IndyMatters: Aaron Ford on gun background checks, 'dog-whistling' campaign ads and standing up to Trump
Democratic state Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford faced a tough challenge in the attorney general’s race, complete with attacks from an outside group that Ford calls racist and a final outcome that made it the closest statewide race in Nevada.
Fresh from defeating Republican Wes Duncan by a narrow margin of fewer than 5,000 votes, Ford sat down for a recording of the IndyMatters podcast on Wednesday to discuss his philosophy for the office and how it differs from the approach of staunchly conservative Republican incumbent Adam Laxalt.
Ford discussed his plans to try enacting a stalled voter-approved gun background check law — which could involve a lawsuit in federal court — and to defend the state’s marijuana industry against any potential federal crackdown. He also said it was likely the state could get involved in various legal challenges throughout the country, including defending the Affordable Care Act from a Texas-backed lawsuit that Laxalt declined to engage with.
He also addressed criticisms that flew during the campaign, including that he was too “pro-felon,” that he wanted to allow prisoners to vote and that he would make Nevada a less-safe “sanctuary state.”
Ford, 46, also spoke about how his background shapes his policy stances — he’s making history as the first African-American ever elected to a statewide constitutional office in Nevada.
Below are excerpts from the conversation, which can be listened to in its entirety here.
In 2016, Nevada voters narrowly voted to approve an initiative requiring the vast majority of private party gun sales or transfers undergo mandatory background checks on the purchasers of the firearms.
But the initiative has never been enforced; the FBI, required to do the background checks under the initiative, refused to do so given that Nevada conducts its own background checks for retail and other firearms sales, leading Laxalt’s office to determine in an official opinion that the initiative was effectively unenforceable. A Clark County judge in August dismissed a lawsuit seeking to compel Laxalt and Gov. Brian Sandoval to implement the initiative, saying the courts could not “micromanage” the governor’s communications with executive agencies.
Ford campaigned on implementing Question 1, and said it wasn’t a “bandwagon” issue for him given his support for a similar concept by former state Sen. Justin Jones, which was approved by lawmakers but vetoed by Sandoval in 2013.
But as for actually implementing it, Ford said he first wanted to consult with Gov.-elect Steve Sisolak — who has also pledged to implement the ballot question — and figure out the best way to actually enact the policy once the two take office next year. He said no options were “off the table.” The incoming attorney general said he had already requested a bill in the next legislative session through his role as Senate majority leader that would address the topic (voter-approved initiatives cannot be amended by the Legislature until three years after they’re approved, which is why lawmakers in 2017 didn’t take up the issue).
Ford also raised the possibility of litigation in a federal court to require the FBI to carry out the background checks.
“It would be a last recourse, the federal court approach, obviously. I think there are a number of interpretations out there that have been put forth that it is really more of a ministerial duty for the federal government because laws are supposed to be construed harmoniously, such that they make sense together and can work together,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s an avenue that I think had not been pursued and something that had probably not been seriously considered, again in view of the fact that the current attorney general had already indicated that he was opposed to the idea in the first instance.”
Ford said that the most important factor was that he was starting from a position of “yes,” contrasting himself with Laxalt who vocally opposed the measure when it was on the ballot and said he wouldn’t do anything additional to implement it if elected governor.
“I’ve said on the campaign trail, I’ve said since winning this election, that I will work with anybody, whether it’s the governor, the Legislature, the federal government, police officers, whatever the case may be, to figure out a way to enforce this,” he said.
Ford also brushed aside concerns that having the state itself do the background checks — the solution proffered by Sandoval — would lead to a strain on the budget, saying he and Sisolak would be able to find funding for the program once they synergized strategies.
“The first step is to have a robust conversation with the governor-elect on what he foresees as his approach, how mine kind of meshes with that, and then move together doing the same type of thing,” he said.
Voting from prison
Ford took some heat from Republicans for testifying in 2017 that if he had his way, people would still be able to vote while in prison such as in Vermont or Maine. The comments came during a hearing in which Ford was presenting a bill that would expand voting rights restoration to a larger group of people who have been released from prison.
“I’m from Dallas, Texas. I’m from the South. I’m an African American male who’s grown up in the South and whose parents and grandparents were denied the right to vote,” he said. “The right to vote to me is one of the most sacrosanct constitutional rights that are out there. And I know the history of disenfranchisement. I know the history of removing the right to vote, and I know Jim Crow had a lot to do with that. So when I say that I think the right to vote should never be removed, it’s coming from that particular lens.”
Ford said that as Senate majority leader, he had the power to get the bill passed to carry out such a plan, but chose not to.
“What I am doing is putting our state in its own place where folks have the ability to reintegrate back into society yet again by giving them a chance to participate in society and restoring their right to vote is integral to that type of reintegration,” he said.
Ford denied that his decision not to go that far was because he planned to run for attorney general, and such a policy might be too progressive for Nevada voters. He pointed to other criminal justice reform measures he sponsored, including a bill to launch a pilot community college program in prison.
“People need to look at my record and look at what I do. Many people know who I am and they know my heart and they know that it is not dictated by what’s going to happen in the future,” he said. “I’m living in the moment, I’m doing what I think my constituents have elected me to do, and I’m representing a perspective that I think many people share.”
Ford made history on election night by becoming the first African-American to win a statewide office in Nevada, but he said opposition groups including the Republican Attorneys General Association made and ran ads with a “racist tinge” throughout the campaign.
Primarily, the future attorney general took umbrage with the group’s digital ad and attack website highlighting news reports that he was arrested four times on minor charges as a college student in the early 1990s, and saying Ford “knows the law in all the wrong ways.” Ford said the attacks were unfair given RAGA’s staunch support of Laxalt in 2014, despite the Republican’s documented legal troubles as a youth, including allegedly assaulting a police officer and a DUI.
“If they were disqualifying for me as an 18-year-old walking on campus at Texas A&M University, walking on campus, walking home to my dorm room, and having been arrested for public intoxication, then shouldn’t it have been disqualifying for the current attorney general who had a DUI around the same time?” he asked. “If it’s disqualifying that I had a speeding ticket that I forgot to pay, then shouldn’t it also be disqualifying for the current attorney general who had a 15-year-old speeding ticket…that it took him 15 years to pay? Shouldn’t it be disqualifying? And so when you draw those distractions and those comparisons, it becomes really apparent to anyone, and not just people like me who have experienced this and who’ve lived this, that there was a racist tinge to this campaign cycle.”
Ford also said he took issue with another RAGA attack website radicalaaronford.com, saying use of the word “radical” and his caricatured, bow-tie wearing image invoked unfavorable comparisons to the Nation of Islam. He said he was grateful for Nevadans “disregarding, discarding and demonstrating to the rest of the world that we are beyond that nonsense.” But he said the attacks were hurtful.
“It was disappointing to see that it not only took place but escalated throughout the entirety of the campaign,” he said. “I was prepared for the dog-whistling, because I had said I had anticipated what I called ‘Willie Horton’ (referring to the racist 1988 presidential campaign ad) behavior in this campaign, but it was gross, to say the least.”
Changes in office
Laxalt’s tenure was marked at-times by public disagreement with Sandoval over lawsuits the Republican attorney general signed the state onto, including one in 2015 challenging the legitimacy of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. Laxalt also signed the state onto several amicus briefs challenging abortion access in other states, which pro-choice advocates said went against Nevada voters who enshrined abortion protections created by the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade case in the state Constitution nearly 30 years ago.
Ford said he would have signed onto litigation defending DACA recipients had he been attorney general at the time and would likely involve the state in litigation from defending abortion access to protecting the Affordable Care Act from a Texas attorney general-driven lawsuit challenging the insurance law’s constitutionality. Laxalt has declined to involve the state on either side of the ACA lawsuit.
But Ford said his main difference on the job would be a closer working relationship with the governor.
“One of the difference in approaches I’m taking in my office is that I consult with the governor, and the governor-elect, before we make ultimate decisions,” he said. “And at the end of the day, the governor and I have individual duties under the Constitution to do what we think is best for the improvement of our state. And sometimes we may disagree, but it begins with a conversation, and I’m going to have that conversation with the governor before making any final decisions on anything.”
Ford was hesitant to say whether he would pursue litigation or involve the state in a case against Sisolak’s wishes.
