Photo By David Robert

It’s been a fond hope of many leading Nevada activists for years: a woman governor.

There were times when the prize seemed very much in reach. Patricia Cafferata and Jan Jones actually won party nominations for governor. For several years, half of the state government offices elected statewide were filled by women—Lt. Gov. Sue Wagner, Secretary of State Cheryl Lau and Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa. In 1998, every single statewide Democratic candidate for state office was a woman.

But, while those made good foundations, women candidates still have difficulty getting traction in races for governor. Cafferata and Jones lost. Del Papa was frozen out by the big boys in the casino industry. Wagner’s health took her out of the running, and Lau lost.

Now, two women—big names, not gadflies—are running, one in each party.

Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt is the Republican heir apparent, having served as acting governor in Gov. Kenny Guinn’s absence, chaired the commissions on tourism and economic development and appeared as a high-level politician all over the state.

Clark County Sen. Dina Titus, the Democratic floor leader, has been her party’s leader in the Senate since 1993, championing causes like Red Rock Canyon and growth limits (“smart growth,” she calls it) and giving the party a voice even when the Legislature is out of session.

Both face skepticism from the state’s big boys and from journalists. But both also have been willing to do what other women candidates—or the men, for that matter—have not: throw hesitancy to the winds and declare their intentions.

Born in Niagara Falls, N.Y., in 1939, Hunt arrived in Nevada during the Second World War and saw most of the now-familiar Las Vegas story unfold. She was a part of it, as a lounge singer and later a developer. She is widowed with three children. (Her late husband, Blackie, played with the Characters, a band she fronted as singer.)

Born in Thomasville, Ga., in 1950, Titus graduated from the College of William and Mary and then took a master’s degree from the University of Georgia and a doctorate from the University of Florida. After working for U.S. Sen. Howard Cannon of Nevada in Washington, she arrived in Nevada in 1977. She’s a policy wonk and teaches at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. (She takes unpaid leave during legislatures.) Her husband, Tom Wright, is a fellow professor, in history.

In interviews and conversations, Hunt tends to speak directly to the mechanics of government, how to get from A to Z, how to make things work. Titus is more conceptual, perhaps reflecting her scholarly career—she has written books on nuclear testing in Nevada and on federal/state relations.

They have both had long careers in government, and, while some may question their candidacies on other grounds, they are not likely to face questions about their credentials.

While they may approach government differently, the two have similarities, most particularly their determination and resolve. Both announced for the governorship more than a year ago; no other major candidate has yet joined them.

Hunt has some advantages over Jim Gibbons, her leading possible opponent in the GOP primary. She has won two statewide races. He lost his only statewide campaign. She cast many votes as a Clark County commissioner, but as lieutenant governor for eight years, she has presided over the Senate, where she can vote only when there are ties (and in a house with 21 members there are rarely ties).

Gibbons, in contrast, has cast hundreds of votes over three terms as an assemblyman and five as a congressman. There is, thus, a richer lode for Hunt to mine in looking for weaknesses in Gibbons.

She chairs the Nevada Commission on Tourism and the Nevada Commission on Economic Development, which has allowed her to do missionary work for seven years among the state’s businesspeople, many of whom are nervous about Gibbons’ politics of polarization. And, as a state officer, her experience is more relevant to the office of governor than his.

In a primary with Gibbons, Hunt would be in a unique position. She has been a loyal ally of Gov. Guinn, including during his rancorous 2003 battle with Assembly Republicans over his tax program. Gibbons, on the other hand, broke with Guinn on the tax issue and even embarrassed the governor by dissing him in a 2003 speech to a joint session of the Legislature that the governor had courteously attended, sitting a few feet in front of Gibbons. The primary election could be affected by whether GOP voters reward Hunt for her party loyalty or Gibbons for his tax stands.

Titus has substantially higher name recognition than her most prominent primary opponent, Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins. This is partly because of her larger district and longer tenure in the Legislature, partly because of his blander style—and, significantly, because she took advantage of an opportunity in her last legislative reelection race. Facing no serious opposition, she used the campaign to build up her visibility in Clark County, which is where most voters live. Perkins, of course, could have done the same. He just didn’t.

Titus also has a stronger leadership profile than Perkins, taking forceful stands on numerous issues that hit people where they live. (Her Georgia accent is one of the more obvious things that most profiles of her mention. In a state where 80 out of every 100 people were born somewhere else, it’s probably not a big deal, except to make her seem like a conservative to those with a stereotypical view of the South.)

But she’s also changed the way the Senate Democratic Caucus works. One former state senator who came back to lobby the lawmakers was astonished at how often the Democratic senators had to meet to decide party positions. It struck him as a funny way to lead.

Photo By David Robert Her role as the Democratic Party floor leader in the Nevada Senate has given Clark County Sen. Dina Titus greater visibility—and a more partisan image.

Titus has one big handicap in going statewide—her criticism of northern Nevada. It is a more prickly problem than anything Hunt faces.

“Well, actually there has been one comment about the north over the years, and that was in my first term when I was fighting the ‘fair share’ for the south,” she says. “And I think that the way you counter that is that that was my first time, I was fighting as hard as I could for my district, continued to be a fighter, and I will fight equally hard for the whole state if I’m governor.” (“Fair share” is the term for a 1991 legislative battle over county distribution of tax revenues.)

In fact, however, there has been more than one comment. In her first campaign for the Legislature, Titus presented herself as a regional candidate who would go to Carson City to combat what she called the “Comstock Lode mentality.” She defined this as a state politics “dominated by rural/northern interests that seem pretty unattuned to some of the problems of urban development, increasing crime, population growth that we face in the south.”

Titus herself has conceded that Clark has overlapping interests with the north, which also suffers from the urban problems she describes. But she has had difficulty resisting the temptation to pit north against south.

In a Senate speech during the 1991 “fair share” battle, she tore into Washoe County in terms that inflamed an already flammable climate in the legislative building and left listeners gasping at her vehemence:

“For years Washoe County has been a sponge just soaking up the income that’s been earned by the blood and sweat of miners, gamblers, ranchers throughout the whole rest of the state. They don’t want taxes. They don’t want growth. They just want a handout.”

In 1997, when many Washoe County residents were living in shelters and fleabag motels after a hundred-year flood swamped their homes, Titus suggested during a taping of the KNPB/KLVX program Capital Issues that flood victims might pad their lists of losses in order to rebuild their lives.

“You know, there are rascals up north. We want to be sure that what we pay for is what was really damaged, that we aren’t putting in some improvements that weren’t there before the flood.”

The comment was gratuitous, since most public aid comes from federal agencies and private groups, not the state, and from some lawmakers it might have passed unnoticed, but it came from a senator with a history of north-bashing.

Any of these kinds of quotations would make dandy 30-second television spots that could easily dry up Titus’ support in the north. If so, she would have to win the governor’s office out of one county. It can be done—Harry Reid has done it—but it would be very difficult. The quotations might not even play well in Clark County, jaded by years of southern and northern politicians playing the two ends of the state against each other.

Titus’ plan—to overcome the problem by telling northern voters that she did what her post as a Clark County senator required her to do, but as governor she would represent the entire state—has precedent. Presidential candidate Howard Dean tried something similar when he told Nevadans that he supported the Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste dump when he was the governor of a state with a nuclear-power plant, but as a president he would take a different position.

It’s a stance that requires an explanation, and political campaigns today are not good with subtleties. A slogan seems to beat a position paper every time. But Titus says she can make her case in other ways, too.

“I don’t have to just convince them that I’ve changed my mind because I’m running for governor. You can look at a 16-year record. Compare my record to [northern Senator] Bill Raggio’s record on, say, spending for the north and the rurals. I bet you it’s exactly the same.”

Titus, however, would have to address her message to the north in terms that could not be used against her in the south. That will take some deftness.

On some issues, such as growth, her record is very appealing in Washoe County—if the county’s voters find out about that record. Titus’ history of support for growth limits would give her entrée in Northern Nevada, where there is a broad controlled-growth constituency. Her advocacy of growth restrictions to curb urban sprawl in Las Vegas was a genuine political risk in Clark County, where growth approaches the status of a religion.

Hunt must deal with a belief that she’s not a heavyweight, that she is the ideal lieutenant governor, cutting ribbons and riding in parades.

The fact that she has a show-business background exacerbates this problem, rather like the fact that Jan Jones did television commercials for a car dealership before she got into politics. Hunt says she has to do a better job of telling her story. She wasn’t just a performer, she says; she ran a music-contracting business at the same time—and was a success at it.

“Yes, I sang, played the piano, but my musical contracting made a very good living. [I] bought land doing that, and in the ‘70s began developing shopping centers and went into the restaurant business. … And then I founded a bank, Continental National Bank. So I feel that I can compete in any man’s world. I mean, I can compete with a Fortune 500 company—or Fortune 100 company—and talk the talk.”

Both Titus and Hunt are in position to change the state’s politics, and not just the role of women.

In 2003, Hunt watched from her dais as president of the Senate while casino lobbyists struggled to pass a tax program that they once would have enacted with ease. Because of her work in luring new businesses to the state, Hunt is well-positioned to run a campaign on non-casino campaign contributions at a time when the casino industry’s influence is slowly declining as a result of tribal gambling in California, and so she need not fear being frozen out by the casinos, as happened to Del Papa. She could be the first to ride a changed political landscape into office.

Photo By Dennis Myers Just after the January 2003 inaugural ceremonies when they were sworn in for second terms, Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt, right, and Gov. Kenny Guinn greeted the crowd.

