In Nevada governor’s race Democrats learned resistance is futile

Among Nevada state senators, Pat Spearman stands out from her colleagues of mostly white men.

She is African-American, an openly gay Army veteran and a pastor who in 2012 won an upset election over a fellow Democrat and two-term incumbent thanks to the backing of liberal groups.

So maybe Spearman, a North Las Vegas Democrat, shouldn’t have been so surprised by the calls from party insiders urging her to run for governor this year against the popular — most say unbeatable — Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval. The two are at near-opposite ends of the political spectrum, presenting a real choice for voters.

“They said they were serious, and I said, ‘Come on, come on,’ ” Spearman said, sounding a bit incredulous at the repeated attempts to recruit her. “There were several people who did approach me. I was flattered.”

But Spearman said no, that she was too involved in the four-year state Senate term she won by smashing John Lee, a conservative Democrat who now is mayor of North Las Vegas, taking 63 percent of the primary vote. Also, Spearman is busy finishing her doctoral dissertation in business administration.

“My focus is on that,” Spearman said, joking that she tries to set aside “20 minutes a day for sleep.”

The attempted recruitment of Spearman, who is well respected by her legislative colleagues, is an example of the vast net cast by U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the Nevada Democratic Party in their failed yearlong search for a viable candidate to take on Sandoval in the Nov. 4 general election.

Spearman said she never spoke with Reid, but a Democratic insider said the senator was asking about her.

Asked about her last week in Washington, Reid was cagey. He smiled when asked if Spearman was approached.

“You should talk to her,” Reid said, refusing to acknowledge whether that was a “yes.”

Was it a good idea to give Sandoval a pass?

“I can only put up what I can put up,” Reid said. “I tried. That’s how we wound up.”

As a result, the June 10 Democratic primary for governor was won by “none of these candidates,” with 30 percent of the vote. Robert Goodman, the state’s economic development director in the 1970s, received 25 percent of the vote. Analysts assume that neither the 79-year-old Goodman nor David Lory VanDerBeek, the Independent American Party candidate, can beat Sandoval.

Reid courted top Democrats, including Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and Secretary of State Ross Miller, the son of former Gov. Bob Miller. Term limits prevent Cortez Masto from seeking a third stint as attorney general, but she decided to sit out this election, biding her time for a better chance to climb the political ladder, eyeing the governor’s job or a House or Senate seat. Miller is running to replace her.

At least a dozen politicians, from members of Congress to state lawmakers to Clark County officials, were vetted or floated as the Democratic Candidate Who Would Be Governor.

None wanted the job.

“The party always feels it has to mount a credible candidate, but in this case it would be suicide,” said former Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones, a Democrat who lost a 1998 bid to become Nevada’s first female governor.

In late February, just before the candidate filing period opened, Reid told reporters in Carson City he was “still working on it,” and would produce a credible contender.

“I think it will be a respectable Democrat and someone that people know,” Reid said.


State Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, another progressive, offered publicly to take on Sandoval. Reid took a pass. Insiders say he was intent on recruiting a woman to run.

Former Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley was mentioned as a potential candidate, but she was not asked to run. She has been saying no since 2009, when Democrats first tried to recruit her to run against Sandoval. She has said she is too occupied with work at a Las Vegas law center and with raising her two sons, the youngest of whom is 14.

Instead, Rory Reid, the senator’s son and a former Clark County commissioner, ran and lost badly.

State Sens. Debbie Smith, D-Sparks; Ruben Kihuen, D-Las Vegas; and former state Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, also were on the senator’s list.

“I quickly and firmly said I was not interested,” said Leslie, who supervises specialty courts in Washoe County and was one of the most liberal members of the Nevada Legislature before losing a Senate race in 2012.

Nevada Treasurer Kate Marshall, a party loyalist, was mentioned but instead is running for secretary of state. Democrats see the post as highly important since the job entails overseeing elections.

Democrats considered Henderson City Councilwoman Debra March, but she has baggage.

March in late 2011 backed Josh Reid’s hiring as Henderson city attorney. That move came under fire because the City Council lowered basic job requirements so he could qualify for the $200,000-a-year post. Harry Reid also lobbied Henderson Mayor Andy Hafen on his son’s behalf.

Then-U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., considered the governor’s race for a hot second after her 2012 loss to U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., Democrats in the know say. But she was discouraged because it was too soon after her defeat, and she might not have time to raise enough money.

Sandoval, by comparison, has raised at least $3 million, and has given some of the cash to other GOP candidates he favors.

Berkley last week said she’s happy that she became Touro University’s CEO and provost for Nevada and California in December.

“I signed a 3-year contract with Touro,” Berkley wrote in a text message when asked about the governor’s race. “Loving the job and not thinking of public life as gov or in any other position for the foreseeable future.”

Two other strong female politicians weren’t asked to run, although they might have given Sandoval a tough time. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., lost a close gubernatorial race in 2006 to Republican Jim Gibbons, who served one term and was trounced by Sandoval in the 2010 GOP primary.

A spokesman for Titus said she is happy representing the heavily Democratic 1st Congressional District.

Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, a former state lawmaker, said she wasn’t approached about running for governor.

“I like the local, hands-on aspect of my job,” she said, adding that if she had been asked “I would have said, ‘Thanks for thinking of me, but no thanks.’ ”


Reid’s hopes for a credible candidate were publicly dashed Feb. 17 when Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak announced he would not run for governor. The senator had been directly talking to Sisolak, a Democrat who enjoys crossover support as a fiscal conservative who doesn’t toe the union line.

“I just decided that the timing is not right,” Sisolak said then. “I love my job and I’ve got a lot I want to do still.”

A Democrat involved in the recruiting process said Reid and others in his party then decided it would be wise to give Sandoval a pass and focus on down-ticket races, although the lack of a hot contest at the top of the ballot could dampen Democratic turnout.

Reid maintains that is not a concern.

“The one thing it has done is focus attention on the lieutenant governor’s race,” Reid said. “So I think that will bring out some votes.”

Reid backs Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, D-Las Vegas, an up-and-coming Latina who is expected to tap a growing Hispanic vote. Nearly 20 percent of Nevada voters are Hispanic.

Sandoval backs state Sen. Mark Hutchison, R-Las Vegas, an attorney who represented Nevada for free all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in its lawsuit against President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

The race is considered a proxy fight. Reid is up for re-election in 2016 and wants to ensure Sandoval doesn’t mount a Senate challenge safe in knowing his office will go to another Republican.

So focused on blocking a potential Sandoval threat in 2016, the Nevada Democratic Party website doesn’t even list the governor’s race or mention Robert Goodman as one of “our candidates.” The attorney general’s race gets top billing, followed by lieutenant governor.

“The feeling was that no one could beat Sandoval, and thus having even a semicredible candidate would just give him the excuse to raise more money,” said one Democratic insider, explaining internal party thinking on condition of anonymity. “And when he won handily it would enhance his credibility.”

“I think everyone was approached at some point; but without Miller or Cortez Masto or Sisolak, it just wasn’t a good option to run someone as opposed to running no one.”

Steve Tetreault of Stephens Washington Bureau contributed to this report. Contact Laura Myers at or 702-387-2919. Find her on Twitter: @lmyerslvrj.