Beleaguered Speaker John Hambrick’s adversaries were not just in the other party.

No one had to wait very late on Election Day 2014 to know which way the wind was blowing in Nevada. It was an historic sweep—both houses of the legislature and every state office elected statewide went Republican. The last time such a thing happened, Nevada was 26, and Benjamin Harrison was in the White House.

It was what Nevada Republicans had wanted for decades, a sweep so conclusive that there would be no obstacle to their governing the way they wanted—no governor’s veto, no divided legislature. The GOP had it all and could push through its long-stymied program.

Or so their hopes ran. It’s unlikely anyone foresaw the stumbling, intramural battles and messes that lay ahead.

On November 7, the new Assembly Republican majority dumped the leader, Pat Hickey, who had led them to victory, and made a surprise choice of fringe figure Ira Hansen to be their February nominee for speaker.

On November 23, three days after the RN&R reported Hansen’s writings attacking women, gays, blacks and Israel, he declined the nomination, setting off weeks of maneuvering within the Republican caucus for various posts. One legislator, Michele Fiore, was elected to and then deposed from two different positions. The caucus was apparently untroubled by Hansen’s views, a majority of its members handing their votes over to him. Armed in caucus with their proxies, Hansen named John Hambrick the new speaker-designate and made Michele Fiore—who had stood quite literally shoulder to shoulder with Cliven Bundy at Bunkerville—the Republican floor leader. In a dubious action, Hambrick promptly removed Fiore as floor leader.

Hansen’s party credentials were in order. Though his family was well known as the backbone of George Wallace’s American Independent Party Nevada arm, this Hansen had always been a Republican, to the extent that it had caused a family breach.

Some of the other caucus members were less reliable Republicans, however, seeing the party merely as a vehicle for dogma. Though they attacked other party members as RINOs (Republicans In Name Only), their own party loyalty was so uncertain that former Republican state chair Bob Cashell had called them RINOs, and they sometimes made his point, as when Fiore attacked her Republican colleagues.

But the problems with Fiore and her fellow RINOs went beyond purity on issues. Unaccustomed to being in charge, they floundered, walked into walls, and acted up all session long.

On March 3, GOP Assemblymembers John Moore and Paul Anderson got into a fist fight in a stairwell.

Assemblymembers Ira Hansen and Victoria Seaman, both Republicans, engaged in a public row in mid-April. The two issued rival statements over Hansen’s refusal to hold a committee vote on one of Seaman’s pet initiatives plus comments made to Seaman after she read a disparaging letter denouncing Hansen during a caucus meeting.

Fiore told colleague Chris Edwards “Sit your ass down and be quiet” during an April 21 Assembly session dealing with Bundy and a Fiore measure.

Republican Party leaders around the state squirmed while reading about incidents like these. Voters see style and substance as synonymous, they felt, and when they see legislators whose “table manners are just as advertised” (as Nevada columnist Steve Sebelius put it), they are likely to question those legislators’ ability to govern.

“I can almost feel the votes shedding away,” fretted a veteran Washoe GOP leader.

It’s hard to make a case that there were any moderate Republicans in the Nevada Legislature this year, or even merely conservative Republicans. All were pretty rabid in their beliefs. But there was one difference among them. Some were pragmatic lawmakers who wanted to get legislation—right wing legislation—enacted. Others were zealots who felt the message was more important than watered-down legislation—and they were suspicious of those who did want to get laws passed because it meant they might be willing to compromise on issues. The pragmatists and the zealots clashed. But even that oversimplifies things. There were far more clashes among the zealots themselves.

Guns vs. taxes

“These kinds of things happen almost daily in the Assembly,” one lobbyist said. “I try not to miss Assembly sessions. I used to go in there when my bills were up, but now I am in there every day because it's so entertaining.”

Shadow speaker Ira Hansen set off paranoia in the Democratic Party—and in his own GOP.

She made those comments on May 22, the day after a dispute over guns in the Assembly. In fact, that dispute could well serve as a learning experience far more useful to government classes than those “How a Bill Becomes a Law” charts.

At issue was Senate Bill 175, a measure so weighed down by pro-gun provisions that it was almost forgotten it was actually a domestic violence measure. It increased the validity of out-of-state gun permits, repealed Clark County’s gun registration ordinance (so goes conservative regard for local government), and said deadly force was allowable to protect a residence.

When it arrived in the Assembly, some supporters worried that adding any more pro-gun provisions would make the whole thing collapse when it got back to the Senate for reconciliation, and they hoped to vote on it without more changes.

