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August 2, 2015

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Politics:

Berkley reflects on her 14-year congressional career, ethics probe, what comes next

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Karoun Demirjian

Rep. Shelley Berkley conducts office business in her home on Capitol Hill. After her failed Senate bid, the house has been put up for sale.

Shelley Berkley doesn’t believe in long goodbyes.

In the month since she lost her U.S. Senate bid — a campaign for which she gave up her safe seat in the U.S. House — Berkley has cleared out her congressional office.

She has given or thrown away all but the most precious of the Las Vegas kitsch around which she fashioned an endearingly garish persona on Capitol Hill.

Even the giant cardboard cutout of Liberace that stood by her desk, she said, “has gone to that big piano bar in the sky.”

Her house — which is currently doubling as an office for her employees because their temporary cubicles are just too dreary — is up for sale.

“I have been in public office continuously for 20 years, and collectively for substantially more than that,” Berkley said in an interview at her home on Wednesday. “I love public service, and I think I would have been a very effective senator.

“But I have always thought of this as a job with a long commute. The commute is over — I’m coming home.”

Berkley’s loss to Dean Heller brings her 14-year congressional career to a close in a few weeks.

Berkley is proud of her service, and she wants her constituents to remember it for all the things she helped deliver to Nevada — such as the country’s newest Veterans Affairs hospital — and how hard she worked on the issues yet to be resolved.

“I’m very worried about what’s happening in Israel. That’s a big issue for me, and I’m sorry that my voice won’t be here. I think on Yucca Mountain we’re in good shape as long as Barack Obama’s the president. I’m concerned about renewable energy, which is a tremendous passion of mine. ... And if I am pushing any one thing, it’s the sales tax deduction and making that permanent. That would be the one thing that I’m pushing before I go,” she said.

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Dean Heller and Shelley Berkley, candidates for Nevada's U.S. Senate seat, debate on the "Ralston Reports" television program at the KSNV-Channel 3 studios Monday, Oct. 15, 2012.

But as she brings this chapter to a close, Berkley has unfinished business. Much of her fate rests in the hands of 10 members of Congress and whether or not they choose in the next few weeks to clear her of ethics allegations that could otherwise define her legacy as they did her Senate election.

“I think it would be unjust to leave a very stellar career with this hanging over my head,” Berkley said. “It’s important for me to clear my name.”

Berkley was dealt a close loss by what she now calls the Republican Party’s “brilliant strategy,” adding that she hopes “Democrats learned from it and will use it themselves in the future.”

For months, Berkley was pummeled over ethics allegations concerning her husband’s nephrology practice, campaign donations and her official advocacy on federal funding for kidney care. The allegations initially appeared in The New York Times and then morphed into a full investigation by the House Ethics Committee, which still is pending.

The Republican Party and the Heller campaign seized on it, blanketing the airwaves with attack ads. Over the course of the campaign, Berkley’s alleged ethics problems metastasized into a theme, as Republicans aired ads questioning Berkley’s husband’s home sales and a trip she took to Venice as part of a congressional delegation.

“Cute commercial — that also was just horrendous,” Berkley said, with more than a twinge of sarcasm in her voice as she decried the content of the ads as false. “If not for (the ethics issue), I think I would have won substantially. There’s not a doubt in my mind.”

Twenty months ago, Berkley had no idea that the Senate campaign she launched to confront Heller on issues like equal pay, women’s health, Social Security and Medicare would instead turn into a reckoning over her own demons — ones that she maintains never existed.

“I think that the Republicans decided early on that they couldn’t beat me on the issues, and they chose a different path,” she said.

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Senate candidate Shelley Berkley delivers her concession speech during the Nevada State Democrats' election night party early Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012 at Mandalay Bay.

That choice led Berkley down an intensely personal road, as voters scrutinized a relationship that has paralleled and may define her congressional career.

Berkley and Dr. Larry Lehrner married just two months after she was first sworn in as a U.S. congresswoman in 1999.

“In that first year, I was learning all the issues, plus I was running for re-election immediately plus getting used to a new marriage,” Berkley said. “We have never spent more than two weeks in the same city since we got married 14 years ago. We counted it up the other day.”

