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May 22, 2019

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Nicole Cannizzaro’s effectiveness as majority leader is seen in her roots

Nicole Cannizzaro

Andy Barron / Reno Gazette-Journal

Nevada Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro speaks at Pints and Politics, a monthly event hosted by the Reno Gazette-Journal for community members to interact with state elected officials.

CARSON CITY — Nevada Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro remembers the suits.

Her mother, a waitress, worked in a cafe near the courthouse in Las Vegas. Cannizzaro’s father would drop her off there after school on his way to his job as a bartender.

She would do homework while her mother wrapped up her shift, watching as the lawyers poured in from the courthouse dressed in their nice suits.

“I always was really fascinated by the lawyers that used to come in there because they all wore suits and had yellow notepads, and I didn’t know anybody that went to work like that,” she said. “My parents wore uniforms, and I didn’t see them in a lot of suits.”

They made quite an impression, as Cannizzaro went on to become a lawyer. She also became an elected official, and now the 36-year-old is the first woman Senate majority leader in Nevada history.

Growing up

She remembered the suits for the rest of her childhood. When she took a skills test in the eighth grade, she recalls stressing over what it might reveal.

“I remember thinking, ‘What if 'lawyer' doesn’t come up on this skill test? What am I going to do?’” she said. “But it did. Luckily it did, and I was so excited about it.”

Her first exposure to politics was a school assignment, including a mock vote, on the 1992 election — Ross Perot, she thinks, won in her school. She went home and asked her parents who they were voting for in the election.

“I was really fascinated with that particular election and I remember desperately wanting my parents to tell me ‘Who do you like? Who are you voting for?’” she said.

Her parents wouldn’t reveal their choice because they believed people should make up their own minds without an outside influence. It’s a lesson Cannizzaro said has stayed with her. Her home life, she said, was not rife with political opinion.

Early political life

Her interest in politics was piqued during an internship while attending the William S. Boyd School of Law at UNLV, in which she saw how the legislative process happened while working for a law firm. She developed an opinion that the Legislature could make a difference in people’s lives there.

“The state legislative level, I think, is a great place to do that. It is close enough to the people that you really get a feel for the folks you represent.”

She was in the “right place at the right time” when she decided to run for office. She received suggestions to run from colleagues when she began talking about issues that someone should tackle in the Legislature.

Cannizzaro won in 2016 by about 1,000 votes. Soon after her election, she faced a recall attempt, one that was mired, she said, in political maneuvering and manipulation. The recall attempt has been tied up in the courts almost since its beginning, with one of the central issues being whether it is constitutional for signees to remove their signatures.

Nevada requires signatures from 25 percent of the voters who participated in the last general election in order to trigger a recall election. Cannizzaro was not the only lawmaker to face a recall attempt. Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, D-Henderson, and then-Sen. Patricia Farley, I-Las Vegas, also faced recall.

If the seats had flipped, Republicans would have gained a majority of the Senate. Instead, it’s the Democrats.

Cannizzaro speaks forcefully of the recall effort, calling it a type of politics that gives the public a bad opinion of the process. While she said the ability to recall officials is needed, the recall effort in 2017 was manipulative and undemocratic.

“I think that the people who were behind this should be ashamed of that,” she said. “If there’s a legitimate reason to recall an elected official, you absolutely should have that reason, but to say we’re going to try to flip a chamber in a statehouse by utilizing this recall provision and harassing voters … is inappropriate.”

Her move to the majority leader happened after the resignation of then-Sen. Kelvin Atkinson, D-Las Vegas, after campaign finance violation charges were levied against him. Cannizzaro found out the night before.

“From that point, I think, the sole focus for both myself and for staff (was) to make sure we could continue to move forward with the legislative session,” she said.

The transition, she said, was helped by a Democratic front that was already moving on certain pieces of policy.

“I think we are really lucky because a lot of what we said, ‘we want to come here and accomplish’ were driven by members’ bills, by pieces of legislation that they have been working on, by topics that they have been advocates and champions for a long time” she said. “To the extent that we as a caucus were making decisions about what’s important to us, I think that was something that was member-driven. That wasn’t something that we had to re-create in any fashion.”

Sen. Yvanna Cancela, D-Las Vegas, said Cannizzaro is skilled at maintaining the goals of the Democratic caucus while taking other parties’ opinions into account. “What I think makes Sen. Cannizzaro a really effective leader is her willingness to listen to and learn from caucus members,” she said. “But also, her ability to keep us focused on the importance of the work we’re doing.”

She cited an example for Cannizzaro working with the business community on a recent bill implementing paid sick leave for private employees. “That’s no small feat,” she said.

Future of the 2019 session

Cannizzaro is not afraid to make her opinions known but said she supports, on an ideological level, good policies for the state, regardless of their party of origin. Republican-backed and bipartisan bills have moved through the Senate Judiciary Committee, which she chairs, in a session in which Democrats don’t necessarily need Republican help to move policy.

“Just because someone’s a Democrat or a Democrat brings a bill doesn’t mean we always are in favor of it or that it’s the right policy at the right time,” she said.

Sen. Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, said that while the parties, by definition, have disagreements, Cannizzaro is a fair legislator, and took over well in difficult circumstances.

“She’s capable of looking at the long term, capable of leading in the short term and capable of taking over the helm in difficult circumstances,” he said.

Before her move to the majority leader position, she received praise from Republican lawmakers after she led the hearing on the controversial background check bill — a day-long affair in which tempers flared and many citizens spoke.

Cannizzaro said that no legislator only represents constituents of one party, so to outright ignore policy from the other side of the aisle wouldn’t be fair to those she represents.

“Not everyone in my district is a Democrat. I represent a lot of Republicans and nonpartisans and Independents and Green Party and Libertarians,” she said.

The policies up for debate are about to get narrowed, however. A committee passage deadline on Friday has led to some positions, like that of Democratic Las Vegas Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo’s death penalty ban, to likely be dead in the water.

“I think as we start to see pieces of legislation not make it past the deadline, we can kind of refocus where we think the important pieces are and make sure that what we’re passing is really good policy,” she said.

Issues like renewable energy, health care accessibility and transparency and affordable housing are still priorities, she said.

“In some ways, I think some of the other things we’re trying to do, that you can’t get there on because there isn’t funding for it or because you just didn’t have time to get that policy really worked out to where people felt comfortable enough to vote it out, certainly we’ll spend less time on some of that stuff,” she said.