that the (PAC) will contribute that money to a specific candidate which, in combination with the total contributions already made by the person for the same election, would violate the limitations on contributions.”

According to her most recent campaign finance report, Cannizzaro reported raising more than $114,000 between April and the end of June, including a $5,000 contribution from an entity called “Majority 2020,” a political action committee that lists her as its president.

But the only contributions taken in by “Majority 2020” this election cycle have come from state Sens. Chris Brooks and Joyce Woodhouse — both of whom have already contributed the maximum allowable amount of $10,000 to Cannizzaro’s campaign.

In a statement, state Senate Democratic Caucus Executive Director Cheryl Bruce — who is listed as the PAC’s registered agent — said the “contributions were made in the normal course of business of the committee for political action during an election season, as demonstrated by their disbursement dates.” Roberta Lange received her contribution ahead of a contentious state Senate primary; Cannizzaro received hers shortly before the fundraising period ended.

Brooks said in an interview that he gave money to the PAC to support Democratic candidates, and said “where it goes from there, obviously I have no control.” Woodhouse declined to comment in a text message sent after this story was published.

Deputy Secretary of State Wayne Thorley said in a text message that the contributions would violate state law if they "were made to the PAC with the knowledge and intent that the PAC would use the money to give to Cannizzaro."

Nevada’s campaign finance laws and restrictions are not particularly challenging to evade; many businesses opt to give more than the $10,000 contribution limit through making contributions via different business entities, and many donate campaign dollars to PACs, which are allowed to accept unlimited contributions but are subject to the same $10,000 donation limit to individual candidates.

It’s not unusual for legislators in safe races or in leadership positions to distribute campaign funds to candidates running in more competitive races. Brooks is not up for re-election until 2022 and Woodhouse is termed out of office.

But use of PACs to boost candidate fundraising numbers has in the past come under legal scrutiny. Former gubernatorial candidate Rory Reid was fined $25,000 in 2011 after it was discovered his campaign had set up a main umbrella PAC that took in more than $900,000 in contributions and dispersed them to more than 90 smaller PACs (all registered at the same Las Vegas address), which in turn contributed the maximum amount allowable to Reid’s campaign.

Though on a much smaller scale, the contributions from Cannizzaro’s PAC to her campaign appear to fit a similar bill.

Here’s how it happened: On March 31, the “Majority 2020” PAC received two separate $5,000 contributions from the campaign accounts of two Democratic state senators — Brooks and Woodhouse. Those are the only contributions the PAC has received this year.

Then, the Majority 2020 PAC reported making two expenditures on its most recent quarterly campaign finance report — $5,000 to the campaign of state senate candidate Roberta Lange on April 24, and $5,000 to Cannizzaro’s campaign on June 26.

But both Brooks and Woodhouse have previously contributed the maximum amount allowable under state law ($10,000) to Cannizzaro’s 2020 re-election campaign in the years and months prior.

Brooks made his donations in four chunks between late 2017 and 2020, with the total amount of contributions equaling out to $10,000. Woodhouse has also maxed out contributions to Cannizzaro’s campaign; a $618.85 contribution in February 2018, another $5,000 in September 2019 and finally a $4,381.15 contribution in December 2019.

Usually, contributions from a PAC to an individual candidate’s campaign account would not raise any eyebrows, as legislator-led PACs typically take in money from a variety of sources and not just other legislators. 

While PACs are not required to report their cash on hand, publicly reported campaign finance totals indicate that the “Majority 2020” PAC only had about $716 in its account at the start of 2020 — meaning that the contributions to Cannizzaro had to have come from either Brooks or Woodhouse’s campaign accounts. 

Both Brooks and Woodhouse also donated $5,000 to Lange’s campaign last year, so an additional $5,000 contribution would not put them over the legal limit. Brooks, however, did contribute another $5,000 to Lange through his “Brunch in Nevada PAC” in April and June 2020.

The Majority 2020 PAC has been operational since at least the 2012 campaign cycle, and has been used as a vehicle by Senate Democratic leaders to direct funding to their most in-need candidates. The PAC (then known as Majority 2016) distributed $30,000 to three state Senate candidates during the 2018 campaign cycle, for example.

Cannizzaro narrowly won election to her Las Vegas-area Senate District in 2016, defeating former Assemblywoman Victoria Seaman by slightly more than 1,000 votes out of more than 56,000 cast. Cannizzaro is facing off against Republican attorney and first-time candidate April Becker in the November 2020 election.

Updated on July 23 at 11:42 a.m. to include a comment from Sen. Joyce Woodhouse.

What to watch in the 2020 primary election: Congressional District 4

A hand arranging "I voted" stickers on a table

As the presidential caucus has drifted into the past and with no statewide offices up for grabs in 2020, a pair of hotly contested congressional primaries on June 9 may draw battle lines for the coming push by the major parties to take or keep control of the House in November. 

That includes District 4, which early on drew a wide field of Republican challengers hoping to flip the seat away from Democrat Steven Horsford. The district, with a large Democratic registration advantage and rated “Likely Democratic” by the Cook Political Report, has for years been held as the tougher of Nevada’s two swing-districts to pry away from Democrats as the GOP looks to retake control of the House. 

That may have changed over the weekend, after Horsford acknowledged Friday carrying on a years-long extramarital affair with a former intern for Sen. Harry Reid. That intern, Gabriela Linder, revealed the relationship in a podcast, and Horsford later issued a statement to the Las Vegas Review-Journal confirming the relationship.

The admission has upended the political assumptions surrounding the race so far, and some Republican strategists and candidates now see 2020 as the best opportunity to flip the seat in the last four years. 

Horsford has already drawn fire from the wide field of Republican hopefuls looking to unseat him, and some have called on him to be investigated or to resign his seat altogether. At least two Democrats running against him called on him to drop out of the race.

But with no well-funded or well-organized primary challengers on the June ballot, Horsford will likely avoid a referendum on the issue until November. And, among Republicans, the race to take on Horsford remains wide open. Five candidates have mounted well-funded operations, with three more hoping for an outside shot at a spot on the November ballot. 

The Republican Primary

The Republican Primary for District 4 is the most crowded field for any major race in the state in 2020, boasting eight candidates on the June ballot. Among them, five have emerged as relatively well-funded efforts, with three more running smaller campaigns with far longer odds at victory.

And though the Republican field has so-far avoided direct attacks — so, too, have they rushed to occupy a similar ideological space in the era of the Trump White House. 

Jim Marchant, a former one-term Republican assemblyman, staked a claim early on as a conservative stalwart who could oppose Horsford in a general election. In advertising and online, he has touted positive ratings from The American Conservative Union and National Rifle Association and claimed that “the liberal media can’t stand him.”

He’s also sought to draw a close line between himself and Trump, frequently praising the administration and even circulating a gif of himself standing nearby the president after he flew into a Nevada air base for a visit in February. 

Marchant has frequently led the fundraising push over the last year, raising more than $100,000 through the first quarter of 2020 and entering the final run to the primary with roughly $231,000 cash on hand. That number was buoyed early on in 2019 by more than $110,000 in loans to his campaign, though his campaign has since shifted to a reliance on individual donors.  

He has also received key endorsements from high-profile House conservatives, including Arizona Reps. Andy Biggs and Paul Gosar and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan — all leaders of the House Freedom Caucus. An outgrowth of the old Tea Party movement, the Freedom Caucus has provided a political force for the party’s conservative wing for half-a-decade, and in recent years has moved in lockstep with the Trump White House. 

But Marchant is not alone in his quest to prove himself as the “right” conservative for District 4. 

Lisa Song Sutton, a former Miss Nevada who now runs her own business in Las Vegas, has stayed neck and neck with Marchant in the fundraising race. Song Sutton entered the home stretch of the campaign with $198,000 on hand, and boasted of having raised it all through individual donors and without candidate loans. 

Running on a platform largely centered around the core GOP platform, including the protection of the 2nd Amendment, opposition to abortion and increased border security, Song Sutton has also prominently added the economic impact of the coronavirus to her personal platform. 

Calling dependence on overseas manufacturing “dangerous,” Song Sutton’s website notes that she “stand[s] ready to help President Trump rebuild the economy and support the America First agenda.”

Though her single most prominent endorsement has come from Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw, Song Sutton has also received nods from a handful of state and local Republicans, including Las Vegas City Councilwomen Michele Fiore and Victoria Seaman and former state GOP Chair Amy Tarkanian.

Last among the top fundraisers is Sam Peters, an insurance agent and veteran who has been endorsed by the likes of former Speaker Newt Gingrich, conservative musician Ted Nugent and local conservative talk radio host Wayne Allyn Root.  

Though FEC filings show Peters has raised more than $254,000 through his entire campaign, he began to lag behind Marchant and Song Sutton in the early part of 2020, raising just over $62,000, spending $90,000 and ending the quarter with just $60,000 on hand.  

Asking voters to help him “fight the swamp” in Washington, D.C., Peters has prioritized the issues of the federal budget and immigration on his platform, calling for, among other things,  a balanced budget amendment and proposing an 11-point plan aimed at “ending illegal immigration.”

