Editor’s note: We are pleased to publish this advance excerpt from this year’s Almanac of American Politics, the Bible of the American political landscape that provides state-by-state sections. This excerpt profiles Nevada's governor. We will have another section Monday on the site.
Steve Sisolak – a longtime commissioner in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas – became the first Democrat to win the Nevada governorship in two decades, defeating Republican Adam Laxalt by four percentage points in 2018. “He’s been called a bully and a bulldozer, but also a dealmaker and a moderate,” the Reno Gazette Journal has written. “For critics, he’s at once too conservative and too liberal — a union-busting budget hawk and a union-loving tax-and-spender. It speaks to Steve Sisolak’s political staying power that he’s been so many things to so many people for so long.” Sisolak entered office in a strong position, with expanded Democratic majorities in the legislature.
Sisolak grew up in Wauwatosa Wisconsin, near Milwaukee. His father worked as a General Motors design engineer; his mother worked in a convenience store. When Sisolak was 10, his father found himself laid off for three years. Sisolak worked his way through college at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He came to Las Vegas in 1976 to pursue an MBA at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. After earning his degree, Sisolak built a direct-marketing business and raised two daughters as a single father. In 1979, during a snowstorm, the power went out as Sisolak’s appendix was being operated on, and he nearly died. That brought him back to Catholicism; he’s said that he attends mass daily.
From 1999 to 2008, Sisolak served on the Nevada Board of Regents, then served on the Clark County Commission from 2009 to 2019, the final six years as its chairman. On the commission, “he comes across like a gadfly in politician’s clothes, demanding accountability for every dollar spent and questioning policies he thinks make no sense,” the Las Vegas Review-Journal wrote in 2010. At times he was accused of being too close to unions, but he also “alienated the firefighters’ union so much that he received email telling him not to expect red trucks if his house goes up in flames,” the newspaper reported. Critics accused him of playing close to the ethical edge. In 2005, he won a $16 million settlement in an eminent domain case, in which he argued that county height limits near McCarran International Airport hurt the value of land he owned nearby. Then, after he was on the county commission, it awarded a six-figure contract to the attorney who had won him the settlement. “From towing and cab companies to real estate developers and trash haulers, Sisolak has been no stranger to well-publicized controversies about his votes on matters that affected a campaign donor,” the Reno Gazette-Journal wrote. But Sisolak championed the Vegas Golden Knights expansion NHL team and a stadium deal that enabled the Oakland Raiders to move to Las Vegas in 2020.
Sisolak considered running for governor in 2014 against popular Republican incumbent Brian Sandoval, but decided against it. Sandoval had been elected Nevada’s first Latino governor in 2010 and was reelected with token opposition in 2014. Handsome and telegenic, Sandoval was initially heralded as a trailblazer in Republican circles, but his un-Republican stances on abortion, immigration and tort reform – exacerbated by his support for a tax hike to boost spending on education in 2015 – led Sandoval to become increasingly isolated within the GOP. Notably, Sandoval broke with Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt on several occasions, including Laxalt’s desire to join a multistate lawsuit against President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration.
Laxalt easily won the 2018 gubernatorial primary over state Treasurer Dan Schwartz. On the Democratic side, the main contenders were both Clark County commissioners – Sisolak and Chris Giunchigliani. Giunchigliani, bolstered by a late robocall from Hillary Clinton, ran to Sisolak’s left, spotlighting a questionnaire he had filled out during a 1996 candidacy in which he opposed medical marijuana, same-sex marriage and expanded gun control measures. Sisolak brushed off the criticism, saying that his views had shifted leftward enough to fit comfortably into the 2018 Democratic mainstream. “Like many people, you learn and grow as times change,” he told the Reno Gazette Journal. As a top city official, Sisolak played a high-profile role in the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas that left 58 dead; he later called bump stocks, which enabled that massacre, “killing machines” that should be banned immediately. While Giunchigliani won the backing of the Nevada State Education Association and the Sierra Club, Sisolak had the crucial support of former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who, even in declining health, controlled a legendary Democratic political machine. Sisolak ended up winning, 52%-40%.
Sisolak’s general election opponent had a golden name in the state: Paul Laxalt, the candidate’s grandfather, had served as a Republican governor and senator from Nevada. To win his 2014 race for attorney general, Laxalt pulled off the unprecedented achievement of losing the state’s two big urban counties (Washoe, which includes Reno, and Clark) yet winning the more rural counties by large enough margins to cancel out the urban losses. In late 2017, longtime Nevada political observer Jon Ralston of The Nevada Independent called Laxalt the early “favorite” to become the state’s next governor, although Ralston raised several concerns that would indeed come to hamper the Republican’s candidacy, including a lack of experience, a thin history of living in the state (Laxalt had grown up in Washington D.C.), and a contentious four years as attorney general. Embarrassingly for the candidate, a dozen Laxalt family members penned an op-ed opposing their relative in the Reno Gazette Journal, saying they wanted to “protect” the family name “from being leveraged and exploited.” They highlighted Laxalt’s policies on illegal immigration, which they say disrespected the family’s history in the United States, which began with a legal Basque immigrant in 1900. Laxalt’s aunt even appeared in a Sisolak campaign ad.
Sandoval pointedly did not endorse his fellow Republican Laxalt, and while the outgoing governor never officially endorsed Sisolak, the Democrat aligned himself with some of Sandoval’s most popular policies, especially his efforts to boost spending on schools. The national political environment gave Sisolak some wind at his back. The 2018 election had a strongly Democratic lean, and a closely watched Senate race involving vulnerable incumbent Republican Dean Heller gave Nevada added attention. “The Democratic Party nationally needs to emulate what Nevada has been doing since the beginning of 2015, which is organizing early, organizing everywhere," Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez told NPR. President Donald Trump’s endorsement of Laxalt probably did not help him. Sisolak won, 49%-45%, and he swept into office with a bigger Democratic majority in the legislature and Democratic takeovers of the offices of lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer and controller.
Once in office, Sisolak signed an executive order establishing a sexual harassment task force, and in his first State of the State address, he backed funding increases for health care and education as well as a minimum-wage boost. He reiterated his support for banning bump stocks and said he backed increasing the state’s energy standard to 50 percent renewable by 2030. He proposed renaming McCarran International Airport in honor of Reid – Pat McCarran’s controversial tenure in the Senate had increasingly drawn scrutiny – while rechristening Reno’s airport in honor of Paul Laxalt, his opponent’s grandfather.
Copyright @ 2019 The Almanac of American Politics. This feature was provided by and is included in The Almanac of American Politics 2020 edition set to be released in August 2019. To learn more about this publication or purchase a copy, visit www.almanacofamericanpolitics.com.