GOP primary for Nevada Attorney General pits establishment-backed lawyer against conservative firebrand
The fight for the attorney general seat is heating up ahead of the June primary, as Republican Las Vegas attorneys Sigal Chattah and Tisha Black battle for the chance to face Democrat incumbent Aaron Ford in November for the title of Nevada’s “top cop.”
The attorney general serves as the top law enforcement officer and chief legal counsel of the state, focused on investigating and prosecuting crime, fighting fraud and corruption and protecting Nevadans’ rights.
The attorney general also sits on the state Board of Pardons Commissioners, which has the power to grant pardons to Nevada inmates or adjust their sentences.
Ford is in a fight to hold his seat for another term, though his career in Nevada politics goes back to his days representing a Las Vegas-area district in the Legislature, including in the powerful Senate majority leader role. In 2018, he made state history as the first African American elected to the attorney general’s office, defeating Republican Wes Duncan by a narrow 4,500-vote margin out of nearly a million votes cast.
In 2020, Ford was at the forefront of conversations about policing in Nevada as protesters took to the streets across the state and country to demand systemic reforms. He worked with legislators to approve a bill limiting the use of no-knock search warrants, spurred by the killing of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky.
Ford doesn’t see himself as having opponents in the race.
“I’m running for the office of attorney general,” he told The Nevada Independent. “Not against anybody. They’re running against me, for sure.”
Ford’s challengers bring distinctive brands of conservatism to the campaign trail. Chattah, who was born in Israel and moved to the U.S. at age 14, has gained popularity among Republican activists for her lawsuits challenging decisions from Gov. Steve Sisolak’s administration regarding the state’s vaccine rollout, occupancy limits in churches amid the pandemic and restrictions to the legislative building during last year’s session.
Since announcing her candidacy last year in a video where she promised to become “America’s Number One conservative attorney general” and take progressive Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar to court for “defunding our police,” Chattah has become known for her sometimes incendiary communication style.
She’s unafraid to defend herself and her opinions in Twitter fights or during public appearances. Chattah also made headlines after a former ally leaked damaging text messages from Chattah saying Ford “should be hanging from a (expletive) crane.” She told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that it was a “tongue-in-cheek” comment and that she “would never attribute a racial context to hanging from a crane.”
Black is running a campaign more reserved in nature, managed by a well-connected GOP consulting firm that had helped Chattah’s campaign last year before Black announced her candidacy. Her general consultant is Chris Carr, who has been the political director for the Republican National Committee, in addition to work on former President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, at Wynn Resorts and as executive director of the Nevada Republican Party in the early 2000s.
She recently stepped down as president of the Nevada Cannabis Association before announcing her candidacy. She helped create the Nevada Bar’s cannabis law section and her law practice includes cannabis regulatory compliance, helping businesses apply for licenses to sell marijuana. Black’s law firm practices a broad range of law, but her specialty areas are real estate, business and cannabis law.
Since Black announced her candidacy in February, Chattah has worked to assert herself as the true Republican. She’s called into question Black’s loyalty to the party via Twitter, calling her a “#DemPlant.”
“Word on the [street] is that my opponent and her RINO (Republican in name only) team are telling Carson City lobbyists that I’m a ‘radical’ Republican,” Chattah wrote in another tweet. “Not maxing out to Harry Reid, Steve Sisolak and Catherine [Cortez] Masto doesn’t make me ‘radical’, it makes me a Republican. I question whether @TishaBlack is though.”
Chattah’s comments refer to campaign donation reports that show Black contributed $5,000 to Sen. Cortez Masto in 2015, $2,000 to the late Sen. Harry Reid’s campaign in 2001 and $250 to Lou DeSalvio, president of Laborers Local 872, for Las Vegas City Council in December.
Black has also contributed funding to the Conservative Nevada PAC and Republicans Victoria Seaman, a Las Vegas City Council member, and Assemblywoman Heidi Kasama, among others.
But Black waives off the criticism as a smart business move, adding that former Republican President Donald Trump had made donations to Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton before his run for presidency.
“If you look at any business person in the valley with a history of helping small business and creating jobs, the way that I have, you will find that they have delivered support across both sides of the aisle,” she told The Nevada Independent.
She said she decided to run for attorney general to give back to the state and contribute a conservative voice in top elected positions. After Ford narrowly beat his Republican opponent in 2018 in a cycle that overwhelmingly favored Democrats, Republicans see a clear opportunity in the 2022 race.
“I think we’ve had one-party rule over the last four years,” Black said, referring to the advantage Democrats have had in Nevada, with party members in the governor’s seat, attorney general’s office and in the majority in the Senate and Assembly.
