Las Vegas Sun

September 26, 2021

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For politicians, less hazard in testing waters

It used to be that LV councilmen seeking another office had to resign their posts, thus risking their careers


John Coulter / Special to the Sun

Click to enlarge photo

Oscar Goodman celebrates his landslide victory over Arnie Adamsen in the Las Vegas mayoral election June 8, 1999.

When Arnie Adamsen decided to run for Las Vegas mayor 12 years ago, he faced a crucial choice: Keep his job as city councilman and forgo higher office, or resign his council post and try to win election as mayor.

Adamsen resigned and lost. The race ended his political career.

This election cycle, elected officials running for mayor have far less at stake. They risk nothing, except their pride, by running. If Las Vegas Councilman Steve Ross or Clark County Commissioners Larry Brown and Chris Giunchigliani lose, they return to their jobs, battered and bruised perhaps, but still employed.

The city ordinance that forced Adamsen to resign was repealed in 2005 after eight years in effect. Nothing in Nevada law prevents elected officials at any level of government from testing the political waters while in office.

“We call it progressive ambition,” UNLV political scientist David Damore said. “There’s a hierarchy of offices that people want to move up into, and the good candidates wait for good opportunities — open seats or weak incumbents.”

Mayor Oscar Goodman’s exit from City Hall presents one of those opportunities. For Ross, promotion to mayor would allow him to set his own agenda, even though he would remain only one vote on the City Council. For Brown and Giunchigliani, becoming mayor would net them more attention, even if it would strip them of some political power (county commissioners carry more real power than the mayor).

“Being quite realistic, it certainly gives you a fallback,” Brown said. “It’s not like you’re giving up your seat to risk everything on another seat. It’s a safety net.”

Adamsen didn’t have that luxury. From 1997 to 2005, Las Vegas required elected officials to resign to run for another office. The measure was sponsored by two Adamsen foes, Councilmen Michael McDonald and Matthew Callister, and some dubbed it the “Screw Adamsen” bill. The councilmen argued the ordinance evened the playing field for council candidates seeking higher office.

But after that law was rescinded, a councilman in the second year of his four-year term wouldn’t have to risk his council seat if he wanted to make a stab for mayor. City Council races are staggered, and if he lost his mayoral bid, he still had two years of his councilman’s term.

On the national stage, resigning to run for higher office is rare, although not unheard of. Bob Dole resigned as Senate majority leader in 1996 to run for president. But more recently, John Kerry, John McCain and Barack Obama kept their Senate jobs while campaigning for the White House.

Joe Lieberman ran simultaneously for Senate re-election and vice president in 2000. And in New Jersey, Sharpe James served as Newark’s mayor and a state senator for seven years. (He was later convicted of corruption.)

Nationally, only five states — Florida, Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii and Texas — have “resign to run” laws. Seven states have considered them over the past decade, but none passed. Nevada was not among the seven.

Republican Sen. Ann O’Connell in 1999 proposed a statewide version of Las Vegas’ ordinance, but it went nowhere.

Las Vegas repealed the law six years later after the Nevada Supreme Court ruled a similar ordinance in Mesquite unconstitutional.

The laws are designed to keep officeholders focused on their jobs rather than be diverted by campaigning. They aim to prevent politicians from using elected positions as steppingstones and try to curb them from parlaying the power and prestige of their jobs.

Ethical issues also can arise when politicians try to move up the ranks while in office. Voters can be left wondering which constituency they represent: their current district or the one they hope to serve?

“The flip side of it could be that resign-to-run laws may prevent people from seeking higher office,” said Jennie Bowser of the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Some people might argue that if they serve in lower office first, they bring experience.”

Resign-to-run laws have worked with varying success, Bowser said.

In Texas, resignation is automatic as soon as an elected official files or announces candidacy for another office, while in Florida politicians don’t have to resign until they or their successor take office. Arizona’s laws are ambiguous, making the law difficult to enforce.

There’s scarce research on whether the public supports such laws, but some experts argue that politicians’ job hopping breeds voter cynicism.

“It plays into voters’ general stereotype of politicians,” Damore said. “They talk up public service but as soon as a better opportunity comes along, they are gone.”

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