Jacky Rosen: From politically invisible to the center of a critical Senate race
It was a hot August day but cool inside the small apartment where Jacky Rosen stood hands clasped with Dick Olson, an elderly bespectacled man in a white “Hooked on Fishing!” T-shirt and black suspenders. She had come to deliver lunch — chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy with a side of mandarin oranges — through Meals on Wheels, placing the packaged food on a dinner tray below a television that was silently airing Fox News.
“My name is Jacky Rosen, and I’m a congresswoman right here in Boulder City,” she tells Olson, grasping his hands in hers. All politicians shake hands. Rosen doesn’t let go, often holding hands with whomever she’s talking for the entire conversation.
“You are? I’ll – be – damned,” he says, spacing out the last three words as the wonderment of having a congresswoman, albeit one who’s slightly overdressed for meal delivery, standing in his living room hits him. She’s donning a navy dress suit, heels and pearls, her short brown hair curling every which way.
Olson’s wife, who has Alzheimer’s and is on home hospice, is barely visible through the bedroom door at the end of the hall. He tells Rosen that their anniversary is in three weeks, Sept. 6. They’ve been married 60 years.
“Sixty years? That’s amazing!” she exclaims.
“We smooch all the time,” he adds, cheekily.
“I’m going to pray for her,” Rosen offers, squeezing his hands tighter.
A few deliveries later, Rosen is walking back to the car, frustrated and somewhat fervent. Rosen’s parents received Meals on Wheels in the final years of their lives. They’re both buried in the Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City. Talking about them, she gets choked up: “Who are we if we don’t take care of our children and our elderly? I don’t know why we’re even fighting about this issue. It’s really emotional, because you know the person that they were. It’s really tough.”
A week later, on the road in Northern Nevada somewhere between Lovelock and Fernley, Rosen is explaining why she made the decision three years ago to abandon her quiet, private life and run for the House — and now, one of the highest-profile U.S. Senate races in the country — but her mind is still in Boulder City.
“When that man said, ‘I smooch my wife every day’ and they’re going to be married 60 years, that was probably the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard someone say. I think about all those people that don’t have a voice that I’m visiting,” Rosen says. “If I have a chance to honor those stories, I feel pretty lucky. It reminds me that, so somebody might say something bad about me. These are stories that need to be told.”
Those who know Rosen well describe her, above all, as a nice and normal human being. She’s hosted an annual Yom Kippur break-fast at her house for years. She’s a good listener to her friends and fellow synagogue members. She doles out parenting advice to members of Congress when they’re having trouble balancing their work and home lives. She’s not, in other words, the kind of person you might expect to be running for one of the most visible jobs in the state in the current smash-mouth political climate, unless you think of her candidacy as a kind of rebellion against the new status quo — or maybe even the old status quo — in which case maybe she’s exactly the kind of person you’d expect to be running. In her first interview as a candidate when she was running for Congress two years ago, Rosen said that if she hadn’t run, she would have been at home “throwing shoes at the television” instead.
Anyone who has spent any amount of time with Rosen would probably have a difficult time imagining the mild-mannered congresswoman actually throwing shoes at the television. Not that she doesn’t get fired up about things. She does. But when she speaks at campaign rallies, the staccatoed pattern of speech she sometimes adopts, emphasizing every second or third word and building to a crescendo — “they want to balance this $1.8 trillion dollars on the backs of our parents and our grandparents” — seems more like a facsimile of a white-haired, Brooklyn-accented Bernie Sanders than anything she might otherwise choose for herself were she not running for political office.
Which is why framing her candidacy, then or now, as in any way a type of rebellion isn’t quite appropriate either.
She’s not a socialist seeking radical change in the current political milieu like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who ran a truly grassroots campaign door knocking her way through the Bronx and Queens, ultimately winning the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th Congressional District in an upset over the incumbent, Joe Crowley. She’s not a progressive populist like Beto O’Rourke, a former punk rocker who has become a sensation unto himself in Texas, eschewing a staid data-driven campaign in favor of making direct and passionate appeals to voters at high-energy rallies and town halls.
Rosen is the product of a well-oiled Nevada political machine that ran through a laundry list of candidates to run for Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District in 2016 before her name was even added to it — a machine that thought a genial, inoffensive first-term congresswoman would be compelling and, perhaps more importantly, hard to attack. Simply put, they thought she would have the best shot at spiriting away Dean Heller’s U.S. Senate seat this year. While Rosen doesn’t exactly publicize this fact, it isn’t something she tries to hide, either. At one point on the campaign trail this summer, Rosen pauses when asked if she would have considered running for Congress if she hadn’t been approached.
“That’s a good question. I got approached, so here I am,” she says with a laugh. “I guess I never had a chance to think about that.”
The words that friends and colleagues use to describe her — good, kind, lovely, sweet, decent — mirror her campaign rhetoric. “Every one of us, everyone who's running, everyone who cared, all of these stories, each and every one of us has a story that brought us here today,” Rosen tells a packed crowd of Democrats at a Carson City wine bar late one August evening. “But it's our shared values and our shared commitment to social justice and social action and what's good and right and kind that brought us here to this point.”
