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February 21, 2018

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Beneath his stark ambition and polished public persona, Brian Sandoval is a nerd

Gov. Sandoval Visits Pyramid Lake

Gov. Brian Sandoval looking at pelicans at Pyramid Lake last week. Launch slideshow »

Gov. Brian Sandoval peered down into a spawning run at Pyramid Lake and turned to Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki.

“Hey Brian,” Sandoval said. “I see your dinner.”

He turned to a reporter and, with a chuckle, said: “There’s a dead fish down there.”

When he’s traveling, Sandoval walks around with a couple of honorary gubernatorial coins in his pocket in case he meets some children. He likes to go to museums but has to go by himself because, as a history buff, he likes to read all the information, and that’s a drag for the rest of his family.

After the day at Pyramid Lake, 37 miles north of Reno, meeting members of the Paiute Tribe and watching workers squeeze trout for eggs and semen at the hatchery, he declared it one of his favorite days as a governor.

There might be no other way to say it: Sandoval is a dork.

Or, at the very least, he has a nerdy side that goes with the ambition that has led him to the state’s highest elected office.

Since becoming governor, Sandoval has become the most popular politician in the state. He has done this by weaving himself as a fiscal conservative, but not extreme, with a moderate tact on potentially explosive issues like gay rights and immigration.

Most importantly, though, he has an affable personality, a nice guy schtick (he loves Nevada history and handing out coins) to pair with his politician’s good looks and unnaturally relentless discipline when it comes to delivering his political message.

This public persona has led to the nickname in the media of “Gov. Sunny.”

Those who would seem to be his opponents — perhaps lulled into having an easy enemy like Sandoval’s predecessor, Gov. Jim Gibbons — are clearly disarmed.

During the legislative session, Democrats went out of their way when criticizing Sandoval’s policies to say it wasn’t personal. The top potential rivals to Sandoval’s 2014 re-election bid, such as Secretary of State Ross Miller, have all but said they will not run against Sandoval.

But his cautious demeanor, both personally and professionally, can also lend to a sense that Sandoval is heavily handled.

Touring Pyramid Lake, Sandoval was relentlessly engaged in the history of the place, peering at pelicans through binoculars and observing the deflowering of the Lahontan cutthroat trout.

But, compared with Krolicki, he doesn't always have the same easy exchanges — characteristic of a natural retail politicker — with potential constituents.

When a television reporter requested an interview, Sandoval instantly said yes. But when the reporter said, “You’re used to this,” Sandoval responded with an awkward “eh” that seemed to hint that being on camera, or around reporters, isn’t where he’s most comfortable.

The trip by Sandoval and Krolicki, along with a handful of state staffers, to Pyramid Lake was part of “Discover Your Nevada,” a state promotion to encourage residents to visit in-state tourist destinations.

Sandoval declared the lake “spectacular.” Tribal members and workers at the ranger station posed for pictures with Sandoval and Krolicki. Sandoval lingered over binoculars to look at white pelicans while Krolicki chatted up the crowd.

“I love this. I really enjoy it,” Sandoval said. “I feel like I’m getting behind in my office, but you have to get out of the office and see the state.”

He said he takes real pleasure in greeting classes of students — he remembers meeting former Gov. Mike O’Callaghan in 1972, when he was 9 — or walking the Capitol and introducing himself to unsuspecting tourists.

“I’ll walk up spontaneously to people in the hallway and introduce myself,” Sandoval said. “I met a couple from California and said, ‘I bet this doesn’t happen in California.’”

Sandoval jingled a pants’ pocket, with the coins printed with the governor’s face on one side and the state seal on the other. They’ve been a tradition for Nevada governors for years.

“I carry extra coins with me wherever I go, so if I see kids, I can hand it to them,” he said. “It’s a big deal to the kids. You want them to have as many positive experiences as you can make.”

Indeed, Greg Ferraro, a longtime friend and political consultant, said that Sandoval “believes optimism is a force multiplier. Optimism is infectious.”

“I think Brian is the kind of person, what you see is what you get. There are no hidden compartments or hidden agendas with Brian Sandoval. He’s sincere and genuine; those two characteristics define him more than anything,” Ferraro said.

At the Pyramid Lake Museum and Visitors Center, near Pyramid Lake High School, Sandoval studied the exhibits on the Paiute Tribe’s history. He ate Indian tacos and tribal leaders discussed their history and concerns, primarily about water rights and the pipeline being proposed from eastern Nevada to Las Vegas.

At the end, Sandoval thanked the crowd.

“Today brought together three of my favorite things: friendship, history and culture,” he told the group of about 20 visitors, including a group of tribal elders. “It was one of my best days I’ve had as governor.”

Afterward, Sandoval said he has a love for Nevada.

Asked about the downsides of his job, he gave the answers like a candidate on a job interview — he said the job took him away from his family for too long and, “I wish we had more results sooner,” he said. “I get impatient.”

Then Sandoval had to go.

He was speaking in Las Vegas at a Boy Scouts award ceremony.

Even if as governor Sandoval has the image of a Boy Scout, surprisingly, he wasn’t one growing up.

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