On the Record: GOP gubernatorial candidate Joe Lombardo on COVID, elections and K-12
Republican gubernatorial candidate and Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo criticized the state’s extended mask mandate during the pandemic as “political theater,” stood by Nevada’s 2020 election results but said he supported the repeal of permanent universal mail-in voting during a wide-ranging interview with The Nevada Independent on Friday.
Lombardo, 59, criticized Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak’s handling of the COVID pandemic, saying the governor took too long to reopen the economy and unfairly relied on the police to enforce mandates and closures. He credited that decision with inspiring his run for governor.
“I just don't agree with the direction he's taken the state,” he said.
Lombardo, first elected sheriff in 2014 and again in 2018, is widely considered the leading candidate in the 15-person GOP primary for governor, given his massive fundraising advantages and sizable, but not overwhelming, support in the polls ahead of the June 14 primary election.
A recent poll placed Lombardo at 26 percent, ahead of former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller and North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee at 13 percent, Reno attorney Joey Gilbert at 12 percent and businessman Guy Nohra at 1 percent.
That frontrunner status has meant Lombardo has endured the bulk of criticism from GOP primary rivals criticizing his past support for Sisolak and not appearing at multi-candidate forums (he attended his first at a Keystone Corporation forum earlier this month), as well as from Democratic Party groups eager to knock down a candidate who polls well against Sisolak.
Throughout the interview, Lombardo maintained more moderate positions than many of his Republican rivals, including not explicitly ruling out support for rent control policies, acknowledging Joe Biden as being legitimately elected, and leaving the door open for tax reform provided it involves “reallocation” of funds rather than a tax increase.
Still, Lombardo highlighted clear differences between himself and Sisolak, including casting doubt on signature verification checks used in elections and voicing support for re-instituting several education initiatives started by Republican former Gov. Brian Sandoval but done away with by the Democrat-controlled 2019 Legislature, including holding back children who cannot read at grade level by third grade.
See below for video highlights from the interview; a full video of the interview is at the bottom of the story.
Lombardo said Sisolak’s initial decision to shut down the state’s casinos and other major “nonessential” businesses at the start of the pandemic was understandable because of the state’s heavy tourism industry and the vagueness of the science around COVID at the start of the pandemic.
But he criticized Sisolak for too slowly removing COVID precautions and restrictions, saying the state quickly moved past the “decision point” where it was clear that Nevada’s health care infrastructure wouldn’t be overwhelmed with COVID cases.
“My opinion, he took way too long to make the decision to lighten up on the economy,” he said. “And it's gonna take years. It's not like turning on and off the light.”
He said his run for governor was galvanized by the request for local law enforcement agencies to police “nonessential” businesses. Though Metro took a backseat to county and city code enforcement in that regard, he said it was wrong for Sisolak to ask police to “go out and do enforcement on that, and trying to explain to somebody that ‘you're not essential in this paradigm, and I know this is what you rely on your in your livelihood, but we're going to shut you down.’”
Lombardo also criticized the state’s mask mandate as ineffective, saying that as head of Metro, he did not see a noticeable change in COVID infection rates among its 6,000 employees after the mandate went into place. Sisolak lifted the state’s mask mandate in February, after putting it in place on July 30, 2021.
Lombardo added that there was never a mandate on mask material — referencing studies showing that certain N95 respirators are far more effective than cloth or surgical masks in preventing the spread of COVID — and said he and most others ended up re-using masks for extended periods of time.
“And so if there was COVID associated with that mask, it would be on the front facing piece of that material, which would cause an infection to occur,” he said. “I never got COVID. And so in my personal opinion, the mask didn't work. It was political theater to me.”
Though he did not vote for President Joe Biden, Lombardo said he recognizes Biden as the duly elected president.
“The evidence was not brought forward that we could prosecute on [fraud],” he said. “Thirty-four years in law enforcement, that’s what I base a lot of my decision on, is actual evidence and not anecdotal information.”
