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Legislative leadership positions are no lock now with term limits


AP Photo/Cathleen Allison

Nevada Assembly Democrats, from left, Speaker John Oceguera, Debbie Smith, Marilyn Kirkpatrick and Marcus Conklin, talk on the Assembly floor Monday, June 6, 2011, at the Legislature in Carson City.

If good for nothing else, term limits excel at stirring palace intrigue.

Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, term limited and running for Congress, will step aside in January as chairman of the caucus, creating an opening for ambitious Assembly members looking to lead the state’s lower house in 2013.

In the past there would be little controversy over who would step in, but the usual lines of political succession in Carson City have been upended by term limits. Of the four caucuses — Democrat and Republican in the Assembly and state Senate — it is among Assembly Democrats where there is the most uncertainty.

Restless freshmen and the absence of a standout leader have led to a fight for one of the state’s most powerful positions, Assembly speaker.

In days before term limits, new lawmakers were treated like children — to be seen, but not heard. They were to vote as they were told and let the gray-hairs make the important decisions on budgets and leadership.

Succession also followed an orderly course. Seniority was a big factor, also grooming by those who went before.

But those days are gone. In the waning days of the 2011 Legislature, freshman Assembly Democrats and those not in leadership, feeling cut out of the decision-making, staged a brief rebellion over the budget deal they were presented. It was settled quickly, but the understanding that new lawmakers expect to have a real say in big decisions — not just act as rubber stamps — has taken root.

In prior years, “junior members could learn the ropes as they were coming up,” said Assemblyman David Bobzien, D-Reno, who served his first term in 2007 and is now a senior member of the caucus. “We no longer have that luxury ... Everyone wants a seat at the table, and should have a seat at the table.”

Think of it as bringing democracy — lowercase “d” — to the Legislature.

Since Joe Dini rose to speaker in 1987, there has been little drama in the Assembly Democratic succession. In 2001, Majority Leader Richard Perkins succeeded Dini. Majority Leader Barbara Buckley succeeded Perkins in 2007. And then-Majority Leader Oceguera succeeded Buckley in 2011.

The typical path would be for Assembly Majority Leader Marcus Conklin, D-Las Vegas, to become speaker. But Conklin, an economist, has strained relationships with some members of the caucus, who would not go on the record to discuss internal politics.

Conklin did not return calls for comment.

That has made the odds just as good that Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, who chaired Assembly Ways and Means last session, will be the next speaker, according to caucus members and lobbyists. Her perceived downsides: She’s from the north, which could cool Southern Nevada support, and is not entirely trusted by the central lobbying corps of big business and the teachers union, both major campaign contributors.

Also in the running are Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, and Assemblyman William Horne, D-Las Vegas, who has aggressively campaigned for the job.

Another name thrown around, with an eye toward picking a leader for multiple sessions, is sophomore Assemblyman Jason Frierson, D-Las Vegas.

Right now, Democratic leadership is putting forward a united front. Conklin, Smith and Kirkpatrick held a joint fundraiser at the MGM Grand Mansion last month, notably excluding Horne.

“At the risk of sounding evasive, my response continues to be that what I’m interested in right now is making sure caucus members and I get re-elected,” Smith said.

Kirkpatrick said the decision “can’t be decided until after election.”

Oceguera will remain on the caucus’ committee, with a vote on who the new leader will be for the interim. He said the post will be something of a test for whomever gets it.

“For the leader of the caucus, there’s a risk,” Oceguera said. “If the caucus does not do well in the election in 2012, that certainly may reflect on the leader. If they do do well, the opposite may be true.”

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