I dropped by the Grant Sawyer Building on Monday just to make sure local AFL-CIO officials hadn't missed their latest opportunity to whack Gov. Jim Gibbons like a piñata on a low branch.
Thump, thump, thump.
They didn't miss once.
Of course, Gibbons makes the union officials' job so easy it's hardly fun to watch any more. Because the GOP doesn't seem to want him any more, perhaps some kindly ASPCA volunteers will come to the rescue of this beaten old hound dog. The whippings are getting predictable.
Union workers outfitted with colorful snappy placards and banners?
Neatly timed noon "press conference" with unlimited space for television cameras?
Speeches expressing suitable outrage over Gibbons' latest insensitive political misstep?
Advanced stagecraft, it ain't. But it's effective. With each public flogging the governor's voice on important issues gets weaker, and representatives of state employees come off looking like Einsteins next to the administration's ineptitude. Politically, Gibbons isn't tone deaf, he's stone deaf.
The admonishment surely will fall on deaf ears, but when a governor is supposed to be locked in the middle of a budget crisis, word should not leak that he has proposed rewarding his top staffers while calling for lesser state employees to take 6 percent pay cuts.
That's precisely the story that emerged last week from a Senate Finance Committee. Gibbons Chief of Staff Josh Hicks attempted to justify the salary increases as being related to promotions that meant more work and increased responsibility. Gibbons' communications director Daniel Burns whined the same thing to me, splitting hairs when he should have been recognizing a slightly larger picture. I almost feel sorry for Burns, who joined the sinking of this Titanic already in progress.
The result overall has been to hand a large club to the governor's opponents at a critical time. Political Punch-and-Judy aside, this is an important issue. Thanks to the recession and flagging tax revenues, the state budget suffers from an enormous funding hole. There is a sound and reasonable argument to be made that public employees, their vocal protests to the contrary, should be part of the temporary solution by taking pay cuts and doing more with less.
It's an argument Gibbons has tried to make. But, in keeping with the theme of his tenure in office, he can't help making himself an easy target. My bosses won't let me list all the questionable behavior and dopey misstatements he's made in two years because newsprint has gotten so expensive.
The point is, Gibbons has insisted on losing the perception-is-reality theater that in politics often means the difference between victory and defeat. The pay increase-for-staffers story crushes Gibbons' belt-tightening talk.
Now to the piñata batting practice:
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees representative Jeanine Lake pummeled Gibbons and reminded the media about the hundreds of jobs that have been left open because of budget constraints. Add to the 6 percent pay cut recommendation the fact that welfare caseloads are ballooning and mental health workers are reporting increased client violence, and you have a genuine potential for trouble.
"We think this is an outrage that his staff would be willing even to accept pay increases when our employees are being forced and asked to give up everything," Lake said.
Outrage is the one thing not in short supply these days. In a short few months, Gibbons has gone from being a governor with an opportunity to help guide the state through very difficult times to a guy who is now an easy target. Lake then passed the bludgeon to senior corrections officer Mark Carpenter, who works at High Desert State Prison and noted that his department already works in a system that is 400 officers short.
The potential for tragedy increases by the day, and it's obvious Carpenter and his co-workers won't be quietly taking one for the team. (By comparison, superior politician then-Gov. Bob Miller made similar cuts to corrections and received a mere peep of protest.)
"But 6 percent is not really the bottom line," Carpenter said. "The bottom line comes only after all the cuts are added together."
He then painted a doomsday scenario. Whether his math was perfect isn't the point.
The fact state employees have stepped up to whack the governor tells you how far Gibbons has fallen.
And the thumping continues.
John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith/.