Is democracy inside Nevada's political parties getting battered?

by Steve Miller

ere in Nevada there’s often a distinct tension between people in the political parties who have the ideological energy, and those have control of the state organizations.

Whether it is liberals and leftists of varying stripes in Democratic ranks or committed conservatives and libertarians on the Republican side, the complaints are remarkably similar: that the party establishments repeatedly demonstrate complete indifference to the goals and values of the party rank-and-file.

In late March the Clark County Republican convention was the occasion for one such display. Supporters of gubernatorial candidate Aaron Russo and some other observers contend that delegates who had followed party bylaws to get elected at the precinct level were scorned by the Republican establishment. Instead, party officials chose to wink at a bogus "self-nomination" process used by operatives of gubernatorial candidate Kenny Guinn and illegally seat hundreds of Guinn partisans without credentials.

But it’s not only populist Republicans who are griping. A number of Nevada Democrats also report their own party’s commitment to "small-d" democracy is looking increasingly spotty. In both southern and northern Nevada, different sources report, top state party officials, at the apparent direction of Senator Harry Reid, have been exerting distinct pressure behind the scenes to discourage grassroots activism.

It’s a sensitive subject within both parties. No one wants to make his or her own party look bad vis-a-vis the competition—especially with an election looming. Also, within each party, nobody Nevada Journal interviewed was eager to anger the current wielders of power—those atop the state organizations and those controlling the big money faucets. So even when people would talk the conversations were often guarded and dotted with phrases like "you didn’t hear that from me." Yet a clear picture emerges. And it is that Nevada has generated a unique kind of machine politics.

Machine politics—in Nevada?

That’s the analysis of Mylan Hawkins, a political consultant who has worked for candidates on both sides of the political aisle in Nevada and also directed the successful statewide grassroots Campaign for Choice initiative in 1989 and 1990.

"Nevada, in terms of political organization, is maybe 150 years behind where I came from, which was Chicago," she says. "There, under the ward system, every single block is integrated into the party structure. But in Nevada we’ve not been able to develop that level of organization." Hawkins acknowledges the dark side of Chicago-style organization at the grassroots—that it can lend itself to the establishment of a machine. But, she says, the absence of such grassroots organization can also produce a political machine of a different type—such as the one that, she claims, now dominates Nevada politics.

"That machine is very happy about the absence of strong grassroots organization in either party," she says. "If you know that you are part of a group that can reliably benefit and achieve its interests in a situation where maybe only 34 percent of the registered voters turn out to vote, why should you change?"

In Hawkins’ view, the absence of strong organization at the grassroots in Nevada stems from the state’s unique situation.

"Nevada is going through some tremendous changes," she says. "A lot of people are coming into the state—many of them turned off from politics and dropped out." Also, the state’s transient population, she points out, has handicapped efforts for activists to organize their neighbors.

But the absence of grassroots organization at the base of each party also appears to result from the specific hostility of the powerful. Because political power at the grassroots would challenge the machine’s control, the growth of rank-and-file activism in either party is routinely subtly undercut.

One way this is done, Hawkins argues, is by machine efforts to discourage attention to hot political issues—and lull folks into passivity. She uses the analogy of the frog in the pot of water to describe the tendencies of voters in general. Because most people are busy earning a living, observes Hawkins, it’s only "hot" issues that will mobilize them. And in the absence of such stimuli, most will more or less ignore whatever is going on and attend to their personal livelihoods. Therefore, she says, those whose power rests to some degree on public inattention "have a tendency" to discourage anything that might get people stirred up at the grass roots—such as hot issues.

That tendency, sometimes, is not at all subtle. When Martha Gould, who ran unsuccessfully for Reno mayor in 1994, was asked whether self-anointed powerbrokers are explicitly seeking to discourage competition, her answer was emphatic.

"Oh, very much so," she said. "Very much so. When I ran for office, I was told flat out that they [downtown businessmen] were going to get [current Reno mayor] Jeff Griffin elected. And it was sort of like, ‘Don’t even bother to run, Mrs. Gould, because we will defeat you.’" Recently elected Washoe County Democratic Chairman Shane Piccinini believes that Gould’s subsequent defeat largely resulted from the weak and stagnant condition of the Washoe County Democratic organization at the time.

"It was exactly what killed her," he said. Which was, in part, why Piccinini and a team of other local reformers last year proposed a very basic program of reforms—membership recruitment, candidate training, public relations, finances and campaign coordination. Yet, despite what a local majority saw as clear evidence of the need for such renovation, there was resistance. Some elements on the central committee met the proposals with charges that the pleasant Piccinini would personally have too much power.

