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Behind enemy lines

Buttons promoting voting at the University of Nevada on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019 during national voter registration day. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Making enemies is a sad fact of life. Some foes are real, personal and dangerous. Others come from grudges. For instance, I doubt I will ever forgive Wooster High School for beating us my senior year in the 1994 Nevada High School State Football Championship. And after breaking my heart with a victory over the UNLV Runnin Rebels in 1991, I would cheer against Duke Basketball if they played a team assembled from death-row with the fate of the world in balance. Bobby Knight, Orel Hershiser, and the NCAA can all get lost, too. 

On what end of the enemy spectrum do we find our political adversaries?

Over the last 15 years, I have worked on or for numerous political campaigns and elected officials, 99 percent of the time for Republicans. During the heat of the campaign or a legislative session, it was easy to see nemesis in our Democratic opponents. We disagreed about policy, sure. But their winning also meant our losing, and defeat is painful. Few people understand how hard it is to run for office and serve. Candidates, families, friends sacrifice much. So do the armies of volunteers, who work long hours doing mostly joyless work — not for fame, money, or future jobs, but because they believe in the cause.  

Looking back, even my worst moments make for good stories, if not fond memories. During 2018 alone, while handing out literature in various neighborhoods, I helped hang Halloween decorations, had a gun pulled on me, and saw my car nearly totaled. In multiple elections, my home has served as a makeshift campsite for volunteers in town from other states, some of whom were clearly not ready to handle all that Las Vegas had to offer. I once negotiated with local security for the release of canvassers detained in a homemade HOA prison like I was receiving captured operatives at the Bridge of Spies.

In 2012, I had to explain to my bawling six-year-old son why everything would be fine despite Romney’s loss. 

We invest much in the campaigns and causes we care about. Election night victories are amazing, but the losses are a whammy. And Democrats have been the authors of almost all of my political pain. 

Given that history, it felt like a jaunt behind enemy lines when I started helping Vice President Biden’s campaign right before the 2020 Nevada Caucuses.  In 2016, I had voted for Gary Johnson for president. I wanted better options in 2020 and was worried about who would emerge from the crowded Democratic field. My hope was that Biden would win the nomination, as I was open to (and am) voting for him (some of my Republican friends caucused for Bernie, thinking him an easier opponent for President Trump). So I asked some friends if I could assist, and they welcomed me in. A white Republican male is not usually the most effective tool in Democratic primaries. But campaigns in the thick of the fight are more often beggars than choosers. 

My first step was agreeing to be a precinct captain for the day of the caucus. I could wait and change my registration, but I needed training. So I met with a group of staffers and volunteers late on a weekday night on the campus of a local trade union. The room was packed. Iowa and New Hampshire had not gone that well for the vice president, but you could not tell from the participants’ energy. We did a mock caucus, gathering in areas of the room marked for former Democratic presidents. They had a place for President Abraham Lincoln as well, which seemed like political appropriation to me. But I was there to listen, not speak.

We also agreed to host one of the campaign staffers in our home for the last stretch before the caucus. She arrived shortly after months in Iowa still dedicated to the good fight. She was a great guest, a Texas Democrat used to mingling with Republicans. 

Other opportunities quickly arose. While the vice president was in town for both the February caucus and the debates, his motorcade needed drivers. I volunteered for a few shifts. I am an impatient driver, but they wanted bodies, and I could give them time some days. That adventure took me to Labor rallies, North Las Vegas restaurants, and hotel entrances and exits I did not know existed. But mostly I sat around in parking lots and conversed with the other drivers and staff.

We even went to Culinary Union HQ, which, from a Republican perspective, was like young Daniel Larusso visiting the Cobra Kai gym without Mr. Miyagi. I was half-worried that they would have dogs or security that could detect the Republican on me. For proof of life, I took a picture in front of the main door to the outside and sent it to both my Republican and Democratic friends. 

On caucus day, I arrived early at Liberty High School, changed my registration, said hello to Sen. Cortez Masto who graciously worked the line, and then donned my “Precinct Captain” tee-shirt and went to work. Despite it being a neighborhood caucus, I recognized almost no one. In my failed stint as captain, I convinced almost no one, either. We got crushed. The vice president’s second place finish in the state as a whole was a welcome relief. 

February of 2020 was the last month of relative pre-COVID normalcy, but it was a month of firsts for me. The Democratic campaign experience could not have been more rewarding. Top to bottom, the people I met were amazing. I loved it. They were nowhere near the figurative monsters I had once thought. They treated me and everyone else so well. Our conversations were civil, interesting, and eye-opening. 

Altogether, it was startling how familiar the whole thing seemed. These great Democrats reminded me so much of the good people I had worked with on Republican campaigns. Even today, I have close friends at the highest and lowest levels of Republican campaigns in Nevada and across the country — still fighting what they also believe to be the good fight, committed as ever. They are just as dedicated, smart and humane as anyone doing the tough work of democracy. 

I know it is cliché to point this out, but even during times of high polarization and division, we are still far more alike than not. None of us are really the evil caricatures our political adversaries may believe. There are no simple solutions to the serious problems we face as society, but there may be first steps. Leaving our own trenches and venturing into hostile territory is as good a place to start as any. Doing so helped me learn a valuable lesson about my enemies: They were not enemies at all.

Daniel H. Stewart is a fifth-generation Nevadan and a partner with Hutchison & Steffen. He was Gov. Brian Sandoval’s general counsel and has represented various GOP elected officials and groups. He recently switched his registration to nonpartisan.

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