Brian Sandoval used to raise sheep.
Lambs, to be specific. It was part of his participation in 4-H, a federal agriculture program for boys and girls that his sister believes helped start him on his road to the governorship.
“I think that’s where he started becoming a leader,” said Lauri Sandoval.
The Sandoval household was not particularly oriented to public affairs and politics, but Brian kept having experiences like 4-H that widened his horizons.
One important turning point was a job his mother got. In 1976, former Washoe district attorney Harold Taber was appointed U.S. magistrate in Nevada. Gloria “Teri” Sandoval was hired as his secretary. Her son Brian, who was 13 when the job began, hung around the office and ran errands. The surroundings in the federal building fostered the interest of both Brian and Lauri in public affairs. Taber’s office was next to the Reno office of U.S. Sen. Howard Cannon, and Lauri went to Washington, D.C., to be a Cannon intern. Back home, her younger brother Brian was spreading his wings.
At Manogue High School, Brian was a class officer in his first, second and third years, and student body president in his fourth year. He sang in choir, went to Boys State, played sports and participated in a group called Christian Life Community. And he won an award from the Optimists Club, a foretaste of things to come. His upbeat view of life has been one of his most pronounced traits.
A friend of Kurt Vonnegut once told the writer that our roles in life are set in high school. Brian Sandoval and Heidi Seevers would be prime exhibits for the proposition. When Sandoval was student body president, she was vice president. In the section of the Manogue yearbook where categories like “best looking” and “most likely to succeed” were listed, Sandoval and Seevers were named “teachers pets.” The strong friendship also became a political alliance. Today Seevers—now Gansert—is the new governor’s chief of staff.
Reno attorney Herb Santos Jr., who has known Sandoval and Gansert since grade school—because their names all began with S, they frequently sat together in class—said his friend was a “good leader and trustworthy and someone you could depend upon.” He believes the Catholic school experience gave students a sense of in-group bonds that accounts for the strong friendship between Sandoval and Gansert, and Sandoval’s friendships with a number of other people.
After college and law school, Sandoval returned to Reno and practiced law. He was a golden boy who loved his wife, had beautiful children, and was a Latino role model at a time when Latinos were on the rise and growing as a share of Nevada’s population. People liked being around him. He was plainly intelligent and gregarious. Campaign consultants considered him very marketable.
Once he turned to politics in 1994, Sandoval seemed to have a Midas touch for the main chance. He rose so fast that he rarely finished terms of office. During his second term as a state legislator, he resigned to become a gambling regulator. He resigned that job to run for attorney general. He resigned as attorney general to become a federal judge. The judgeship had no fixed term—it’s a lifetime appointment—but he resigned it to run for governor.
Departed governor Jim Gibbons has reduced the public’s expectations nicely for Sandoval. The tone of state government is changing for the better: Unlike Gibbons, it is not Sandoval’s style to pit people and groups against each other. When he decided to seek a pay cut for state workers, he sent them a letter explaining his decision.
Yet it is surprising how little honeymoon the new governor has had. Resentments by both Democrats and moderate Republicans are rising.
His unwillingness to undertake the expensive task of rebuilding Nevada’s competitiveness to attract new companies is also alienating some of his business supporters, and his willingness to traffic in right-wing nostrums has dismayed the middle-of-the-road Republicans who first wanted him to run for governor.
He was lured into the race for governor by campaign consultants and other power players. But that initiative received enthusiastic support from moderate Republicans who were embarrassed by GOP Gov. Jim Gibbons. In 2003, Sandoval as attorney general had supported Gov. Kenny Guinn’s tax package that outraged some rightist Republicans. That stance earned him the appellation RINO (Republican in name only) from commentator Ken Ward and others, but made him attractive when Republicans wanted someone to displace Gibbons.
So those same Republicans, particularly in Washoe County, were taken aback when Sandoval took a no-new-taxes pledge. “He didn’t need it to win the primary,” said one longtime GOP matriarch in Reno. “It just made him look like Gibbons and bound his hands. I felt betrayed. We expected him to help pull the party back to the middle so we could build some long-term strength and win more elections.” She pointed out that Sandoval won with a lot of Democratic votes, but his policies are likely to drive them away again.