Peters also appears to be one of few candidates who have continued to campaign in-person into the pandemic, sharing several selfies this month of visits to a reopening rally in Mesquite and a campaign stop in Pahrump

Nipping at the heels of the top three fundraisers are another two campaigns, those of businesswoman Randi Reed and former congressional staffer and veteran Charles Navarro, who entered the final weeks of the campaign with roughly $27,000 and $24,000 on hand, respectively. 

Branding her campaign with her nickname, “The Fury,” Reed has also mounted a campaign centered around the core party platform, including gun rights, immigration and health care. But amid the coronavirus, Reed has also taken aim at China, calling the virus “China’s Chernobyl” and pushing for a greater separation between the American and Chinese economies.

Touting his time in the Navy and his work as a former re-entry manager for faith-based organization Hope for Prisoners, Navarro has, unlike his rivals, elevated the issues of public lands and education on his platform, amid other calls for reforms to the Medicare, Social Security and criminal justice systems. 

There also are several cash-strapped campaigns, including that of Nye County Commissioner Leo Blundo, businesswoman Rebecca Wood and self-described entrepreneur Rosalie Bingham. 

All have raised less than $10,000 through the first quarter of 2020, but all have continued to actively promote their campaigns online as they look to distinguish their efforts ahead of June 9. 

About District 4

District 4’s massive geographic boundaries are bigger than some U.S. states, encompassing not just parts of the Las Vegas metro area like Northwest Las Vegas and the City of North Las Vegas, but also a handful of the state’s rural counties, including Nye, White Pine and Lincoln Counties.

That geographic composition has created a balance of voters where the urban and suburban voters of Las Vegas often outweigh the rural voters to their north. All told, 40.8 percent of voters in the district are registered Democrats, while 31.4 percent are registered Republicans and 21.9 percent are registered non-partisans. 

That distribution of voters has created a predominantly Democratic stronghold over the four election cycles since the district was created in 2012. Horsford, then the state Senate majority leader, won the seat’s inaugural election with just over 50 percent of the vote, defeating Republican candidate Danny Tarkanian. 

But amid a historically low voter turnout in the 2014 year’s midterms, Horsford would lose re-election by nearly 3 percentage points to Republican legislator Cresent Hardy. A coup for Republicans in a year where the party swept state, federal and local races up and down the ballot, Hardy’s election would nonetheless be the last GOP victory in District 4.

In 2016, Democratic state legislator Ruben Kihuen bested Hardy by roughly 4 points, contributing to a near-total Democratic sweep of the closely contested federal offices that year alongside victories in the Senate and neighboring District 3. 

Kihuen was forced to abandon a re-election bid in 2018, however, amid sexual misconduct allegations. But as his name and station become another entry among a long list of alleged sexual impropriety on Capitol Hill amid the escalating #MeToo movement, he resisted pushes to resign his post — which ranged from fellow Nevada Democrat Jacky Rosen all the way to then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

When the House later convened an ethics panel to review his conduct, Kihuen bowed out of the race and promised not to launch a reelection bid — an exit that would provide an opportunity for Horsford to reenter the seat that launched his congressional career six years earlier. 

Fending off a handful of primary challengers in the open contest to replace Kihuen on the Democratic ticket, Horsford would eventually beat Hardy — the Republican nominee for the third cycle in a row — by more than 8 percentage points, as he once again garnered more than 50 percent of the vote.  

Horsford has since kept a low electoral profile among the state’s congressional delegation. With his seat more difficult to flip than Rep. Susie Lee’s to the south, national Republicans have so far avoided pumping money and advertising into his district like they have in. 

And among Democrats, Horsford has so-far skirted through 2020 without the need to actively campaign, amassing nearly $1.2 million in cash on hand along the way as he looked toward November. 

He has since begun to take fire from his Democratic rivals, who have joined Republicans in the district in calling for Horsford to be investigated or step out of the race amid the revelation of his extramarital affair.

Whether or not those calls will amount to anything beyond campaign rhetoric, however, remains to be seen.  

For a full breakdown of every race in the 2020 primaries, visit our Election 2020 page. 

What to watch in the 2020 primary election: Assembly and state Senate races

The inside of the Nevada Legislature during State of the State

When the dust settles on the June 9 primary election, Nevadans will have a good sense of who’s going to win about half of the seats up for grabs in the statehouse.

Party control of the Legislature is always a major objective for lawmakers in both parties, and the 2021 session will give lawmakers and Gov. Steve Sisolak the once-in-a-decade chance to redraw district boundaries during the redistricting process. 

It’s a process that could help lock in party advantages for congressional representatives, legislators and other elected officials for the next ten years (although a group is attempting to qualify a constitutional amendment creating an independent redistricting commission). Democrats control more than two-thirds of Assembly seats and are one seat shy of a supermajority in the state Senate. 

But candidates facing a massive variable — a global pandemic that has canceled the traditional trappings of a campaign, diverted attention from elections and spurred a shift to a virtually all-mail voting system with unpredictable turnout patterns.

“Under normal circumstances, a good pair of running shoes and the money to print up campaign literature could potentially be enough for a candidate to win a race simply by outworking their opponent,” said Eric Roberts of the Assembly Republican Caucus. “The old saying goes, ‘If you knock, you win.’ In 2020, that is all out the window.”

Largely unable to talk to voters at the door during the crucial weeks leading up to voting season, candidates can communicate through mail pieces — if they can drum up the money to pay for it. Businesses such as casinos that typically make sizable donations in state-level politics have seen their revenue flatline, and the effect ripples to candidates.

There are phone calls, political text messages and email missives. But what some observers think could make a difference is how well candidates leverage social media and digital advertising. 

A new challenge is the sudden shift to voting by mail. Up to this point, voting in person has been the method of choice for Nevadans, with the majority of those voters opting for a two-week early vote window.

This time, voters are receiving ballots in the mail more than a month before Election Day, elongating the voting period. With weeks left to go, tens of thousands of Clark County voters have already turned in their ballots, for example.

With ballots arriving in all active voters’ mailboxes — and in Clark County, even those deemed inactive — more people may be inclined to participate in what is usually a sleepy contest. Nevada and national Democrats filed but later dropped a lawsuit against state election officials after they agreed to send ballots to “inactive” voters, who are legally able to cast a ballot but have not responded to change of address forms sent out by county election officials.

“Truly the unknown is this vote by mail universe and who’s really going to take advantage of it, who does it leave out, how do you communicate to a universe that is 10 times bigger than what you thought you were going to have to communicate with,” said Megan Jones, a political consultant with close ties to Assembly Democrats. 

Of the 42 seats in the state Assembly, almost a quarter will be decided in the primary election. Four races will actually be decided in the primary — including three incumbent Republicans fending off challengers — because no other candidates filed to run in those districts. Another five races will effectively be decided in the primary, given vast disparity in voter registration totals making it all but impossible for the opposing party to gain a foothold. 

An additional seven Assembly members did not draw a re-election challenge and will win their seats automatically. These include Democrats Daniele Monroe Moreno, Selena Torres and Sarah Peters, and Republicans Tom Roberts, Melissa Hardy, Jill Tolles and John Ellison.

Of the 10 races in the state Senate, only one — the Democratic primary in Senate District 7 — will be determined in the primary election as no candidates from other parties filed to run for the seat. Two Senate members — Democrats Chris Brooks and Patricia Spearman — did not draw challengers and will automatically win their seats as well, while another three candidates have effectively won because of the voter registration advantages their party has in their district.

To help make sense of where the most intriguing races of this election will be, The Nevada Independent has compiled this list of races we’re keeping a close eye on, both for the storylines in the individual contests and how the outcomes could shift the balance of power heading into the critical 2021 legislative session. Additional information on these races and more can be found on The Nevada Independent’s Election 2020 page.

Senate District 7

This race is at the top of our watch list not only because it will be decided in the primary — all Democrats and no Republicans filed to run for the open seat — but because it pits two Assembly members against a former head of the state Democratic Party who has the support of the sitting Senate Democrats.

Assemblywoman Ellen Spiegel has a wide lead in the money race for the seat, which is held by termed-out Democratic Sen. David Parks. Stakes are high for the two Assembly members in the race, who are giving up their current seats to bid for the Senate seat.

Spiegel raised nearly $32,000 in the first quarter, twice that of former three-term Nevada State Democratic Party Chairwoman Roberta Lange, a Senate caucus-endorsed candidate perhaps best known for presiding over Democrats’ divisive 2016 presidential nominating process. Spiegel spent even more — $36,000 in the last quarter — and has a massive war chest of $208,000 on hand.

Spiegel, who describes herself as an “e-commerce pioneer” and now owns a consulting firm with her husband, chaired the Assembly Commerce and Labor Committee last session. She has endorsements from the Vegas and Henderson chambers of commerce. 

Lange, a retired teacher and union negotiator and now executive at a company that runs neighborhood gaming bars, has backing from the Senate Democratic Caucus, the Nevada State AFL-CIO, the Nevada State Education Association and the Culinary Union.

Trailing in the money game is Democratic Assemblyman Richard Carrillo, who only raised about $4,500 in the latest quarter. He’s spent nearly $16,000 in that timeframe and has about $26,000 in the bank.

Carrillo, a contractor who owns an air conditioning business, did not chair an Assembly committee last session and shares the AFL-CIO endorsement with Lange.

The district includes portions of the eastern Las Vegas Valley and Henderson. It has almost twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans.

