Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011 | 2 a.m.
It seems comically ironic that during a year in which the Nevada judiciary essentially dissolved the other two branches that 2011 concludes with the courts poised to decide a seminal separation of powers case.
But thus endeth 2011, and that story tops one pundit’s roster of the year’s most important political stories, the ones with most short-term impact and long-term reverberations.
No. 1 — The courts rule
Not many people had heard of James Todd Russell before this year. But the Carson City judge delivered capital punishment to Democratic hopes in a special congressional election by torpedoing Secretary of State Ross Miller’s “ballot royale” (later affirmed by the high court) and then providing the cartographic contours for the next decade by appointing three special masters to draw legislative and congressional maps. (He may also hear that separation of powers case that could prevent public employees from serving in the Legislature.) But it was the Supreme Court that had the most far-reaching decision when it produced a deus ex machina ruling as an unprecedented legislative train wreck approached, getting the session back on track, averting a constitutional crisis and preventing all of us from having Christmas in Carson City.
No. 2 — Ensign abandons ship
Nearly two years after he committed public hara-kiri, like Bruce Willis in “The Sixth Sense” suddenly discovering he had been dead for some time, Sen. John Ensign resigned. Ensign announced he would not run for re-election in March, but reality (as in possible expulsion) bit and by April he instead was running for the hills.
The dominoes soon fell as Ensign’s departures created not one, but three open seats — the congressional seats held by Senate combatants Dean Heller and Shelley Berkley.
No. 3 — The budget that failed
Sandoval’s initial spending package never had a chance to pass the Legislature and was an embarrassing amalgam of fiscal gimmickry to allow him to keep his “no new taxes” pledge. Democratic lawmakers produced few ideas, following in the footsteps of others by throwing rocks but having few solutions. And GOP legislators were like hypnotized servants to their Pied Piper of a governor, who reversed himself after that high court decision as the Republicans continued to walk toward the cliff.
No. 4 — The masterful maps
The redistricting plan in place will help shape the political dynamic here for a decade. The Democrats think they won but they were always going to win because of the registration edge. But the GOP believes it has a chance to win two (dreamers) congressional seats and take the state Senate.
No. 5 — Sandoval rising
The governor’s winning personal style and his superb political skills made him a giant among the capital pygmies during the session. Calling him Teflon would be unfair. Sandoval not only skillfully parried any attacks, he neutralized many before they occurred.
No. 6 — The end of legislative leadership
I’ve covered every session since ’87 and I don’t recall any bicameral botching like this year’s Legislature brought us. It’s not just that Democratic leaders disingenuously claimed for much of the session that they didn’t know if they wanted to raise taxes. Or that Speaker John Oceguera and state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford had their eyes not on the ball but on congressional runs. They had no real plan — to court Republicans, to craft a viable package, to get anything done.
No. 7 — The Goofy Old Party
I really thought state Republicans were getting their act together. Oh, how wrong I was. Their rolling over to New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner and the Republican National Committee, thus removing Nevada from early-state status, was cartoonish. Wile E. Coyote blowing himself up comes to mind. The forgot-to-take-our-meds caucus from Clark County, clinging to their conspiracy theories, didn’t help the image. Perhaps a reality show called “Amateur Hour” might help raise money?
No. 8 — Prince Harry lives and breathes (fire)
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid assumed his old role as Meddler-in-Chief, clearing the primary fields for Berkley and Horsford and trying — so far without success — to do something similar for state Sen. Ruben Kihuen. No one controls a political organization like the senior senator does.
No. 9 — Marshalling a congresswoman
The special election to replace Heller was a farce. First, the dispute over who could run. Then, the court decision that all but decided it. And, then Kate Marshall’s disastrous performance gave Mark Amodei a seat for life if he works hard.
No. 10 — A Goodwoman always wins
Oscar is gone but not forgotten. His name lives on in the mayor’s office, as one CG defeated another in the race to succeed him. Well, race may be a misnomer, as Chris Giunchigliani never really stood a chance once Carolyn Goodman got in. No one did. And Oscar will drink to that.
Ralston’s column will return Jan. 4. Happy holidays!