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Republicans Black, Chattah clash in attorney general primary debate

Jacob Solis
Jacob Solis
Election 2022
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In an increasingly bitter Republican primary for attorney general, attorneys Tisha Black and Sigal Chattah traded attacks and sought to undermine each others’ personal records even as they agreed on a number of issues during their first debate Thursday. 

Co-moderated by journalist Sam Shad and Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Victor Joecks on the program Nevada Newsmakers, the debate comes with just over three weeks remaining before early voting begins. And though mailing dates will vary by county, mail ballots are expected to hit mailboxes no later than May 25. 

Chattah, who entered the race early after winning praise from Republican activists for her litigation challenging COVID restrictions enacted by Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, has called Black a “RINO” (Republican in Name Only) and a “liberal plant” for having given campaign contributions to Democratic candidates, including Harry Reid in 2001 and Catherine Cortez Masto in 2015.

Black, who has also personally contributed to Republican campaigns, has dismissed those criticisms, saying in an interview with The Nevada Independent last month that “any business person” has “delivered support across both sides of the aisle.” 

Since entering the race in February, Black’s campaign has attacked Chattah’s record, often referring to her pejoratively as “a DUI attorney” and criticizing her history as a defense attorney. 

Separately, Chattah also drew criticism in January after a former ally published text messages in which she said Ford, who is Black, “should be hanging from a (expletive) crane.” Chattah later told the Review-Journal the remark was “tongue-in-cheek” and did not have a racial context. 

The winner of the June primary will go on to face Democratic incumbent Aaron Ford, who was first elected to the office in 2018 by a narrow 0.47 percent margin against Republican Wes Duncan. 

On the issues

On the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion that shows a conservative majority poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, both Chattah and Black asserted the measure was bound to the state Constitution, even after moderator Sam Shad sought to clarify the protections as a state law. 

“In Nevada, we know that Ballot Question [7] in 1990 made it very clear that the right to choose to terminate a pregnancy is embedded in our Constitution,” Chattah said. “So really, the attorney general has no position or jurisdiction in that office. The office is irrelevant at that point.”

Though politicians have long shorthanded abortion protections in Nevada as protected by the state Constitution, Nevada voters cemented statutory — not constitutional — protections for abortion through Question 7 in 1990. Any amendments to or repeal of that statute would require another vote of the people through referendum, a method similar in effect to the more-complicated five-year process of amending the Constitution. 

Asked how she would change that law, Chattah described herself as “pro-life” and said “life begins at the time of fetal heartbeat.” 

“The way I look at it is the same way that we do sentencing enhancements on unborn children, victims of unborn children,” Chattah said. “I would marry it to that, and I have a problem with that inconsistency.”

Black described herself as a constitutionalist, and said  — though she found the leak of the draft opinion “obviously troublesome” — that the issue was ultimately one of states’ rights. 

“I would not [seek changes on abortion law]. I feel that the citizens have voted on it,” Black said. “I think that there are restrictions, fetal heartbeat science, there's a lot of considerations. But I think that that topic in Nevada is decided.”

When asked whether they would defend state policies they disagreed with — specifically, an executive order from Gov. Steve Sisolak in the early months of the pandemic shuttering churches and non-essential businesses — both Black and Chattah said they would not. 

Black called those closures “an overreach,” while Chattah pointed to a lawsuit she filed against Sisolak for treating churches and other houses of worship differently than certain businesses. 

On the issue of homelessness, both candidates also agreed that local governments have the legal right to displace and remove encampments. 

Chattah described the issue as one “best left to the municipalities” that “absolutely have a right” to enforce laws on such encampments. Black agreed that those jurisdictions have the legal weight to displace encampments, but also described those actions as “quite disruptive,” and said homelessness relates to a number of other issues, including mental health, crime, drug abuse and employment. 

Taking aim at the incumbent

Asked whether they would be more interested in addressing state issues or a “wish list” of national ones as attorney general, both candidates took aim at Democratic Attorney General Aaron Ford.

“Attorney General Ford has spent a lot of time on D.C. platforms rather than Nevada platforms,” Black said. “I think there's a lot to be done in the state of Nevada in terms of soft-on-crime policies, government regulation. I think that the government really only has two things that it should be concerned with, which is protecting its citizenry, and then basically, getting out of the way.”

Chattah, similarly, said Ford has “t​​aken more of a national stance on what is good at the time,” referencing efforts by Ford’s office to expand “pattern and practice” investigations into police departments as well as to pursue limits on no-knock warrants, such as the one that led to the killing of Breonna Taylor by Louisville, Kentucky, police in 2020. 

“He took two national cases and domesticated them and created two pieces of legislation essentially … which were both completely obsolete and really infused a national platform into Nevada,” Chattah said. 

Moderators then turned to a question over the propriety of a decision by Ford in 2019 to enlist a private law firm — and his former employer, Eglet Adams (then known as Eglet Prince) — to litigate the state’s high-profile lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors. 

In 2017, Eglet Prince was contracted by nine local and county governments to pursue an opioid lawsuit, but only after it had been rejected by then-Attorney General Adam Laxalt. Laxalt, a Republican now running for U.S. Senate, instead joined a multi-state coalition of 41 state attorneys general in pursuing an investigation and, ultimately, damages from the pharmaceutical industry for its role in the country’s opioid crisis. 

