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Horsford was early ally

DENVER -- A young black state senator with seemingly unlimited promise. Known for lofty talk, reaching across party lines and rising quickly from a humble beginning.

Four years ago, that was Barack Obama.

Today, it describes Nevada state Sen. Steven Horsford.

As Obama accepted the Democratic presidential nomination in Denver on Thursday, Horsford watched from one of the rows nearest the stage, enjoying a moment that was partially his moment.

"Barack Obama is trying to elevate our thinking," Horsford said of the candidate he has supported from the beginning. "He's trying to not have politics be so small, so petty, but to be big."

Like Obama, who is 47, Horsford, 35, comes from a new generation of black politicians, seeking universal appeal with rhetoric that transcends race.

Rising rapidly in Nevada politics, Horsford is also gaining a national profile thanks to his role in the Obama campaign.

At this week's Democratic convention, he was named sergeant-at-arms. Not "a" sergeant-at-arms, "the" sergeant-at-arms, a ceremonial position that recognized his prominence in Obama's national effort.

He has been involved in top-level meetings and invited to the hottest-ticket parties, hobnobbing in the VIP section with such luminaries as Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.

Horsford, who is finishing his first four-year term in the Senate and seeking re-election this year, earlier this year became the upper house's minority leader. With a real possibility that Democrats will take the Senate -- they need just one more seat -- Horsford could soon become majority leader, the most powerful position in the state Legislature.

He met Obama in 2004, when Obama was running for U.S. Senate in Illinois and campaigning for Democrats in Nevada. "I was impressed then," Horsford said.

"He was such a genuine person, the same with small groups of people as when he was speaking to thousands of people. He was so immensely intelligent, speaking of the hopes and promises of what our country can be. I've always been taken by his vision."

Early last year, as the jockeying began for Nevada's early presidential caucuses, it seemed every Democratic elected official in the state would endorse Hillary Clinton, who was building a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut in the political establishment. In March 2007, Obama visited Carson City and met with Horsford and other legislators.

In July 2007, Horsford was the top elected official on a small committee that was announced to support Obama in Nevada. His presence in the group helped give the campaign credibility in a state where it faced long odds -- and it earned him plenty of blowback from power players that Horsford, a former state lobbyist, has cultivated over the years.

"People suggested that it wasn't necessarily in my best interest to do that politically," he remembered. "But I thought it was the right thing to do. I wanted to be on this side of history, supporting Barack Obama."

Obama did not win the Nevada caucuses, although his six-point defeat, coming off a win in Iowa and a close second in New Hampshire, was a comeback from polls that had shown him as much as 40 points behind Clinton.

But Obama ended up winning the nomination, and Horsford's work on his behalf, which others involved with the campaign say was tireless, will not be forgotten as the race proceeds in Nevada, a crucial swing state. Horsford accompanies Obama when he visits and consults with him on key decisions.

"There were just a handful of us in the beginning," recalled lobbyist and consultant Rose McKinney-James. "Steven called me and said, 'I have to do this, are you with me?' We just believed it was the right time. Some days it was frustrating, daunting. But Steven was consistently willing to be the leader, the spokesperson -- whatever it took, he was willing to do that."

Those who know him call Horsford canny but grounded, self-possessed and mature beyond his years, though his inexperience sometimes shows. He is nearly always serious and somewhat guarded, intent on the task at hand.

"I've watched his rise. I'm very impressed with him," said Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, who attended Democratic legislative events with Horsford at this week's convention. "He is smart, he is articulate, he is hardworking. He's just doing everything right."

Buckley traced Horsford's qualities to his roots: "Steven worked his way up," she said. "It wasn't given to him, he earned it. And he is humble. He's not walking with a swagger through the halls. He's earned the respect he gets."

A Las Vegas native, Horsford, like Obama, was raised by a single mother. Horsford's mother was just 16 when he was born and struggled with drug addiction. The oldest of four siblings, he also had three half-siblings who had the same father -- a father who never claimed Horsford.

When Horsford was 19, his father was murdered, a personal tragedy that affected him deeply but that he never brings up and only reluctantly discusses. Asked about his childhood, he related it back to the campaign.

"So many of America's children are raised by single parents who face an incredible struggle, and Barack Obama wants to make sure that they are allowed to have the same hopes and aspirations as everybody else," he said. "That's his commitment to families and what he wants for children in America."

Horsford has three children, ages 8 years, 5 years and 17 months, and he said he makes sure they know he is there, loving them and believing in them.

A graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno, he first interned in the Legislature in 1993, working for the Assembly Education Committee chaired by then-Assemblyman Wendell Williams, a member of the older generation of West Las Vegas black leaders whose mantle Horsford has partly inherited.

He worked at the lobbying powerhouse R&R Partners for six years, leaving after Sept. 11, 2001, when he decided he wanted to pursue a different track.

Now he is president of the board of Nevada Partners and CEO of the Culinary Training Academy, organizations that provide job and life-skills training for Culinary union members.

In politics, he said he is focused on his re-election, the Senate Democrats' push and the Obama campaign rather than ambitions further in the future.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he believes Horsford, whom he called "politically savvy" and a great family man, can fulfill any political ambition he chooses.

"I think the world of Steven Horsford. I will do anything I can to help him," Reid said. "Someday he may get my job, you never know."

Reid said Horsford is a great organizer of people and a humble operator who doesn't raise his voice in an argument.

Horsford downplayed the idea of himself as an up-and-comer.

"I am not a big deal," he insisted. "This is not about me. I just was fortunate enough to get on board with a very successful campaign that ultimately swept the spirit of the country and has led us this week to Barack Obama's nomination."

Horsford acknowledged the parallels between his life and Obama's but said plenty of young Americans of all races and walks of life have had similar experiences.

"I'm not an exception," he said. "I just happen to be in this position. But there are so many people like me, people like Barack Obama. That's why his life story resonates with so many people."

Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball@reviewjournal.com.

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