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Sisolak takes Nevada's helm as first Democratic governor in two decades, promises to follow in Sandoval's footsteps

Michelle Rindels
Michelle Rindels
Riley Snyder
Riley Snyder
Megan Messerly
Megan Messerly
State Government

Gov. Steve Sisolak’s inauguration on a chilly Monday morning in Carson City ushered in a new era in Nevada politics as he became the first Democratic governor in 20 years and marked the first period in decades that Democrats have held nearly all of the state’s constitutional offices.

Light on specific details and heavy on his admiration for Nevada and its citizens, Sisolak in his speech nonetheless hinted at two of the major policy areas he will tackle as governor: health care and education. He also thanked termed-out Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval for eight years of service in which Sandoval tackled the state’s ailing education and health-care systems. Sisolak credited him for “always putting people over partisanship.”

“As governor, I pledge to follow the example you’ve set — to find common ground, reach consensus, make a difference in people’s lives, and keep moving this state forward,” said Sisolak, 65, who choked up after he took the oath of office and several times during the speech.

Gov. Steve Sisolak delivers an inaugural address after being sworn in as Nevada's first Democratic governor in two decades on the steps of the Nevada State Capitol in Carson City on Monday, Jan. 7, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The inauguration took place at the entrance of the state capitol in Carson City, which was draped with silver and blue fabric. Hundreds of attendees sat on the breezy front lawn of the capitol, muddy from melted snow, and Sisolak’s team hired a food truck to supply free coffee, hot chocolate and apple cider to the bundled-up guests.

Sisolak was highly complimentary of Sandoval’s work during the campaign and beyond, highlighting the popular moderate Republican governor in TV ads, but also nodded to the fact that Nevada’s public education system still ranks at the bottom of national surveys.

The new governor said that Nevada needs to get its education system “back on track,” calling it “the bedrock of a thriving economy and the pathway to a better life for our families.” He said that the state won’t be able to continue to attract out-of-state businesses without offering workers’ children a quality education.

“So we’ve got to do better by our students, and that means doing better by our educators,” Sisolak said. “The future of Nevada is in their hands — and they should have the resources and the respect they deserve.”

Sisolak had promised during the campaign to raise teacher salaries and reduce class sizes, pledging not to take a salary until the state’s education system is “turned around.”

On health care, Sisolak also pledged to address the rising costs of prescription drugs, bolster protections for pre-existing conditions, ensure access to women’s health care services and protect “a woman’s right to make her own medical decisions,” a nod to his support for abortion rights. He shared the story of an elderly couple he met at a retirement home who split their blood pressure pills in half each day because they couldn’t afford paying two copays.

“It’s a loving gesture. But it’s also a travesty,” Sisolak said. “No one should have to ration off their medicine or skip doctor visits or be forced into bankruptcy because of an unexpected illness. But today, too many people are doing just that.”

During the campaign, Sisolak promised to expand prescription drug transparency legislation passed by the Legislature in 2017, create a state drug purchasing coalition, prevent “surprise billing” from out-of-network health care providers and improve Medicaid reimbursement rates, among other proposals. He also proposed creating a so-called Patient Protection Commission that would recommend changes to the health-care system that could be implemented by the Legislature.

Gov. Steve Sisolak delivers an inaugural address after being sworn in as Nevada's first Democratic governor in two decades on the steps of the Nevada State Capitol in Carson City on Monday, Jan. 7, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Sisolak, who hails from Southern Nevada and is the former chair of the Clark County Commission, also referenced the 2017 mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas. He described the state’s response to the tragedy as evidence of Nevada’s “compassion and common decency.”

“We were broken on 1 October, but I’ve never been more proud to be a Nevadan than as I was that day,” he said.

Sisolak also noted two more historic milestones for the state on Monday — the inauguration of Aaron Ford, the state’s first African American attorney general, and Kate Marshall, the first Latina lieutenant governor — after Nevada last month became the first state in the nation to have a female-majority Legislature. Treasurer Zach Conine, Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske and Controller Catherine Byrne were also sworn in during the event.

The ceremony showcased the diversity of the state — bilingual remarks from Sisolak staff member Francisco Morales, who recently became a U.S citizen, an invocation by Reverend Deacon Reynelda James, an elder in the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, and a pledge of allegiance from two elementary school students.

Two hours before his inauguration as the 30th governor of Nevada, Sisolak and his family attended Mass inside the sunbathed sanctuary of St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church in Carson City. Gov. Brian Sandoval, who is Catholic like Sisolak, attended a similar Mass before he took office in 2010.

Hundreds of attendees, including leaders of churches from other denominations and many children from the parish school, took communion in front of a stage decked with poinsettias and joined in hymns and a chorus of “Home Means Nevada.”

Deacon Tom Roberts shared scripture from the Sermon on the Mount, reading “blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” and “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Sisolak made several campaign-style stops in rural Nevada as he and his wife drove up from Las Vegas to Carson City over the weekend. The festivities don’t stop with the formal inauguration, either.