It’s the kind of campaign platform that critics said rang hollow with Hillary Clinton, a politically savvy — some would say ruthless — woman who spent decades climbing her way up the partisan ladder before securing her party’s nomination to run for the nation’s top office. But it doesn’t read that way on Rosen, a woman who has spent much of the last 30 years of her private, adult life volunteering in her synagogue, taking care of her aging parents and raising her daughter. Even one of Heller’s colleagues acknowledged she “may be a good person individually,” though people would be “rolling the dice” sending her to the U.S. Senate because she’s still fairly politically unknown.
There is, of course, her congressional record to review if you want to understand what is important to her — STEM education, veterans and health care, to name a few. But the reality is that she’s only been in the House for the last 21 months and, as a freshman in the minority party, she has had little clout to get her priorities through Congress. And the numbers show how much of a political unknown she still is despite the millions of dollars in TV ads her campaign and outside groups have spent to raise her profile throughout the state. A more recent NBC News/Marist poll taken the first week of October found that 15 percent of likely Nevada voters had never heard of Rosen or were unsure what they thought about her. Twelve percent felt the same way about Heller.
Being unknown is Rosen’s weakness and her strength. She has a short legislative record, which means she doesn't have a lot to point to in the way of accomplishments. She also has a short legislative record, which means there isn’t as much to attack her on.
Rosen, 61, chafes at the characterization, though. It’s why she spends so much time on the trail talking about how people are “so much more than that one-page resume.” Asked about the criticism that she hasn’t been around long enough, she interrupts.
“I haven’t been around as a politician. As a politician,” she iterates with a chuckle.
It’s pre-lunchtime bingo at the Pleasant Senior Center in Winnemucca, which looks like it’s decked out for a 4th of July celebration, the dining room swathed in American flags, patriotic banners, paper stars and shiny red tinfoil garlands, even though the holiday was seven weeks ago. Two women, maybe the only two Democrats in the room, make a beeline for Rosen. Otherwise, the overall reaction to her arrival is polite — the elderly Winnemuccans give her a courtesy round of applause when the announcer introduces her and encourages them to go say hello to her at Table 14 — if somewhat muted. It’s not altogether unexpected in a rural Nevada county where Republicans outnumber Democrats three to one.
Seated at Table 14, the congresswoman is deep in conversation with a young mother with long caramel brown hair, sun-weathered skin and a tattoo running the length of one of her arms commemorating her husband, whom she lost three years ago to substance abuse. Nikki Yowell, 33, tells Rosen she lost five friends, too.
“Oh my God. How did you deal with that?” Rosen asks sympathetically.
“Um,” Yowell begins, pausing, choosing her words. “You just do.”
Yowell’s son Kayden, a 10-year-old with brilliant blue eyes and a bright blonde swoop of hair that falls across his forehead, is at the table, too. He’s a quiet kid — Yowell says “he’s been through a lot already” — but eagerly details the capture the flag-style computer game he’s writing to Rosen, who, as a former computer programmer, listens intently as she eats from a cup of fresh cherries with purple-stained fingers.
Fundamentally, Rosen views this — talking with regular, everyday people and hearing their concerns — as the most valuable thing she can do in Congress. This is why she’s running, she says in the car on the way to the next event.
“That’s my job, to collect those stories and then be sure I take those stories to heart when I’ve got letters about veterans or military or opioids,” Rosen says. “This woman lost her husband. That little boy was so goddamn cute, had the bluest eyes, didn’t he? … At the end of the day, the best thing we can do is listen to the real stories and try to do the best we can. Use the heart that we hear on that to guide us to legislate.”
It’s something she emphasizes during every speech, every forum and every roundtable on the campaign trail. Her opening question, wherever she goes, whomever she’s talking to, is, “What keeps you up at night?”
“I feel like I need to be a collector of stories, because how else do we do our job if we don't listen to what people care about? And then you go and make sure that you're fighting for those things,” Rosen tells a crowd of about 60 people that have congregated at the old Dayton High School, now a community center, to hear her and other Democratic candidates speak. After the event, the Lyon County Democratic chair presents Rosen with a cake with an American flag and the words, “76 days! You got this Jacky!!!” on it.
It’s a philosophy that friends and synagogue members say she has carried over from her time as president of Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson. No matter how small the concern — whether about what dessert was being served Friday night after the service or who was going to chair the Hanukkah bazaar — she took it seriously.
“Sometimes somebody gets up with a problem ... and you’re sitting there thinking, 'You’ve got to be kidding! That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard!’” Shelley Berkley, a former congresswoman who lost the 2012 U.S. Senate race to Heller and member of Rosen’s synagogue, says. “I never heard that out of Jacky’s mouth. She listened with the same intensity and the same interest no matter who was standing up and no matter what their problem was because she recognized that she was their representative, that she was their elected president and if it was an issue to them, it was an issue to her.”