Lombardo also said he is worried about the “sanctity of the voting system” and a lack of public confidence with people fearing their vote doesn't matter. He said the state’s recent adoption of universal mail-in ballots meant the state has “mechanisms in there to create an environment for fraud.”
Though Lombardo said he supports mail-in ballots for those who request them, he said the current system creates opportunities for fraud because there’s no voter ID required and he has seen ballots sent to incorrect locations. His platform includes implementing voter ID, ending ballot collection (where someone other than the voter themself turns in a person’s ballot) and repealing universal mail-in ballots.
“I’ve gone by different apartment complexes as a matter of me doing business and seeing those U.S. Mail buckets with ballots stacked in them,” he said. “It just creates an environment for people to breach those envelopes and do what they do to cause harm.”
Over the last six elections, Lombardo said he adulterated his signature — adjusting the way he wrote his name so that it was different from how he signed his name on his driver’s license — and was not questioned about it.
Lombardo said he was not supportive of the efforts by several rural counties to move away from the use of electronic voting machines and toward hand-counting of ballots. He asserted that Nevada should have the same voting system throughout the state.
Economy / Housing
Asked whether he would sign and support a bill authorizing local governments to enact rent control policies, Lombardo said he would not be opposed to doing so. He added that he would need to conduct more research to understand such a measure’s effects.
"I don’t know enough about it to say that if a bill hits my desk, I’m gonna sign it," Lombardo said.
Lombardo said that one of the critical components the governor influences is how the state approaches affordable housing.
He described Sisolak’s approach to affordable housing as a “spray and pray philosophy,” referring to the planned spending of $500 million in American Rescue Plan dollars outlined in his recent off-year State of the State address. Though he was not opposed to using American Rescue Plan funding for affordable housing development, he said the governor should have considered other avenues to develop more affordable housing.
Lombardo said that affordable housing discussions need to focus on making land more affordable for developers. He added that the governor’s office could conduct negotiations with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to defer costs of BLM land until development is done and then generate the revenue for the costs associated with land afterward.
“You’ve got to have different examples of that and different ideas associated with that versus just, ‘Hey, we have this amount of money, we’re gonna throw it to the will of the people, and hopefully we get some answers out of it,’” he said.
Lombardo was critical of the Sisolak administration’s use of project labor agreements (PLA) — which function as agreements between building trade unions and contractors setting terms and conditions of employment — on affordable housing projects. Led by the treasurer’s office, the state has a partnership with the AFL-CIO, a large consortium of unions, and the state infrastructure bank to help fund new housing developments that include the planned use of PLAs. The first housing projects through the partnership are expected to be funded this summer.
Though Lombardo criticized the governor for stipulating that the $500 million set aside for housing out of ARP funds was only available to unions through project labor agreements, the funding is actually separate from the AFL-CIO partnership.
Lombardo’s comments may have also referred to a bill (SB231) Sisolak signed in 2019 that reversed a 2015 ban on project labor agreements for public works projects.
Still, Lombardo said he was a proponent of unions.
“I support collective bargaining. I support unionization,” he said. “But the playing field has to be level. Everybody has to have equal opportunity to enter into the commerce section of the economy equally, no matter if they're union or not.”
As governor, Lombardo would have the power to effectively ignore negotiated salary demands made by state employee collective bargaining units — a feature built into the 2019 implementation of state employee collective bargaining. Asked whether he would use that power if elected, Lombardo demurred, saying, “that's the way the process is written in the law,” and said he would “evaluate” any bill to repeal state employee collective bargaining rights.
Lombardo said he would consider pay raises for state employees after determining if the state has the financial capacity, but said they deserved “good wages.”
“If you're not keeping up with inflation, or the cost of living or interest rates, you have to use that paradigm and figure it out,” he said.
Criminal justice reform / “Defunding the police”
As the sheriff of Nevada’s largest county, Lombardo’s campaign has put his law enforcement bonafides front and center. A supportive political action committee has even run ads stating “Good luck defunding the police with Sheriff Joe Lombardo as our next governor.”
