As Reno navigates a housing shortage, the stress on city finances during a pandemic that devastated local revenues and a burgeoning population driven in part by global companies setting up shop in the region, candidates in four City Council races are battling to determine who will help guide the city through the next four years.
Incumbents and challengers for three ward positions and one at-large position are appealing to voters via phone calls and social media posts as residents mail or turn in ballots ahead of the June 9 Election Day. Many have canceled traditional campaign methods in the wake of COVID-19, opting for text messages, virtual meet-and-greets, offers of aid and coronavirus-related information-sharing.
The council seats are nonpartisan, and the votes cast in the primary will winnow the field to two candidates running in the November general election. Two of the most contentious council races feature incumbents facing well-funded opposition from candidates hailing from high-profile Reno families.
Three of the council seats, including the mayor, who votes on the council but does not represent a specific geographic district, are not up for re-election in the 2020 cycle.
Ward 1 is the city’s most competitive race, with three candidates mounting well-funded campaigns as they vie for the two spots on the general election ballot.
J.D. Drakulich, a real estate agent, and Britton Griffith, vice president of her family’s development firm Reno Engineering Corporation, are squaring off against incumbent Jenny Brekhus. The winner will represent a section of Reno featuring historic homes and parks.
Drakulich and Griffith criticize the two-term council member for her well-documented combativeness in meetings and what they assert as an inability to work through disagreements with other council members.
Both challengers come from well-established Reno families, whereas Brekhus is a more recent arrival who moved to Reno in 1998.
Mayor Hillary Schieve endorsed Griffith for the seat in October, citing Griffith’s “positivity” and experience working with the council.
Even though Schieve said her endorsement had nothing to do with Brekhus and was focused on who would be a better fit for the council and the direction she believes it needs to head, the endorsement was just one of many signs of a fractured relationship.
Griffith has served on various nonprofit boards, helped with the city’s master plan and assisted with the Downtown Partnership Business Improvement District. She also was a prior finalist for an appointment on the council — most recently in 2019 for the at-large position now held by Devon Reese.
Brekhus, whom the Reno Gazette-Journal has called “a lone voice for precision in policy on the Reno City Council,” said that she places constituents above special interests and makes decisions based on the good of the ward.
“I’m not afraid to be bold in terms of standing independently and what I think is in the best interest of Ward 1 and the direction the city needs to go,” she told The Nevada Independent.
Brekhus, who is running for her last term and has experience as a city planner, is centering her campaign around improving the city’s fiscal condition, supporting healthy and sustainable city growth and increasing affordable housing, along with making Reno more appealing to young people.
“City Council and City Hall have delivered very narrowly and been the domain of some pretty strong special interests in the community. Those are gaming and those are development,” Brekhus said, adding that as Reno has grown, the city needs to take more diverse issues and opinions into account. “So when I’m doing my work for the City Council, I’m looking out for the broad interests of Ward 1 and their infrastructure and service needs.”
Drakulich is a board member and two-term president at Eddy House, a youth homeless shelter in Reno. He said that one of his motivations for running is that he feels Brekhus neither represents the majority of Ward 1 residents nor has fresh ideas for solving the homeless crisis and other issues that he sees in Reno.
He cited his role as a residential real estate agent and work with families from various income levels and backgrounds as something that allows him to connect well with residents. He said his main goals are increasing attainable and affordable housing, addressing problems related to homelessness and developing more mental health services.
“I feel strong in a team mentality. It’s where I strive, whether I’m a role player or a leader on a team, that’s where I feel like we can be effective,” he said. “And I see people in Ward 1 as my teammates, so when they call, I’ll be listening and hopefully have fruitful conversations and let their voices be heard.”
Griffith, a self-described “small business champion,” said she is focused on small businesses, increasing public safety including services for homeless populations and directing smart and sustainable city growth. She said she hopes that through her candidacy she can help advocate for businesses and residents alike.
