The Nevada Second U.S. House District race boils down to two things: a referendum on partisan politics and a critique of the record of a Republican first-term congressman on Capitol Hill.
It’s a five-way race among incumbent Dean Heller, Democrat Jill Derby, the Green Party’s Craig Bergland, Independent American John Everhart, and Libertarian Sean Patrick Morse. But for those voters who get most of their election information from television ads and junk mail, it might as well be a two-way race between Heller and Derby.
The funny thing is, except for a few details, these two candidates’ positions could be determined by looking at how the Democratic or Republican leadership set the parties’ platform. And from a cynical viewpoint, the fortunes of either candidate will rise or fall with the fortunes of their respective party. That is not to say this election is a lock—while the polls suggest Democrats may rise on the tide of public opinion against the nation’s economic woes and the unpopular Iraq war, Heller’s status as incumbent is a difficult obstacle for any challenger to overcome.
Derby is a known quantity among Northern Nevadans. She’s a fourth-generation Nevadan, an 18-year member of the Board of Regents and a longtime educator. She was the chair of the Democratic Party more or less from the time she lost her last election race against Heller until she declared her intention to take another shot at the second district. Her website, which contains many position statements, is www.jillderby.com. She was endorsed by the Las Vegas Sun.
She says she does have differences from the leadership of the Democratic Party.
“I’m for clean coal and the technologies we’re developing to make that a cleaner process,” she said. “I think most of the Democratic Party aren’t big on coal. I think I suggested more drilling before they came on board with that. Guns is another issue. I’m a big supporter of the Second Amendment.”
And while Democrats would have voters believe that Heller is only a Republican party animal, his votes against the $700 billion corporate bailout were a middle finger in the face of the GOP leadership (and Democratic leadership), and a vote exactly reflecting his constituents’ wishes, though on less publicized votes he is quite in line with GOP leaders. His website, www.deanheller.com, contains little except general statements about his time in Congress, a few news stories and his endorsements by the Reno Gazette-Journal and the Las Vegas Review-Journal. And the expected contributions tab.
So, there you go, conservative Democrat vs. occasionally maverick Republican.
But elections are about choices, right?
Although running in the Independent American Party, John Everhart appears to be an old school Republican who makes a single campaign pledge: “I will cast 100 percent of my congressional votes with Congressman Ron Paul of Texas.” That’s a pledge that may have resonated with Nevada Republicans, who had stood on the verge of a Ron Paul coup at this year’s convention before the GOP leadership recessed the proceedings. That is, his message might have resonated had minor party candidates not been frozen out at the recent debate held in Everhart’s home stomping ground of Elko, during which Heller and Derby debated each other.
“I see the economy as a national security issue,” said Everhart. “We owe most of our debt to communist China, Russia and the oil-rich Muslim countries. They’re the ones who’ve been loaning us the money. The Congress continues to spend, spend, spend. … But I’m not trying to put Dean Heller in the unemployment line. What I’m trying to do is get the Republican Party to stand up and quit doing things like walking out of conventions because they don’t want a few Ron Paul delegates elected.”
Las Vegas Libertarian Sean Patrick Morse did not return a phone call for comment.
The Green candidate Craig Bergland of Reno is the only liberal in the race. And, truth be told, he doesn’t mind being frozen out of the establishment reindeer games. He has chosen to use this election as a bully pulpit to promote his ideas regarding sustainable living, Peak Oil and what he fears is an upcoming depression. While he did not participate in the recent debate, his massive website, www.votebergland.org, offers policy statements and positions on every topic from air traffic to Yucca Mountain.
“My webpage is actually a guidebook on how to survive Peak Oil,” said the 59-year-old moped rider. “It appears that this handbook may even be practical for a coming depression. My goal is to wake people up to sudden energy shock. My message is about getting people to organize as neighborhoods, to install micropower generators. … One of the reasons I’m running is to show that it is very easy to run for almost any office in this state. All you have to do is get about 250 signatures and pay your filing fee, and you are guaranteed on the general ballot. Third party candidates expand the scope of things that are being discussed. It is important in America to be able to listen to wider sides of issues. We need bold ideas, and we need new ideas. We’re heading for such a fiasco unless we get a grip on what’s going on in this world. We need third party people to input; we have to make it part of the state and the national dialogue because otherwise, it will not be there.”
In the election for Nevada Second House District, Nevadans who are tired of politics as usual have choices, but the folks who represent those choices have been drowned out by the din of partisan campaign ads.
