Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Marilyn Kirkpatrick’s path to becoming the next speaker of the Nevada Assembly is hardly a model for others to follow, but it seems to have prepared her for the rough-and-tumble world of politics.
At age 14, she was placed at Child Haven, Clark County’s home for neglected and abused children, after being taken from what she describes as a broken home.
All she wanted was to finish high school with her friends.
“You couldn’t be anything unless you go to school,” Kirkpatrick said.
So she picked herself up.
When she turned 16, Kirkpatrick legally emancipated herself from her parents, a process almost unheard of in 1982.
She rented a room in a house at 26th and Fremont streets, near downtown. At night, she’d work a shift at a restaurant. During the day, she would go to Western High School. Sometimes, she’d catch up on sleep on a couch in a counselor’s office.
She was scheduled to graduate in 1985 but saw a chance to graduate a year early. For her final credit, she took calculus.
“Why would anyone in their right mind take calculus when they’re trying to get out of school?” Kirkpatrick said in an interview, laughing. “I needed an extra class. I loved math. I thought math was the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
She flunked, leaving her half a credit shy, and took the GED.
It’s that pattern of working her way through the toughest challenges — winning some and losing some — that has characterized Kirkpatrick’s road to public office.
When the Legislature meets in February, Kirkpatrick, a Democrat from North Las Vegas, will hold one of the most powerful positions in the state, leading the Nevada Assembly. Besides her unquestioned hard work, she brings bluntness and a rough-around-the-edges demeanor as evidence of a tough upbringing in Las Vegas.
“I’ve always started at the bottom and worked my way to the top,” said Kirkpatrick, who works for a company that sells food to hotels and who recently was busy filling orders for chestnuts. “You learn things along the way. It’s the hard way, usually, for me.”
Since first elected to the Assembly in 2005, Kirkpatrick has taken on the legislative equivalent of calculus courses — tackling dense, important policy issues such as tax abatements, energy policy and economic development. In the process, she has angered casino lobbyists, labor unions, utilities and environmentalists.
But her determination also has won her admiration from her fellow Democrats — and even some Republicans — for hard work and fairness. Kirkpatrick’s mantra is that hard work put toward good policy for the state will make Nevada better.
“I’m all about good policy,” she said.
Her belief in the power of good policy coupled with hard work — and its force at the Legislature — is intense, bordering on naive in the cynical world of Carson City.
But her belief in fairness also extends to Republican lawmakers and ideas. Her nonpartisan streak comes at a time when the buzzword in politics is “cooperation.”
“Marilyn is a consensus builder,” lobbyist Alfredo Alonso said. “She works with people on both sides of the aisle. Considering this past election, the message heard loud and clear by everyone is they want Republicans and Democrats to work together.
“In theory, she’s the perfect person to get things done.”
But Kirkpatrick’s consensus building is marked by a bluntness that spares no one — from lobbyists to fellow lawmakers to the press.
Kirkpatrick hasn’t hesitated to defiantly remind a committee room that her education never went beyond the Clark County School District system. She smokes Marlboro Reds, dashing out of committee rooms during legislative breaks for a nicotine fix.
“Every pack I smoke, 80 cents goes to education,” she said. “It is what it is.”
And she admits she’s a yeller, particularly at local government officials she views as defending political territory rather than constituents, or lobbyists trying to slip something through for a client.
She does not suffer the lazy and expects her caucus to work.
Last year, at the first Assembly tax committee hearing, she warned her committee members: “I can see everybody’s computer and know what everybody’s looking at.” And yes, she really can.
Kirkpatrick got into politics as a waitress at the Downtown Cafe, where over time she served Steve Wolfson, now the Clark County district attorney; Jackie Glass, former Clark County district judge; former Democratic Party boss Charlie Waterman; and Sen. Richard Bryan.
They’d talk policy, and she’d jump in with an opposing view.
“We’d agree to disagree,” she said.
Her first political foray was the PTA. She was then appointed to the North Las Vegas Planning Commission and was asked by then-Assemblyman Tom Collins if she’d be interested in running for his seat when he decided to step down in 2003.
Her first piece of high-profile legislation came in 2007, when she and then-Assemblywoman Debbie Smith retooled the terms of a controversial bill that was passed in the final moments of the 2005 Legislature, granting tax breaks for buildings that met certain environmental standards. With major casino and other development projects in the works, legislators soon realized, the bill would cost taxpayers $940 million in tax breaks to those developers.
It was up to Kirkpatrick and Smith, two relatively untested lawmakers, to face down some of the most powerful interests in the state to reach a compromise, without getting the state sued.
In the end, lawmakers whittled the tax breaks down to about $200 million for the casinos. Developers still built green buildings and taxpayers never got sued.
Kirkpatrick said coming in, lobbyists “thought we were stupid. We’d never understand it.”
One of her pet peeves in the bill was a provision giving Strip casinos a tax break for installing bicycle racks.
She believed they’d hardly be used.
“How is that considered environmentally friendly in Las Vegas, where it’s 140 degrees?” she said. “What’s the usage?”
The lesson learned?
“Do your research,” she said. “Know the policy. Then it doesn’t matter how smart they (the lobbyists) are or how much money they make. You can talk toe-to-toe with them. I didn’t fall off the turnip truck.”
Lobbyists soon realized she wouldn’t be caught flat-footed on the details of any of the legislation before her.
“The reason she’s intimidating to interests and lobbyists is because you’ll be walking into her office and you know she knows everything about the issue,” said John Griffin, a business lobbyist.
Her office is full of binders of information, “and she’s read every single page of it,” he said.
Kirkpatrick isn’t free of criticism.
She’s known to take on too much, burning herself out until she shuts down.
At the end of the 2011 Legislature, she was dealing simultaneously with three major policy bills. One would allow out-of-state energy transmission lines to be built; another would let the Clark County Commission pick between three arena proposals; and another would put the Democrats’ failed tax proposal on the ballot.
She considered each of the bills bad and didn’t let them out of her committee. Each died.
“Policy is policy,” she said. “Lobbyists get paid a lot of money to represent clients. They should always represent the interests of their clients. But good policy will help do that.
“What benefit do Nevadans get passing bad policy?”
“I’m not going to sell my soul trying to make the state work for somebody’s client. If it’s good policy, it passes by itself.”