Las Vegas Sun

December 16, 2018

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After overcoming poverty and gangs, Las Vegas politician sets sights on state office

UNLV Student William McCurdy II

L.E. Baskow

UNLV student William McCurdy II, pictured here Wednesday, March 30, 2016, overcame poverty and gang violence to raise two children and enroll in college. Now he’s seeking election to the Nevada Assembly in District 6.

As a teenager living in central Las Vegas, William McCurdy II could easily have gone down a path that ended with one of two outcomes — death or a prison sentence — for many of his friends.

Raised in poverty, McCurdy dropped out of high school and fathered two sons before he turned 20. In 2004, he said, he watched a friend be slain with seven bullets near his home. That same day, he said, he was shot at by a local gang member, but the bullet missed. He was 15. He said that although he and his friend weren't in a gang, virtually all of their friends were gang members. That's why they were targeted, he said.

"I should probably be dead too,” McCurdy said. “I don’t know how I made it. When there’s a lack of opportunity, there’s an increase in aggression and anger and sadness, and that’s how our community was.”

UNLV Student William McCurdy II

UNLV student William McCurdy II, shown on Wednesday, March 30, 2016, overcame poverty and gang violence to raise two children and enroll in college. Now, he's seeking election to the Nevada Assembly in District 6. Launch slideshow »

But McCurdy said that although he was tempted to become a gang member, he stayed clear. For that, he credits a commitment to providing for his family and being an example to hundreds of kids in his home neighborhood near the intersection of Martin Luther King and Lake Mead boulevards, where gang violence was rampant.

And today, at age 27, McCurdy is moving in a much different direction. He’s on the verge of becoming the first member of his family to earn a four-year college degree, and he's running to represent his community in Nevada Assembly District 6.

Finding his way

McCurdy said the gang violence he witnessed at 15 motivated him to enter the working world. After working a couple of mechanic-type jobs, he found full-time work in construction at age 17 through Laborers Union Local 872.

At 18, McCurdy earned a promotion with Component West construction, from construction worker to foreman, working on projects at such Las Vegas resorts as Planet Hollywood and the Cosmopolitan. McCurdy said he was working 50 hours a week and earning more than $80,000 a year into his early 20s.

“He was the youngest foreman in the company, but he was firm and everybody respected him,” said Jeffrey Coleman, who worked under McCurdy despite being 18 years his senior. “He was a natural leader and really changed the culture of our team and how we acted.”

“A great team leader and really easy to get along with,” said Michael Gooch, another coworker.

But just as everything seemed to be in place for McCurdy and his family, the odds turned against him.

In 2010, as the economic recession brought construction to a near standstill in Southern Nevada, McCurdy’s team of 30 was laid off by the company, to their surprise.

“I guess we just thought it was going to keep going,” he said. “I’ve never seen that many grown men crying at once.”

Unemployed, McCurdy was at a crossroads. He feared falling back into the neighborhood gang scene. But instead, he got his GED, became a full-time student at CSN and eventually found another job with Service Employees International Union.

"My boys inspired me to do better," he said. "I wanted to provide stability for them and to be an example."

"Great citizenship qualities"

It was through education that McCurdy says he found his calling.

Yvonne Jackson, a counselor in CSN’s academic advising department, said she saw McCurdy’s potential the day he walked through the door as a freshman at age 23.

McCurdy, undecided between pursuing a degree in politics or business, was “very resilient,” Jackson said. The eight-year CSN counselor said she knew he was on track to a bright future.

“He was very articulate and authentic, and I knew he’d be successful in whatever he chose,” Jackson said. “He showed that he knew how to overcome obstacles, and that’s something a lot of students can’t do.”

With that in mind, Jackson suggested McCurdy try student government. He did, and ascended from student senator to CSN’s elected student-body president by his second year there.

While in that role, McCurdy led a campaign encouraging students to stay in school, and another campaign titled “It’s on Us,” advocating against sexual assault. At the end of the 2015 school year, McCurdy led a group of 300 students to Carson City to lobby legislators for grant money for first-generation and low-income college students.

Just weeks after the student buses left, the Nevada State Legislature approved additional scholarships of up to $2,000 per semester for such students, creating $5 million of extra grant money as part of the Legislature’s 2015 Silver State Opportunity Grant.

By last summer, McCurdy had earned an associate’s degree of arts, with honors, becoming the first member of his family to earn more than a GED.

While McCurdy’s success may have come as a surprise to him, Jackson said she saw it all along.

“I knew he had it in him,” Jackson said. “He’s a truly honest individual; he’ll tell you if he doesn’t know something. He just has great citizenship qualities.

“I always hoped he’d go further when he left CSN because he’s got all of the skills. Those should be shared to help the community.”

Making his move

The next step for McCurdy was UNLV, where he hopes to earn a bachelor’s degree in public administration by 2017.

Starting as a full-time student for the fall semester, McCurdy moved to part time this spring to manage a 50-hour-per-week job with the Service Employees International Union, care for his children and, for the first time, run for public office.

He hopes to win the current seat of Assemblyman Harvey Munford, whose six-term limit in Assembly District 6 expires this year.

McCurdy is one of five Nevadans running for his hometown assembly district, which covers 61,445 people across a 10.3 square-mile stretch from U.S. Highway 95 to Cheyenne Avenue, according to the Nevada Secretary of State’s office. McCurdy’s competitors include Democrats Macon Jackson, Arrick "Kerm" Foster and Valencia Burch, and Republican Carlo Maffatt.

Among the 27-year-old’s goals for Assembly District 6 is better funding for schools, improved relationships between police and local residents, and job creation.

He also hopes his story, as a district native who escaped a community of violence and gangs to earn an education, will motivate his constituents to be “better citizens and more hopeful in their future.”

“All in all I would just say, we have to teach in this district,” he said. “Each person has to reach one and teach one, and that’s how we’re going to it.”

Beyond politics, McCurdy said he was set on one day attending law school at UNLV. If he’s not elected for Assembly District 6, that date likely will come sooner rather than later.

But for now, he’s focused on leading as an elected official, and going as far in politics as “the people want me to go.”

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