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Danny Tarkanian looks to step from father’s shadow, make name in politics

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Sam Morris

Policy director Ben Stecker helps Danny Tarkanian prep for a Republican debate Friday, April 30, 2010.

Danny Tarkanian

Policy director Ben Stecker (L) and volunteer Dean Stump help Danny Tarkanian prep for a Republican debate Friday, April 30, 2010. Launch slideshow »
Jerry Tarkanian

Jerry Tarkanian

Sue Lowden

Sue Lowden

Sun Coverage

Danny Tarkanian’s famous last name might be his Senate campaign’s biggest asset.

Associated statewide with his father, Jerry, the legendary UNLV basketball coach who brought the state an NCAA national championship, the Tarkanian name gave the lawyer and Las Vegas businessman instant recognition among voters when he announced last year his bid to unseat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Early polling marked him as the Republican favorite, winning — in one survey — more support than Rep. Dean Heller, one of the state’s more popular elected officials.

Donations started to flow his way. Overnight, he became the next great GOP hope.

Eight months later, Tarkanian’s campaign has failed to catch fire, overshadowed by his chief rival, Sue Lowden, the former state senator and chairwoman of the Nevada Republican Party.

He trails Lowden by double digits, despite keeping pace with her fundraising, ramping up ad buys and appealing directly to the state’s most conservative voters. Tarkanian has raised $1.1 million. According to the most recent analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, 66 percent of that was raised out of state, with places where the family name has currency in basketball circles — Long Beach and Fresno — accounting for much of his haul.

In the Year of the Tea Party, he has positioned himself as the conservatives’ conservative, a Constitution-thumping Republican out to win one for Ronald Reagan, just in time for the Gipper’s 100th birthday.

Yet his positions differ little from the other GOP candidates, who all lament the federal bailouts of big banks and auto companies, the health care law and, most recently, immigration. That has him struggling to stand out as the most vehement critic of those policies.

Apparently sensing that time to overtake Lowden is quickly passing, Tarkanian has in recent weeks piggybacked on the Reid campaign’s attacks. He is trying to score points by highlighting Lowden’s biggest gaffe — her suggestion that bartering with doctors is an effective way to cut health care costs.

“We simply can’t take a chance on a candidate that is unprepared,” his campaign said last week.

For Tarkanian, 48, it must ring of déjà vu. In his past two runs for public office, both unsuccessful, he emerged as an early favorite who flamed out in the home stretch. This time, as voter preferences harden and Election Day nears, it’s clear this famous son will need more than fading basketball glory and Nevadans’ goodwill to win the right to challenge Reid.

Tarkanian’s resume shows he has spent most of his adult life moving among careers, trying to make his name his own.

After practicing law, coaching Division I basketball alongside his dad and starting a real estate development firm, he’s still known as Little Tark. A seat in the U.S. Senate would surely change that.

For his part, Tarkanian says his varied jobs were merely detours on the road to his real passion: politics.

If Tarkanian’s lifelong dream was elected office, it was one his parents, friends and teammates never saw coming. Likewise, although he admired Reagan as a college student and was outspoken against abortion rights as a young adult, Tarkanian never struck those closest to him as a red-meat conservative.

His parents noticed a fierce competitive streak, though. Jerry Tarkanian recalls shooting hoops with his young son in the front yard of their Huntington Beach, Calif., home. “If he didn’t win, we couldn’t quit,” he said. “It was double or nothing until he won.”

Bragging rights were important, and the world of sports was a natural battlefield.

In his senior year, as the football team’s star quarterback, he played with an injury to lead the team to a state championship.

But basketball was his passion. At Bishop Gorman, he played point guard and teammates remember him as a leader crucial to winning two state titles.

Set to attend UNR, his plans were derailed when the team’s coach, Sonny Allen, announced his own son would be playing on the team — another point guard, no less. Tarkanian’s father told him to look elsewhere, saying he would never get off the bench.

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Senate candidate Danny Tarkanian gives a speech during a Lincoln Day dinner in Fallon Saturday, February 20, 2010.

When USC’s coach, a family friend, offered Danny a full scholarship, Jerry Tarkanian again told his son to move on: The team had a competitive point guard.

So Tarkanian spent his freshman year at Dixie Junior College in St. George, Utah, where he started for the basketball team, won the most valuable player trophy and the school’s most outstanding student award. Back home, his father had his worst year at UNLV. It was the first time in his career his team had failed to win 20 games. Danny decided to transfer to UNLV and play for the Rebels, a move that at first made his father uneasy.

But UNLV needed a point guard, and, after soliciting his assistants’ advice, Jerry Tarkanian signed his son. He would later say his son turned the Rebels around in his first year, helping the team win 24 consecutive games. In a flash, UNLV was ranked No. 1 nationally.

After graduating in 1984, Tarkanian was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs, but didn’t make the team. Instead, he enrolled in law school at the University of San Diego, where he again developed a reputation as a hard worker — finishing third in his class to the surprise of friends and classmates.

“He wasn’t one of those students who was always raising their hands or interjecting themselves into conversation,” said Sean Brew, a longtime friend and classmate. “Sometimes he acted bewildered, but you knew he wasn’t.”

Public speaking wasn’t his strong suit. In a mock trial, Tarkanian veered off message and froze, Brew recalled.

Still a law student, Danny worked with his father’s attorneys on Jerry Tarkanian’s lawsuit against the NCAA, which had ordered UNLV to suspend him for recruiting violations. The case advanced to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against the coach, saying that the athletic association did not violate his rights to due process. Jerry Tarkanian, however, filed a second suit against the NCAA and, in 1998, the organization agreed to pay him $2.5 million to settle the case.

