In a piece of campaign literature, state Senate District 9 candidate Becky Harris declares she’s “not your typical Republican.”
In fact, her stances on education funding, certain taxes, and other issues sound downright Democratic.
That probably doesn’t hurt Harris, who’s running to replace freshman state Sen. Justin Jones, D-Las Vegas, best known for crusading for a bill to require background checks for all guns purchased in Nevada, including sales between private parties.
But don’t let Harris’ unconventional approach fool you: The former registered Democrat — who ran for state Assembly from a Henderson-area district in 2012 but lost to Assemblyman Andy Eisen — has some very Republican positions on issues, too.
In a 30-minute interview conducted Friday at the office of her campaign consultants, Harris detailed her stance on a wide range of issues, and made the contrasts between herself and Jones clear.
On the issue of private-party gun background checks, for example, Harris said she opposed Jones’s attempt to impose universal background checks, known as Senate Bill 221, and supported Gov. Brian Sandoval’s veto of that bill in 2013. Harris, an attorney, said she believes that background checks conducted at licensed firearms dealers are constitutional, but had technical objections to Jones’s legislation.
“We already have a statute on the books that allows for voluntary private party background checks,” Harris said, although she acknowledged that most people don’t seem to be aware of that provision, and as a result, few avail themselves of it.
“My concern [with SB 221] centers on the word ‘transfer.’ It’s never been defined,” she said. “It’s not defined in state statute. It wasn’t, that I’m aware of, defined in [SB 221], it’s not defined in the new initiative petition. What constitutes a transfer? To the extent that you start limiting the rights of law-abiding citizens and subject them to criminal liability, you go too far.”
Harris has not taken a stance on The Background Check Initiative, a petition being circulated now that would impose background checks on all gun sales. That initiative does exempt certain temporary transfers of firearms from the background check requirement, including at gun ranges or while hunting. “I don’t know that I don’t support the petition,” she said. “I need to have a better understanding of how it impacts.”
Harris said she’s not philosophically opposed to requiring background checks for all gun sales, but cautioned she’d need to review the language of any bill before she’d commit to a vote. “To the extent that we inject uncertainty into the area of firearms, it’s a concern,” she said. “I’m open. I think everybody wants to see safety with regard to guns, but it needs to be reasonable.”
Taxes and schools
Harris is an unusual Republican, in that she robustly supports at least one tax, on the mining industry in Nevada. (Harris has been supported and endorsed by state Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, who championed such a tax in the 2013 Legislature. In fact, their campaign mailers are almost precisely alike in many passages.)
Harris said she will vote for Senate Joint Resolution 15, which will appear on the November ballots as Question 2, a measure to repeal a constitutional cap on taxation of the net proceeds of minerals in Nevada. That would allow the Legislature to pass a new mining tax at its next session.
And why? Harris says in her flier that “…our schools are underfunded and overcrowded,” and that she wants to reduce class size, pay teachers more and expand reading programs.
But Harris is reserved when asked exactly how much Nevada should spend on its schools. Asked what the funding level should be, she initially said simply, “appropriate.” Asked what that might be, she said, “I don’t know.” The final figure, she explained, is driven by the cost of education programs, including special, gifted and English Language Acquisition programs.
“If there was an easy solution, we’d have found it and fixed it,” she said. “Nobody wants to be last in the nation on a consistent basis.
“We need to think outside the box,” she added. “Money is a piece of it, but it’s not all of it.”
But Harris is clear about her opposition to The Education Initiative, which will appear on the November ballot as Question 3, a teachers union-backed petition to impose a 2 percent margin tax on businesses earning more than $1 million in gross income. (Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have signaled their opposition to The Education Initiative, which is being fought by a coalition of gambling, mining, business and even organized labor interests.)
But Harris makes a passionate case for the impact of education. “Education is the great equality-maker,” she said. “You can lift yourself out of poverty in one generation. I’ve seen it with my husband, I’ve seen it with other people, I’ve seen it with other kids that we’ve helped here in Las Vegas. Education is the great equalizer. I would like to see every child in Nevada have an equal opportunity for a quality education. We don’t have that now.”
Making the switch
So how did Harris come to switch from being a registered Democrat to becoming a two-time Republican candidate for elected office? She says it was her experiences in business that did it.
“You know, you evolve as a person over time,” she said. “Nevada was very much a growing up experience for my husband and I. We had just finished grad school, we just finished our tour with the military, we were putting down our roots, raising our children, our first real jobs. We’re beginning to become business owners.” (Harris helped her husband open a dental practice, handling regulatory issues including insurance.)
“At that point in time, there’s a transition that you go through,” she said. “I just evolved and became very fiscally conservative as we began to employ people and take care of other people’s families and looked at what that cost in providing benefits for people and all that that kind of thing.”
She said the point of her flier is not to create confusion or try to obscure the differences between her and Jones. “I’m not trying to blur the lines. I’m just being who I am,” she said.
