In Profile: Political outsider Sharron Angle often bucks the powers that be

Growing up in Reno, Sharron Angle lived in a 12-unit motel that her parents ran on South Virginia Street, the main drag through downtown in the "Biggest Little City in the World."

Times were tight, and a price war cut the room rate to $4 a night. So Angle and her three brothers were called into duty, earning one silver dollar a week to help clean the rooms.

"I learned how to make motel beds when I was 9," Angle recalled in an interview earlier this year before her against-the-odds campaign for the U.S. Senate took off. "All four of us kids helped dad with the rooms. We made beds, cleaned the bathrooms, everything."

Like many frugal working class families in the 1950s and ’60s, the children got one present each at Christmas, one for birthdays and a new pair of shoes to start the school year. A splurge might involve a dinner excursion to the Nugget hotel-casino where the kids ordered shrimp boats, french fries served in a ceramic boat-shaped bowl with a mast that skewered the deep-fried prawns.

"We thought we had plenty," Angle said. "But my mother and father struggled some."

Attending the University of Nevada, Reno, Angle helped pay her way by waitressing at a Bob’s Big Boy restaurant 40 hours a week while carrying a full credit load during her senior year. Her soon-to-be husband, Ted Angle, was a UNR senior, too, and he worked at the Dairy Queen.

"You gotta do what you gotta do," said Angle whose weekend shifts started at 6 a.m.

Angle’s upbringing shaped her political philosophy, built on self-reliance and free enterprise. Her father worked on his family potato farm in Oregon, served in World War II and was stationed at Pearl Harbor during the Korean War before coming to Reno with his family when his daughter was 3.

But it also bred a puritan stubborn streak, turning Angle into a determined campaigner and a zealous conservative who seems to view the world in black and white, in terms of wrong and right.

"Sharron is not warm and fluffy," said Heidi Smith, a Republican leader in Washoe County who has known Angle for more than a dozen years. "When Sharron decides she’s going to fight for something, she’s got more energy than a whole city of cats. As long as I’ve known her, she’s always been campaigning on some issue or for some cause. And she always felt that she was in the right."

Her outsider status even among her GOP colleagues played out when Angle served four terms in the Nevada Assembly from 1999 through 2005. Always in the minority, she lost a fight to block a $830 million tax increase in 2003. She was proud of being the lone "no" vote, especially on raising taxes, increasing spending and imposing new rules or mandates on private companies.

"It has to do with principles," said Sparks Assemblyman Don Gustavson, one of Angle’s closest colleagues, who sometimes joined her in voting "no." "She’s an average person that had to work for a living. Her parents raised her well. And she has a commitment to do the right thing."

Among Democrats and even some Republicans, Angle was shunned like a snotty nosed fourth-grader who sits alone at lunch. She was twice voted the worst legislator in a poll of lawmakers and members of the media.

Chris Giunchigliani, a former Democratic assemblywoman on the opposite side of Angle on most issues, used to invite lawmakers from both parties to her rented apartment in Carson City for dinner. She never thought to ask Angle to join them for evenings where wine flowed freely as well as scotch and bourbon.

"Sharron never built any relationships with any of her colleagues," said Giunchigliani, a Clark County commissioner. "She can be very personable one on one, but maybe she felt she had to cloak herself. Compromise is a strength, not a weakness. Sharron might have thought it was a weakness."

Angle’s cheeks flush and her eyes flash with anger when she talks about being "misunderstood and marginalized" by those who don’t agree with her and who caricature her as a far-right fanatic.

"When you don’t have the establishment behind you, you have to work harder," Angle said.

Now 61, Angle said she didn’t set out to become a politician. As a Southern Baptist, the church and her family are the centers of her life. Working as a substitute teacher, she focused for years on raising her daughter and son, as she and her husband lived in several rural Nevada towns over 25 years.

In her first foray into politics, Angle became a home-schooling advocate after her son failed kindergarten. She and other parents went to the Nevada Legislature in 1983 seeking to make it easier for parents to teach children at home, even if they lived within 50 miles of a school, the limit then.

She also started a two-room Christian school inside the Word of Light church in Winnemucca, where she and another teacher taught her son and two dozen other children in 1983 and 1984. Her husband, Ted, helped with repairs and sometimes watched the children play at lunch recess.

Glenda Haley, who taught with Angle for one year, brought her border collie, Shadow, to class. Haley also attended First Baptist Church with Angle, although the two never became close friends.

"She’s a godly woman," Haley said. "She certainly wasn’t lazy or laid back. We all liked her. This was like home-schooling. The kids learn at their own pace, and they learn more than in public school."

During her Winnemucca years, Angle took on her first crusade, compelling the district attorney to enforce a law requiring stores to wrap pornographic magazines in brown paper and put them behind the counter instead of openly displaying them next to the comic books for kids.

She also got involved in political campaigns, even switching her voter registration from Republican to Democrat in 1984 so she could vote in the primary for a friend. Angle said she still voted for President Ronald Reagan, the late GOP icon whose picture she kept on her desk in Carson City.

