Friday, Feb. 1, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Gov. Brian Sandoval came into the last session flanked by two seasoned veterans of Carson City and state government: Chief of Staff Heidi Gansert and Senior Adviser Dale Erquiaga. Gansert was the former Assembly minority leader. Erquiaga was a veteran of the Secretary of State’s Office.
But now both are gone, leaving a mostly new crop of players in charge of advocating Sandoval’s budget and policy agenda at the Legislature.
As such, it looks as if Sandoval’s new staff will try to move his agenda forward by relying on sound policy arguments rather than political or personal connections in the Legislature.
At the top is Sandoval’s new chief of staff, Gerald Gardner. When Sandoval was attorney general, Gardner served on his legislative policy committee from 2003-06.
Lucas Foletta, Sandoval’s former law clerk when he was a federal judge, is his general counsel and policy director. He also served in the Sandoval administration during the 2011 Legislature.
They will be joined by Stewart “Mac” Bybee, a new hire announced by Sandoval last month. Bybee, who had worked for Sen. Dean Heller, will direct public relations and policy outreach.
Pete Ernaut, a lobbyist and Sandoval adviser, said: “Certainly, Heidi and Dale were extremely talented and hard to replace.” But he called Sandoval’s new top staff “a very, very good team. I think they’ll be extremely successful.”
“We have a small senior staff,” Gardner said, but he noted that the office can be augmented by the members of Sandoval’s cabinet.
“We have extremely capable people,” he said.
Gardner said he wouldn’t discuss strategy for getting Sandoval’s policy through a Legislature controlled by Democrats.
“What we’re trying to do is put forth good policy,” he said. “It’s policy Nevadans support and the Legislature, by and large, is going to support.”
The policies that Sandoval has advanced so far are moderate, hemmed in by the political realities of limited money, a Legislature controlled by Democrats and his upcoming re-election.
A legislative session is like a game of poker — no one wants to lay all their cards on the table at the start of the game.
So don’t underestimate Sandoval’s ability to personally push his agenda, if he so chooses. Polls show him popular with voters. And he is a fundraising juggernaut, raising $600,000 last year for his own campaign and almost $1 million for Senate Republicans in their failed effort to take control of the Senate.
If the GOP had regained control of the state Senate, Sandoval would have had a firmer policy foothold for a more ambitious agenda.
As it is, he is faced with a Democratic majority that is both skeptical of the Republican-backed programs he’s proposed — a payroll tax cut and a school choice initiative that would give businesses a tax credit for donating to a scholarship program, for example.
Sandoval also wants to expand all-day kindergarten, but not to the same extent Democrats would like.
Sandoval’s staff seems to believe in the Spike Lee strategy: Lawmakers will do the right thing.
“I think we’re going to agree much more than we don’t,” Gardner said. “We’re not discussing this based on leverage or political strategy at this time. The truth is at this time, it’s good policy and a sound budget; what’s right for Nevada.”