Berkley remains poised and with an almost rehearsed cool as she describes her reaction to how her marriage was portrayed as an instrument of corruption during the campaign.

“I am not bitter. I am not angry,” she said. “I understand that they play to win. This is hardball.”

But she cannot maintain the veneer when describing her husband’s feelings.

“It was an unprecedented attack on my husband, who didn’t deserve that,” she said. “He feels very used, very insulted and angry.”

Berkley won’t admit how much of that anger she shares privately. Nor will she say whether she has talked, or will talk, to the ethics committee as her husband did a few weeks ago. She was admonished by the committee recently for being too open about those proceedings, she said.

She does, however, appear to still be wrestling with the result of the campaign. She would have won, she has said these past few weeks, if the none-of-the-above option hadn’t been available. If that final commercial about the trip to Venice hadn’t run the last weekend. If 17-year-olds had been allowed to vote.

“I had quite the rock star status at the Sun Youth Forum,” she said.

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Students take photos with Congresswoman Shelley Berkley during the annual Las Vegas Sun Youth Forum at the Las Vegas Convention Center Tuesday, November 20, 2012.

It’s hard not to think about, Berkley said, when everyone keeps telling her how much they are going to miss her.

“That may be one of the most difficult things to deal with: I’m on the floor voting, and my colleagues, they’ll come up and go, ‘Shelley! I’m going to miss you! I love you!’ What’s wrong with them?” she said, throwing up her arms to pantomime the hugs.

“I became very, very close with the other women running for the Senate. That’s sad for me, too, because they’ve been just terrific with the, ‘Oh, we wanted you there with us!’ And it’s just — please, no more, no more.”

Describing her colleagues’ goodbyes is the one moment in her hourlong interview with the Sun when Berkley started to choke up — just for a second.

But it was clear her guard is still up, a learned response through the campaign that may stay with her as long as these ethics allegations do.

“I knew I was a strong woman. But I discovered an inner resolve that heretofore I never knew existed,” Berkley said. “I don’t think there’s anything I can’t do and that election proved it to me.”

What Berkley will do next, however, she hasn’t quite decided. Ideally though, it won’t have anything to do with fundraising, though it has long been trumpeted as one of her greatest political strengths.

“Frankly, I’ve spent the last 14 years raising money, and I wouldn’t mind a little break with that,” Berkley said. “That was probably the least attractive part of the job — even though, frankly, it was my social life.”

Berkley hasn’t ruled out running for office again and speaks favorably of continuing a life in public service.

“Luckily, I’m not in a position where I have to go to work tomorrow in order to pay the rent next week. So I can take a step back and see what it is that I want to do,” Berkley said. “It has to be fulfilling for me. I’m not interested in a title. I believe in public service and how I can best use my acquired knowledge, background and talents for the greater good.”

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Shelley Berkley sits in her Washington, D.C., house. After her failed Senate bid, the house is for sale.

But then again, maybe not.

“I think we’ve talked about this a few times, I used to use it in my speech, and after about the 10th time, you would probably go, ‘Uggggggh,’ but look, I’m the granddaughter of immigrants who came to this country and couldn’t speak English. For me, public service was my way of giving something back to this country ... for taking us in and giving us the opportunities that we’ve had,” Berkley said. “Frankly, I feel I’ve repaid that debt to this country that my family has.”

Berkley also wouldn’t rule out the idea of potentially leaving Las Vegas again for a next job. Her husband has only a few years left before he plans on retiring, and though Berkley maintains Nevada will always be home, she seems to be setting her sights on an arena Nevada just isn’t known for.

“I love foreign policy,” Berkley said when asked what issue from her 14-year congressional tenure was her favorite.

The only concrete commitment Berkley seems to have made is to not commit herself too quickly.

“This is my way of thinking. I decided to run for the state Senate in 1984. I was supposed to win it hands-down and I ended up losing it. I was heartbroken. I thought my public service life was over, and I was in my very early 30s,” Berkley, now 61, said.

“Then, 10 months later, I had Sam,” she said of her youngest child. “If I had won that election, I never would have had Sam. If you asked me if I would trade 12 years in the state Senate for one day of Sam — although there are days I would have — the answer is, no! The point is, it all worked out. And I am most confident that it will all work out again.”

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