Democrats Chris Giunchigliani and Steve Sisolak — who are both vying to be the state’s next governor — have sat behind the same podium as members of the powerful Clark County Commission for the past decade.
But on Thursday, as they squared off during their second televised debate of the week, they attempted to put more distance between each other and their policy positions.
Sisolak branded himself as a consensus-builder and a Carson City newcomer: “I think it’s time for a breath of fresh air and somebody new who can approach the problems from a different perspective.”
And Giunchigliani, a former assemblywoman, burnished her own long history as a liberal voice in Nevada politics: “I was progressive before it was really a word.”
The wide-ranging debate — hosted by KTNV Channel 13 and The Nevada Independent — touched on hot topics such as education funding and gun safety as well as ethical concerns raised over campaign money. Candidates were also asked to weigh in on the veracity of attacks and campaign ads paid for by outside groups, which have poured millions of dollars into television, digital and direct mail ads during the primary season.
Sisolak also reversed himself on a proposal made earlier this week to introduce tip credits as part of an expanded minimum wage, while Giunchigliani drew heated questions and staunchly defended campaign payments made to her late husband, a longtime political consultant.
The debate came just a few days before the early voting period begins, and just a few weeks before the state’s primary election on June 12. A poll by The Nevada Independent conducted in April found Sisolak leading Giunchigliani by 44 to 16 percent of Democratic primary voters, though 40 percent said they were still unsure.
The winner will likely face off against Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who has emerged with significantly more fundraising dollars and higher poll numbers than anyone else in the Republican primary.
Here’s a look at the answers they gave — and barbs they threw — during the hour-long showdown, which, aside from another commission meeting, could be their last joint appearance before the election:
One of the more heated moments of the debate came when Giunchigliani was asked to respond to a Reno Gazette-Journal story about more than $1 million in cumulative campaign payments made to the firm of her late husband, political consultant Gary Gray.
Giunchigliani defended the payments, saying she signed the same contract and paid the same rates as other clients who paid Gray to run their campaigns — including Sisolak, who contracted with Gray in his 2008 run for the County Commission.
Sisolak defended his campaign’s use of the story in campaign ads, saying that it was fair to question the payments as Gray’s income and hers would become commingled and pointed to the purchase of a house by Giunchigliani and Gray after her 2006 run for the County Commission.
“I did not know she was paying her husband that type of salary, absolutely not,” Sisolak said. “I donated to her campaign and didn’t know that she was using it to buy a house. Absolutely not. Nobody who donated to me thought I was paying my children or my family, because I wasn’t. If your family works on your campaign, they should volunteer for your campaign.”
Giunchigliani said the million-dollar figure on the payments was misleading because the total included payments that Gray made to campaign vendors for things like yard signs or television ads. She said the couple moved into a new house to make room for her mother, not because she and her husband made a windfall off of the 2006 campaign.
“We went from a house built in ‘52 to a house built in ‘64, and I loved my mother, but we needed a little bit more space,” she said. “We took out a loan, and had a mortgage just like any other Nevadan. But you’re a multi-millionaire, maybe you don’t know how mortgages have to work any longer.”
Sisolak backed away from a proposal on including a “tip credit” for a minimum wage increase — where tipped workers earn lower than the minimum wage and earned tips making up the difference — he floated during the candidate’s previous debate earlier this week.
Sisolak said he was “mistaken” and acknowledged that the state Constitution prohibited tip credits, but said he was committed to raising the wage to $15 an hour eventually — he said the wage should first be raised to $10 or $12 and gradually increase.
“We can’t get there right away. You have to balance the interests of small business with the employees that are working there. I am not in support of what’s going through the Legislature now, because that goes to $9.40 in 2021, and that’s not enough.”
Giunchigliani said she would be happy to work with businesses to mitigate any negative effects from a higher minimum wage, but said it was necessary to implement wage floors to stave off increased poverty.
“In the long run, people need to make a living wage, because we have too many people living in poverty, they’re at the risk of just falling off, they’re one paycheck away. We have to sit down and figure out how to tackle this.”