Nevada Supreme Court
Once, after the Nevada Supreme Court made a politically sensitive ruling, Las Vegas columnist Vin Suprynowicz called the members of the court “yellow worms beneath an overturned rock.” Why would anyone want such a lightning rod of a job?
“In spite of politics, not because of politics,” says candidate Deborah Schumacher. “I would love to do the principal, most important work that the Supreme Court does, which is the articulation of Nevada law.”
Her opponent, Kris Pickering, says running for the court gives her a chance to talk about “what does the court do … and why do I have the better qualifications for it, and then talk philosophically about the role of the courts in our constitutional system of government and to engage on those issues.”
They acknowledge that it’s what Pickering calls “an unfamiliar political dialogue,” since voters may well ask questions the candidates ethically cannot answer.
Issues don’t often surface in judicial campaigns because those campaigns are like fights with pillows—they are nonpartisan. Candidates can’t comment on cases; their conduct as candidates is policed by legal canons. But in the race between Pickering and Schumacher, an issue has emerged. It is this question: Which is better experience for a Nevada Supreme Court justice—being a judge or being a lawyer who has argued in front of the court?
Pickering is a lawyer in private practice who has argued before the Nevada Supreme Court.
Schumacher is a Nevada district judge in Washoe County, and her department handles family court matters.
Pickering says preparing cases to take before an appellate court is better preparation for being an appellate judge than being a judge at a lower level.
“It’s not just [appeal arguments], it’s whether they’ve ever prepared or presented any cases in any appellate court anywhere,” she said. “There’s no record that Judge Schumacher has ever done that.”
Schumacher disputes that.
“I actually do have some appellate experience when I was in private practice, but it was federal,” she said. “And a district court judge like myself, every one of us actually exercises an appellate function of the judges who are beneath us—in my case, the court masters—[and] will use the identical standards in reviewing their work that the Supreme Court uses to review ours.”
Pickering: “And her area is family law. That’s what she’s done. And if you look at the 2007 report of the Nevada Supreme Court, that area of law, while it’s important, makes up just 5 percent of the court’s business. The other 95 percent span a real wide range of issues, and fully half of those as judgments out of jury trials. And family court does not have jury trials. She acknowledges as a family court judge she’s never conducted a jury trial. And to me, that is very limited experience to take to our state’s highest court.”
Schumacher: “Since I have built a career in the judiciary and took my first judicial oath of office in 1992, it is hardly surprising that I haven’t built a career as an appellate lawyer. My work goes to the Nevada Supreme Court all the time, and it goes in my judgment and orders as a district court judge. … I think that having now done for more than 11 years the job of a district court judge, I’ve had hundreds or thousands of occasions to … make the tough decisions that the Supreme Court reviews.”
Pickering: “I believe as a person who’s handled cases in that [Nevada Supreme] court since 1981 and a lot of cases in the Ninth Circuit, as well as those in the trial courts, that the best judges are people who have real life experience handling cases, before they go on the bench, that are litigated.”
Schumacher: “I’ve been appealed, best I could count, 71 times in my career, and I’ve only been reversed twice. If I didn’t understand the law and didn’t do it well, that wouldn’t be my record. … You will never hear me say that I don’t think I have an accomplished and talented opponent. But we are not running for an appellate lawyer position. That’s the work done at the highest level by the Nevada attorney general. We’re running for a judicial position, and I think judicial experience matters.”
Pickering earlier this year reported to the FBI that a rival Las Vegas attorney, through an intermediary, offered her $200,000 in campaign funds if she agreed not to impede her rival’s cases on the high court. A federal investigation is underway.
Schumacher has been critical of Pickering for speaking at a Sarah Palin rally where she described the Republican vice presidential candidate as “a Westerner, a woman, a person chosen not because of who she knows, but because of what she stands for and her courage.” Pickering responded that she has also spoken at a Carson City Democratic function.
Nevada Assembly District 30
The District 30 race among incumbent Democrat Debbie Smith, Republican newbie Trent Baldwin and Independent American Party candidate Ruth Gillings began with a trip to court regarding Baldwin’s residence, but it will likely hinge on three things: candidates’ parties, ideas for the Nevada budget crisis, and the overall effects of experience on the new term limits.
A 30-year-old project manager at the Reno Tahoe Airport Authority, Baldwin said, “The primary issue that we’re going to see in the state is the budget. We’re in an extreme budget crisis. My opponent is a nice gal, she’s been in the office a couple years, been the president of the PTA, but she supports following Barbara Buckley in studying the budget issue. Those issues can’t be put off, this is an extreme circumstance. We need somebody that’s a leader, not somebody who’s going to follow Barbara Buckley. We need somebody who can bring information to the table, who can solve these issues, who can understand the problems quickly and solve them in a timely manner that keeps them moving forward.”
From that point of view, Baldwin may have a leg up on Smith. He has a civil engineering degree and a masters in business administration from the University of Nevada, Reno. Should he win the seat, he wants to direct the legislature’s attention to cash flow. His campaign lists a dead website, www.trentbaldwin.com.
“We have a one-size-fits-all source of funding for all the government agencies,” he says. “We fund the DMV the same as the Department of Education as the Department of Transportation.”
Primarily, he says, instead of funding agencies in lump sums at the beginning of the year, appropriations should be parceled out as needed. For example, the Department of Transportation, he says, needs more money during the construction season, whereas schools need more money during the school year. Payments would be adjusted as needed so that less money could go further, the way families do budgets when making major purchases. He also proposes restructuring the state’s finance to increase the interest the government receives from tax dollars. “The interest off tax dollars could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for the state without raising taxes,” he says.
From another point of view, the incumbent Debbie Smith brings the experience of three terms dealing with Nevada budgets. She’s on the Ways and Means (budget) Committee (focus on K-12 education), and the Natural Resources & Mining Committee, which will be important in advancing some of her environmental proposals for developing alternative forms of energy. Also, she says, Nevadans can expect a whole new way of doing government as the Legislature prepares for the effects of term limits in 2011.
“This is our last legislative session before term limits hit,” says Smith, a 52-year-old benefits representative for the Operating Engineers Trust Fund. “Because the Supreme Court has already ruled on term limits, I think it will completely change the dynamic of the legislative session. None of us have any experience with it—the fact that we have so many people who are going to be the new leaders and have the seniority and have to be prepared in the upcoming session.”
She’s right in the middle of her allowable number of terms. However, she predicts that people who are in their last session will be more aggressive in trying to get their pet projects done since there won’t be any point in compromise with the hope of future gains. “We’ll have a whole crew of people who need a lot of mentoring and learning opportunities during this session, so it’s going to take a lot of effort on our part to be training people for the following session,” she says.
It’s a solid argument for experience at the state level, but it does require not winning just this one, but another election in two years. More information about Smith can be found at www.votedebbiesmith.com.
Independent American Party candidate Ruth Gillings, 76, engaged in telephone-tag calls for comment, but a person-to-person connection was never made. Her answering machine says, “Jesus loves you, and so do I,” which may offer a clue as to her positions on social issues. She’s been registered with the IAP since at least 1994 and has voted in every general election and primary (except two) as far back as the Washoe County Registrar of Voters electronic records show.
Assembly District 30 predominantly covers west Sparks.
Nevada Assembly District 24
In a year of a Wall Street plunge fueled by deregulation that was recommended by economists, it takes a certain boldness for an economist to run for office. That’s what Republican John Gwaltney is doing. But he’s not just an economist—Gwaltney is familiar to locals as former president of Truckee Meadows Community College and for the past four years a member of the state school board.
He’s running against incumbent Democrat David Bobzien, who in his first term got several bills passed and expected to run on that accomplishment, only to have Gwaltney trivialize the measures.
The new state laws sponsored by Bobzien created a living will registry, provided wind and solar energy incentives for schools and government agencies, set state energy efficiency standards for light bulbs sold in Nevada, provided for “plain English” labels on prescription drug bottles, added an environmental advocate to the Nevada Environmental Commission, changed state water policy, and created a Reno license plate to generate money for Reno parks.
“And so when I look at my opponent, who takes great pride in the fact that his major bills included getting larger print on pharmacy bottles and setting standards for light bulbs, I’m just frightened out of my head,” Gwaltney said.
He faults Bobzien for not thinking bigger and undertaking broader and more basic changes.
He also believes that Democrats tend to look for revenue to fund a program first and then consider how to manage the program, while he would look at how to manage a program first and then determine how much that will cost.
Bobzien is dismissive of Gwaltney’s talk of broader issues, believing that environmental sustainability is no minor issue and that each change made is a small component of combating global problems.
If reelected, Bobzien intends to propose a transparency measure that would make health insurance coverage easier to understand. This is because of concerns brought to him by district residents who have “purchased low-cost health insurance, so-called ‘mini-med’ plans, and then when they get sick, they come to find out that they didn’t really read whatever fine print—or even if there was fine print—and they find that they’re without the full coverage that they need.”
Bobzien also intends to continue pursuing renewable energy policies.
One of the problems Bobzien could face if reelected is that the 2009 legislature is expected to be mainly a “maintenance” session, since there is little money for more than the status quo.