Angle switched back to the Republican Party in 1988 when she moved to Tonopah, where she made her first bid for public office, winning a seat on the Nye County School Board in 1992. She won by knocking on more doors than the incumbent, a grass-roots style that’s her signature strength.

"I’ve been dog-bit twice, and Ted once," Angle laughed, saying the first incident happened in tiny Gabbs when she met a Great Dane at the door while running for the school board. "The woman took me into her house to make sure I was OK. Of course, I did ask for her vote. I always do."

Peggy Smith, a friend, served on the school board with Angle and five others. The most controversial thing she could recall was a time a teacher asked special permission to show students the film "Schindler’s List," which was R-rated and not allowed under school rules.

The much-praised Oscar-winning film is about a German businessman who saved the lives of more than 1,000 Polish-Jewish refugees during the Holocaust by employing them in his factories.

The movie includes violence and nudity. So the school board decided "it was a moral issue and parents should have the right to say whether the student should see it or not," Smith recalled, saying in the end the board decided the teacher had to get parental permission to show the film in class.

Smith said the issue came up years later when Angle was running for public office in Reno and her opponents painted her as an anti-Semite.

"In these campaigns, they grab at anything and twist it," Smith said.

In highly negative races, the grass-roots campaigner Angle nearly beat Dean Heller for the open 2nd Congressional District seat in the GOP primary in 2006 and nearly knocked off state Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno, in 2008 as well. Raggio last week endorsed her U.S. Senate opponent, Harry Reid, saying she was "totally ineffective as a four-term assemblywoman."

At one point, Angle was called a Scientologist because in the Assembly, she once promoted a prison drug treatment program that borrowed some of the controversial religion’s techniques. The label has haunted her again in her campaign to defeat Reid, the Democratic incumbent.

"They’re always trying to marginalize me," Angle complained.

During her Tonopah days, it was Angle’s husband, Ted, who was in the news.

He became embroiled in a Sagebrush Rebellion-like war between the Bureau of Land Management, which he worked for, and ranchers who wanted to graze animals at will on the federally owned land.

The tensions ran so high in Nye County between the ranchers and federal authorities, including those with the BLM and the Fish and Wildlife Service, that both sides took to carrying guns and sometimes pointing them at one another. It broke into open warfare when a man climbed aboard a bulldozer and opened a closed road in the Toiyabe National Forest, an attempt to take back the land.

"He was out in the truck all the time," Angle said of her husband, a laconic native Nevadan who patrolled the state’s largest county while she worried he would be shot and killed on the job.

Ironically, Angle, like many conservatives and states rights advocates, believes the federal government controls too much land in Nevada at more than 80 percent. Still, Angle defends the work her husband did for the BLM, enforcing federal land-use policy, including mining and grazing privileges.

"You have to make sure everyone has access" to public land, Angle said.

In the end, Ted Angle transferred from the stressful and dangerous situation to the BLM office in Reno in 1995. There, he managed the agency’s public room, where people can look at lands records and get other information. He retired several years ago after more than 35 years. The couple resides in a middle-class Reno neighborhood, living off his federal pension.

JoLynn Worley, a longtime BLM spokeswoman in Reno, said field managers have a tough time making decisions that rile their neighbors, especially in small towns where everyone knows your name.

"They go to church in that community. They have friends, and they make decisions based on BLM regulations, not based on what the popular sentiment is," she said. "There’s a lot of pressure."

Angle followed her husband to Reno without finishing her final year on the school board.

Back in her hometown, Angle got more involved with the conservative Independent American Party, which she helped become a state-recognized party through an early 1990s petition drive. She was registered as an IAP member in 1994 in Nye County and in 1996 in Washoe County, according to clerks in both counties, although records are sketchy. But Angle switched back to the Republican Party in Reno in early 1997, perhaps in preparation for her first run for the Nevada Assembly in 1998.

The Independent American Party was founded in 1967 by a family of former Republicans who said they believed the GOP was growing "too corrupt and socialistic."

The party supports limited government and traditional values and is anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage, which aligns with many of Angle’s beliefs and those of the conservative wing of the GOP.

Angle got involved with the IAP after meeting the founder’s sister, Janine Hansen.

"I’ve seen her willingness to stand against the powers that be," Hansen said of Angle. "I feel like Sharron has been the only one who is truly championing the taxpayers. She’s been criticized for saying government is getting too large. But I think Sharron was just a little ahead of her time."

Hansen doesn’t fault Angle for quitting the IAP.

"Sharron has chosen her path, and I have chosen mine," she said.

Angle has dismissed her flirtations with third parties, saying she decided to work within the GOP to transform it from within instead. She joined the Tea Party movement last year with that in mind. She’s part of a crop of half a dozen across the United States hoping to win their way to Washington in the November election.

"We’re in a position in 2010 to take the party back," Angle told her fellow conservative GOP supporters earlier this year in Virginia City, an old mining town above Carson City that had its heyday during the Gold Rush. "If we don’t, we’re going to become irrelevant instead of relevant."

Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.

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