Election Preview: With no incumbents, regents race is between political novices
The position regent candidates will be in if they get the gig in November is a lot different than what they signed up for when they filed to be candidates in early March.
Then, campuses were flooded with students and the Nevada System of Higher Education, which the 13 regents govern much like school district trustees, was riding a high of growth and improvement, most notably when UNLV and UNR were granted “Tier 1” classifications at the end of 2018, designating them as institutions with “very high research.”
Now, the campuses have been empty for months with no students, conference attendees or sports fans in sight and the growth over the past few years risks being stalled by budget cuts from the economic impacts of the pandemic.
On top of this, the board might lose its “fourth-branch-of-government” status if a ballot measure to remove the regents from the Constitution is approved in November. Assembly Joint Resolution No. 5 seeks to place the board under the oversight of the Legislature, which critics argue could lead to at least some regents being appointed rather than elected to the board.
The primary on June 9 will narrow the pool to just two candidates for each of the four nonpartisan seats up for grabs. With no incumbents seeking re-election, the race for regent is between candidates who have attempted to run for other offices, most with little to no success.
Though the winners won’t have to deal with the most direct tough calls from the pandemic, such as the decision to go online for the fall semester, whoever is elected will make vital decisions about budget cuts and leadership appointments of the seven higher education institutions and Desert Research Institute over their six-year term as they determine how to jump back on the upward pre-pandemic stride.
The race for District 10, which covers most of Reno, boasts the most candidates, most money, and most campaigning, while other regent races lack in all three categories. It is the only seat where more than one candidate is raising and spending money and has a decent chunk of change to their name.
Leading the money race is Andrew Diss, an executive at Grand Sierra Resorts and a member of the board of directors for the Nevada Resort Association. Despite only raising $5,250 in the first quarter — $2,000 in a loan Diss made to himself and $1,500 coming from Malena Raymond, Diss’ sister-in-law and the president of the Washoe County School Board — he has $30,800 in cash on hand and spent $500 on advertising.
Diss’ first political run came in 2012 when he lost to Republican Marsha Birkbigler for Washoe county commissioner for District 1. He now enjoys endorsements from the Culinary Union and the Nevada State Education Association.
But where his most serious challenger, Kevin Melcher, lacks endorsements, he makes up for in experience and spending. Melcher won his regent race in 2010 for District 8, which includes most of the western half of the state and parts of Clark County, with 53 percent of the vote, but he didn’t seek re-election in 2016.
A member of the Nevada State Board of Education, he raised $11,500 and spent $2,300 on advertising, which leaves him with just over $10,000 in available cash.
If elected, Melcher said on his website that he wants to focus on technology and workforce development and investment in research. Diss’ website says he wants to improve the relationship between the board and the Legislature and publicly backs AJR5. Leaders of the Board of Regents testified in 2019 that they were neutral on the resolution but raised enough concerns about the measure that several lawmakers argued the regents' position was actually opposition.
Other challengers include John McKendricks, the executive director of the Reno campus of a private Christian school, Vince Lombardi, a faculty member at the UNR medical school, and Joseph Arrascada, who has spoken to regents about wheelchair accessibility in Mackay stadium amid UNR’s lawsuit against the architect of the renovation. All three have never ran for office and have reported $0 in campaign fundraising.
The two main candidates for District 3, which encompasses part of Henderson and extends to UNLV, are both coming off losses in 2018 in bids for the Legislature.
Candidates Byron Brooks, a managing partner at Brooks Brothers Bail Bonds and veteran, and Stephen Silberkraus, a one-term assemblyman in District 29, both lost their most recent runs as Republicans: Brooks in a primary for Senate District 20 and Silberkraus for Assembly District 29, though Silberkraus’ race was tighter, losing to incumbent Lesley Cohen in the general election by 5 percent whereas Brooks lost to Keith Pickard in the primary by almost 18 percent.
Silberkraus led an attempt to recall Democratic state Sen. Joyce Woodhouse to replace her with a Republican in 2017, which Democrats responded to with a counter-recall effort and an intense lawsuit that eventually defeated the effort. Now, his campaign materials boast endorsements from Democrats such as County Commissioner Jim Gibson and former County Commissioner Mary Beth Scow.
