Las Vegas Sun

November 29, 2023

Analysis: Guinn’s goal: Fight Yucca, keep ties to Bush

Normally Nevada's first couple eagerly anticipates a visit with George and Laura Bush.

There have been public campaign dinners and quiet chats when Dema Guinn and Laura Bush discussed their common fear of public speaking.

But today's trip to Washington is strictly business for Gov. Kenny Guinn. He'll meet with President Bush to try to persuade the president against putting a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain.

It's the state's biggest fight and the issue that pits Guinn's responsibility to his state against his party loyalty. And it all comes during an election year.

It's no wonder Dema Guinn quietly worried Wednesday that "I have a bad feeling about this trip."

For Guinn, it's troubling on several fronts. State politicans say it appears Bush is ready to make a decision, and it comes at a tough juncture for Guinn, who has vowed to veto the plan.

Guinn, who led Bush's campaign effort in Nevada, has been close to the president and his Republican administration has several ties to Bush. But Yucca Mountain has become the curse word in state politics and some Republicans say a decision to put a nuclear waste dump at the site could cost the party in the upcoming campaign.

The issue for Guinn is how to be try to fight the proposal, not lose any political ground to the Democrats who plan to make Yucca Mountain an issue, and still retain strong ties to the White House and the Republican Party.

Political observers note Guinn is in a tough position but say the governor will score major points by choosing his constituents over his party.

"If I were working with the governor's campaign, I'd love this issue," said Ted Jelen, chairman of the political science department at UNLV. "Politically, Guinn is in a good position because he is seen as fighting for his constituents.

"My guess is Bush will understand this is something (Guinn and Republican Sen. John Ensign) believe," Jelen added. "Not everybody is going to be able to support the party."

State Democratic Party Chairman Terry Care said if Bush approves Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham's recommendation, it could create trouble for Guinn if Democrats could come up with an opponent

"It would give a candidate an issue," Care said.

Keeping up the image of a strong leader against the dump won't be easy without relaxing ties to Bush or saying things that cast Guinn in a more independent light.

The governor and his staff have been cautious making public statements about the Bush Administration's role in Yucca Mountain, even though to observers, it seems as if the president has already made up his mind. Guinn, along with Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and John Ensign, R-Nev., are planning to meet with the president today.

"It's a little disconcerting to me to have received a call Monday, very late, saying that my request to meet the president face-to-face before he makes a decision has to be scheduled before (Feb.) 9th," Guinn said Wednesday. "The first thing that came to my mind is the president must be ready to make a decision. It seems rather fast-tracked."

And that realization is proving difficult for Guinn, his staff and his campaign advisers -- all of whom have ties to Bush.

As chairman of George Bush's 2000 campaign in Nevada, Guinn was instrumental in getting Bush to respond to then-Vice President Al Gore's statement that any Yucca Mountain decision be based on sound science and not politics.

Bush echoed the sound science, not politics statement with help from the governor.

Guinn's staff nervously crafted an official no comment when Bush's proposed budget came out Monday showing a jump in funding for Yucca Mountain and no money for transmutation -- an alternative option that would keep nuclear waste in its current locations.

Guinn's chief of staff, Marybel Batjer, held jobs in the Defense Department during both President Ronald Reagan's and the elder President George Bush's administrations.

Batjer was assistant to the Defense Secretary and served on the staff of the National Security Council during the Reagan administration. She then served on the Defense Department's transition team and was special assistant to the secretary of the Navy in the Bush administration.

The Guinns have been friendly with George and Laura Bush since Kenny Guinn first took office in 1998, spending time at the Texas governor's mansion and attending a number of dinners together.

Guinn is also active in the Republican Governor's Association, through which he worked firsthand with George Bush when he was Texas governor.

In addition to Guinn's personal relationship with George Bush, Guinn's advisers have a lengthy history with the Bush family.

Republican consultant Sig Rogich ran the media campaign for Reagan's 1984 re-election and served as the elder Bush's media adviser before being appointed ambassador to Iceland late in Bush's administration.

Guinn's re-election campaign chairman and former chief of staff Pete Ernaut had entertained offers to work on Bush's 2000 election staff.