But some of Lombardo’s primary opponents have seized on comments that Lombardo made during an interview with 8 News Now in June 2020, where he was asked if he’d support defunding the police in light of calls for police reform in the immediate aftermath of the George Floyd killing. At the time, Lombardo said he could support defunding “in some aspects” if it meant that those resources went to addressing mental illness and homelessness, which he said police were expected, but ill-equipped, to deal with.
In the interview Friday, Lombardo said that his comments had been largely misconstrued and clarified that he does not support defunding the police “when we're talking about putting cops on the street.”
"I'm here to tell you right up front, I do not support defunding the police," he said. "I support evaluating existing programs.”
Lombardo said the state’s law enforcement officers are being called to deal with “every social ill,” and because police are duty-bound to not walk away, police are put in a position of “unsuccess” and liability because they don’t have the resources or tools to deal with people in need of social services. Lombardo acknowledged that “there are people out there that are better situated in negotiating with individuals in distress and identifying resources on the back end for them to get solutions to the problem,” which is something he would support.
“If I can allocate some budgetary money within my existing budget that would help my cops respond to calls for service and be met with success versus failure, I would support that,” he said. “But unfortunately, there hasn't been a program brought forward … the proof is not in the pudding yet, the success rate is very poor.”
On sentencing reform, Lombardo was critical of a 2019 bill (AB236) passed by the Legislature that reduced penalties for some lower-level crimes and increased access to “diversion” programs that offer offenders treatment and services in lieu of time behind bars. The bill codified many recommendations made by the Crime and Justice Institute aimed at cutting inmate populations and reducing prison costs.
Lombardo said he wouldn’t look to repeal the bill, but said it warranted “continuous evaluation” and that he would not accept any further lessening of criminal sentences if elected.
“All that I do know is since sentencing has been reformed, lessening of sentences associated with particular crimes, and particular crimes of violence, the crime rate has increased,” Lombardo said. “Is that directly related? Yeah, in my opinion, it is.”
And amid a rise in political attacks centered around rising crime rates, Lombardo said he should not be blamed for any recent crime upticks in Las Vegas given that overall crime rates have gone down during his tenure as sheriff. Rises in crime are often attributed to a series of complex and interlocking factors, with most experts saying the issue is more complex than what’s depicted in political messaging.
“I don't want anybody to conceive that as arrogance. It's based in reality,” he said.
Lombardo also said he “supports the death penalty, as long as there’s due process.”
Sheriff candidate Kevin McMahill
Lombardo said he would continue to “fully” endorse Kevin McMahill in his bid for Clark County Sheriff, even in the wake of recent media reporting reviving allegations from early in his career that he and another officer allegedly forced a suspected prostitute to show her genitalia and swallow a cocaine rock before she was released. Despite an internal affairs investigation recommending McMahill be fired, he was never removed from the agency and eventually rose to the position of undersheriff before retiring in 2020.
McMahill has denied that any misconduct occurred.
Lombardo, who said he was working in a different department in Metro at the time of the alleged incident, said he didn’t remember anything specific about the investigation. He said he may have heard rumors or “ancillary” discussions about it at the time, but believed that McMahill’s name had been cleared by going through Metro’s internal affairs process.
“He was put through the process. He survived the process. He was determined [as] exonerated as part of that situation, and he has moved on,” he said.
Lombardo did say when asked that he would review records related to McMahill’s recommended termination and subsequent pre-termination hearings — adding that “it’s incumbent upon me to do that to breed confidence in the system” — but said that the records may have been purged as the incident occurred more than 25 years ago.
Lombardo declined to say whether he thought Nevada schools were underfunded. Still, if elected as governor, he said he would conduct an audit of the existing system beginning his first day in office to determine whether schools are funded appropriately.
He would not commit to a raise for teachers, a promise Sisolak made in his 2018 campaign for governor, saying he did not want to “pander” to voters. But he said he believes reports that Nevada’s per-pupil spending is below the national average are inaccurate. He would like to see more comprehensive data on the issue, including whether teachers are underpaid in the state.
