Las Vegas Sun

September 25, 2021

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Little drama in Ensign win

Nevada Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn and retiring Democratic Sen. Richard Bryan say GOP Sen.-elect John Ensign will fight alongside rival Democratic Sen. Harry Reid on state issues despite their philosophical differences.

Ensign agreed when he told reporters following his 55-40 percent trouncing of Democrat Ed Bernstein Tuesday that he had repaired his fragile relationship with Reid. It was Reid who narrowly defeated Las Vegan Ensign two years ago in a bitter re-election bid.

"Sen. Reid and I buried that hatchet a long time ago," Ensign said. "We have a great relationship. He was the first one to call me tonight (Tuesday) to congratulate me and we're looking forward to working together."

Ensign said his priorities will include fighting to keep the nation's high-level nuclear waste from being shipped to Nevada by trying to persuade the 31 states with such waste to consider a potential recycling alternative known as transmutation.

"It's about 15 years off, but we have to start working on it today to give those 31 other states an answer so that they don't want to ship their waste to our state," he said.

He said his other priorities will be to make Nevada schools "the best in America, reform our health care system to make it more affordable for people, making sure that Medicare is reformed to include a prescription drug proposal and reforming Social Security."

Fellow Las Vegan Bernstein, who will continue to run the Edward M. Bernstein & Associates personal injury law firm, said he would consider running for public office again. But he said Ensign's fund-raising prowess and prior experience running a statewide race proved too difficult to overcome.

"It has been the best experience of my life," Bernstein said. "If there is any sadness, it's that the experience is over.

"I'm still an attorney. I'm still fighting for families on health care issues. I'll continue as a citizen to put pressure on our elected representatives to make sure that they do what they can to pass a real patient's bill of rights. I'm optimistic that at the very least our dialogue and our Senate race have created an environment where maybe we will get some of these bills passed."

Former congressman Ensign is Nevada' first Republican senator since 1988, when then-Sen. Chic Hecht was ousted by then-Gov. Bryan, the two-term Democratic senator Ensign is replacing.

"Obviously Ensign will be supportive of the Republican leadership on a variety of issues," Bryan said. "But there are so many Nevada issues such as nuclear waste where the whole state delegation will work together.

"I had hoped that Ed Bernstein had replaced me, but the voters have spoken."

The victory by Ensign, a 42-year-old Las Vegas veterinarian and former gaming executive, capped what has been a rapid ascension within Nevada's political circles.

It started when he first ran for the House in 1994 as a fresh-faced political unknown whose initial press conference drew only two print reporters. He immediately established himself as a conservative ideologue who played up themes embraced by the Christian right while railing against professional politicians.

With campaign assistance from then-Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Ensign pulled off Nevada's biggest election upset of the 1990s, defeating incumbent Democratic Rep. James Bilbray in the heavily Democratic 1st Congressional District. The key for Ensign was drawing heavy turnout from GOP-dominated Green Valley while Bilbray's blue-collar precincts stayed home.

Ensign became part of the Gingrich-led revolution that resulted in the first Republican takeover of the House in 40 years. The son of Mandalay Resort Group Chairman Mike Ensign, he was viewed as a valuable party asset who could attract campaign donations from the gaming industry. Ensign was rewarded with a coveted seat on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee.

It was largely through his seat on the committee that he turned into a skilled campaign fund-raiser, quickly becoming one of the leading recipients of political action committee money among members of the 1994 freshman class. His deep campaign pockets helped him crush Democratic state Sen. Bob Coffin of Las Vegas in his successful 1996 re-election bid.

Along the way he championed welfare reform and tax cuts, while also vowing to gut federal agencies such as the Department of Education that he believed were too bloated.

Political critics labeled Ensign a "far right-winger." As evidence they pointed to his April 1994 meeting with the local political wing of the arch conservative John Birch Society to discuss his candidacy, an appearance he said he later regretted. He also was lambasted for his membership in Promise Keepers, the all-male religious organization that excludes women.

He also survived attacks from local Democrats who accused him of voting to weaken clean air and water regulations. He defended his votes by saying that the environmental bureaucracy involved too much red tape and was actually harming efforts to clean up the environment.

Instead of running for a third House term, Ensign chose in 1998 to challenge Reid. They were bitter political rivals who clearly did not enjoy being together on the same stage. Reid, now the Senate minority whip, won by a mere 428 votes in a contest that attracted 435,790 voters.

Ensign contemplated ending his political career, but that thought became short-lived when Bryan unexpectedly announced he would not seek a third term. Ensign immediately threw his hat back into the ring and resumed his powerful fund-raising machine, thanks in no small part to his father's resort.

According to the FECInfo Internet website, Ensign raised $4.4 million in campaign money through Oct. 18 and spent $4.1 million. Bernstein raised $2.3 million and spent $2.2 million. In the 1998 race, Reid outspent Ensign $4.9 million to $3.5 million.

Even in losing to Reid two years ago, Ensign carried 15 of Nevada's 17 counties, losing only in Clark and Mineral counties. Against Bernstein, Ensign carried all 17 counties and beat the Democrat by about 22,000 votes in Clark County.

Many political experts say Ensign actually won the Senate race the day former Democratic Gov. Bob Miller decided not to run. Miller was the only Democrat in the state considered a viable opponent in a potential showdown with Ensign. But Miller said Tuesday he had no regrets about not running, stating that he and his family felt 25 years of public office were enough.

"Ed Bernstein ran a very credible race and I don't know if I or anybody else could have done better," Miller said. "John Ensign ran a respectable race. He'll do a fine job representing Nevada for the next six years."