Las Vegas Sun

January 16, 2018

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One year in, Nevada’s first female senator shares her progress and priorities

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Yvonne Gonzalez / Las Vegas Sun

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is shown at her Washington office Dec. 13, 2017, in front of photos of the Nevada senators who preceded her.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto Town Hall Meeting

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev) responds to a question during a town hall meeting at Las Vegas City Council Chambers Tuesday, April 18, 2017. Launch slideshow »

The Senate's first women

• 1922: Rebecca Latimer Felton, D-Ga., symbolically appointed for 24 hours.

• 1931: Hattie Wyatt Caraway, D-Ark., appointed to fill the seat of her deceased husband and later elected, serving until 1945.

• 1936: Rose McConnell Long, D-La., appointed and then elected to fill a vacancy left by her deceased husband.

• 1937: Dixie Bibb Graves, D-Ala., appointed by her husband and later resigned.

• 1938: Gladys Pyle, R-S.D., elected to fill a vacancy and did not run for the full term.

• 1948: Vera Cahalan Bushfield, R-S.D., appointed to fill a vacancy left by her deceased husband and later resigned.

• 1949: Margaret Chase Smith, R-Maine, first woman to serve in both houses of Congress, serving until 1973. She also campaigned to become the Republican nominee for president in 1964.

• In addition, 22 women are currently serving in the Senate

The Senate's Latin Americans

• 1928: Mexican-born Octaviano Ambrosio Larrazolo, R-N.M., became the first Hispanic American to serve in the U.S. Senate when he was elected to fill the unexpired term of New Mexico Sen. Andrieus A. Jones.

• 1935: Dennis Chavez, D-N.M., the first American-born Hispanic senator, served in the Senate from 1935 to 1962.

• 1964: Joseph M. Montoya, D-NM, served from 1964 to 1977.

• Currently serving: Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey (since 2006), and Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida (since 2010) and Ted Cruz of Texas (since 2012)

Twenty-six palm-sized portraits of Nevada’s U.S. senators hang on a wall here. The most recent portrait is not another man in a no-nonsense tie, but a pearl-wearing Latina whose election in 2016 made state history.

As the state’s first female senator and the chamber’s first Hispanic woman, Catherine Cortez Masto replaced former Sen. Harry Reid, a Democrat who in more than 30 years in office became one of the most powerful politicians in state history. He led the Senate majority and endorsed Cortez Masto immediately after she announced her candidacy.

Whether she could fill Reid’s shoes, she says, is a question she has had to answer often.

“When I was on the campaign trail, people would ask me that all the time, and I would say, ‘yeah, not only am I going to fill those shoes, I’m going to do it in heels,’ ” Cortez Masto said in mid-December, sitting in her second-floor office in the nation’s capital, near the Senate rules committee.

Cortez Masto was still moving into the space when she reflected on her first year as a senator. At the time, Congress was finalizing a massive tax reform bill that has since been signed into law by President Donald Trump.

“I joke, the biggest challenge I had when I initially got here was learning my way around because it is a maze,” she said. “It’s like anything. You’re going to learn. I’m a new senator, so you’re learning the rules.”

Michael Green, an associate history professor at UNLV, said Cortez Masto seemed to be adopting Reid’s style of getting her committee work done and focusing on constituents rather than seeking attention.

“It’s safe to say there has never been a more powerful Nevadan in Washington, D.C., than Harry Reid,” Green said. “Senate majority leader for eight years, in the leadership as long as he was, the longest-serving member of Congress from Nevada altogether — he’s a tough act to follow.”

Her first year was spent in a basement office with other new senators, learning the ropes and hunting down chocolate late at night for a sugar boost. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., remembers those late nights.

She and Cortez Masto were already friends. They met shortly after Harris was elected attorney general in 2010 and worked together as the states negotiated with the five big banks around the foreclosure crisis. They were both elected to the Senate in 2016 along with two other new Democratic women, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire.

“The election of 2016 was highly charged. The consequences were history-making in many ways in terms of the impact on a lot of people,” Harris said. “She and I basically came into the Senate with a lot of common priorities, including what we needed to do for Dreamers and our DACA kids.”

