Las Vegas Sun

August 17, 2019

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It’s deja vu all over again

Here's a story.

In Clark County Commission District E, a younger assemblywoman attempts to unseat a longtime commissioner, who is upset by attacks from her fellow party member and fights off allegations that she has become too comfortable or too old.

That story might sound familiar, considering the current primary battle between incumbent Myrna Williams and her challenger, Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani.

But it's actually the story of the 1994 primary, when Williams, then an assemblywoman, successfully unseated friend and fellow Democrat Thalia Dondero, who had held the seat for 20 years.

Now, voters are watching an interesting role reversal play out.

While she was serving in the Legislature, Williams said phone calls from constituents encouraged her to run.

"All the calls I got were about local government - things I couldn't do anything about," she said.

It's the same argument Giunchigliani is using: "I was being asked to do jobs I can't do as an assemblywoman."

And now, Williams is fending off accusations she once leveled at her opponent.

"I feel like I'm able and have energy and have capabilities," the 73-year-old Dondero told a local newspaper after Williams said a lot had changed since Dondero's election to the commission in 1974.

Now, Williams, 76, is sounding a lot like her 1994 opponent.

"I am as energetic, vital and productive as my opponent," Williams said recently.

The two races make for some fascinating similarities, Nevada Democratic Party Chairman Tom Collins said.

"Thalia had more money, and Myrna had a more active campaign," he said. "There's a lot of parallels in this campaign."

Despite the similarities, Williams has expressed surprise at the challenge from Giunchigliani, which has put her on the opposite side of the equation.

On Tuesday, Williams sat on a couch in her living room. Dozens of paintings by her recently deceased husband, Davey, hung on the wall behind her. A photo display from his memorial service still was on the floor, leaning against the wall next to the couch, eight months after his death.

Williams held a smoking Misty cigarette in one hand. In the other, she clenched a lighter with three fingers and stabbed the air with her index finger to drive home her point.

"Every campaign is tough, but I've never had one like this," she said. "To slander me the way I've been slandered is unbelievable."

On the coffee table in front of her was a coffee mug that jested, "Genuine Antique Person: Been there, done that, can't remember." Next to the mug was a mailer from Giunchigliani.

It reads, "Myrna and Mary and Erin. The corruption trial of county commissioners tells the story."

The flier attempts to associate Williams with former County Commissioners Mary Kincaid-Chauncey and Erin Kenny, who were convicted in a federal corruption trial . Williams has vigorously denied any involvement, and her name has never surfaced among accusations of wrongdoing.

Such mudslinging comes as no surprise to most. This is Nevada politics, after all.

Perhaps more surprising is Williams' reaction of disbelief and exasperation, which often reveals itself on the campaign trail.

During their only face-to-face debate, an animated Williams couldn't resist rolling her eyes dramatically and waving her hands as Giunchigliani accused her of being inaccessible to constituents or accepting a trip to Monaco paid for by gaming interests.

During a meeting Tuesday evening with constituents at Desert Inn Park, Williams glared in disbelief when Giunchigliani showed up and began talking quietly to one of the residents.

"That's a lot of nerve," Williams said.

Back at her home Tuesday, Williams looked over her husband's collection of World War I model planes.

"I shouldn't get as angry as I do," she said. "It's not about an election. It's about what I've given, and it's about my reputation. I've never seen anything like this."

She avoided talking about the effect of her husband's death on her re-election run.

"I'm not looking for sympathy," she said.

Giunchigliani, meanwhile, is running a campaign based on the same strategy Williams successfully employed 12 years ago.

Giunchigliani is banking on the idea that pounding the pavement and focusing on the Democratic core can overcome Williams' larger campaign war chest and more extensive television advertising campaign.

Since last year, Williams has raised $808,775 and spent $788,397, with much of the money coming from gaming interests and developers.

Giunchigliani raised $541,245.49 and spent $354,350.13, less than half of what Williams has spent. Gaming interests and developers have almost completely "shut me out," said Giunchigliani, who has depended to a large degree on donations from colleagues in the Assembly and labor groups.

But the 51-year-old Giunchigliani is hoping that grass-roots outreach can make up for her financial disadvantages. Her campaign has targeted 10,000 inveterate Democratic voters in the district, as opposed to Williams' campaign, which is targeting 25,000 of the roughly 32,000 active registered Democrats in the district.

Giunchigliani said she has personally walked more than a third of the district and is hoping for support from Democrats in her Assembly district, which overlaps about 15 of the County Commission district's nearly 100 precincts.

Giunchigliani's objective is to talk to as many people as possible.

"It's about getting to know people," she said. "That's why I love this campaign stuff."

She even sends personal greeting cards to residents who her campaign volunteers learn have been recently married or experienced a death in the family.

Many pundits and political consultants believe such grass-roots efforts can beat an incumbent with stronger financial backing, especially during a primary with relatively low turnout.

"Money always matters in races but getting out the vote matters more to this race than anything else," said Dan Hart, a longtime Democratic consultant who is not working for either candidate.

Of course, Giunchigliani's strategy comes with its own set of problems.

She returned a phone call from a woman Saturday who said she received a card from Giunchigliani regarding the death of the woman's son. The problem was, the woman said her son wasn't dead.

"I apologize," Giunchigliani said. "One of my volunteers told me your son passed away."

Later Saturday, Giunchigliani interrupted a couple while going door to door. The wife invited Giunchigliani in as the husband, wearing only a pair of Speedo shorts, scurried into the bedroom.

But for all the hiccups, Giunchigliani's style just might work, according to political observers.