That same year, Ford, then the majority leader of the state Senate, backed a last-minute amendment that removed a cap on fees awarded to law firms contracting with the state. 

When Eglet Prince was eventually awarded the opioid contract in 2019 — after Ford had recused himself from the selection process — initial contract details showed the firm stood to gain anywhere from $240 million to $350 million, assuming settlement ranges in excess of $1 billion. 

When the state announced it would join a multi-state opioid settlement in January after initially rejecting the settlement offer, it was unclear precisely how much of the $285 million settlement would go to Eglet Adams, in light of caps on fees in certain jurisdictions. However, the state’s contract with the firm stipulates that its share would be 19 percent in fees, or a payout to the firm in excess of $40 to $50 million. 

Chattah called Ford’s actions an “abuse,” and said the attorney general was obligated to mitigate expenses on outside counsel. 

“This was clearly an abuse of that office, whether he stated that he abstained from that vote,” Chattah said. “But ultimately, I think it created headlines, and it had a really bad effect on the reputation of the Office of Attorney General.”

Black, similarly, called the issue a “failure of leadership.” 

“It's a failure of leadership to direct [state attorneys] toward cases that are important to Nevada,” Black said. “Attorney General Ford has been representing Harvard, using our resources here to support cases for Harvard, not our resources to support Nevada.”

Trading fire 

After pummeling Ford’s tenure as attorney general, the two candidates began sending barbs at each other, beginning with a question about how to use the opioid settlement money.

In her answer, Chattah touted her two-decade career in criminal justice — something Black then attacked as “a lifetime of defending criminals” and characterizing Chattah’s time as a defense attorney as “soft on crime.” 

“It's unimaginable that you would spend 20 years as a criminal defense attorney undermining the police and wasting taxpayers’ money, and then turn around and say you want to be the attorney general,” Black said. 

Chattah fired back, saying that Black “has a fundamental issue with the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.”

“She has called me ‘a DUI attorney’ and cited three federal cases that I have dealt with white-collar crime,” Chattah said. “Everybody has a Sixth Amendment right to counsel, and to undermine defense attorneys is a huge problem, and demonstrates that she has a lack of understanding to be the top prosecutor and the top cop in the state.” 

Black then reiterated her attack on Chattah’s work, saying it “undermined the men and women in blue as a profession.” 

“You've been, to your credit, very good at being a criminal defense attorney,” Black said. “But that is by its definition soft on crime.”

The two then sparred over Chattah’s civil case record, including Chattah’s representation of a group backing two ballot measures aimed at implementing voter identification requirements and rolling back changes made to state election law in 2021, as well as a challenge to the state’s mask mandate. 

Both ballot questions were left functionally dead late last month, after one state judge blocked the challenge to the election law, AB321, and another ruled that the description of the question on voter ID would need to be rewritten. Those rulings invalidated signatures collected to that point, leaving just weeks to collect more than 140,000 signatures before the June 29 deadline.

Chattah conceded a loss on the ruling on AB321, but argued that her client — the political action committee called Repair the Vote — was still the prevailing party in the voter ID suit.

“On [the voter ID case], we prevailed,” Chattah said. “And the ballot initiative, I'm not Charles Schwab, and I'm not supposed to finance a ballot initiative. But I brought that win to the people and the proponents of that initiative.”

Black countered that neither case was a win, that Chattah was “living in another universe” and that her cases were designed “to grab headlines” — arguments that Chattah called false. 

The pair also sparred over campaign contributions by Black, which have formed the center of frequent attacks by Chattah on the campaign trail that have cast her opponent as a RINO. 

Asked how she would interact with Sisolak, under a hypothetical in which he is re-elected governor in 2022, Chattah said, “if he exercises abuse of powers, as we have seen, then I would definitely put him in his place.”

Chattah then alleged that Black had given Sisolak $30,000 in campaign contributions, money that showed “she actually ratifies his actions.”

Black called the statement a “straight-up lie,” and said she had never given Sisolak money. She said Chattah was “confusing me with maybe limited liability companies that I represent or minority positions and LLCs that I am in.”

Campaign contribution records do show that Black has never personally contributed to Sisolak, though she has given to other Democrats. Those state records also show that Chattah has contributed largely to Republican campaigns or PACs. 

Chattah went on to clarify that her allegation was specifically tailored to Clear River LLC, a dispensary for which Black serves on the board of directors. State campaign finance records show Clear River gave $10,000 contributions to Sisolak three times, for a total of $30,000: once when he was chair of the Clark County Commission in 2015; once to his inaugural committee in January, 2019; and finally to his gubernatorial campaign in October 2020, just a few months prior to the legislative session.

Calling her “essentially part of Clear River,” Chattah said: “When you contribute to a governor during the time when the whole state is falling, then that is a ratification of a governor's policy.”

Black pushed back, saying first that the board had no authority over political contributions, and that the actions of companies for which she is affiliated more broadly had no bearing on her political views. 

“Under that analogy … any company that I'm associated with now, I'm going to be tagged with the contribution to their political choices — that's absurd,” Black said. “Sigal, if you've had a corndog at Disney, I guess that means you're woke.”

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