The first female senator, Rebecca Latimer Felton, D-Ga., was symbolically appointed in 1922 and served one day. The first woman elected to the office, Hattie Wyatt Caraway, D-Ark., served from 1931-1945. Of the 51 women ever to have served in Congress’ upper chamber, 22 are currently in office. Green said this is partially because of political and societal male dominance.

“Women have not had the political opportunities that men have had for a variety of reasons, ranging from our society and culture to the issues being discussed: How could a woman, the sexist trope went, say anything about defense issues when she isn’t in combat?” he said, noting that not all male politicians have served in the armed forces.

Cortez Masto, one of four minority women in the Senate, has hosted a series of diversity roundtables with women in her first year in office.

“Catherine assumed a role of leadership, making sure that people who work in the Senate have that kind of support,” Harris said.

Roots beyond Nevada

Nevada’s junior senator says her family’s background, with relatives from Mexico and Italy, influences her policies. Her paternal grandfather came to the U.S. from Mexico. “Through the Rio Grande, as my grandmother tells the story,” Cortez Masto says.

On her mother’s side, Cortez Masto has a great-grandfather from Italy who arrived at Ellis Island. Both of her parents came to Las Vegas as children with their families, later graduating from Las Vegas High School. The couple met after Cortez Masto’s father returned from South Korea, where he served in the Army.

She says her father, Manny Cortez, grew up in a trailer in North Las Vegas and parked cars at the Dunes when he was young. Her mother, Joanna, was a bookkeeper and community volunteer, working with service groups like Beta Sigma Phi.

Manny, who died in 2006, led the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority for 13 years and spent 15 years as a Clark County commissioner. He had a hand in launching the famous “What happens here, stays here” advertising campaign that helped revitalize Las Vegas.

“That appreciation for giving back in the community came from my parents and grandparents, because they were hard workers but they never forgot where they came from,” Cortez Masto said. “You don’t forget that when you succeed, others helped you get there, and so you help others as well.”

Deciding to run for office

After graduating with a finance degree from UNR and a law degree from Gonzaga, Cortez Masto was chief of staff for Democratic Gov. Bob Miller and eventually became an assistant U.S. attorney in D.C. She returned to Nevada to serve as an assistant Clark County manager, working on issues ranging from domestic violence prevention to drug trafficking.

“I spent a career solving problems in communities,” she said.

Then she decided to run for Nevada attorney general.

“I felt our state was dealing with a number of these issues, and that would give me the platform to solve those problems,” she said.

Cortez Masto served as attorney general from 2007 to 2015. She says this was an interesting time, when her priorities collided with the Great Recession and her focus was pushed in a new direction.

“Identity theft, the methamphetamine problems, senior protection issues, domestic violence. … When I went into 2007, that was my focus, and then the crisis hit and shifted everything,” she said of the economic downturn.

Her office was relatively small, with about 350 employees, and the state was asking departments to slash spending.

“I had to cut my budget 30 percent,” Cortez Masto said. “So it was a matter of how do we address this process (of cutting the budget), how do we focus on cuts and the housing crisis) and bring relief to homeowners.”

In 2015, Cortez Masto announced she would run to fill Reid’s vacant seat.

“We met when she came to Washington a few years back,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. “So when she decided she was going to get in the Senate race, I was one of her earliest and strongest supporters.”

In a race against Republican Congressman Joe Heck, Cortez Masto gave stump speeches that emphasized the $1.9 billion she helped bring to the state after the foreclosure-packed recession, according to the Associated Press.

“The lack of oversight at the federal level from regulators was palatable, and that’s why we were coming forward and saying we’ve got to do something about this,” Cortez Masto said.

In November 2016, she was elected in a heavily Hispanic state with 47 percent of the vote compared with Heck’s 44.7 percent.

Green says the race was contentious. Some Republicans shied away from then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, while Cortez Masto benefited from Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, especially in Nevada.

“You look at the vote for Clinton, the vote for Cortez Masto, they’re pretty close,” Green said, noting that the Hispanic community helped get the Senator elected to her first term (Nevada’s population is about 28 percent Hispanic, compared with 17 percent nationally, and its Hispanic voter turnout was slightly higher in 2016). “The turnout among this particular group was vital.”

