Compton to Carson: Jason Frierson's historic path to power
It was the summer Jason Frierson graduated high school that N.W.A. dropped its debut album, “Straight Outta Compton.”
It detailed, in visceral terms, life in a part of Los Angeles where gangs, drugs and violence ruled the streets. When an 18-year-old Frierson set foot on the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno in the summer of 1988 for his first day of classes, Compton was the town he left behind.
Nearly three decades have come and gone, and Frierson, now 46, is poised to take office next month as the first African-American speaker of the Nevada Assembly.
“I remember this very office,” Frierson said in a recent interview in the speaker’s office at the Legislature, reminiscing on a meeting with Democratic Speaker Barbara Buckley in 2007. “I sat in here and I was speechless, I didn't even know what to say. I was like, ‘I'm sitting in the speaker's office and I, I really don't even know what to say. I just wanted to meet her on a one-on-one — and I’d met her before, but in this capacity...”
He paused, struggling with his words.
“It’s a little surreal,” he said.
The Compton that Frierson grew up in during the 1980s is the Compton that lives in infamy. Groups like N.W.A. seared a lasting image of the city into the public consciousness through their music — the Crips and the Bloods, drive-by shootings, and an urban population that felt brutalized by the police and left behind by the nation.
“When you live there and that’s all you know, it’s just your life,” Frierson said of his childhood. “But having left and come back it’s hard to overlook a lot of the challenges that aren’t normal. It's not normal for a child's experience to include being handcuffed by police on the curb. It's not normal to have stray bullets in your house. But it was normal for us then.”
Frierson’s wife, Abbie, recalled visiting Compton for the first time — a far cry from Gilroy, CA, where she spent most of her time growing up — and how she wouldn’t get out of a car because there was a rottweiler sitting in the middle of the street. She remembered seeing his childhood home, less than a thousand square feet, and the trees his mother planted in the yard.
“It was such a nice metaphor for him and his brother, that she planted those seeds and they both grew so strong,” Abbie Frierson said.
Frierson counts himself among the luckier ones. His parents divorced when he was a teenager but remained friends, and Frierson saw his dad every day. His older brother was a strong role model.
“I had a lot of those things that a lot of my friends around me didn't have,” Frierson said. "I think it really helped to keep me on the straight and narrow.”
His wife said she thinks Frierson is a product of his parents’ virtues. “His dad and that side of the family gave him a lot of a kind of pull yourself up by your bootstraps kind of ethic,” she said. “His mom’s very loving. She’s a natural mother.”
Then there was football, which Frierson considered his way out.
Frierson went to public school up until tenth grade, when his parents decided it was too dangerous and sent him off to boarding school in Claremont, CA. But, after a year, he worried he wasn’t getting the exposure he needed to secure a football scholarship and begged to come home. His parents agreed, under the condition that he attend Pius X, a Catholic high school in nearby Downey that his brother and cousins had attended.
Frierson said he fell naturally into leadership roles throughout his schooling: class president in 7th, 8th and 9th grades, president at Pius X, president at UNR, and president at UNLV’s law school.
He recalled how, during his senior year of high school, some of his classmates staged a boycott in the school yard after the principal canceled grad night. The principal said that the event would remain canceled until someone took responsibility for breaking into and tagging the school.
“The principal looked at me and said, ‘Those are your guys — go handle it.’ Next thing you know I’m standing on a bench table amongst all of these people talking about how grad night was canceled and what we can do,” Frierson said.
The group eventually persuaded the culprit to come forward.
“Those are the kind of things that I think as a young future leader build character,” he said.
As high school was wrapping up, Frierson said Notre Dame indicated they had a spot on the football team for him but then backed away at the last minute. He had also been accepted to a few Ivy League schools but didn’t want his parents to shoulder the burden of student loans.
But Frierson said the Notre Dame coach sent his tape over to UNR, and within days the school called and offer him a full scholarship. UNR was close enough to home to stay in contact with family but far enough to let him spread his wings, so he accepted their offer and became a Nevada running back.
It was in college that Frierson met Steven Horsford, who would go on to become Nevada’s first African-American state Senate majority leader and member of Congress. The two knew each other first as part of the close-knit African-American community on campus and eventually ran for student government together. Frierson and Horsford were elected president and executive vice president, respectively, in 1994 after Frierson blew out his knee and was unable to play football anymore.