Assembly District 2

Republicans are looking to keep control of this Summerlin Assembly seat this election after Assemblyman John Hambrick, who has represented the district since 2008, was termed out of office. Hambrick, 74, missed most of the 2019 legislative session because of health-related issues with both himself and his wife, who passed away in July.

The Assembly Republican Caucus has endorsed Heidi Kasama, managing broker of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices-Nevada Properties, as Hambrick’s successor, as has Hambrick himself. Kasama has lived in Las Vegas since 2002 after starting her career as a certified public accountant and real estate agent in Washington. So far, Kasama has raised about $124,000 and spent about $19,000.

But Kasama faces four other Republicans in the primary: Erik Sexton, Jim Small, Taylor McArthur and Christian Morehead. Of those, Sexton, who works in commercial real estate, has raised the most, about $69,000 over the course of the cycle. Sexton has been endorsed by Las Vegas City Councilwoman Michele Fiore and former North Las Vegas Mayor Mike Montandon.

Jim Small, a retired member of the U.S. Senior Executive Service, has raised about $56,000 over the course of the cycle. Small has been endorsed by former congressional candidate and businessman Danny Tarkanian and conservative commentator Wayne Allyn Root, among others.

The other two Republican candidates in the race — McArthur and Morehead — have raised no money.

The Alliance for Property Protection Rights PAC, which is funded by the National Association of REALTORS Fund, has also inserted itself into this primary, sending negative mailers highlighting Sexton’s DUI arrest last year and accusing Small of having a “hidden past” as a “liberal Democrat,” while in other mail pieces boosting Kasama’s “strength,” “courage,” and “optimism.”

Meanwhile, both Sexton and Small have been punching back at Kasama for her ties to the REALTORS in other mail pieces. 

In one, Small argues that Kasama financially supports Democrats because the Nevada Association of REALTORS donated tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates in 2018, the year she was president of the association. In another, Sexton criticizes the National Association of REALTORS’ budget, which was created when Kasama served on the association’s finance committee. 

Whoever wins the Republican primary will have a good shot at winning this lean Republican seat, where 37 percent of voters are Republican and 34.7 percent are Democratic. The Assembly Democratic Caucus has not endorsed in the primary, though journeywoman electrician Jennie Sherwood was backed by the caucus in the general election last year and is running again this cycle. Three other Democrats are also running for the seat: law school student and former cancer biology professor Radhika Kunnel, Eva Littman and Joe Valdes.

Of the four candidates, Kunnel has raised the most, about $27,000 between this year and last year, while Littman has loaned herself $25,000, Sherwood has loaned herself $5,000 and Valdes has raised $100.

A tenth candidate in the race, Garrett LeDuff, is running with no political party and has raised no money so far in his race.

Assembly District 4

The Nevada Assembly Republican caucus is looking to win back this swing seat lost to Democrats last election cycle by backing a political newcomer, Donnie Gibson, who will first have to defeat a primary challenge from former office-holder Richard McArthur.

Officially backed by the Assembly Republican caucus, Gibson is the owner of both a construction and equipment rental company, and sits on the board of several industry groups, including the Nevada Contractors Association and Hope for Prisoners. During the first quarterly fundraising period, he reported raising just over $51,000 and has nearly $86,000 in cash on hand.

But Gibson faces a tough challenger in former Assemblyman McArthur, who has served three non-consecutive terms in the Assembly; two terms between 2008 to 2012, and then one term between 2016 and 2018. He raised just $520 during the first fundraising period, but has more than $28,000 in available campaign funds. McArthur previously served with the U.S. Air Force and was a special agent for the FBI for 25 years.

Democratic incumbent Connie Munk did not draw a primary challenger, and reported raising more than $52,000 during the first fundraising period. Munk flipped the seat to Democrats in 2018, defeating McArthur by a 120-vote margin out of nearly 30,000 votes cast. 

Assembly District 7

Democrat Cameron “CH” Miller, who most recently served as Nevada political director for Beto O’Rourke and Amy Klobuchar’s presidential campaigns and has had a 20 year career in the entertainment industry, is running with the backing of the Assembly Democratic Caucus for this North Las Vegas Assembly district. The seat is held by Assemblywoman Dina Neal, who is running for state Senate.

While Miller has been endorsed by most of the Democratic-aligned organizations — including SEIU Local 1107, the Nevada State Education Association, Planned Parenthood Votes Nevada, the Culinary Union, NARAL Pro-Choice Nevada and the Nevada Conservation League — his one primary opponent, John Stephens III, has been endorsed by the Nevada State AFL-CIO.

Stephens is a former civilian employee of the Las Vegas Metro Police Department, former steward for the Teamsters Local 14 and a self-described political scientist, writer, exhibitor and Las Vegas library employee.

Miller has raised about $21,000 so far in his campaign, while Stephens has not reported raising any money.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary is likely to go on to win the general election against the one Republican candidate in the race, former Virginia Beach police officer Tony Palmer, as the district leans heavily Democratic with 54.3 percent registered Democrats, 22.7 percent nonpartisans and only 18 percent Republicans. Palmer has raised about $2,000, mostly from himself, in his bid.

Assembly District 16

Four Democratic candidates are running in this open seat after Assemblywoman Heidi Swank, who has represented the district since 2012, opted not to run for re-election. 

The Assembly Democratic Caucus has not endorsed any candidate in the race. Cecelia González and Russell Davis have so far split the major endorsements from Democratic-aligned groups. Both candidates were endorsed by the Nevada State AFL-CIO, while González was also endorsed by the Nevada State Education Association, the Culinary Union and the Nevada Conservation League, and Davis was endorsed by SEIU Local 1107. 

González, a community activist who plans to begin a doctoral program in multicultural education at UNLV in the fall, has raised a little more than $5,000 in her campaign, while Davis, a two-decade Clark County employee and SEIU member, hasn’t reported raising any money.

A third candidate in the race, online finance professor Geoffrey VanderPal, has loaned himself a little less than $4,000 in the race, while Joe Sacco, a union trade show and conventions worker with IATSE Local 720 and a REALTOR, has raised about $500.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary is likely to win the general election against the one Republican in the race, Reyna “Alex” Sajdak, as Democrats have an overwhelming voter registration advantage in the district, representing 47.1 percent of all voters. Nonpartisans make up another 27.3 percent, while Republicans represent only about 18.2 percent.

Sajdak has loaned herself only $260 in the race and received no other contributions.

Assembly District 18

Assemblyman Richard Carrillo has opted not to run for re-election to this East Las Vegas Assembly seat, which he has represented since 2010. He is running for state Senate.

Venicia Considine, an attorney with Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, is running with the backing of the Assembly Democratic Caucus for the seat and has been endorsed by SEIU Local 1107, Nevada State Education Association, Planned Parenthood Votes Nevada, the Culinary Union and the Nevada Conservation League.

However, she faces three other Democrats in the primary, including Char Frost, a former campaign manager and legislative staffer for Carrillo; Lisa Ortega, a master arborist and owner of Great Basin Sage Consulting; and Clarence Dortch, a teacher in the Clark County School District.

Considine has raised nearly $24,000 in her bid so far, while Ortega has raised a little less than $17,000 and Frost has raised about $8,000. Dortch has not yet reported raising any money.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary will go on to face Republican Heather Florian in the general election, though they are likely to win as Democrats hold a 24-point voter registration advantage over Republicans in the district. Florian has not yet reported raising any money in the race.

Assembly District 19

Assemblyman Chris Edwards is running for a fourth term in this rural Clark County Assembly district, but he faces a challenge from Mesquite City Councilwoman Annie Black, who is running to the right of the already conservative Edwards. Black most recently ran for Nevada Republican Party chair, losing to incumbent Michael McDonald.

So far, Edwards has raised about $17,000 in his re-election bid, to Black’s $2,600, which includes a $1,000 contribution from Las Vegas City Councilwoman Victoria Seaman and a $500 contribution from former Controller Ron Knecht.

Whoever wins this primary will go on to win the general election in November, as there are no Democrats or third-party candidates in the race.

Assembly District 21

Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo, who has represented this seat since 2016, is not seeking re-election this year and is running for the Nevada Supreme Court. The Assembly Democratic Caucus has endorsed attorney Elaine Marzola to replace him.

Marzola has received most of the Democratic-aligned endorsements in the primary, including from the Nevada State AFL-CIO, Planned Parenthood Votes Nevada, the Culinary Union and the Nevada Conservation League, while her one Democratic opponent in the primary, David Bagley, has the backing of the Nevada State Education Association. 

Bagley is the director of operations for the stem cell diagnostics company Pluripotent Diagnostics and was also Marianne Williamson’s Nevada state director for her presidential campaign last year.

Marzola has raised about $44,000 in her race so far, while Bagley has raised $20,000 in in-kind contributions from himself.

The winner of the Democratic primary will go on to face Republican Cherlyn Arrington in the general election. Arrington ran for the seat in 2018, losing to Fumo by 12.6 percentage points. Democrats have an 8 percentage point voter registration advantage in the district over Republicans. Arrington has raised a little less than $15,000 so far, including a $4,000 contribution from herself.

Assembly District 31

Former Republican Assemblywoman Jill Dickman hopes to reclaim a seat she held for one term and lost by fewer than 50 votes in 2016. But the manufacturing business owner is in a three-way primary, most notably with Washoe County Republican Party treasurer Sandra Linares. 

