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The Nevada Independent

Cortez Masto uses apolitical, no-nonsense style to search for rare common ground on rural issues

Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg

On a cool fall morning near a town called Beowawe, U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto sat at the head of a wooden table flanked by a half-dozen ranchers. Through the window behind her, blue skies stretched over a large swath of arid ranch land dried out for the winter. It was Oct. 30 and the leaves were lying on a valley floor filled with scrubby grasses and set within a low-elevation mountain range colored classic Nevada brown. The land was quiet.

But all was not as peaceful as it seemed. The senator already knew this when she walked into the Horseshoe Ranch meeting room that Tuesday and took a seat at the table.

For much of the hour-long meeting with members of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, Cortez Masto and the ranchers spoke in rangeland jargon peppered with acronyms that would make the roughly 80 percent of urban Nevadans want to bury their heads in the dirt outside.

Cortez Masto grew up in Las Vegas and should be one of those Nevadans oblivious to the thorny debates around post-fire Emergency Stabilization & Rehabilitation, Herd Management Areas and the National Environmental Policy Act, which ranchers call NEPA. But the Las Vegas resident understands NEPA, the policy and the political barbs flying around it.

That was the observation that Sam Mori, a Tuscarora rancher and the head of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, made to end the meeting in Beowawe, which lies about 45 minutes west of Elko.

“I’ve been very impressed with your knowledge of what we're talking about here,” Mori said of Cortez Masto’s grasp of rangeland issues.

“It’s my legal background,” the senator replied to some laughter in the room.

The senator was on her second day of constituent work during the Senate’s fall break. Over the next few days, a portion of which The Nevada Independent spent with her, Cortez Masto traveled down I-80 and U.S.-95, stopping in rural communities along the way.

The senator’s trip was largely not about politics. It was exactly one week before a key midterm election but Cortez Masto, who less than one month later would be named to lead the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, was not out to stump on the campaign trail.

It was about a cattle guard. It was about tribal funding. It was about the nitty-gritty of dealing with the federal bureaucracy that manages more than 85 percent of the state’s land mass.

And the senator’s “legal background” reply to the ranchers turned out to be more than a clever quip. During the weeklong trip across Nevada’s rural counties, the former attorney general and federal prosecutor earned a reputation at meetings and roundtables as someone who could contextualize nearly every constituent problem in the minutiae of the law.

What this allowed the senator to do was have substantive conversations with constituents — few who likely voted for her during her last election in 2016 — that were more detailed than the answers given by most politicians. Rep. Mark Amodei, who represents most of rural Nevada, and Cortez Masto have different styles, but they rest on similar content: a knowledge for the intricate workings and complicated relationship between federal, state and local governments..

For a senator who said throughout the trip that relationships are the cornerstone of governing, this ability to deploy bureaucratic details proved key to building trust in rural parts of the state where any Democrat is typically viewed as persona non grata.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto listens to concerns about rural broadband in Winnemucca, Nev. on Oct. 30, 2018. (Daniel Rothberg/The Nevada Independent)

In Winnemucca later that Tuesday, businesses and local policymakers gathered in the Humboldt County Courthouse, a 1920s-era building with a distinctly Old West feel, to express frustration with subpar broadband coverage in rural Nevada. A representative from Barrick Gold said modern mining required the use of iPads and any lag-time in broadband posed a safety risk. Law enforcement officials told Cortez Masto the lack of internet redundancy also posed risks with 9-1-1 outages and had made it more difficult to pull up a suspect’s history at a traffic stop.

About halfway through the meeting, a woman complained that the Federal Communications Commission’s classifications of what areas had adequate broadband were entirely off-base.

At this point, Cortez Masto, who sat on a committee overseeing the agency, interjected.

“Their mapping is wrong,” she said. “Their mapping is completely wrong. We have talked to them about the process for doing accurate mapping in coordination with the local communities.”

Cortez Masto said later that she learned her candid approach from her father, Manny Cortez, a former Clark County commissioner and head of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

“The only thing you can do is be honest with [constituents],” she said her father had told her. “Tell them why you are voting that way. They may not like it. But they’ll respect you for being honest with them. And that’s all I know how to do. Be honest and talk to them. "And [whether] they’re there at the end of the day? They may be or they may not be. But I have to do what I think is right.”

