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Who were the most comprehensively unqualified major party candidates for constitutional office in Nevada history?

David Colborne
David Colborne
Opinion
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"Michele Fiore is the most comprehensively unqualified major party candidate for constitutional office in Nevada history and her failure to even understand the job she is asking Nevadans to give her underscores that sad truth."

Those were the words of Treasurer Zach Conine after Michele Fiore, his Republican opponent, accused him of operating a “questionable business” — the Nevada Capital Investment Corporation, which statutorily exists to provide private equity funding to businesses and which the Treasurer is statutorily required to regulate — from the Treasurer’s Office. 

The Treasurer’s Office, for the record, is probably exactly where you’d want a treasurer to perform statutory duties.

On the one hand, it’s undoubtedly true that Michele Fiore is in no way qualified to serve as the treasurer of anything more financially consequential than a convenience store “leave a penny, take a penny” cup. She’s a racist, violent tax cheat who’s only running for treasurer because Joey Gilbert took her gubernatorial primary voters before she could shoot a single beer bottle and Daddy Trump wasn’t interested in bailing her gubernatorial campaign out with an endorsement. If elected, she’s likely to do the same thing as treasurer as she’s done in every other political position she’s, ah, “served” — embarrass any constituent possessing even a fractional ounce of shame while funneling donor and taxpayer resources to friends and family. 

On the other hand — and with all due respect both to Treasurer Conine and his campaign’s drug store receipt-length report detailing 199 pages of reasons why Michele Fiore is manifestly unfit to serve in any capacity in any organization, public or private — none of that makes her the most comprehensively unqualified major party candidate for constitutional office in Nevada history. 

None of that, in fact, even makes her the most comprehensively unqualified major party candidate for constitutional office this year. 

No, that dishonor is shared between secretary of state candidate Jim Marchant, a conspiratorial QAnon acolyte who believes a voting machine bit his sister once and mail ballots are the devil’s playthings (except for the ones he himself mailed from out of state), and attorney general candidate Sigal Chattah, an angry ball of rage who is somehow consistently more racist and bigoted than Michele Fiore — which is pretty impressive for someone who doesn’t wear white bedsheets after Labor Day.

What truly sets this year’s crop of Republican candidates for secretary of state and attorney general, respectively, from the two-bit grift Fiore has run through her decade in Nevada politics is the power of their offices. A bad treasurer can steal money, yes, but a bad secretary of state can break the state’s elections while a bad attorney general can use their power as chief prosecutor of the state to punish political enemies (which, by the way, Chattah has promised to do).

Perhaps Jim Marchant and Sigal Chattah, instead of Michele Fiore, are the most comprehensively unqualified major party candidates for constitutional office in Nevada history. Are they?

The answer is — I don’t know.

I know this isn’t the most satisfying answer, especially coming from an opinion column, but it turns out that’s a surprisingly high (low?) bar. 

Part of the problem is one of quantity. In Nevada’s 158 year history, statewide constitutional officers have been selected in 40 elections (Nevada’s inaugural constitutional officers only served for two years; four year terms for governors, lieutenant governors, and the like began in 1866). There were seven elected constitutional officers upon statehood and six elected officers after Louis Ferrari was elected as the state’s final Surveyor General in 1954 (more on him later). That adds up to 264 elections, or potentially as many as 528 possible candidates to evaluate, assuming only the top two finishers in each election need to be evaluated — which, thanks to the Silver Party’s decade of successes starting in 1894, might be an overly limiting assumption. 

Even accounting for incumbents running for reelection and candidates running for multiple offices during their political career (Reinhold Sadler ran for treasurer and controller before he was finally elected as lieutenant governor in 1894), there have likely been at least 200 different candidates for Nevada’s constitutional offices. It would take months just to collect basic biographical profiles for every candidate listed in the latest edition of the Political History of Nevada (a product, incidentally, which Jim Marchant, were he elected to secretary of state, would be partially responsible for updating).

Are Jim Marchant or Sigal Chattah truly worse than all of them?

The other part of the problem is Nevada has been… graced with some truly terrible politicians throughout our history.

Before I tell the stories of a few of the worst, however, I need to define some terms. First, by “constitutional officers,” I mean those defined in Article 5 of the state constitution — meaning, governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer, controller, attorney general, and, before 1954, surveyor general. This does not include congressional representatives or senators (which means no Francis Newlands or Pat McCarran), nor does it include long-defunct statutory elected statewide offices like state printers, mineralogists or inspectors of mines (which is a shame since elected state printers were consistently incompetent enough to drive the Legislature to abolish the elected office twice).

With those limitations in mind, here are a few of the worst major party candidates for constitutional office I could find. As you read about them, bear in mind they all won their first election — and most of them won reelection:

Lieutenant Governor Frank Denver

I wrote about Lieutenant Governor Denver once before — he’s why lieutenant governors in our state are extra useless.

