Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016 | 2 a.m.
In the lobby of a North Las Vegas senior center hangs a pair of black-and-white portraits: on the left, the center’s namesake, Martin Luther King Jr. On the right, the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama.
Run by the Las Vegas Urban League, one of the valley’s biggest poverty-fighting organizations, the center serves a predominantly black community of low-income and disabled seniors, as well as veterans.
It’s a place where a mention of Obama draws enthusiastic applause (even an “Oh yeah!” from a woman in the crowd). It’s a place where worries about Medicare, Social Security, education for their grandchildren and mass incarceration are at the forefronts of seniors’ minds. It’s a place where, when a white Republican congressman comes to visit and opens himself for questions, a black woman voices a healthy dose of skepticism about what a conservative can do for her and the other seniors at the center.
“You said you’re a Republican. How are you going to help us if you’re a Republican?” the woman asked Nevada Republican Rep. Cresent Hardy last month.
It wasn’t exactly friendly territory for the first-term congressman, who is facing a tough re-election bid in Nevada’s moderately blue 4th Congressional District. Hardy was born and raised in the district, but urban North Las Vegas is a far cry from rural Virgin Valley where he grew up a fifth-generation Mormon farmer-rancher.
The senior center is the kind of venue where you’d expect Hardy’s Democratic opponent, state Sen. Ruben Kihuen, to campaign comfortably. Kihuen's priorities closely align with those of the Urban League, said the organization’s CEO and president, Kevin Hooks.
“It’s a slam dunk that Ruben is going to pretty much support everything that’s important to the Urban League,” said Hooks, who has spent time with Hardy over the past couple of months introducing him to the services his organization offers. “But with Cresent, it’s how far has he come? And I think he’s come a long way in recognizing the importance of those issues.”
So, on a Thursday morning in August, Hardy stood next to Hooks at the front of the senior center’s cafeteria adorned with paper palm trees, balloons and leis where a lively monthly Hawaiian-themed birthday party was underway.
Hardy told the crowd quite simply that he didn’t know what it was like to be black, but that he wanted to learn.
“That’s how you learn, by shutting your mouth, listening and trying to understand the issues,” Hardy said. “I’m not a black man, so I don’t understand. I’m here to understand and try and listen the best I can and get educated.”
• • •
Hardy’s win in 2014 came not only as a surprise to Rep. Steven Horsford, the Democratic incumbent he ousted, but to Hardy himself. Though he was out-funded and out-staffed by Horsford, Republicans turned out in droves to polls across the country, frustrated by the Obama administration, while many core Democratic voters stayed home without any strong reason driving them out to vote.
Hardy is a politician who eschews the spotlight, whether that’s talking to the media, talking about himself or particularly talking to the media about himself.
“Campaign people get frustrated with me, but in all honesty, I think that’s the worst thing a person can do — talk about how wonderful he is,” Hardy said in a recent interview. “Do what you do and do it.”
He served as public works director in Mesquite, as a member of the Virgin Valley Water District, and on the Mesquite City Council before running for the state Assembly. When he was asked by Republican colleagues to take a look at running for Congress, Hardy said he initially thought they were “complete idiots.”
“Over time when people have asked me to get involved in things, I studied it out and got involved,” Hardy said. “You never know where it’s going to take you when you get the opportunity, but you have to be grateful for it.”
Reflecting on the past two years in Congress, Hardy bemoaned the partisanship, saying it’s “tougher” to work with people in Washington than it was in Carson City, as he built relationships there with Democratic state legislators such as former Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick.
Kirkpatrick pointed to the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension program and the county’s fuel-revenue indexing program as two instances when she and Hardy worked together across the aisle. She added that, after working on a few important issues together in the Legislature, their friendship stuck.
“The great thing about legislators is, once you’re a friend you’re always a friend,” she said.
The two still talk even though Kirkpatrick is now a Clark County commissioner and Hardy is in Congress, whether about the expansion of Interstate 11 or federal lands bills that might impact the county, Kirkpatrick said.
Asked whether she plans on supporting Hardy, she called it a “terrible” question. “Cresent and I are friends,” Kirkpatrick said. “We try not to mix the politics.”
Despite that record of collaboration, a ranking by the Lugar Center and Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy in 2015 showed Hardy with the lowest bipartisanship index score of Nevada’s four representatives in the House, coming in at No. 376 out of 438. (Republican Rep. Joe Heck was the highest of the four at No. 71.)
At the same time, a scorecard from the conservative advocacy organization Heritage Action for America gives Hardy only 59 percent, docking him for votes on a number issues from GMO labeling to an energy and water appropriations bill.
“Here’s an LDS guy from a small town in southeastern Nevada. Well, this guy has to be right of Attila the Hun,” said Rep. Mark Amodei, who represents Northern Nevada’s Republican stronghold in the 2nd Congressional District. “But Cresent Hardy has been a pretty open-minded guy on a lot of issues where you think you could categorize him.”
For instance, Hardy, Amodei and Heck broke with their Republican colleagues in voting against an amendment to defund the president’s original Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides temporary relief from deportation and a two-year permit for certain immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. The amendment was tacked onto a Department of Homeland Security funding bill and passed without their support and the support of 23 other Republicans.
“The reason why I voted to support DACA, this was something that had already come forward, people had begun the process of stepping forward, getting their information to get right with the law,” Hardy said.