At the ballot box, many voters were not there when Cortez Masto, a Democrat, ran for her Senate seat in 2016. Cortez Masto won the statewide election but lost every county aside from Clark, where about 75 percent of the state’s population lives. In rural counties like Elko, Democrats like Cortez Masto often lose to Republicans by a margin of more than 50 points.

A big complaint in rural Nevada, even among some registered Democrats, is that the party’s candidates do not spend enough time visiting towns like Elko, Battle Mountain or Winnemucca.

Di An Putnam, the Republican mayor of Winnemucca when Cortez Masto visited, said she felt that way about most Democrats. But she said Cortez Masto’s approach was different.

“She doesn’t come out not knowing what we’re about,” Putnam said. “She’s done her homework on us before she gets here. It’s just a pleasure knowing that she actually goes out into the state and understands… We are so different in rural Nevada than you are in the metropolitan areas. A lot of the issues are the same but on different dimensions. We are looking for different things.”

Cortez Masto also came with tangible results, passing out a fact sheet before the meeting that chronicled the broadband legislation she had championed. Several bills, such as the SPEED Act, which would “eliminate duplicative regulations” for companies that wanted to build infrastructure for wireless facilities, she sponsored with Republicans like Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker.

Constituents consistently told the senator that they wanted more “flexibility.”

Ranchers told the senator that they wanted more flexibility in the rules that govern their ability to graze their cattle on public land. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages about 67 percent of the state’s land for multiple activities including mining, ranching and recreation, awards grazing allotments to ranchers. These allotments come with restrictions about how, when and where ranchers are allowed to graze on federal land. Before the allotments are approved, they need to go through an environmental analysis, as required by that flashpoint acronym, NEPA.

The problem is that flexibility for one group on federal land often means taking away something from other interests.

Ranchers said they wanted more flexibility to open up extra feed or start grazing cattle earlier if they could prove that there were benefits to the landscape, such as a reduction in wildfire fuels.

“I’m absolutely willing to tackle this,” Cortez Masto said in the meeting, saying she’d be open to working across the aisle with Amodei, who has made NEPA issues one of his top priorities.

But changes to NEPA would likely face a whirlwind of opposition from groups like the Western Watersheds Project, an organization that wants to reduce grazing on public land. The ranchers repeatedly referred to groups like the project as “radical environmentalists.”

The meeting was a case study for how the senator deals with issues, such as land policy, where there are many varying interests to contend with. Her approach is collaboration. She stressed the importance of coming to an internal agreement among stakeholders before proceeding with any legislation and so she asked: “Who needs to be at the table with us to understand what we're trying to do in front of it instead of learning about it after the fact?”

“The minute we do legislation, then everyone comes out,” she said.

“Surprise and ambush isn’t part of your strategy,” one rancher asked.

“No, no,” the senator replied. “Everyone at the table.”

Toward the end of the meeting, the senator told the group that she wanted to tackle an even more charged and controversial topic: wild horses. Under a federal law, the Wild Horses and Burros Act, the BLM is required to protect mustangs as a symbol of the open West.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto listens to a presentation on outcome-based grazing during a meeting with the Nevada Cattlemen's Association in Beowawe, Nev. on Oct. 30, 2018. (Daniel Rothberg/The Nevada Independent)

A reaction to widespread destruction of horses in the early days of Western settlement, the law’s mandate has become a nightmare for the BLM, which argues that the 73,000 horses on federal land far exceed the carrying capacity of the ecosystem. Wild horse activists dispute this, saying cattle grazing did far more damage to the range. But even some conservationists have quietly said wild horses squeeze out resources for native species, from wildlife to important grasses.

The senator said her approach was similar to looking at NEPA — convene stakeholders to come up with potential solutions before moving forward on any policy fixes or legislation.

“People may have concerns, but that’s the whole point of doing this — bringing everyone together,” Cortez Masto said when asked by The Nevada Independent whether she was worried about walking into a hornet’s nest on issues like NEPA and wild horses. “I can’t say everyone is going to agree, but at least the goal is to make sure everyone is at the table and we are working toward that common goal, which you saw [in the meeting] is the [ecological health] of that land. I think everybody wants the same thing at the end of the day.”

She said that she supported NEPA but stressed the importance of talking to all stakeholders with on-the-ground perspectives. She cited an example at Maggie Creek Ranch in Elko, where an environmental assessment process for something as simple as building a cattle guard stretched on for a year-and-a-half.

“That’s what [the ranchers] are talking about — just reasonable things like that,” she said. 

