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J. Patrick Coolican:

Steven Horsford on his political missteps: ‘I learned’


Justin M. Bowen

State Sen. Steven Horsford, D-North Las Vegas, addresses hundreds gathered Saturday, April 30, 2011, at Cashman Field to protest proposed cuts to education.

Updated Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012 | 1:07 p.m.

J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

Last week I wrote about Danny Tarkanian, the son of the legendary UNLV coach and Republican candidate for Congress in the 4th District. A federal judge has ruled that he owes the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation $17 million; it’s quite possible he’d have to declare bankruptcy while in office.

Let’s take a look at his opponent, state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford.

Horsford, a Democrat, is the CEO of the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas, the labor-management joint venture that trains workers for jobs on the Strip. Elected in 2004, he became the youngest minority leader in modern history in 2008 before Democrats took the majority, and led the Senate through the fiscal crises sessions of 2009 and 2011.

Horsford helped raise his siblings while his mother, now sober, struggled with addiction. It was around this time his father was murdered. If elected, he would be Nevada’s first black congressman.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the accomplished resume, he made three significant errors in about a year’s time beginning in late 2009.

He parked illegally next to a handicap space at his son’s soccer game. He sent out a fundraising letter that was crudely explicit about donors receiving access to legislative leaders if they gave big money; and, he allowed the online gaming company PokerStars to fly him to the Bahamas so it could lobby him.

I met with Horsford recently. I wanted to know what was going through his head in each instance. I wondered if his quick successes had triggered a bit of hubris, an attitude that the rules don’t apply to him. He’d hardly be the first in public life to succumb to such arrogance.

During the period in question, overlapping 2009 and 2010, he was desperately trying to win two more seats for Senate Democrats so he would have the supermajority required to pass tax reform. This meant raising funds and running campaigns. He was also trying to prepare for the legislative session, which would see yet another massive budget deficit and a new Republican governor. And, he has three young children whose father has spent a lot of time in recent years in Carson City, to say nothing of his day job and endless political duties in Las Vegas.

On the fundraising letter, he acknowledged it was sloppy. I find this the least egregious offense. I suppose I’m a cynic by saying this, but cash for access is the game, especially as the courts continue to strike down even our modest campaign finance rules. Horsford was just foolish enough to spell it out. But even that’s not unusual. Everybody knows that if you give $2,500 to President Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, you’ll be in a giant ballroom with him, but if you give $50,000 you’ll be in a private dining room.

What matters is whether you can say no to donors once it’s time to start governing.

As one lobbyist put it, “He’s about like the rest of them.” This was neither criticism nor compliment. He’s been known to turn his back on big donors, specifically the mining industry. Another lobbyist I spoke to also said that Horsford seemed “more policy focused” during the 2009 session than the 2011 session, when he was considering a run for Congress and may have had campaign dollars on the mind.

Horsford told me he despises the system as currently constituted: “I hate it. I have to spend five to six hours per day making calls to individuals I don’t know to ask them to support our campaign so I have the resources I need to communicate our message to the voters. I’ve raised more than $1 million. And in one week, a super PAC funded by some anonymous sources can drop $1 million against me, and no one knows where the money came from. I’m struggling to win this race not against my opponent but against anonymous billionaires who want to buy and influence this Congress. And I’ll work to change that if elected.”

The trip to Nassau is more troubling. He was in New York City on Culinary Academy business when PokerStars asked him to fly to Nassau, at their expense, to learn about issues surrounding online gaming. The company, which was based overseas and is therefore prohibited from spending money on campaigns here, had set up a PAC and given campaign contributions to a bevy of Nevada lawmakers, including $37,500 to Horsford.

PokerStars and its executives, along with Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker, were all later indicted and shut down for allegedly violating the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act.

Horsford reimbursed the company and returned the campaign donations. There was a (very dim) chance Congress would legalize online poker, which meant the Nevada Legislature would have to act if the Silver State were to become a prominent player in the online sphere. Horsford said he wanted to get up to speed on the issue. He said he spent fewer than 20 hours there, nearly all of it in a conference room and never saw a beach.

When PokerStars said they wanted to educate him about online gaming, he should have told them to call him or come to Las Vegas or Carson City.

“Believe me, I’ll never allow anyone to put me in a position like that again,” he said.

Finally, there’s parking next to handicap spaces.

Probably like you, I have a special contempt for people who don’t consider, in Christ’s phrase, “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine.”

Parking illegally in a loading zone next to a handicap spot is so callous that it’s hard to believe he did it knowingly or on purpose. It doesn’t square with my experience of Horsford, who has fought for programs for the sick and disabled. (Another unfunny irony of the attacks on him — many of the people attacking him would gut Medicaid and other programs for the disabled.) Horsford has been contrite and says he was late and harried and didn’t realize it was an illegal spot and would never do so knowingly. I’m sure he’s more careful now.

Horsford said he should be judged for what he stands for and what he’s fought for, but also said he’d learned valuable lessons from these three experiences.

“I learned some things from those experiences and that year. And the three things I learned are this: No. 1, take responsibility. Don’t try to run or hide from it. I know if I did something and it’s not who I am, I want to let people know that I take responsibility. The second thing is to correct the situation. And No. 3, don’t make the same mistake again. Learn from it and ensure you’re doing things that prevent those types of mistakes from occurring again.”

When I was a junior in high school, Brother William, my instructor in Catholic morality, told us that at some point in the next two years, everything would go wrong. (He was right — I bombed my first shot at the SAT, got hauled into the assistant principal’s office for allegedly smoking weed, and caused a car accident or three.)

Brother William was preparing us for life, when bad judgment and bad fortune can combine to rain down on us without notice.

The true test, Brother William said, would be how we respond to that adversity.

CORRECTION: Horsford told me the Legislature passed new out-of-session lobbying disclosure rules; he was mistaken. The measure, Senate Bill 206, passed the Senate, but died in the Assembly. | (October 11, 2012)

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