The Washoe County seat is held by Skip Daly, a four-term Assembly member who works as the business manager for Laborers Local 169 and has several notable endorsements from organized labor groups, including the Nevada State AFL-CIO and the Culinary Union.

Republicans have a registration advantage of more than four percentage points, but nonpartisans also make up about 21 percent of the swingy district.

Dickman raised just $116 in the first quarter of the year but has more than $99,000 cash on hand for the race. Linares, an educator and Air Force veteran, reported raising more than $24,000 in the first quarter but has about $20,000 in her war chest.

The other candidate in the race is Republican David Espinosa, who has worked in the information technology sector and served on boards including the Washoe County Citizen Advisory Board. He reported raising $7,000 in the first quarter of the year and has about $500 on hand.

The winner of the three-way contest will face off against Daly, who does not have primary challengers. He raised $31,000 in the first quarter and has $98,000 cash on hand.

Assembly District 36

Appointed to fill the seat of brothel owner Dennis Hof — who won this Pahrump-area seat in 2018 despite dying weeks before the election — Republican Assemblyman Gregory Hafen II is facing a primary challenge from Dr. Joseph Bradley, who ran for the district in 2018.

Hafen, a fifth generation Nevadan and general manager of a Pahrump water utility company, and has been endorsed by multiple sitting Republican lawmakers, the National Rifle Association and was named “Rural Chair” of President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign in Nevada.

Hafen has raised nearly $89,000 since the start of the election cycle, including $26,600 in the last reporting period, and has more than $55,000 in cash on hand.

His primary opponent is Bradley, a licensed chiropractor and substance abuse specialist with offices in Las Vegas and Pahrump. He ran for the seat in 2018, coming in third in the Republican primary behind Hof and former Assemblyman James Oscarson.

Bradley has raised more than $68,000 in his bid for the Assembly seat since 2019, and had more than $43,000 in cash on hand at the end of the reporting period.

Bradley’s campaign has tried to tie Hafen to Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, who as a member of the Clark County Commission voted on a replacement candidate after Hof’s death. Sisolak did vote to appoint Hafen to the seat, but the decision was essentially made by the Nye County Commission because of Nevada’s laws on appointing a new lawmaker after an incumbent leaves office or passes away. Hafen was appointed to the seat with support from 16 of 17 county commissioners in the three counties that the Assembly district covers.

Because no Democrats or other party candidates filed to run in the district, the winner of the primary will essentially win a spot in the 2021 Legislature.

Assembly District 37

A crowded field of well-funded Republican candidates are duking it out in a competitive primary to take on incumbent Democrat Shea Backus, one of several suburban Las Vegas districts Republicans hope to win back after the 2018 midterms. Voter registration numbers in the district are nearly equal: 38.1 percent registered Democrats 35.7 percent registered Republicans and 20.5 percent nonpartisan.

Four Republican candidates filed to run in the district, including two former congressional candidates who have each raised more than six-figures in contributions: Andy Matthews and Michelle Mortensen.

Matthews is the former president of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank and was former Attorney General Adam Laxalt’s policy director for his failed 2018 gubernatorial run. He has been endorsed by a bevy of Nevada and national Republicans, including Laxalt, several Trump campaign officials including Corey Lewandowski, Las Vegas City Councilwoman Michele Fiore and several current and former state lawmakers.

Matthews has also been one of the top legislative fundraisers during the 2020 election cycle, outraising all other Republican Assembly candidates including current office-holders. For the first reporting period of 2020, he reported raising nearly $35,000, but has raised nearly $189,000 since the start of 2019 and has early $115,000 in cash on hand.

Mortensen, a former television reporter who ran for Congress in 2018, has also been a prolific fundraiser. She reported raising about $12,500 during the first fundraising period of 2020, with more than $115,000 raised since the start of 2019 and had more than $92,000 in cash on hand at the end of the last reporting period.

But they won’t be alone on the primary ballot. Jacob Deaville, a former UNLV college Republican chair and political activist, has raised more than $19,600 since the start of 2019 and had roughly $9,400 in cash on hand at the end of the reporting period. Another Republican candidate, Lisa Noeth, has not filed any campaign finance reports.

The primary election winner will get to challenge incumbent Shea Backus, who wrested the seat from Republican Jim Marchant in the 2018 election by a 135-vote margin. She reported raising more than $52,000 over the first fundraising period, and has more than $108,000 in cash on hand. Backus, an attorney, did not draw a primary challenger.

Assembly District 40

Former Assemblyman P.K. O’Neill is making a comeback bid after serving one term in the Assembly in 2015 and losing re-election in a campaign focused on his controversial vote for Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval’s tax package.

Two-term incumbent Al Kramer decided at the last minute not to seek re-election in the district, which includes Carson City and portions of Washoe Valley. According to The Nevada Appeal, he said he and his wife need to take care of her 94-year-old mother in Ohio and attend to their own health issues, and will not be in Carson City often enough to serve in the Legislature.

O’Neill is a former law enforcement officer who previously served in the Nevada Department of Public Safety. But his path back to the statehouse is complicated by a primary challenge from the right from Day Williams, a lawyer who is running on a platform of repealing the Commerce Tax that O’Neill supported.

O’Neill has the fundraising advantage, raising more than $13,000 in the first quarter and reporting about $10,000 cash on hand. Williams reported raising about $2,300 and has about $1,200 in the bank.

Whoever wins the Republican primary is likely to win in the general — Republicans have a nearly 15 percentage point advantage in the district. The three Democrats in the race are former Carson City Library director Sena Loyd, software engineer Derek Ray Morgan and LGBTQ rights advocate Sherrie Scaffidi, none of whom have more than $500 cash on hand.

Other races that have a primary

  • Senate District 11: Republican Edgar Miron Galindo, who has been endorsed by the Senate Republican Caucus, faces off against Joshua Wendell. However, the winner faces an uphill battle against Democratic state Sen. Dallas Harris in the general election in this overwhelmingly Democratic district in Spring Valley, where Democrats have a 19.5 percentage point voter registration advantage over Republicans.
  • Senate District 18: Democrat Liz Becker, who has been endorsed by the Senate Democratic Caucus, faces Ron Bilodeau in the primary. The winner will go on to face Republican state Sen. Scott Hammond in this lean Republican northwest Las Vegas Assembly district, where Republicans have a 3 percentage point voter registration advantage over Democrats.
  • Assembly District 5: Republicans Mac Miller, Retha Randolph and Mitchell Tracy face off in the primary. But they’ll have a tough time in the general election against Democratic Assemblywoman Brittney Miller in this district, where Democrats have a 9 percentage point voter registration advantage over Republicans.
  • Assembly District 6: Democrat Shondra Summers-Armstrong is running with the backing of the Assembly Democratic Caucus to represent this Assembly District that encompasses the historic Westside of Las Vegas. She faces one opponent, William E. Robinson II, in the primary. There are also two Republicans, Katie Duncan and Geraldine Lewis, who will face off in their own primary. The winner of the Democratic primary is all but guaranteed to defeat the winner of the Republican primary in the general election, as Democrats have a 52.5 percentage point voter registration advantage over Republicans in the district.
  • Assembly District 10: After being appointed to the seat in 2018, Democratic Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen is running for her first election in this overwhelmingly Democratic district, where there are more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans. Nguyen has one primary challenger, Jesse “Jake” Holder. The two other candidates in the race, Independent American Jonathan Friedrich and Republican Chris Hisgen, do not face primary challenges. Democrats are likely to retain control of this seat in November because of their overwhelming voter registration advantage.
  • Assembly District 14: Democratic Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton is running for her sixth and final term in this East Las Vegas Assembly district, where Democrats make up more than half of all registered voters. She faces a primary challenge from James Fennell II. The third candidate in the race, Libertarian Robert Wayerski, does not face a primary. With only 163 registered libertarians in the district, Democrats are all but guaranteed to hold onto this seat in November.
  • Assembly District 15: Democratic Assemblyman Howard Watts is running for re-election in this East Las Vegas Assembly district. He faces a primary challenge from Democrat Burke Andersson. A third candidate in the race, Republican Stan Vaughan, does not have a primary. Democrats are overwhelmingly likely to win this seat in the general election as they hold a 30.8 percentage point voter registration advantage over Republicans.
  • Assembly District 17: Democrat Clara “Claire” Thomas is running with the backing of the Assembly Democratic Caucus in this overwhelmingly Democratic North Las Vegas Assembly district and does not face a primary. Two Republican candidates, Sylvia Liberty Creviston and Jack Polcyn, will face off in June. However, Thomas is likely to win the general election come November because of Democrats’ voter registration advantage.
  • Assembly District 20: Democrat David Orentilcher is running with the backing of the Assembly Democratic caucus but faces three other Democrats in the primary: Zachary Logan, Michael McAuliffe and Emily Smith. Whoever wins the primary is guaranteed to win the general election as there are no Republican or third-party candidates running in the race.
  • Assembly District 26: Republican Assemblywoman Lisa Krasner faces one Republican challenger, Dale Conner, in her re-election bid for this overwhelmingly Republican Assembly district where Republicans hold a 10.7 percentage point registration advantage over Democrats. Though one Democrat, Vance Alm, is running for this seat, Republicans are likely to hold onto this seat come November.
  • Assembly District 29: Democratic Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen is running for re-election to this Henderson Assembly district, where Democrats hold a narrow 5.6 percentage point voter registration advantage over Republicans. While she doesn’t have a primary challenge, she will face one of two Republicans, Steven Delisle or Troy Archer, in the general election.
  • Assembly District 30: Democrat Natha Anderson is running with the backing of the Assembly Democratic Caucus to represent this Sparks Assembly seat where Democrats hold a 10.2 percentage point voter registration advantage over Republicans. She will face fellow Democrat Lea Moser in the primary. The winner is likely to win the general election over Republican Randy Hoff and Independent American Charlene Young because of Democrats’ significant voter registration advantage in the district.
  • Assembly District 35: Democratic Assemblywoman Michelle Gorelow is running for re-election in this southwest Las Vegas Assembly district, where Democrats hold a 8.5 percentage point voter registration advantage over Republicans. She does not face a primary challenge. However, two Republicans, Jay Calhoun and Claudia Kingtigh, will face off in a June primary. Gorelow will face the winner of that primary, as well as nonpartisan Philip “Doc Phil” Paleracio in November, though she is likely to win because of the Democratic voter registration advantage in the district.
  • Assembly District 38: Republican Assemblywoman Robin Titus faces a primary challenge from Jeff Ulrich in this overwhelmingly Republican rural Assembly district, where there are more than twice as many registered Republicans as Democrats.

