Mona Shield Payne/Special to the Sun
Monday, July 11, 2011 | 3:05 a.m.
- Poker Players Alliance gets behind Shelley Berkley (6-30-2011)
- DSCC poll: Berkley up 5 on Heller in Nevada Senate race (6-15-2011)
- Berkley says no to raising debt ceiling, refuses ‘show vote’ (5-31-2011)
- U.S. Senate candidate Byron Georgiou is in it to win it (5-9-2011)
- Berkley accuses Dean Heller of being out of touch (4-28-2011)
- Berkley’s Senate candidacy signals another marquee Nevada race (4-15-2011)
- Berkley working the North as she explores U.S. Senate bid (2-4-2011)
Congresswoman Shelley Berkley’s publicists are armed and ready—with a large can of hair spray. Smoothing down the fly-aways atop her head and donning her signature reddish-pink lipstick, the Las Vegan knows she looks put together. She’s confident, practically born ready for her VEGAS INC photo shoot. Besides, one-on-one photo shoots and interviews are the fun part of her gig in public service. Bring it on.
When Berkley speaks, she’s full of confidence, class and moxie—as well as a little New Yorker attitude and an accent to match. This politician and mother of two twentysomething men says she knows Nevada better than just about anybody, and it’s easy to believe her when she glides from topics such as gaming to geothermal energy to gay marriage to health care with poise and real knowledge. The first person in her family to go to college, she attended UNLV, which she says might as well have been Harvard for her. Berkley’s the product of a public education system—Clark County Public Schools—that worked, she says.
She’s been Nevada’s 1st Congressional District representative for 13 years, and Berkley wants to take next step—a big one: She’s in the race for U.S. Senate in 2012. Berkley sat down with VEGAS INC to discuss politics, business and what she thinks we can do to end the Great Recession.
Let’s talk about online gaming. How important do you think this issue will be during the upcoming campaign season?
I’m not sure that online betting for poker is going to be a major issue for my campaign or any other. It’s just an issue that I spent a considerable amount of time on. In 2006, when Congress outlawed online gaming in the port security bill, I took to the floor of the House and spoke against the inclusion of prohibition of online gaming. It had no business there. Our port security doesn’t depend on whether people are going to play poker online. I also thought it was a mistake. The federal government—we talk about intrusive, big government—I can’t think of something more intrusive than telling the American public what they can and cannot do in their own recreational time. We came close last year and I’m hoping that this year, now that we’ve introduced the Barton-Berkley bill in Congress, that we’ll move toward legalizing online betting for poker.
But you don’t think this will be much of an issue in your campaign?
I’m very proud of it and certainly will talk about its significance to Nevada. I think it’s a benefit to our state. It would bring in revenue. But in order to have a campaign issue, you usually have to have a little bit of controversy, and I’m not sure there’s going to be great controversy in the election on this legislation.
Do you think online gaming will be an issue that bucks the trend of bipartisan politics?
I think you need bipartisan support in order to get poker-only online betting passed. It’s very helpful to have Rep. Republican Joe Barton (of Texas) taking the lead on this.
Have you spoken with President Obama about whether he’d sign legalized online gaming into law if it passed Congress?
If online betting for poker is passed in both houses, I have every reason to believe that the president will sign it into law.
How helpful has Sen. Harry Reid been on this issue?
Without him, it doesn’t get passed.
What’s the core reason our economy crashed and has been unable to recover?
I come home every weekend. I’ve been in Congress for seven terms. I grew up in Las Vegas. My father was a waiter. I often think what our family situation would be like if we fast-forwarded my family 48 years and my father was a waiter right now. I have people coming over to me all the time—people say “I never missed a day of work. I never missed a mortgage payment. I lost my job, I’m losing my home. What am I going to do?” The collapse of our economy disproportionately hit Nevada. Gaming and tourism drive our economy. For people to come to Nevada and enjoy our entertainment, they have to have disposable income. If they feel insecure about their jobs, or if they’ve lost their jobs, or they’re being downsized, they don’t come to Las Vegas. When they don’t come to Las Vegas, our major industry is hurt. When they’re hurt they lay off people. When they lay off people there’s a snowball effect and it affects every ancillary industry. Everybody’s hurting. Until people go back to work, we’re going to have tremendous displacement, serious social problems and grave concern about the future.
But what do you think is the root cause?
I can’t give you that simple of an answer. But, look, an economy based on one industry, when that industry is hurting, the economy isn’t going to be what it should be. In all my speeches, about three years ago, I’d tell people that we have the fastest-growing economy in the United States. We have 5,000 to 7,000 new residents coming to Southern Nevada every month. And as soon as they get here, they can get jobs. We had four percent unemployment. When the housing market crashed there was tremendous economic instability. Nevada was decimated.
What can we do to reverse this trend?
I see three things that need to be done, not only in Nevada, but nationally as well. Education is very important to the future of this country. In 1983, I was a freshman assemblywoman. I was part of a group of people—elected officials, business people, university people—who were attempting to diversify our economy by attracting new businesses to our state. This was in 1983. Every company we spoke to, without exception, said they liked our tax base, they liked our climate, they liked our location, but they didn’t like the fact that they didn’t think our education system was up to their standards. They wanted a well-trained workforce to pick outstanding technicians from, and they didn’t want to ask their executive and middle management to relocate from a state that had a good education system and come to one that didn’t have the highest standards. Not only haven’t we moved forward, we’ve moved backward. I’m a product of the Clark County School District. The education I received was perfect for the life I’m leading. It’s obsolete for the life my children are going to lead. That’s No. 1: Invest in ourselves.