Sisolak was critical of an immediate jump from the state’s $7.25 minimum hourly wage for employers who don’t offer health care to $15 an hour, saying it could cost tens of thousands of dollars for each employee.
“That’s the difference between that mom and pop business being in business and being out of business.”
As teachers protest outside schools and the Clark County School District grapples with more budget cuts, education funding has taken center stage in this election cycle. The big question: What’s the best way to fix the funding?
Sisolak said two revenue streams — Initiative Petition 1 room taxes and marijuana taxes, which haven’t made their way directly to schools as promised — should be pushed toward the state’s education funding pot. But he also wants to look at fixing the state’s K-12 funding formula in a way that includes some sort of “hold harmless” clause, thus not penalizing any district but injecting new money where needed most.
Giunchigliani echoed the need to redirect the IP1 and marijuana taxes to education while also revamping the school funding formula. She said she’s hopeful the state won’t need as much categorical funding — money targeting schools with large numbers of students living in poverty or learning English — when it transitions to a full weighted-funding formula.
Weighted funding would allow dollars to flow directly to students based on their needs. The Legislature has taken baby steps toward implementing a weighted-funding formula, but so far hasn’t had the money to make it a full reality.
The Democratic candidates also were asked whether they’d raise taxes to fund teacher raises.
“No, I don’t think we need to raise taxes to pay teachers more money,” Sisolak said.
But Giunchigliani shied away from taking a hard stance on the issue.
“Until I see the budget, see the crafting, and work with anybody I can’t make a commitment to that one way or another,” she said. “You have to do your job.”
Sisolak said he doesn’t necessarily think putting more guns in schools — via armed security officers — is the solution. Instead, he pointed toward implementing the long-stalled background check measure and banning bump stocks, assault weapons and expanded cartridges as a way forward. He also said authorities should be more proactive with looking for warning signs on social media.
But he didn’t rule out anything. Sisolak said he “totally supports” doing whatever is deemed necessary to keep children safe in schools.
Giunchigliani, like Sisolak, called on implementing gun background checks, but she also advocated for a holistic assessment of school facilities — lighting, entryways and fencing — to determine ways to enhance safety. The former teacher, however, said facility upgrades need to be sensitive to the needs of students and staff.
“What you don’t want to do is make our schools into prisons,” she said.
Giunchigliani also said the state needs to focus on mental-health delivery in schools and undo legislation that prohibits local governments from enacting gun laws.
“What’s good for Lincoln County schools is not necessarily good for here,” she said.
Just as in their previous debate, the two candidates bickered over their history of positions on firearms, despite having similar proposals to ban semiautomatic assault weapons, bump stocks and high-capacity magazines.
Asked to respond to a common attack from Giunchigliani — an “A-” rating from the National Rifle Association in 2012 — Sisolak said his views had shifted dramatically and had never been close to the organization.
“There was never ‘friendly’ with the NRA,” he said. “A- isn’t friendly. I never took a vote that related to that. I might have filled out a questionnaire 22 years ago, I don’t even remember. But I can tell you that I’m an adult, my opinions have changed as things have happened.”
Sisolak also pointed out that Giunchigliani had a “C” grade from the organization in 2010, saying a “C” was a passing grade.
Giunchigliani said she opposed the NRA on attempts to expand state preemption laws on guns over localities and expanded concealed weapon carry rules during her time in the Legislature.
“I stood up to the NRA back before any additional shootings had to come into play,” she said. “I don’t need to evolve on this.”
Giunchigliani also took a shot at Sisolak’s GoFundMe for victims of the October mass shooting in Las Vegas that left 58 dead and hundreds wounded, which eventually raised $32 million for victims of the shooting. She claimed he used his campaign logo on the page, and while searches of the site through an online archive search don’t reveal it, her campaign later offered news footage showing a screenshot of the page with his logo present.
Sisolak said he didn’t remember if his campaign logo was on the site, but said it was a minor issue.
“I can tell you that we started a campaign at 2 o’clock in the morning, and we did everything we possibly could,” he said. “And to come up with this ticky-tack stuff, everybody was called — I answered the phone at 10:30 at night. I didn’t go to voicemail, I picked up the phone and did everything that I could.”
