John Chachas is a man in a hurry.
"I gotta go. I gotta drive," he says, looking at his watch impatiently.
It's the day before Tax Day and Chachas has too much to do and too little time.
The U.S. Senate candidate awakened early to be on Heidi Harris' conservative radio talk show in Las Vegas at 7 a.m. Then he's got to hit the road to make meetings in his hometown of Ely: a sit-down with consultants about reopening his family's mine, a quick chat with the White Pine County Commission, and then there's the cable guy and the landscaper doing work on his boyhood home, which needs fixing up.
And he's got to call his wife in New York to check on his three kids, then a doctor to check on his father's health, and his accountant to check on paperwork seeking an income tax filing extension.
"I gotta go. I gotta drive," Chachas says again as he leaves the KDWN-AM, 720 studios for the 250-mile trek north from Las Vegas to Ely, which sits about halfway up the state near the Utah border. "It's in the middle of nowhere. The only way to get there is to drive. I've done it a million times."
Chachas jumps in his car, a rented Saturn Aura with Arizona plates, and is gone with a small puff of driveway dust.
Chachas is a man in a hurry, a native Nevadan operating on rat-ta-tat-tat New York time. A 45-year-old investment banker returning home after three decades away, traveling from the moneyed skyscrapers of Manhattan back to the open pit mines where he grew up. A Republican who wants to push the Democratic Party out of power -- especially his main target, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid. A man with big ideas about how to stop the country's leaders in both political parties from running up higher deficits and "bankrupting our future," as his political bible, the 2004 book "Running on Empty," warns.
"This is one of the reasons I got into the race," Chachas says of the tome whose author Peter Peterson, a Nixon-era fiscal guru, counsels: "Great people and great nations shape their own destiny in advance of crisis. They do not wait passively for events to shape their future for them."
So Chachas, a man of action, took the plunge.
"I couldn't sit silent anymore. The average American feels like they're sitting under a ton of debt," he says, referring to unpaid mortgages and credit cards. "What Americans need is tax relief."
What Chachas needs is an improbably late surge to beat several GOP front-runners in the June 8 primary, his campaign fueled by aggressive TV and radio commercials statewide, 20 highway billboards and more time for retail politics so important to picking up rural Nevada votes one by one.
But time is not on his side. Tick-Tock. So he's moving as fast as he can.
late campaign start
"I should have started earlier," Chachas admits in an interview inside the modest Ely home where he was raised, a house where time seems to have stood still, where child-size beds in a room he shared with two brothers are still made up with football team covers, where a stack of 8-track tapes sits, waiting to be played. "I made some mistakes, but if I can get past the primary, I'm going to give Harry Reid hell. You have to have a belief you still have a path to winning. I think I do, though it's a narrow path."
The path begins with money -- and he's got it, millions from his own pocket and from wealthy donors he has courted from coast to coast over the years.
The path is built upon ideas, and he has them, more than most of the GOP competition, laid out in policy papers he has written and posted on his website, covering topics from diversifying the economy to developing new energy.
And the path rises or falls on a candidate's name recognition -- and nearly half of GOP primary voters still don't know him.
"Are you that guy on the billboards?" a Nevada Highway Patrol officer asks Chachas when he stops him going 104 mph on Nevada Highway 318, the short-cut from Las Vegas to Ely.
"Yeah, that's me," Chachas answers, and the officer lets him go with a warning to slow down.
He can't. No time. Tick-Tock.
Chachas didn't start out to run for the U.S. Senate. Instead, he says he wanted to help raise money for a strong Republican contender to defeat Reid, whom GOP opponents want to remove because he's the Senate majority leader who is key to carrying out the agenda for President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party.
Chachas' top two choices to rob Reid of a fifth Senate term were Rep. Dean Heller of Carson City and former Las Vegas Rep. Jon Porter, who lost re-election in 2008 to Rep. Dina Titus, a former state senator swept into office with other Democrats partly on Obama's coattails.
"I told them both to get into the race. I met with Jon Porter," Chachas recalls, but neither Porter nor Heller -- who is expected to win re-election this year -- were interested in the Senate seat, and they both batted away similar entreaties from Republican Party leaders in the state and in Washington, D.C.
Last spring, Chachas met with Sue Lowden, the current GOP front-runner in the U.S. Senate race but then head of the Nevada Republican Party. She encouraged him to run, according to Chachas, who like several Republicans in the race expressed surprise that she later jumped into the contest herself.