Lieutenant governors are and have always been the donut spares of Nevada constitutional government. Their job is constitutionally defined to ceremonially serve as President of the Senate (a Senate which, like the rest of the Legislature, only meets for 120 days every two years) and serve as the office where the powers and duties of the governor “devolve” to if something unpleasant or unexpected happens to the governor. It is, in other words, not a particularly busy or productive office, especially as lieutenant governors, unlike vice presidents, don’t necessarily share a ticket (nor a positive relationship) with the rest of the executive branch.

Nevada’s first legislators, however, didn’t want the lieutenant governor’s taxpayer funded salary to go to waste. It might not be a particularly busy office, but it seemed important for the holder of it to practice and demonstrate some measure of administrative acumen before they’re suddenly given the keys to the executive branch of state government — or, at least, to offset their salary by doing something legitimately useful for taxpayers while they waited for the governor to keel over or leave town.

So, after the Nevada State Prison was rebuilt after a fire in 1867, lieutenant governors were appointed wardens of the Nevada State Prison.

This, thanks to Denver, didn’t last long. Mere months after assuming office in 1871 — and, by association, the duties of prison warden — nearly a quarter of the inmates housed in the Nevada State Prison escaped, killing several locals and injuring the hapless lieutenant governor/amateur prison warden in the hip in the process. 11 of the 29 escaped prisoners were never found.

Considering how modern-day Gov. Sisolak asked for — and received — the resignation of Department of Corrections Director Charles Daniels and placed six additional personnel on administrative leave after only one prisoner escaped, you can just imagine how well the largest prison break in western American history up to that point was received by the population at large.

Armed with the unassailable confidence of an otherwise inconsequential elected official, however, Denver didn’t believe being the one in charge of the prison that just experienced the largest prison break in the western United States to date should be a fireable offense. Trouble was, the voters, Legislature, and governor all disagreed. In 1873, two years after the prison break and halfway through Denver’s term as lieutenant governor, legislation to reassign the duties of prison warden to someone with professional law enforcement qualifications was signed and passed.

Armed with the unassailable confidence of an otherwise inconsequential elected official, however, Denver refused to accept defeat. When the new warden arrived to begin his first day on the job, Denver refused to let him in. Denver also refused to let in the attorney general, the secretary of state, and the governor.

Then-governor Lewis Bradley responded with artillery — literally. Sixty soldiers from the state militia, armed with a small artillery piece and supporting small arms, were deployed to the State Prison. Finally, at long last, Lieutenant Governor Frank Denver saw reason and left the prison — though not before the Carson Daily Appeal penned some snark about the “lambast flame of war.”

The remainder of Lieutenant Governor Frank Denver’s term was spent quietly and unobtrusively, thus establishing a tradition subsequent lieutenant governors have usually lived up to. After his term was over, he reminded Nevadans he existed by attempting to sue the state for back pay for his “services” as warden. He lost, then died in San Francisco a few months later.

Treasurer Eben Rhodes

To his credit, Eben Rhodes, Nevada’s first treasurer, never attempted to instigate an armed standoff against his fellow constitutional officers. What he did instead, however, will probably remain the high water mark for what any malicious state treasurer can accomplish alone — and we’re still paying for it. 

To understand why, we need to talk about Article 11, Section 3 of the Nevada Constitution. Among other things, it promises that all lands granted by Congress or donors to the state for educational purposes, as well as any unclaimed estates that are given to the state by default — as well as any proceeds generated from those lands — must be spent on education. Additionally, the interest earned on money derived from those lands (whether in the form of proceeds or sales) must be apportioned to Nevada’s counties for educational purposes as well.

This doesn’t sound like much at first until one learns Congress originally gave Nevada nearly four million acres — nearly 6,250 square miles, or almost the same amount of land in Washoe County — just for educational purposes. Those lands, and the proceeds generated from them, were meant to fund a perpetual school land trust fund. Unfortunately, fewer than 3,000 acres of those lands remain in state hands.

The current parsimony of our state’s educational patrimony is not Eben Rhodes’ fault — some fingers will be pointed about that particular issue a little later. Rhodes is instead on this list because our state’s first treasurer embezzled over $100,000 — including over $30,000 from that school land trust fund. To put that number into perspective, Nevada’s state spending in 1869, as reported by then-Gov. Blasdel’s Governor’s Message to the Legislature, was only $855,357.94.

Having the first treasurer defalcate over a tenth of the state’s budget, including a sizable portion of the state’s school land trust fund, did the fledgling state no favors. The state owed inherited a sizable debt from its pre-statehood days, which was grown further to fund the initial construction of the new capitol and rebuild the prison. To pay that debt off, lacking the money Rhodes absconded with, the state elected to further raid the school land trust fund — a violation of both the state constitution and, as the federal government later reported, the purpose Congress was trying to advance through apportioning the state’s lands for education.

Treasurer Ed Malley and Controller George Cole

Eben Rhodes was both Nevada's first treasurer and the first treasurer to embezzle from the state. He was not, however, the last of either. Fifty years after Rhodes died, Treasurer Ed Malley teamed up with Controller George Cole in the 1920s to embezzle over half a million dollars.