“The two most important things the government can do is protect citizens and then get out of the way and let businesses be business — smart regulation,” she added.
Chattah credits her frustrations with the COVID-related measures as the reason she decided to run for attorney general.
“I saw the COVID mandates and the constitutionality, or unconstitutionality, of them. And that was an issue that I had and really was one of the motivating factors,” Chattah told The Nevada Independent. “And the second, which is obviously more important, is public safety. I feel that as the top prosecutor, the current AG (attorney general) is failing.”
Despite their differences, Chattah and Black both criticized Ford for being “soft on crime” and not taking a stand against COVID-related measures.
Ford’s tenure as attorney general threw surprising and unprecedented challenges, he said, such as running a government office during a pandemic, widespread protests spurred by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in 2020 and claims of widespread voter fraud following the election. Despite these trials, Ford said he’d like to continue the work his office has been doing since he was elected in 2018.
“This is the job that I was destined to do,” he said. “I feel as though I’m right where I’m supposed to be at a very crucial time in our country’s history and in our state’s history.”
Ford listed accomplishments made during the last three years as protecting “the actual existence of a Democratic Republic” against unfounded allegations of widespread voter fraud, bridging the gap between law enforcement and the communities it serves amid the civil unrest of 2020, and bringing in over $300 million to the state in opioid settlement funds.
Nevadans can begin casting their ballots as soon as May 28 through June 10 during early voting or on the primary day June 14 to decide whether Black or Chattah will face Ford in November at the polls.
Ford leads the pack of candidates in campaign funding so far, ending 2021 with $1.5 million cash on hand and having raised more than $600,000 in this year's first quarter. The incumbent has $2 million cash on hand for spending on his campaign. He’s received large contributions from attorneys in Nevada and in other states and multiple Las Vegas casinos, such as The Cosmopolitan, New York New York, Mandalay Bay and others who donated $10,000 each (the maximum allowed under state law).
Chattah ended the fundraising period last year with more than $300,000 in cash on hand. She received $10,000 donations from Las Vegas area car dealerships and the Laborers for Solid State Leadership, which previously had contributed to Democratic campaigns. Fellow Republicans Rep. Mark Amodei and gubernatorial contender Joey Gilbert also contributed $1,000 for Chattah’s efforts.
Black has yet to file a campaign finance report, with the next deadline coming on April 15. Black finished the 2018 fundraising period with $1 million cash on hand for a bid to the Clark County Commission that she lost to Democratic opponent Justin Jones.
Ford will face Stuart MacKie, from Fernley, in the Democrat primary for the attorney general race. MacKie ran against Ford in 2018, when Ford won with 78 percent of the vote to MacKie’s 21 percent. MacKie does not appear to have a campaign website or much of an online presence.
John T. Kennedy, a Libertarian, also filed to run with the state’s secretary of state office, but also does not have a campaign website.
Both Black and Chattah call Ford “soft on crime.” Chattah described the no-knock search warrant bill Ford sponsored last year — and another that limits police use of chokeholds and allows recording of law enforcement, which Ford neither introduced nor sponsored — “redundant pieces of legislation.”
“Instead of focusing on mental health … whether it’s inmates, whether it’s defendants that are being bounced back and forth between emergency rooms, hospitals and jails, that is something that should be addressed way before,” she said.
Ford called the criticism partisan and political, highlighting laws passed during the legislative session last year that require a statewide task force on human trafficking and limit no-knock warrants.
“At the end of the day, we’ve been able to accomodate issues on both sides of law enforcement, whether it’s those who are encountering law enforcement or those who are enforcing our laws, in order to effectuate real positive change in the criminal justice system,” Ford said.
Black said there needs to be greater focus on the victims of crimes, not criminals. This distinguishes her from Chattah, she added, saying that Chattah has spent the majority of her practice defending criminals from prosecution as a DUI defense attorney.
“I’m somebody who is for the rule of law, is for putting criminals behind bars for the completeness of their sentence and making sure that our community’s safe so that businesses can thrive,” Black said.
Chattah’s law firm practices family, business, tenant, personal injury, drunk driving and criminal law cases.
Death penalty, abortion and more
Both Chattah and Black said they support the death penalty, which is the law of the land in Nevada, and believe capital offenses merit capital punishment. Ford said he’s always been opposed to it, although his office represents the Nevada Department of Corrections as it has sought to put people to death.
