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Harry Reid’s call for brothel ban a real showstopper

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AP Photo/Cathleen Allison

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks to a joint session of the Nevada Legislature on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011 at the Legislature in Carson City.

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Brothel ban

KSNV coverage of Harry Reid's proposal to ban legalized prostitution in Nevada, Feb. 22, 2011.

Reid Seeks Prostitution Ban

Moonlite Bunny Ranch brothel owner Dennis Hof answers the media questions on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011, at the Legislature in Carson City. Launch slideshow »

Nye County Brothels

A sign for the Shady Lady Ranch brothel in Nye County. The Shady Lady, off U.S. Highway 95 about 30 miles north of Beatty, was the first brothel to hire a male prostitute. Nye County is one of 11 Nevada counties where prostitution is legal. Launch slideshow »

In 2009, with the state hurting for money, the brothel industry went to the Legislature almost begging to be taxed by the state.

It would help Nevada at a time of financial need, its lobbyist said. Unsaid was that for the legal prostitution business, contributing to state coffers would legitimize it.

Then-Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley shot down the idea. With pressing issues such as unemployment and foreclosures facing the state, bringing up prostitution during the 120-day legislative session would be a distraction, she told a lobbyist.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid proved that Tuesday, when he said in an address to the Legislature that Nevada should outlaw brothels, allowed in rural counties.

The Legislature was engulfed by a sideshow of beefy pimps and short-skirted prostitutes, with joking comparisons to lobbyists and legislators being for sale and many asking: “Why take the time out now to bring up the issue.”

Guy Rocha, a state historian who was in the packed house, said, “I don’t see how brothels undermine our economic development interests, other than I’ve heard of a few instances of businesses being uncomfortable.”

A few businesses, or at least one unidentified businessman, was enough to prompt Reid to mention it in his speech. His remarks prompted national coverage and drew the kind of attention to the brothels that Reid says hurts Nevada.

Reid talked about some businessmen who considered moving to Storey County. “One of the businessmen in that meeting told me he simply couldn’t believe that one of the biggest businesses in the county he was considering for his new home is legal prostitution.”

Reid’s staff would not identify the businessman.

When he said “Nevada needs to be known as the first place for innovation and investment — not the last place where prostitution is still legal,” there was a scattering of applause.

When he said, “the time has come for us to outlaw prostitution,” the crowd in the Assembly chambers was silent.

Reid paused for an awkward three seconds before he seemed to realize no ovation was coming.

Asked about it later, he said, “Well, I guess ... I was happy to get applause sometime.”

His bringing up the subject irritated many Democrat and Republican lawmakers, who are trying to balance a state budget that’s $2.2 billion short of maintaining current services.

Those involved in economic development called prostitution a distraction and a nonissue in conversations they’ve had with business leaders.

Gov. Brian Sandoval has made attracting businesses to Nevada a centerpiece of his agenda. He said no business he has talked to has raised the issue. Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, chairman of the Nevada Economic Development Commission, had a similar response.

“This country is facing an extraordinary array of historic issues,” he said. “I had hoped to hear more on those critical topics of the day.”

In fact, the bulk of Reid’s speech got lost in the media melee over working girls and brothel owners. His defense of the federal stimulus and bailouts of banks and automotive industry got drowned out in the waft of perfume from the north end of the Assembly chambers. His call to end voter-approved term limits was almost forgotten. His call for a stronger education system and clean energy were just footnotes.

The prostitution remarks were four paragraphs in his eight-page speech. But with news of his remarks leaking out beforehand, brothel owner Dennis Hof, featured in an HBO series, brought working girls, and the media trained their eyes and cameras as much on his ladies as the second most powerful Democrat in the country.

After the speech, Reid sat down for an interview with Nevada reporters.

“Did I say anything you can ask questions about?” he said to laughter from reporters.

Asked whether Nevada has bigger image problems — the legal, highly visible adult businesses on the Strip, provocative ad campaigns by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority — he said he was just focused on the legal brothels.

Many in the Legislature questioned Reid’s timing, and few of Reid’s confidants could say why he chose to pick a fight now against an industry that was one of the economic engines of his hometown.

Two close advisers to Reid said he sincerely believes prostitution is an impediment to Nevada being taken seriously. One source said his staff tried to talk him out of including it in the speech, and there is little indication he or his staff will work to push legislation outlawing prostitution.

Indeed, few seemed poised to take on the fight for Reid. Rather, legislative leaders weren’t thrilled the Senate majority leader would use his bully pulpit to put them on the spot about legalized prostitution.

“Why does he put us in this position?” one lawmaker said.

Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, indicated taking on prostitution is low on his list of priorities.

“I share Sen. Reid’s concern, and I understand where he is coming from,” Oceguera said in a statement. “Once we have addressed this budget crisis and the Nevada economy, we will take a close look at the issue and its effect on our state.”

Reid’s was almost a lone voice arguing that brothels are one of Nevada’s biggest hurdles to economic development.

“I’ve toured 100 businesses and talked with a lot of people, and it did not come up in any conversation that I had in regard to Nevada’s ability to attract businesses here,” Sandoval said.

The governor said it’s up to the counties to decide prostitution’s legality.

He noted that the country’s largest industrial park, Tahoe Reno Industrial Center, attracts businesses despite owner Lance Gilman’s ownership of a nearby brothel.

(Reid’s son Leif Reid, a Reno lawyer, represented one of that park’s largest tenants in a bitter and unsuccessful legal fight to close Gilman’s brothel in 2002.)

At a news conference after his speech, Reid parried reporters’ questions about why he had raised the issue.

“Why now? It has to be more than one experience with folks in Storey County?” a reporter said.

“My answer is, if not now, when?” Reid said. “It was really focused on my mind when the gentleman said that to me. It boils down to economic viability of our state. We are going to have to look for every option we have to encourage businesses to come to our state. It’s pretty clear having legalized prostitution doesn’t bring new business here.”

He was asked if legal adult businesses in Las Vegas or prevalent gaming also stop businesses moving to Las Vegas or Reno.

“Gaming is something that has been accepted nationwide,” he said. “Prostitution has not.”

Another question: “But the LVCVA has promoted Las Vegas as an adult playground using a provocative ad campaign. Does that hurt?”

Reid: “Let me just say this. I appreciate all these questions about probably 7 or 8 percent of my speech. This speech talked about educating our children. Talked about renewable energy. My speech talked about term limits. It talked about things that would bring new business to our state. I’m glad that you’re interested and piqued by prostitution. But it seems that you guys should all get a new life.”

“But Senator,” a reporter said. “You knew when you brought this into the speech this would be the focus.”

“I did? I didn’t know that.”

“You didn’t know that?”

“I didn’t know that.”

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