Monday, Sept. 15, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Political upstarts Jon Ozark and Ellen Spiegel — neither of whom appear locked on a tight leash by their parties — are facing off in Assembly District 21 for what should be one of the more competitive battles this fall.
It’s a battle that almost didn’t happen.
The race was supposed to pit two apparent moderates against one another in a right-leaning district — Republican incumbent Bob Beers, who regularly exasperated his party’s conservative wing, and Shirley Breeden, a soccer and PTA mom who would run a campaign promoting her “independent spirit.”
But the conservative Ozark easily ousted Beers in the primary, and the Democrats’ Senate caucus, which offered Breeden a shot at the upper body, lured her away from District 21, opening the door for Spiegel.
She is familiar to community activists in this district, which encompasses Green Valley.
Spiegel, 46, who appears positioned as a moderate, arrived in Henderson almost eight years ago and immersed herself in her Green Valley homeowners association. Spiegel runs a small consulting firm that specializes in workers’ compensation claims services for insurers and large employers.
Ozark, 26, left Southern California for Henderson in 2005, lured by Nevada’s lower property taxes and lack of an income tax. About 10 months later, he relocated west to Las Vegas — specifically to run for an Assembly seat, he now acknowledges. Some Democrats tried to frame him as an opportunist.
He returned to Henderson, though to a different district than when he first lived in that city.
Ozark, the revenue manager for the Rio, stridently rejects suggestions that he has again been shopping for a district that will elect him.
The race, it appears, has been free of negative attacks.
Freed from having to focus on Democratic voters to win her primary, Spiegel said she has been campaigning to active voters of both parties as well as independents.
As part of an effort to boost the state’s sagging economy, Spiegel proposes giving Nevada-based companies — not just subcontractors — preferential treatment on contracts, especially on public works projects. She wants the state to diversify its business base, reducing its dependency on tourism, perhaps through agriculture making use of greenhouses and the desert. And to ease the mortgage and foreclosure crisis, she wants the state to pursue “unscrupulous” lenders and ensure the solvency of homeowner associations.
Spiegel favors hastening the process of licensing out-of-state doctors wanting to practice in Nevada, which presumably would encourage more to move here. “We need to explore a fast track,” she said. “We need to take down barriers to get doctors here.
“Solutions don’t ... always involve throwing money at it.”
To make health insurance available to those who don’t have it, Spiegel suggests the state create a group plan — such as those offered by businesses to employees — for uninsured residents. The more people who enter, she says, the lower the premium would be.
And to strengthen teacher retention, she’d like the state to ease the burden on educators who have to pay for continuing education.
Neither Spiegel nor Ozark was viewed as his respective party’s best hope to gain an assembly seat. Spiegel is emerging as one of the Democratic Party’s hardest-working candidates, party leaders say, and Ozark has long been a favorite of the party’s conservative wing. Conservative bloggers, including Chuck Muth, championed his primary campaign.
Ozark cast himself as the “true conservative” alternative to the unpredictable Beers, a political stance that could hurt in the general election. Even though Republicans lead Democrats among active voters, 10,237 to 9,820, the nearly 3,700 nonpartisans can decide the outcome — and if national expectations hold here, a good chunk of these independents will support Spiegel.
Political consultant Ryan Erwin, who is advising several Republican candidates for assembly this fall, believes the district still tends conservative. Regardless, Ozark’s core message appears appealing to voters.
Ozark frequently notes that the state raised payroll taxes five years ago, leading to a surplus that prompted officials to approve a vehicle rebate two years later.
“Now we’re broke? It doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “We’re spending, spending, spending. What are we spending it on?”
Ozark blames a scarcity of accountability among state officials. “I hear that all the time at the door: ‘I’ve got a budget. Why doesn’t the state?’
“Nevada’s government should have put money away.”
The Republican proposes lowering payroll taxes for companies that agree to take that saving to hire new employees. “We need to stimulate job growth,” he said.
As for education, Ozark wants to allow principals more chances to innovate than in the traditional top-down model. He believes money spent has outpaced achievement, arguing that Utah — which spends less money per pupil than Washington, D.C. — is more effective than the nation’s capital.
Ozark favors more forward-planning, arguing that the county should have raised more bond money when it expanded the 215 freeway west to build a six- or eight-lane thoroughfare, and provided more residencies for doctors and nurses. That way, he says, they would have more incentive to remain.