RENO – Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak found himself among friends Wednesday night at the 17th annual Cesar Chavez Celebration. Make that many friends.
With Sisolak working the Grand Sierra’s Tahoe Ballroom in a flurry of handshakes and hugs, selfies and shoutouts, the crowd clearly appreciated the presence of the first Nevada governor to ever set foot in the event, which honors the life, legacy and spirit of the late United Farm Workers leader while also pumping up the state’s labor movement and the Reno-Sparks NAACP. Did I mention Sisolak is also the first unabashedly pro-labor Democrat to occupy the Governor’s Mansion in two decades?
The festive atmosphere looked more like a victory lap for Sisolak than another step in the easy early miles of a political marathon that has challenged all his predecessors — and run a few to ground. To say the honeymoon continues for Nevada’s 30th governor only states the obvious.
It’s going to get harder than this, right? History says it has to, doesn’t it?
Yes. But Sisolak can’t be accused of being bashful. His inaugural State of the State address sounded like a guy reading from the progressive “nice list” with calls for pay increases for public school teachers and collective bargaining for state employees, implementing the controversial gun background check law and amending the flaws in the recreational marijuana rules. From celebrating the first female-majority state legislature in American history to promising to protect the health care of Nevadans in need, there was something for everyone.
“I know that when every Nevadan has the opportunity to succeed, the state will reap the benefit,” an emotional Sisolak said on Jan. 16. “That will be my mission as your governor and the chance to see it through will be the honor of my lifetime.”
Where other Nevada governors in their first term have come out with a belt-and-suspenders approach to policy and budget, Sisolak has gone big. It helps to have a Legislature with Democrats in the majority and to have a post-recession economy humming along.
That good economy gives Sisolak a chance to play Santa Claus and fill the stockings of favored constituencies — some of them long-suffering and more than patient — and make good on his State of the State agenda while the opposition jockeys for status in the President Trump Fan Club. (When a deceased pimp and the charming wife of an also-ran candidate are the most recognizable faces in the Nevada Republican Party, someone’s got their work cut out for them.)
With the clock ticking in Carson City, Sisolak also must work to complete the core of his agenda during the 2019 legislative session. While he has the votes in his favor, and has wisely been spending time on details with key lawmakers, failure isn’t an option for the majority Democrats to shine going into the 2020 election cycle.
He’s also taken swift action on issues that could have easily turned into political pratfalls. A couple: He swiftly and bluntly rebuked Senate Majority Leader-turned-felonious spendthrift Kelvin Atkinson and moved with equal alacrity to call for more transparency by the state taxation department on the issue of marijuana licensing. They were easy decisions, but Sisolak didn’t double clutch.
Other challenges will be tougher than they appear. Beyond Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s recent comments about restarting the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, Democrats can expect Trump’s political mechanics to play bait-and-switch with the issue all the way to Election Day.
At some point, Sisolak may need to reiterate his campaign-year stance of opposing the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s multibillion-dollar plan to pump and pipe groundwater from rural White Pine County to feed thirsty development in Clark County. As a member of the SNWA board during his Clark County Commission tenure, Sisolak expressed opposition to the pipeline project, but also voted to support the water agency’s litigation efforts.
Sisolak appears sincere and seems sure-footed, but will he remember to pivot when some ideas, as they inevitably will do, fail to go as planned?
In his emotional address to union and NAACP members Wednesday night, he recalled his blue-collar family roots. The message was clear: He’s in it for the working people of this state. Chavez was a man who spent a lifetime in the cause of “unity, justice and human dignity,” Sisolak said, and then he reminded his willing audience of Chavez’s famous line, “The fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It’s always about people.”
As long as the economy holds, and the vines of his big vision bear fruit, Sisolak has the opportunity to shine as he ticks off the miles in the race toward the future. Even his critics must admit he’s off and running.
Lest his many supporters celebrate victory too early, a note of caution: Nevada political history reminds us that the fight isn’t often enough about the people, but is almost always about the lettuce.
John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal—”Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at [email protected] On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith