Photo/Dennis Myers Local resident Ellen Pillard registered to attend her precinct’s meeting at Wooster High.

This should be a time when Nevada Democrats are feeling upbeat.

The party controls four of the six state offices elected statewide, majorities in both houses of the Nevada Legislature, two of the state’s U.S. House seats, and holds one of the two U.S. Senate seats—and that one is held by the Senate Democratic floor leader, Harry Reid.

Even more important, political analysts say the state’s demographics are moving the party’s way, as evidenced by state wins in the last two presidential elections.

But last weekend at Wooster High School, where the biennial Democratic precinct meetings were being held that start party organization activities in election years, the mood was not all that positive. Enthusiasm for the coming year was muted.

Particularly troubling is the party’s failure to put a well known name at the top of the ticket. Taking a pass on the governor’s race would be a significant admission of failure.

Top spot

At the entrance, participants registered their names and addresses to identify their precincts. At an adjoining table, several volunteer sign-up sheets were lined up for local campaigns. On a rack as participants entered, there were free spots bottles and signed editions of John Dean’s book Blind Ambition. (The Watergate conspirator spoke at a fund raising dinner for the Washoe Democrats in 2009 and signed a batch of books for them, most of which were later sold.) At a table for the Young Democrats at the University of Nevada, Reno, large piles of pastries were ready on this Saturday morning for those who had not yet had breakfast.

In presidential years, these meetings are called caucuses. That’s a generic term. The real name, specified by Nevada Revised Statute 293.135, is precinct meetings. They are held in every election year and are the way of starting a process rolling—the selection of delegates to political conventions. Both parties hold them—the Republicans met on Feb. 8. Most if not all of those who showed up at Wooster will be able to attend the Washoe County Democratic Convention, and the bulk of them will be able to go on to the Nevada Democratic Convention. (In presidential years, a select few attend the national nominating convention.)

The meetings also serve other purposes. Old allies reunite. Volunteers are recruited by candidates. Activists push issues for inclusion in the party platform. And people fret. This event was buzzing with reports of a comment in Carson City last week by U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic floor leader. Its meaning depended on who did the telling, but generally it was taken to mean that Reid had a candidate for governor ready to run.

“I think it will be a respectable Democrat and someone that people know,” Reid said, adding that he was “still working on it.”

Reid, who has sometimes been a domineering presence in the party organization, may have put himself in a difficult position in guaranteeing such a candidate. Filing for office would open just nine days after these precinct meetings and will last only 10 days. A candidate for governor should already have a campaign assembled and in the field. Incumbent Republican candidate Brian Sandoval has spent much of his term of office raising money for this reelection campaign and had his campaign paid for a year ago.

Photo/Dennis Myers County Commissioner Kitty Jung was surrounded by local supporters as she mulled pressure to run for mayor.

There were those at this event who—anticipating that there will be no strong candidate for governor—minimized its importance.

“I think there are plenty of other issues and candidates to pull Democrats out to the polls,” said Assemblymember Richard Daly.

But former Sparks city councilmember Cecelia Colling, who was on the governor’s staff under Gov. Bob Miller, said not having a strong candidate at the top would hurt. “I think it’s very said because we don’t really have a choice at this point,” she said. “It’s being made by people who give the money.”

Sen. Debbie Smith was fatalistic. “I just think it is what it is,” she said. “You know, there are just some years when you don’t have people in the right place at the right time. … We’re going to focus on expanding our [legislative] majority and not worry about what we can’t control.”

There was one candidate for governor at the precinct meetings—casino worker Chris Hyepock. And a day earlier, physician Stephen Frye, who helped get medical marijuana through the legislature, jumped into the race because, he said, Sandoval has kept the state “last in just about everything.” But the Democrats said they need a major contender.

The Democrats at Wooster tried to parse Reid’s statement. What did it mean, exactly? Respectable and known don’t exactly say winner. Is he saying he has a competitive candidate—or a sacrificial lamb?

Local issues

Then there’s the mayor’s race, which opened up suddenly when the Nevada Supreme Court ruled—two days before the precinct meetings—that mayor and city councilmember are effectively the same office, meaning term limits for one apply to both posts. The ruling ejected the leading candidates from the mayor’s race.

That race doesn’t have the same political import as the governor’s race to county Democrats, not least because it is technically a non-partisan race. But both county major parties take a strong interest in local issues, and precinct meetings are the grass roots level.

“I think we have a lot of work to do in taking care of downtown Reno and making sure it starts to thrive,” Colling said. “Start providing jobs for people in Reno and making sure that they’re in a safe environment.”

Chatter about who may now run was everywhere. City Councilmember Jenny Brekhus, a favorite with this crowd, had taken herself out of the mayor’s race as soon as the court ruling came down. But County Commissioner Kitty Jung did not.

“I didn’t say no,” she said. “I’m getting a lot of pressure” to run.

Jung, appointed to fill a vacancy on the commission and then elected to a full term in her own right, would have to choose between running for reelection to the county commission or running for mayor.

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Dennis Myers

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...