"Look, if there was a good Republican candidate who I thought could beat Harry Reid, I wouldn't be in this race," Chachas says. "That's why I'm staying in. If there were really good candidates, the Republican Party would have coalesced around somebody, but they've just screwed up this race."
Chachas stabs his fork into the air to make the point to a table of half a dozen Republican leaders in Ely, where he is eating a piece of apple pie with coffee at the Jailhouse Motel & Casino restaurant.
Donna Bath, the Republican Party chairwoman in White Pine County, who arranged the casual diner chat, says that at a precinct meeting the night before people were confused about whom to support among the dozen GOP candidates in the Senate race, a record high for the Nevada history books.
"Oh my God, what a mess," Bath says shaking her head. "As a Republican, I'm just sick that we have 12 candidates running. How do you choose -- rock, paper, scissors?"
Dozens of signs posted around Ely -- on the sides of buildings, on wooden fences weathered and worn, on a horse trailer parked at the U.S. Highway 93 entrance to town -- give the answer: "ANYBODY BUTT HARRY REID" they scream, unforgiving of the senator who stopped two coal-fired plants from being built in White Pine County several years ago because of environmental concerns.
The plants would have brought more than 1,500 jobs to Ely and more than $50 million to county coffers, locals say. They include more than 4,300 registered voters -- nearly 1,900 Republicans, another 1,600-plus Democrats and the rest nonpartisan or with third parties, key swing votes this year.
"If Reid thinks he's going to get any votes here, he's smoking dope," Chachas says.
trailing far behind in polls
Making his case, Chachas tells the Republicans around the table he can win independents, fiscal GOP conservatives and members of the Tea Party movement, especially those who know him in Nevada, although he lost the national organization's endorsement to former Reno Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, a staunch conservative famous for her perfect string of "no" votes on raising taxes.
"Sharron Angle, some would argue, isn't U.S. Senate material," Chachas says, dismissing her as too far right to appeal to a broader electorate on Nov. 2. "She can't win the general election. I don't think Sue Lowden can beat Reid either, because there are some people in the Republican Party, the Ron Paul people, who will never forgive her for shutting down the convention."
Lowden, as GOP chairwoman, ended the state convention in 2008 before all the delegate voting was done, saying the party couldn't pay to extend the meeting past its schedule. Republicans who supported Paul for president cried foul, and some have vowed never to support her election.
Still, she's leading in pre-primary polls by double digits, with former University of Nevada, Las Vegas basketball star Danny Tarkanian, a Las Vegas businessman, in the No. 2 spot, and Angle in single digits. All three could beat Reid if the election were held today, according to polls commissioned by the Review-Journal, which show Chachas getting only 3 percent of the GOP primary vote.
Is he thinking of getting out of the race? He says not now, and he plans to focus on Northern Nevada, letting the top contenders from Southern Nevada -- Lowden and Tarkanian -- split that vote.
"Whether I'm going to keep spending money is the question," says Chachas, who has given his campaign more than $1 million and is prepared to use another $1 million from his own pocket if he thinks he has a chance. "I wrote $75,000 in checks the other day. It just goes down a black hole very quickly."
Chachas, a multimillion-dollar deal maker by profession, knows money talks.
In April, he cut a $3,500 check to help the local Tea Party-aligned group, Action is Brewing, hold a Tax Day protest in Carson City where he and other U.S. Senate candidates spoke. And his campaign wrote a $2,700 check for a defense fund to help Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons join a Florida lawsuit to block the federal health care reform law from being implemented, with the GOP arguing it's unconstitutional.
When Chachas is not playing political Santa, he's meeting with donors in state and out. He recently held a tete-a-tete with Steve Wynn, looking for financial support from the hotel-casino magnate who has contributed to Reid's campaign but who also has a history of giving to Republicans. Wynn basically told him to ask again on June 9 if he wins the GOP primary, Chachas says, adding that the billionaire developer behind today's modern Strip recommended he stay in the Senate race.
"At first he said, 'I hear you're a carpetbagger,'" Chachas says with a laugh, recalling the first of two meetings. "I had a couple bourbons, and so I said, 'Mr. Wynn, I can only say that my grandfather came here in 1912. And when Mrs. Lowden was on the Jersey shore, I was castrating cows in White Pine County.'"
'welcome to my searchlight'
Chachas grew up on "Greek Hill," named for his extended clan's roots; and most of his neighbors on his street overlooking Ely were kin: grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. His grandfather, John, bought the cattle ranch in the late 1930s. He also opened the first General Motors car dealership in town, and owned a supermarket and a casino, a self-made man who learned English along the way.
By the time grandson John Chachas came along, the family was well off and well known.
Chachas' father, Gregory, was the White Pine County district attorney before he lost an election to become a judge. His mother, Mary, was a journalist and helped raise money to build the local library.
Now in their late 70s, his parents live in Salt Lake City and his two brothers live in San Diego, the oldest a stockbroker and the second in line an attorney like their father. The ranch was sold in the 1980s, and the remaining Chachas family members in town are first and second cousins.
A second cousin, also named John Chachas, is an insurance and real estate salesman who served on the county commission for 16 years. His wife, Irene, sits on the school board.
Second cousin George Chachas used to be Ely's mayor. He runs the local Radio Shack outlet in a store that still sports the name "The Greek" for the restaurant he and his brother, John, used to run.
"There's my family," John Chachas, the candidate, says in greeting when the cousins gather at the Jailhouse for a quick hello, a half-hour chat before he hits the road again, this time heading west to Reno more than 350 miles away, much of it traveling U.S. 50, known as America's "loneliest road."
"Give us a couple days notice before you come to town next time and we'll arrange something for you," Irene Chachas says, gently chiding him for blowing through Ely unannounced.
She's a Democrat as is John Chachas' mother, whom he says always votes the party line, although he's been talking to her to get her to change her "dyed in the wool" ways.
Chachas bought his parents' home where he has spent every summer and some Christmases, but where no one has really lived since 1996. Since last year, he has been fixing it up and living in it a few days a month between in-state campaigning, out-of-state fundraising and trips home to New York to see his children or to Salt Lake City to visit his mother and father, who is recovering from a heart attack.
"Welcome to my Searchlight," Chachas says, a joking reference to Reid's hometown, a small mining outpost in Southern Nevada which, like Ely, has gone though many bust-and-boom cycles.
All nerves and constantly checking his Blackberry -- he travels with three cell phones -- Chachas roams the light blue, one-story house built in 1972. He clears away a cardboard box that held a new flat screen TV the cable man hooked up in the living room. He puts together a new telephone and mounts it on the wall. He picks up family photos, rearranges them on the fireplace mantle, then wanders into his old boyhood bedroom and lifts a hunting bow from a rack on the wall that holds his first .22-caliber rifle.
The landscaper arrives, having driven in from Salt Lake City. They go outside.
"Rip them out. Rip them all out," Chachas tells her, pointing to several trees that are all but dead, their roots having dried up long ago, leaving bare branches drooping with fatigue.
Although he was born and raised in Ely, like many of Nevada's rural sons and daughters, Chachas escaped small town life as soon as he could. He left White Pine High School at the start of his junior year in September 1980 to attend Highland High School in Salt Lake City, graduating in 1982.
Then he moved to New York to get his undergraduate degree in history from Columbia University. He was accepted to Columbia Law School but deferred entry to work as a financial analyst for two years before giving up on law to earn a master's degree in 1990 from Harvard Business School instead.
He met his wife, Diane, while in college and she was attending Barnard. They married in October 1990 after Chachas finished business school and returned to Wall Street.
Chachas spent more than two decades on Wall Street, including stints with Merrill Lynch and Credit Suisse First Boston before becoming a managing partner of Lazard Freres & Co. There he worked for chief executive Bruce Wasserstein, the investment banker who helped pioneer the hostile takeover in the 1980s and reshape the mergers and acquisitions business until he died at age 61 in October.
Some of Chachas' involvement in big deals include advising on the $18 billion buyout of Clear Channel Communications, Walt Disney's 2006 sale of its ABC radio business and Lee Enterprises' acquisition of Pulitzer newspapers. He also has helped restructure struggling media companies.
Despite his heavy workload, Chachas is a family man who likes to take his children to school. He and his wife decided to keep Anne, 14, Christopher, 12, and Jack, 8, in New York while he ran for the Senate.
If he wins, Chachas has said his children may go to school in the Washington, D.C., area so he can be close to them more often, enforcing the notion he is not returning to Nevada for good.
"There's been a significant family cost already," Chachas says. "I've missed every birthday, dance performances. I do not know how this will end, but I made the right decision to keep my kids in school."
Chachas seems like a man who has one foot in Nevada, one foot out, not quite having taken the headlong leap necessary to commit himself fully to the state or even to his own Senate campaign.
