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Election Preview: Candidates in Douglas Commission primary battle over development, change in rural county

Tabitha Mueller
Tabitha Mueller
Election 2020Local GovernmentRurals

Three of Douglas County’s five commission seats are up for grabs this cycle including a race that pits Danny Tarkanian, a recent Las Vegas transplant who has run and lost several high profile races, against Commissioner Dave Nelson. 

With 54.2 percent of active voters in Douglas County registered as Republican and 22.8 percent as Democrat, the Republican primary will likely determine who sits on the board of the red county with an estimated population of 48,905 people. 

No Democrats filed for any of the seats, and one Libertarian, Charles Holt, filed for office in District 3. Whoever wins the District 3 primary will face Holt in the November election.

The county stretches from south of Carson City to the state line, touching Lake Tahoe to the west and encompassing Minden, Gardnerville and ranches in the shadow of the Eastern Slope of the Sierras. 

Douglas County commissioners serve four-year, overlapping terms, and receive about $30,000 in compensation.  

Commissioners approve zoning and development, review and determine county budgets, maintain infrastructure such as sewer systems and shape policies regarding roadway maintenance and conservation efforts. 

The county is continually navigating discussions of growth and development along with its identity as a rural county that borders California and is attractive to retirees.

In two of the three districts, challengers are squaring off against incumbents. The remaining district features two first-time candidates duking it out for the chance to help guide the county through budget issues and growth.

District 1

In District 1, a frequent candidate for office who recently moved to the area and has mounted unsuccessful campaigns for various levels of government jobs, including U.S. Senate, House and state Senate, is challenging a better-funded incumbent.

District 1 is the smallest district in the county in terms of area but encompasses the core of the county’s most populated city, Gardnerville.

The incumbent, Dave Nelson, began serving as a commissioner in 2017. Nelson, a real estate agent, moved to Douglas County in 2003 and describes himself as a “small-government Republican” who hopes to keep the scope of local government narrow and focused.

Nelson also emphasizes the importance of maintaining Douglas County’s rural nature, opposes larger land development and promotes fiscal responsibility, with the goal of having three months reserve funds in the bank.

“I have worked hard to listen to the citizens of Douglas County, returned calls, and helped many people with problems they have had with their local County Government,” Nelson wrote on his campaign website. “I have found that this job suits me, I like serving the public. For that reason, I am running for one more term.”

Tarkanian, a businessman and the son of legendary UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, moved to the county from Las Vegas within the last year or so and echoes the desire to preserve the rural character of Douglas County. 

Tarkanian emphasizes the need to create opportunities for residents and says he has the ability to bridge the divide of a fractured commission, evidenced by a commissioner meeting that made headlines after a fight broke out between Republican commissioners Barry Penzel and John Engels.

Tarkanian sets himself as an alternative to a candidate he refers to as “No No Nelson” in his campaign materials and highlights that Nelson uses “bullying techniques” against anyone who disagrees with his agenda.

“Who do you trust to protect Douglas County’s rural heritage: a nearly 50-year resident of Nevada who moved his entire family to Douglas County because of its rural heritage; OR a California transplant who was a registered Democrat before he moved to Douglas County,” is the choice his campaign highlights.

Nelson responded to Tarkanian’s criticism in a post on his website by saying he has been a conservative since he campaigned for Barry Goldwater in 1963, but temporarily registered as a Democrat to vote in a California primary.

“I did register as a Democrat for a while in college for a very short period of time to vote against John Tunney in the primary who was a Democrat U.S. Senator from California in those days,” he said. “I re-registered shortly after the primary and have been either a Libertarian or Republican from there on out.”

Since Tarkanian announced his candidacy, he has received more formal endorsements than Nelson, including the Tahoe Chamber, Carson Valley Chamber of Commerce and Republican State Sen. James Settelmeyer.

Despite the high number of group endorsements, Nelson received more campaign contributions — a total of around $7,100 in the first quarter, whereas Tarkanian received $700 in donations.

Nelson’s biggest contributors were John Engels, a Douglas County commissioner, and his wife, Maria Engels. They each gave $2,000 to his campaign. Engels’ seat is not up for reelection this cycle.

Tarkanian’s largest contribution for the first quarter came in a $500 donation from Ron Hill, a resident of Las Vegas.

As of the first quarter, Nelson spent about $2,731 on office expenses, special events and advertising-related costs, leaving him with a little less than $10,000 in cash on hand. Tarkanian spent around $140 and had about $550 cash on hand.

District 3

The challenger for District 3, which covers the southern part of the county and extends over part of Topaz Lake, has a significant lead in terms of cash on hand and outraised the incumbent in the latest quarter. Whoever wins the race in District 3 will advance to the general election where he will face Libertarian Charles Holt, a retiree.

