Las Vegas Sun

January 18, 2018

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Titus fought for growth ring, lost — and learned

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In 2003, Dina Titus — then minority leader in the Nevada Senate — shepherded legislation that limited rezoning around Red Rock Canyon.

The phrase was classic Titus: quick and witty, chewable and salty fun.

“Ring around the valley.”

Las Vegas had been growing at a NASCAR pace in the 1990s, and though much of the state’s small political class was high on the fumes, state Sen. Dina Titus knew what was happening.

The valley’s population was on its way to nearly doubling during the 1990s, and the growth was beginning to deteriorate the quality of life of average people, in all the ways it does — crowded schools and highways, dirty air, crime, ugly sprawl.

Titus said she heard it from constituents and saw it herself. So she showed up for the 1997 legislative session with a proposal that would limit and manage growth, hemming it in with a “ring around the valley.”

The debate and discussion that followed captivated Southern Nevadans, who finally had an outlet for their frustrations.

“She woke people up and scared the (expletive) out of people,” said a Democratic lobbyist, referring to developers and builders who were blindsided by the public support Titus drummed up.

But the legislation died, and not much has changed — the valley continues to grow as fast as it can, and problems the growth engenders continue to pile up.

Titus’ failed attempt to confront the problem sheds light on her legislative abilities, shortcomings and style, giving a glimpse into how the UNLV professor might perform in Congress.

Titus, a Democrat, is challenging a former state Senate colleague, Rep. Jon Porter, in the closely contested 3rd Congressional District.

Opinions about Titus’ ring around the valley session track closely with opinions of her generally.

Democratic state Sen. Bob Coffin, a longtime ally, said, “She was always a risk taker. She took on fights. Sometimes she lost.”

State Sen. Joe Neal also hit on the risk-taking theme. “She was right there with me on some tough votes,” said Neal, who praised the plan for pushing redevelopment in the valley’s urban core, instead of letting it sprawl.

The idea was to allow growth, but manage it within the ring.

For detractors, Titus found a sound bite — in her inimitable style — and rammed it home.

“It was grandstanding,” said a Democratic lobbyist, granted anonymity to speak freely.

“It was a classic example of a policy with great mass appeal, but no one in the Legislature to move it.”

Titus’ plan did draw political support, however. Knowing the bill would face a struggle in the Republican and developer-friendly Senate, she had it introduced in the Assembly, expecting public support would build there. She sold the idea to Gov. Bob Miller and Republican state Sen. Mark James. And here’s then-state Sen. Porter, who was sold on better growth management: “We feel the No. 1 issue facing Southern Nevada is growth ... that’s a mandate from our constituents.” (Porter was a leading Senate backer of a regional planning board, which actually came to fruition.)

Still, Titus’ reputation for combativeness doesn’t come from nowhere.

State Sen. Warren Hardy, who at the time was a lobbyist for North Las Vegas, said Titus was a bit unyielding.

Indeed, Titus found herself sharply at odds with local government officials in Southern Nevada, who opposed the plan, seeing it as usurpation of their authority. Titus seems not to have offered them enough carrots to go along.

Then of course, there were the developers. The Howard Hughes Corporation was a strong supporter of the bill, though surely motivated by the fact that it owned much of the ring’s infill.

That in turn made other developers all the more suspicious.

Without developers, who even then were beginning to rival the gaming industry in influence, and without local governments, Titus came up short.

Once the “ring” died, she hit back on opponents on the Clark County Commission.

“Egos got involved,” she said at the time. “They got upset that I was stealing their thunder,” she said.

(As it turns out, several county commissioners were found to be corrupt, with one taking money from a developer.)

When her bill died, Titus also went after a deciding nay vote on the bill, state Sen. Ray Shaffer, a fellow Democrat who would eventually become a Republican. “Ray Shaffer was the fly in the ointment,” she said at the time. “He’s upset that I’m minority leader.”

When asked recently whether she regretted her often memorable public attacks on colleagues, including fellow Democrats, Titus looked incredulous.

“Running off Ray Shaffer was the best thing I ever did for the Democratic Party,” she said.

(This goes to the heart of a criticism leveled at Titus: that she’s never been able to capture the majority.)

Titus said she “declared success out of failure” on the ring. She said in an interview last week that she was right and believes the plan’s passage would have cut down on the rampant land speculation that has dealt the valley’s economy such an excruciating hangover.

There’s wide agreement that Titus stirred the debate on growth, got people talking about it, and led the fight to protect Red Rock Canyon some years later.

Although Bob Fielden, an architect and “smart growth” advocate, said the “ring” wouldn’t have managed growth in a meaningful way because it was too big, he did credit Titus with bringing the issue into public consciousness.

Titus bristled at the entire discussion of this legislative failure because she thought it unfair to focus on one issue, even though she can point to several bipartisan legislative successes.

For many Carson City veterans, however, the ring remains memorable because she conceived it, introduced it, guided it. And when it failed, she did some sharp-elbowed mop up.

One colleague believes the experience educated her.

Hardy, now a Republican Senate colleague, said Titus learned from the ring experience and has been someone he’s been able to work with.

Titus worked with Republican state Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno, to stop cruel puppy mills; she’s worked with Republicans to toughen laws on sex offenders; and former Assemblywoman and current Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said Titus played a key role in holding together her caucus in a 2005 compromise capping property taxes that had foes in the labor movement.

Former Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, a one-time nemesis and rival for the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, defended Titus.

“Here you are, working with someone like Bill Raggio,” Perkins said, referring to the longtime Republican Senate majority leader. “He ruled with an iron fist, and you had to be tough. Did it work against her to some degree? Yes, but she’s been pretty darned successful given the hand she’s been dealt.”

And to end the mystery, yes, he’s voting for her.

Sun researcher Rebecca Clifford contributed to this story.

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