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Gov. Sisolak is not the enemy

Gov. Steve Sisolak gives a media briefing about the state's response to COVID-19 in Las Vegas on Monday, April 6, 2020. (Jackie Valley/The Nevada Independent)

By Daniel H. Stewart

On my office wall hangs a framed rendering of the Nevada Governor’s Mansion. Painted during the early years of Gov. Sandoval’s administration, there is a red toy car on the porch. Sandoval is my former boss, and the car belonged to his young daughter. A reminder that whatever else it is, the mansion is also a home.

Last weekend the mansion involuntarily hosted an anti-Sisolak protest. I recoiled at what I saw. Don’t get me wrong, I hold no ill-will towards the protesters, even as I disagree with them. I am also ill-equipped to judge anyone’s response to what may end up being the worst crisis in generations, if not ever.

No, it was not the messengers that concerned me, but the message. The protest felt personal; as if the collective cacophony were Moses demanding hard-hearted Pharaoh Sisolak end the plagues by letting the people go. Outraged and armed Nevadans targeted the governor at his home on a sunny Carson weekend in a quiet Carson neighborhood and, from what I can tell, demanded the impossible.

Gov. Sisolak has plenty of loud voices in his ear already. Death, historic unemployment, and decimated state and local budgets. If the data he sees and the advice he receives forces him to stay the course despite this triple-crown of worst-possible news, what weight do you think he will give to a block party?

Of course, I doubt mind-changing topped any protestor’s agenda. They were there to shame as well. Do they think Gov. Sisolak does not care about our hurt? From what I know about him (and most human beings) this is an untrue and offensive claim. But even assuming the worst, what possible incentive does an elected official have to “cause” his constituents pain? Chances are, likely Sisolak voters are suffering more than most right now. Maybe Gov. Sisolak has something bigger on his plate than politics.

Even the protesters’ battle cry for freedom was off-key. We are still pretty free. How would gun-carrying trespassers fare if they stomped on Putin’s yard? As far as I know, Gov. Sisolak has not thrown anyone in jail during the shutdown. The protestors violated the prohibition of public gatherings of more than 10, but they returned home without even a stern talking-to.

Those who seem to think the least of government apparently expect the most from it. Gov. Sisolak could rescind his mandates tomorrow, but if 80 percent of Nevadans wanted to stay home, or nobody wanted to travel to Nevada, our economy would be open in name only.

Sure, a tremendous amount of reasonable daylight exists between absolute shutdown and not-closed-at-all. But public protests are usually not the place to find sensible proposals. The difficult and inevitable trade-offs looming over the horizon need serious, rational discussion, not signs and chants.

For those complaining about any missing specificity in Gov. Sisolak’s plans, general criticism is not the answer. Consider the wisdom of President Lincoln when faced with radical Senator Wade’s demand that President Lincoln fire the Union’s top General, George McClellan. Lincoln asked for a recommended replacement, and Sen. Wade replied “Anybody.” “Wade” Lincoln shot back, “anybody will do for you, but I must have somebody.” 

If you have a levelheaded plan to move forward, by all means share it. If not, don’t mistake noise for knowledge. Nevada’s chief executive is a governor, not a pamphleteer.

Has Gov. Sisolak’s response been perfect? Of course not, but I do not even know how we measure perfection. Without question, he has saved lives. Despite being one of the first states with the virus, our death and infection rates have remained low. Other states have taken more draconian measures and had worse results. Gov. Sisolak has been honest and forthright, even when indefinite, and has never passed the buck. I am proud of the job he is doing.  

I realize I am biased, but not in the way most people may think. I am a Republican; Gov. Sisolak is not. But I have seen the governor’s job up close. On normal days the burden is enormous. The weight of a mostly resource-strapped state government rests on his shoulders. He oversees all state agencies; he chairs almost all of the state’s most important boards and commissions. Everything from road building to prison fights land on his desk.

To help him, he has one of the smallest staffs in the nation. His other constitutional officers (and the judiciary) are independently elected, with their own agendas, and sometimes different party affiliation and ideology. The Legislature sits for only 120 days every other year, and term limits and Nevada’s political swings mean legislative leaders and allies regularly change. During Gov. Sandoval’s four legislative sessions he had four different Assembly speakers and four different Senate majority leaders.

Despite the office’s difficulties (or maybe because of them), Nevada has been blessed with outstanding governors, Republicans and Democrats alike, who put Nevada first. Gov. Sisolak is cut from the same mold, living up to the high bar his predecessors set even in unprecedented times.

Nevertheless, I did not pen this piece just to defend the governor. He does not need it. I am not a health-care worker or a scientist. I don’t run or work in a hotel or casino. The virus poses low risks for my family. What I have to say is probably (and rightfully) way down the list of things Gov. Sisolak cares about.

Nor do I intend to disparage the protestors. They, like most Nevadans, have honest worries and aspirations. And I get the unquenchable urge to name our misery and fear. But Gov. Sisolak is not the enemy. None of our fellow Nevadans are—whether they look like us, vote likes us, or think like us.

Between both the virus and fear itself, we are currently fighting two invisible enemies the likes of which we have never fought before. Only our combined efforts will see us through. From where I stand, we have a fine man leading the charge; let’s do what we can to help him.

Daniel H. Stewart is a partner with Hutchison & Steffen, where he leads the firm’s Election, Campaign and Political Law practice.  He has practiced law in both the public and private sectors, representing elected officials, candidates, campaigns, social welfare organizations, and other political and policy-focused clients.

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