Her friends describe her as a natural people person, at home around the dinner table chatting and laughing and drinking wine. In fact, one of Rosen’s good friends lost touch with her for a number of years until they ran into each other at an event at someone’s house. The friend couldn’t immediately place Rosen until she knocked a glass of wine off the table, it broke, and Rosen burst out laughing. “That laugh of hers, that bursting laugh of hers,” the friend, Rhonda Mushkin, recalls. “It really was a delayed reaction of an hour and everything flooded back.” It’s a contrast to the buttoned-up Rosen who has become adept at hewing to talking points on the campaign trail and who is friendly but usually reserved.
Before she was synagogue president, she was membership chair, one of the synagogue’s best-ever, according to Rabbi Sanford Akselrad, who has led the congregation for the last 30 years and is also friends with Rosen: “She never met a person she didn’t know. She’s very outgoing, friendly, loves to connect people one to another. That just comes naturally.”
Rosen spent two decades on and off serving on the synagogue board, where she helped to convert the synagogue’s computers for the turn of the millennium, build a new preschool and religious school and hire an assistant rabbi, among other things. As president, Rosen was responsible for making sure the day-to-day operations of the synagogue ran smoothly, overseeing its finances, administration, staff, contracts, and projects, so Akselrad could focus on leading the congregation spiritually. It didn’t matter what position she was in — head of membership, head of youth education, head of administration or president — whoever got her ear told her their story. “If you’re working on membership and you’re talking to people who want to join or you’re working at the preschool, the religious school, people just start talking to you, good and bad, about what they think, what their desires are, what their hopes, what they’re worried about,” she says.
Her friends say the politics of the synagogue with a little “P” prepared Rosen for politics with a big “P.” “I think there is kind of the running joke amongst Jewish people, like oh my God, one Jewish person, 17 opinions,” Rosen acknowledges. “And there’s no shy people at our synagogue.”
When then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid recruited Rosen to run for Congress in 2016, he sold her on the position by outlining what her office could accomplish through constituency services. “He said, ‘It’s not what you think if you see it on the news,' and that if you take the stories here, you really can do good. He talked to me about all the things he felt that he’d done through the years for people in Nevada,” Rosen says. "He just is a good storyteller — you know Senator Reid — and so he told me personal stories about people he thought he helped and he asked me to consider it.”
Rosen thought of the request — from a well-known, powerful politician to a former computer programmer — as a unique opportunity to help her fellow Nevadans.
“So I took a chance, and here I am.”
She was born Jacklyn Sheryl Spektor on August 2, 1957 in Chicago, the daughter of a car salesman and a homemaker. Her father Leonard was a first-generation American whose mother immigrated to the United States as a young widow from Austria with his half-brother, Philip, and whose father was a Russian immigrant. Her mother Carol’s family had been in the United States for a couple of generations, originally hailing from Austria, Ireland and Germany. Carol loved numbers and dreamed of being an accountant, but it was the 1950s. Women didn’t become accountants. They got married and had kids, and that’s exactly what Carol did. In 1955, she married. Two years later, she had a girl, Jacky, and three years later, a boy, Steven.
The middle of the century was the height of the suburbanization of Chicago, fueled by federal insurance for home building and the interstate highway system. In the early 1960s, the family packed up and moved outside the city to the suburb of Des Plaines, just north of O'Hare International Airport.
As a kid, Rosen loved logic games and crosswords. In school, she liked math — algebra, specifically. She liked how logical, how orderly it was, how you had to show your work. She attended grade school and junior high in Des Plaines before the family moved to nearby Arlington Heights, where she attended high school. An August birthday who skipped a grade, she graduated high school at 16. “I was pretty smart, I guess,” she concedes.
Computers weren’t even a blip on Rosen’s radar at the time, though, to be fair, they weren’t a blip on most people’s radars. (Sears didn’t start selling the home version of Pong until the year after Rosen graduated high school.) But college was. Rosen wanted to major in psychology — she thought maybe she’d become a researcher — so she picked the Midwest school with the best psychology department, the University of Minnesota.
As everyone who has seen the television ad knows, Rosen waitressed her way through college. “I know you've seen some of those ads with me carrying the plates. I said, ‘Yes! I carried the plates. I swear to God!’ I saved my tips in those envelopes,” she tells a tony Reno crowd at a garden party fundraiser one summer evening. It’s a story she tells often on the campaign trail, sometimes tinged by the detail of her staff’s disbelief that she would actually be able to balance carrying five plates.
First, she worked the ice-cream cone line at Bridgeman’s in Dinkytown next to campus. Then, the pub near the football stadium appropriately named for waitress-cum-math aficionado, Improper Fraction. Finally, the big leagues, working the casino floor at Caesars Palace as a toga-clad cocktail waitress one summer in Las Vegas while visiting her parents who had abandoned the cold Illinois winters for the sunny West.
“It was great,” she says about working at Caesars. “People were very nice. And you just went around slot machines — people were gambling — and everybody gave you like a buck or a couple of bucks, but everyone tipped you, mostly in chips. They’d give you dollar chips, $2 chips. Do they still have dollar chips? I don’t even know. I don’t gamble.”
