Monday, Jan. 3, 2011 | 2 a.m.
For many Nevadans, today’s inauguration of Brian Sandoval as the state’s 30th governor represents an emergence from Gov. Jim Gibbons’ unhappy term. It also signifies a re-emergence of sorts for Nevada’s political and business establishment — a group accustomed to shaping public policy to protect its interests but that found itself closed off from the governor’s office during Gibbons’ tenure in Carson City.
Although Gibbons earned establishment support during his campaign, he failed to cultivate or maintain relationships with the cadre of executives from Nevada’s leading industries and their veteran lobbyists who form the bedrock of influence in Carson City.
Sandoval, on the other hand, hails from that group and has benefited from its support throughout his career. He was recruited to run for governor by two of the state’s leading business lobbyists and was employed by one of Nevada’s largest lobbying firms.
A glance at the list of corporate sponsors of Sandoval’s inaugural celebration reflects those ties and includes companies and interests with some of the thorniest issues before the Legislature next year. They have spent a considerable amount of money on gaining access to political decision-makers.
Barrick Gold, for example, is at the top of the list of $25,000 Platinum sponsors on the inauguration announcements. The mining industry is a top target for those who are fighting for more taxes to better fund state services. (The donors are listed alphabetically on the announcement, but the symbolism isn’t to be missed.)
“I would think the lobbyists and the legislators feel this is a guy they can talk with and that access wasn’t to be seen with Gibbons,” UNR political scientist Eric Herzik said. “He’s definitely well-connected. And the establishment has somebody they can talk to now. But whether that translates into influence remains to be seen.”
Herzik noted, however, that “access is the first key” to influence.
To be sure, the so-called establishment — the cadre of leading Nevada industries and their lobbyists — aren’t the only ones with access to Sandoval. He has made it a point to spend the past two months meeting with a variety of constituencies: Native Americans, city managers, liberal activists, senior citizen activists and others.
“I would tell you that the governor-elect has been as available to what you call establishment representatives as he has to groups that often don’t get to meet with the governor,” his senior policy adviser, Dale Erquiaga, said. “He will have, as he has throughout his public career, an open door. That means information. That does not mean influence.”
Those groups, however, aren’t the ones donating to his inaugural committee. In addition to Barrick, MGM Resorts International, Wynn Las Vegas and the Retailers Association have contributed $25,000.
Donors at the $10,000 and $5,000 level include his employer, the Jones Vargas law firm, Pfizer, United Health and CVS.
Any excess money from the inauguration will be donated to charities that provide treatment for substance abuse and mental health.
Mary Lau, director of the Retailers Association, acknowledged the $25,000 contribution was made to give her members direct access to Sandoval and the legislative leaders who will be at the inaugural balls later this month.
“A lot of times during campaigns, there is so much going on that you just mail in a contribution and there’s no face time associated with the name (on the check),” Lau said. “At these events, you don’t really talk about issues, but you get the face time. And if something comes up later and he needs to make a decision, he knows who you are.”
Erquiaga reiterated access doesn’t translate to influence. “Some of the decisions he will make, you will see people on that sponsorship list won’t like,” he said.
Corporate funding of inaugural celebrations is nothing new in Nevada or across the country. At least a third of the governors elected this year are accepting contributions from large donors and corporations with business before their state legislatures, according to USA Today.
Sandoval’s inaugural planners, however, said they tried to keep the celebration as accessible as possible.
A $100 ticket will get you entrance to one of the two inaugural balls taking place in Reno and Las Vegas at the end of January.
“We’ve got a very general invite for everybody to come, and we picked a price point so that everybody can participate,” said Monte Miller, a Las Vegas businessman and co-chairman of Sandoval’s inaugural committee.
For their part, “the establishment” is a bit uncomfortable at being fingered as having better access to Sandoval than Gibbons. One veteran lobbyist bristled at the description, saying the true difference between Gibbons and Sandoval isn’t who has access and who doesn’t. The two have completely different personalities, he argued.
“With Gibbons you always ran the risk of pissing the guy off,” the lobbyist said. “You ran the risk of somehow making it personal for him.
“So, the only thing the establishment has gained, if that’s what you call it, is access — access and an ear. Whether (Sandoval) ultimately agrees, I don’t know. I’ve known him to be a very independent guy.”