Fiore tried to amend the measure to add an already-defeated proposal—guns on campus.

When this legislative session began, eight pro-gun bills were quickly introduced. While Nevada has always been seen as pro-gun, it was usually by default. Rarely did anyone speak up for the other side so sentiment could be tested, and the relative influence of rural legislators kept it from being much of a statewide issue. Democratic Assembly Speaker Joe Dini once helped get a pro-gun amendment into the Nevada Constitution, and his party did not particularly object.

But there were occasional signs of concern about guns. During the term of Republican U.S. Rep. David Towell in 1973-75, he sent out an issues questionnaire to Nevadans that came back, to his surprise, with majority support for gun control.

It is often pointed out that Nevada is one of the most urban states in the nation—the third most urban at 94.2 percent in the 2010 census, up from 80.1 percent when Towell held office. There is little understanding of what that means, but legislators in February got a strong taste of it when their eight bills hit the news. Suddenly gun opponents found their voice. Phone calls, visits to Carson City and emails poured in. Bills dealing with guns on campuses particularly rubbed local sensibilities the wrong way.

Democrats were too cowed by the November election results to do anything with this backlash—and most of them didn’t want a piece of the issue, anyway—but public sentiment still provided enough force to stop the campus measures. Now, late in the session, it was back.

The initial vote on Fiore’s amendment was a voice vote. The “no” vote was plainly louder, but Speaker Hambrick for some reason did not announce it. Rather, he conferred with the Assembly staff chief clerk, then called for a “division of the house.” This means legislators rise to indicate their votes—but there is still no record by name of those votes. A division is almost always called for from the floor, not by the speaker, but he does have that power. When he called for the no votes, a majority stood.

Fiore called for a third vote, an on-the-record roll call vote. That might force more Republicans to her side. Hambrick refused to call one. Fiore went down into the well of the hall to talk to Hambrick, then stalked out, slamming the door. The house barred her from the hall for the day, then let her back in after she apologized.

Though no official record was made of the vote, reporters noted some of their votes. Associated Press reporter Riley Snyder wrote that at least eight Republicans (Paul Anderson, Derek Armstrong, Chris Edwards, James Oscarson, Stephen Silberkraus, Lynn Stewart, Melissa Woodbury, Jim Wheeler) voted against Fiore’s amendment.

Fiore and Hansen were furious, but other legislators were puzzled why the two did not understand the need to avoid jeopardizing three pro-gun provisions in order to add a fourth, particularly when gun lobbyists had signed off on the tactic. “I’m not going to kill 175 so someone can make a statement,” GOP Assemblymember Jim Wheeler said. (Wheeler is the right winger who got his 15 minutes of national fame after saying he would vote for slavery if his constituents wanted it.) The all-or-nothing stance of Fiore and Hansen, however, was not uncommon among the zealots.

“It is heartbreaking for me to see legislation that I have worked so hard to endorse killed because of someone’s personal vendetta,” Fiore later said in a message to supporters. She was assigning a motive—not that her colleagues were trying to protect an already encumbered bill, but that they had a “vendetta.” (One Las Vegas reporter bought Fiore’s spin, writing that the eight “changed their stance.”)

Fiore took the brawl a distasteful step further when she told reporters she would give metal testicles to each of the eight—and displayed a sample to be photographed.

The next day, seven of the eight votes against Fiore introduced a new guns-on-campus measure, Assembly Bill 487. It was long past the deadline for new bills, so they introduced it as an emergency measure (apparently because their political fates were at stake) and it was accepted on that basis. Hansen grudgingly agreed to give the bill a hearing in his Judiciary Committee but took the occasion to make some cracks about his fellow Republicans and their “ploy.” (S.B. 175 was approved by the Senate and signed by the governor.)

During all this, a business lobbyist was in a lather because gun and abortion bills were getting so much attention so late in the session. “The issue for conservatives right now is taxes,” he said. “I keep trying to get news coverage for it, and Fiore and Hansen are sucking it all up. Businesses around this state should be making more calls here to their legislators.”

Hard of hearing

Legislators Michelle Fiore (left) and Pat Hickey (right) were in different Republican camps.

Judiciary chair Hansen had another battle, this one with his fellow Republican and opposite number in the Senate, judiciary chair Greg Brower, who had not been holding hearings for some bills. So Hansen said he would stop holding hearings for Senate bills. Brower argued that, in the interests of time with three weeks remaining in the session, he was hearing bills that were more likely to have a chance of passing because they came out of the Assembly with lopsided votes.

Once again, a pragmatist and a zealot were locking horns. Hansen had the same problem with Senate Health and Human Services Committee chair Joe Hardy over the issue of abortion and A.B. 405.