A pundit's impatience

Front of the Nevada Legislature building

If you cover politics for any length of time, it’s easy to become irritated, even irritable.

The artifice, so often clumsy and transparent. The superficiality, so much the rule and not the exception. And the hypocrisy, so bipartisan and so frequent.

I have become more Zen about all of it with experience, and politics is still, as a friend once put it, the only game for adults. But even in the Era of Zen Jon, I find myself suffering from pandemic levels of impatience during the coronavirus crisis.

You want to think that a crisis brings out the best in people – and it has, especially in the regular folks you see highlighted in our “Nevada Interrupted” series. But so much of what I have seen during the last six weeks has showcased why people hate politics:  The black and white nature of the “dialogue” sans nuance. And it has accentuated the worst traits in political animals – providing a window painful to look through but helpful to highlight for the future.

I still hope there is a reckoning for those who behaved so badly during this time, and I will do my part once it is over to remind people who rose and who fell, what was real and what was fabricated. A partial catalogue of what has challenged my Zen outlook:

---The Sisolak pile-on: Nothing has so shined a light on the current state of politics better than the reaction to Gov. Steve Sisolak’s handling of the crisis. Facts have taken a hiatus. Pandering to the LCD has come to the fore. Shamelessly looking for political advantage has won the day.

I come not to praise Sisolak, nor to bury him. My thoughts on what he has done have not been a secret. Distilled: He has had to make difficult choices, has not always communicated his intentions all that well and generally has stepped up in making agonizing life and death choices – real and economic.

I am not surprised he has been criticized – comes with the job. What confounds me is what these critics think he is thinking.

Do they believe he reveled in shutting down the state, knowing the economic devastation that would come and that eventually the budget problems would fall on his shoulders?

Do they believe that he wanted to coax the state’s biggest economic players and his largest campaign contributors to shutter their businesses, causing incalculable damage now and into the future?

Do they believe he is some tinpot dictator who wants to brandish his power and destroy the economy and people’s lives even though he will ultimately be the elected official who most wears the political damage?

It is as illogical as one of those grammatically challenged, scrawled posters by protesters posing as patriots and acting like mindless thugs. It’s one thing to criticize Sisolak’s management of the crisis – his initial lack of specificity, the unemployment insurance mess, his deadline decisions that seemed inconsistent. But this pandemic presents no benefits for a governor, even if his numbers are robust in the short term in Democratic and Republican polls. All states, but especially one as backwards as Nevada in public health and funding services, will be affected for a long, long time.

And if you want to pummel his plan, I have a question: Where’s yours? I don’t mean bullet points issued by minority caucuses seeking relevance and bereft of substance or failed foes such as Adam Laxalt, strutting around the internet like Lord Farquaad making hollow, narcissistic pronouncements. (I ask you to imagine the coronavirus cluster on Las Vegas Boulevard South if Laxalt and his sycophantic apparatchiks were in charge.)

Sisolak shut down the state before most governors closed theirs. He probably saved many lives. The rest is details.

---The Invisible Branch: I’ve already alluded to the GOP caucuses in the Legislature, which had minimal relevance last session and less in the interim, performing a combination of genuflection to their base (OPEN THE STATE NOW) and anodyne proposals that could have been written on the back of an envelope. A few have retweeted conspiracy nonsense; one went into a Twitter frenzy like a beekeeper being chased by his own bees.

Fine. That amused me more than irritated me.

But there is a real question about the solvency of the state budget, and while constitutionally questionable interim committees can do some things, one of the roles of a legislative branch is oversight – especially in a crisis. I don’t think GOP calls for a special session should be summarily dismissed – it would take the governor or two-thirds of the Gang of 63 to convene one -- and my colleague, Orrin Johnson, has been on this for awhile.

Democratic lawmakers generally have been silent – except for the usual social media stuff congratulating the governor or themselves. But that party controls the Legislature, and I wonder if it has occurred to Speaker Jason Frierson or Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro that they should be calling for a special session to evaluate the governor’s plans and lay out a strategy for dealing with what is going to be a crippling deficit.

Yes, the quaint anachronism known as biennial sessions already hampers Nevada budgeting and planning. But an entire branch of state government has rendered itself voiceless during arguably the greatest non-wartime crisis in the state’s history, simply by standing on the sidelines and letting the governor do what he is doing.

Maybe it’s not feasible to have the Legislature meet because of social distancing and a Zoom session may be too chaotic. But even an agenda as narrow as voting to ratify or reject the governor’s plan for the state (even without the force of law) and to discuss possible budget solutions before the regular session next year, when it almost surely will be very damaged, makes some sense. (I wonder if they already would have met had Laxalt been governor.)

Nevada is already one of – if not THE – strongest executive branches in the country. But just because the guy is of the same party doesn’t mean you abdicate your role. (Looks eastward, sees where this is happening.)

---Electing to perform: I hope what certain governments have done during this time will be long remembered, even with the Memento-like memories of too many voters. It is simply shocking to see how some have debased or embarrassed themselves.

Mayor Control Group (convenient that the initials are the same for Carolyn Goodman) has made Las Vegas a national laughingstock, and her seals on the council – Michele Fiore, Victoria Seaman and Stavros Anthony – are like some mob underlings cowering before the capo. Fiore’s production of a video with people praising Goodman was the reductio ad absurdum of this spectacle. Any mayor with remaining self-respect would have resigned in disgrace, or her friends would have helped her see that as the wisest course. Instead she faces a recall, and she meets the requirements.

The Washoe County Commission’s attempt (Kitty Jung excepted) to pander to the president and the GOP base by joining in a lawsuit hyping the already debunked drug hydroxychloroquine – and then withdrawing it would have been sitcom-level funny if it were not so dangerous. I know how ambitious Chairman Bob Lucey is – he has told people he wants Mark Amodei’s congressional seat. But Lucey: You got some ‘splainin’ to do.

Those are the two most egregious examples. (Henderson – Dan Stewart excepted -- voting for $60 million in bonds for a Golden Knights minor league arena during a budget bludgeoning gets honorable mention.)

Luckily, some jurisdictions have seen strong, forceful and honest leadership. Clark County Commission Chairman Marilyn Kirkpatrick and Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve come to mind.

Their good deeds probably will not go unpunished. But I hope the bad the others did is not interred with this crisis.

---The real Nevadans: Finally, the so-called protesters, who made news in Las Vegas and Carson City and were glorified by one outlet despite being a very small minority, are the epitome of what is wrong with politics. Some of them, I am sure, are fine people – angry about lost jobs and near-bankruptcies, looking for an outlet. But many – probably most – are an amalgam of non-voters, out-of-staters and rabble-rousers riled up by elected officials and candidates, egged on by the Trump campaign and the state GOP.

“Trust Trump, F**k Sisolak” read one of their thoughtful signs last weekend at the mansion. Their chants of “USA, USA,” while they waved Trump banners and screamed at the sky, show what happens when raw anger is manipulated by political grifters and candidates desperate for attention.

I missed where they were denounced by GOP elected officials for that mansion performance or for some of their signs. I missed where Republican leaders called for calm and rationality. I missed where, even after SWAT was called, the GOP elite said there was not a reason in the world to bring guns to a putative political protest.

The extremes on both sides are the worst. I have often said the far left is the nastiest, but the far right is the scariest.

To see a governor fearing for his wife’s safety in his own home, to see candidates for Congress mouthing idiotic slogans and to see good people stand silent: Yes, that makes me very irritable.

Jon Ralston is the editor of The Nevada Independent. He began covering Nevada politics in 1986.

Follow the Money: Fiore-led PAC paid daughter’s event planning company six figures over last two years

Four Vegas council members

Las Vegas City Councilwoman Michele Fiore’s political action committee paid a catering and event planning company run by her daughter nearly $109,000 over the last 18 months, records show.