The case became a touchstone for the younger Tarkanian, teaching him that persistence and determination pay off — sometimes literally.

But Tarkanian found little inspiration in the actual practice of law. He set up a civil practice and spent much of his time on mundane legal work, such as incorporating companies.

In 1995, Tarkanian followed his father to Fresno State University, serving as an assistant coach.

Jerry Tarkanian said his son threw himself into the job, and took every loss personally. “I think he thought coaching was going to be fun — and then he saw it wasn’t that much fun when you weren’t winning all the time,” Jerry Tarkanian said.

Nevertheless, in seven seasons, the team enjoyed six seasons with 20-plus wins and two trips to the NCAA tournament. But the UNLV controversies followed.

In 1997, Fresno State was rocked by allegations that two players conspired with local gamblers to shave points in several games. The FBI probe produced two grand jury investigations but no convictions against the school’s players, coaches or officials.

Danny Tarkanian was questioned by a grand jury regarding his connection to one of those gamblers, Kirk Vartanian. He claimed to have met Vartanian only once.

He also denied NCAA allegations that he turned a blind eye to academic fraud in the case of a former statistician who admitted to completing coursework for several Fresno State players. Fresno State, however, admitted to academic fraud and imposed penalties on itself.

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Sue Lowden, seated next to Danny Tarkanian, right, answers a question April 30 during a Republican debate sponsored by conservative talk radio station KDWN.

In 2002, when his father retired, Tarkanian returned to Las Vegas and started a real estate business. He developed the Tarkanian Professional Center, a 150,000-square-foot office complex across from St. Rose Dominican Hospitals — San Martin Campus.

But all along, Tarkanian says he was really itching to begin a political career.

In 2004, after flirting with a run against Reid, he decided to challenge Democratic state Sen. Mike Schneider.

His parents and friends discouraged the run because it was a heavily Democratic district. His mother, Lois, the family’s lone Democrat and a member of the Las Vegas City Council, encouraged him to switch parties and mount a primary campaign. He ran as a Republican, advocating capping property taxes and more local control of schools.

Schneider dismissed the political novice.

“He can shoot a basketball better than I can,” he said at the time. “That doesn’t mean he’s a good legislator.”

Turns out Tarkanian’s flirtation with a run for U.S. Senate had caught the attention of Reid’s researchers, who, according to media accounts at the time, compiled an opposition folder on the Republican. Schneider used the material in a series of attacks, which stemmed from Tarkanian’s work as a lawyer in the early 1990s, when he incorporated at least four business entities later found by state and federal authorities to be fronts for telemarketing schemes.

Although he served as resident agent, or a point of legal contact, for those companies, Tarkanian said he had no knowledge of criminal activity. He had no role in the day-to-day operation of the companies, he said.

Tarkanian was never charged with any wrongdoing, but the case served as political fodder.

Tarkanian lost by 8 percentage points.

As he did at Fresno State, he took the loss personally.

“It stung him,” Lois Tarkanian said.

Tarkanian continued the fight in court, suing Schneider for defamation in 2005.

As the case worked its way through the court system, Tarkanian mounted another campaign in 2006, this time for secretary of state. He faced another famous son, Democrat Ross Miller, scion of former Gov. Bob Miller.

Anticipating a replay of the Schneider race, Tarkanian released a document titled “Lies About Danny Tarkanian,” detailing the telemarketing fraud charges and other allegations that dominated the campaign two years earlier.

The inoculation strategy failed, as Miller’s campaign took up Schneider’s playbook with glee. In fact, Tarkanian had disclosed material the rival campaign hadn’t even planned to use.

Tarkanian’s early lead diminished and he lost the race by 8 percentage points.

He was more determined than ever to win his defamation suit.

“He fought so hard to win that case because he felt that was the thing that swayed the voters the other way,” longtime friend Michael Brown said.

In 2009, Tarkanian got his day in court — and won. A jury awarded Tarkanian $50,000 in damages, and Schneider agreed to pay another $100,000 to avoid the punitive phase of the trial.

The following week, Tarkanian announced his Senate bid.

Click to enlarge photo

Danny Tarkanian smiles while prepping for a Republican debate Friday, April 30, 2010.

On the campaign trail, he touts the lawsuit as an asset, arguing that he’s bulletproof to Reid’s attacks. He also has a reputation as a family man who has done a lot of charity work. But Reid has mostly ignored him so far, instead attacking Lowden on a near-daily basis.

Still, Tarkanian’s past dogs him on the campaign trail.

At a campaign stop in Pahrump last month, Tarkanian faced fire from a group that should be his natural audience, Tea Party Republicans. Gathered in a dingy ballroom at the Pahrump Nugget, the self-described “Old Farts’ Club” peppered Tarkanian with questions.

He acknowledged that his mother was a Democrat but said he had been a lifelong Republican.

Outside, Tarkanian said, “People are looking for someone who is not a political insider, someone who is independent, someone who has proved they will stand up for what’s right. My core beliefs are limited government, personal responsibility, self-determination and individual liberty.”

The “Old Farts,” however, seemed to like the other two conservative warriors in the race, former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle and former Marine Bill Parson.

Tarkanian fared a bit better at the local senior center down the road.

“I like Danny, probably because of his dad,” said Jack McGinnis, a retired electrical engineer. “Danny looks honest, by God. But I was a great fan of his dad.”

Sun librarian Rebecca Clifford-Cruz contributed to this story.

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