“The fact that we were the first two African-Americans to serve the (student government) was pretty historic,” said Horsford, recalling how the two would travel to Carson City to testify before the Legislature about cuts to higher education funding, tuition costs, and the need for diversity in higher education. “Many of the same issues he continues to fight for now as a member of the state Assembly he was doing back then.”
Some of the big issues Frierson remembers pushing for as student body president, including ensuring access to air pumps in light of a growing bicycle population and reducing wait times at the student health center.
“At the time it was something that was really important to me — that you’d have to wait half a day because you had a cold,” Frierson said.
When Frierson graduated from UNR in 1996 with a degree in health sciences, he thought his next stop was medical school. Though he was wait-listed for the Charles Drew/UCLA medical school program, he ultimately didn’t get in.
Then-UNR president Joe Crowley encouraged Frierson to apply as part of the charter class of UNLV’s Boyd School of Law.
“I saw it as a way to explore policy and politics quite honestly, but I always saw politics as a hobby not as a career,” Frierson said. “This was the first time I put thought into the development of policy being more of a career.”
Upon graduation, he received the school’s inaugural Barbara Buckley Community Service Award for outstanding commitment to the community and public service. Little did he know that a decade later he would succeed Buckley to represent the same Assembly district and, five years later, follow in her footsteps as Assembly speaker.
Frierson spent the next decade building his legal credentials: clerking for Nevada Supreme Court Justice Myron Leavitt, serving as deputy attorney general under then-Attorney General Brian Sandoval, and working at the Clark County public defender’s office.
It was working at the attorney general’s office that Frierson got to know now-Governor Brian Sandoval personally.
“The governor and I talked often actually during the years that I worked there, about family and about public service,” Frierson said. “I had a very heart-to-heart conversation with him when he was being considered for an appointment to the bench about how important family was and I’ve always admired that about him.”
Eventually, Frierson decided that he wanted more experience in court and left the attorney general’s office to become a Clark County public defender in 2005. He said it was a difficult position to be in, defending the county’s poorest citizens in criminal trials.
“The Constitution is a sound document and I felt and continue to feel very strongly about defending it,” Frierson said. “So I wasn't defending people's actions, I was defending people's right to a process that was fair.”
At the public defender’s office Frierson met his future wife, Abbie. The two married in 2011 and now have two young children, Matthew, 4, and Laila, 2.
“He asked me out on a sort of date at one point and I wasn’t very responsive, I was in bar mode,” Abbie Frierson said. “Once the smoke cleared I was the one who asked him out.”
But it wasn’t until he lobbied the Legislature for the public defender’s office in 2007 that Frierson got his first taste of Carson City.
“I learned how to pick your battles,” Frierson said. “There were some things that I knew weren't going to happen and there were some things I knew probably shouldn't happen and for my own credibility I needed to be mindful of that and decide which arguments to advance.”
Sabra Smith-Newby, now-Clark County’s chief administrative officer, said that Frierson was a “steady, dependable, honest, caring” teammate when she lobbied alongside him for the county in 2007 and 2009. She recalled how, since she was the county’s only dedicated lobbyist in 2007, Frierson would help her out by testifying and attending committee hearings — often perplexing committee members who only knew him in his public defender capacity. For instance, one day she asked him to attend a committee hearing on natural resource issues.
“He goes into the room and the chair recognizes him not as a representative of Clark County of course, because he had mainly been doing public defender work, and said, ‘Well are you here for the crawfish? Are you defending the crawfish? Because they’re in trouble!’” Smith Newby said.
Frierson points to a number of people who encouraged him to make his first run for public office in 2010: Former Assembly Majority Leader William Horne, Horsford, Buckley. But it was Buckley’s encouragement that he run to replace her in Assembly District 8, which she had been termed out of, that sealed the deal.
“When the speaker is outgoing and says she would be honored if I would run to replace her when she’s termed out — you don’t get that call often,” Frierson said. “I wasn’t married. I didn’t have children. I was able to do it, and I knew it was right.”’
Buckley endorsed Frierson in his three-way Democratic primary, which he easily won with almost 49 percent of the vote. She described Frierson as “incredibly smart and incredibly compassionate” with a “brilliant acumen.”
