Las Vegas Sun

November 24, 2017

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Election 2008 :

Candidate untried but intrepid

Shirley Breeden responded to Democratic Party’s overtures to run against Joe Heck


Leila Navidi

Ed Long, a volunteer and Shirley Breeden supporter, hugs Breeden in September 2008 as they canvass a neighborhood in state Senate District 5 in Henderson. A recently retired school administrator and a political novice, Breeden stresses her experience as a soccer mom and her “common sense.”

Click to enlarge photo

Breeden, left, and daughter Jennifer Breeden go door to door in Breeden's September 2008 effort to unseat GOP Sen. Joe Heck. The Democrat has yet to publicly share her ideas for solving the state's problems.

Political candidates have often had an “ah-ha” moment — a moment of outrage or insight — that prompted them to run for election.

For Shirley Breeden, it was more of an adult field trip.

“Well, actually, I’d really never given it much thought. I went up and visited my daughter in Carson City when she worked at the state Legislature. And I was able to sit in on some of the meetings and I was really surprised about how it all worked, very intrigued, and I said, ‘I can do this,’ but I never really thought I’d ever be doing it.”

But then, with the election filing deadline looming, the call came. Democratic Party leaders are eager to take out state Sen. Joe Heck, the incumbent Henderson Republican whose defeat would hand the upper chamber to Democrats.

Having failed to recruit a big name or an experienced candidate, they reached for Breeden, a recently retired school administrator, for the race in District 5, in Henderson.

Breeden is a likable 52-year-old whose sunny disposition doesn’t easily fit with what’s shaping up to be a tough campaign.

The state Democratic Party has sent out a series of negative and expensive mail pieces attacking Heck, a physician and Army reservist, for not supporting women’s health care issues.

As her credentials for running, Breeden stresses her 41 years in the state and two decades in the district, as well as her experience raising her family here.

“We all know, as a mom, you have to juggle 90 different things,” she said. “You have to balance your budget. Be a problem solver, multitask and bring common sense into everything you decide to do.”

She boasted in recent interviews that voters see themselves in her: “People relate to me.”

But voters will have to decide if Breeden meets a minimum threshold of policy knowledge and intellectual independence.

Thus far, she’s been either unable or unwilling to express clear ideas about the state’s looming problems or how to solve them, or has leaned heavily on her new friends in the Senate Democratic caucus.

“We need to provide, you know, short-term solutions. And look ahead and think of where we want to be and have long-term solutions as well,” she said.

Here she is responding to a question Monday about whether a tax increase or spending cuts are needed to deal with the budget shortfall, which could reach $1.3 billion during the 2009 legislative session: “Well, there’s, I mean, don’t you think we’ve cut enough? There’s no way we can have a tax increase. People can’t afford it. No one can.”

Yet, in an earlier interview Monday, she suggested entertaining the idea of a broad-based business tax.

When pressed in an interview last week for more policy specifics, Breeden said, “When the platform’s rolled out, then you’ll know what the issues are.”

She was referring to an agenda laid out last week by Democrats led by state Sen. Steven Horsford.

The agenda includes policy initiatives on renewable energy, education, health care access and regulatory rigor, as well as protection for troubled homeowners. The key fiscal proposal, however, would scrap the current state budgeting process and rebuild it from the ground up, assessing top priorities and funding those before any other spending.

This reliance on Horsford, however, may have voters in a swing district filled with nonpartisan voters wondering how independent Breeden will be in the Legislature.

A Democratic operative, who was granted anonymity to speak freely, said Breeden’s deficiencies are not a closely held secret in Democratic circles: “The Democrats had a recruiting problem. All the flaws are magnified in a hot race like this.”

Breeden has defenders, however.

“Is she a seasoned politician? No,” says County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who is a member of Breeden’s education steering committee. “But she’s well-intentioned.”

Horsford defended Breeden’s focus on her personality over policy: “So what is Sen. Heck doing about the highest unemployment rate in 15 years? What are they doing? If anyone should have ideas, it’s the incumbents who have been there.”

Friends and family describe Breeden as hardworking, a people person and a quick study.

State Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, a Democrat and former Clark County School District colleague, called Breeden a “consensus-builder and problem-solver.”

“My mom has always been a soccer mom,” said Jennifer Breeden, 25, whose legislative work in 2007 led Breeden to Carson City. “She’s always helped out. She’s always elected to take care of soccer tournaments. She was always that mom who made sure hotels were booked.”

Tim Harney, who once was Breeden’s boss in the School District, said he and another employee struggled to address the concerns and complaints of retirees. So one day, he assigned Breeden to oversee that operation, and heard no more complaints. “I was like, ‘How’d she do that?’ It was an area totally new to her.”

Although Breeden clearly has many friends in the School District, she unsuccessfully sued the district in 1997. She filed suit after she reported to a supervisor a coarse remark made by a colleague and said she was retaliated against for doing so. The suit was thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court; the district spent $290,000 defending itself.

The contours of Breeden’s race against Heck are clear enough, as the Democratic operative said: “It can’t be about her. If it is, she loses. It’s got to be about Joe Heck.”

And that’s where the Democratic Party’s own campaign machinery is kicking in.

Sun reporter Emily Richmond contributed to this report.

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