“We have to have somebody … that can sit in a room across party lines and across municipalities, and that didn’t hold grudges and doesn’t have this history of a combative nature,” Griffith said. “I can come forward and be a new voice for our new Reno and to get those conversations started, reignite, press gaps that we’ve had and get Ward 1 back on track.”
Out of the three candidates, Griffith is ahead in fundraising efforts with a more than $12,000 lead on Brekhus and about a $23,000 lead on Drakulich for contributions received in the first quarter. She also has a higher spending rate than either of the other candidates.
Brekhus has the most cash on hand with a little less than $60,000 in her campaign account. Griffith’s cash balance hovers close to $16,000, and Drakulich’s is just under $14,000.
Brekhus’ largest campaign contributions came in the form of $10,000 from the Teamsters Union, a labor union representing freight drivers, warehouse workers, public defenders and other private and public sector positions. The union also donated to City Council incumbents Reese and Oscar Delgado.
Griffith’s biggest donor Shallon Andrews gave $5,000 to her campaign, and Drakulich’s top donors include the Peppermill Resort and North Reno Land Development LLC — each contributed $1,000 to his campaign.
The race to unseat the city’s newest councilman, Devon Reese, includes one self-funded perennial candidate and another who hasn’t raised any money.
The at-large council position represents residents of the entire city, but in 2024, the wards will be redrawn and a sixth ward will replace the at-large position. Eddie Lorton, who has twice run unsuccessful campaigns for mayor, and Joe Moskowitz, a largely unknown wild card in the race, are looking to take Reese’s seat on the council for the next four years.
Reese is a civil litigation attorney at Hutchison and Steffen, a firm founded by Republican former Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison. The City Council unanimously selected Reese for the at-large council position out of 144 applicants last year. Reese also serves as the council’s vice-mayor.
Previously, Reese ran as a Democrat for the state Senate in a tight race in 2016. He said he is running for the at-large position because it is geared toward finding opportunities to collaborate and building unity on the council. He added that it also gives him the chance to help the city where he grew up.
“Potholes do not care what party you’re in. It’s about trees and parks and police officers and making sure that we have sewers that service the needs of this community. Those are not political things,” Reese said. “You just have to roll up your sleeves every day and do the work.”
Reese describes himself as a bridge-builder and wants to continue with the council’s current trajectory, pushing it further by prioritizing housing, help for housing-insecure populations, public safety and access to education and food resources. He said another one of his goals is to decrease the city’s bureaucracy.
Donations to Reese’s campaign for the first quarter are just under $17,000, with the largest donations being $10,000 from the Teamsters Union, followed by $2,000 donated by Greenstreet Development, Inc. He has a healthy cash on hand balance of around $60,000 heading into the primary.
Reese’s campaign funding falls short of Lorton’s war chest, though, which is supported by $100,000 Lorton loaned himself in February.
As of the first quarter, Lorton had spent around $7,000 on advertising and consultants.
When Lorton, the owner of a carpet-cleaning business and investor in real estate, unsuccessfully campaigned against Schieve for mayor in 2014 and 2018, he ran on a platform advocating that the city sell surplus property and move the homeless shelter out of the downtown area.
Lorton ran for the mayoral seat after he filed a lawsuit in 2013 contending that council members could not run for mayor once they had served a full 12-year term because the mayor was a member of council.
The Nevada Supreme Court supported Lorton’s argument, a decision that prevented Jessica Sferrazza, a former councilwoman, from running.
Sferrazza’s departure from the race subsequently made way for Schieve’s candidacy. Schieve held the council’s at-large seat from 2012 to 2014.
He seems to be re-using campaign materials, listing the position he is running for on his campaign finance report as “Mayor, Reno” and hyperlinking a 2018 Gold Star Families Endorsement on his website — until he removed the hyperlink sometime after an op-ed criticizing the candidate and pointing out the link was posted Monday on This is Reno. The endorsement is still listed on his website, but the link is no longer there.