The new governor is also scheduled to hold a public reception at the Nevada State Library and Archives, and a private state dinner at the Governor’s Mansion for “constitutional officers, legislative leadership, former governors, administration senior staff, and distinguished guests.”

Sisolak’s priorities as governor will be laid out in his first State of the State address, scheduled for Jan. 16, where the governor will unveil his budget priorities and goals for the 120-day Legislature. According to economic forecasts, the state will have $8.8 billion in projected tax revenue over the next two years, $560 million more than the last two-year budget.

He will also host two inaugural ball events — one in Reno and another in Las Vegas — in the coming weeks.

Sisolak’s inauguration comes at a high water mark for state Democrats. Four years after the 2014 midterm bloodbath, which saw Republicans win every statewide office and take control of the state Legislature, Democrats now control five of six statewide constitutional offices, a super-majority in the state Assembly and came 24 votes short of winning another super-majority in the state Senate.

But Sisolak’s path to the Governor’s Mansion wasn't an easy ride. He first had to spend millions to fend off a leftward primary challenge from former Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, while his Republican opponent Attorney General Adam Laxalt faced only token opposition.

Sisolak positioned himself as a moderate in the vein of outgoing popular Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, a comparison aided by Sandoval’s refusal to directly endorse Laxalt and thinly veiled criticisms of the Republican candidate's plan to repeal a hard-won business tax championed by Sandoval in 2015.


Read Gov. Steve Sisolak’s full inaugural address, as prepared for delivery, below:

Good afternoon!

Justices of the Supreme Court, members of our congressional delegation, former governors, first ladies, and members of the 80th Legislature, reverend clergy, honored guests, family and friends, and those who could not make it up here with us today, including Senator Reid: With all my heart, thank you.

To Governor Sandoval, I want to extend my gratitude for your extraordinary service. Thank you for prioritizing our kids’ education and our families’ health, and for always putting people over partisanship.

As Governor, I pledge to follow the example you’ve set — to find common ground, reach consensus, make a difference in people’s lives, and keep moving the state forward. 

To all Nevadans — no matter who you voted for or where in Nevada you call home — it’s the honor of a lifetime to serve as your next governor.

Like so many of you, I first set foot on these desert lands as a young man. Holes in my pockets, hungry for opportunity and adventure. I got that and so much more.

I found community, wisdom, and all of the support a single dad raising two daughters could ask for.

Ashley and Carley, what a privilege it is to be your father. You are kind, compassionate hellraisers of the highest order. May have earned me a few gray hairs but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thankfully, powerful women are something of a fixture in my life.

I’m joined today by my soulmate and beautiful wife, Kathy!

And I’m starting this new chapter as your governor in good company — alongside the first female-majority state legislature in American history.

I’d be remiss to not acknowledge the other historic milestones we’ve reached recently in Nevada. Today. Aaron Ford became the first African American constitutional officer in Nevada’s history… and Kate Marshall became the first Latina Lieutenant Governor.

The truth is the people of the Silver State have always blazed new trails, seeing potential where others saw a great big basin of rock, mountains, and tumbleweeds.

It’s that spirit that drew me here 40 years ago. And let’s be honest: I also wanted out of Wisconsin winters.

So I paid my way through business school at UNLV by weighing quarters at a casino. The job worked with my school schedule — the pay was enough to get by — and the free buffet didn’t hurt.

After graduation, I started my first business. I was lucky — I had a world-class education, people who believed in me, and the chance to make mistakes and try again.

Every Nevadan willing to work hard deserves that same chance.

That’s why I’m here—to bring opportunity back within reach and do what I can to repay the state that has given me so much.

Over the past year, I’ve gotten to know just about every corner of Nevada. And my time on the road deepened my love for our state — even if I did sweat through about half a dozen suits.

I’ve talked with miners, business owners, caretakers, bartenders, and everyone in between. In each of their stories, I saw a different way to be Nevada Proud. And I was reminded of something

Abraham Lincoln once said: To paraphrase, “I like to see a person proud of the place he lives. I like to see a person live so that his place will be proud of him.”

A lot of Nevadans are living like that.

There’s the woman I met at Costco, who was hauling around a shopping cart full of breakfast bars. She told me they were for her students. In case any of them came to school hungry, she’d have something for them at the start of the day.

That’s what Nevadans do. We show up for one another. We pitch in wherever—and whenever—we’re needed. But no teacher should have to spend their salary like that, and no kid should have to sit in class hungry.

I take my responsibility seriously—to fight for kids, educators—for every Nevadan. Not just rural or urban. Not just Democrat or Republican. All of us.

First things first: we’ve got to get our education system back on track — because we know that’s the bedrock of a thriving economy... and the pathway to a better life for our families.