“I always think teachers are underpaid,” Lombardo said. “But I want to make sure that their pay scale is appropriate for the economy of Nevada..”
Lombardo said he supports the revised K-12 education funding formula passed by lawmakers in 2021. One education issue he wants to analyze is the pupil-per-teacher ratio in Southern Nevada. He said he believes an ideal ratio is 20 students per teacher, but didn’t specify which grade ranges that ratio should apply to.
Nevada has an existing class size reduction program, but the program allows school districts to apply for waivers to bypass the student-to-teacher ratio, which he would like to end.
“If you have the ability to make excuses, you’re going to make them,” Lombardo said.
Lombardo also said he would like to bring back a Read by Grade Three program championed by former Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval that was gutted when Democrats came into power. He cited reports of students' low math and reading levels, calling them “unacceptable.”
“You can’t reward mediocrity,” Lombardo said. “We have to have some negative sanctions associated with bad behavior. It’s not bad behavior when it comes to the kids, but it’s bad behavior as part of the policy.”
He also advocated for some degree of school choice, noting that there is limited space at schools, and said the state should expand existing resources through programs such as voucher-style education savings accounts and expansions of charter schools.
“[School choice] is part of the answer,” Lombardo said. “I believe it’s a very necessary answer, but not the only answer.”
Lombardo said he is open to tax reform, but not in a way that increases revenue.
“What do I mean by that is: can we do a better way of doing business?” he said. “No increase in revenue — reallocation.”
Lombardo said he would not be open to a property tax hike as a way to increase funding for schools but would consider reevaluating the process of how property taxes are calculated. He supports adjusting the valuation of the property when it’s sold versus adjusting property tax rates based on a property’s original build date.
But Lombardo acknowledged that such a change would need to come from the Legislature.
In a September campaign tweet, Lombardo wrote “I have a ‘zero tolerance’ policy for illegal immigration & as your Gov. I’ll implement that policy across the state to protect you, your children, & your grandchildren.”
Lombardo denied saying he had a “zero tolerance policy for illegal immigration,” saying it was taken out of context.
“That’s not what I said. OK? I said zero policy for people that commit violent crimes,” Lombardo said. “There’s no intent to be proactive in the field per se. I've always supported when bad guys commit crimes upon our society, our communities, that they should be removed. And I will continue to support that.”
In 2019, Lombardo withdrew Metro from a jail-based immigration enforcement partnership with the federal government known as 287(g), after a California judge ruled against core elements of partnerships between federal immigration authorities and local jurisdictions.
Immigration advocates celebrated the decision at the time, but later criticized the sheriff after the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported late last year that the police agency had continued to quietly hand over undocumented immigrants to federal officials after they were released from jail for nonviolent crimes. On the campaign trail, Lombardo has also touted his role in helping deport 10,000 people.
During the interview, Lombardo said he stood by that figure, but clarified that it included individuals deported during both his time as sheriff and in senior leadership roles, and included deportations that happened under 287(g)’s predecessor program, the Obama-era Secure Communities program.
Asked if he would want to keep the Governor’s Office of New Americans, which serves immigrants regardless of their legal status and opened under Sisolak’s administration, Lombardo said he would and called the office “productive.”
He supports welcoming refugees as long as they are properly vetted.
“It's very important that we ensure that bad actors are not landing on our soil and intending to create harm into the future,” Lombardo said. “I don't have a lot of confidence in the current situation of Afghani refugees, and the vetting of those individuals, because we've already experienced, even in the state of Nevada, some of those individuals coming into the state and committing crimes.”
This story was updated on Wednesday, March 30, 2022, at 9:40 a.m. to add context and information surrounding Lombardo's critiques of the Sisolak administration's use of project labor agreements for the construction of affordable housing and at 10:27 to reflect that a word quoted as "concede" was actually "conceive."