“He just is able to grasp things so quickly and able to identify solutions that will really work,” Buckley said. “He just has so much common sense, and so I’ve just enjoyed working with him so much over the years.”
He went on to win the general election with 58 percent of the vote, serving his first term in the Assembly in 2011. He easily won re-election in 2012, chairing the Judiciary Committee during the 2013 session.
During those two terms he earned a reputation from fellow lawmakers as someone skilled at bringing opposite sides to the table and who would give everyone a fair shake.
Republican Jim Wheeler, who sat on Judiciary Committee during the 2013 session, highlighted a campus carry bill, a controversial gun proposal, that Frierson allowed to be heard in committee, saying that Frierson never shut down proponents’ questioning.
“Obviously we have different political points of view on things, but he’s always been respectful and allowed the other side of the aisle to get their views out as well,” Wheeler said.
Republican Ira Hansen described Frierson as a “common sense kind of person.”
“It’s not like because I’m a Republican he’s going to automatically discount anything I say,” Hansen said. “If it makes sense and there’s some legitimacy to it, he’ll listen.”
The biggest lesson Frierson said he learned during those sessions was to know when to hand the reins over to someone else.
“The biggest thing, and I carry this with me forever, is that I have learned that I know enough to know I don't know enough and when I know it all is when I need to step down and let somebody else do this,” Frierson said.
That’s something he had planned on doing the following session — where he was widely viewed as a favorite for a leadership post — until he lost his 2014 re-election campaign by 40 votes in a stunning upset by Republican John Moore as Republicans won historic victories across the state.
“There were some that believed it was a result of not working hard. Look, over 20 states flipped that year. I worked hard, I spent my money differently, but I covered doors,” Frierson said. “People were not excited, and there was low turnout. Losing by 40 votes is not fun.”
After he found out he lost, Frierson said that he went downtown to meet up with the other candidates to encourage them to keep moving forward and to look ahead to 2016.
“I said, ‘Guys, keep the building standing. I’ll go out and get some good candidates and get them ready and then we’ll be back. You guys just got to persevere,’” Frierson said. “So that was my calling. I didn’t even have time to mourn.”
Frierson’s work began the next day. He said he scheduled meetings, hosted lunchest and talked with prospective candidates about the process with the goal of handing them over to the Assembly Democratic Caucus. Not being in office gave him more freedom and flexibility to recruit candidates and to fundraise without any blackout periods, Frierson said.
“I knew that so much of the experience was going to be gone with Marilyn Kirkpatrick being termed out and her ultimately having to resign to be appointed to county commission,” Frierson said. “There was a gap in experience in that regard.”
Because he was perceived as a future leader, Frierson said he was able to tap into his local and national connections and convince them that Nevada was likely to swing blue. His job was to convince donors that there was a structure in place for the election and that their investment would be widely used.
The consulting firm Hilltop Public Solutions was involved with the campaigns for most of the Assembly seats Democrats wanted to flip, including Frierson’s. Lesley Cohen, Chris Brooks, Steve Yeager, Justin Watkins, and Sandra Jauregui also used Hilltop’s services during the election, according to campaign finance reports.
“Losing was a silver lining for him,” said Megan Jones, who runs Hilltop’s Las Vegas office. “He understands now what it takes to win aggressively and that you can't take anything for granted."
Democrats were ultimately successful on election night, turning a 25-17 Republican majority in the Assembly to a 27-15 Democratic advantage.
Frierson was elected speaker by fellow Democrats the following day, and he named Reno Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson majority leader and former caucus leader Irene Bustamante Adams as speaker pro tempore later in November. Bustamante Adams took over as caucus leader after Marilyn Kirkpatrick resigned from her Assembly seat to join the Clark County Commission in August 2015.
Bustamante Adams said it was a “very difficult time” for her and the rest of the Assembly Democratic Caucus after Kirkpatrick left, describing the former assemblywoman as “probably the last person” in the caucus with any institutional knowledge besides Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton.
Though she’s been in leadership roles since her freshman year in the Assembly, Bustamante Adams said she’s not sure if she would have pursued a higher leadership role under other circumstances, describing leading the caucus during the election as the biggest challenge she’s faced in her personal and professional life.