Indeed, as Sandoval’s inaugural neared, there were a remarkable number of Republicans grousing about Sandoval in ways that mentioned Gibbons and Sandoval in the same sentences.
“We helped him win against Jim Gibbons,” said a rural school board member. “Did he think that meant we wanted him to act like Gibbons?”
There is an inclination among disappointed Republicans to blame his staff. They say his assistants have a Gibbons-like craving for adversarial politics. Several experienced political figures say the staffers lack communications skills and keep leading the governor into messes.
“Right after the election, I read a piece about how [Sandoval aide Dale] Erquiaga was talking about taking money from local government,” said one. “They didn’t prepare the ground for that one at all. The governor needed to talk to some legislative and local government players before that came out. He might not have changed minds, but it would have helped mute the reaction. Then he proposes higher college tuition and sends Heidi [Gansert] out to deliver the message. This is Nevada. A governor delivers bad news in person.”
“Brian deserves better from his staff,” said one former Gibbons aide.
Reno Mayor Bob Cashell, who likes Sandoval’s style, said, “He’s a very intelligent young man. If his handlers don’t misguide him with their egos … I’ve never seen Brian be a big ego guy. He’s been one that’s kind of level-headed, middle of the road, and I think he’ll do some thinking. But I just hope some of his handlers don’t overpush him to go too far to the right.”
But complaining about a chief executive’s staff is an old story. In the end, the governor is responsible. And it should be said that some staffers—particularly Gansert and budget director Andrew Clinger—are getting high marks.
What most concerns many of Sandoval’s critics is that he is too positive, and it fails to communicate to the public how desperate is the state’s economic situation.
“He won’t—he will not—tell the public the bad news, that they need to sacrifice in order to rebuild the state,” said an influential Sparks businessperson. “This is not a run-of-the-mill downturn. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, and unless we aggressively put in place an infrastructure that attracts major companies, high unemployment will just be a way of life until we lose enough population to bring it down. And then we’ll be back in the 1950s with one congressman.”
Assembly Speaker John Oceguera has said, “I don’t know that anybody thinks that we can cut $2.9 billion out of our budget. Our budget is about $6.5 billion. $3 billion puts us at about 54 percent of our budget as a deficit. That’s the highest in the country. I don’t think it would be very easy to do that.”
While state legislators are trying to figure out how to keep the state afloat, they see the governor talking sweetness and light and resent that they are having to do the heavy lifting on educating the public. He’s the one with the big megaphone, they say. Democratic leaders have been working up a dislike of Sandoval that is not particularly shared by their political base. Sandoval cut heavily into the Democratic vote. But they are not alone. Republican lawmakers are nervous about the decisions ahead and say the public does not understand how serious things are. A Republican legislator, speaking slowly as though reluctant to say it, said, “It may be a statistical reality that we need more revenue. I don’t know that the governor is prepared for that.” In addition, many businesspeople are raising questions about whether Sandoval’s tax stance is good policy.
“It’s important to know the why here,” Sandoval said during the campaign. “The why is that people are unemployed. People want to get back to work. We want to bring new business here, and raising taxes on struggling Nevada families and businesses is the worst thing we could do.”
It’s hard to imagine Sandoval—who, it should be recalled, inherited a dreadful fiscal situation—getting out of the corner that pledge has put him in. But it’s also difficult to see how the state’s budget gets balanced when most of it is in deficit. Years of cuts have reduced the options. If cuts are easy, they’ve already been made. What’s left is cuts that will break the law or seriously hurt people and further damage the state’s competitiveness. And after good working people have paid during good times for a safety net, if it’s not there when they need it, they have a right to feel deceived.
Following the election, Sandoval said he would follow through on plans to cut public employee pay: “We’ve got to be like every Nevada family and business. … There’s going to be shared sacrifice in that regard.”
Sandoval’s reference to the government being “like every Nevada family and business” is a familiar refrain. Similar statements were made by Nevada governors Robert List and Robert Miller during earlier state budget crises.
“When businesses must tighten their belts, government should do the same,” List said.
That cliché raises fundamental questions about the purpose of government. Another Nevada governor, Richard Bryan, considered it nonsense.
