It took a while, but term limits are becoming more of a factor in Nevada politics. First of all, politics has become more partisan and more polarized, which made the need for term limits less urgent because the polarization drove people out of politics and reduced the pool of people willing to get involved. Zealots now make up a larger portion of officeholders than they once did.
Then, for those willing to run, term limits created a new game of musical officeholders’ chairs.
Term limits were approved in the 1994 and 1996 elections, and the clock started running on them in 1998.
In the Nevada Legislature, term limits have been almost beside the point because few members can stand to stay in the legislature the full tenure of 12 years. More members jump than are pushed. Since term limits began taking hold in 2010, according to legislative researcher Michael Stewart, just 21 legislators—10 senators and 11 assemblymembers—have termed out. Even William Raggio, the 38-year warhorse of the Senate, resigned two years before he would have been termed out because, in addition to health problems, the partisan antics of the lawmakers had become so difficult to endure. On the other hand, one of the few who did serve long enough to be termed out—Maggie Carlton of Clark County—simply moved from the Senate to the Assembly and kept legislating.
Term limits have also accelerated the effect of politicians in the legislature constantly looking for the next rung. Democrats Steven Horsford and John Oceguera put their eyes on the U.S. House even though they had influential positions in the legislature—Oceguera as Assembly speaker, Horsford as Senate Democratic floor leader. There are legislators who say that leaders with one eye on the clock lack the qualities that earlier leaders had.
Nevada is now starting to experience politics more as a game of musical chairs—officials who serve out their time in one office and move to another.
In Reno, two city councilmembers with reported mayoral aspirations, Pierre Hascheff and David Aiazzi, were termed out earlier than Mayor Bob Cashell. They both ran for other offices—Aiazzi for school board member, Hascheff for justice of the peace—and won, which keeps them visible until the 2014 election, when the mayor’s job falls open. County Commissioner David Humke is a possible City Council candidate, and Reno City Attorney John Kadlic is running for Humke’s seat on the commission.
Kadlic is the only official in this cycle who isn’t termed out. He’s actually running for a reason unrelated to terms. “City attorneys don’t make policy, and I’m interested in making policy,” he said.
A variant on these kinds of machinations is Howard Rosenberg. He was elected to the Nevada Board of Regents until termed out in 2010. He stepped out of public life, then came back in 2012 to run successfully for the Washoe County School Board.
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At the state government level, of the six officials elected statewide—governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer, controller, secretary of state and attorney general—five are termed out. They cannot run for their current jobs again in 2014.
Controller Kim Wallin is running for state treasurer, Treasurer Kate Marshall is running for secretary of state, Secretary of State Ross Miller is running for attorney general, and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto has not yet announced her plans, though she is a prime candidate for lieutenant governor. Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki may have nowhere to go, but he can take some satisfaction in being a pioneer in this field. He is the first person in state history to be termed out of two different offices, state treasurer and lieutenant governor. (Krolicki could follow the example of one of his predecessors, Lt. Gov. Charles Laughton, who left Nevada after his term ended in 1887 and was promptly elected lieutenant governor of Washington.)
“Do we really gain something with term limits?” Wallin asked. “We lose a lot of knowledge and expertise.” She said as controller, she and the treasurer have been working on a new accounting system, and she wants to stay as treasurer to see it through. But she could also have done that as controller if she were not termed out.
Gov. Brian Sandoval is not term limited, but would like a Republican lieutenant governor because it keeps him free to run for the U.S. Senate in midterm if he is reelected.
The Nevada Judiciary is exempt from all these maneuverings.
Judges were originally included in the constitutional amendment that enacted term limits. In a display of gall halfway through the 1994/1996 constitutional amending process, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that the Nevada Constitution’s requirement that amendments must be voted on “in the same manner” in both first- and second-round elections did not mean what it said. For the second round, the court split the term limits amendment—which had already been approved in 1994—in two, giving judges their own amendment. The legal community then mounted a successful campaign to defeat term limits for judges in the 1996 campaign.
One of the consequences of term limits, of course, is that they are undiscriminating. They purge the occupants of ministerial offices like secretary of state as well as those of policy-making offices like governor.
And they purge the good and the bad officeholders, and term limits advocates have little faith that the public can tell the difference.
Cashell, for example, is credited with bringing cooperation to a city council that could not agree on lunch. He remains enormously popular in Reno with both his fans and his critics. Few people argue that he could be reelected if he were free to run and the public were free to vote for him.
“I’m probably getting to the age where I should think about retirement, but really, I don’t want to,” he said.
One Sparks businessperson said, “I actually voted for term limts, but”—she shook her head—“I wish Cashell weren’t leaving.”
It’s an interesting scenario. At least one possible outcome to the Reno mayor’s race was decided by voters who lived here 16 years ago and had no knowledge of who might be running or what the stakes would be in 2014. And many of those who cast those 1996 votes, through death or departure, no longer have any stake in the outcome. Cashell’s fate was decided blindly, when he was still running casinos.