It was in college that Rosen first learned to work her way around computers. After making trips to the math department to work on her psychology projects, she decided to take a class in a programming language called BASIC, or Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code. "I realized, oh my gosh. I love this,” Rosen says. “It was problem-solving like puzzles and designing and putting things together.” By then, she was already a junior in college, so she decided to finish her degree in psychology while taking more programming classes.
After graduating college during the depths of winter in 1979, Rosen decided to join her parents in Las Vegas, similarly lured by the prospects of sunshine. She landed a programming job at Summa Corporation, the holding company for the reclusive, business magnate Howard Hughes’ business interests, building an airplane mechanics inventory system. She can still rattle off a list of all the programming languages she knows: COBOL, Assembler, CICS, IDMS, PL/I, DB2, ADABAS.
“I lived with them out at the Hughes Terminal for a couple of months. I can tell you all about airworthiness directives and service bulletins and all these things about servicing, fixing, maintaining airplanes, because we wrote this whole airplane inventory system, and I learned what they did and then we went back, we designed a database, which is so many screens, for them to do their job and we designed the everyday inventory, maintenance, all the things,” she says. “And you have accounting so it’s going to be month-end, quarter-end, year-end maintenance for all the things that have to balance with inventory to accounting and that was a system I helped design and write and maintain. That’s what we did.”
In the late 1980s, when the Hughes heirs decided to sell off their hotel properties and aircraft division, Rosen had a decision to make: Stay in Las Vegas — a city where she could play tennis out back behind the Desert Inn and Bally’s and the Flamingo and the Sands, a city where flying Elvises might unexpectedly descend on you in the middle of one of those matches because Honeymoon in Las Vegas was being filmed — with her parents and her friends or take a job elsewhere. “I thought, ‘Why would I go start somewhere else when I have a great life here?’” Rosen says. “So that’s when I realized that Las Vegas really was my home, I guess.”
She took a job with Citibank, working in its fraud and customer service division maintaining the bank’s internal systems, writing new code and training employees how to use it, before eventually landing at Southwest Gas, where she worked her way from applications programming to systems programing and database administrator. “I loved it. I absolutely loved my job. It was really creative, very satisfying because you saw your end product, and you got to create lots of interesting things,” she says.
Rosen often talks about being a female programmer in a male-dominated field, both in her campaign ads and on the trail. In the era of #MeToo and reports that women still face gender discrimination in male-dominated offices, it’s not a stretch to read that to mean that she faced at least some sort of challenges in the workplace. She says that the men in her department at Southwest Gas would good-naturedly joke that she was Snow White and they were the seven dwarves but that, broadly, she was respected for her work.
“If I told you I spoke fluent German, let’s say you were a native German speaker, you’d know pretty darn quick if I could speak fluent German or not. And so because computer programming is not forgiving — you write code — it works or it doesn’t. There’s bugs or there isn’t,” Rosen says. “... So for me, the people that I worked with, even though I worked with the majority of men in one area, and in tech support of the gas company, all men, you are respected because of your work … I mean, there’s still corporate politics and other things that all women deal with generally, but the guys that I worked with, you’re as good as your code.”
It was in the early 1990s while working at Southwest Gas that Rosen met Larry, her husband of now 25 years, for margaritas on a blind date at a Mexican restaurant. Margaritas led to dinner and, eventually, marriage. (Rosen was married once previously in the early 1980s to a man she was dating when she first moved to Las Vegas, before realizing it was “not the right thing” and parting ways.) Two years after marrying Larry, their daughter, Miranda, was born. After that, Rosen became an independent consultant for Southwest Gas to better juggle taking care of a small child while Larry, a radiologist, worked long hours.
The life she had built up until that point changed one Thanksgiving Day a few years later, when Rosen’s mother suffered a massive heart attack that landed her in the hospital on life support for three weeks. It was the beginning of what would be several years of Rosen’s parents and her husband’s parents falling ill one by one and Rosen setting aside her work to care for them. Rosen’s father-in-law fell over a parking curb and broke his neck. Her dad was diagnosed with pancreatitis and atrial fibrillation. Her mother-in-law began progressing through the stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Her mother recovered from the heart attack but fell ill to lung cancer. Her father-in-law passed away in 2009. Her mother, father, and mother-in-law all passed away in the span of seven weeks during the summer of 2011.
“That was a year of no joy, that’s for sure. That’s for sure,” she sighs. “We were really all really close.” Friends, family and her faith helped get her through that period of her life — and also dumb jokes. “If you’re lucky, you have good friends around you and you make dumb jokes about adult diapers and things,” Rosen says. “It’s kind of like politics. Sometimes you make dumb jokes just because what else are you going to do?”
Rosen never aspired to political office, not even as a little girl. When she was born in 1957, politics wasn’t exactly the kind of thing young girls aspired to. She notes that when she was young there weren’t even sports teams for girls at her school, let alone political role models. “I think a young girl now sees a woman doing everything, just on TV. Those role models weren’t there,” Rosen says. Politics wasn’t even something she aspired to as an adult. The way she describes it, she was so busy raising her daughter, taking care of her parents and her in-laws and serving as executive vice president and president of her synagogue she never had a chance to stop and think about it.
