At a Washoe Democratic Picnic in Idlewild Park last Sunday, people got out their tickets when it came time to draw winners in the raffles. The first prize offered: Lunch with the mayor.
The mayor? Republican Bob Cashell? That mayor? The Bob Cashell who, after being elected lieutenant governor as a Democrat, switched parties to be a Republican? Who went on to chair the Nevada Republican Party?
“I like him,” said one Democrat watching the raffle. “I didn’t know that other stuff about him.”
Little wonder. Cashell has been around for a long time and for six years has been in a job in which he has to work with everyone. When U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic floor leader of the U.S. Senate, showed up for an appearance on Wells Avenue back in 2006, Cashell—whose city is dependent on federal funding—was there to dog his steps. Cashell must get along with city councilmembers who often can’t agree on lunch. He woos businesspeople to town. It’s not like Congress. Getting along is part of his job.
But there’s one person he doesn’t get along with. That’s Gov. Jim Gibbons.
In May Gibbons vetoed a voter-approved room tax hike he had promised Cashell he would sign, saying the voters had been fooled by the deceptive language of the ballot measure. That came on the heels of Gibbons’ proposal to avoid raising taxes by raiding taxes from municipal treasuries. Besides Gibbons’ games with local money, Cashell—who invested several years in his life in building up Nevada higher education—is reportedly angered by Gibbons’ treatment of the state’s campuses.
In January, after the municipal treasury raid proposal surfaced, a furious Cashell said flatly that he was in the race: “I’m running. He’s got to go.”
But he has said such things before. He had good shots at the governorship in 1986 and 2006 and passed them up.
Born in Texas and still bearing a pronounced accent, Cashell was living in Reno and working for an oil company when he and three associates purchased a locally beloved truck stop in Verdi called Bill and Effie’s in 1978. The place was renamed Boomtown, and Cashell, who eventually gained sole ownership, developed it into a major casino/truck stop.
In 1978, he was elected to the Nevada Board of Regents, which governs the state’s higher education system. In 1982, he was elected lieutenant governor, taking office in January 1983. Seven months later, on Aug. 12, he switched to the Republican Party, saying he probably should have done it in 1972 when George McGovern was nominated by the Democrats for president. He was expected to run against incumbent Richard Bryan for governor, but ended up leaving elected politics altogether.
Cashell spent several years expanding Boomtown and his gambling holdings, including involvement in Louisiana. He has a strong following in some small towns like Winnemucca and Carson City where he tried to keep failing casino properties going.
In 2002, he moved to Reno to run for mayor, winning a narrow victory. In 2006, he was reelected easily. In 2005, Gov. Kenny Guinn tried unsuccessfully to lure him into running for governor.
Cashell’s extensive resume, both in government and in the private sector, makes him a formidable candidate if he decides to run. North Las Vegas Mayor Mike Montandon is already in the GOP primary race, and Iraq veteran and former state senator Joe Heck and U.S. Rep. Dean Heller may also join it.
Such a crowded field could be Gibbons’ best chance of winning. The governor’s support in a recent opinion survey put his approval rating at 10 percent, but that is among all residents. In a Republican primary, he would likely have higher numbers and in a multi-candidate race he could slip past the other candidates.
“I think that’s his goal, to draw in as many possible challengers as he can” said UNLV political scientist David Damore, discussing Gibbons.
One handicap Cashell would probably have to overcome is being a municipal official, which voters sometimes read as parochialism. Numerous Nevada mayors and city councilmembers have tried to run for higher office, with limited success. Reno mayors Roy Bankofier and Pete Sferrazza lost state or federal races in 1970, 1986, 1992 and 1994. Las Vegas Mayor Oran Gragson lost a race for governor in 1962. (Former Reno mayor Richard Kirman was elected governor in 1934, 20 years after being mayor.)
Related to his being a muni official is the fact that he is seen principally as a regional figure. Until Gibbons, Nevadans had not elected a non-Clark County governor since 1978—and Gibbons isn’t exactly a recommendation for repeating the experience.
On the other hand, Cashell is in some ways the perfect contrast to Gibbons—a candidate who plays well with others and can get things done. He came to Reno city government at a time when City Councilmembers were at each other’s throats, and whether he was responsible or not, Cashell got much of the credit.
If Cashell got into the race, he would be starting later than other candidates of both parties, and the primary election has been moved up to June, which means that he would face the GOP voters in just 10 months. “And then the question is, you know, he’s going to do this fairly late in the process, what kind of talent is he going to be able to attract,” Damore said.
Last month on Sam Shad’s television program, Cashell offered an alternative scenario that jarred some leaders of both parties:
“Some of this partisan politics gets a little carried away,” he said. “Sometimes I think I’m a Democrat, sometimes I think I’m a Republican. I’m kind of in the middle right now, whether to run as an independent.”
An independent candidacy would require Cashell to gather 5,822 signatures to get on the ballot. No one doubts he could put a campaign together for an independent candidacy, but the obstacles mount after that. The voters do not assign the same level of legitimacy to independent candidates as they do to partisan candidates. Cashell is certainly suited to overcome that—he is a major political figure with a long record of service.
Damore says one of the things that has facilitated independent candidacies in the past—such as Jesse Ventura’s election as governor of Minnesota—is same-day voter registration, which can be used on the spur of the moment by people who normally are detached, disenchanted, and unlikely to vote.
But even if Cashell got elected, he would still have problems—a limited political base in the legislature after defeating both Republican and Democratic candidates for governor. “I think that would largely depend on what tack he took,” Damore said. “You know, if he was someone willing to sort of work and say… ‘I want to make what’s best for the state,’ and [it] resonates with the public, then the legislature might have to play ball.” He is essentially describing Cashell’s modus operandi as mayor. He continues, “The other thing is that given the relationship between the legislature and the governor now, anything would be an improvement. You’ve got the low bar. You know, someone’d actually talk to them and deal with them, I think that would help.”
Cashell’s talk of being uncertain what party he’s in is reflected by his activities. It is not uncommon for him to show up at both Democratic and Republican functions. On Jan. 20, he attended an inaugural ball in Reno thrown at the Grand Sierra Resort by the Washoe County Democratic Party on the day Barack Obama took office.
At a time when the public identifies less and less with political parties—but are locked into being registered partisan by election laws slanted to favor the parties—Cashell may be a post-partisan candidate.