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A word on Dennis Hof

David Colborne
David Colborne

With Hof’s recent passing, several obituaries reminded everyone that he ran a failed campaign against James Oscarson in 2016 as a Libertarian. Afterwards, he publicly left the Libertarian Party, joined the GOP, ran against Oscarson again (this time in the Republican primary), and won. Now, the Libertarian Party of Nevada’s recently released 2018 Voter Guide describes Dennis Hof thusly:

Preferred this candidate when he wasn’t playing to the "Trump” crowd to get elected. The people of Pahrump know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.

So how did Dennis Hof go from being one of the most successful candidates the Libertarian Party ever put on the ballot in Nevada to getting two stars out of five as the Republican “Trump of Pahrump” before he died? And what can aspiring Libertarian candidates learn from it? And what did Hof do for Nevada while he was alive?

Third party politics are both easy and hard. They’re easy, in that most third parties aren’t large enough to have sizeable, ideologically disparate coalitions that need to be stitched together. The Libertarian Party doesn’t need to somehow convince evangelical voters, for example, that Donald Trump is their best choice, nor do we need to convince young socialist-leaning voters that a candidate endorsed by 56 business executives is the one that best represents their interests.

The hard part, however, is that, until fairly recently, third parties just didn’t exist in any meaningful way. Sure, we might have gotten some candidates on the ballot, but how did people know they even existed? They were seldom interviewed, even more seldomly invited to debates, and few third-party candidates (especially at the local level) had the means or name recognition to make an impression.

Going into the 2016 election, it didn’t take a genius to realize that the electorate was flat-out done with business as usual. Ever since 2008, every winning political movement has promised change of some sort. Obama promised an optimistic vision, “hope and change.” Others promised a darker, more resentful vision. At first, Americans were willing to give optimism and hope a shot, but for a lot of people, “hope and change” looked an awful lot like business as usual, with the same cast of soulless reptilian vampires in three-piece suits occupying the same seats of power.

Guantanamo Bay was still open, troops were still in Afghanistan and Iraq, no bankers of note were sent to jail after the recession — there was even a fresh bank fraud scandal in the air. Optimism became a con, a ruse to sedate the masses. It was no longer enough to promise a brighter future for America. The electorate wasn’t interested in rearranging the political furniture. It wanted someone capable of busting down walls, Kool-Aid Man-style.

Dennis Hof saw the opportunity. So did Donald Trump. So did John McAfee. So did so many others.

Dennis Hof also saw an opportunity to settle some scores. He was mad at the Legislature for passing the largest tax increase in Nevada’s history. He was mad at the Nye County’s reflexively Republican government for constantly getting in his business about his business (mad enough, in fact, that one Nye County commissioner recently insinuated that Hof and his supporters might have him killed). So, in 2015, he decided to run for Senate.

Imagine, if you will, a three-way contest between Catherine Cortez-Masto, Joe Heck, and Libertarian Dennis Hof. Say what you will about the man, Hof knew how to get the media to report on his activities — and make an impression.

And the Nevada Libertarian Party wanted to make an impression, too. Having lived through a time when journalists wouldn’t cover even the most interestingly incompetent Libertarian candidates, much less the compellingly competent ones, I can happily say that things have changed — thanks to the internet. Column space is no longer scarce and expensive (nobody at The Indy has issued a word limit to me; one of these days, the editors here will live to regret that), every candidate is only an online search away, and, oh yes, the internet is forever.

Before we embraced Hof, though, we had some questions. Was this a clever end-run around NRS 201.430, like the Bunny Ranch Bar & Cigar, the Brothel Museum, or the other legal-to-advertise businesses most brothels operate within eyesight of their illegal-to-advertise businesses? What policies did Hof want to run on? How serious was he, really, about running?

We didn’t mind a publicity stunt — at least, not much — but we wanted equal billing and we wanted help cleaning up the mess.

Turned out Hof was quite serious, but also had no clue about what he was in for. A quick discussion around budgeting revealed that he was in no position to make a winnable dent in the race for US Senate - a $10+ million business for each candidate alone, not including various PACs. He then set his eyes on the state Senate (we ran someone else), and then, after thinking about the matter further, decided the Assembly would be a better start.

The only question was… where? Would he claim residency from his brothels in Lyon County and run against Jim Wheeler, or would he claim residency from his brothels in Pahrump and run against James Oscarson?

The path to making that decision is how I first met him.

I wasn’t the only person who was at the Bunny Ranch Bar & Cigar to help Hof make up his mind. At the time, I made two notable observations: First, difficulties with the mercurial Nye County Commission aside, Pahrump is far more culturally comfortable with sex work than either Lyon or Douglas County — hence why Nye County’s brothel ban bill died, while Lyon County’s lives on; sex work, meanwhile, is banned in Douglas County — and would consequently be far more amenable to considering Hof on his political merits. Second, if he wanted the Libertarian Party to support him, there was a lot more volunteer support to be had near Clark County (and 70 percent of Nevada’s electorate) than anywhere else in Nevada.