The third contender, Swadeep Nigam, lost his runs in Republican primaries in the 2012 and 2016 elections in two different Assembly districts. Nigam, the former commissioner of the Nevada Equal Rights Commission and a member of the Nevada State Osteopathic Medicine Board, ran for this regent seat when it was last open in 2014 and took about 11 percent of the vote in the primary.
Nigam’s and Brooks’ websites both highlight their focus on the need for affordable higher education while Silberkraus’ website emphasizes expanding science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs and online learning options.
Nigam has scored coveted endorsements of the Culinary Union and NSEA, and Silberkraus has support of the Clark County Education Association and the Clark County Black Caucus.
But of the pool of contenders, which includes political newcomer Lachelle Fisher, only Silberkraus has done any campaign fundraising with $4,660 in the first quarter. He’s spent nearly two times that amount and has $20,000 on hand.
After terming-out last year as the Ward 1 representative and mayor pro tempore on the Las Vegas City Council, Lois Tarkanian said she would consider running for regent because of her belief in the need for a medical school. Now she is.
The district covers a part of Las Vegas and the southwest corner of the city of North Las Vegas and overlaps with a majority of Tarkanian’s old Ward 1 Las Vegas City Council area. Tarkanian, the widow of celebrated UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian and mother of recurring Republican hopeful Danny Tarkanian, wants to develop the Medical District in central Las Vegas, which she worked on during her time as councilwoman, and the UNLV medical school, which donors want to create using a private development corporation that would largely bypass the regents and elected officials.
Tarkanian’s biggest challenger is Bret Whipple, an attorney at Justice Law Center and a former regent from the district who at one point chaired the board.
During his time as regent in the mid-2000s, Whipple often clashed with then-Chancellor Jim Rogers. Rogers repeatedly called for an increase in taxes to support higher education, while Whipple argued the chancellor and regents should stay out of tax policy. In Whipple's penultimate year on the board, he and Regent James Dean Leavitt called for Rogers’ resignation after Rogers told the chairman in a letter that he would resign if Leavitt ever became vice chairman or chairman of the board. Rogers resigned and then rescinded his resignation two days later.
Whipple lost his re-election bid to Robert Blakely, an insurance salesman with no political experience, in 2008 by 7 percentage points after doing little campaigning and expecting to win.
At the end of the first quarter, Tarkanian raised $235, which she spent on office expenses, and has $14,000 on hand, and newcomer Bonnie Mae McDaniel reported $0 in fundraising. Whipple did not file with the Secretary of State and did not respond to a request to comment.
A little over a month ago, the race for District 5, which covers parts of Las Vegas and North Las Vegas, looked different. Incumbent Sam Lieberman was running for his second term, but his death in early April leaves this seat without an incumbent even though Lieberman’s name will appear on the ballot.
Kevin Child, a real estate broker salesman and former trustee in Clark County, is hoping to take the seat. Child lost his re-election bid for trustee in 2018 by 38 percent to Irene Cepeda, who had never held office before.
During his time as trustee, Child faced allegations of inappropriate behavior. Former Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky banned him from going on district property outside of his official duties as trustee. Child then filed a lawsuit against the Clark County School District and four trustees for defamation and conspiracy, which the Nevada Supreme Court dismissed earlier this year.
Child’s filings show that he hasn’t raised or spent any funds on his campaign for regent but has $1,046 in cash on hand.
Neither of Child’s opponents have received any funds in the first quarter. Patrick Boylan, a former member on the Nevada State Board of Education and a candidate in the Democratic primaries for Assembly District 15 in 2010 and Congressional District 1 in 2016, reported $0 in available cash.
Nick “Doc” Spirtos, who is medical director of the Women’s Cancer Center in Las Vegas and lost to Lieberman in the 2014 general election, reported $0 in campaign funds.
This story was updated at 3 p.m. on May 26, 2020 to clarify the position of regent leadership on AJR5.