“I was scared. Nervous and scared,” Bustamante Adams said. “But I knew that as a team I knew where we wanted to go, and I was honored that the group had chosen me to head up that task.”
She explained how Frierson was instrumental in recruiting candidates and was at the table for those discussions even though he wasn’t an elected official. However, she also said there were also times where it wasn’t appropriate for him to be present for internal caucus discussions and that there had to be a line of separation, like the caucus board’s weekly conference calls.
She said the key to her relationship with Frierson during the election was communication. However, she did acknowledge that the fact that some of the candidates decided to use a consultant, as Frierson and other candidates did with Hilltop, instead of running their campaigns through the caucus meant that it took increased effort to run a coordinated campaign.
At the same time, she said the caucus, under new leadership and with a new staff, wouldn’t have been able to run all of the campaigns on their own.
“Had we used the consultant process before? No. Would we use it again? Maybe not,” Bustamante Adams said. “But obviously that’s a leadership decision.”
Bustamante Adams said that she might have entertained being speaker at one point but that it was time to move on.
“Once I saw the demand, like I said, my attitude was, ‘I’ve been there, done that, I’m ready to move on and look at other ways to contribute to the caucus,’” Bustamante Adams said.
Still, Frierson said the transition in leadership between the two was “awkward” since the two had been close friends for a long time. She echoed that sentiment saying that it may have been “a little bit more difficult for me to stop doing the driving and realize there’s somebody else that needs to learn the process.”
“I wouldn’t say it was negative tension,” Bustamante Adams said. “I would just say part of the process.”
Frierson said the two agreed early on that they would “not be in a bloody battle” over leadership and that they would try to communicate through the process.
“So we did that. It wasn't always easy, but we both remained committed to not putting the caucus through that kind of strife that would not have been healthy for the caucus for the long run,” Frierson said.
The Democrats’ legislative agenda won’t be released until February. But Frierson has already named voting rights issues and workforce development in Nevada as two priorities headed into the session.
“The cohesive agenda is one we all share,” Frierson said. “It's those notions of equality, it's also access, it's transparency, it's expanding opportunity for folks to participate in the political process.”
Frierson said he has strong relationships with both the governor and Assembly Minority Leader Paul Anderson and though he doesn’t expect to always agree with them, believes he can find common ground. He also has a close relationship with Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford, who was his law school classmate for a year.
“When you get to know each other and know each other's families, they're no longer the enemy, they're just people you disagree with,” Frierson said. “So I don’t have to be disrespectful or nasty, and we can go have dinner together afterwards and agree ‘you got me this time’ or ‘that was a good one’ and move on and try and do some good for the state.”
Anderson said that he expects working with Frierson will be productive, calling him a “great guy” who “has the best interest of Nevadans” in mind.
“We haven’t gotten toe-to-toe yet but that won’t change my opinion of him,” Anderson said.
Hansen said that he doesn’t expect the Democrats to advance his Republican agenda, but he does believe that they will listen, give him hearings, and be open to modifying bills to make them more palatable to Republicans.
“If you had to pick somebody from their party to be a speaker, I would’ve picked Jason. I think he will do an outstanding job as far as the mechanics of it and will be as fair as he reasonably can,” Hansen said. “If you had to have an opposition guy to deal with, he’s the kind of guy you’d like to see.”
Kirkpatrick said Frierson’s strength will be his ability to balance not only the needs of the caucus as a whole but the entire Assembly chambers.
“His leadership style is very different than mine,” Kirkpatrick said. “He’s very mild mannered but that’s a good thing. There are so many different styles of leadership.”
Buckley said that she and Frierson share a leadership style: developing a consensus, giving time and thought to practical solutions, but not afraid to say no to things that are wrong or push for things that are right. She said she expects him to communicate well with Ford on their Democratic agenda, though she noted that even she had her disagreements with Horsford when he was Senate majority leader.
“There were some awkward times in the beginning, but publicly you can never disagree,” Buckley said.
But Frierson’s wife believes that it’s his early experiences in Compton that have helped shape him into the leader he is today.
“One of the things I love most about Jason, he has the kind of character you build through struggles,” she said. “Compton in the 90’s, obviously it was really crazy there. It gives him a lot of grit but it gives him a lot of compassion for other people.”