Editor's note: This is the third in a series of stories about the leading candidates in the Las Vegas mayor's race.
Chris Giunchigliani's mayoral campaign offices buzzed with people and activity on a recent Saturday as about 40 volunteers -- the "G Unit," they call themselves -- readied to hit the pavement and knock on doors for their candidate.
She's speeding through it all, faster than anyone, going over address lists, coaching new volunteers, meeting with supporters stopping by the Charleston Street office building. She compiles her own list of doors to knock on.
Then she stands in the crowd of volunteers in the lobby, turns to her husband and campaign manager, Gary Gray, and says, "Do you want me to start, Gary?" -- which means she's ready to start.
She talks briefly about the opportunity of a campaign and then gets to the motivational part about why they're walking, why she's out in neighborhoods several nights a week and on weekends.
"Every vote will count," Giunchigliani says, because city elections are a contest over a small pool of dedicated voters. "This is a low turnout election."
Her volunteers go out in teams, but Giunchigliani, as she usually does, hits her assigned neighborhood solo.
It's a new area for her, as it's outside the districts she represented in the Assembly and, currently, on the Clark County Commission. And the race, according to a Review-Journal/8NewsNow poll, has her in unfamiliar territory as well -- trailing.
Behind or not?
The survey found Giunchigliani in third place with 11.7 percent among likely voters, behind fellow Commissioner Larry Brown -- 17.5 percent -- and front-runner Carolyn Goodman, wife of incumbent Mayor Oscar Goodman, who drew 36.5 percent of responses.
She's not buying it, though, dismissing the conventional wisdom that the Goodmans' popularity means the best any of the other 17 candidates can hope for is a second-place finish.
"It's about name ID. That's what the numbers were actually showing," Giunchigliani said. "Once you get into the meat and potatoes and the substance of the campaign, I feel that I've got the best qualifications and will come through this.
"I think I'm in the lead, very potentially."
That attitude comes as no surprise to those who know her.
"I would not count Chris Giunchigliani out," said state Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, who served with her in the Assembly. "Anyone who does so does not know her ... If Chris G. says she's not out of it, my money's on Chris."
Giunchigliani was born in Italy, grew up in the Chicago area and went on to get a degree in education from Avila College in Kansas City, Mo., in 1976. She worked in a suburb of Kansas City for two years in special education.
She came to the University of Las Vegas, Nevada for a master's degree and joined the Clark County School District in 1979 as a special-education teacher. From 1983 to 1987, she was president of the Clark County Education Association, and from 1987 to 1991, she was president of the Nevada State Education Association.
The association candidate interviews introduced her to politics, Giunchigliani said, as did former Assemblywoman Eileen Brookman.
"I walked for every endorsed candidate," Giunchigliani said. "It let me know whether or not they were really going door to door. Did they have support? Did they know how to talk to people? If we gave them money, were they spending it wisely?"
Brookman tapped Giunchigliani to run for the Assembly in 1990, and she managed a close win with 52 percent of the vote. It was like that in the next two races too, but starting in 1996, she began winning contests handily.
In 2006, she went for the County Commission, managing to get to 50 percent in the Democratic primary and then routing her Republican opponent, 65.5 percent to 30 percent. In 2010, her support went up to 69 percent of the vote.
Back on the trail
Fresh off that election, she initially ruled out running for mayor of Las Vegas. But because the seat is open for the first time in 12 years and because, she said, she was encouraged by supporters and research into her chances, she joined the crowded field.
Like the other candidates, she has been touting her credentials as someone who can attract new employers to Las Vegas, lobby for improved education and pursue cost-cutting strategies such as government consolidation where it works.
She is proud of getting passed a "cooling off" period that makes exiting commissioners wait a year before joining a regional board and an ordinance that requires dogs and cats to be fixed to combat animal overpopulation.
Giunchigliani is known as a labor advocate on behalf of teachers when she was in the Legislature and for county workers as a commissioner. She says that's an "asset" though public employee unions are not popular now.
It's better to work with them than to castigate them, she has said, arguing that they will trust her if she says cuts need to be made.
"Just about everybody in the campaign right now has had, in the past, similar endorsements from the labor unions. I believe in working men and women. They helped build this country, and I won't hide from that."
Public employee unions have been in the spotlight in the economic downturn as reports have said that in many cases, pay and benefits have outpaced what are available in the private sector for similar jobs. Clark County is preparing for a 9 percent cut in personnel costs through layoffs and concessions. Giunchigliani has said that it would be bad to add to the area's unemployment but didn't say whether pay should be cut.
As for Las Vegas, "I don't think she has had the time to dig into the city budget," Gray said.
Bring it on
There's not much she would hide from, said fellow County Commissioner Tom Collins, who said he was initially behind both Brown and Giunchigliani now but is leaning toward her.
"She's a pothole guy like me," he said of her approach to her elected duties. "She tackles something, she gets it done.
"There's a lot that can happen between now and early voting. She will out-campaign all of them. She'll put more miles in in a couple of days than they will in a week."
Collins and Leslie, the state senator, both said Giunchigliani is known for using intelligence and research to delve into difficult issues. In the Legislature, complicated bills were often assumed to be sponsored by her, Leslie said.
She was one of the most liberal members of the Legislature while there, voting for an $830 million tax increase in 2003 and authoring the legislation leading to the state's medical marijuana law.
Even direct opponents will say nice things about her.
Bob Beers, a former Republican state senator who served with Giunchigliani in the Legislature, is on the mayoral campaign of restaurateur George Harris.
"I have always appreciated that while Chris and I have differing world views, we are always able to discuss those differences in a respectful and intelligent manner," he said.
He also said that with several strong candidates in the race, the voting public is going to be conflicted: "It's a tough one, which is why the front-runner only has one-third (support)."
With the job and redevelopment talk that has dominated forums, Giunchigliani talks about neighborhood cohesion and a sense of community, something that Las Vegas is often said to lack.
"What I'm hearing -- but it's mostly elderly -- is, 'We don't know our neighbors anymore,' " she said. "Part of my message is we have to build the community a neighborhood at a time. That's not really coming up as much in the general debate ... but I think there's that underlying sense.
"Where do we go next? We're struggling, we've been hit so hard with everything. But I view this as an opportunity."
Contact reporter Alan Choate at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-229-6435.