Sunday, Sept. 20, 2009 | 2 a.m.
In early August, with Election Day still 15 months away, the Nevada Senate Democratic Caucus announced it will back Tammy Peterson in the race for the state Senate seat held by Republican incumbent Barbara Cegavske.
A lifelong Nevadan, Peterson is a partner at the powerful law firm Jones Vargas. Before that she was a prosecutor in the Clark County district attorney’s office, specializing in violent crimes against children.
She is, in the view of the Senate leadership, a “gold-plated candidate,” one state Senate insider said.
She also isn’t the only Democrat in the race.
Some Democratic Party activists are crying foul over the early endorsement, seeing in it a party leadership willing to sacrifice the primary process — and democratic principles — for a better chance at victory in November 2010.
Nevada Senate Democrats, who won a majority in 2008, are desperate to pick up more seats. Two more would give them a two-thirds majority — enough to raise and reform taxes and override a governor’s veto without GOP support.
To that end, they are aggressively recruiting candidates and in some cases coming out with early endorsements. The conservative Cegavske’s Senate District 8, which covers a portion of northwest Las Vegas, including Sun City Summerlin, is seen as key.
‘Taking away our choice’
The strategy is to avoid spending money on a primary, saving it for the general election fight. But the early endorsement has brought a backlash and added to tensions between the party’s grass-roots activists and leadership.
“In order for these things to at least have the appearance of democracy, there needs to be some type of open process,” said Steve Fernlund, president of the Red Rock Democratic Club. “The concentration of power basically makes the grass roots completely unnecessary. Why do we even have a party if we do things this way?”
Fernlund supports another challenger to Cegavske, Democrat Mark Brandon, a former college football star who has an insurance business in the district. Brandon did not return a call for comment.
But others who are unaffiliated with Brandon are also raising questions.
Renee Meyocks, who volunteers on Democratic campaigns, said she thought the caucus “was simply taking away our choice. They’re not allowing the process to work as it’s intended to work and that takes away the privilege we have of reviewing candidates as they present themselves.”
Meyocks said she doesn’t know enough about either candidate to say whom she will support.
Yvette Williams, a member of the State Democratic Party executive board and active supporter of President Barack Obama’s campaign, said Obama’s victory has energized grass-roots Democrats who want to serve in leadership roles and run for office.
“We want to encourage that,” she said.
Williams would not talk about Senate District 8. But she said, “There are maybe some processes we can put in place to ensure everyone has that opportunity to run. That’s the purpose of the primary, to let people choose,” she said.
Asked about the criticism, Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, said, “this is a non-story.” The caucus endorsed Peterson because “she’s the best candidate,” he said, adding that he interviewed other potential candidates, including Brandon.
According to one person close to the process, the caucus spent six months looking at possible candidates before settling on Peterson. (Others expressed interest in the race or announced they were running before the Senate caucus’ endorsement of Peterson.)
Criticism not of candidate
The Senate Democratic Caucus and its Assembly counterpart have in the past endorsed candidates before primaries. The state party, under its bylaws, cannot endorse a candidate before a competitive primary.
Peterson said she is grateful for the endorsement, but can’t speak to the caucus selection process.
Indeed, critics of the early endorsement are careful to note that Peterson isn’t the target of their criticism, but rather what they say is party leadership’s heavy hand.
“My main concern is that we as a party enter into the election cycle unified and energized to work in same direction,” Fernlund said. “The only way to do that is if we all feel like we participated in the process.”