“There will be an occasion, I imagine, very few occasions, and I hope no occasions, but if there are disagreements then we’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said.
Ford also said he would be reviewing the entire structure of the office as part of his transition, including the Laxalt-created positions of solicitor general and a “federalism” unit designed to challenge “unlawful federal overreach.”
Sex offender lawsuit
Nevada lawmakers passed a bill in 2007 that brought the state in compliance with the federal Adam Walsh Act, which dramatically ramped up the requirements for sex offenders to register with the state. Some lawmakers have tried to roll back that bill, and people who are subject to the stricter law and its lifetime registration requirements have sued the Nevada attorney general’s office to challenge its constitutionality.
Ford didn’t take a strong stance on the litigation against the office he’ll assume.
“I don’t have a problem per se,” he said about Nevada’s version of the Adam Walsh Act. “I can’t speak specifically to this litigation because this is yet another example of me having to look at what’s currently pending and to make an analysis off of that.”
Defending a state-legal marijuana industry
Ford said he believes the attorney general’s office should defend Nevada’s recreational marijuana industry against a potential crackdown from the federal government, and said such a defense would be a good use of the “federalism unit” Laxalt launched.
“We in our state have determined that we want to have legalized adult cannabis usage in our state,” he said. “If the federal government wants to come in and try to tell us that we can’t do it and undermine the 7,000 jobs that have been created … and the tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue that we’ve been able to receive to help our state with services, then they’re going to meet an attorney general’s office under my administration that will fight them tooth and nail to protect that industry.”
Democratic AGs as a defense against Trump
Democratic attorneys general have sometimes been described as a main line of defense against actions taken by the Trump administration.
“My job … is to look out for Nevada families first. That’s my analysis. And we have seen Democratic attorneys general across the nation band together to push back on what they consider to be an attack on families in their respective states and across the nation,” Ford said. “And it’s not partisan because if it were, we would be losing. They’re winning.”
He said he “absolutely” would be on the lookout for things coming out of the administration that undermine Nevadans’ security or constitutional rights.
Criminal justice reform
Despite the change in job, Ford said he wanted to continue pushing for policies that reduce recidivism and make it easier for incarcerated people to transition back to society without returning to prison — which could include more speciality courts and using state settlement funds on diversionary programs.
“I have run on that as something very important and integral to my campaign, so I believe my role is to ensure that we have a fair and just criminal justice system,” he said. “Punish those who’ve made mistakes or made bad decisions, but also look at the underlying causes, and if they are for example mental health issues, then let’s use diversion courts like mental health courts to figure out a way to divert them from the criminal justice system. If there’s an underlying addiction issue, then let’s use drug court, let’s use re-entry courts to figure out ways to keep people from recidivating, if you will. And a lot of that costs money, so utilizing settlement funds in a way that can support those types of programs and diversionary tactics, and understanding you know there has to be intention here. There has to be purposeful intent to create a better criminal justice system, and I’m determined to do that as well.”
Although Duncan, his general election opponent, ran on a theme of “A Safer Nevada,” Ford said his legislative record showed that he had backed legislation improving public safety, but that a key element involved making sure incarcerated people are given a fair chance to fully re-enter society.
“The best way is to be preventive, and to ensure that there are opportunities out there for people to get the assistance they need, whether it be better education, and legislatively, obviously that’s what they do, wrap-around services and things of that sort,” he said.
Storey County sheriff investigation
Ford supporters were vocal during the campaign in criticizing Duncan and Laxalt for not immediately dropping the endorsement they received from Storey County Sheriff Gerald Antinoro, who was accused of sexual misconduct involving a subordinate.
Laxalt’s office launched an investigation into Antinoro but ultimately did not opt to prosecute a case. Ford was noncommittal about whether he would revisit the issue.
“I can’t say one way or the other whether I’m going to quote unquote reopen the investigation,” he said. “I need to analyze and look at what’s in the office so I can make informed decisions on how to proceed.”
Nevadans voted this cycle to approve Marsy’s Law, which enshrines a list of rights for victims of crime into the Constitution, including the right to be notified and allowed to speak at more hearings involving the alleged perpetrator. It’s backed by billionaire Henry T. Nicholas and opposed by groups including the ACLU.