As for Gwaltney’s own program, some of the things he would like to do will likely help him with a general election electorate, but they also raise the question of whether he would be comfortable within what has in the past been a militantly conservative Assembly GOP caucus.
“We all know that more of those checks for Millennium Scholarships are going to middle and upper class people in the state of Nevada than poor people.” Gwaltney said. “We all know that we have a very regressive tax structure here that taxes the poor more than it taxes the rich, and on top of that, we’ve now turned around and figured out a way to do welfare for the rich in the Millennium Scholarship.”
The legislature rejected efforts to make grants of the scholarship based on need, and it was Republicans who opposed that change.
Gwaltney suggests that legislative sessions need to be longer because major reforms overwhelm 120-day sessions. Senate GOP floor leader William Raggio led the effort to make them shorter.
The district is relatively compact, running from Oddie Boulevard to the Keystone Avenue area, then north to Stead.
Gwaltney also created a dispute over a very touchy subject when he accused Bobzien of failing “to deliver adequate funding for DNA testing while students on our campus were being victimized”—a reference to the highly publicized Brianna Denison murder. Gwaltney was accusing the wrong legislator. Bobzien had a heavy committee load (four committees—education, transportation, environment, and government affairs) but none of them had responsibility for law enforcement funding.
Nevada Assembly District 26
Over a period of two decades, what is now Assembly District 26 has been represented by figures as disparate as Republican moderates Joan Lambert and Jim Gibbons (in his previous incarnation) to conservative ideologues Sharron Angle and Ty Cobb, who represents the district now.
Daela Gibson, a Democrat opposing Republican Cobb, is betting that Lambert, the most influential lawmaker the district has had in those decades, was closer to the district’s real voice.
“I decided to run because politics is not for everyone, but we need capable representatives, and someone who will represent the true interests of our district,” she said.
The sprawling district, pieced together from several old districts in western Washoe County, takes in the north end of Lake Tahoe, the north end of Washoe Lake, the Mae Anne-McCarran region of northwest Reno, Mogul and Verdi, and parts of the north valleys up to Bordertown. It’s impossible to categorize its demographics ideologically, since they run the gamut of education and income.
It would, however, be difficult to get to the right of the current assemblymember. Cobb has been criticized for being tactless and ideologically dogmatic. He also has a predilection for polarizing issues, such as welfare and illegal immigration. He supports denying benefits, such as the state’s Millennium Scholarships, to illegal aliens.
Gibson argues that Cobb’s involvement in such issues that are chic in conservative circles puts him out of touch with issues that are more important to the district. She sharply disagreed with a Cobb comment calling immigration the most important issue.
“That’s absolutely not true—the economy is our biggest issue. I’ve been knocking on doors since May, and I haven’t had anyone say to me that an issue’s that’s concerning them is immigration—not one person. It’s education, it’s the economy, what can the state do to help people with foreclosures. Those are what’s on people’s minds, it’s not immigration. And that seems to be a lot of his focus, has been on denying access to the Millennium Scholarships and things like that. And I don’t really think that that’s the most pressing issue in our district.”
She said as a legislator she wants to do something about domestic violence of children in custody disputes, something she observed as a victim advocate for Crisis Call Center. It was also in that role that she saw problems involved in transportation of victims of crime from outlying areas to health care facilities, and the problem would also probably be a subject of legislation for her.
Cobb said he is running again because he thinks citizens have a responsibility to the system.
“Even in tough times you need people to step up and be involved and bring their experience and expertise to the table in a way that can help the overall situation,” he said.
Cobb said he will again sponsor legislation to “combat the effects of illegal immigration in our state.”
He also said he will propose changing the Public Employees Retirement System “from a defined benefit to a defined contribution system.” By this, he means that the system will pay as pensions the amount produced by investments rather than guaranteeing a fixed amount to each pensioner. He compares it to the way 401(k)s work.
Cobb, an attorney, says Gibson’s work in nonprofit organizations is not the kind of qualification needed for the legislature.
“You need to go out and make a payroll and understand what it is to live under these business taxes, fees, and regulations … I don’t think she’s got the right background for what we need in the legislature.”
While Cobb lives up to his intransigent image on some things—and shows no sign of backing down on them—in other ways, he does not. He was harshly criticized for voting on his first day at the legislature for Democrat Barbara Buckley for speaker. She was the first woman elected to the post, and the vote was mostly ceremonial since she was the only candidate.
But former state Sen. Joe Neal, a liberal favorite who is now widely admired, voted in 1972 on his first day in the legislature against a ceremonial resolution congratulating Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew on their reelection, without incurring criticism from his fellow Democrats.