“I probably might have thought of something after my presidency, but I had already started my next chapter doing this,” Rosen says. Her three-year term as synagogue president ended in June 2016, after her bid for Congress was well underway. “The natural time for me to think about it would have been right after they passed and then I became president of the synagogue and then just transitioned into doing this.”
By this, of course, she means running for the House, and now, the Senate. The way the story goes is that Reid, the de facto head of the Nevada State Democratic Party, had essentially run through the list of pretty much everybody who could maybe, possibly be convinced to run for Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District, a swingy suburban seat covering Summerlin, Henderson and the southwest that had only once been held by a Democrat in its then-14 year history. Those who were approached but eventually declined include former Secretary of State Ross Miller, state Senate Democratic Leader Aaron Ford and Heather Murren, co-founder of the Nevada Cancer Institute and wife of MGM Resorts CEO Jim Murren. Rosen says she thinks Reid and the Democratic Party were “trying to think outside of the box” when they approached her about running in December 2015.
That Rosen’s name landed in Reid’s lap at all is thanks to Judge Elissa Cadish, the District Court judge who is running for the Nevada Supreme Court. Cadish was brainstorming people whom Reid and the party may not have thought of to run for the seat when her mind wandered to Rosen — her bridesmaid, friend and synagogue president. Cadish passed Rosen’s name along to Reid.
On the campaign trail, Rosen talks a lot about how her life hasn’t been linear, which she muses is maybe atypical among her peers. “For my generation, you would think you’d have to be on a particular trajectory to do something and then you would have to check those boxes off and once you were on a path you were kind of on a path, right?” Rosen says. When she first heard that her name was circulating for the House, she says she thought that her nonlinear life could be an asset.
“I think they were trying to think maybe of a woman, someone who had raised their family and worked in Nevada and had different, varied experience who might be willing to take a chance,” Rosen says. “... So I got a call and they said, ‘Would you speak with Senator Reid about running for Congress? Hello?’ Like, is this some fake phone call? And of course, it wasn’t. I’m making a joke.”
After talking with Reid, she consulted with a variety of people, including current and past elected officials, friends, family and her rabbi. “I remember when she told me that it was percolating, and she literally looks at me and she says, ‘You can’t tell anyone, but you’re never going to believe what I’m thinking of doing,’” Mushkin, one of Rosen’s close friends, says. “I said, ‘No, please don’t!’ I only said no because I was selfish and I wanted my girlfriend.”
At the time, Rosen thought a lot about whether she was qualified to run for Congress, even though there are at least some members each year elected with no prior political experience. Her Republican opponent at the time, businessman Danny Tarkanian, had never held office before, either. Berkley, the former congresswoman, thinks Rosen’s concerns are the product of the confidence gap between men and women. “I assured her from the beginning that she most certainly could, that she not only had the internal tools necessary to do the job, but that she had the personality, the characteristics that would make her an outstanding congresswoman,” Berkley says.
Looking back, Rosen agrees. “A man will say, ‘Oh, there’s that job, I’m going for it.’ A woman says, ‘Well, geez, maybe I need three more classes in college.’ Right? A woman is always worried that they’re not prepared enough and men just go for it,” she says.
On Jan. 26, 2016, she jumped into the race for the seat, just 10 months before Election Day. As a virtual unknown to voters, the most significant criticism Rosen faced during that race was that she was Reid’s “handpicked candidate,” with a Republican super PAC memorably running an ad featuring a marionette Rosen dancing on stacks of dollar bills. Outside groups pumped more than $15 million dollars into the election, more than any other House race last cycle apart from a Pennsylvania seat. She ultimately eked out a narrow 1.2 percentage point victory over Tarkanian in a district that Trump won by a 1-percentage point margin.
Her emotions were mixed the night of the election, which she spent in a room at the Aria Resort and Casino celebrating her daughter’s 21st birthday while attendees of a Democratic watch party in a ballroom downstairs mourned Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump. “My baby turned 21. So I’m thinking a lot about that, being attentive to my daughter, nervous for the election, wondering if I’d win or not and what that next step would be, and then, of course, like everyone else stunned that Donald Trump became the president,” Rosen recalls.
Rosen never went down to the ballroom for a victory speech that night because her race was so close that it wasn’t called until the early hours of the following morning. But she remembers feeling a mixture of excitement, accomplishment and pride when she won. “I just couldn’t wait to go out there and begin to do this work,” she says.
Within the span of a week in August, Republicans unleashed a barrage of attacks against Rosen — raising questions about her consulting work, criticizing her for missing a vote on veterans, tying her to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, highlighting a vote to shut down the government and calling her a “Vegas congresswoman” in an attempt to alienate her from the rest of the state. Rosen says it was like her opponents were throwing everything at the wall “trying to figure out what sticks.”
As a member of the minority party with a little less than two years in the House — or any political office for that matter — the lists of bills she has championed and even voted on is relatively short. Still, Heller’s campaign and other Republicans have done their best to try to cast aspersions upon a candidate with a fairly clean record.