Instead of letting the state’s money sit safely in a bank or investing it in federal bonds, Malley and Cole planned to invest the state’s money into Nevada mining and oil stocks, — then skim off the higher profits promised by their riskier investments. The effort, unfortunately, proved to be not entirely dissimilar to what would happen if a modern-day treasurer and controller conspired to invest the state’s money in, say, locally-”mined” cryptocurrencies and Space Whale NFTs instead of keeping the state’s money safely secure in either a bank or the Local Government Investment Pool. Tonopah’s mining output was beginning a long but steady decline, which was reflected in mining share prices and dividend payments. Meanwhile, the actual Signal Hill oil boom, which took place near Long Beach, California, would produce one-quarter of the world’s entire oil output of the time — the Nevada Signal Hill Oil Company, which Malley and Cole invested in, only had the name in common. In fact, Nevada wouldn’t produce commercially useful volumes of oil until 1954 — three decades too late for Malley and Cole to get a return on their investment.

When all was said and done, it was proven that Malley and Cole embezzled $516,322.16 — but not before Malley was reelected in 1926. For their crimes, they were both tried, found guilty, and sentenced to five to fifteen years in prison. Of those, they only spent four years before they were subsequently paroled, then later pardoned.

Surveyor General Louis Ferrari

The jury wasn’t upset with him about the fiery airliner crash.

Even by the standards of seemingly anonymous constitutional state officers, the office of surveyor general was considered something of vestigial appendage by the 1950s. The original purpose of the office was to manage state lands — trouble was, as the Reno News & Review detailed nearly a decade ago in an excellent feature worth rereading, most of the state trust lands had already been dispossessed by 1911, in no small part because previous surveyors general (among other state officials) kept giving land away to friends, family, and political allies with little oversight. 

Owing to the steadily declining portfolio of state lands, legislators began to openly discuss closing the office in 1937. By the time Louis Ferrari was first elected as surveyor general in 1950, there wasn’t much state land to sell or manage. Then-Gov. Charles Russell noted there were still over 400,000 acres of state land still in possession when legislators first discussed abolishing the surveyor general’s position in the 1930s — in 1951, by contrast, there were only 8,000 acres remaining. In recognition of the increasingly homeopathic levels of responsibility remaining with the office, the Legislature passed amendments removing the office from the state constitution in both 1951 and 1953 — amendments the voters, in turn, dutifully passed in 1954.

Even so, Ferrari ran unopposed in 1954 for the very same office that voters elected to abolish — and the office was only abolished from the state constitution, not state statute. Amending the constitution was only the first step — all of the laws pertaining to elected surveyors general were still on the books. That meant Ferrari would be able to serve one last elected term as Nevada’s last elected surveyor general.

He made the most of it.

In 1957, a grand jury was convened in Carson City to conduct a three-month investigation into state land dealings. Their conclusion was:

“That the office of the surveyor general has for many years been administered for the benefit of the few, with a complete disregard for the public interest and state welfare.

That particularly, since 1951, Louis Ferrari as surveyor general has administered that office for the benefit of friends, relations and public officials, knowingly, voluntarily and in disregard of his oath of office and the public trust.

That Louis Ferrari, as surveyor general, has been and is guilty of palpable misconduct in the administration of his office, has exercised his discretion and judgment for the benefit of the few, and his actions in the administration of his office in connection with the land transactions herein investigated should be, and are hereby publicly condemned and censured.”

What got the grand jury’s attention was a series of state land sales orchestrated by Ferrari to other state officials and employees, including the mine inspector (also an elected office at the time), the treasurer, multiple assemblymen from Clark County, and a highway department right-of-way engineer. The land Ferrari sold included land that was already being used by a (not particularly well run) juvenile detention facility in Elko, as well as several parcels located in the Valley of Fire state park in Clark County.

To address the situation, the grand jury recommended, among other things, that the 1957 Legislature impeach Ferrari. The Legislature, however, responded with an even better idea — they just wrote the office of surveyor general out of existence and devolved its powers to the Division of State Lands.

***

When looking at the behavior of past Nevada constitutional officers, it’s tempting to vacillate between stoicism and nihilism. Our state has endured some truly terrible public officials yet it continues to prosper and thrive. What’s the harm in a few more?

There’s some truth to that perspective. Neither Fiore, Marchant, nor Chattah, if elected, are going to cause Nevada to cease to exist. Regardless of how this election turns out, most of us are likely to wake up, go to work, spend time with our families, and otherwise live our lives as Nevadans.

On the other hand, bad choices have consequences. Violent prisoners escaped and people died because an unqualified lieutenant governor was tasked with running the state prison. The state’s educational fund, which was originally designed to fund education in this state even to the present day, was repeatedly emptied to cover the financial malfeasance of greedy treasurers. A series of feckless surveyors general distributed state lands to friends and political allies instead of selling them at market rates or conserving them for future use and stewardship.

We can avoid those consequences if we choose to — if we choose to pay attention enough to.

We live in the shadow of the choices which precede us. Those choices may be seldom fatal, but bad ones are always expensive — sometimes for generations to come.

David Colborne ran for office twice and served on the executive committees for his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is now an IT manager, a registered nonpartisan voter, the father of two sons, and a weekly opinion columnist for The Nevada Independent. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at [email protected]

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