Incumbent Larry Walsh is the vice chair of the commission and has served on the board since 2017. A retiree, Walsh worked in the construction and development industry as a financial manager and then a project manager. He holds a degree in accounting with a minor in economics and emphasizes his ability to keep the county on track fiscally.

In his bid for re-election, Walsh emphasizes the importance of smart growth, protecting groundwater and supporting businesses.

“I am pro-business, pro-measured and reasonable growth, and I want to keep the rural part of the valley rural by planning for growth where it belongs,” Walsh said on his campaign website. “I believe that by planning for growth, it can continue to be a place of respite away from major city centers for years to come.”

Throughout the pandemic, Walsh has made videos discussing his priorities, what he has done to fix roads in the county and what sets him apart from his competitor.

Mark Gardner, a former fast food restaurant manager, laundry specialist and territory manager, moved to Douglas County after he retired and is running on a platform emphasizing safety, no increased taxes and minimal development.

“Our rural quality of life is at risk when Commissioners seek and encourage more development instead of taking care of what already exists,” Gardner said on his website. “Development does not pay for itself, and we have a long way to go to catch up on our infrastructure.”

Even though Walsh’s endorsements far outnumber the list of two testimonials on Gardner’s website, Gardner has received $9,487 in contributions for the first quarter in comparison to the $6,601 Walsh received. 

Walsh’s largest contributions came in the form of $1,000 donations from Gardner Enterprises, LLC, Nicholas Enterprises, Inc. and Legacy Specialties, Inc., all developers and contractors. Gardner’s highest donation was $5,000 given by Jeanne Shizuru, Commissioner Nelson’s wife.

By the end of the first quarter, Gardner spent $4,517 on advertising, candidate filing fees and expenses related to special events. Walsh, on the other hand, spent $7,956 on office supplies, consultants, advertising, and special events.

Heading to the end of the primary, Walsh had around $4,000 in cash on hand and Gardner about $15,700. 

Holt did not receive any contributions during the first quarter and did not report any expenses. He does not appear to have an official campaign website but does have a Facebook page, although his presence and posts are minimal.

District 5

The two candidates jostling for District 5’s open seat received similar contributions and spent around the same amount in the first quarter, but one has significantly more cash on hand heading into Election Day.

District 5 falls at the northern end of the county, south of Carson City, includes Minden and borders Lyon County. 

Walt Nowosad, a retired naval officer and former project manager and director in the electronics industry, is running on a promise to keep the county rural and quiet. 

Advocating for no “flippantly approve[d]” variances, or permission for landowners to change a land use designation, Nowosad is staunchly against the commission’s approval of a development agreement that involved a trade allowing the county the land to expand a road in exchange for authorization for Park Holdings development to build up to 2,500 homes on its property

Nowosad says the land transfer will stress infrastructure and exacerbate traffic problems.

“Over the twenty years I have been a resident of Douglas County, I have watched one Douglas County Commissioner after another campaign and win on promises to be conservative guardians of our scenic, quiet, and rural county only to become RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) and yield to the-powers-that-be,” Nowosad said on his website. “In fact, in almost every case, the Douglas County Board of Commissioners (BOCC) has been ruled by a slim liberal majority, who serve large developers and landowners here and at Stateline.”

Nathan Tolbert, a consultant with Form Consulting, a business providing residential and structural design services, pledges to evaluate issues on a case-by-case basis and said he hopes to bridge divides and end a “toxic” environment on the county commission.

“The social landscape is changing, it seems the days of respectful debate may be behind us; replaced with attacks of the opponent rather than the promotion of one’s own perspective,” he said on his website. “It seems that there is an increasing lack of decorum shown as the most active or out-spoken participants become more polarized against each other. It is time someone begin [sic] to bridge the gap and attempt [sic] to restore civil discourse.”

Similar to other candidates, Tolbert calls for the preservation of Douglas County’s rural landscape and lifestyle. 

In the first quarter, Tolbert raised $9,600 and spent about $7,100. Tolbert’s largest contribution came in a $2,500 donation from David Moore, a resident of Glenbrook. Developer Legacy Specialties also contributed $1,000 and the Genoa Golf Group gave $500. 

Nowosad received around $10,300 in contributions, with the largest contribution listed as a $5,000 loan to himself. He spent about $7,700 on expenses related to advertising and Tolbert spent roughly $7,100 on advertising, special events, consultants and filing fees associated with running for office.

Tolbert had about $2,400 heading into the end of the primary and Nowosad had $10,900 cash on hand.

This story was updated at 11:40 a.m. on June 3, 2020 to clarify the border of District 3.

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