Looking back, one member of the reform team now suspects that some individuals on the Central Committee actually preferred a weak and ineffective Democratic Party organization. But the impression that there are powerful players in Nevada politics who do not want strong party organizations is not restricted to Democrats. When former GOP activist Jerry Winkler stepped down from his party’s state chairmanship in 1996 he issued a letter stating "there are those" who don’t want the Republicans to achieve their goals. He refused to identify who he was talking about.

In the Washoe County Democrats’ case, Piccinini and some members of the team announced last December that they would run for the party’s county offices. But it was soon no secret that U.S. Senator Harry Reid—whose staffer, Paul Henry, had recently been appointed state party chairman—was not supporting the Washoe reform slate. Reid’s backing instead went, according to sources speaking to Nevada Journal, to the later-announced candidacy of John Mulligan—law partner of major-league Nevada power-broker, lawyer and casino industry lobbyist Samuel McMullen. Rather than any populist-Democrat tendencies, the McMullen organization is better known for its representation— and pursuit—of wealth. Once, when a longtime Nevada political reporter was asked for background on the famed lobbyist, the answer was: "The glass alone, in his Caughlin Ranch house, costs more than most houses. He’s got a huge mansion up there." Notwithstanding lack of support from the top of the state party, Piccinini and most of his group still won their elections. But they had difficulty raising money and were subjected to a very effective whispering campaign in union circles alleging that they were "anti-labor." It felt, said one participant, like the McMullen organization had pulled out all the stops.

Martha Gould herself, elected vice chairman on the Piccinini ticket, is eager for any remaining differences remaining from the fray to be smoothed over prior to this November’s contest. She emphasizes—indeed, goes out of her way to volunteer—her very strong support for Senator Reid’s reelection.

In her view, the attitude at the top of the Nevada parties is best described as "pragmatic." "The approach is a very businesslike approach. Bottom line is, in this day and age, if the big boys don’t support you [for an office]—and I don’t care what party you belong to—you’re not going to get the money, and that makes running very hard. And if you can’t buy the air time [for campaign advertising], it makes the running very hard."

As campaign finance reports to the Secretary of State’s office often show in detail, the state’s financial "big boys" usually operate through both major parties. Several factors facilitate this. One is the relative concentration of the state’s wealth in just one particular industry. A second is the fact that the big donors’ priorities have, historically, been relatively non-ideological. And a third, perhaps, are attitudes left over from when Nevada’s population was much smaller. In that era, candidates often personally knew a large proportion of their constituents and personal relationships could count more than positions on issues. Today that legacy is often used to downplay overt party allegiance. The result, of course, is to weaken party identity. To the extent that the same interests can operate behind the scenes with both parties’ leaderships, the parties tend to become indistinguishable on the issues of concern to those interests. Likewise, those leaderships begin to effectively share priorities. This means that the concerns of the rank-and-file in each party tend to receive little more than lip service.

The result, asserts one non-Democrat activist well known in Clark County, is a de facto consortium between the two major parties. "All over the country—and you can find it in Nevada, too—there are deals made between Democrats and Republicans: ‘We’ll take these seats; you take those seats. And we won’t run anybody to oppose you.’ Because nobody can afford to tick off that kind of money anymore."

The result, asserts this source, is that Nevada political competition is increasingly merely a public shadow play. Though much ballyhoo is given to registering of new voters, no actual party-building activities are really going on.

"You do not see anybody out there within the party, actively recruiting candidates any more," says this woman. "You don’t do those things anymore. How many big primaries do you see anymore? The one that went on [in 1994 between] Jan Jones and Bob Miller was absolutely done through anger at the party."

And as punishment for going up against the establishment’s Miller, says this activist—well-acquainted with Jones and Clark County politics—"Jan Jones lost her shot" at being the Democratic nominee for Congress. "She ticked everyone off because she wasn’t a team player," says this source.

It’s also highly significant, she says, that the Democratic Party chose to essentially lie down before the casinos’ anointing of Kenny Guinn. That it put up no serious candidate shows the consortium in action, she says.

To the extent that a largely undemocratic consortium tends to dominate Nevada politics today, its days appear numbered. A larger, less transient population seems to be in Nevada’s future, making solid grassroots organization of precincts more feasible. Also, the rise of the Internet is encouraging the rise of well-informed communities of interest across the state. And finally, the national spread of gambling increasingly means that economic growth in Nevada’s future will come more from economic diversification within the state—breaking down the single-industry uniformity of contributor interest. u

Steve Miller is a Nevada Journal contributing editor.


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