Some jeered, but I wasn’t bothered much by the news Ruben Kihuen was within the law when he took $160,000 from his mothballed congressional campaign account and poured it down the drain in an unsuccessful run for Las Vegas City Council.
Although the secretary of state’s office appeared to reverse itself when it determined Kihuen’s congressional cash could legally be used for the city race, the decision seemed pretty reasonable. Federal election campaign laws allow the transfer, and the SOS, guided by the attorney general, decided Nevada law didn’t forbid it.
What no doubt gnaws at many people is the fact Kihuen had the temerity to run for public office immediately after being driven from Congress under an ethics cloud. He received a formal reprimand from a House Ethics Committee that investigated sexual harassment allegations made against him by a former campaign staffer and lobbyists. Kihuen, a Democratic Party rising star, exited Congress after a single term.
But Kihuen’s willingness to access ready cash to further his tainted political ambitions wasn’t really scandalous. Frankly, I think it was poetic.
In this era of consummate packaging of political candidates it isn’t often that a fallen public official gives us a chance to really understand what motivates him. In Kihuen’s case, it’s the game.
By deciding to leave at the end of his freshman term, Kihuen largely avoided the embarrassing glare of further controversy associated with his actions. The shadows are kind that way, and the wheels of politics turn swiftly. Had he made the right decision to avoid the spotlight for even a few months — and who would blame him after watching him self-destruct in public? — it would have given many of Kihuen’s toughest critics a chance to move on. It would have given victims of his boorish behavior such as Samantha Register an opportunity to continue with their lives without being reminded that smiling Ruben was still out there hustling votes and denying the undeniable.
It would have given him a chance to avoid mocking his victims by marginalizing his actions in a Spanish language radio interview: “They accused me of paying a compliment to a woman.”
Of course, that wasn’t true. Three women from separate areas of Kihuen’s professional life complained of inappropriate touching and other behavior that earned him a rebuke by his colleagues. People who receive simple compliments don’t invite the potential for public harassment by challenging the behavior of a sitting congressman.
Kihuen’s dissembling was telling, but not surprising. After all, he’s the guy who couldn’t leave it alone, who couldn’t take a hint, who couldn’t appreciate that maybe he was no longer an irresistible political prospect.
Kihuen had to jump back into the game. And in a City Council campaign, no less. After winning a seat in Congress, that’s like quitting a marathon to run a sack race.
Thanks to his decision to take $160,000 from his congressional account, money he’d collected back when Nevadans believed he was a credible representative of their interests, and use it to fire up his city campaign, Kihuen was considered an instant contender. Some, knowing his superior name recognition and appreciating the impact that that much money could have in an election with an embarrassingly low voter turnout, may have even made him a favorite to advance from the April 2 primary to the June general election.
Ward 3 voters who bothered to cast ballots — the election which drew fewer than 9 percent of registered Las Vegans to the polls — surely must have recognized Kihuen’s name. Like him or not, he had by far the most political experience of anyone on the ballot. And plenty of money, too. He figured to move to the general.
As we know, that’s not what happened. Former Assemblywoman Olivia Diaz garnered one-third of the vote to place first with local activist Melissa Clary close enough to qualify for the runoff. Kihuen, who won nearly 129,000 votes in his successful 2016 campaign for Nevada’s 4th congressional district, garnered only 861 votes on primary night. He missed the cut by five votes.
That amounts to $185.83 per vote.
Some might argue that a lot of money was wasted in the name of ego, or that a vainglorious City council run was a compelling example of the kind of “personal use” prohibited under federal law. Not me. I think it’s just part of the poem of Ruben Kihuen.
But imagine for a moment that if, instead of blowing a bundle on a local political campaign, Kihuen had chosen to contribute to some of the nonprofit organizations devoted to improving Ward 3, a genuine community of need. And what if, instead of busying himself by going on radio talk shows and lying about his past behavior, he actually spent time working with the people of Ward 3 who could really use bilingual ability and experience with constituent services at the local, state and federal levels?
That guy would be able to show the people who put their faith in him that their trust wasn’t entirely misplaced, that they weren’t just a bunch of carnival rubes.
That’s someone who could eventually argue that he was in politics for more than the game.
But as we now know without question, Ruben Kihuen is not that guy. He was addicted to the game.
For him, the game is what mattered more than people.
John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal—”Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith