Residents of the North Valleys are seeing something they’ve never encountered before—election campaign signs for the state legislator from Battle Mountain.
Assembly member John Marvel, a Republican, was one of the victims of redistricting by the Nevada Assembly, which had a Democratic majority in 2001. If his new district reelects him, the urban residents of the North Valleys will be represented by a rancher. Once representative of a predominantly small-county district, Marvel is now contending for reelection in the kind of district for which the term gerrymander was coined.
Assembly District 32 starts in the northern portion of Marvel’s home, Lander County (of which it occupies less than one-fifth of the territory), then reaches west across Humboldt County—shrinking at one point to an isthmus a few hundred yards wide—into Washoe County. It then sweeps up to the Nevada-Oregon border and down along the Nevada-California border and then swerves east to grab a significant portion of the North Valleys. The Washoe portion of the district contains nearly all the population—89.6 percent.
This district is a product of the refusal of Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins of Clark County and his Democratic majority to allow an increase in the number of seats in the Legislature. Senate Republican leader William Raggio of Washoe County tried to enlarge the Legislature and nearly accomplished it during the regular legislative session, but was stymied by Perkins and Assembly Democratic leader Barbara Buckley when redistricting was thrown into a special session.
While the small counties are growing in population, their growth rate is nothing compared to that in the two urban counties. As a result, while their population is increasing, their portion of the state’s population is shrinking. After the 2000 census made it clear that they would lose influence in the Legislature, there were proposals to enlarge the Assembly so that the rural areas would at least retain seats with distinctly small-county identities.
But Perkins’ rejection of the idea forced the rural districts to reach deep into urban areas. Marvel is not the only victim. Other Assembly districts push into the southern Nevada rural area, and in the Senate Churchill County Republican Mike McGinness is running for reelection in what legislative researcher Michael Stewart says may be the largest state legislative district in the United States. It includes all of Churchill, Douglas, Mineral and Esmeralda counties and parts of Lyon, Nye and Clark counties.
Back in Washoe County, Marvel’s race has become an archetypal rural-versus-urban face-off. The Battle Mountain resident’s opponent, Mike Weber, is a fellow Republican from the Red Rock area in the furiously growing valleys north of Reno and Sparks. Even the two men’s occupations represent the chasm between rural and urban—a rancher is running against a construction inspector who is kept busy by the terrific growth in Washoe County.
Astonishingly, considering how fertile the North Valleys are for the Democrats, no Democrat is running.
“I was shocked, I was shocked,” Weber says of the free ride for the Republicans. He was the last candidate to file at the Secretary of State’s Office in Carson City, and he says he filed reluctantly. “I had to be talked into it by my wife, and part of the reason is that there were no other contenders.”
In campaigning around the district, Weber says he hears most about taxes (people are against them) and education (people are supportive, and many worry about the implications of the state budget crisis for schools). By contrast, Marvel says when he campaigns in the North Valleys, he finds the greatest level of concern is about annexation—and about Reno’s plans to increase its “spheres of influence” by adding outlying communities to its tax coffers.
Weber says neither his public statements nor his campaign material take on Marvel.
“It’s just unfortunate that redistricting threw him to the wolves,” Weber says. Weber’s unwillingness to go after Marvel is a break for the rural legislator, since some parts of his record would likely not play well in his new precincts, such as anti-environment votes. For instance, Marvel once offered a resolution asking the federal government to take the Lahontan cutthroat trout off the endangered-species list.
There are, to be sure, overlapping interests between rural and urban Nevada. For instance, much of the regulatory process for the controversial Oil Dri cat litter plant north of Sparks falls under federal mining law, in which Marvel is well-versed.
The rural sections of the new district are being aggressively overlooked. Weber says he is doing little to compete with Marvel in the Battle Mountain and Winnemucca areas: “No, I’m pretty much focusing on where the voters are at this point.”
He plans to make the best use of the remaining few days in the campaign after undergoing kidney stone surgery in mid-October.
Marvel is not going to be counted out. He has been advertising heavily on Reno radio, and his television commercials started running in mid-October. It’s a big change for Marvel, who has often won in a walk or without opposition. The time he’s spending in the urban area is not actually as much of a change as might be expected—he kept the Carson City residence where he spent the last legislative session, partly because of his need to be more immediately available to his new constituents, partly for Assembly committee meetings between the legislative sessions. It is likely also an advantage for his wife, Willie—one of the most popular figures at legislative sessions—whose health is frail. She is closer to the more elaborate health care facilities of the urban north.
If Marvel is reelected, the North Valleys would certainly gain influence—particularly if, as some observers predict, the Assembly goes Republican. Marvel is a legislative institution, a former Republican floor leader who has served in 12 regular legislative sessions and five special sessions. He would swing a lot of weight and (in a GOP takeover) hold a committee chair, something that would be less likely for Weber.
Marvel has been down this road before, though not in a race so dramatically urban. After the 1980 census, his district was pushed west into thinly populated northern Washoe County. But that did not provide the kind of classic urban-versus-rural showdown 2002 is seeing. In that case, northern Washoe communities like Vya had plenty of common interests with Winnemucca and Battle Mountain, and it was not difficult for Marvel to represent both parts of the district. A more rural district was reestablished after the 1990 census.
This time, his rural expertise is more difficult to market to residents whose concerns are mainly metropolitan. It’s not impossible—as floor leader he kept the party’s urban and rural representatives working together. Doing this in a political campaign is trickier.