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The week that raised questions about Laxalt's fitness to be governor

Jon Ralston
Jon Ralston

The campaign bulletin should have come through cyberspace trailing clouds of confetti.

“By any measure, Adam Laxalt’s campaign for Governor of Nevada is off to a wildly successful start,” the GOP aspirant’s press release said as he finished the “Laxalt 17” tour of all Nevada counties.

The email blast boasted of hundreds of supporters attending his events and had cute lines about number of cups of coffee (31) and “truly special state” (1). It also bragged about 26 media interviews.

Couldn’t have gone better, eh?

Beyond the caffeinated self-congratulation in the gushing release lies the truth about last week:  It raised serious questions about Laxalt’s fitness for the state’s most important office. I have already written that for a gubernatorial hopeful, the 39-year-old has a unique combination of inexperience and a stunningly short length of Nevada residency.

And in one of those media interviews last week and amidst revelations about his unconscionable vote against a pardon for an innocent man, the attorney general is demonstrating why The Laxalt Cocoon is so essential to his campaign’s strategy.

First, the pardon, which showed a stunning abdication of duty caused by either extraordinary callousness or reckless disregard for justice. Either way, it is very close to a disqualifying act. Here’s the disturbing story:

Laxalt, by statute, serves on the Pardons Board, which also contains all of the state Supreme Court justices and the governor. Last week, they considered the case of Fred Steese, who had been the subject of several investigative pieces by ProPublica’s Megan Rose. Her “Kafka in Vegas” piece was frightening and caused doubt about whether he was guilty of murder.

The piece raised serious questions about the conviction and the behavior of the district attorney’s office and two prosecutors who are now judges – Doug Herndon and Bill Kephart. Five years ago, an obviously persuaded District Judge Elissa Cadish issued a highly unusual Order of Actual Innocence, but the DA’s office, now run by Steve Wolfson who is seeking another term, only agreed to have Steese released from prison if he agreed to an Alford plea, which meant he was technically still a convicted killer.

Which brings us to Steese seeking a pardon last week.

The district attorney’s office, which had been exposed for serious misconduct during the case, wrote a letter opposing the pardon, which Steese’s lawyer, Lisa Rasmussen, pointed out was riddled with misstatements. (Wolfson, who has aspired to higher office, should have to explain the letter. Civil liability notwithstanding, a man’s life was at stake.)

As Rose reported, even the victim’s sister wanted the board to pardon Steese. Every justice, liberal and conservative, voted for the pardon (Mark Gibbons, hardly a leftie, said he had never seen anything like the case), and Gov. Brian Sandoval also voted yes. (The governor has the power to nix a pardon all on his own, something to think about in light of Laxalt’s aim to succeed Sandoval.)

Laxalt, who is the state’s top law enforcement officer and presumably knows the law when it comes to abstaining, asked Sandoval if he could take a powder. Of course, he could not, as the governor told him, because he had no conflict of interest.

And why would he want to?

Laxalt then voted no, against pardoning a man who by every available fact was innocent. So the entire state Supreme Court and the governor were persuaded by the overwhelming evidence but not the attorney general, who first sought the coward’s way out, then kept his pristine anti-pardon record intact.

Was he distracted, paying attention to something on his phone? Did he not carefully examine the case? Did he not care that Steese had suffered decades of imprisonment for a crime he did not commit? Or was his campaign team whispering in his ear that he had to look “tough on crime” at all times?

Read the ProPublica pieces, no matter your political leanings, and then ask yourself if what Laxalt did is indeed disqualifying.

His team obviously understood the potential damage with voters other than the blindly adherent because Laxalt offered an explanation to his biggest donor’s paper, which helpfully published the DA’s letter against the pardon. The ProPublica piece, though? Glossed over by the RJ and not hyperlinked – I wonder why?

Check out Laxalt’s quote in the paper:

“The district attorney, Steve Wolfson, felt that this pardon was absolutely unwarranted,” Laxalt said. “If I had to choose between the district attorney and career prosecutors over a liberal judge and a news story, that was an easy call for me — I was going to go with the district attorney on this one.”

My God.

First, if it was “an easy call,” why did he try to abstain?

Second, did he even bother read the ProPublica piece – the “news story” – that raised so many valid questions about the conduct of the DA’s office and Steese’s culpability?

Third, Laxalt was so sure of the rightness of his vote against the pardon, why was it necessary to smear Cadish, one of the most respected jurists in the state and one who is likely to be on the high court soon, as a “liberal judge” who supposedly lacked the discernment to rule fairly and ethically? (Lawyer and Democratic Assemblyman Steve Yeager wondered if Laxalt violated the canons by implying Cadish was motivated by politics.)

In providing Laxalt with the space to try to explain himself, the Review Journal revealed his true colors. He voted against pardoning an obviously innocent man, and then attacked a judge and sneered at a great piece of investigative journalism that he probably never read.

Disqualifying? You tell me.

And that was only part of Laxalt’s week as he reveled in the presence of rural voters he clearly takes for granted and believes will vote for him even if he shoots somebody on Las Vegas Boulevard South. Vote against a pardon? That’s why we love Adam!

Laxalt’s tour demonstrated he either does not understand state government or will not deviate from his programming.

The truth behind the press release that boasted of more than two dozen interviews is that they lasted a few minutes at most, lest he go off script, and were granted nearly entirely to Laxalt-friendly media outlets. He has been and remains a virtual tabula rasa – we know very little about his knowledge of the state and the duties of the governor.

We did get a small glimpse of his stunning ignorance about a legislative measure he is campaigning against and a startling evasion on another issue that is important to every Nevadan in a brief interview with Kay Lynn Roberts-McMurray of The Ely Times, though. To wit:

When asked for his thoughts on sanctuary cities, he replied by saying “well the Democrats pushed the sanctuary state bill which designated Las Vegas as a sanctuary city which has been reversed. I think it would make us less safe.”

And when asked if he would have expanded Medicaid under the ACA as Sandoval did, he said, “I’m gonna wait until we see what happens with everything that is going on in Washington before we get into where we look and see where we’re headed. I was not a supporter of Obamacare, and we sued on Obamacare as well. There is no reason to even talk about it until we know what Washington is going to do.”


Laxalt, who has in the past made it sound as if marauding undocumented rapers and pillagers will soon be streaming across the state line from San Francisco, completely misstated what the legislative effort was about. And even if it would have done what Laxalt told rural voters it did, the bill did not get a vote, so it never became law, so nothing could have been “reversed.”

On the Medicaid expansion question, he not only did not say whether he supported or opposed it, he repeated the dodgy “let’s see what Washington does” mantra he used on the campaign trail all week.

This is the bold leadership of the Laxalt campaign:  To blow off a legitimate inquiry on one of the state’s most important issues, choosing to rely instead on his campaign cocoon and the assumed broad support of rural voters to deliver him into the governor’s office.

“From Las Vegas to Elko, from Pahrump to Reno, and everywhere in between, Nevadans showed they are eager to help Laxalt make our state’s next chapter our best yet,” his campaign’s news release declared as his tour ended.

Eager supporters aside, last week raised serious questions about whether the callow attorney general is fit to be given the awesome and far-reaching power of the state’s highest office.

Jon Ralston is the editor of The Nevada Independent. He has been covering Nevada politics for more than 30 years. Contact him at [email protected]. On Twitter: @ralstonreports



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