Sandoval pep talk masks harsh realities

Here's the truth: I want to feel good about Nevada's chances as we embark on a new year with a new governor, a bevy of new legislators and a handful of faint signs of economic recovery. I want to be enthused that Jim Gibbons has been rousted from the governor's mansion by his own party and that the new governor, Brian Sandoval, is "proudly optimistic" about the state's future.

But then there's this little thing we like to call reality. Reality is not much in fashion these days, I know, but I can't help recognizing its presence -- it's the proverbial elephant in the room, crowding the dance floor, pawing the seven-layer dip, droning on about things the partygoers would rather not think about right now.

Reality, circa 2011: Nevada is in shoddy economic shape. Unemployment is high, foreclosures are high, bankruptcies are high. I should say STILL high, as they have been this way for more than three years. Budget cuts have occurred, and more are coming. And while Sandoval's can-do spirit is welcome -- it's a big improvement over Gibbons' chronic apathy -- his little pep talk when he took the oath of office this week won't be the catalyst for Nevada's revival.

When former President Bill Clinton came to Las Vegas last fall to campaign for Sandoval's opponent, Rory Reid, he remarked that "the other fella" -- that would be Sandoval -- "looks great in a suit. He's a handsome dude." And sure enough, Sandoval looks the part of the quintessential 21st century American politician. But the question remains: What's going on behind that well-coiffed façade?

Based on his inaugural speech, I don't know that Sandoval yet fully grasps the reality of the situation. A couple of quotes to consider:

"Nevadans believe in opportunity. We are not afraid of hard work. In fact, we embrace it. And that's the very spirit and drive that will write the next chapter of Nevada's history."

First, what does it actually mean to "believe in opportunity"? It's almost a nonsensical assertion. Few if any of the more than 6 billion humans on the planet do not "believe in opportunity." If "opportunity" is the chance or means to improve your quality of life, or the quality of life in a community, who doesn't believe in that?

Second, Sandoval's assertion that Nevadans are "not afraid of hard work" is equally sophomoric. Assuming this is true, is he suggesting that Nevadans are less afraid of hard work than residents of other states? I bet there are quite a few states that could make a compelling case that their residents are less afraid of hard work than Nevadans are. It's just not relevant.

"I am calling on all Nevadans to come to the table ready to tackle our problems without regard to political party, geography or personal agenda."

Sandoval has to know that this is a fantastical notion. First, we know that "all Nevadans" will not be offered a seat at "the table." The decisions to "tackle our problems" will be made by a small group of politicians, businessmen, lobbyists and government employees huddled in Carson City starting next month. Regular people are excluded from this process, except for the occasional snippet of testimony before a committee to make things look good.

Second, the idea that "political party, geography or personal agenda" can be left out of this process is something most people abandon by the end of 12th grade civics class. Party affiliation, geography and personal agendas are integral parts of the decision-making process. It was ever so, and will ever be.

"We must choose between indecision and action, between complacency and courage, between the status quo and what might be."

Although this is one of the more eloquent lines from Sandoval's speech, it is contradicted by his actions to date. Sandoval's entire campaign platform was his vow to not raise taxes. This certainly plays well with his conservative base, but it doesn't represent courage, and it embodies the status quo rather than "what might be."

It would be courageous for Sandoval to say that all options are on the table to balance the state budget. Instead, he took the safe path to election, and now he's stuck with a promise that eliminates perhaps half the options before budget discussions even get started. That, in my view, is not leadership "without regard to political party." On the contrary, it is pandering to the demands of a vocal segment of one political party.

To be fair, Sandoval seems to have every intention of infusing the governor's office with refreshing degrees of earnestness and commitment to the difficult tasks at hand. With the wife, kids and pets swarming the governor's mansion, it promises to be a more lively and pleasant place than it was during the dirge of Gibbons' lonely term.

One gets the impression that Sandoval truly cares about the well-being of Nevada and of Nevadans. He wants to do good things, to make a difference. That's awesome. Most of us -- without regard to party -- wish him well. But let's not ignore the relentless presence of reality. Nevada has deep-seated problems that see-through platitudes are powerless to solve.

Geoff Schumacher ( is the Review-Journal's director of community publications. His column appears Friday.