We have so much to offer out-of-state businesses. But we can’t expect talented workers to stay here if we can’t guarantee their kids a quality education.

So we’ve got to do better by our students. And that means doing better by our educators. The future of Nevada is in their hands—and they should have the resources and respect they deserve.

And we need to make sure there are jobs waiting for everyone who wants one.

This is deeply personal to me.

When I was growing up, my dad worked at a GM factory, my mom at the Piggly Wiggly grocery store in town.

One day, he came home from the plant with a look of absolute anguish on his face. Turned out he was working up the nerve to tell us he’d been laid off.

He lost more than his paycheck that day. He lost his dignity. Our family lost too — our livelihood, our sense of security, our faith in the system. I don’t think my dad ever fully recovered.

No one deserves to go through that.

A few months ago, I was touring the Raiders-UNLV stadium site. A water truck pulled up beside me and this worker jumped out, with a smile splashed across his face. He walked over to shake my hand, thanking me for supporting the project. It was the first job he’d had in 18 months.

My administration will continue that work — prioritizing jobs. Not just any jobs either — good-paying jobs. Jobs that can support a family.

But if we’re serious about improving our economy, we must address one of our biggest financial burdens: health care.

It’s one of the most personal issues a family deals with.

My mother is 92-years old. She lives with my sister, Sue, in Las Vegas. I call her every day after church. I am so grateful that she has access to the care she needs. I love you, mom. I love you, Sue.

But not everyone is so fortunate.

Last year, I met an elderly couple at a retirement home. They were both on blood pressure medication but couldn’t afford two copays. So they split their pills in half every day, to make sure each of them got something.

It’s a loving gesture. But it’s also a travesty. No one should have to ration off their medicine or skip doctor visits. Or be forced into bankruptcy because of an unexpected illness. But today, too many people are doing just that.

I’m committed to cracking down on the rising cost of prescription drugs...blocking any effort to roll back protections for pre-existing conditions…protecting access to women’s health care...and defending a woman’s right to make her own medical decisions.

Health care isn’t political. It’s personal. We have to do better. And I know that we can.

For more than 150 years, Nevadans have been masters of defying expectations. We are dogged innovators, restless entrepreneurs, roll-up-our-sleeves pioneers. We turned desert into farmland, a sleepy settler town into a worldwide destination.

We’ve never been daunted by hard work or hard times.

Just look at how we bounced back from the Great Recession.

Nevada was one of the hardest hit states in the nation. Our foreclosure rate topped the country for over five years. And our unemployment rate reached nearly 14 percent.

Today, unemployment is under 5 percent — and we’ve added more jobs than we lost in the recession.

We’re looking to the future, too — investing in renewable energy, healthcare, electric vehicles, high tech, and other promising new industries.

But being Nevada Proud is about more than resilience and ingenuity. It’s about our compassion and common decency.

It’s hard to believe it’s been over a year since we endured one of the worst mass shootings in recent history.

I’ll never forget getting the call from Sheriff Lombardo — I immediately drove down to the site.

Across the field, you could hear dozens of cell phones ringing. Calls from loved ones, hoping, praying, someone would pick up.

Around 3:00am, I set up a GoFundMe, with the goal of raising a few thousand dollars for victims and their families. Within hours, kind-hearted people from all over the world were donating whatever they could—with the hope of easing a stranger’s financial burden … and showing support amid the heartbreak.

But it’s not the cash I remember the most. It’s the woman who showed up at a first responders tent with cookies in hand, because that was all she had to give.

It’s the thousands of Nevadans, who showed up at 6:00 am the next day to donate blood — lines down the block. And when some kind soul informed them it’d take about eight hours to reach the front, they looked around and said, “So what? I’ll wait.”

We were broken on 1 October, but I’ve never been more proud to be a Nevadan than as I was that day.

This state, battle-born in the fires of the Civil War, has always been a model of a fierce belief in the power of unity.

That’s what I mean when I say we’re One Nevada. We hail from all walks of life, but we come together, over and over again, to make one another better. And we have each other’s backs.

When Abraham Lincoln envisioned men and women living to make their place proud, he couldn’t have described Nevada any better.

I am so proud of who we are.

Of that dedicated teacher I met in Costco.

Of the man driving that water truck, eager to get to work.

Of the elderly couple, whose love of one another is keeping them alive, even as our healthcare system lets them down.

Of the first responders and those who donated whatever they could in the aftermath of tragedy.

Of each and every person in the Silver State — including Sydney Larson and Cooper Sandoval (no relation!), two 4th graders who won our “Nevada Means Home” drawing contest. Thank you, both!

Together, we will keep living up to Lincoln’s vision. No matter where you come from, how much money you make, your gender, race, religion, or who you love—we are One Nevada, with a common purpose and shared vision.

It’s not a mirage. It’s our reality.

So let’s get to work, and keep making this place proud of all us.

Thank you. God bless Nevada, and God bless the United States of America.

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