Lorton says that homelessness in Reno is a problem the county should take responsibility for, and in a campaign announcement in February said that he wants to also focus on pedestrian safety.
“It is no secret that I have unsuccessfully thrown my hat in this ring before. But it’s not how many times you get knocked down that matters, it’s how many times you get back up,” Lorton wrote in the announcement. “It is my hope that I will be able to continue helping citizens understand matters that come before the Council, while also starting a new chapter in helping community members engage directly and more regularly with our elected leaders.”
One candidate hoping to challenge the two well-known contenders is newcomer Joe Moskowitz, a retired broadcast journalist. Moskowitz, originally from upstate New York, moved to Reno in 2016 after living in California and Mexico, and says that his newcomer status gives him an advantage because he is not entrenched in Reno’s politics.
“I have no future political ambitions. The Republicans don’t like me. The Democratic Committee (DNC) doesn’t like me, and none of that really matters because I want to take my life experiences and for four years … see what we can do,” he said.
Moskowitz said the person in the at-large position should serve as an elected consultant for residents of the city. He said his main goals are prioritizing vulnerable populations, implementing rent control, including communities of color in the city and revamping tourism stemming from the outdoors and arts scene.
He hopes to build a grassroots campaign but is frustrated because he cannot seem to get support from groups in Reno, such as Planned Parenthood, which endorsed Reese.
“I got a 100 percent on the questionnaire from Planned Parenthood and that included a number of essays, and they acknowledged that, but they said that wouldn’t even be included on the guide until a future voter guide because there’s a legacy connection,” Moskowitz said.
Moskowitz did not receive any donations from January through March, but says he is working to gain votes and is hoping to make one of the two slots on the primary ballot. He said that part of his strategy has been waving his campaign poster along the street in front of some of Lorton’s signs and calling and speaking with voters.
Two-term incumbent Neoma Jardon is the front-runner in Ward 5’s race, where the other three candidates lagged in fundraising efforts during the first quarter of this year.
Ward 5 encompasses an area of Northwest Reno that includes the Old Northwest, University of Nevada, Reno, a variety of residential neighborhoods and parts of downtown.
The other contenders for the position are Darla Fink, a retiree with a masters degree in public administration; Kurtt Gottschalk, a postal worker; and Lee Wilhelm, an instructor in Washoe County School District’s culinary and hospitality program.
Fink has an online presence and has been hosting virtual meetings via Facebook Live, but Gottschalk and Wilhelm do not appear to have websites or a strong social media presence.
Wilhelm is the only candidate out of the three contenders who reported receiving a donation in the first quarter. The report contributions amount totaled to $500, but his campaign finance report did not list any donors who gave $100 or more.
Jardon, who spent 20 years in business management before becoming a councilwoman and has investment and rental earnings, outmatches the other candidates in fundraising and endorsements. She raised more than $20,000 this quarter.
In her remaining balance listed at the end of the quarter, Jardon had about $44,000 in her fund.
She is running for her third, and final, term in office and has also received endorsements from the sheriff and other council members including Oscar Delgado and Mayor Hillary Schieve.
Fink, who funded her campaign through a $5,000 loan from Marilyn Jo Fink, a resident of Sparks, had around $4,500 left in her campaign fund at the end of the quarter.
Gottschalk applied for the at-large council position in 2019 but was not a finalist.
In the Ward 3 council race, incumbent Oscar Delgado far outstrips the only other candidate in terms of fundraising.
Rudy Leon, a librarian, received $600 in donations in the first quarter and had $290 in remaining cash on hand.
In contrast, Delgado, who served two terms on City Council and is running for his last term, raised around $15,700 and had roughly $80,000 left in his ending fund balance.
Ward 3 reaches over the northeast, central and southeast Reno, including neighborhoods east of UNR and Wells Avenue, Mira Loma and southern parts of Damonte Ranch.
Both candidates are advancing to the November general election.