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October 22, 2019

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As head of Nevada GOP, Michael McDonald has chance to help party, his reputation

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Michael McDonald, Feb 28, 2012.

As the embattled Nevada Republican Party prepares to name a new chairman — again — one description of the man poised to take the reins highlights the party’s dire straits:

“At the bottom of it all, the man has never been indicted for anything,” said GOP official and Laughlin Constable Jordan Ross. “Even our lieutenant governor has been indicted! But Michael McDonald never has.”

Indeed, McDonald, a former Las Vegas city councilman, has never been indicted or otherwise charged with a crime despite authorities’ many attempts to do so.

Driven from office in 2003 amid a slew of ethics investigations, an FBI probe and later a grand jury investigation into possible tax fraud, McDonald never found himself answering criminal charges.

Over the past decade, McDonald has largely stayed away from politics. But now he has a chance to pull his own reputation and that of his party out of the mire. Not that either task will be a cakewalk.

“It’s OK, I’ve been chewed up before,” McDonald said of the tumultuous job that leading the Nevada Republican Party has become. “And not for the right reasons.

“I was accused of a lot of wrongdoing. I told (Sun columnist) Jon Ralston years ago, ‘I will be sitting here in this same spot and nothing will have ever happened to me. People will have been to jail and out of jail and back to their own lives and I will still be sitting here. I’ve done nothing wrong.’”

•••

McDonald appears to have the votes to be elected chairman of the state GOP next month.

That could change as Washoe County GOP Chairman David Buell mounts a campaign for the seat.

But sources say McDonald has Clark County support wrapped up, meaning Buell will have a difficult time stacking up enough votes from the rest of the state to win.

McDonald said he isn’t motivated by a desire to rehabilitate his image or re-enter politics.

“A large percent of (the GOP central committee) voters are behind us,” said McDonald, a former Metro Police officer. “They like our leadership. We’re hardnose about uniting the party and defining the party. I can do both.”

Over the past eight years, the Nevada Republican Party has had constant turnover at the top, lagging fundraising, a losing track record at the ballot box and difficulty registering voters.

It has also had to contend with factions focused on fringe issues — the specter of masses of illegal immigrants flooding voting booths and railing against what they believe are radiation-spewing NV Energy smart meters.

If that weren’t challenging enough, divisions among Tea Party groups, Ron Paul supporters and establishment types have continually roiled the waters.

The situation is so messy none of the state’s top elected Republicans want to get too close to the party’s workings out of fear they will be tainted by the troubles.

While Gov. Brian Sandoval has helped the party raise money, he has been hands off when it comes to organizing, finding a chairman or harnessing the energy of the splintered activists.

Despite Nevada’s role as a key battleground state in the presidential race, Sandoval has chosen not to get involved in the chairmanship race.

“The governor is not endorsing a candidate,” his political adviser Mike Slanker said in an email. He declined to answer follow-up questions.

The absence of Sandoval’s guiding hand is welcomed by some factions in the party, including those who support McDonald.

“The governor is recognizing that the parties need to be way more of a grass-roots organization,” Ross said. “The old days when the parties simply let the governor handpick a chairman, those days are over. Sandoval is showing his respect for the fact it’s a new age and we’re free to choose the chair as we see fit.”

•••

If his time on the City Council is any indication, McDonald is adept at building political might by working the grass roots.

“He understood very much that potholes and graffiti and speed bumps are sometimes the most important things in the neighborhoods,” said Terry Murphy, a Las Vegas political consultant. “He paid attention to the seniors. He paid attention to everyone who was going to vote. He was very, very good at that.”

But, to critics, McDonald also developed a reputation for catering to special, powerful interests.

While county commissioners were being investigated and jailed for taking bribes from a strip-club owner, McDonald was also being paid by the same strip club owner. He also was paid $5,000 a month by a law firm representing a second strip club owner.

Both strip club owners, Rick Rizzolo and Michael Galardi, were convicted of various crimes — in Galardi’s case bribing public officials; in Rizzolo’s case, tax evasion.

While McDonald received money from the strip club owners or their associates, he collected it as payment for consultant services. Although he had paid clients with business before the City Council, McDonald said he always recused himself from voting on any of their issues.

Still, the ethics charges haunted him.

One local political observer used a line from the 1996 movie "City Hall" to describe McDonald’s reputation: “Down deep you know there’s a line you can’t cross, and after a thousand trades and one deal too many, the line gets rubbed out,” said actor Al Pacino in his role as scandal-ridden Mayor John Pappas.

“I kind of think that’s what happened to Michael,” the source said. “He grew up with these people and didn’t think twice about helping them out.”

Despite multiple investigations, McDonald was never charged.

When Las Vegas real estate consultant Donald Davidson attempted to bribe McDonald, he rejected it. Davidson was later convicted.

As for the grand jury investigation into tax fraud allegations, McDonald said he came away not only cleared of the charges but with a check for a tax refund in his hands.

“I’ve got the check,” he said. “I can show it to you.”

Many have speculated that McDonald escaped charges because he turned witness on other elected officials. It’s not true, McDonald said.

“I was never a witness, never called to testify, never gave statements,” he said. “I just sat there and let the storm blast over me.”

McDonald said that his being “wrongfully accused” should not stand in the way of him becoming party leader.

“If you look at our leadership already, the lieutenant governor, he was wrongfully accused. And he was indicted,” McDonald said, referring to Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki. “He was beat up, but he was able to maintain his seat.”

McDonald still has detractors, including longtime nemesis former Las Vegas Councilman Steve Miller, who ran the campaign of the candidate who ultimately ousted McDonald from office in 2003.

“I’m sure he’d love to get back into politics that was a cash cow for him,” Miller said. “All I can tell the Republican Party is more power to you. If you make a foolish choice, you deserve what you get. If they put him in there, I’m going to immediately re-register as a nonpartisan.”

But some say McDonald could be just what the Nevada GOP needs.

“Here’s the thing,” said Murphy, who is not a Republican. “When he puts his mind to something, he’s a get-it-done kind of guy. He’s not going to want to be embarrassed. He’ll want to make sure things run smoothly, and he has a high enough profile to do it.”

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