Tuesday, May 25, 2010 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
Assemblywoman Kathy McClain, who is running for the state Senate, would seem to have a fatal political wound — she violated the law by using campaign funds to pay into her public employee retirement plan and for health care benefits while serving in the Legislature.
Yet McClain has an impressive level of support from legislative colleagues and much of the political establishment. Twenty of the Assembly’s 28 Democrats allowed their names to be used in fundraising appeals on her behalf.
McClain’s ability to attract such support might say more about her opponent in the District 7 race — Assemblyman Mark Manendo — than her record.
Manendo’s legislative career has been hampered by allegations of inappropriate comments and sexual harassment of young female lobbyists and state employees in Carson City. In 2003, following allegations of sexual harassment against two legislative interns, he was stripped of a powerful committee chairmanship. He never regained that position or any other leadership post.
It’s a part of Manendo’s record that McClain is attempting to exploit by making veiled statements in campaign materials.
Still, Manendo is considered the favorite to replace Sen. Terry Care, D-Las Vegas, who is leaving because of term limits. The reason: Manendo is a hard worker in his district who has connected with voters and is willing to show up at most every Democratic event.
His reputation in the state capital is far different. Interviews with lobbyists, lawmakers and staff point to a pattern of inappropriate behavior toward females in junior positions.
“Every session there has been some type of incident with sexual harassment that leadership has to talk to him about,” said one senior Democrat, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “The problem is that no one is willing to take the next step and file a formal complaint.”
During the 2009 Legislature, Manendo was privately reprimanded by Democratic leadership for a comment he made to a state worker.
The worker declined to comment for this story, fearing repercussions if Manendo returns to Carson City in the Senate. But according to a number of sources with knowledge of the incident, Manendo told the woman in vulgar terms that he found sexual gratification in viewing photos of her.
Manendo denied ever saying that.
“No, no, no, no — oh my God. I wouldn’t tell that to my best friend,” he said. “Oh my goodness gracious. Someone is really stretching, really. Someone really wants to cut me off at my knees.”
Manendo at first denied anyone from leadership spoke with him about sexual harassment during the 2009 session. Later, he acknowledged he might have had a conversation about the Legislature’s sexual harassment policy, but he thought the meeting was standard and no specific incident was raised during the conversation.
The 2003 complaints that Manendo sexually harassed two interns set off the most public incident involving him.
The interns worked in the office of then-Assemblywoman Dawn Gibbons. According to news reports at the time, Gibbons, now the state’s first lady, said Manendo repeatedly asked her what it would take for the interns to date him.
Gibbons told reporters that while in the presence of other lawmakers Manendo had said one of the interns “has the kind of body you want to go to bed with.”
“He seems kind of sleazy,” Gibbons said at the time. “I have had it with him going around saying things about my interns. They aren’t interested in him. They want him to leave them alone.”
The interns declined to file formal complaints, saying they were embarrassed enough.
Manendo continues to deny he did anything wrong. He said he is just a friendly person.
“I have no idea what they were talking about,” Manendo said in an interview Friday. “If I had done or said anything inappropriately, I apologize. That’s it. As far as I’m concerned, that’s it.”
That same year, a female staffer with the Nevada Association of Counties accused Manendo of making inappropriate remarks to her at a Carson City restaurant, where she had gone with friends.
“She felt that Mark Manendo had made inappropriate comments to her, in a public place,” said Bob Hadfield, then-executive director of the association. “It had upset her, significantly.”
Hadfield characterized Manendo’s remarks as “bizarre and inappropriate” and a “verbal attack.”
After the second incident, Democratic leadership ordered legislative staff to investigate.
No report was released, but after the session ended Manendo was stripped of his government affairs chairmanship and has since been frozen out of leadership.
Manendo said the allegations were part of a “whisper campaign. There has never been a complaint filed.” Leaving the chairmanship after the 2003 session was partly his decision, he claimed.
“I was never told, ‘Hey, for what you did you’ll be removed, put on different committee,’ ” he said. “That was never conveyed to me.”
McClain has tried to make Manendo’s reputation a campaign issue.
“Everyone knows his reputation,” McClain said.
Her campaign sent out a mailer that said Manendo, 42, “has never been married and has lived with his mother for long periods of time.”
In response, Steve Friess, a freelance journalist active on gay issues in Nevada, in his blog said McClain was implying that Manendo was gay.
McClain said she was alluding to Manendo’s pattern of sexual harassment.
“It’s very hard to get people to come public,” she said. “I’ve heard the same stories everyone else has heard. I don’t doubt them.”
Manendo responded by saying, “I have a very loving, stable relationship in my life. I’m happy and content with the relationship that I have. I guess I say to her, she used campaign money for personal use. How does that make you fit to be a state senator?”
Besides using campaign money to pay into her retirement account and for her health benefits, McClain used campaign funds to pay for housing while serving in the Legislature. Lawmakers receive a housing stipend, a modest salary and a per diem for expenses during the session.
Manendo also points out that McClain was fired from her county job in 2003 for claiming sick time during a legislative session while also receiving legislative pay. (After an appeal, the county was forced to reinstate her.)
The ties between Manendo’s private-sector job and elected position have also drawn scrutiny.
During the 2009 session, he authored a bill to prohibit insurance companies from owning and operating auto body repair shops. It wasn’t until the Las Vegas Sun reported on the matter that Manendo acknowledged the legislation would benefit his employer. An insurance company planned to open a body shop less than half a mile from a store owned by the auto body company that employs Manendo as a marketing director.
Manendo said, as he has all along, that he was unaware an auto insurance company was planning to open an auto body shop in that location. He introduced the bill because it was sound public policy, he said.
“That’s the point of a citizen Legislature,” he said. “People with private-sector experience bring forward common-sense legislation.”
Manendo said voters shouldn’t read anything into his Assembly colleagues’ overwhelming support for McClain.
He said he hasn’t asked Assembly members to help him raise money and has instead relied on a grass-roots effort.
In his January campaign finance report, Manendo reported $21,000 in donations of $100 or less, which by state law can remain anonymous.
In an interview, Manendo said the total of small cash donations stands at around $30,000, although he later said he had only raised “a few thousand dollars” in small donations since his last campaign finance report. Most of those donations, he said, were made in cash.
(Early voting began Saturday, but Manendo and other candidates won’t have to file campaign contribution and expenditure reports until early June.)
Manendo said the small donations — ranging from $2 to $50 — are proof of his support from average voters in his district.
But even for a candidate with a reputation for showing up to small events and being accessible to constituents, the amount of such donations is surprising.
Previously, the most he raised through small-dollar donations during any campaign was $1,600 in 2008. In some election cycles he raised no money from small-dollar donors.
By comparison, Rory Reid, a candidate for governor, has raised just $6,000 from donors in increments under $100. Conservative grass-roots darling Sharron Angle, when she ran for state Senate in 2008, raised no money from small donors.
Gary Gray, a political consultant to McClain’s campaign, said, “Records are broken all the time, but in my 25 years as a campaign manager reviewing thousands of reports, I’ve never seen anyone come up with anything remotely close to this.”
He said it would require an audit to know exactly where the money came from.
But Manendo said the fundraising power of small donations has been multiplied through his Facebook page, holding dinners with constituents for $10, and reaching a larger audience now that he is running for state Senate.
“This is grass-roots,” he said. “I haven’t called people to ask people to put their names on a letter. I’m not going to bombard people with names. The only people that care about names on lists are the people into inside baseball.”