I asked about his key issues. He wanted to get rid of the Commerce Tax, reduce government spending, and, unlike several Republicans, didn’t seem particularly interested in micromanaging which bathrooms Nevada’s students belonged in. Drug legalization? You’re kidding, right? Honestly, the more I talked to the guy, the more I thought he wasn’t half bad. Sure, his reputation preceded him, but on a personal level, I found him gracious and gregarious, in a working-class blue collar sort of way, and, from a Libertarian point of view, he seemed quite reasonable. At the very least, he was a marked improvement over any Republican he was thinking of running against.

We then talked about his campaign team and strategy — and that’s when I knew we had a problem. He didn’t have one. In fact, he expected us to give him one.

Political parties, when run tolerably effectively, can help put candidates in the same room as professionals with campaign experience — but candidates, especially high profile candidates like Dennis Hof, need campaign managers who can give them their full attention. Dennis needed a staff that was accountable to him and his constituents, not to a political party.

Dennis initially tapped his business team to work the campaign, and they tried to work it the same way they handled the rest of his work. Their first draft of his campaign website featured a picture of Reno (which is nowhere near Pahrump) from over a decade ago, a picture of Dennis Hof smoking a cigar with a Bunny Ranch-branded hat, and, I wish I was kidding, a Libertarian porcupine sodomizing a Bunny Ranch logo.

Even for Pahrump, this was pushing things a bit.

To Dennis’ credit, he fixed the website and, later on, separated his professional interests (link not safe for work) from his political interests on Twitter. However, that initial misstep revealed a fundamental issue for the Hof 2016 campaign: he was surrounded by people who assumed his campaign was part of his act. In fact, his campaign didn’t even start putting up signs until a month before Election Day — a problem when, despite certain people’s objections, people frequently vote well before then. It was sadly unsurprising, then, that he didn’t even receive 40 percent of the vote.

And unfortunately, we weren’t the only ones whispering in his ear. Michele Fiore and John Moore were also around — and, unlike me, they were willing to spend the night on his property. From their perspective, the problem was that Dennis had aligned himself with the Libertarians. Real electoral success, according to the Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Libertarian assemblyman who voted for two tax hikes in his only two votes as a Libertarian before he received a historically terrible 6 percent of the vote in his re-election, would be found by listening to the real grown-ups in the room. (You know, these people. Real professional grown-ups, the lot of them.)

After that election loss, the Libertarian Party and Dennis Hof went their own ways.

In 2018, Dennis plastered Nye County with signs announcing that he was glad to be a Republican, announced he was the “Trump of Pahrump,” and ran a campaign to “Make Nevada Nevada Again.” This included an obligatory nod against immigration, an issue the Legislature has no control over per federal law, as well as a promise to allow existing well users in Pahrump to continue to drain the same water table that was noticeably declining when I graduated from high school there twenty years ago.

Meanwhile, the Libertarian Party of Nevada politely but firmly asked our chair — the man responsible for recruiting John Moore and Dennis Hof — to go away before he did any further damage.

Outside of politics, it’s true, as was noted here, that Dennis modernized Nevada’s brothel industry. Though there may have been a measure of kindness in this, he also rightly recognized that there was no money anymore in offering sex to increasingly overworked and underpaid truckers. Instead, the real money was in selling popularity, in selling parties, in selling fun. He built his reputation on being the ultimate libertine, the guy you talked to if you had a hole in your pocket and wanted a good time, regardless of the consequences or moral repercussions.

If you were a techbro during the dot-com bubble, flush with recently cashed stock options, and wanted to know how much popularity your money could buy, Hof was your guy. If you were a professional athlete and wanted to entertain beautiful, sexually available women without worrying about certain consequences after the fact, Hof was your guy. Hof presented himself as a real-life Slurms MacKenzie, the ultimate party animal — and, well, if he happened to get high on his own supply from time to time and benefited from the same crooked system that empowered Conforte and the like to abuse their women, what of it?

He earned his reputation, in other words. For good and ill.

Just as the market for sex work was changing when Hof entered the brothel industry, the market is changing again today. The days of booth babes are done, which reflects a growing realization through American tech and business culture that a lot of people, men and women alike, rightly find the idea of turning sex into workplace-imposed mandatory fun of the “fifteen pieces of flair” variety morally reprehensible.

As we easily intuit when the problem seems an ocean away instead of in our backyard, bringing debauchery into the workplace is far more about emotional manipulation and enforced loyalty than it is about hedonistic pleasure. Meanwhile, the idea that sex work is work is slowly but steadily gaining traction. This means people — voters, politicians, and sex workers — are less likely to buy the idea that sex workers deserve to be exploited.

Hof’s act won’t be repeated, and it probably won’t be missed. He won’t, however, be forgotten.


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