Democrats disagree on patient-dumping blame


“Today’s announcement is essentially an admission that the governor’s [Brian Sandoval] patient dumping policy is far more widespread than he originally conceded. It is shameful that it took weeks of damaging press coverage for the governor to come close to admitting that his administration’s busing policy is reckless and irresponsible.”

— Zach Hudson, spokesman for the Nevada Democratic Party

“You can’t blame this on Sandoval.”

— U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, titular head of the Nevada Democratic Party

There are two extremes when it comes to the Democratic response to the patient-dumping scandal that has vexed the previously unvexable administration of Gov. Brian Sandoval: Cacophony or coddling.

The state party’s spokesman, Zach Hudson, is working overtime hammering away at Sandoval’s tardy and disorganized response to the news that at least 10 mentally ill patients at the Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital had been shipped by bus to another state, without documentation to show they were met by anybody.

After three years of Sandoval largely escaping critical media scrutiny, the party clearly thinks it has found a winning issue, or at least an anchor to bring down the governor’s approval rating. (Sandoval obliged, first defending the hospital, then waiting two months to issue an official statement, then changing the bus-transport policy and finally announcing two of the medical staff had been fired.)

Hudson has done yeoman’s work linking Sandoval to the patient-dumping scandal, and not in polite terms.

“The fact that it took weeks of devastating coverage in the media to force Gov. Sandoval to make this policy change shows just how morally bankrupt this administration is,” Hudson wrote in one statement. “Hundreds of mental health patients were bused out of state unsupervised under Brian Sandoval’s watch and it takes the media calling him out to change this policy?”

And another: “Given that almost every assertion made by the Sandoval administration on patient dumping has later proven to be false, this self-policed ‘report’ has as much credibility as Rawson-Neal does on the proper discharge of patients,” Hudson said. “Considering reports surfaced last week of new allegations of patient dumping after the governor claimed he had taken ‘corrective action,’ Gov. Brian Sandoval has proven yet again that he cannot be trusted and Nevadans should be skeptical of anything he says on the scandal.”

But now Sandoval has a character witness to call in his defense: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the titular head of the state Democratic Party. Speaking to a gathering of Review-Journal writers and other employees Friday, Reid said mental health in Nevada has suffered ever since Reid’s mentor — the late former Gov. Mike O’Callaghan — left office in early 1979. The state, Reid said, has given mental health budgets “really short shrift” for years. “You can’t blame this on Sandoval,” he said.

Really? Because the party he heads has been doing exactly that.

Reid isn’t wrong when he says the current state of mental health funding is the result of years of neglect. But the fact is, Sandoval is the state’s chief executive, and as such is the man voters will hold responsible.

So why give the governor a pass, especially since Reid has much to gain from seeing Sandoval weakened? Reid would love to recruit a credible Democrat to challenge the governor’s re-election bid next year, something Sandoval’s granite political façade made difficult until now. And Sandoval is rumored to be a potential candidate for Reid’s own seat in 2016, a seat Reid declared Friday that he’s going to seek again.

Democratic sources say what you’d expect: It’s in Reid’s interest to keep a good political relationship with the governor. It’s the job of the party, not necessarily its elected officials, to attack political foes. That explains why elected Democrats have been low-key on the subject.

“We’re working to handle everything internally and you always have to have the facts first before you make a determination,” Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, told the Review-Journal’s Laura Myers. “I believe that as all the facts come out that you will probably see that we have been doing our jobs and making sure that folks get where they need to and get the treatment they need.”

Kirkpatrick’s stance is somewhat easier to understand, given that she has to work with Sandoval more closely than Reid, and she will undoubtedly need to have good relations with him as the legislative session winds down. And as a veteran lawmaker, Kirkpatrick and other lawmakers have voted to approve state budgets that fund mental health, leaving them vulnerable to accusations that they are part of the problem.

But Reid’s stance is harder to grasp. Although he did call on the Legislature (and, in another interview, Sandoval working with the Legislature) to take steps to fix the problem this year, and although he did say he had no problem with a federal investigation of Nevada’s mental health system, the fact remains, Reid’s comment undercuts the message his political party is trying to send. For a chess-playing political grand master, it’s an unusual and oddly timed bit of charity.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.