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Republican Senate leader Michael Roberson on June 5, 2017. Photo David Calvert/The Nevada Independent.
State Sen. Michael Roberson is seen in the Senate on May 19, 2017. Photo by David Calvert.

Michael Roberson, the crafty, brutally efficient leader of the Nevada Senate Republican Caucus, said Monday that he’s running for lieutenant governor.

Roberson, 47, made his announcement three days after Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison made it official that he’s not seeking a second term. Roberson is expected to run on an unofficial ticket with Attorney General Adam Laxalt seeking the governor’s seat; the latter has not yet announced his candidacy.

“With the experience I have gained as a business attorney, assisting numerous job providers in Nevada’s leading economic industries, as well as serving the people of our great state in elected office, I believe I am uniquely qualified for this position,” he said in a statement. “I will also seek to assist our next Governor in growing and diversifying our economy, expanding education opportunities for all Nevada families and presiding over our state Senate during legislative sessions.”

Roberson hasn’t been shy about his support for Laxalt — most recently vouching for him at a Nevada Republican Men’s Club event. “Everyone in this room should be calling Adam Laxalt and encouraging him to run for governor,” he said earlier this month.

A Missouri native who was raised in small-town Kansas, Roberson entered Nevada politics nearly a decade after moving to Las Vegas, where he once worked at a cigar shop and as a personal trainer. He was admitted to the state bar in 2004 and now works at the firm Kolesar & Leatham.

Roberson was first elected in 2010 and then reelected to a swingy Henderson district in 2014. Since taking the lead of the Senate Republican Caucus in 2013, he’s gained a reputation as an effective tactician adept at getting under Democrats’ skin.

When Republicans scored legislative majorities in 2015, Roberson traded in his strident conservatism and adopted more moderate positions. He notched an improbable victory by steering Gov. Brian Sandoval’s $1.1 billion tax increase through a Republican-controlled Legislature and championing a slate of new education reform initiatives, from anti-bullying programs to extra funding for English language learners and low-income children.

The tax increase turned out to be his Achilles’ heel when he ran for Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District in 2016. In spite of pummeling Republican candidate Danny Tarkanian as a perennial candidate for a slate of failed bids for office, and getting a late-cycle boost from a dark money group called Ending Spending, Roberson couldn’t shake the “Tax Hike Mike” label and fell eight points short in the primary. Tarkanian in turn lost the general election in a squeaker to political newcomer and synagogue president Jacky Rosen.

But Roberson didn’t leave the political spotlight. He remains a powerful force in the Legislature and has been a key figure in the Clark County School District’s ambitious reorganization after pushing a contentious bill through the Senate in the final minutes of the 2015 session. Roberson serves as the chairman of an interim legislative committee that’s monitoring the reorganization process, which upends the power structure to give principals, teachers and parents more control over their schools.

The committee drew criticism last year after it awarded a no-bid contract to TSC² Group — a consulting firm led by Tom Skancke — to shepherd the district through its transformation. The move irked the superintendent and school trustees because they weren’t involved in the decision despite being on the hook for the $1.2 million contract.

Lawsuits filed by the Clark County School Board of Trustees followed, creating a rocky start to the reorganization process. Roberson joined a bipartisan effort this session to pass Assembly Bill 469, which codified the reorganization regulations into state law and effectively wiped out the litigation.

A fierce advocate of the reorganization, Roberson repeatedly has said the structural overhaul stands to benefit the community in the long run and boost student achievement in the struggling school district.

“There are a number of reforms I am proud to have helped pass through the legislature, but I am probably most proud of leading the effort to reorganize the nation’s fifth-largest school district – the Clark County School District – which had been talked about for decades, but without any success,” Roberson said in his announcement statement.  “With some key legislative allies and the support of Governor Sandoval, we finally got it done and continue to fight off efforts to roll back our efforts.”

His connection to public education is personal. His wife, Liberty Leavitt, works as the graduation initiative coordinator for the district’s School-Community Partnership Program. Roberson told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that they met at a party and married two and a half months later in 2008.

He’s been zealous to restore a Republican majority in the Senate, telling the Republican Men’s Club early this month that he was crafting a plan to regain control but declining to offer details. When Republicans launched campaigns to oust three members of the Senate Democratic Caucus in special elections, he said he fully supported the moves but has declined to answer whether he’s personally involved.

“After witnessing the breathtaking pro-felon and anti-business priorities of the Democrats this past legislative session, it’s no surprise to me that Nevadans are standing up to their destructive, job-killing agenda,” he said in a statement to the Review-Journal. “I fully support these efforts.”

Minutes after Roberson made the announcement, Republican combat veteran Byron Brooks announced that he would be running for the Henderson senate seat. Republican Assemblyman Keith Pickard is also seriously considering the race.

If he’s elected lieutenant governor, Roberson would serve as the symbolic head of the Senate and also chair the Nevada Commission on Tourism and other boards. He could also serve as a skilled hand to shepherd legislation and a budget for the future governor; Laxalt has never served in the Legislature.

No Democrats have officially jumped into the race, where they might have to go toe-to-toe with an unflappable legislator who relishes lambasting his opponents. Former Secretary of State Ross Miller told the Las Vegas Review-Journal he’s considering the race but hasn’t responded to requests for comment from The Nevada Independent, while businessman and former Assembly candidate Zach Conine said he’s also exploring a bid.

But the Nevada State Democratic Party had harsh words about Roberson's candidacy.

“After so many years of bringing distasteful Washington-style political games to Carson City, Tom DeLay protégé Michael Roberson has earned his reputation as Nevada’s nastiest and most disliked politician," said spokesman Stewart Boss, referring to Roberson's internship with the former Texas congressman. "Senator Roberson’s one and only priority is furthering his own political ambitions, but Nevadans deserve better than Adam Laxalt's power-hungry water boy as their next Lieutenant Governor. If he can avoid losing another Republican primary, Democrats will beat Senator Roberson in the general election."

This story was updated at 9:25 p.m. on Aug. 21, 2017 to add information about Assemblyman Keith Pickard and a statement from the Nevada State Democratic Party.

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