“But when I ran for this office, I said that my obligation as a top law enforcement officer in the state was to enforce the law as it exists,” he added. “That’s my responsibility, irrespective of my personal belief, to ensure that any death, that any execution that takes place in the state is constitutional.”
As for their stances on abortion — a hot topic this election year as some states are working to roll back access to abortion and as the Supreme Court is expected to make a decision that could diminish protections established in Roe vs. Wade — all candidates pointed to state law, where the right is protected.
More than two-thirds of Nevadans approved a ballot measure in 1990 allowing for abortions within the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. More recent polls show a similar share of Nevada voters continue to favor access to abortion.
Overturning the protection codified in state law would require a direct majority vote from Nevadans.
Ford, who’s been endorsed by Planned Parenthood, said that while the attorney general is not directly involved in effecting change to abortion access in Nevada, the person in office can still undermine the right. He pointed to his Republican predecessor, former Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who he said signed onto amicus briefs that supported efforts to restrict abortion in other states.
“As long as I am attorney general, you will always have someone who is supporting a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body,” Ford said.
He added that he’s concerned that people flocking to Nevada to receive abortion services as they are curbed in neighboring states, such as Idaho, could strain Nevada’s health care system.
Chattah told Nevada Newsmakers in January that she supports the “sanctity of life” but declined to further clarify her position on abortion. In an interview, she said that because there’s no jurisdiction for the attorney general to engage in legislation to change that right, whether she supports it or not is irrelevant.
“I have an obligation to uphold the law,” she said. “And that applies to every law in the state.”
Black was described in a 2019 My Vegas Magazine profile as pro-choice. However, she said she does not support abortion. She said she feels that the magazine profile did not give full insight into her opinion and it didn’t represent how she feels about the issue.
“My stance on abortion hasn’t changed over the years,” Black said. “I’m not in favor of abortion. I don’t support it on any level as birth control; however, I think considerations must be made in the case of rape, incest and mortality of the mother.”
Numerous counties are seeking to roll back Democrat-backed election laws that require mail ballots be sent to all active registered voters, with proposals floated to revert to all paper ballots, require voter ID and more.
Ford said his office defended the constitutional right to vote in 2020 and afterwards by prosecuting people in court who made false allegations about voter fraud. The lawsuits included several from Trump’s campaign, which sued Nevada multiple times to block mail ballots, to stop the ballot counting in Las Vegas and to overturn the state’s election results.
“Each time, my office defeated those lawsuits,” Ford said.
As for whether he thinks additional protections are needed to ensure secure elections, Ford said he believes the Legislature has done a good job on that front, but that he will continue to prosecute individuals who break the law. Following the 2020 election, Ford’s office was involved in at least two cases related to voter fraud, including a man who alleged his dead wife’s ballot had been fraudulently cast. The man, Donald Kirk Hartle, was found guilty of illegally casting her ballot and charged with two category D felonies.
Chattah is representing a political action committee called Repair the Vote that is seeking to repeal portions of the Democrat-backed law, AB321, that established the expanded pandemic-era voting measures. If it fails, she said, there’s the possibility that legislative Republicans could push to repeal the law or portions of it during the 2023 session.
Black said she would pursue “fraudulent activity” as a way to grow voters’ trust in the state’s election process, arguing that the changes made to state election law were sweeping and quick, opening the door to opportunities for fraud.
“Our democracy, I believe, is in question,” she said.
The attorney general’s office is responsible for investigating claims of consumer fraud or scams, and Nevadans can also report instances of suspected price gouging.
But when asked about whether they see the attorney general’s office taking a role in preventing exorbitant rent increases, Ford, Chattah and Black said that’s more of an issue of supply and demand, not illegal price gouging.
Ford didn’t completely write off the idea, though.
“It’s not something that currently is within the purview of the office of the attorney general,” Ford said. “To the extent that the Legislature gives me the authority to take on rent increases by passing some form of law, we will absolutely adhere to that opportunity.”
Chattah said it’s important to be realistic and understand that the situation of high demand and low supply is driving home and rent prices up, but predatory and rental schemes are completely different.
“So when it comes to predatory actions by landlord? Absolutely, I think that there should be control of that,” she said.
Black said she doesn’t think it’s the attorney general’s job to interfere with business, but that the attorney general’s office needs to be sensitive to suspected price gouging.
She pointed to Ford’s settlements on opioid litigation as an example of efforts the attorney general’s office should be involved in, but added that she thinks it was inappropriate for Ford to contract with his former private law firm in 2019, which was able to earn 25 percent of any damages recoverable through the settlement.
Ford had recused himself from the selection process and a nine-member committee chose to work with the firm from nine other options.