Last week I was doing a little last minute Christmas gift hunting in Reno. While waiting to pay for my InstaPot, there on the other side of the small store was the governor of the state of Nevada. A few people greeted him and chatted him up a bit, and in spite of the slightly harried expression that every last-minute Christmas shopper wears, he was polite and gracious.
I, too, took a few minutes from his day (I admit a little guiltily). I’ve only met him a few times, and then only briefly. But he greeted me kindly, introduced me to his wife, told me he appreciated my columns, and we even briefly chatted about legal career options. As I thanked him and started heading out the door, a woman close enough to overhear us laughed with recognition, saying to him, “I thought you looked familiar!”
It was one of those experiences that make you glad to live in Nevada, or at least Northern Nevada. We’re still a small enough state with accessible enough public figures that you can bump into the governor at the mall, make some perfectly ordinary small talk, and walk away feeling satisfied that, at least for a few more days, our government is in good hands.
A retrospective piece on an outgoing politician is almost mandatory for a columnist, I suppose, and no doubt many will be written about this particularly popular governor. It is right that we should read and write them – if we are to govern ourselves well by choosing our own leaders, then we must constantly evaluate what has worked — and what hasn’t — when making future choices.
Those retrospectives often turn to the negative, though. It’s simpler in many ways to point out all the imperfections and disappointments. I certainly have my gripes.
For example, in 2015, Sandoval was able to orchestrate prevailing wage reform which would have saved us millions of dollars on school construction, freeing up time and money for better-paid teachers and more classroom resources where they are most desperately needed. But then at the eleventh hour and for no clear reason, those reforms were whittled way, way back, freeing those building costs to balloon ever-more absurdly.
That session, he also championed universal school choice in the form of education savings accounts, only to let them die two years later by not insisting that the budget he signed fund them before legislators could go home. And yet, he was unafraid to call special sessions in order to grant millions of dollars in “incentives” for private companies already run by billionaires.
Perhaps worst of all, though, he neglected to look beyond his own term of office, failing to effectively recruit a new generation of Republican political candidates who would carry forward his approach to policy and politics. It is an odd thing that after so successful a governorship, said governor’s political party should have been so thoroughly rebuked at the polls.
And yet, each of these grievances are, in their way, markers of greater underlying success. When Gov. Sandoval took office, local governments were laying off employees across the board – who could afford to build schools in the first place, much less argue about their prices? By pushing to increase our tax base and therefore our school funding, he changed the new school question from “if” to “how.” And in 2017, he vetoed a more complete rollback of his prevailing wage reforms. That’s a net win.
I wish Sandoval would have fought harder for more school choice funding in 2017, but without his efforts in 2015, it could well have been another “if” versus “how much” situation. That genie is out of the bottle, and isn’t going back in. As more and more Nevadans experience the benefits of public school options (or help with private ones), both to the new schools themselves as well as traditional public schools as their overcrowding is relieved, expanding parental choices will become inevitable.
I am always skeptical of governments directly bribing large companies to relocate. Risks are socialized while rewards tend to be less so. It is unfair to companies less well politically connected, and insulting to those businesses who have been here and paying their taxes from the beginning.
But recruiting companies such as Tesla or even Faraday Future was done in the context of a broader aggressive push to market Nevada as a great place to do business. Sandoval’s administration regularly reached out to talented entrepreneurs in other states looking for a place where lawmakers and/or voters didn’t want to kill golden gooses by taxing otherwise successful companies to death. That aggressive promotion of our state worked, as our economy rebounded, our industrial base diversified, and our population swelled. It was inevitable that there would be overreach in such vehement efforts or that some projections of return on investment would fail to meet expectations.
At the end of the day, part of the reason our economy has thrived is because policymakers, led by the governor, understood that only growth in private business can boost that economy. Those who would demonize wealth creators (as if that’s a solution) or to attempt to conjure wealth by legislative fiat (like raising minimum wage, which only inflates prices and disincentivizes hiring), had they been in charge, would have strangled the New Nevada Economy in its cradle. Given the choice, I’m happy to live with excessive exuberance towards new and innovative private industries. (The Raiders stadium remains indefensible, however.)
Even the lack of political development for the future, while potentially disastrous and self-defeating, speaks to a trait we should wish to see much more of in all government officials – humility. Brian Sandoval focused on the problems at hand, not building a political empire. He finished his service, and is now handing off power to someone else willingly (and probably gratefully). All liberty-loving Americans should respect government officials ready and willing to constrain their own exercises of power.
And while a “Sandoval Machine” for getting out the vote would have been nice, the feverishly inept state and local Republican parties would have made such a dream nearly impossible for anyone. Complaining that Governor Sandoval didn’t have the magic wand necessary to overcome fools like Michael McDonald is grossly unfair.
In the end, we can go back to Ronald Reagan’s famous political barometer – are we better off as a state now than we were eight years ago? Without a doubt we are. I, for one, am grateful Nevada was led by Brian Sandoval during some dark economic times, and the growth that followed.
What has made him great in my mind, more than any one specific policy or program he promoted, was the temperament he showed in that store. He was patient. He listened. He was accessible. He remembered. He was gracious to everyone (even to certain columnists who have on occasion been pretty critical), when most folks would have been more than a little irritable.
I thought later about the hundreds of times a day he must have to endure the constant interruptions, however well-meaning, when simply leaving the house. I’m sure not all of those encounters are friendly, either. And yet there he was anyway, gamely being available to the people who entrusted him in some part with the community they’re raising their families in.
At the end of our quick conversation, he mentioned that he’d be teaching at UNLV’s law school. A grin lit up his face as he said it, the smile of a man who knows what glorious fun it is to cultivate the newest members of his profession. It was the expression of a man who is still thinking of the future as an optimist, and as a pragmatist, is going to shape that future to fit his vision. Clearly, he’s not given up on shaping future leaders; he’s just taking a longer road.
We’re going to miss him. May his successors learn from his style — and his successes.
Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a deputy district attorney for Carson City. His opinions here are his own. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.