“I’ve made a tremendous amount of new friends that are very supportive of my candidacy, and they know how I feel about high tech, high wages being paid, all these new industries that we’re bringing in throughout the entire state … but additionally, I’ve not forgotten the main engine that’s still driving the economy, and that’s tourism. And that’s why I was so aggressive about opening that new office in China. That was pretty innovative, pretty aggressive, and I think it showed my leadership.”

Hunt says she recognizes the difficulties of the race but that if she can’t win over the state’s traditional big boys, she’ll go around them.

“Well, I’ll continue to raise the money with my new-found friends. I do have quite a bit of support. … I know when the time comes, the checks will be there. I’m not really concerned about that. I’ll have ample money to mount a formidable campaign.”

Hunt says she is even prepared to pay for the campaign from her personal fortune, if necessary—”It’s a nice position to be in.”

Titus has been exploring new campaign techniques, such as the use of a computer pop-up ad to promote her 2005 legislative tax plan (see “Going high tech,” RN&R News, March 31). When someone searches on Google for the name “Jim Gibbons,” for instance, a paid link to comes up along with other hits. Such innovations are reminiscent of Paul Laxalt’s pioneering early-1960s use of opinion surveys in Nevada.

“Well, it’s the new technology,” Titus says. “It’s the wave of the future, and my issue on property tax is one that resonates with the public, and I was using everything I could to contact the public. And pop-up ads are less expensive than polling or direct mailing, and you still can contact a lot of people … and it worked. We’ve gotten lots of responses. They say that the percentage of people who click on is like 2 to 3 percent, and mine’s up around 20. So it’s pretty incredible.”

Perhaps surprisingly, running against Jim Gibbons doesn’t seem a particularly daunting task to either of these candidates. Hunt seems to believe that the business community is looking for someone more stable than Gibbons, and Titus sounds like she would almost relish the prospect of running against him—”because I think that he is very much an extremist. … I think there’d be easy contrast there. And I think I would appear much more mainstream, and he would be much more of a fringe candidate.”

Titus thinks a more moderate Republican would be tougher to beat than Gibbons, but she doesn’t expect to have to face that prospect.

“It would be easier than against a moderate Republican, no question about it. But I’m not sure a moderate Republican could get out of a primary.”

Hunt is more succinct in talking about the supposedly formidable Gibbons.

“I’ve said, just wait and see.”

Media coverage of women candidates is another minefield for Hunt and Titus. Many reporters still haven’t figured out how to deal with such candidates.

News coverage is often belittling in a way it would not be of men with similar credentials. Moreover, news coverage is often the principal obstacle for women candidates in achieving one of the most important but most difficult-to-define qualities a candidate needs—legitimacy, substance, weightiness, gravitas. Dismissive news coverage can end a candidacy before it ever gets traction.

Both Titus and Hunt have faced such coverage—Hunt more than Titus, though Titus has received more of it as she has gotten closer to going statewide. Why this would be so, particularly against Gibbons, is a bit of a mystery. Titus and Hunt have both won elections in the political snake pit that is Clark County, one of the most brutal political settings in the nation. Hunt has been elected a Clark County commissioner, considered by many analysts to be the most influential post in the state, so much so that some commissioners have considered jobs like governor and the U.S. House of Representatives to be a step down.

No one succeeding in that county’s politics could be a cream puff, and Hunt and Titus have succeeded and thrived.

Both candidates have learned to do television well over long public careers, with each bringing different traits. Hunt’s experience in show business and warming up an audience gives her a different approach than Titus, who has mostly appeared before audiences to talk public policy, not entertain. That might seem an asset for Hunt, and it is, but it also means Titus, as a result, speaks more directly to issues (though often in insider language).

If Titus and Hunt were to face each other, they both say it would not particularly affect the way they would run. “You know, this isn’t going to be a gender-oriented race,” Titus says, a sentiment with which Hunt agrees. It would be a case of a growth-limits candidate (Titus) versus a former developer (Hunt), a candidate who grew up with the state versus a more typical mid-life arrival to this fastest-growing state.

They bring some things to the race that some candidates don’t, such as a sense of restraint. When, for photographs for this article, we requested poses of them in boxing stance, fists up, they declined—”We’ll leave that one to the boys,” one of them said. (The cover illustration is a composite.)

Former Nevada State Treasurer Patty Cafferata, who was the GOP candidate for governor in 1986 against incumbent Democrat Richard Bryan, says she would not urge a candidacy on any women candidate who does not have the support of the big boys. Running against anointed candidates is an uphill fight, she says. Both Hunt and Titus are convinced they can overcome that problem.

Hunt says she brings an uncommon combination of life experience to the race—small business, big business, legislative, executive.

“So I think my experience and my qualifications are pretty exceptional to lead the state in a very creative direction.”

Titus says that, while she would have to tailor her positions to serve a statewide electorate, she will be guided by the same values she brought to the Senate.

“What I’m going to do is stay true to the things that I’ve always supported. Now I’ll just do it on a grander scale.”

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...