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A pundit's impatience

The Nevada Legislature as seen on March 18, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

If you cover politics for any length of time, it’s easy to become irritated, even irritable.

The artifice, so often clumsy and transparent. The superficiality, so much the rule and not the exception. And the hypocrisy, so bipartisan and so frequent.

I have become more Zen about all of it with experience, and politics is still, as a friend once put it, the only game for adults. But even in the Era of Zen Jon, I find myself suffering from pandemic levels of impatience during the coronavirus crisis.

You want to think that a crisis brings out the best in people – and it has, especially in the regular folks you see highlighted in our “Nevada Interrupted” series. But so much of what I have seen during the last six weeks has showcased why people hate politics:  The black and white nature of the “dialogue” sans nuance. And it has accentuated the worst traits in political animals – providing a window painful to look through but helpful to highlight for the future.

I still hope there is a reckoning for those who behaved so badly during this time, and I will do my part once it is over to remind people who rose and who fell, what was real and what was fabricated. A partial catalogue of what has challenged my Zen outlook:

---The Sisolak pile-on: Nothing has so shined a light on the current state of politics better than the reaction to Gov. Steve Sisolak’s handling of the crisis. Facts have taken a hiatus. Pandering to the LCD has come to the fore. Shamelessly looking for political advantage has won the day.

I come not to praise Sisolak, nor to bury him. My thoughts on what he has done have not been a secret. Distilled: He has had to make difficult choices, has not always communicated his intentions all that well and generally has stepped up in making agonizing life and death choices – real and economic.

I am not surprised he has been criticized – comes with the job. What confounds me is what these critics think he is thinking.

Do they believe he reveled in shutting down the state, knowing the economic devastation that would come and that eventually the budget problems would fall on his shoulders?

Do they believe that he wanted to coax the state’s biggest economic players and his largest campaign contributors to shutter their businesses, causing incalculable damage now and into the future?

Do they believe he is some tinpot dictator who wants to brandish his power and destroy the economy and people’s lives even though he will ultimately be the elected official who most wears the political damage?

It is as illogical as one of those grammatically challenged, scrawled posters by protesters posing as patriots and acting like mindless thugs. It’s one thing to criticize Sisolak’s management of the crisis – his initial lack of specificity, the unemployment insurance mess, his deadline decisions that seemed inconsistent. But this pandemic presents no benefits for a governor, even if his numbers are robust in the short term in Democratic and Republican polls. All states, but especially one as backwards as Nevada in public health and funding services, will be affected for a long, long time.

And if you want to pummel his plan, I have a question: Where’s yours? I don’t mean bullet points issued by minority caucuses seeking relevance and bereft of substance or failed foes such as Adam Laxalt, strutting around the internet like Lord Farquaad making hollow, narcissistic pronouncements. (I ask you to imagine the coronavirus cluster on Las Vegas Boulevard South if Laxalt and his sycophantic apparatchiks were in charge.)

Sisolak shut down the state before most governors closed theirs. He probably saved many lives. The rest is details.

---The Invisible Branch: I’ve already alluded to the GOP caucuses in the Legislature, which had minimal relevance last session and less in the interim, performing a combination of genuflection to their base (OPEN THE STATE NOW) and anodyne proposals that could have been written on the back of an envelope. A few have retweeted conspiracy nonsense; one went into a Twitter frenzy like a beekeeper being chased by his own bees.

Fine. That amused me more than irritated me.

But there is a real question about the solvency of the state budget, and while constitutionally questionable interim committees can do some things, one of the roles of a legislative branch is oversight – especially in a crisis. I don’t think GOP calls for a special session should be summarily dismissed – it would take the governor or two-thirds of the Gang of 63 to convene one -- and my colleague, Orrin Johnson, has been on this for awhile.

Democratic lawmakers generally have been silent – except for the usual social media stuff congratulating the governor or themselves. But that party controls the Legislature, and I wonder if it has occurred to Speaker Jason Frierson or Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro that they should be calling for a special session to evaluate the governor’s plans and lay out a strategy for dealing with what is going to be a crippling deficit.

Yes, the quaint anachronism known as biennial sessions already hampers Nevada budgeting and planning. But an entire branch of state government has rendered itself voiceless during arguably the greatest non-wartime crisis in the state’s history, simply by standing on the sidelines and letting the governor do what he is doing.

Maybe it’s not feasible to have the Legislature meet because of social distancing and a Zoom session may be too chaotic. But even an agenda as narrow as voting to ratify or reject the governor’s plan for the state (even without the force of law) and to discuss possible budget solutions before the regular session next year, when it almost surely will be very damaged, makes some sense. (I wonder if they already would have met had Laxalt been governor.)

Nevada is already one of – if not THE – strongest executive branches in the country. But just because the guy is of the same party doesn’t mean you abdicate your role. (Looks eastward, sees where this is happening.)

---Electing to perform: I hope what certain governments have done during this time will be long remembered, even with the Memento-like memories of too many voters. It is simply shocking to see how some have debased or embarrassed themselves.

Mayor Control Group (convenient that the initials are the same for Carolyn Goodman) has made Las Vegas a national laughingstock, and her seals on the council – Michele Fiore, Victoria Seaman and Stavros Anthony – are like some mob underlings cowering before the capo. Fiore’s production of a video with people praising Goodman was the reductio ad absurdum of this spectacle. Any mayor with remaining self-respect would have resigned in disgrace, or her friends would have helped her see that as the wisest course. Instead she faces a recall, and she meets the requirements.

The Washoe County Commission’s attempt (Kitty Jung excepted) to pander to the president and the GOP base by joining in a lawsuit hyping the already debunked drug hydroxychloroquine – and then withdrawing it would have been sitcom-level funny if it were not so dangerous. I know how ambitious Chairman Bob Lucey is – he has told people he wants Mark Amodei’s congressional seat. But Lucey: You got some ‘splainin’ to do.

Those are the two most egregious examples. (Henderson – Dan Stewart excepted -- voting for $60 million in bonds for a Golden Knights minor league arena during a budget bludgeoning gets honorable mention.)

Luckily, some jurisdictions have seen strong, forceful and honest leadership. Clark County Commission Chairman Marilyn Kirkpatrick and Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve come to mind.

Their good deeds probably will not go unpunished. But I hope the bad the others did is not interred with this crisis.

---The real Nevadans: Finally, the so-called protesters, who made news in Las Vegas and Carson City and were glorified by one outlet despite being a very small minority, are the epitome of what is wrong with politics. Some of them, I am sure, are fine people – angry about lost jobs and near-bankruptcies, looking for an outlet. But many – probably most – are an amalgam of non-voters, out-of-staters and rabble-rousers riled up by elected officials and candidates, egged on by the Trump campaign and the state GOP.

“Trust Trump, F**k Sisolak” read one of their thoughtful signs last weekend at the mansion. Their chants of “USA, USA,” while they waved Trump banners and screamed at the sky, show what happens when raw anger is manipulated by political grifters and candidates desperate for attention.

I missed where they were denounced by GOP elected officials for that mansion performance or for some of their signs. I missed where Republican leaders called for calm and rationality. I missed where, even after SWAT was called, the GOP elite said there was not a reason in the world to bring guns to a putative political protest.

The extremes on both sides are the worst. I have often said the far left is the nastiest, but the far right is the scariest.

To see a governor fearing for his wife’s safety in his own home, to see candidates for Congress mouthing idiotic slogans and to see good people stand silent: Yes, that makes me very irritable.

Jon Ralston is the editor of The Nevada Independent. He began covering Nevada politics in 1986.

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