Lessons from Congress

Cortez Masto took office Jan. 3, 2017, the day before Republicans started an unsuccessful campaign to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

“I got to cast a vote to fight against it,” she said. “To me, that’s what it’s about. You don’t forget that.”

She has sponsored four bills and co-sponsored dozens more, but few have moved past committee in the Republican-controlled Congress.

Green said it could be a good strategy to not anger colleagues of either party by constantly being out front on the attack.

“As a freshman in the minority, she has limited influence, except for an obvious fact: She is one of 100,” he said. “As partisan as the place seems, bipartisan cooperation does happen, and she certainly seeks that on behalf of her state and the issues that matter to her.”

Cortez Masto also has been advocating for a vote on the DREAM Act, legislation that would provide relief for some young immigrants who will lose deportation protection when the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program ends, and voted against a short-term spending plan that kept the government open through December, citing a lack of a solution for DACA recipients.

“I’m disappointed in the process from the very beginning, whether it’s health care or tax reform,” she said. “There has been a concerted effort by the majority to not only exclude the minority in this discussion, but to fast-track it and exclude the public in this process.”

Cortez Masto said she was fortunate to serve on the six committees she wanted, including the banking committee, where Warren also is a member.

Warren, elected in 2012, said that while she misses Reid and his ability as majority leader to be at the center of negotiations, Cortez Masto is tough and well-prepared.

“I get to watch her in action almost every week,” Warren said. “She worked hard for Nevada homeowners during the financial crisis, and now she brings that same determination to Congress.”

Harris and Cortez Masto were both in D.C. for freshmen orientation. She said starting in the Senate together was like going into a fight, and realizing she had someone on her side who’d been there before.

“She’s creative in the way that she thinks about issues,” Harris said. “She’s been really thinking creatively about, for example, how we can use social media to educate people about who the Dreamers are.”

Harris described her as a respectful listener who speaks strongly and does her homework.

“I have been in many rooms with Catherine when the people of Nevada needed a strong voice to fight for them and she has always been forceful in doing that, whether when it was as AG or U.S. senator,” Harris said. “Rooms where there were no cameras, there was just Catherine doing what Catherine does.”

Plans for the future

• Broadband for rural areas: The senator is signed on to the SPEED Act, a piece of legislation seeking to make it easier for rural areas to deploy broadband. Many see broadband as a boon to education, medicine and the economy, as it makes internet access faster and more widely available. Telemedicine services are especially crucial, connecting rural patients to doctors and reducing travel.

“They need access to rural broadband to bring them services, whether it’s telemedicine, education, you name it — even judicial services, they are lacking,” Cortez Masto said. “So it’s key. … My focus is on making sure we’re investing in bringing that rural broadband to those communities, investing in our green technology.”

Broadband projects can go through lengthy approval processes, often are expensive to install and implement, and usually require public-private partnerships. The SPEED Act eliminates what the bill sponsor, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., called “duplicative” reviews in permitting these projects.

• Tech research and training: Cortez Masto and Nevada’s Republican in the Senate, Dean Heller, are co-sponsors on the Safe DRONE Act, which focuses on research and training. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., engages community colleges in the process, which Cortez Masto said is a key piece.

“We’ve got drones, we’ve got unmanned vehicles,” Cortez Masto said of Nevada. “There’s a lot of new tech startup companies that are coming because of it.”

• Women in stem fields: Cortez Masto is the primary sponsor of the Senate version of the Code Like a Girl Act, following Rep. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., who sponsored the House version of the legislation. Though a Republican is co-sponsoring the Senate version, and four members of the GOP are supporting the bill in the House, neither bill has moved. The measures focus on supporting research and testing methods to keep more girls involved in science, technology, engineering and math. Women are underrepresented in these majors in higher education, and the bill would seek to support research that evaluates possible interventions that could encourage more young women to enter these fields.

“We’re in a technological age,” Cortez Masto said. “This is technology for the future, and we should be embracing it and putting up the guardrails where we need consumer protection as well as privacy. Wrapped in all of that, is that workforce development piece.”