Ford and a handful of other Democrats had opposed the measure when it first emerged in the Legislature in 2015, but got behind it in 2017, voting to send it to a statewide vote.
“I absolutely had concerns about Marsy’s Law in 2015. Didn’t think necessarily that the protections that were being requested via a constitutional amendment were necessary because we had statutory protections already in place,” he said. “In 2017, the analysis was a little different — it was do they undermine other rights that are out there. Also, is it ultimately OK for the people to decide?”
Ford said that as Nevada works to implement Marsy’s Law, he’ll be looking at what issues other states with similar laws have experienced, and said he’ll be “figuring out where the pitfalls are as well so we can try to avoid those on a going forward basis, whatever they may be.”
287(g) agreements with immigration enforcement
Last year, Ford found himself in the middle of controversy over 287(g) agreements in which local jails cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
A bill in the Legislature sought to end them and Ford initially signed on, but later in the session, he snuffed out the effort. Republicans have said such bills would make Nevada a “sanctuary state” that is less safe.
“This issue was brought up by folks fear-mongering, folks race-baiting, folks trying to pit communities against communities,” Ford said. “Governor Sandoval, the Republican, and I agree on this as well — the sanctuary city issue is a non-issue in this state. We didn’t have it, don’t have it now.”
He said the 2017 bill was “trying to do was to ensure that state resources can be used for state issues.”
Immigration lawyers are critical of local jails for detaining immigrants on violations as minor as failing to pay traffic tickets, then turning them over to ICE, which initiates deportation proceedings. They say it’s unjust to attach such life-altering consequences to traffic violations, and point to the fact that not all jurisdictions have laws that allow traffic citations to escalate so dramatically.
“You’re talking to someone who got a failure to appear for a traffic ticket when I was in college,” Ford said, pointing out that Laxalt did not get arrested as he did for the same infraction because Laxalt received a traffic ticket in Maryland, which decriminalized such violations. “So decriminalizing traffic violations may be something that assists in this area as well.”
He indicated that Democratic leadership at more levels of Nevada government is likely to offer more opportunities for a discussion on immigration issues and traffic ticket decriminalization.
Relationship with law enforcement
Almost all of Nevada’s elected sheriffs endorsed Ford’s opponent in the attorney general’s race. But he indicated they could overcome that.
“Campaign season presents difficulties sometimes and to be sure, the sheriffs endorsed my opponent in this race,” he said. “But to also be sure, I’ve had a relationship with these sheriffs preexisting this campaign and I’ve worked with them.”
He pointed to legislation he presented that elevates the penalties for people who attack police and other first responders because they are first responders. That bill makes such an offense tantamount to a hate crime.
Ford also vowed to continue another tradition Laxalt started — a periodic law enforcement summit that brings sheriffs together for idea-sharing.
Bridging the rural-urban divide
One of the sharpest divides in the Nevada political scene is the one between the state’s rural counties and its urban areas. Rural counties voted overwhelmingly for Laxalt and other Republicans, while urban counties helped carry Democrats to victory in most races on Election Day.
Ford says there doesn’t have to be sharp tensions between the two.
“I don’t think we’re stuck with it. We have to keep trying,” he said. “And what I have done over the course of my legislative career is to purposefully put me into areas where I have to talk about rural issues.”
Ford said he asked to be assigned to a committee where he could visit rural Nevada and discuss water and land issues. He chaired the Natural Resources committee in 2013, and did a rural tour during his recent campaign.
“To be sure, I didn’t win in rural Nevada, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop my communication with rural Nevada,” he said. He pointed to issues such as the opioid crisis that hit rural and urban communities alike as a place where the regions can work together.
“So finding those commonalities, figuring out ways where our state as a whole can look to address a problem from an AG’s perspective, is one of the ways I hope to establish a relationship, whether they vote for me or not,” he said. “At the end of the day, voting is sacrosanct and they do what they want to with it but the person elected to these offices is beholden to the entire state.”
This story was updated at 1 p.m. on Nov. 15, 2018 to reflect that Ford is the first African-American elected to a statewide constitutional office. The first African-American elected to a statewide post overall was Nevada Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Douglas.