Sunday, Sept. 19, 1999 | 1:23 a.m.
Five years ago Michael McDonald was a 29-year-old cop living with his parents and concerned more about where to party on his nights off than with civic issues.
McDonald, 34, is now in his second term as a Las Vegas City Councilman and his Ward 1 supporters are basking in his sudden ascent into Southern Nevada's powerbroking elite and his seemingly limitless political future.
But critics continue to question McDonald's close association with people who do business with the city, his country club lifestyle and the exclusive club memberships that belie his middle-class salary.
"I think people see two Michael McDonalds," said fellow City Councilman Larry Brown. "One is the flash. That's his nickname, and that's on his license plate. There's a whole Michael McDonald persona that's out there.
"I see the Michael McDonald who is truly the humble servant who cares more about the constituent than the flash."
The two personas intertwined recently atop the $2,500-a-year member's-only House of Blues Foundation Room where McDonald said he arrived to find his friend Robert Groesbeck, the former mayor of Henderson, in custody on lewdness and other charges.
Groesbeck works as corporate council for Silver State Disposal Inc. McDonald also is close friends with Silver State President Steve Kalish and was instrumental in granting the company an exclusive 15-year service extension with the city seven years before its contract was up for renewal.
Critics said McDonald shouldn't have been voting on an issue involving his friends, Kalish and Groesbeck. McDonald said the contract was a good deal for the city and his friendship with Kalish didn't make the vote illegal.
McDonald supports his pals whether they are coming before the City Council or in trouble with the law.
"I will stand by my friends through thick and thin," McDonald said after Groesbeck's arrest.
On Friday Groesbeck agreed to a plea bargain that reduced his charges to disturbing the peace and resisting arrest.
Just this past week McDonald's friend Willie Ramirez, who works for the city, was also arrested on open and gross lewdness charges. Ramirez has been suspended from his job without pay. McDonald said he was shocked by his friend's arrest but vowed to stand by Ramirez until his case is resolved.
Friends say loyalty to his friends is McDonald's strongest trait, but critics consider it little more than cronyism.
"It's City Hall's dirty little secret," said a former city employee who asked not to be named. "He takes care of his own."
Since McDonald was first elected in 1995 he has brought numerous friends onto the city payroll. Some tested for their positions, others were simply appointed without having to pass minimum scrutiny.
The five current friends of McDonald's on the city books -- Rick Henry, Doug Rankin, Robert Hyde, Nathan Taylor and Willie Ramirez -- earn a combined $216,141 a year.
McDonald earns $37,525 as a councilman, just $2,000 more than recent hire Taylor and $1,300 more than Ramirez, who was hired as a city parks department spokesman in July.
But his friends aren't just rewarded with city jobs, many worked as paid consultants on his recent re-election campaign.
Henry, who took a leave from his city job to run McDonald's campaign, was paid $80,100, according to campaign contribution and expenditure reports.
Rankin was paid $17,145 for his work on the campaign, and Hyde was paid $5,643. Neither took leave of their city jobs while they worked on the campaign, which is legal under Nevada campaign laws.
Taylor was paid $1,000 for campaign work and secured an appointed position in the city's Neighborhood Services department a month after McDonald won. Taylor replaced Devin Livziey, another of McDonald's friends, when Livziey left the city. Livziey was paid $8,546 for his work on the campaign.
McDonald spent $182,595 of the nearly $622,000 he raised during the recent city council campaign on consultants. By comparison, mayoral candidates Mark Fine and Arnie Adamsen spent just $8,000 and $48,333 respectively on consultants.
McDonald, who has lived in a small home in an older neighborhood on Carmen Boulevard with his parents, recently began leasing a home in Canyon Gate Country Club.
The home, which is owned by the Bobett Lee Taylor living trust, was sold in 1995 for $282,000, according to county assessor's office records.
Real estate agents told the Sun that the home is likely valued at about $500,000 today and that lease payments could run $2,200 a month.
McDonald refuses to disclose his lease payments, except to say "I pay my share."
He said he learned Taylor's home was available to lease through a friend.
McDonald's critics have already alleged the home is paid for by one of the councilman's many high-placed friends, who include Rick Rizzolo who owns the Crazy Horse Too, a Las Vegas strip joint.
"I heard he moved into where I live," Rizzolo said, referring to his home in Canyon Gate. "I've never even seen his house."
Although McDonald dismisses questions of his financial situation by saying, "I am not an idiot," he is unable to put the rumors to rest with documentation.
In 1997 McDonald was awarded $181,000 to settle a lawsuit with Red Rock Theaters, stemming from an accident he had there. In addition to his council salary, he had earned $54,000 a year as a Metro police officer before retiring earlier this year.
"People have to imagine this, I have never lived anywhere else but at 4908 Carmen Boulevard for the past 34 years," he said. "I had two jobs over the last four years. I made a hell of a salary as a police officer. Never paid rent. Never had a bill. I invested my money well."
When asked how he invested his settlement and salaries, McDonald initially had no response. When asked if he invested in stocks, for example, McDonald replied: "I've invested in stocks. I've invested in uh, uh, well, my sister, I gave her the money, so she's invested it well."
McDonald said he has "pretty good financial advisers, tax people" but doesn't disclose who they are.
