Popular Sandoval seems poised for second go-round as Nevada governor

Nice guy Gov. Brian Sandoval appeared to be trying to take me to task. He couldn’t quite pull it off.

What the popular Republican appeared to think was a good scolding seemed downright tepid from where I sat Thursday at the Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial board meeting. It was a little like having an earnest missionary shake his finger at you. I think the emotion Sandoval meant to convey was that of a perturbed public servant who sought to set me straight on his devotion to public education, his attention to the state’s overwhelmed mental health services, and his leadership position among his fellow governors.

If this is as irate as Sandoval gets, it’s probably a good thing he’s not facing a serious re-election challenge this year. In a little more than an hour, Sandoval touched on a variety of topics and repeatedly drove home the point that he’s working hard every day. He’s also leading a variety of committees and steering Nevada out of the economic ditch the national recession carved into the state’s once-prosperous road. He shared his victories, elaborated on some of his plans for the next four years, and managed to keep a straight face when questions about his political challengers were asked.

He saved his most vociferous finger wag for my questioning of his vision for public education, which took a beating before seeing a big budget increase in 2013.

“That’s been a priority of mine from Day One,” Sandoval said. “Education was one of the few things in the first term when we had some fiscal difficulties that did get more funding. We were able to accomplish some reforms that session to allow for some more accountability. We’re talking about teacher tenure and merit pay. In 2013, we were able to increase funding for education by half-a-billion dollars. We put $50 million into English Language Learners — first time in the history of Nevada that’s been done.”

He went on to reel off a list of at-risk school reforms in place in Clark County and noted the positive student gains being produced. He supports all-day kindergarten at all at-risk schools, reduced class sizes and increased accountability. He said he will continue to press for the “Read by 3” early reading strategy, student vouchers and opportunity scholarships, which have yet to gain traction at the Legislature.

“I think my vision is we have to hit it early,” Sandoval said, failing to mention that he also needs to hit the Legislature harder if he wants his greater vision to bear fruit.

That plan for education includes substantive changes and increased accountability, but whether it also will mean he will call out some of his many friends in business, banking, mining and gaming to ask for more to support his favored programs remains to be seen.

“We don’t have an unlimited amount of money,” Sandoval said. “So what we spend we have to ensure is spent well.”

And on he went, showing the confidence that accompanies an elected official at the height of his popularity and the top of his game.

He was wrong about the speed of the state’s reaction to a series of damning articles on the “dumping” of mentally ill patients by the Sacramento Bee, but right about following up with additional funding and attention to the generations-old problem.

No matter.

Although it’s surely against his hardworking nature, and he wouldn’t dream of taking any opponent lightly — even those opponents whose names escape him — without a serious challenger Sandoval can afford to sleep until noon and treat his re-election campaign like the glorified victory tour it promises to be.

The late curmudgeonly baseball manager Leo Durocher is famous for observing “nice guys finish last.” But nice guy Gov. Sandoval is all but guaranteed to finish first.

With so much expressed vision for the state he loves, let’s just hope Sandoval finishes the second term Nevadans are poised to hand him on a platter.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295.