That doesn’t sit well with some conservatives, who accuse Roberson of failing to live up to commitments to oppose taxes, and recruiting like-minded candidates in a bid to take over the state Senate with moderate candidates instead of conservatives. But Roberson, Harris and fellow candidate Patricia Farley in state Senate District 8 all turned away more conservative challengers in the June primary to win their respective GOP nominations.
Asked if the party would be better off with more Republicans like herself and Roberson, Harris said the GOP needs to strike a balance. “I think that there is room for everybody’s viewpoint,” she said. “But I think if you can’t get elected, the political reality is you can’t have a voice.
“And so, to be able to be elected, perhaps, as a moderate Republican would be a fantastic thing because I can do great things for everybody. It’s not just about political philosophy. I’m pragmatic.”
She adds: “My tendency is to be moderate.”
But Harris can be conservative on issues, too. She was a member of the Coalition for the Preservation of Marriage, the group that sponsored the constitutional ban on gay marriage in 2000 and 2002. She said she would vote for that measure again were it on the ballot today. “From a position of my religion, I believe in traditional marriage,” she said. “I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman.”
That view held sway in 2000, when 69.6 percent of Nevada voters approved what was called Question 2, and again in 2002, when it won with 67 percent support. But times may have changed; the 2013 Legislature began the process of not only repealing Question 2, but also inserting a right to marriage equality for gays and lesbians in the state constitution. And the ban is under legal attack in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a case brought by Lambda Legal known as Sevcik v. Sandoval.
Recently, Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto — with the concurrence of Gov. Brian Sandoval — called a halt to Nevada’s defense of the marriage ban, after a Ninth Circuit panel ruled in an unrelated case that laws that discriminate against gays and lesbians require a higher level of judicial scrutiny than previously required.
Asked if that was the right call, Harris initially demurred: “I believe in the rule of law. The courts are taking the issue on. What they say at the end of the day is going to control it and perhaps override the [state] constitution if they decide that marriage equality is going to be the law of the land.”
But should Cortez Masto have kept up the fight, regardless of the contrary case? “Well, it was a political decision made by her and the governor,” Harris said.
By contrast, Jones — who like Harris is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — supports ending the ban on gay marriage and voted for the initial state Senate resolution to do so.
Big banks and the courts
Harris, in her flier, attacks Jones directly, saying that, “in her law practice, she represents homeowners in their fights against Wall Street banks. As our state senator, she will fight for us in our battles against Wall Street banks and other powerful special interest groups.”
In addition to representing homeowners fighting foreclosures, she also functions as a mediator in alternative dispute resolution programs that allow people to avoid going to court.
By contrast, she accuses Jones of being “an attorney who was paid by a Wall Street bank to represent it in the Nevada Supreme Court,” and “wrote legislation that exempts the same Wall Street bank from Nevada’s ‘Homeowners Bill of Rights.’”
Jones, a litigator, has represented Bank of America in commercial cases in the past, but none involving residential lending, according to his campaign. (He doesn’t currently count Bank of America or any other Wall Street banks as clients, however.) The Homeowers Bill of Rights, which Jones championed in the 2013 session, does have provisions that allow banks complying with the terms of a national mortgage settlement to avoid so-called “dual tracking,” but it was nonetheless opposed by Bank of America’s lobbyist during legislative hearings in 2013. It ultimately passed with unanimous support in both houses of the legislature and was signed into law by Sandoval.
But Harris said the law hasn’t worked as planned, and cited a recent example: Although banks are supposed to designate a single point of contact with whom a homeowner and their attorneys may negotiate, a recent client of hers had four such individuals, and paperwork sent to the bank was lost or not received, putting a potential modification in jeopardy.
“It made my job harder,” she said.
The road to victory leads through Senate District 9
The focus on the Senate District 9 race is more understandable after 2012’s elections, when Jones won by just 301 votes, leaving the state Senate in Democratic control with a razor-thin 11-10 majority. In order to wrest control from Democrats, Roberson needs to keep Senate District 8 and his own seat in Republican hands, and knock Jones out. Failure to win all three seats would leave Republicans in the minority again.
Democrats make up 39 percent of the district’s active registered voters, as of July, while Republicans make up 33 percent, a difference of 3,628 actual people. (There are an additional 11,859 non-partisan voters, or 21 percent.) Roberson’s strategy seems designed to appeal to those non-partisans, as well as moderate Democrats, by stressing Harris’s support for traditionally Democratic issues, including education funding, support for at least some taxes and the like.
In fact, during the 2013 Legislature, Roberson advanced the mining tax idea as a potential alternative to The Education Initiative, although it was not projected to raise as much for schools. But majority Democrats virtually ignored the idea, in favor of an increase in the payroll tax or an admissions tax derided by Roberson as the “Family Fun Tax,” because it would have hit movie theater admissions and miniature golf games.
But Roberson’s advocacy kept Democrats off balance, and angered traditional allies, such as mining lobbyists and even conservative members of his own caucus. (His embrace of a mining tax was not shared by Northern senators who represent areas in which mining companies operate and provide higher-than-average wage jobs.)