“There is a good role for NEPA,” Cortez Masto added, noting that she often dealt with it as attorney general. “There is no doubt that it is important and we need it. But are there things that make sense locally that everybody can get behind — including those conservationists and people who support protecting the land — that we can all agree to and do it in a faster time frame? I think that's possible and that's what these conversations are all about.”

Collaboration is not an exciting topic, but it’s key to Cortez Masto’s approach.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto during a roundtable at the Old Post Office in Fallon, Nev. on Oct. 31, 2018. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Part of that happens through educating her colleagues in Congress, especially those from the East. She said that she often works with Western senators to educate other members of Congress about regional issues in a part of the nation that is defined by its aridity and vastness.

“We’re bipartisan,” she said of those efforts. “We have water issues they don’t have in the East. We have [public] land issues. They don’t have that in the East. Our farming is a little different even than the Midwest.”

To Cortez Masto, one key component of constituent work across the state is that it gives her examples to help illustrate how well-meaning nationwide policies affect Nevada and the West.

“When I say education is key, I can go back [to D.C.] and explain to people: ‘No, you’ve got to understand: This is what it looks like,’” she said. “Here’s a picture of it. This is rural Nevada. This is where we are. You can literally be out in the middle of the desert and be in a rural community with no services around. People on the East Coast don’t necessarily understand that.”

The next day was Halloween. In the morning, the senator and her staff drove about 72 miles from Winnemucca to Lovelock for a meeting at the Lovelock Indian Colony. Although the Lovelock Paiute Tribe is planning to enter the marijuana business this year, its leadership council told the senator that right now it receives most of its revenue from the federal government. For about an hour, Cortez Masto heard concerns about federal funding and the tribe’s ability to provide essential services, like health care, to its members.

The tribe does not have a medical clinic. Its members drive to Fallon, about an hour away. The tribe is also struggling to hire law enforcement officers and doesn’t have enough funding for housing. The members have mental health issues among youth and substance abuse issues.

Cortez Masto listened, then asked questions about their tribal court and housing construction, again employing a knowledge of the issues she had picked up as the state’s top attorney.

The conversation quickly turned to specifics. The Lovelock Paiute Tribe, like other tribes, is able to get some health care and domestic violence funding through the state, but even that funding originates with the federal government. Cortez Masto said she has supported a carve-out so some of that funding could go to the tribe directly without diminishing the state’s funds. For her, tribal issues are important — and frustrating — as she’s watched the federal government neglect the state’s tribes, shirking its fiduciary responsibility to the tribes and ignoring history.

“They’re challenged,” she said of Nevada’s tribal communities in an interview later that day. “There are social issues. There are health-care issues. They have been neglected by the federal government. They just want their opportunity to be independent [and] govern their own, but they’re being restricted, particularly under this administration.”

Earlier in the trip, the senator hosted a roundtable on fire management and the Ruby Mountains in Elko. She capped off the Elko stop on Oct. 29 with a meet and greet that drew about 60 residents to a packed art gallery and bar. Cortez Masto told the crowd she had been coming to Elko since high school with her father who hunted and fished.

“Most people don’t realize that when I come out into our rural communities, believe it or not, it reminds me of growing up in Southern Nevada, which was a smaller community at the time,” Cortez Masto.

The senator was not surprised by the packed room at the meet and greet, noting that she had been to Elko often, hosting backyard barbecues. When Cortez Masto was attorney general, she said she asked her Las Vegas staff, many of whom had never been to Tonopah or Reno, to get in the van and visit other parts of the state that they were representing in court.

“We’re going to go to them,” she would tell her staff. “I want you to see Nevada.”

Her own forays have translated into relationships with rural officials like Putnam, a former mayor of Winnemucca. During a dinner at The Martin, a Basque restaurant in Winnemucca, a Humboldt County commissioner came in and began talking to the senator like an old friend.

These relationships, of course, are not one-sided. Exactly one week and one election later, the senator’s ability to deliver for the rurals increased as she became the state’s senior senator, with Sen. Dean Heller’s loss to then-Rep. Jacky Rosen — and she got a post on the Senate Finance Committee, to boot. In Winnemucca, Cortez Masto said that she was still working to build up the seniority that her predecessor, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, had accumulated.

“Seniority is key in the Senate,” she said. “That doesn’t mean I’m not going to fight like hell and build those relationship and get things done. I just might do it a little differently than he did.”