The bill had originally been introduced in the Assembly by John Hambrick, who later decided it needed more scrutiny than a 120-day session of the Legislature could provide, so he slated it for a study, the results and recommendations to come back to the next legislature. Hansen and his judiciary committee colleagues then hijacked the bill, substituted Hansen’s name as sponsor, and the Assembly passed it on a party line 24-17 vote.

When Hardy seemed indifferent to hearing it, he was hit with a postcard campaign and agreed to a May 25 hearing.

Abortion in Nevada has a long legislative history, which was finally circumvented by voters in a 1990 referendum that approved a Roe-style law with 71 percent of the vote, an outcome that cannot be changed by lawmakers without another public vote. Abortion opponents then switched to a strategy of trying to block abortion with administrative requirements like notices to spouses, waiting periods and parental notification. Nevada already has a parental notification measure on the books, but it has been enjoined by the courts since 1985. Hansen wanted to thread the needle of court concerns to get a law that will pass court muster.

Hansen’s notion that every bill must get a hearing—he heard every bill that came to his committee—is a nice, good-government, civics book idea, but there were in excess of 990 bills at the Legislature this year—not including other measures, like resolutions.

Anti-abortion advocates said that even if all bills do not get hearings, those of great public interest should. But they don’t do that themselves. For instance, Senate Joint Resolution 13, which would repeal the state ban on marriage equality, was approved by the lawmakers two years ago and had to be approved again this year in order to go on the ballot in 2016. Republicans this year basically ignored it to death, so it will have to start over again in 2017.

Senate Bill 372, which fine tunes Nevada’s medical marijuana law, like S.J.R. 13, was sponsored by Democratic Sen. Tick Segerblom, and it has been ignored.

Note that most disputes—Moore/Anderson, Hansen/Seaman, Fiore/Edwards, Fiore and Hansen/eight Republicans, Hansen/Brower—were not between Republicans and Democrats. They were among Republicans. But some were also legislators, others polemicists or proselytizers first.

However, the zealots obsession’ with hot button issues was a godsend for Gov. Brian Sandoval, keeping them from focusing on taxes and stopping his increases.

Oh, right—the Democrats

While all this was going on, the Democrats were more or less observers. Chastened by the scale of the election results, they had difficulty deciding how to react. The GOP in some cases went after some very popular programs (notably, there was virtually no anti-Affordable Care Act legislation from onetime Obamacare critics). In a state where a fifth of voters are Latino, the Democrats watched their opponents push polling place identification legislation at the same time that the Republican state attorney general pursued an anti-immigrant lawsuit.

But they were also torn between letting the Republicans offend interest groups and trying to curb the GOP onslaught. Napoleon is reputed to have said, “Never interfere with an enemy while he’s in the process of destroying himself.” At the same time, many of the issues and programs Democrats embrace stood in real danger of being badly damaged. In the end, there was no unified party strategy. Individual Democrats made up their own minds what to do, issue by issue. The absence of Washoe Sen. Debbie Smith because of surgery was regarded as depriving Democrats of needed leadership on strategy.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, intently and relatively quietly went about reversing Democratic programs—such as prevailing wages on school construction—with fewer of the disagreements and none of the commotion of the Assembly.

Democrats said they will switch all those changes back when they regain their majority. It will be interesting to see if they follow through. After all, if caving in were an Olympic event, today’s Democratic Party would likely medal every time.

Some of the players were constant targets of hallway chatter.

Fiore’s colleagues said there were times when she was very congenial and persuasive—attributes that can make a very effective legislator. Had she been more concerned with legislating and less with dogma, she could have been a formidable presence. “She gains ground, then loses it,” said a colleague. “One step forward, one step back.” A lobbyist said that if Fiore and the zealots had learned the house parliamentary rules, they could have been very effective.

Hansen kept using those proxies in ways that compromised a unified party message, and he tangled not with ideological enemies but with his allies—usually in battles over his own measures. A team player he was not. And like Fiore, he seemed unable to concede the good intentions even of allies.

Hambrick was regularly described as weak, but there was little recognition of the tightrope he had to walk between the pragmatists and the zealots. After Hansen made Hambrick speaker, he had no qualms about humiliating his creation. The speaker handled a lousy situation the best way he could.

During the session, legislators honored several former lawmakers for their contributions—Alan Glover, Peggy Pierce, Dean Rhoads, Randolph Townsend, Terry Care. It’s unfortunate that, in addition to honoring them, legislators could not have been more like them.

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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...