The Fiore-led PAC, called “Future for Nevadans,” has reported making regular payments since June of 2018 to Hamlet Events, with the listed reason for the campaign payments falling into “advertising” and “special events” categories. According to filings with the secretary of state’s office, Fiore’s daughter, Sheena Siegel, is the registered owner of Hamlet Events.

The reported six figures in expenditures paid to Hamlet Events represents nearly a quarter of the funds spent by Fiore’s PAC and nearly 20 percent of the half-million dollars raised by the committee since 2017. Political action committees in Nevada have no limit on the amount of money they can accept from donors.

There is no Nevada law prohibiting candidates from making campaign payments to family members, but Secretary of State elections chief Wayne Thorley said in an email that such payments could run afoul of the state’s prohibition on using campaign dollars for “personal use” if the family member wasn’t actually providing any goods or services, or if the family member overcharged for a service in a way that financially benefited the candidate. 

Campaign payments made by Fiore’s PAC to a business owned by her daughter highlight Nevada’s loose laws and oversight on political spending, especially with no clear definition of “personal use” or guidance on how to avoid ethical conflicts when paying family members out of campaign funds.

In an email, Fiore said that she follows “the law to the letter on all my reporting,” and that she opted to list expenses through an events planning company as opposed to individual vendors to avoid having them “called and harassed repeatedly.”

“I love my community and provide many big and intimate events or gatherings with my constituency,” she wrote in an email. “My reporting is accurate and legal by our Nevada State law. I have a choice; I could list an event company that handles all the events, or I could list Visa and pay for everything with a credit card.”

Fiore did not directly respond to questions as to what advertising or special events were managed by her daughter’s event planning company, nor if she had sought out any other firms or tried to determine whether the rate paid to Hamlet Events was at fair market value. Calls to the phone number listed on the Hamlet Events website were not returned.

Bradley Schrager, an elections attorney with Wolf, Rifkin, Shapiro, Schulman & Rabkin who often represents state Democrats in election-related cases, said Fiore’s reported spending through the PAC flirted with violating state and federal laws on use of campaign funds.

“Michele Fiore takes her contributors, the Nevada Secretary of State, and US Attorney’s office for marks,” he said in an email. “She’s betting either that no one cares or no one can stop her.”

Hamlet Events

Reported payments from Fiore’s PAC to Hamlet Events cover the period between June 2018 and the end of 2019, with all expenses filed under the categories of “advertising” and “special events.” The PAC reported making several payments (total of $15,100) to the business before it was registered with the state in October 2018.

The website for Hamlet Events includes details on possible events including baby showers, birthdays, weddings, parties, outdoor events and campaigns. Services listed in the ‘campaigns’ section include creating and sending out political mailers and mass campaign emails.

No other political campaigns have reported making any expenditures to Hamlet Events or to Siegel, according to a search of Federal Election Commission and Nevada Secretary of State records. Siegel, who was Fiore’s executive assistant in an unpaid internship role with the City of Las Vegas between August 2017 and October 2019, was paid $2,700 out of Fiore’s primary campaign account over eight payments in late 2017, with the listed expense category as “office expenses” and “special events.”

Hamlet Events is the largest vendor that received payments from the PAC, followed by payments to campaign consultants; $21,400 to SoCo Strategies, led by Zachary Moyle, and $89,000 to Alchemy Associates, an offshoot of political consulting firm Organized Karma run by consultant Ronni Council.

Fiore’s reported campaign spending has previously come under scrutiny; a 2019 Las Vegas Review-Journal story found that Fiore’s PAC and campaign had spent nearly $200,000 on “gasoline, Uber rides, travel, restaurant and grocery store tabs, furniture and her own businesses.” Fiore told the newspaper at the time that the spending was primarily for “constituent service.”

“Ward 6 has more constituent outreach and constituent events than any other ward,” Fiore wrote in a statement to the newspaper.

At least two candidates in the 2016 election cycle relied on family members for campaign work; Assemblyman William McCurdy reported spending more than $23,000 on advertising and special event-related expenses to a political consulting firm run by his parents, and former Democratic state Sen. Kelvin Atkinson paid his former husband more than $33,000 from his campaign and PAC accounts over an eight-year period. Atkinson resigned from Legislature in 2019 amid federal charges of misuse of campaign funds and was given a two-year prison sentence last year.

PAC Activities

According to the Future for Nevadans’ PAC registration form, its stated purpose is “Raising Funds to Educate Nevadans.” 

Although its raised a hefty $545,900 over the last two years, the PAC has reported making relatively little spending toward other political action committees or campaigns; $14,900 to three other political action committees, and $5,000 each to the campaigns of fellow Las Vegas City Councilwoman Victoria Seaman and the Nevada Republican Party.

Other expenses reported by the PAC include $20,000 to Fiore’s consulting firm, Politically Off The Wall, $10,000 to a fireworks display company and $16,500 at a political printing shop. The PAC also reported spending on food and gasoline primarily in 2018, including $8,700 at an Italian restaurant, $2,700 at Costco and more than $1,000 at Terrible Herbst.

Many of the contributors to the PAC are well-known in the Las Vegas business community, and include entities including the campaign of Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo ($5,000), personal injury firm Eglet Prince ($20,000) and several major real estate developers.

It received a combined $58,500 from prominent local government lobbyist Jay Brown and two affiliated business entities, Restaurant Consultants LLC and Washington D.C. Investments LLC.

Another major source of contributions came from cannabis industry executive Elizabeth Stavola and affiliated dispensary Greenmart Nevada (owned by MPX Pharmaceuticals, of which Stavola is an executive). Combined, Stavola and Greenmart contributed $37,500 to the PAC throughout 2018; MPX Pharmaceuticals announced in December 2018 that it had received a coveted retail marijuana license from the City of Las Vegas and three other municipalities.

Not all the donors are well-known. A top contributor to the PAC itself is real estate/rental homes businessman Gary Wu, who through a company called TD Associates NV LLC contributed $29,500 to the PAC. Wu is the owner of Total Max Homes, a Las Vegas-based rental and real estate company that as recently as last year was subject to complaints about violating short-term rental laws.

The Future for Nevadans PAC also reported making a $10,000 campaign payment to Wu in March 2019 for “advertising” and “travel.” Fiore’s 2020 financial disclosure form also shows that she took a trip to China in 2019 on behalf of TD Associates, with the stated purpose of “meetings.” The estimated value of the trip was $5,000.

Other major donors include a California-based real estate business called The Wellington Group, which contributed $25,000 to the PAC in April 2018. 

Fiore previously served two terms in the Assembly before mounting an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2016. She won a seat on the Las Vegas City Council in 2017 and was named mayor pro tempore in 2019.

Follow the Money: Campaign finance reports show GOP edges in key Assembly races, tight contests in State Senate

Front of the Nevada Legislature building at night

A year after legislative Republicans became close to an endangered species after widespread 2018 electoral defeats, the party’s attempted comeback was boosted by candidates in several key races outraising incumbent Democratic lawmakers during the last year.

Details from the 2019 contribution and expenses reports, due on Jan. 15, detailed how much legislative incumbents and candidates raised over the last calendar year and painted a more hopeful picture for Republicans in several “swing” Assembly races, with a more mixed view in competitive state Senate seats.

Although there are 63 seats in the Legislature — 42 Assembly members and 21 senators — actual control of the body, or more likely whether or not Democrats have a two-thirds majority (required for passing any increase in taxes) in either body, will likely come down to just a handful of competitive seats up in 2020. 

Changing the balance of the state Assembly, where Democrats enjoy a 29-13 seat advantage, could be the best ticket for Assembly Republicans. In at least three races — Assembly Districts 4, 29 and 37 — Republican candidates reported raising at least six figures and each substantially outraised the Democratic incumbent in the seat.

Only 10 seats are up for election in the Senate, with members serving staggered four-year terms. Democrats control 13 seats — one shy of a super-majority — but have not endorsed candidates in the two most likely pick-up districts; Heidi Gansert in Senate District 15 and Scott Hammond in Senate District 18. And those incumbents will start with a significant financial advantage — Gansert raised $245,000 in 2019, and Hammond also pulled in $107,800.

Senate Democrats will also have to work to defend two competitive seats — Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro’s Senate District 6 and the open Senate District 5, vacated by termed-out Sen Joyce Woodhouse. They’ll also have to deal with a competitive, three-way primary in safely Democratic Senate District 7 between caucus-backed Roberta Lange and two long-time Assembly members, Richard Carrillo and Ellen Spiegel.

And with no major statewide or federal races (beyond congressional seats and the presidential election) on the ballot, it’s likely that more attention and funds will make their way to down-ticket legislative races, especially ahead of an expected redistricting after the 2020 Census that could determine the political trajectory of the state over the next decade.

Fundraising reports, especially those filed nearly a year before an election, aren’t a perfect barometer of the success of any particular candidate, but offer a helpful context in determining which races that individual parties determine to be the most winnable and whether or not individual candidates have the resources to compete in a down-ballot race. (It’s also worth noting that incumbents are disadvantaged in fundraising because of a legally required “blackout” period before, during and shortly after the 120-day legislative session).

On the flip-side, a close examination of major contributors can pull back the veil on which businesses or industries are trying to curry favor with lawmakers ahead of the 2021 legislative session. 