"It's a fair complaint," he acknowledges, saying his effort to jump into the race with both feet was slowed by the untimely death of his boss, Wasserstein, which delayed severing his work with Lazard until early 2010. "I had to redo the whole deal to get out. It has all hampered me."
Chachas is less accepting, however, of the notion that he has forgotten his roots, working on Wall Street and living as he does in an exclusive Manhattan apartment building named The Beresford.
"I think a guy who was a White Pine Bobcat who grew up to own a place next to John McEnroe, Richard Holbrooke and Jerry and Jessica Seinfeld shouldn't require an apology, should it?" he asks.
Even in his own hometown, many people know the Chachas family but not the candidate very well, although he's got one of his cinema-screen size billboards with his photo set up down by the dollar store.
Wearing a jacket and open-collar shirt, Chachas drops by a White Pine County Commission meeting to reintroduce himself, and he has to ask directions to the second-floor hearing room.
"It's great to be back and spending some time here," Chachas tells the five-member panel in the near empty county chamber, explaining that he met earlier in the day with mining consultants and might start up the family's gold mine again and "hopefully create some jobs."
Donna Bath, the GOP chairwoman who introduced Chachas, takes him outside when he is done and tells him a story about a close election in the county when two commissioner candidates got the same number of votes. They broke the tie by drawing playing cards with the high card winning.
"I love it," Chachas says. "That ought to be done nationally."
Chachas knows he'll need a lot more than luck to win his Senate race gamble.
"I'm not sure how many votes I'd get here," he says. "I've been gone a long time."
Later, Chachas runs into 77-year-old Sto Pavlakis on the street and reminds him that he used to buy Greek pastries from his mother, Maria "Mama" Pavlakis, when he was a kid.
"I went to high school with his father," says Pavlakis, telling a visitor the sweet shop of their youth has long since been torn down. "This is the first time I met Chachas. I hope he wins."
Back inside the Jailhouse, named for the town's first lockup, Ron Munson, 71, and Erwin McQueen, 62, are nursing beers at the bar. They both are registered Democrats and retired heavy equipment drivers who worked the mines, but they also have voted across party lines.
"I know a lot of Chachases," Munson says, rattling off the names of several cousins he went to school with. "But I haven't met this John Chachas running for election. Who's running against him?"
He's running in the Republican primary so he can try to beat Reid in the fall, he's told.
"Around this country, I think a little yellow dog could outrun Reid," Munson says.
That gets a laugh out of McQueen, who says he hasn't heard much about this candidate Chachas but he won't vote for Reid again. This is partly because of hard feelings over the dead coal-fired plant project but also because he's disappointed in Obama, whom he voted for in 2008.
"You voted for Obama?" Munson says, turning to his friend in surprise. "You messed up."
"Yeah, I did," McQueen says. "I'm disappointed, tell you the truth, but it was the best of two evils," he adds, saying he didn't much like GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
'power of incumbency'
Two nights before his whirlwind, four-hour visit to Ely, Chachas seems more in his element at the luxury Encore at Wynn Las Vegas on the Strip.
He is talking politics with big-money fundraisers and members of the National Association of Broadcasters, who were meeting at their annual convention, which the investment banker has attended for the past couple of decades.
The fare includes jumbo shrimp and plates of dark- and white-chocolate-dipped strawberries, and the liquor is flowing, although Chachas sips club sodas and a Diet Coke as he makes the rounds.
"Hey, senator," one acquaintance and financial backer says as he passes Chachas without stopping, then raising his glass in a toast: "You keep going. I want a return on my investment."
Chachas smiles, but he is in a state of anguished annoyance. These are his people, yet he wasn't allowed to make a political speech to the group and he heard the organization held a fundraiser for Reid.
Jennifer Jaketic of the group's political action committee confirms to Chachas that there was a $500-a-plate Sunday breakfast for Reid that surpassed its $35,000 goal. But, she adds with an apologetic grimace, it wasn't a PAC event but instead was organized by the larger association itself.
"They were told to have a fundraiser for Reid," Chachas complains, rolling his shoulders and shaking his head with disgust. "About 20 of them called me and said, 'This is horrible.'"
He tries to shake it off, saying, "Oh well, that's the power of incumbency."
Jack Sander, a top executive of Belo Corp., which runs TV stations in several states mostly in the West, asks Chachas how he'll break out of the pack with so many Republicans running.
"I'm going to stay in and continue to raise hell," the candidate says.
Contact Laura Myers at lmyers @reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.