Cathleen Allison / AP
Thursday, May 3, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Michael Roberson, the Henderson-based Republican state senator, is poised to do what no other Nevada lawmaker has done in recent memory: jump from freshman legislator to leader of his party in a single session.
Some ascribe the brash conservative’s sudden ascent to the new political landscape wrought by the advent of term limits — a landscape ripe with opportunities for young and ambitious lawmakers.
Others see the 41-year-old Roberson, who made a name for himself as a relentless and grandiose champion of the minority party last session, as plotting a smart and deliberate course up the ranks — a course that has already forced him to compromise on what he once put forth as some of his core beliefs.
Now, as Roberson doggedly leads his party’s efforts to retake the majority in the Senate this year, many are wondering just what kind of leader he’ll be.
“I don’t think anybody knows,” said one veteran lobbyist who fell victim once last session to Roberson changing his mind on a key piece of legislation. “I don’t think even he knows.”
Roberson, a commercial real estate and business lawyer, has emerged as one of the Legislature’s more complex characters:
• He’s a lawmaker who two years ago signed the anti-tax pledge and now describes it, almost ruefully, as a “special interest” pledge that will not supersede his oath of office.
• He delivered some of the session’s most caustic floor speeches, describing one out-going Democratic senator as an “old-timer” and bellowing that Democrats are beholden to labor unions. But he also worked closely with several Democrats to shepherd key bills through his own caucus.
• In December, Roberson declared his opposition to again extending the 2009 tax increases, saying “it’s the lazy legislator” who would raise taxes to solve the budget crisis next year. Yet, in March, he became one of the first lawmakers to back Gov. Brian Sandoval’s decision to seek an extension of those taxes as he builds his next budget.
Roberson says he knows exactly what kind of politician he is, even as he admits he had a lot to learn last session.
“I really, at my core, believe that I’m a pragmatic person,” Roberson said. “I’m not an ideologue. I’m not a purist. I’m not an all-or-nothing kind of guy. I’ve taken criticism for that lately from the folks on the right. They don’t think I’m pure enough. But if you get involved in politics, you’re going to upset people. I can absorb the criticism. That’s fine.”
Roberson’s contradictions have some — even in his own party — questioning whether he can be relied upon to stay the course on issues important them. Others laud him for making strategic, thoughtful decisions that could better position his party to win control of the Senate in November.
“In becoming leader, there are new responsibilities, and one of those is trying to capture the majority,” said Robert Uithoven, a conservative lobbyist who does work for the law firm that employs Roberson. “He believes standing with the governor on the issue of the tax extension will help him not only become the leader of his party but the majority leader of his party.”
Uithoven acknowledged Roberson will take heat from the conservative base of the Republican Party. But that might not matter this election cycle, as GOP candidates are running tight races in districts that may slightly favor Democrats.
The conditions this year are different than when Roberson began positioning himself to take over the caucus last session. Then, his party looked to him to be the firebrand willing to stand up to the Democrats, who were led by an equally grandiose lawmaker, Sen. Steven Horsford, D-North Las Vegas.
In the thick of that budget battle, Roberson voted against extending the very taxes he now supports.
“I think it would have been very difficult for someone in that caucus to become leader had they supported the extensions,” Uithoven said.
To his Democratic adversaries, he’s an “opportunistic chameleon” willing to mold himself to whichever viewpoint will further his ascent up the ranks.
“The drastic change in his core values lately is the most troubling,” said former state Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno. “People (voters and contributors) want to feel like you actually believe what you’re saying, even if they disagree with you.”
Ironically, Leslie benefited from Roberson’s willingness to let nuance govern his approach to taxes rather than the black and white pledge he inked his name to in 2009. Roberson was one of two Senate Republicans to vote in favor of a measure seeking to take the mining industry’s tax protections out of the state constitution. The mining bill was one of Leslie’s priorities.
Republican lobbyist Pete Ernaut, one of Sandoval’s advisors, said Roberson’s work during the interim will likely be more reflective of the type of leader he will be than his first session, when he was still trying to develop his own style.
“So far, it’s been one of consensus with the members of his caucus,” Ernaut said. “The folks he holds pretty close are a diverse group. They’re not all conservatives and they’re not all moderates. That’s very healthy, and that will help him really hit his stride.”
But can Sandoval, and others, trust Roberson to be consistent and follow through on his promises?
Roberson, after all, voted against Sandoval’s budget last session.
“I think the governor does trust him and can trust him,” Ernaut said. “He certainly had private discussions with the governor, and I think the governor was satisfied with (his explanation for opposing the budget last year).”
In 2011, Roberson disagreed with the governor that a Nevada Supreme Court decision opened up a $600 million hole in the budget. He said he explained his reasons to Sandoval, who wasn’t surprised by his vote against the budget. Going forward, however, Roberson said the tax extension is needed to avoid debilitating cuts to education.
Roberson admits that both his style and his key decisions on how to vote depended on the context of the last session.
He became most well-known for his bombast, displaying an eloquent and sharp tongue.
“When you have a majority that doesn’t want to listen to the concerns of the minority, you’re left with two choices: sit on your hands and take it or you can do what an opposition party is supposed to do and articulate why you disagree with what the majority party was doing,” he said.
If Republicans win the majority, Roberson said he’ll let cooperation win over bombast.
“I don’t want to see that kind of partisanship going forward,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of conversations in the interim with Democrats, I’ve forged some good relationships with people.”
Nor does he feel he’s had to compromise his values. While he supports the governor’s decision to extend the 2009 tax increases, Roberson said he’ll continue to be a fierce advocate for reforming collective bargaining, public employee retirement, education and construction defect laws.
“I don’t apologize for anything I did last session,” he said. “I think I was very effective in what I did last session. What I’ve learned is you have to look at the facts. You have to put all of these things into context.”