Las Vegas Sun

September 23, 2021

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Democrats wonder whether a nice guy can lead

State Sen. Mo Denis’ resignation from his state job may have spared him a lawsuit challenging his status as both a lawmaker and public employee, but it has some Democrats questioning whether he’s equipped to lead.

Hours after news broke Monday that Denis had resigned from his job with the Public Utilities Commission, the Clark County Democratic Party issued a statement saying the party was “disheartened” by his decision to quit rather than fight the lawsuit filed by the conservative think tank Nevada Policy Research Institute. The party predicted other lawmakers who are also public employees, mostly Democrats, would now be targeted.

Mo Denis

Mo Denis

Denis said his resignation, reported this week by the Sun, was unrelated to the lawsuit. And he had, in fact, been looking for work in the private sector since August, when it became clear the current Democratic leader, state Sen. Steven Horsford, D-North Las Vegas, would step aside to run for Congress, putting Denis in line to lead the caucus.

The less-than-sympathetic response to his resignation reflects a criticism often heard during Denis’ brief tenure.

Republicans have told political donors they are poised to take back control of the state Senate for the first time since 2007. That claim, some Democrats say, has not been aggressively rebutted, even though new district maps favor Democrats.

Behind the Republicans’ sales pitch and Democrats’ chilly response to Denis’ job hunt is this question: Is Denis tough enough to lead? Put another way, can you be a nice guy and play in the increasingly partisan world of Nevada politics?

Denis, an IT professional with the state for 17 years, makes no bones of his efforts to reach across the aisle and work with Republicans. He said that’s a strength.

“You don’t need to be a bully to lead,” he said. “I’m a nice person, but if I need to get firm on things, I will to get things done.”

His Republican counterpart, Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, cannot make a similar claim, Denis noted.

Denis was chosen to succeed Horsford only after it became clear other candidates either didn’t want the job or had glaring flaws.

Some state senators and Senate candidates defended Denis.

“He’s as tough as he needs to be,” said Assemblyman Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, who’s running for state Senate.

But privately, Democrats acknowledge that Denis needs to “toughen up,” according to one source who supports him.

Some cite his quiet response to the lawsuit. He refused to comment when the suit was filed in Carson City District Court in late November, saying he was going to wait until he had been served. He was not served until Monday.

The caucus and, more broadly, the Democratic Party stayed silent on the broader issue of whether public employees should, or could, serve in the Legislature.

That allowed conservatives to set the narrative for almost a month, noting the dangers of putting too much control in the hands of public employees serving in the Legislature. (Eight of the 10 public employees in the Legislature are Democrats.)

Sen. David Parks, D-Las Vegas, said the lack of response was based on legal advice.

“It was legal counsel that suggested we not take a position until Mo had been served,” Parks said. “We were waiting and waiting and waiting. Yeah, it got dragged out. It became a longer ordeal than anticipated. But the presumption was not to jump the gun, not say anything until we see what the filing actually says.”

Denis said the fight over whether legislators can hold employment with local or state government is a legal one. “It’s not something to be fought in the press or in the court of public opinion,” he said.

He questioned why it took so long for him to be served with the lawsuit but wouldn’t speculate on NPRI’s motives.

To the chagrin of many old hands, Nevada politics has grown more like Washington D.C., with constant campaigning, aggressive fundraising and loud partisanship.

One lobbyist, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preserve relationships, said that Horsford, for example, made it clear that the caucus would notice who gave money to Democratic candidates and who gave money to Republican challengers. “I don’t see Mo willing to send that message,” the lobbyist said.

On the opposite side, Roberson, the likely Republican leader in the Senate, emerged during the 2011 session as a conservative bomb-thrower. He has kept that up with taunts about Republicans taking the majority in the state Senate. When an incumbent Democratic state senator, Shirley Breeden, decided not to run for re-election, Republicans declared it a victory.

Another state senator up for re-election in the other key swing district, Allison Copening, is also likely not to run again.

Parks said term limits will create a lot of turnover and questions “about whether someone thinks they’re ready or not ready for prime time. It’s something to be seen. Amongst our caucus, Mo is a very good fit for taking a lead into the 2012 election year.”

As for the leadership in 2013, when the Legislature next meets, Parks said, “That’s all to be determined in due course. In all likelihood, Mo would have a leg up ... but we’ll address the issue after we’ve retained the majority.”

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