At the senior center in Winnemucca, one woman walks straight up to Rosen and asks her about the consulting business attack. Heller and the Republican groups backing him ran a series of ads over the summer criticizing Rosen for saying that she “built a business” when there is no evidence she ever held a business license with the city or the state. And the messaging has gotten through to Rosen’s supporters, including 74-year-old Jean Kinney who asks if Rosen had a “Doing Business As,” or DBA, name for her business.
“I just have one question. We have a DBA. Is that what you did? A DBA for your independent consulting?” Kinney says. “I was a 1099 consultant,” Rosen explains, plainly. Kinney seems easily appeased by the answer. “Okay! Well, that just takes care of that!”
But it happens again at the Democratic meeting in Dayton, when a woman approaches Rosen and asks her about the consulting work. “Did you need a business license?” she asks, plaintively. Rosen gives the same response: “I was a 1099 consultant.”
Heller’s campaign also briefly made an issue of the fact that Rosen said she had a degree in computers when her bachelor’s degree is in psychology — that is, until she released transcripts showing that she also obtained an associate’s of applied sciences in computing and information technology in 1985 from Clark County Community College, now the College of Southern Nevada.
Rosen’s critics argue she should have just called herself an independent consultant from the get-go. They also question the timing between The Atlantic correcting an article that had listed Rosen’s undergraduate degree as in computer science and her campaign releasing transcripts more than a month later showing she had obtained an associate’s degree in computing. (Rosen decided to release the transcripts of her associate’s degree after Heller reiterated the attacks in a 30-second digital ad, according to her campaign.) Rosen dismisses both lines of attack as nitpicking over her qualifications that she might not otherwise face if she was a man. “They wouldn’t say the same thing to a man. No one ever asks a man if he feels he’s qualified,” Rosen says.
She’s also faced more explicitly political attacks. Republicans criticized her for skipping a vote on a sure-to-pass bill on benefits for veterans exposed to Agent Orange, a cancer-causing defoliant, during the Vietnam War for a “campaign photo op” at the U.S.-Mexico border. Rosen has characterized the trip — organized by her Congressional office amid intense scrutiny of the Trump Administration’s family separation policy earlier this year — as necessary due diligence.
Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-CA, who traveled to the border with Rosen, says even the head of a child detention facility they visited insinuated that they were there for political purposes: “Jacky piped up like nobody’s business and said, ‘Let me tell you why we’re here, because I’m not sure why you think we’re here is the same or different than why we’re here. We’re here because of the interest of these children and making sure our American values are translated in how we’re caring for these children.’”
Republicans have also tried to tie Rosen to actress Jane Fonda, who gained notoriety as “Hanoi Jane” after she was photographed sitting on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun in 1972. Fonda was slated to host a Hollywood fundraiser benefiting Rosen in April, but the actress did not attend and has never contributed to Rosen’s campaigns. That particular attack seems to hold less water with some Rosen supporters than the others that have been levied against her. “As far as Jane Fonda goes, I get tired of hearing about it. It was proven that what is being said about her are lies,” says Roger Rock, a Vietnam veteran from Winnemucca, after a veterans roundtable in Reno.
Perhaps the best critique Heller’s team has in its arsenal is Rosen’s lack of political experience. Heller released an ad in August and another in October criticizing Rosen for accomplishing “zero” in the House before announcing her bid for the Senate, a claim that Rosen’s campaign has contested by pointing to several pieces of legislation she co-sponsored that passed the House before she announced her bid. But her record is short, especially compared to Heller’s. The Republican senator has sponsored 484 and co-sponsored 1,503 pieces of legislation since he entered Congress in 2007; Rosen has sponsored 25 and co-sponsored 457.
It’s a point that’s underscored when she explains what she’s most proud of accomplishing in Congress so far. She rattles off a list. She sponsored and passed two STEM education bills through the House as one combined measure. She sponsored multiple amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act in 2017 and 2018 that became law. Eight bills she co-sponsored have been signed into law. Fifty bills she co-sponsored have passed the House. She introduced a bill to help train retiring military service members for jobs in the solar industry. She is one of 24 Democrats on the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. She launched a Palliative Care Task Force within the Assisting Caregivers Today Caucus. She was ranked one of the top bipartisan freshmen.
It’s a resume roughly comparable to, if not more prolific than, those of other first-term members of Congress. She was one of the top co-sponsors of bills and top bipartisan co-sponsors of bills among her fellow freshmen in 2017. But her resume is, nonetheless, short compared to her opponent’s 12-year-long congressional record.
Still, she talks about her accomplishments without embellishment or excuse. She is genuinely proud of leading a task force to expand access to palliative care because she saw her mother suffer as she battled lung cancer in her final days. “You have this space where your loved one is suffering and you need to take care of them before they go to hospice and they can’t be in hospice for three or four months,” she says. She is genuinely proud that she sits on the House Armed Services Committee because her father, father-in-law, grandfather and two of her grandmother’s brothers all fought in World War II. “I came of age during the Vietnam War, and you think about how the soldiers were treated so terribly when they came back and how horrible that was, and that we can never really make amends for that,” Rosen says. And she’s also genuinely proud of the way that her life experiences inform the way she legislates as a political newcomer, and it may be a benefit to her within an electorate that is increasingly skeptical of Washington.