Much has been made of the state’s rural-urban divide, but Cortez Masto stressed that the state’s two urban centers and sparsely populated interior have much in common.

“I think we can all figure this out if we can get into a room and talk about it,” she said.

She cited immigration as an example. A rancher she had met with during a stop in Adaven last year stressed the importance of solving immigration and creating some pathway to citizenship. During the Elko stop, the senator held a private meeting with DACA recipients from the area.

Doing her own fieldwork, the senator said, can have a big impact on how she views or understands an issue — and in turn, how she might advocate for it in Washington. When asked about the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s proposed long-term plan to pump groundwater 250 miles from Eastern Nevada to Las Vegas, the senator cited a trip she once took with Dean Baker, the late White Pine County-rancher who became a fierce advocate against the project.

“I talk to [the water authority] all the time,” she said. “Here’s the deal. I’ve been out with Dean Baker. I don’t want to see the water depleted from that basin, and it shouldn’t, because I think there are too many farmers and ranchers… What I would like to see, and I’ve talked to Southern Nevada Water Authority,... is how do we not only continue to conserve water statewide but how do we work with our partners along the Colorado River to continue to address the drought?”

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto participates in a panel on wildfire management in Spring Creek, Nev. on Oct. 29, 2018. (Daniel Rothberg/The Nevada Independent)

For more than a year in Elko, a huge topic of conversation has revolved around oil and gas leasing in the Ruby Mountains, where even some petroleum geologists agree there is little exploration potential. Cortez Masto has pointed to the Ruby Mountains as a prime example of a federal leasing program for an oil and gas program gone awry in Nevada, a position that has even received some support from the industry. At a meeting on Oct. 29, Cortez Masto told a roundtable of hunters, land managers and lawmakers that she continues to work on the issue.

In an interview later in the day, Cortez Masto said she felt a personal connection to the Ruby Mountains. As attorney general, she said she would try to make a point of doing something new every time she hosted a coffee or an event in Elko. Around 2006, she hiked the Ruby Mountains, which she said left a big impression on her. The senior senator described herself as an avid hiker, going out whenever she gets the opportunity. In the 1990s, Cortez Masto went through Jarbidge on horseback, and she has summited several peaks, including Mt. Charleston.

“I’ve hiked wherever I get the opportunity,” Cortez Masto said. “There are some great places [in Nevada] that I think are some of the jewels that a lot of people don’t know about.”

One misconception people have about the congressional delegation, and senators in particular, Cortez Masto said, is that they are detached and live a flashy lifestyle in D.C. When she shows up at a particular event, people will often ask her where her big black limousine is, she said. But most of her colleagues, Cortez Masto argued, keep their head down and focus on their jobs.

“I’m going from early in the morning to late at night,” she said. “Once I'm done with all of the work and events that I have to go to and the people I have to talk to, I then go home. I eat a TV dinner, I pull out my notebook and get ready for my hearings the next day. And I do that on a regular basis.”

Since October, the political landscape in Congress — and in the state — has changed. With the exception of Amodei, the state’s six-member delegation comprises Democrats. Not only is Cortez Masto the senior senator, she is now the head of the party’s Senate campaign arm.

“Taking this leadership role in my Senate caucus gives me the opportunity now to not only continue to fight for Nevada but fight for Nevada on a national platform in a leadership position,” she said. 

The position, as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, places Cortez Masto at the center of national politics ahead of 2020, what is expected to be one of the most heated elections in American history. But she stressed that it was opportunity for unification, not division. She said that Nevada is “hugely diverse” because of its urban and rural areas, its demographics and the wide array of industries here, from ranching and mining to hospitality.

And during the trip, many did perceive her to be focused on the politics of bringing groups together. While the rest of the state was focused on the election the next week, Cortez Masto was doing the work of meeting with constituents, many of them likely from her opposing party.

Jon Griggs, who toured with the senator as a ranch manager at Maggie Creek Ranch in Elko and explained to her their issue with the cattle guard, said the senator didn’t have to come and meet with them. Most Democrats don’t need support from ranchers to get elected. And yet she still showed up.

“I was impressed that she met with us,” he said in an interview a few weeks after the trip. “She definitely doesn’t have to with the makeup of Nevada now. Politicians don't have to come to places like ours. Most of their bases are in the urban areas. The fact that she was engaged with the issues and interested in our issues and wanted to help was impressive.”


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