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One of the greats

Gov. Brian Sandoval at his State of the State address in 2017 in Carson City, Nevada. (Photo by David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

A couple of decades ago, when I had more hair and better knees, I played basketball a few times with Brian Sandoval.

As I recall, the future governor was a good, versatile player, unselfish, respectful to teammates and opponents, reliable jump-shot, good defender. Solid but unspectacular.

His play on the basketball court seemed to mirror his career, which to that point had been relatively undistinguished. He was a likable assemblyman and later attorney general and gaming regulator, a smart, hard-working guy who always wanted to be called “Brian” and never stood on ceremony. He was there, but not a lot more than that.

As the governor prepares to hand over the keys to the mansion to Steve Sisolak on Monday, I have been reflecting on how that same man came to be one of the greatest governors in Nevada history, one whose accomplishments when refracted through the prism of time will surmount almost every other chief executive in state annals. Sandoval’s two-term gubernatorial tenure could easily be dismissed as bolstered by serendipity – a national economy that rebounded soon after he took office, a favorable comparison to his hapless predecessor, Jim Gibbons, a Democratic opposition that often was charmed into submission.

But that would be patently unfair and bereft of nuance. Sandoval’s greatness emanated from his preternatural affability, his natural smarts and unmatched work ethic that he combined with an imbued sense of fairness, a deep and abiding love for his state and a canny ability to pivot at the right time. And what often has been missed about Sandoval is that at every juncture in which he was confronted with a difficult choice, one that could catalyze confrontation, he took the path of most resistance: Raising more taxes than any governor in history after he promised not to, expanding Medicaid after decrying Obamacare, opposing President Trump despite his popularity among Republicans.

Sandoval knew these decisions would bring ugly recriminations, especially in an age where too many people have IP addresses and frothing nastiness is the default setting. But the man I labeled Gov. Sunny early on lived by the motto he unveiled at his first inauguration: “Optimism is the foundation of courage.”

This is what his previous playing in the games of basketball and politics did not presage: Sandoval, the steady-as-he-goes hoopster and public official, has been one of the gutsiest, risk-taking elected officials I have known. He is, in both arenas, a straight-shooter. But in the political game, he has been willing to do what he rarely did in the gym: Shoot for the stars.

Beyond returning respect to the office that Gibbons had blackened, Sandoval’s accomplishments are legion.

He steered the ship of state with a steady hand during the Great Recession – his first budget was replete with gimmickry to spend an extra $1 billion without raising taxes, but the governor fervently believed that a massive tax increase would have been devastating during a downturn. He took economic development seriously – he transformed an initiative created to give the lieutenant governor something to do and created a new infrastructure with himself at the helm as the ambassador to other states and countries. And as our series this week has detailed, he leaves a robust legacy on many fronts – Sandoval has made it almost impossible to unravel the strides made during the last eight years in health care, in education funding and accountability, in diversification of the economy.

It is facile to tar pragmatists as believers in nothing but technocracy, but, at least in Sandoval’s case, that, too, is unfair. The best example, of course, is public education and, ironically, school choice. Sandoval did more for the K-12 system than anyone, including Kenny Guinn, one of his mentors, and Bob Miller, who perhaps is a better comparison because he was just as underestimated and went on to become the longest-serving governor in Nevada history. (Miller was a similarly stolid hoopster, but a bit more of a gunner, as I recall.)

Sandoval combined what Guinn (broadening the tax base to fund education) and Miller (class-size reduction) had done by providing a foundation of funding (the Commerce Tax) and accountability (metrics affixed to various categories) as well as addressing the growing English Language Learner problem that had gone unaddressed for too long.

But Sandoval also believes in school choice – he is an acolyte of Jeb Bush and what he did in Florida – and he proposed the first-ever alternative to public education. What he did not believe in was holding everything else hostage for it, as some would have liked him to have done in 2017. This does not make him a coward or a faux conservative; it makes him a man who had a difficult choice and didn’t choose school choice at the expense of the legislative session crashing and burning.

Like all of us, Sandoval is not perfect. He was a right-wing poseur during his 2010 primary with Gibbons, unnecessarily pandering (he would have defeated Gibbons anyhow) by running on a no-new-taxes pledge and supporting Arizona’s racial profiling law. Later, after the tax increases and Medicaid expansion, many could snidely say Sandoval couldn’t go to his right; but in 2010, Sandoval was as conservative as he could pretend to be.

Some would say his natural judicial temperament caused him to waver for too long on issues. But when it mattered, his ability to analyze all sides of an issue – Medicaid expansion is an object lesson – led to him making not just the correct call but the bolder one.

Others will say he should have done more – in mental health, on the environment – or less – on taxes and tax incentives. But on balance, he accomplished what few elected officials ever have: He amassed political capital (he had no opponent in 2014!), cashed it in (the 2015 tax increase) and still managed to maintain his immense popularity. That is a gravity-defying, Jordanesque feat, one that will be on historical highlight reels.

After eight years, Sandoval also ends his term with no ethical scandals of any magnitude. Sure, he was seen as too close to NV Energy because his close friends are lobbyists for the utility, and he suffered the same caricature as most governors: being in the pocket of the gaming industry.

But Sandoval also is possessed of grit, and he said no to powerful figures while also not being afraid to stand up for the casino corps when he thought their interests (online gaming, low taxes) coincided with the state’s interests.

Sandoval had other qualities not regularly celebrated. He had a keen eye for top staffers – Michon Martin, Dale Erquiaga and Mike Willden are three of the most effective aides ever to be in the capital. He is loyal to a fault – he endorsed Rick Perry for president as a thank-you for the then-Texas governor getting the national GOP governors association to endorse him over Gibbons. And Sandoval also has a (mostly) hidden sense of humor – I’ll never forget when I came into the Ohio State grad’s office for an interview and he played the Michigan (my alma mater) fight song on his iPad.

Most of all, I will remember Sandoval for his devotion to a state whose history he knows very well. Just ask him about his collection of Nevada gubernatorial signatures and you will see him rush to pull out his collection like a child running to get his Pokemon cards.

My guess is Sandoval, who never showboated on the court or in his political career, doesn’t think much about whether he will be in the gubernatorial Hall of Fame. It’s not even a long shot, though.

He’s a slam dunk.

Jon Ralston is the founder and editor of The Nevada Independent. He has been covering government and politics for more than thirty years. Contact him at [email protected]

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