He proudly says he bought a Rolex watch for each of his parents and paid cash for his Corvette 10 years ago. He also drives a newer model Chevrolet Suburban and used two new sport utility vehicles on his recent campaign. He's also known for his flamboyant dress, including his well-tailored double-breasted suits, a jewel-encrusted ring, his own Rolex and gold cufflinks.
"It makes me wonder how he can afford to live in Canyon Gate and how he can support his aging parents," said former City Councilman Steve Miller who was defeated by McDonald in the spring election. "It makes me wonder how he can afford memberships in the exclusive House of Blues Foundation (Room) Club."
Miller and McDonald's three other opponents waged grass-roots campaigns and were largely written off by the media. McDonald, raised a healthy warchest of $622,500 and won re-election outright in the primary, garnering 63 percent of the vote.
"The way I govern there's no method to the madness," McDonald said. "It's doing what's right. It's finding out what the people want and finding a way to fix it."
His friend and council colleague Lynette Boggs McDonald -- whom he fought to appoint to the board -- said McDonald could be called the "pothole councilman" or the "speed bump councilman."
"He really is in the trenches problem-solving," Boggs McDonald said.
Sig Rogich, a political consultant who advised Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, considers McDonald something of a ward heeler.
"He's a throwback to the old system of what you'd see in the wards of Chicago or New York where the councilman took care of the people in his ward," Rogich said. "He fights for their streets and cleans up their potholes."
With approval from voters and funding pouring in from the Strip and developers, McDonald's political world view has expanded outside of his small central Las Vegas ward.
As mayor pro tem, he is what Mayor Oscar Goodman calls "my right-hand man since I've come in." But some see him more as "shadow mayor."
McDonald's campaign staff helped Gary Reese to a narrow election victory over political upstart Nevada Stupak this past June, and McDonald reportedly backed Boggs McDonald over Goodman's initial choice for the appointment.
Reese, McDonald and Boggs McDonald comprise a majority three votes on the five-member council, leading some to think McDonald is running the city.
McDonald, Goodman and the council all deny the shadow mayor contention.
"I'm only one vote up here," McDonald said. "There's more than just a council, there's a good friendship here and it's a respect friendship in that we respect each other's decisions whatever they may be on any issue."
If the upcoming council appointments go McDonald's way, he'll have two more friends to call councilmen.
McDonald is quietly stumping for city employees Lawrence Weekly and Orlando Sanchez to win the appointments.
"They know the system, they know how to get things accomplished," McDonald said. "It would be beneficial to Ward 5 and 6 to have somebody that knows the system rather than having them come in and learn it."
Although each council member insists he votes without any influence from McDonald, some of McDonald's friends on the payroll have already boasted in City Hall that they could go to work on Sanchez's or Weekly's staff.
Even if the shadow mayor concept is a myth that Councilman Brown claims was conjured up to sell newspapers, McDonald has become very powerful.
He recently wrested the chairmanship of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority from the squabbles of competing Clark County Commissioners. As chairman, McDonald oversees mayors and casino executives.
"I look forward to his leadership," said LVCVA President Manny Cortez. "He's going to be a very effective leader because he's a very strong personality."
Judy Rute, who lives in Ward 1 and says she has had difficulty getting McDonald to address her concerns, considers that personality to be "arrogant."
"He never does anything that doesn't benefit him," she said.
Chris Christoff, who has sued the city over the council's approval of an expansion to Rizzolo's Crazy Horse, said he thinks McDonald is on a "crash course."
"I think eventually, and I'm a patient person. He's going to run into a wall."
Use of power
Recent publicity about his friends may be the beginning of such a slip. McDonald said his inclusion in the police report of the Groesbeck incident shows that "somebody is trying to taint me."
Rogich said he thinks McDonald needs to learn how to better finesse his use of power, especially as it relates to his friends. But Rogich said he still thinks McDonald benefits from "an overabundance of energy and commitment."
Commitment to the Republican party, to his ward and to his family are the basis of McDonald's current support and his future political possibilities.
McDonald is friendly with Gov. Kenny Guinn and will serve with him on the statewide committee for the election of Texas Gov. George W. Bush to president.
Rogich considers McDonald to be one of the top three Southern Nevada politicians. Clark County Commission Chairman Bruce Woodbury and Sheriff Jerry Keller round out Rogich's list.
McDonald said he's been approached to run for county commission, lieutenant governor and Congress. Rogich said he thinks any of the offices are realistic future goals.
"I think they'd love him in the rural communities," Rogich said. "He's a man that you meet, and you like him instinctively."
People who befriend McDonald say they are put in an uneasy Catch-22 by the media. Simply being McDonald's friend, they say, makes them work harder to prove themselves on the job or to dismiss talk of favoritism.
"Because I'm friends with him, if I did something wrong over here, he'd let me have it 10 times worse," Rizzolo said. "That's the kind of guy he is. I told him a long time ago when he first ran to stay away from me."
Although McDonald does not hang out at Crazy Horse Too anymore, he still considers Rizzolo a close friend.
"The most popular thing to do would be to turn my back on Rick Rizzolo and say, 'Oh, I don't know him,' or 'he's not my friend'," McDonald said. "When they say I'm bought and paid for, or I'm this or that, I'm just a man who won't turn his back on a friend because I have an office."