“We have heard that in hard times, business tightens its belt,” Bryan said. “Government, we are told, should do the same. It is an appealing argument, and indeed when times are tough, government should cut expenses. Government cannot, however, avoid its responsibilities. When times are tough, business loses customers. When times are hard, government gains customers, and they are customers who cannot take their business elsewhere!”
Hard times cause more child abuse, mental health problems, alcohol abuse, prison population, medical aid to the indigent, and it is in these times when government should function at its optimum level.
“When times are tough, government is more in the grip of uncontrollable expenses than is the private sector,” Bryan said.
In spite of the firmness of his pledge not to approve higher taxes, Democrats and some Republicans, unable to see any sane budget that works without more revenue, continue to believe Sandoval will change his mind.
When asked about sacrifice, he tends to focus on state workers, teachers, and others associated with government: “I’ve met with the school superintendents. I’ve met with the university officials. … I’ve met with the human services providers. I’ve met with all the heads of the counties and cities throughout the state of Nevada … I’ve been very upfront with all of them that there are going to be reductions in our budget.”
He does not, however, talk about demanding sacrifice from the public, even though in the election he spoke of “shared sacrifice.” And a growing list believes that unless he does, Nevada will wither. Former governors, the legislature’s fiscal analysts, businesspeople, even the governor’s own budget director have said the state cannot balance its budget without more money, much less rebuild.
When Gibbons was still governor, state budget director Clinger—retained by Sandoval—described the extreme nature of the budget crisis by saying that under existing revenues Nevadans could have a state government or education, but not both.
“So that’s all of health and human services, all of taxation, all of gaming, all of the constitutional officers, the legislature, the supreme court,” Clinger told the Nevada News Bureau in August. “You could eliminate everything and have nothing but K-12 and higher ed, and you’d have a balanced budget.”
Virtually everyone, including Gov. Sandoval, believes Nevada’s salvation lies in economic diversification—bringing more non-gambling businesses to the state. Sandoval believes that a key to the state’s success in attracting business is low taxes.
Historian Guy Louis Rocha points out that Nevada has had low taxes for decades.
“Why has the state’s economy not thrived outside of gambling? If low taxes are the key, where’s the flood of businesses?” Rocha asks.
Chuck Alvey, who as director of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada tried to lure companies to the state, agrees: “But if it were all about taxes, then San Francisco and the Bay Area would be a ghost town, and we’d be full. But they go where the talent is, they go where the experience is, they go where the top higher education institutions are.”
In fact, it is not just low taxes the state has long offered, it’s also a low level of regulation. But neither supposed asset has turned Nevada into a mecca of commerce.
No one expects Nevada to compete with the Silicon Valley, but there is an expectation that the state will compete with other small Western states, and Rocha argues that it can’t.
“We can’t compete with Utah,” he said. “We can’t compete with Colorado.” He said when companies go to the Wasatch Front, they find advantages Nevada does not have because Utah has invested in economic development. He described a “high-end” corporation that took a look at Nevada and instead went to Utah where it found plenty of benefits for its workers. These included inter-urban transport between Provo and Ogden and light rail transportation in Salt Lake City that connects with the southern suburbs and also runs to campuses. The corporation itself got a working relationship with the University of Utah and Utah State.
“Taxes are a little higher in Utah, but between the public-private partnerships, the education and transportation infrastructure, it was a better fit for them [the corporation],” Rocha said. “They looked at Nevada and dumped it.”
At the moment, Nevada is well positioned to attract the businesses it doesn’t want—low-paying companies that want few public services and are fleeing jurisdictions that protect the public from environmental and occupational hazards. They are also companies that tend to go out of business in hard times, leaving Nevada to deal with social problems.
Higher education is key. It is widely accepted in the business community that a strong higher education system is essential to drawing large industries like high tech and renewable energy. But the system in Nevada is bruised and bleeding. Since the recession began, higher education has lost nearly a fourth of its funding.
“Higher ed has been disproportionately cut higher than all the other systems,” said Nevada Regent Jason Geddes after the election.
Far from proposing rebuilding of the system to attract new industry, Sandoval has proposed “significantly higher” fees for students.