“The more life you live, the more experiences you have, and they do shape and inform you in really important ways. What you do for a career is one part of who you are, but it’s not all of who you are. It could be a daughter, a mother, a sister, a wife, an aunt, a niece, a nephew, a friend, a caregiver, a bowler or a tennis player, a volunteer, just the list keeps going on and on,” Rosen says. “So all those things inform you in ways that you can’t put on your resume and I think that’s the stuff that life is made of.”
In June, President Trump traveled to Las Vegas to campaign for Heller and bestowed upon Rosen a nickname: “Wacky Jacky.”
"Now, that name didn't come from me,” Trump claimed, speaking to Nevada Republicans at their convention. “That's a name that people have known because people that know her, that's what they call her, Wacky Jacky. That's what you want for your senator?"
To be clear, “Wacky Jacky” was not a nickname Rosen’s opponents used widely, apart from a few isolated cases on Twitter, before the Trump rally in June, and, for those who know anything about her, good or bad, “wacky” is probably the least apt word you could use to describe Rosen. Those who like her say she’s kind and thoughtful. Those who don’t say she’s boring and inexperienced. “Wacky Jacky” just rhymes.
The nickname doesn’t bother Rosen. In fact, she enjoyed when the nickname got the Seth Meyers late-night comedy treatment, with Meyers-as-Trump brainstorming nicknames the night before the event: “Dumb Jacky. No, that’s not it. Crazy Jacky. Oh, I’m getting closer, I can feel it. Oh, Eureka! Wacky Jacky!”
“I guess I’m important enough for a president to know my name, and think that I’m a credible candidate and credible threat to my opponent, Dean Heller, and so I guess I’ll take it in stride,” Rosen adds. “It doesn’t bother me.”
Not much bothers Rosen, generally. Her colleagues describe her political style as unflappable and direct. “Whatever issue I've ever had to discuss with her whether it is on legislation or party politics or even literally, like, child rearing, she's very upfront and she doesn't try to say something that sounds flowery. She just is very direct and gives you the truth and really gives good advice,” says Democratic National Committee Vice Chair and Rep. Grace Meng, D-NY. “If she saw something that wasn't the best way to do something, she would call us out on it. She would just wonder out loud, like, ‘Why do we do it this way?’ Some freshmen are timid about doing that.” She’s not a politician, not in the sense of someone who typically runs for public office, says Rep. Lois Frankel, D-FL, who lives in the same apartment building in Washington as both Rosen and Meng: “I’ve been in public office for over 30 years, and she has a unique decency and sweetness about her that is so rare today … She’s just an extremely decent human being.”
There’s only one thing Rosen says bothers her, and that’s when people aren’t honest. “If you ask someone can you do X, if the person can’t do X, they should let you know, and we’ll find help,” Rosen says. “... It’s okay if you’re like, ‘I’m doing 50 other things, and I couldn’t get to this.’ But give us a heads up, so we don’t go unprepared.”
Politically, she describes herself as a woman with “progressive values” who is “all about finding smart solutions that produce results for everyone.” Rosen does support a $15 an hour minimum wage and banning the sale of assault weapons, positions some more middle-of-the-road members of her party have been slow to embrace. But she is still best described as a moderate Democrat who supports Medicaid buy-in over a single-payer health-care system, was recognized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for her support for “pro-growth policies,” and is in the top 10 percent of members of the House who have voted against their party.
And she talks frequently on the campaign trail about how much she enjoys working across the aisle, including as pat of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group in the House made up of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats. She often jokes that the caucus is like Noah’s Ark because members have to join two by two. Since it was created last year, the caucus has proposed changes to House rules, a compromise immigration solution and a fix to the Affordable Care Act. Seventy-five percent of members have to agree for the caucus to put out a position on anything, and the caucus abides by an honor code where members won’t use information shared during meetings against each other. For Rosen, being a part of the caucus is like computer programming. “It’s kind of funny that I’m on the Problem Solvers Caucus because I would say anyone who even knew me when I was a young kid would say I loved puzzles and problem solving,” she says, “Tearing things apart and kind of putting them back together and figuring out good answers for things.”
For nearly three years now, Rosen has been running.
“Running, running, running. Meeting, meeting, meeting, you know,” she says sitting at a picnic bench in the middle of a park in Fallon on a warm but pleasant August morning. “There’s just a million meetings, a million things. So to just have, wow, 15 minutes in a park…”
For once, she’s not running. An elderly man with a bicycle and a small, fluffy brown dog walks by. “What’s your dog’s name?” she asks. “Hey, Ginger. We love dogs. She’s so soft. Ooh.” It’s the most relaxed she’s been in three days on the campaign trail.
