Las Vegas Sun

November 17, 2018

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Departure reduces race to a blip on the political radar

When the most interesting thing about a political campaign involves a candidate who chose not to run, it's safe to say that the race doesn't exactly rank up there with Lincoln-Douglas.

The contest for Nevada attorney general was knocked off its axis early this year when the odds-on favorite, Attorney General George Chanos - handpicked by Gov. Kenny Guinn last year to complete the term of fellow Republican Brian Sandoval, who became a federal judge - abruptly announced that he would not seek a full four-year term.

Chanos' departure threw the race wide open - but also transformed the campaign into one that has barely shown up on the political radar screen.

The election pits Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, a former federal prosecutor who resigned last year as an assistant Clark County manager to run for attorney general, against Don Chairez, an immigration attorney and former District Court judge in Las Vegas who became the last-minute Republican candidate. Also on the Nov. 7 ballot will be Independent American Party candidate O.Q. Chris Johnson of Elko.

In a race that seemingly has attracted little attention outside the state Bar Association, Cortez Masto has waged a conventional campaign laced with priorities and positions on a wide range of policy issues.

In contrast, Chairez has mounted a campaign built largely around conservative ideology, typified by this rhetorical broadside: "America is headed toward a police state. We need to realize why we got started in America. America was founded on the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. But we are out of kilter. Corporate America controls too much of all the branches of government and both parties."

But there has even been too few of such fire-breathing pronouncements - and none of the mudslinging that has characterized the governor's race and others - to shake the lethargy from this race.

What is left is a somnolent campaign in which Cortez Masto and Chairez have struggled to capture voters' attention by touting their experience for the job.

Although this is Cortez Masto's first run for public office, she has a political pedigree. Her father, the late Manny Cortez, was a former Clark County commissioner and chief executive of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

A native Nevadan, Cortez Masto, 42, earned a bachelor's degree in finance from UNR and a law degree from Gonzaga University. After being admitted to the State Bar of Nevada in 1990, she joined a Las Vegas law firm as a civil litigator.

Then-Gov. Bob Miller hired Cortez Masto in 1995 to run his Southern Nevada office and eventually promoted her to be his chief of staff. In 2000 she became an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, where she prosecuted individuals on felony drug-related charges and in cases involving stalking and battery.

She then was hired as an assistant Clark County manager in 2002, where she worked with the Family Services Department on child welfare issues and with the Juvenile Justice Services Department. She also assisted in the reorganization of the public defender's office and was a county liaison to Metro Police.

Chairez, 51, was born in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and spent his youth on Army bases throughout the United States and in the Panama Canal Zone.

Although neither of his parents graduated from high school, Chairez earned a bachelor's degree in history from Loma Linda University in California and a law degree from the University of Southern California.

After becoming a Clark County deputy district attorney in 1990, Chairez was appointed by Miller in 1994 to replace the late Thomas Foley as a District Court judge. Chairez won a two-year term that November and then ran unopposed for a six-year term in 1996.

During his judicial tenure, Chairez earned a reputation as a champion of private property rights, ruling in favor of the Pappas family in a high-profile eminent domain battle against Las Vegas and supporting Strip resorts in their battles against sidewalk smut peddlers and T-shirt vendors.

He has had a string of political setbacks, though. In 1997 Chairez, a lifelong conservative Democrat to that point, switched to the Republican Party when he vacated his District Court seat with five years to go in his term to run for Congress - a race he lost in 1998 to Democrat Shelley Berkley. The following year, he unsuccessfully applied to replace either of two District Court judges who joined the Nevada Supreme Court. In November 2002 Chairez was defeated by incumbent Bill Maupin in a state Supreme Court race. And in 2004 Chairez was turned down in a bid to replace the late Justice Myron Leavitt on the Supreme Court.

Since 1999 Chairez has practiced immigration law, with clients that include Strip performers as well as foreigners seeking to do business in Las Vegas.

Throughout her campaign, Cortez Masto has ticked off a long list of priorities.

If elected, she said she would form a working group of law enforcement officials, school representatives and treatment providers to tackle methamphetamine use. One law she would like the state to adopt would require that drugs used to make meth be sold only through pharmacists, thereby discouraging large-volume purchases.

She says she would tackle identity theft by working closely with banks and credit card companies to go after criminals and make it easier for victims to seek help.

"Sometimes it takes someone weeks or months to seek help," she said. "The place to seek help should be the attorney general's office."

To address domestic violence, Cortez Masto would like the state to study the feasibility of establishing domestic violence courts with ties to treatment centers. She also would expand the staff devoted to handling child exploitation cases and work with children who enter the juvenile justice system for the first time "so that they don't get locked up like adults."

Cortez Masto also would require more convicted sexual predators to register with authorities to notify the community of their presence.

"Seventy percent of sexual predators who are convicted are put on probation," Cortez Masto said. "That's something I want to look at. I'm also not sure they're getting the treatment they need. It needs to be long-term treatment."

On the subject of political corruption, a subject that has been much in the news in Clark County this year, Cortez Masto said: "I would not only coordinate local law enforcement. I would work with the U.S. attorney's office. We shouldn't always wait for the federal government to come in to prosecute these cases. The state needs to be proactive."

Chairez, who says he would be an "activist" attorney general, agrees that the office should be more aggressive in tackling public corruption.

"One thing I would do is to beef up the public integrity unit," he said. "Too often when it's a high-profile case with a high-profile defendant, people in power have been afraid to push for prosecution, and we have asked the federal government to intervene. I would be willing to prosecute politicians who have their hands caught in the cookie jar."

As co-author of a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot known as the Property Owner's Bill of Rights, Chairez said that if elected, he would use his position to make it easier for citizens to get initiatives before voters. Among other steps, he favors allowing citizens to sign petitions via the Internet to reduce the costs of signature gathering.

"I see a lot of politicians say they want to make it more difficult to get initiatives on the ballot," Chairez said. "Frankly, I would use this office to make it easier to get initiatives on the ballot. I don't trust the Legislature to make it easier because the Legislature doesn't represent the will of the people. It represents the will of the lobbyists."

Cortez Masto, who got into the race expecting Chanos to be her opponent, enjoyed nearly a year's head start on Chairez, reflected in her considerable fundraising advantage through the last reporting period, which ended Aug. 3. As of that date, she had $782,708 cash on hand, compared to only $62,730 for Chairez. She also had outspent her opponent $173,112 to $28,535.

Cortez Masto's largest campaign contributions include $50,000 donations each from Las Vegas developer William Plise and companies he owns, Station Casinos and its individual resorts, and MGM Mirage resorts. She also received multiple $10,000 contributions, including donations from professional poker player Doyle Brunson, gaming executive Jack Binion and philanthropist Pamela Omidyar, wife of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Cortez Masto also received $14,000 from Greenspun family members and companies. The Greenspun family owns the Las Vegas Sun.

Chairez has received most of his campaign contributions from backers of his eminent domain ballot measure, including $10,000 each from the initiative's co-author, Las Vegas attorney Kermitt Waters, Waters' Liberty Oil USA and Waters' daughter Autumn Waters, an attorney. He also has received $5,000 from Howard and Andrea Rich. Howard Rich, a New York real estate entrepreneur, heads Americans for Limited Government in Chicago, an organization that supports eminent domain ballot initiatives throughout the country.