Las Vegas Sun

August 17, 2017

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Growing partisanship frays key relationship


Nevada politics has long been known for bipartisan chumminess among its governors and congressional delegation, and a shoulder-to-shoulder togetherness on the idiosyncratic issues facing the state: gaming, Yucca Mountain, water and land use.

But in the past few months Gov. Jim Gibbons, a Republican, and Harry Reid, the Democratic U.S. Senate majority leader, have exchanged verbal sallies over issues, people and even family.

A Reid spokesman downplayed the conflict as healthy differences of opinion. Gibbons' spokeswoman didn't return repeated phone calls, but Jim Denton, a longtime Gibbons political consultant, said, "Over the years Sen. Reid and Gov. Gibbons have always had a good relationship, and I don't see that changing."

Although the signs of division are still in their infancy, a wider rift is possible, if not certain. The tension indicates an important trend in Nevada politics, more than any personal animus between Gibbons and Reid. Nevada is becoming more partisan by the day.

Gibbons served in Congress 10 years before becoming governor this year, and he and Reid had a friendly working relationship and coordinated closely on Nevada issues, according to the staffs of both.

Reid refrained from attacking Gibbons with any real vigor in the latter's race against state Sen. Dina Titus.

Since Gibbons' election, though, it's feeling chilly.

To review:

Reid said he'd been misled by Martines, who was presumably speaking on the governor's behalf.

Martines resigned shortly thereafter.

Gibbons said he supports building the plants and told the Sun, "I'm anxious to see the alternatives proposed by Sen. Reid for the coal plants. I've been proposing all along that we look at developing geothermal, solar and wind energy."

The comment puzzled Reid's office, because Gibbons had been copied on Reid's letter laying out just such a proposal.

The governor compared his wife to Key Reid, the senator's son, who'd been a Washington lobbyist. (Key Reid is general counsel of The Greenspun Corporation , which is owned by the same family that owns the Las Vegas Sun.)

The analogy seemed inappropriate to Reid associates: Key Reid is an attorney; Dawn Gibbons had no public relations experience.

Sen. Reid is mindful of the great lengths to which his children must go to escape his long shadow, and he resents people who question the legitimacy of their successes, according to Billy Vassiliadis, a Nevada lobbyist and political confidant of Reid's.

"You just don't mess with Harry Reid's family," he said.

There's not much precedence for this kind of conflict between governors and the congressional delegation in Nevada history, according to Michael Green, a historian at the College of Southern Nevada. Sen. Pat McCarran and Gov. Charles Russell feuded, as did the staffs and backers of Sen. Howard Cannon and Gov. Grant Sawyer. In the 1980s Gov. Richard Bryan and Sen. Chick Hecht battled once it was clear Bryan would run for Senate against Hecht.

But for the most part, especially on key issues such as Yucca Mountain, the state's governors have remained tight with the congressional delegation, no matter the party.

A Republican lobbyist and Gibbons ally, who didn't want to be named because he hadn't been authorized to speak about the matter, expressed concern: "There's definitely a problem, and it needs to be fixed. They need to sit down one on one and talk about the direction of the state."

Although it might be tempting to think of the flare-ups in personal and prurient terms, it might actually be more fundamental and institutional: Nevada is becoming more partisan, which means the confrontations are inevitable and will become more intense.

The evidence of growing partisanship has been everywhere recently:

Why is this happening?

One reason is the presidential caucus, which by definition is a partisan affair. Nevada is an early battleground to determine the next president, especially on the Democratic side. This new status as a presidential decider has brought money, seasoned political operatives and big-name presidential candidates who's first hurdle is winning the approval of their party: Every visit, they preach the party message, and attack the opposition.

Then there's Reid's status as titular head of the Democratic Party. Party faithful have no interest in him mollifying his Republican friends in Nevada. He's called President Bush a loser and a liar and has attacked the White House and Republicans in Congress at every turn.

Ensign, meanwhile, is chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, which means he's responsible for getting more Republicans elected to the Senate. It's a partisan job, by definition.

As the state has grown, it faces more issues, and more complex issues, than just gaming, Yucca Mountain and water and land use, which are the terrain of bipartisan agreement. With those issues off the table, and out-of-staters less likely to take their cues from in-state power brokers, the new voters are probably looking to parties for guidance.

So what can we take from this scuffle between Reid and Gibbons ? Nevada is growing up.