The campaign for the Republican nomination for governor changed significantly last week, when state legislator Bob Beers jumped into the race.
Beers, a Clark County senator, and U.S. Representative Jim Gibbons are both hard-right, anti-tax conservatives who would be likely to appeal to similar constituencies in the GOP primary election. That would be a benefit to a third candidate, Lieutenant Governor Lorraine Hunt, who is more moderate.
But Hunt faces her own threat, from Reno Mayor Robert Cashell, a moderate who is considering entering the race and would likely be a potent candidate.
Cashell brings with him a long resume that outshines every other candidate, a reputation in Nevada’s rural counties that precedes that of Gibbons, personal deep pockets to match Hunt’s millions and a good humored persona that contrasts sharply with Gibbons’ and Beers’ polarizing images.
After establishing himself as a truck stop and casino owner in the mid-1970s, Cashell served as a university regent from 1979 to 1983 and as lieutenant governor from 1983 to ‘87. He was elected lieutenant governor as a Democrat but switched parties on August 12, 1983. After leaving the lieutenant governorship he became Republican state chair.
Returning to private life in the mid-’80s, he mostly focused again on business, operating casinos in Nevada and Louisiana. In Nevada’s small counties, he became known—and popular—as someone willing to gamble to revive failing properties, notably Winnemucca’s Star Broiler and Carson City’s Ormsby House, which he operated by appointment of a federal bankruptcy judge. This often meant that people kept their jobs, a factor that led to signs being erected in Winnemucca reading, “Thank you, Bob Cashell.”
In 2002, Cashell moved inside the Reno city limits to run for mayor and was elected in a squeaker against insurance broker Mike Robinson.
Now Robinson says he thinks Cashell would be stronger on a statewide basis than Gibbons.
“He’s got a lot of strength up here,” Robinson says. “He seems to have the strength of the gaming establishment behind him. Who else is there?”
Robinson says he thinks Gibbons’ record of verbal blunders would help Cashell. (Gibbons called critics of influence peddling in the Bush inauguration arrangements “Communists.” He later apologized, then engaged in an incendiary attack on abortion supporters and Iraq war opponents, most of which was plagiarized from an Alabama politician. He did not apologize for that outburst.)
One handicap Cashell would probably have to overcome is being a municipal official. The political highway is littered with the bodies of mayors and city councilmembers who have tried to run for higher office. Reno Mayors Roy Bankofier and Pete Sferrazza lost state or federal races in 1970, 1986, 1992 and 1994. Las Vegas Mayor Oran Gragson lost a race for governor in 1962. (Former Reno mayor Richard Kirman was elected governor in 1934, 20 years after being mayor.)
“He’s better connected, but he doesn’t have a political base in Clark County, and he is the mayor of Reno …” says political scientist Richard Siegel. “We’re not going to vote for [Las Vegas Mayor] Oscar Goodman up here, and they’re not going to vote for Bob Cashell.”
Siegel discounts Beers as a major factor, saying he has only a small political base of support.
Former state Senator Thomas “Spike” Wilson, a Democrat who faced Gibbons in the 1996 northern congressional race, says he thinks Cashell’s mayor status would hurt him, but not for the same reason Siegel suggests. He says many people would be unwilling to see Cashell leave Reno City Hall.
“I think he’s important to the community in terms of pulling it together and moving it forward in a number of areas where it’s needed to move forward for some time,” Wilson says. “He’s showed a knack of bringing people together that have not come together before, and I think Reno really needs that, so I think a lot of people would be reluctant to see him leave the mayor’s job.”
Cashell’s accomplishments, Wilson says, are a result of the mayor’s ability to pull together diverse elements in the city and on the council.
“They work well with him,” Wilson says. “He’s worked well with different city agencies and departments. He’s been able to accomplish things that have seemed difficult to accomplish in the past, and he’s brought a sense of harmony and unity to city government that we haven’t seen before for a while.”
But Wilson also adds: “Those same qualifications recommend him for higher public office if he wants to do that.”
Former Nevada Assembly Speaker Byron Bilyeu, a Republican, says if Cashell runs for governor one of his biggest problems would be keeping himself focused. He says the mayor has a tendency to wander off of the prepared text during speeches and talk about whatever comes into his head. Cashell has numerous links to the small counties.
“He’s got contacts out there, that’s for sure, which would help greatly,” Bilyeu says. “The problem with Bob obviously is keeping Bob on message.”
Cashell is extremely well connected in the state’s power structure and would probably rake in huge amounts from big campaign givers.
Cashell got his start in this area in 1967 as a member of a group that bought a much beloved truck stop, Bill and Effie’s in Verdi. He changed its name to Boomtown and expanded repeatedly. (The affection of locals for the place before Cashell’s arrival was such that he retained the Bill and Effie’s listing in the Nevada Bell phone book for 20 years to keep anyone else from using the trademark.) He sold Boomtown in 1988.
Cashell remains the board chairman of Cashell Enterprises, which he calls a hotel/casino/resort management company. He also owns the Alamo Travel Center and the Topaz Lodge and Casino.