Here’s a look at the financial status of major legislative races:

Major state Senate races

Although 10 state Senate races will be on the 2020 ballot, only a handful of races are likely to be competitive and shift the current 13-8 seat advantage currently held by Democrats.

A key battleground will be in Senate District 6, which is held by Cannizzaro, who narrowly beat former Assemblywoman Victoria Seaman in the 2016 election. Senate Republicans have endorsed April Becker, a Las Vegas-based attorney. Democrats make up 40 percent of registered voters in the district, and Republicans make up roughly 32.8 percent of registered voters.

Cannizzaro, who also beat back a politically motivated recall attempt in 2017, starts the race with a significant financial advantage after raising more than $326,000 throughout 2019, spending just $22,000 and ending the reporting period with $531,000 in the bank. Her top donors include $30,000 from properties affiliated with the Las Vegas Sands and $10,000 checks each from the Mirage, Switch and the Home Building Industry PAC, as well as nearly $10,000 from Woodhouse’s campaign.

But Becker’s first campaign finance report isn’t shabby; she reported raising nearly $313,000 over the fundraising period (including a “written commitment” from herself for $125,000) and ended the period with $152,000 in her campaign account.

Top donors to Becker included several Republican senators ($10,000 each from James Settelmeyer and the Senate Republican Leadership Conference, $5,000 each from Ben Kieckhefer, Joe Hardy and former state Sen. Michael Roberson and $2,000 from Keith Pickard), as well as $10,000 each from Abbey Dental Center owner Sanjeeta Khurana, the law firm of Gerald Gillock & Associates and Nevsur, Inc. (owned by Bruce and Barry Becker ).

Another highly competitive seat is Senate District 5, where Woodhouse narrowly beat Republican candidate and charter school principal Carrie Buck by less than one percentage point in the 2016 election. Democrats make up 38.4 percent of registered voters in the district compared to 32.6 percent for registered Republicans.

Buck, who is running again and has been endorsed by Senate Republicans, reported raising nearly $63,000 and ended the fundraising period with nearly $58,000 in the bank. Her top donors were fellow Republican senators; $10,000 each from the caucus itself and Settelmeyer, $5,000 each from Kieckhefer, Roberson and Hardy and $2,000 from Pickard.

But Buck’s fundraising total was eclipsed by Democrat Kristee Watson, a literacy nonprofit program facilitator endorsed by Senate Democrats in October.

Watson, who ran unsuccessfully for a Henderson-area Assembly seat in 2018, reported raising nearly $87,000 through the fundraising period, with a significant chunk coming from transfers from other candidates and office-holders. She received $10,000 contributions each from a PAC affiliated with Cannizzaro and the campaigns of Sens. Woodhouse, Chris Brooks, Marilyn Dondero Loop, and $5,000 from the campaigns of Sens. Melanie Scheible, Julia Ratti and Yvanna Cancela.

Other potentially competitive state Senate races feature a lopsided fundraising advantage for the incumbent. Democratic Sen. Dallas Harris in Senate District 11 was appointed to fill the term of now-Attorney General Aaron Ford, and reported raising nearly $46,000 over the fundraising period ($65,000 cash on hand). Her Republican opponents, Edgar Miron Galindo and Joshua Dowden, raised only $7,250 and $ 11,500 respectively over the fundraising period.

Two Republican incumbents up for re-election also posted impressive fundraising numbers that far outstripped potential opponents. Gansert in Senate District 15 raised nearly $246,000 and has nearly $237,000 in cash on hand; potential Democratic opponent Lindsy Judd did not file a 2019 campaign finance report.

In Senate District 18, incumbent Hammond raised nearly $108,000 and has more than $91,000 left in his campaign account; potential Democratic opponent Liz Becker raised $21,700 in comparison and has just $11,200 in cash on hand.

Primary battles

One of the most intriguing legislative races could come in the three-way Democratic primary to replace longtime Sen. David Parks, who is termed out of his Senate District 7 seat. Two Assembly members — Ellen Spiegel and Richard Carrillo — are running for the seat, but state Senate Democrats have thrown their weight behind another candidate, former state party head Roberta Lange.

Lange — who only made her bid for the seat official in mid-December — reported raising more than $64,000 for the seat, essentially during only the last two weeks of December. Her major donors included $10,000 from Cannizzaro’s political action committee, and $5,000 each from six incumbent senators — Ratti, Brooks, Scheible, Woodhouse, Cancela and Dondero Loop. She also received $2,500 from Parks, $1,000 from former U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s Searchlight Leadership PAC and $5,000 each from UNLV professor and former gaming executive Tom Gallagher and his wife, Mary Kay Gallagher.

But she faces a potentially tough primary fight from Spiegel, who raised $63,000 throughout 2019 and has nearly $213,000 in available cash on hand. Her top contributor was Cox Communications ($10,000 cumulative) but other top givers included the Nevada REALTORS PAC, pharmaceutical company trade group PhRMA, health insurance giant Centene and AT&T ($3,000 from each). 

Carrillo lagged behind both Lange and Spiegel in initial fundraising reports. He reported raising $29,500 throughout the fundraising period, spending $37,600 and having just $17,000 left in available cash. His biggest contributor was the Laborers Union Local 872, which donated $12,500 through contributions by five affiliated political action committees. Other top contributors include tobacco company Altria and the political arm of the Teamsters Union ($5,000 each), and $3,000 each from Nevada REALTORS PAC and the Nevada Trucking Association.

Another major primary election is brewing between Republican candidates Andy Matthews (a former campaign spokesman for former Attorney General Adam Laxalt) and Michelle Mortensen (former television host and congressional candidate) in a primary for the right to challenge Assemblywoman Shea Backus in Assembly District 37.

Matthews raised a massive $154,000 over the fundraising period, the highest amount of any Republican Assembly candidate and the second most of any Assembly candidate behind only Speaker Jason Frierson.

He reported spending $23,800 and ending the period with more than $130,000 in available cash. His top donors included $10,000 combined from manufacturer EE Technologies and founder Sonny Newman, and $5,000 each from Las Vegas-based businesses Vegas Heavy Haul and InCorp Services, Inc. 

Mortensen also posted a substantial fundraising total; more than $102,000 raised, $9,500 spent and more than $93,000 in cash on hand. Her major donors included primarily family members; her husband Robert Marshall and his company Marshall & Associates ($20,000 total), her father-in-law James Marshall ($10,000) and maximum $10,000 donations from several family members including Betty Mortensen, Tom Mortensen, Ryan Mortensen and Mila Mortensen.

Both Republican candidates outraised incumbent Backus, who raised nearly $25,000 during the reporting period and has nearly $64,000 left in cash on hand. Her top donor was Wynn Resorts, which gave her $5,000. Backus narrowly defeated then-Republican Assemblyman Jim Marchant in the 2018 election, the first time a Democrat won the district in four election cycles.

Another competitive primary is happening in Assembly District 36, where appointed Assembly Republican Gregory Hafen II is facing off against Joseph Bradley, who ran for the seat last cycle against former Assemblyman James Oscarson and famed brothel owner Dennis Hof, who won the primary but died before the election.

Hafen reported raising $62,000 over the fundraising period (including a $9,500 loan) and has nearly $47,000 in cash on hand. Bradley reported raising $54,000 and has $38,500 left in his campaign account.

Key Assembly races

Nevada’s Assembly Democrats hit a potential high-water mark in 2018, winning control of 29 seats for the first time since 1992 and gaining enough seats to relegate Assembly Republicans to a super-minority (fewer than two-thirds of members).

But in a handful of competitive Assembly seats currently held by Democrats, Republican candidates posted substantial fundraising totals that not only eclipsed but often lapped the amount raised by incumbent Democrats, giving Republicans a financial leg up in some of the state’s most competitive legislative districts.

In Assembly District 4, first-term lawmaker Connie Munk reported raising $18,600 throughout 2019 and ended the period with just over $30,000 in cash on hand. Her biggest donors were PhRMA and trial attorneys-affiliated Citizens for Justice, Trust.

But her fundraising total was overwhelmed by Republican candidate Donnie Gibson, who reported raising $115,000 and has $87,000 left in his campaign account. Gibson, who runs a grading and paving company called Civil Werx, received maximum contributions from home builders and developers: $10,000 each from Associated Builders & Contractors, Associated General Contractors, the Nevada Contractors Association and the Home Industry Building PAC.

A similar disparity in fundraising totals was also present in Assembly District 29, where incumbent Democrat Lesley Cohen reported raising $16,000 over the fundraising period and has just under $50,000 in available cash.

Steven Delisle, a dentist and former state Senate candidate who announced his intention to run for the Assembly seat on Thursday, reported raising more than $134,000 for the race against Cohen, including a $125,000 loan to his campaign account.

But Democrats may have caught a break in Assembly District 31, where incumbent Skip Daly has won multiple races despite representing a district that went for President Donald Trump in 2016. Daly raised $46,425 through 2019 and has $75,800 left in his campaign account.

Assembly Republicans initially rallied behind Jake Wiskerchen, a marriage and family therapist who reported raising $27,700 for the race and had $19,000 in cash on hand at the end of 2019. But Wiskerchen opted to publicly drop out of the race in early January, leaving Republicans without an endorsed candidate for the time being. Daly’s 2018, 2016 and 2014 opponent, Jill Dickman, reported raising $8,800 in 2019 and has nearly $104,000 in leftover campaign cash.