She’s been running so much that she bought a pair of nondescript black heels with thick rubber soles that don’t slip on the polished concrete in the Capitol’s underground tunnels and rounded toes that don’t squish her toes when she’s standing for hours on end on the campaign trail. Just before she came to the park, those heels whisked her away from a meeting with the Churchill County Democrats into a waiting car as a tracker rushed at her with a video camera peppering her about her consulting work. The trackers only bother her, she says at one point as she’s hiding out on the side of the Fernley Library before speaking to the Fernley Democratic Club, because they come out of nowhere and — she brings her palms in close to her face, stopping just a few inches away to demonstrate — get so close to her when asking questions. But she accepts it as a necessary evil of running for public office, which she admits has “sometimes” been hard.
“You have to be strong in knowing who you are and having a good support system. No one can take your pride away from you of the kind of life you’ve led and what you’ve done, and you just have to accept that that’s probably just the public part of it you’re not going to be able to change,” Rosen says.
She’s so conscientious about the fact that every little thing she says could be torn apart in a news article or twisted out of context by her opponents, that at one point on the road she stumbles over herself and quickly tries to backtrack in the middle of telling a reporter an innocuous story about her Republican colleague, Rep. Trent Kelly, inviting her to come visit Tupelo, Mississippi, where Elvis was born.
“I thought he told me Elvis, isn’t Elvis born in Tupelo? Because he says, ‘You have to come to Tupelo.’ I thought he said that,” she says, trailing off as she tries to remember. She continues with hesitation. “I want to say Elvis was born in Tupelo, Mississippi. Don’t quote me. So, don’t, don’t fact me on — that’s off the record,” she says, trying to keep things light-hearted while also imploring sympathy for her lack of Elvis knowledge. (For what it’s worth, the reporter hadn’t agreed to go off the record to talk about a minor detail that no one would bother to fact check. But, in this political climate, Rosen probably figured the front page headline the next day was going to be, “Pants on Fire: Rosen falsely claims Elvis born in Tupelo.”)
“Don’t fact check,” she repeats. “But I thought that’s what he said. But I said, ‘I’ve never been down,’ and he said, ‘You’ve got to go to Tupelo.’ I swear he said Elvis was born there, but I don’t know my Elvis facts.” She sounds somewhat dismayed and apologetic.
One of her staff members consults the internet. Elvis was indeed born in Tupelo.
“There you go, I was right,” she says, brightening and a little relieved. “I was right on Tupelo, Mississippi. Who knew?”
The freshman congresswoman says that “of course” she had planned to run for re-election for her House seat, that is, until she started thinking about the direction the country was heading under the Trump Administration and Heller’s vulnerable position in the U.S. Senate — and spoke with Reid. Rosen and her husband, Larry, talked with Reid and his wife, Landra, about it as well, and the congresswoman consulted with others including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, and U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-IL.
“What they said to me was this. They said, ‘We think you’re the person who could win the state because you won Nevada’s 3rd and the kind of person that I am, a person who collaborates and communicates and a problem solver and all those kinds of things would be the person who would have a chance to win, and so they told me to go home and find my why,” Rosen says. “It’s really hard to run for Senate. It’s a very important job and you have to be 100 percent sure that you know, in your heart, why you’re doing it, what it means to you, because that’s the only way you can really commit to the hard work that it takes.”
The process of running for election has been somewhat backward for Rosen over the last three years. Usually, candidates, driven by their why — or perhaps their unbridled political aspirations — seek out an office. From there, it’s an uphill climb, hiring a campaign manager, courting the party’s support, winning a primary, finding more donors, and, ultimately, winning an election. But all of those electoral trappings have uniquely presented themselves to Rosen. She’s been sought out and simply asked to find her why.
Tikkun olam is her why. It’s a Hebrew phrase that roughly translates to “repairing the world,” the concept in Judaism that you should leave the world better than you found it. It was why she decided to run for the House in the first place. When she was fairly certain she was going to make the leap into the Senate race, she asked her daughter, Miranda, what she thought. Miranda took out a napkin and wrote “Rosen for Senate” on it, à la the napkin on which Leo McGarry wrote “Bartlet for America” to talk Jed Bartlet into running for president on The West Wing. The napkin lives in a frame at home.
Rosen doesn’t want to talk about what she’s going to do if she loses. “For everything in life, you have to be prepared to win. You have to be prepared to lose, of course. I’m not afraid to lose. I hope we’re going to win. I’m doing everything I can. I’ll tell you this. I’m not going to leave one thing on the table, that’s for sure, because nothing’s more important to me,” Rosen says. But then she does talk about it. She’d like to try to bring the concept of the Problem Solvers Caucus back to Nevada or across the country. Or maybe she’d talk to women and help them find their voice in the public arena. “If I lose, I think that I’ll find a space for me to stay involved because I think that I’ve learned an awful lot.” She says she hasn’t thought about whether she would run for another office in the future, or whether this would be it.
“For me, my philosophy — and I told this to my staff — is it’s a gift for us to do this. So, whatever we do, however long we’re lucky enough to be here, when we look back upon our body of work, we’re going to be proud of what we did,” Rosen says. “And so, the gift of coming to it from the outside as maybe a little bit older is that I have the ability to think about the legacy that I’m going to leave, and I don’t feel constrained.”