Giunchigliani was also asked about her criticisms of Attorney General Adam Laxalt for not implementing a 2016 ballot initiative requiring “universal” background checks on the sale and transfer of firearms between private individuals. Although Laxalt’s office proffered an opinion saying the ballot measure was unenforceable because of an unwillingness by the FBI to conduct the checks, and had no ability to independently force them to do conduct the checks, Giunchigliani said he and his office should have done more.
“Can’t was a swear word in my classroom,” she said. “Adam Laxalt and the governor could have at least found a way to at least be able to deal with the will of the voters here, and that was a long time ago.”
Las Vegas Stadium
Giunchigliani said her biggest regret was not being able to persuade more people to either oppose or at least improve aspects of the deal the state made with the Raiders for the construction of a $1.9 billion stadium, boosted by $750 million in hotel room taxes.
She repeated common criticisms of the stadium deal, saying the money would have been better spent on education, that the county was taking a risk by issuing general obligation bonds to pay for its construction and the favorable perks afforded to the stadium.
“They don’t even pay property tax that you and I and everybody else is paying, and that is money that can go to counties, police, fire, schools, all of that needs to be generated,” she said.
Sisolak said the county owned the stadium, which is why it doesn’t pay property tax, and pointed towards estimates that it could create up to 13,000 permanent jobs and 32,000 part-time jobs in the near future. He also cited estimates that the construction would result in $13 million more in funding for education through increased tax revenue.
“To vote against the jobs, to vote against funding for education, to vote against the attraction being here, I think that’s irresponsible,” he said.
Although she said she would not modify or change the stadium financing deal if elected, Giunchigliani still bashed the deal — which was solidified during a special session of the Legislature in 2016 — as evidence of “out of whack” priorities.
“I applaud the stadium, but not how it was financed,” she said. “Where are our priorities? They are out of whack. Worst-funded school system in the United States, and we can’t put money there.”
Sisolak said it was disingenuous for Giunchigliani, who spent nearly two decades in the Legislature, to criticize the stadium deal for not funding education when the opportunity to do so had passed by many times before.
“We did take money from Smith Center that could have gone to education, the car rental increase tax (that helped fund the facility), could have gone to education. The money that was rebated as a result of the green energy tax credits (a bill Giunchigliani sponsored), a billion dollars, could have gone for education, but it didn’t go for education,” he said. “You can’t just pick and choose.”
Giunchigliani recently released a television commercial showing her hovering over Red Rock National Conservation Area while blasting Sisolak for his vote on a nearby development project.
The pair’s longstanding argument on that issue spilled into the debate, with Giunchigliani defending her ad that insinuates Sisolak sided with the developer who gave him a $10,000 campaign contribution. At the time of a vote on the project, though, Giunchigliani told reporters that she didn’t think developer money influenced any of her commission colleagues’ votes.
“It’s just pointing out facts,” Giunchigliani said of her ad. “Two times we had votes on Red Rock. Both times he sided with the developers.”
Sisolak lashed back and called her ad misleading, in part, because of the scenery it shows. The proposed development project would be located on the site of a 75-year-old gypsum mine near — but not within — the conservation area.
“It’s not where you flew your helicopter through,” he said. Then he went on to describe the proposed site: “That land has been raped and ravaged.”
Sisolak said he doubts the project will ever move forward. He said his votes were based on advice from the county’s legal counsel. If the matter ended up in litigation, a judge could have made the final decision on how many homes to build there, he said.
Brothels and cash bail
Both candidates said they would support ending the policy of cash bail for pretrial release. Progressive advocates have seized the idea of ending the policy as a way to lower incarceration rates for people of color and to save the state money from not imprisoning non-violent offenders.
Asked if they would support banning legal brothels, Giunchigliani answered no, while Sisolak deferred, saying it was a local issue. Nye and Lyon counties, both of which currently allow brothels, will have a question on the 2018 ballot asking voters to end the legality of the sex trade.
Disclosure: Steve Sisolak and Chris Giunchigliani have donated to The Nevada Independent. You can see a full list of donors here.