Legislative leaders

Democratic Assembly Speaker Frierson reported raising more than $233,000 through the fundraising period, spending $174,000 and ended the period with just under $475,000 in cash on hand. His top contributors included a wide swath of Nevada businesses, including $10,000 each from Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits, the campaign account of former Assemblyman Elliot Anderson, Home Building Industry PAC, MGM Resorts and UFC parent company Zuffa, LLC. He also received $5,000 from the Vegas Golden Knights.

Republican Assembly Leader Robin Titus, who took over the caucus leadership position after the 2019 legislature, raised just over $38,000 during the fundraising period, spending more than $16,000 and ending the period with $72,000 in cash on hand. Top contributors to Titus included PhRMA and the Nevada REALTOR PAC ($5,000 each).

Her Republican counterpart in the state Senate, Settelmeyer, reported raising nearly $95,000 over the reporting period, with top contributors including UFC parent company Zuffa ($7,500), TitleMax, Nevada Credit Union League PAC, Grand Sierra Resort and Storey County businessman Lance Gilman ($5,000 from each). Settelmeyer ended the reporting period with $137,000 in cash on hand.

Sisolak

Although he isn’t up for re-election until 2022, Gov. Steve Sisolak broke fundraising records for Nevada governors in their first year in office after raising more than $1.6 million for his campaign and another $1.7 million for two closely affiliated political action committees. 

Sisolak reported having more than $2.3 million in available cash on hand at the end of 2019, and only reported spending $164,000 throughout the year. The governor also raised $1.7 million between the Sisolak Inaugural Committee and the Home Means Nevada PAC, which were initially set up to manage Sisolak’s inaugural events but have since been used for pro-Sisolak advertising. Political action committees in Nevada are allowed to accept unlimited donations.

Updated at 12:55 p.m. on Saturday, January 18th to include fundraising totals from Senate Republican candidate Joshua Dowden.

Las Vegas City Council OKs controversial homeless ordinance

Protesters outside Vegas city hall

The Las Vegas City Council passed a controversial ordinance Wednesday that makes sleeping or camping in downtown Las Vegas a misdemeanor crime, capping a weeks-long debate over a law that critics have charged would effectively criminalize homelessness in the city’s urban core — and that became a cause célèbre among Democratic candidates for the White House. 

The council approved the measure by a vote of 5-2, with councilmembers Michele Fiore, Victoria Seaman, Stavros Anthony and Cedric Crear joining Mayor Carolyn Goodman in favor, and Olivia Diaz and Brian Knudsen voting against. 

City leaders have described the ordinance as a necessary step in addressing homelessness as a public health problem, but the introduction of the law sparked a fierce backlash among advocates for the homeless in Las Vegas and nationwide. 

Protesters outside Vegas city hall
Protesters gather in front of Las Vegas City Hall to demonstrate against a controversial proposal that would ban people from sleeping in public areas in downtown Las Vegas. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Ahead of Wednesday’s marathon meeting, dozens of protesters rallied outside City Hall with chants of “Help not handcuffs” and “Poverty is not a crime.” Those protesters eventually filtered inside the council chambers, where several went on to spar with the mayor over decorum. 

“If you care, and I mean really care, you will sit down and observe the decorum of this body who is taking everything in earnest and with dignity,” Goodman said, briefly quelling early chants. “I expect the same from each of you.”

In several instances, Goodman asked marshals to escort out a handful of protesters after a number of disruptions, in addition to a repeated threat to recess the meeting altogether. 

But for more than three hours, activists and residents — including some of Las Vegas’ homeless population — railed against the proposal in public comment periods. 

“Homelessness is not a crisis because the homeless exist, homelessness is a crisis because the homeless suffer,” said Ron Moore, a Las Vegas resident who said he was once homeless himself. “We can do better than empty gestures such as this bill.”

Protesters at Vegas council meeting
Citizens protest at the Las Vegas City Council meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019, during which council members considered a ban on people sleeping in public areas in downtown Las Vegas. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Assemblyman Howard Watts, Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones and County Commission hopeful Hunter Cain showed up to testify in opposition to the ordinance. Jones led his comment with the fact that the commission recently devoted $12 million in marijuana fee revenue to address homelessness.

“As has been referenced before, the Legislature asked that the jurisdictions work together under AB73 on a working group for homelessness,” Jones said, adding that city officials had “shut down” certain questions and comments in regard to the ordinance in a meeting with county officials last month. 

By early this week, the ordinance had grown so outwardly unpopular — especially among those on the political left — that it had drawn a national spotlight, prompting a number of Democratic presidential campaigns to decry the move in public statements. 

After the vote, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren called the measure "a band-aid that caters to the interests of powerful business groups while doing real harm to Southern Nevadans" and concluded "this fight isn't over." Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said "criminalizing poverty is not the solution" and pledged that "when we win we are going to take on the greed creating the [housing] crisis."

But not all responses to the measure were negative; many lined up to praise the ordinance as the meeting stretched into the late afternoon, especially as it related to homelessness as a hindrance to local businesses.

That included testimony from both Patrick Hughes, president and CEO of the Fremont Street Experience, and David Dazlich, director of governmental affairs with the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, who told the council homelessness would drive away business from downtown. Hughes said he believed that the ordinance focuses on “those not willing to get help” and that homeless individuals blocked patrons from doorways. 

Four Vegas council members
Members of the Las Vegas City Council Stavros Anthony, left, Michele Fiore, Mayor Carolyn Goodman and Cedric Crear confer while homeless advocates demonstrate during a council meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019. The council approved a controversial proposal that would ban people from sleeping in public areas in downtown Las Vegas. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Council members who supported the ordinance argued that the measure was more nuanced than opponents made it out to be.

“Many people have bad info — either they have bad info or you just don’t want to recognize that the ordinance is not picking people up and throwing them in jail,” said Councilman Cedric Crear. 

Councilwoman Michele Fiore agreed, adding that comments saying the ordinance criminalized homeless people “is just plain false.” She shared an account of seeing a homeless man when she was downtown with her grandchildren. 

“There was a homeless individual laying on a cardboard box. It was 5 o'clock and maybe he just didn’t realize that his pants were undone. But my two young grandchildren got to see all of his anatomy,” Fiore said. 

She said the measure balanced the rights of people who are homeless and other residents.

“Under this proposed ordinance, the authorities discover homeless encampments. They have the options to ask the homeless person to move on and not stop their encampment. And we’ve even taken it a step further — we’ll help you get to a place where you can lay your head safely,” Fiore said. “Homeless individuals have rights, and you know what, so do the business owners, citizens and residents.” 

The ordinance will be enforced in all downtown master-planned districts including the Historic Westside. According to Deputy City Attorney Jeff Dorocak, although the ordinance will be effective on Sunday, an amendment to the ordinance says that the criminal penalty provision will not go into effect until January 2020.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, Garcia knew better.

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

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

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

City preliminary approvals aside, their reasoning was pretty sound.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Careful, smart guy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Former assemblywoman files to recall Las Vegas Councilman Steve Seroka

A former Republican legislator is leading a new effort to recall a Las Vegas city councilman from office.

A notice of intent to recall Councilman Steve Seroka, a Democrat, was filed Monday by former Assemblywoman and conservative activist Victoria Seaman, Kim Fergus and Ulrira Miyashiro.

In an interview, Seaman said that if the recall effort qualified she would seek to run against Seroka and that the recall effort was being brought over unhappiness over how Seroka has dealt with the city’s long-running dispute with developers seeking to build on the shuttered Badlands golf course in west Las Vegas.

“I intend to be vociferous about it and make sure that people know that councilman Seroka isn’t looking for solutions,” she said. “He’s a councilman for a few people in Queensridge.”

Seroka, who defeated incumbent Councilman Bob Beers in the 2017 municipal elections, staked much of his campaign over a contentious development plan for the closed golf course, which has angered residents of the nearby Queensridge neighborhood.

But conflict over the development has continued, and the city is facing at least nine lawsuits naming it as a defendant. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, one of the developers filed a federal lawsuit asking a judge to block Seroka and Councilman Bob Coffin from voting on items related to development on the golf course, related to email correspondence between Seroka, a gaming attorney and a Queensridge homeowner on strategies to oppose developing the golf course.

Seaman, who served one term in the Assembly and lost a state Senate race in the 2016 election, said she wanted to replace Seroka and thought she could do a better job bringing all parties together and coming to a solution that didn’t involve costly litigation.

“This is no way a legislator of any kind should be dealing with these issues,” she said.

In a brief interview, Seroka said it was "kind of sad" that the same issues that came up during the 2017 campaign were coming up again, but said he was confident the recall attempt would fail.

"I will stand up and continue protecting property values of people in my ward, and for all of the city of Las Vegas," he said.

Under Nevada law, a recall effort must garner signatures from 25 percent of the voters who cast a ballot in the previous election. Total turnout in Seroka’s ward in the 2017 municipal election was 7,401, so backers of the recall will need to gather 1,850 signatures to qualify for a special election.

Recall backers will need to turn in the signatures by March 11. If enough signatures are gathered, a special election in the ward will be held.

Recall Seroka by Riley Snyder on Scribd

Updated at 5:45 p.m. to add a statement from Las Vegas City Councilman Steve Seroka.