As oxymorons go, “nonpartisan election” ranks right up there with jumbo shrimp and temporary tax hikes.
Partisan politics always play a role in elections, even if candidates aren’t allowed to declare their party affiliation on the ballot. In Southern Nevada’s low-turnout, nonpartisan municipal elections, sometimes the parties make the difference between winning and losing.
This spring’s Las Vegas City Council Ward 6 race has all the makings of a November campaign. Incumbent Steve Ross, a pro-labor Democrat, is being challenged by political newcomer Suzette LaGrange, a pro-business, low-tax Republican. (Paul Rodriguez — not the famous comedian — is also in April’s primary.) For both Ross and LaGrange, the path to victory lies in turning out base party supporters.
Voters have a hard enough time getting excited about off-year, spring elections. Nonpartisan candidates who readily identify themselves with a major-party philosophy are foolish not to brand themselves as a liberal or conservative. This year, partisan appeal might be the only way to lift total turnout above a pathetic 10 percent.
Such a strategy gives LaGrange more than a fighting chance against Ross despite her lack of name recognition. Ward 6 is essentially a swing seat, newly redrawn across northwest Las Vegas after the decennial census. Of its roughly 50,000 active registered voters, about 19,500 are Democrats and 19,000 are Republicans. The remaining nonpartisans and minor-party candidates give Ward 6 a conservative tilt.
LaGrange’s campaign points out that in November’s election, Ward 6 voters supported Republican Mitt Romney by 3 percentage points over President Barack Obama; GOP Sen. Dean Heller by 7 percentage points over Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley; and Republican Danny Tarkanian by 4 points over Democrat Steven Horsford in the 4th Congressional District race. (Only Heller turned that support into an election victory.)
And in three legislative races, Ward 6 voters backed Republican Scott Hammond in his state Senate race by 3 points; GOP Assemblywoman Michele Fiore by 11 points; and Republican Assemblyman Paul Anderson by 8 points. All three of those candidates won their races — Hammond over Ross’s wife, Kelli.
LaGrange’s campaign manager is Cory Christensen, who ran the campaigns of Anderson and Hammond across Ward 6 terrain.
“Steve Ross has never run against a conservative woman with a business background,” LaGrange said. “A lot of people in Ward 6 aren’t happy with him.”
LaGrange is a native Southern Nevadan whose grandparents founded Ahern Rentals — she’s the niece of current chief Don Ahern. Her business background is in commercial real estate. She and her husband also run a small mixed martial arts gym. The mother of two says she’ll quit her current job with Colliers International if elected to avoid potential conflicts in land transactions and business licensing issues.
One of the biggest differences between LaGrange and Ross is a familiar partisan issue: taxes. Ross recently used a November local government summit to declare solidarity with Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins when Collins declared “Raise the damn property tax.” Ross said he wants home rule so the council can raise taxes on its own, without the approval of the Legislature.
“I don’t agree with that at all,” LaGrange said. “Residents do not want taxes raised. We’re in a precarious situation. We need to find other ways to balance the budget,” such as outsourcing park maintenance to the private-sector landscapers who take care of parks run by homeowner associations.
LaGrange is also skeptical of a proposal to let city of Las Vegas firefighters handle all medical transports within the city — and ax American Medical Response in the process. “You don’t put taxpaying, private-sector employees out of work. That doesn’t get you anywhere.”
Christensen, the brother of former Assemblyman Chad Christensen, says he isn’t too worried about LaGrange’s lack of name recognition “because we have lists of names who can move a lot of people, people who’ll make calls to friends, who’ll make calls to friends to tell them to vote for Suzette.”
“We think 6,000 (total) votes in the primary would be a big number,” he said. “If we get 3,001 of them, we win.” In municipal primaries, the top two finishers in a race with at least three candidates advance to a June runoff. But if the primary winner captures a majority of the ballots cast, there is no runoff — the race is over.
Early voting starts in less than five weeks. Primary election day is in just seven weeks. Ward 6 already looks like a race to watch.
Glenn Cook (email@example.com) is a Review-Journal editorial writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Glenn_CookNV. Listen to him Mondays at 4 p.m. on “Live and Local with Kevin Wall” on KXNT News Radio, 100.5 FM, 840 AM.