However, Hardy and Heck, who is running to replace retiring Democratic U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, have weathered significant criticism from opponents and outside groups this campaign cycle for voting for a second amendment to the bill that blocked funding to an expanded version of DACA and a program to provide relief to undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents. They also took heat for voting in favor of the final DHS funding bill, which included both amendments.
But the base version of the DHS bill included funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, traffic programs and the Urban Area Security Initiative, which assists metropolitan areas in combating terrorism. (Las Vegas received $3 million from the federal government under the program this year.)
“It’s like picking jelly beans. Some jelly beans you like, others you don’t,” Hardy said. “Then it’s whether you like more jelly beans than jelly beans you dislike.”
• • •
Hardy is the incumbent, but the 4th District is anybody’s to win.
Kihuen, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico when he was 8, has the full-force backing of the state Democratic Party and the powerful Culinary Union and touts endorsements from Reid and former President Bill Clinton. His biography, political career and endorsements should play well in the state’s second-most diverse district, whose population is about 28 percent Hispanic and 15 percent black.
“The hard part for Cresent is, how do you get beyond the culture of cliché — that you’re not Hispanic or not from town,” Amodei said. “The way to combat that is saying here’s my record, here’s what I’ve done and here’s where I’m at on these issues.”
Democrats have a 35,000-person voter registration advantage in the district, which covers the northern portion of Clark County, southern Lyon County and all of Esmeralda, Lincoln, Mineral, Nye and White Pine counties.
In spite of all of that, UNLV political science professor David Damore thinks Hardy has a chance.
“It’s always hard to be running against an incumbent, even a one-termer. They’re just so much better known,” Damore said. “Even though (Kihuen) is known in political circles, the average voter doesn’t know much about him.”
Though he may be better known, Hardy doesn’t fit the politician mold.
“I don’t ever remember him saying, ‘I’m so glad I’m a politician,’” said Republican state Sen. Scott Hammond, who served and roomed with Hardy in Carson City. “He tries to pretend he’s not.”
Amodei said Hardy is known by their colleagues in Congress as hardworking, straightforward and “salt of the earth.”
But that tell-it-like-it-is attitude has sometimes landed him in hot water: from blaming the federal government for its role in the armed standoff against Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy to recently raising concerns that electric-car company Faraday Future, which is building a manufacturing plant in North Las Vegas, may pose a security risk due to its Chinese ties.
The latter remark prompted sharp pushback from Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, who worked for months to lure the car company to the state. The governor said that the company underwent a full federal screening process and urged Hardy to contact the state economic development agency or the company if he had further concerns.
Hardy also recently said that he supports Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump “100 percent” and that he will do “whatever” to get Trump elected — a quote that Democrats now use often to tie Trump and Hardy together.
“People try to play politics with Donald Trump and me,” Hardy said. “But this is mine to win or lose, my opportunity to represent and serve again. People need to make up their own choice about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.”
Playing up Hardy’s support for Trump may be one of the most effective arguments in whittling away any support Hardy has among middle-of-the-road voters, Damore said.
“To win that district he’s got to make inroads in the urban part of the district and (with) voters that didn’t turn out last time,” Damore said. “That’s going to be tough to do on immigration and other policies where Democrats are tying him to Trump.”
• • •
Talk to Hardy long enough, and he’ll probably reference the proverbs his father used to say to him: “My dad always told me, ‘Son, don’t tell me a problem unless you gotta answer to fix it, because unless you've got an answer to fix it you sure as hell ain't going to like the one I got.’ ‘Take control of the reins, stop sitting on the back of the saddle.’ No. 3 was the 11th commandment, ‘Thou shalt not whine.’”
There’s a fourth one: “Son, it's better to keep your mouth shut and let a man think you're a fool than open your mouth and he will know."
At the senior center last month, Hardy told a short story about driving into town with his father as a kid.
“My father used to bring me down here to this little road — many of you might remember, I’m sure this gentleman does, and so does she — when this was called Highland Drive,” Hardy began. “My dad used to bring beef down to a gentleman who was a butcher somewhere along this stretch of highway here, and that was my engagement with the darker side of ...” Hardy said, almost stopping himself, “West Las Vegas.”
The crowd chuckled uncertainly — maybe at the remark, maybe at Hardy’s obvious discomfort, maybe both. One woman laughed, echoing: “The darker side of town.”
Hooks said Hardy probably picked up the “darker side of town” phrase from him, as he uses it all the time in referencing black philosopher and social activist Cornel West.
“(West) talks about how we want to address the issues of poverty, but he says forgive him if he starts on the chocolate, or darker, side of town,” Hooks said.
Reflecting back on the moment, Hardy said he sometimes says things improperly and that people mistake his intentions. But he said he doesn’t try to be a smooth-talking politician.
“I didn’t mean to hurt somebody’s feelings. Here I’m stuck and thinking, ‘What do I say?’ I didn’t know. And it’s, well, no malice intended,” Hardy said. “I got myself in a corner.”
Hooks recalled cringing when Hardy said the remark. “And then I realized most people didn’t give a sh*t. Black people and brown people in this country have been accustomed to making accommodations for missteps coming out of people who represent leadership,” Hooks said. “What we won’t accept is the lack of willingness to improve. … If he’s making the same gaffes in two years, that’s a problem. But he’s saying, ‘I haven’t been black. I want to tell you this is my truth, but I’m willing to help everyone I serve.’”