“I think it’s important we have access to higher education, which we do, but look at how Nevada compares to other universities. Our tuition is rather low,” his chief of staff, Heidi Gansert, said earlier this month. That brought reminders that these are state universities and colleges, designed first and foremost to help ordinary people.
Former Nevada regent Howard Rosenberg responded, “And don’t give me this garbage about our tuition being amongst the lowest in the country. So, too, are the incomes of the families who want their kids to go to college, stay out of gangs and prison. Should we raise tuition and fees? Yes, but minimally and over a period of time.”
Sandoval minimizes the importance of the damage done to the state’s higher education system. He seems to believe that by personal missionary work by himself and other officials, the lack of a credible higher education component of economic diversification can be overcome. It’s probably a part of that exuberant optimism that is so much a part of his makeup, a belief that he can do it all.
“All I can tell you is that I’ve already had people over at the governor’s mansion that are looking at Northern Nevada,” the governor said. “I’ve made phone calls to CEOs that are looking at the entire state of Nevada to relocate … businesses. I think we’re extremely competitive versus Utah, so I’m ready to lock horns with Utah any day of the week.”
It is surely true that Sandoval is going to be more active in trying to bring companies to Nevada than his predecessor was, but is that enough to make up for structural weaknesses in Nevada? Nevada economist Elliott Parker has written, “It takes money to make money, but in the midst of this budget crisis, we are not making good investments. We are cutting colleges, classes, positions and salaries. It will hardly be a surprise when we discover our most productive people have gone elsewhere, and our students have received a poorer education. Unless they have little need for skilled labor, businesses that may have considered moving to Nevada will surely change their minds, because a good education system is an essential component of their quality of life.”
During the general election campaign, Sandoval accused his Democratic opponent of telling voters what they wanted to hear. Now Sandoval is being accused of being unwilling to tell the public what it does not want to hear, though there are Republicans willing to give him cover. That raises the question, can he make himself take unpleasant news to the public, if necessary? “I think he would deliver it directly and honestly and in a forthright fashion because that’s the way he does everything in his life,” said his friend Steven Guinn.
His sister Lauri said, “I think it would be hard for him, but I do think he would handle it well because that’s part of his job.”
Santos said it isn’t just a question of Sandoval being willing to take responsibility for unpleasant decisions.
“When he reaches a full understanding of the facts after looking at the pros and cons, he won’t try to put a spin on it,” he said. “It’s not in his personality.”
What’s also at issue, Santos said, was whether Sandoval’s listeners will be willing to accept his position with grace if they don’t agree with it. That speaks directly to the hellhole politics has become. In 2003, in a monumental battle over taxes in the Nevada Legislature, the two sides could not disagree without questioning motives. Democrats called Republicans insensitive to the working poor; Republicans said Democrats wanted to bleed hard-pressed taxpayers.
It is little help to Sandoval that the Republicans and businesspeople who speak positively about higher taxes stay silent in public.
The Jan. 8 tragedy in Arizona has sobered some legislators and tempered their language. But whether that will hold during the four-month legislature is anyone’s guess. Sen. Sheila Leslie says she thinks lawmakers can return to a time of less rancor.
On Oct. 26, 1950, in Boulder City, Republican candidate for governor Charles Russell declared he was opposed to any additional taxes. That pledge bound him when he took office.
There was a baby boom underway, and it was about to hit the state’s schools like a sledgehammer. In the Second World War, soldiers served for “the duration plus six months,” which meant most of them were discharged in 1946. The 1947 Nevada birthrate jumped by 57 percent.
Within a few years, parents of children entering school were demanding higher taxes to cope with bulging schools. The threat of a governor’s veto stopped all serious measures to deal with the problem and held the state hostage until Russell won reelection to a second term without a no-tax pledge, freeing him from his 1950 promise. The state lost four precious years in dealing with out-of-control growth. That’s one of the ways Russell is remembered by history.
Sandoval is dealing with something just as difficult—no growth. The state is believed to be actually losing population after a long reign as the nation’s fastest growing state. The governor’s burdens in leading the state may be just as difficult as those of Russell.
During his campaign, Sandoval said that the private sector, not government, creates jobs. The problem for him is that the public doesn’t believe that. If jobs don’t get created, the public doesn’t blame business. It blames government and the politicians who run it.