No. 2: We have a crumbling infrastructure. It was no accident or surprise that the levies in New Orleans didn’t hold during Hurricane Katrina. It wasn’t a surprise that the bridge collapsed in Minnesota. We had studies demonstrating that they could not hold under certain circumstances. We chose to ignore it. Not only does investing in your infrastructure provide very good construction jobs, at the end of the project, you have something.
No. 3: Renewable energy. I’m a former utility company attorney. I’d never look anybody in the eye and say we’re going to get rid of fossil fuels. But for me, for Nevada, harnessing sun, wind, geothermal, of which this state has an abundance, is an economic necessity.
What infrastructure projects can we do in Nevada?
I was in Taiwan recently. I had an opportunity to ride on a superspeed train. It ran 300 miles an hour. It was silent. It was spotless. It was inexpensive and they served healthy snacks. I was angry. It’s been 30 years that we’ve been waiting for a high-speed train between Las Vegas and Southern California. Why can’t we get that done?
Do you think we’ll ever complete DesertXPress high-speed rail?
I’m not at all optimistic, but I’m hopeful.
You’re going to be running your first statewide race soon. How are you feeling about it so far?
I’m excited. At first the question was: “How would she fare up North?” We went up there and tested the waters and the response was very heartwarming and encouraging. We’ll see how it goes.
Are you concerned about Byron Georgiou?
I make it a point never to talk about my opponents. I’m not running against anyone; I’m running for a seat.
Describe yourself, politically.
I have a reputation for being the hardest working person in Congress. Nobody knows the issues better than I do and nobody protects the people he or she represents better than I. This is my job, this is my hobby. I’m a public servant.It’s my job to be a buffer from the federal government and I’m a bridge to the federal government.
Do the same for Joe Heck. What does he stand for?
Joe and I have a good working relationship, but I think it would be presumptuous of me to tell you how he’s doing.
Update us on the health care law.
There are a number of court challenges to determine if the law is constitutional or not. I believe that the courts will decide that it is constitutional. But I’m not making bets on this one, and I’m a betting woman. We’re busy implementing it on the assumption that it won’t be unconstitutional. I know for a fact that people with pre-existing conditions are now getting health care. If your child is 26 years old and still living at home, he or she can stay on your plan. We’ve eliminated lifetime caps. I think the big mistake with this legislation was wasting months talking about death panels that never existed and nonsensical provisions that never existed. Instead of that maybe we could’ve been working together on better legislation. It’s no accident that almost every hospital in Nevada is operating in the red because of uncompensated care. Our system is broken. We have to fix it or our health care system is going to collapse.
Do you think health care reform will ever happen?
I think we must.
What will diversification look like?
We have a robust gaming industry that I’m partial to. We have a strong convention and visitors business, which I’m also partial to. The focus will always be on gaming. Now, we’re at a crossroads. The people in Nevada have to make decisions about where and what we envision over the next couple of decades. The world is our oyster as far as I’m concerned. Education is key. Renewable energy, infrastructure, Internet gaming. If you improve your education system, there’s no telling what kind of businesses you’ll be able to attract. We shouldn’t be limiting ourselves to anything.
We hear over and over from Republicans that low taxes will attract businesses. Thoughts?
If low taxes were the way to bring businesses here, we’d have more businesses in Nevada than I could shake a stick at. Our overall tax load is as low as it was in the Truman administration. Nobody wants to pay higher taxes. But do you want your kids to get a good education? You have to pay for that. Do you want Medicare for senior citizens? I do. We have to pay for it.
Are there any issues you wish President Obama would’ve pushed harder?
The health care bill could’ve been handled better. And financial reform legislation: The other side of the aisle is doing everything they can to hamper it—as if not regulating Wall Street at all was such a great benefit to this country. People are still suffering financially because there weren’t enough regulations in place. Obama put them in place. We need to push a little harder to make sure we can keep those regulations in place. Rather than look back, we need to look forward and see what we can do better.
I’m a young, college-educated woman who wants to get married, have kids and have a viable career trajectory. Why should I stay Las Vegas?
I put myself in your place a number of years ago because I was in the same situation. I was a young professional in my 20s contemplating marriage and children. I decided to stay in Las Vegas and make it my home. You can make a very good life for yourself here. I believe the economy will turn around with the right vision and the right leadership. Nevada could be a very exciting place to be, we’ve been in the past. I think our best days are ahead of us.
What do you make of the Casey Anthony ruling?
I was very surprised.
Do you think Hillary Clinton will run for president, next time around, in 2016?
From what I’ve heard from some friends of friends, she’s not anticipating doing that.
Are you a Hillary Clinton fan?
Gay marriage was recently legalized in New York. The LVCVA is launching a campaign to attract newlyweds for their honeymoons. Isn’t that having one foot in and one foot out on the issue?
I’m not going to comment on that, but I think our constitution says that all American citizens should be treated equally and have the same rights, obligations and responsibilities that I enjoy. If I was in the Legislature in New York, I would’ve voted for gay marriage. I can’t understand how you can discriminate against one segment of your population.
Any thoughts on Anthony Weiner?
I feel very bad about Anthony. He’s a friend of mine. It’s odd, but I’m certainly not condoning this kind of behavior. Hey, there are others who are a lot worse. It’s the tawdry nature and the fact that he lied. It’s always the cover-up.