"A lot of people believe Chris is going to win this election," Collins said. As party chairman, he said he is staying neutral, although campaign finance reports show he gave $5,000 to Giunchigliani and only $1,000 to his fellow county commissioner.

"That was before I was party chair," he said.

Another sign that Giunchigliani's campaign has gained strength is the fact that she has outraised Williams since the beginning of the year. Between Jan. 1 and Aug. 3, Williams raised $316,325, about $20,000 less than Giunchigliani.

Williams' campaign dismisses those figures as irrelevant, noting that Williams raised far more the year before.

"Myrna is the type of person that allows people to use their best judgment. She isn't real aggressive with soliciting. It kind of sounds old-fashioned, but that's how Myrna is," her campaign consultant, Jim Ferrence, said.

A similar attitude could be observed at an Asian-American Group luncheon Saturday.

Giunchigliani walked into the event - which featured 50 candidates in 60 minutes - and immediately began engaging attendees, going table to table and handing out literature.

Williams, meanwhile, sat at her table for most of the event, flanked by a longtime personal friend on one side and Clark County sheriff candidate Doug Gillespie on the other.

Williams said her seeming inactivity was a show of confidence.

"Those people have supported me for 22 years," she said. "I know most of the people who were there."

But some wonder whether Williams is relying too heavily on past support.

"Maybe Williams kind of thought she could get by with her incumbency and experience," David Damore, a UNLV political scientist, said. "She's probably grown pretty comfortable in that district. Ultimately she may have underestimated the challenge."

Style and strategy may play an important role in this election because the two candidates are close on many issues.

Both are liberal Democrats. Both have photographs of themselves standing with former President Bill Clinton on display in their homes.

Giunchigliani, a special education teacher, got her political start as president of the Clark County and Nevada teachers unions. Her husband, Gary Gray, is a longtime political consultant (and hers) who helped Democrats regain the majority in the Assembly in the mid-1980s as director of the Assembly Democratic Caucus. He also directed Clinton's successful 1996 re-election bid in Nevada.

Williams, a social worker, got her start as an activist in the 1960s. She dressed like a hippy the first time she decided to run for the Assembly, friends said. Her political consultant at the time had to tell her that the headband was too much.

"They are both very, very much alike," Collins said.

The similarities have made the campaign a vicious one, as both women try desperately to set themselves apart in meaningful ways.

"It's like a couple of kids whose parents have been gone and the cookie jar is empty when they get home," Collins said. "The parents come back, and the kids both point at the other one and say, 'She ate them.' "

For example, Williams has accused Giunchigliani of voting for the largest tax increase in Nevada's history, but when Williams was in the Legislature, she also voted for the then-largest tax increase in Nevada's history.

In another case, Williams accuses Giunchigliani of spending too much time at her third home on Mount Charleston.

Collins says that's yet another irony.

"Myrna's been to Democratic meetings up at that cabin. She really liked it when they were friends," he said.

But while the two differ only slightly on many issues, their styles are quite different.

"Chris is aggressive, hardworking, tireless," Hart said. "I don't think she is always looking for a fight, but she seldom shies away from one."

Giunchigliani was the first female bartender at the former nightclub Jubilation. Growing up in Chicago, she said, "I was a good runner. I could beat most of the boys in races."

That attitude has permeated her 16 years in the Legislature. From her first day as an assemblywoman in 1991, she went against the grain, casting the lone vote against a resolution commending President George H.W. Bush for going to war in the Persian Gulf, she said.

Williams also is a hard worker. She's known for treating her commission job as a full-time one. She is the only commissioner who doesn't split time between private work and public service.

She prides herself on bringing people together and diffusing tense situations.

"Myrna is probably more of a consensus builder," Hart said.

That was apparent during a meeting at Desert Inn Park on Tuesday, where Williams had members of the parks department apologize to residents for tearing out grass on publicly kept areas of the neighborhood park without holding a public meeting first.

"They've got no right tearing our parks up," said Jim Staite, a man of intimidating size.

"Jim, my friend, just cool it," Williams said casually. "Let's just get all this other stuff out of the way."

After the apology from park personnel, Williams, who also is president of the Las Vegas Valley Water District, said the measure would save 1.6 million gallons of water annually.

"If they can save a million gallons of water, I guess I'll back down," Staite said.

Despite their common political points of view, there are some policy differences.

Giunchigliani supported a ballot initiative that would have legalized small amounts of marijuana for adults to use in their homes.

"I feel kind of icky about it," said the man who had earlier ran to his bedroom shirtless.

"I supported voters' right to choose," Giunchigliani said. "Since then I've not been involved. I have never promoted drug use. I said an adult has a right to choose in their own home."

It was unclear how reassured the man felt, but as Giunchigliani left, he noticed that she had brought his garbage cans up from the curb.

"Thanks for bringing up my garbage cans," he said, clearly impressed.

Williams has used the marijuana issue as a wedge.

"I am against drugs. Period," she said.

Graffiti is another issue that raises ire in the older, central Las Vegas Valley district.

Giunchigliani has criticized the county for not hiring more people to paint over graffiti. The county now has three. Giunchigliani wants at least 10.

Williams, on the other hand, has focused on public-private partnerships to get the job done. She helped start the program under which juvenile graffiti offenders are forced to clean up graffiti as part of their penalty.

Ultimately, though, it seems likely that voters in Tuesday's primary will make their decision largely on how the candidates are perceived rather than how they vote.

Most political observers believe the primary will decide the winner of the general election in November because the district is heavily Democratic and the sole Republican challenger is a political novice.

The third Democratic candidate, 20-year-old UNLV student Priscilla Flores, is seen as a long, long shot.