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In weighing race for governor, political bulldozer Steve Sisolak plays it coy

Meet two sides of Steve Sisolak.

Behind the scenes, Sisolak doled out Christmas gifts to needy children at an elementary school at Nellis Air Force Base. On another recent day, he quietly visited a sick teenager in the hospital to deliver a proclamation lauding her courage.

But behind his desk, as chairman of the Clark County Commission, Sisolak openly clashed with Sheriff Doug Gillespie, who wants to raise sales taxes to support his department. It’s something Sisolak opposes, arguing Gillespie has enough money in a dedicated fund to hire more police.

“You and I disagree on this fundamentally,” Sisolak barked at a Dec. 3 County Commission meeting, leaning into his microphone, voice booming. “Those positions have been funded.”

Gillespie stood his ground, his neck crimson in anger as he returned Sisolak’s swipe.

“You cut my budget, commissioner,” the sheriff said. “That’s why they weren’t filled.”

Sisolak, the outspoken commission chairman in Nevada’s most populous county, is known more for his public battles — both personal and professional — than his private compassion.

A fiscal conservative, he also is the one Democrat who might give GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval his strongest challenge in this year’s general election — if Sisolak listens to supporters urging him to challenge the popular governor. Sisolak said he is taking his time deciding after Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto made it clear she is not running.

“It’s a huge decision,” Sisolak said in a recent interview over coffee.

“The pundits say it’s impossible to beat Sandoval. That surprises me,” he added with a sly smile. “He’s likable, but not necessarily effective. He has wide support, but it’s very, very shallow.”

CONTRAST IN STYLE

A political race between Sandoval and Sisolak would be a study in contrasting styles — the calm, detached governor verses the passionate county leader who never met a tax he didn’t question and who took on the firefighters union other public officials fear.

Sandoval, a former federal judge, is studious and deliberative, not one to publicly lose his temper or pick a fight. Still, while calling for no new taxes, he has been criticized by conservatives for twice extending $600 million in payroll and other taxes that were due to expire.

Sisolak, a former member of the Nevada Board of Regents who questioned tuition increases and high presidential salaries, is comfortable being the lone “no” vote, as he was in September when he voted against a fuel tax increase for road projects in Clark County. The other six Clark County commissioners approved adding 10 cents per gallon over the next three years.

“It’s a regressive tax,” Sisolak said.

Before the vote he said it also is a matter of fairness. Clark County drivers paid about $800 million in fuel taxes — now 9 cents per gallon in Clark County — over the past five years but only got back $300 million in road work. He said Clark County subsidizes the rest of the state while most counties haven’t imposed the full 9-cent tax they are allowed.

Sisolak does his homework, coming prepared for meetings, including reading detailed financial statements and documents that might bore others. He looks for any opportunity to cut government costs or challenge proposals, say those who have worked with him.

“He runs a good meeting,” said Chris Giunchigliani, a fellow commissioner and Democrat who doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with Sisolak. “He does listen to constituents, making sure that no matter how far out there you might be you still have a voice.”

Sisolak’s business card includes his cellphone number. He said he tries to return every query from constituents, whether in person, via email or by phone.

“I really appreciate you looking out for us,” said a man at a local Starbucks where Sisolak sat for an interview.

Several more constituents approached and praised him, as well.

“That’s when the job is very fulfilling,” Sisolak said after handing out business cards.

HARD EDGE

While he is popular with the public, Sisolak’s critics say he can be a bully whose motto is his way or the highway. His backers, however, see Sisolak as a populist, looking out for taxpayers and fighting to get his way when he thinks he is right — which is most of the time.

“He’s outspoken; tells the truth,” said Mark Alden, a Republican who served with Sisolak on the Nevada Board of Regents for a decade, nearly always taking the same side. “He’s very well prepared for meetings. His best attribute is he actually reads the documents.”

Sisolak, a Democrat with strong crossover appeal, makes no apologies for his style and dismisses the bully label.

“I’m really passionate about issues,” he said. “If people are dismissive, I don’t appreciate that. If they don’t like me being aggressive, that’s tough. I’m not going to just accept things.

Sisolak, 60, lost in his first two attempts at public office. He ran for a state Senate seat in 1994 against state Sen. Bill O’Donnell, R-Las Vegas, and again in 1996 against state Sen. Ann O’Connell, R-Las Vegas. Both seats were in District 5. Voters apparently didn’t like Sisolak’s business; he was a telemarketer at a time when their reputations were not good.

Alden, a Republican, was asked by a Democratic friend of Sisolak’s to give him some political advice. Sisolak ran for the Board of Regents and won in 1998. He was re-elected in 2004.

Alden said he and Sisolak agreed on nearly everything, but failed in their attempt to move the medical school from the University of Nevada, Reno, to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. There’s a move now to open a UNLV medical school.

Sisolak has focused on trying to ensure Southern Nevada gets its fair share instead of supporting much of the rest of the state as Nevada’s economic engine. Because he is well known in Clark County, where more than two-thirds of the population lives, political experts believe his best chance to score points against Sandoval is to play up the North vs. South competition.

“He has to run a scorched-earth North-South campaign,” said David Damore, a political science professor at UNLV. “He can portray Sandoval as ‘the governor of Reno.’ ”

Sandoval grew up in Reno and attended UNR. Sisolak grew up in Wisconsin and earned an MBA at UNLV in 1978.

Damore said Sisolak also gained favor among voters for taking on the firefighters union over sick leave abuse. In the end, firefighters who were targeted kept their jobs, but the cost of sick leave and overtime pay used to fill shifts has gone down, according to the commissioner.

“I think it helps him that he can make the claim I took on public-sector unions when nobody else would do that,” Damore said. “He saw an opportunity there and made the most of it.”

Sisolak was first elected to the County Commission in 2008, beating out a Republican to replace Bruce Woodbury, a Republican who was termed out. Sisolak easily won re-election in 2012 and even picked up the endorsement of the Police Protective Association, or cops union.

Chris Collins, executive director of the police union, said he agrees with Sisolak about not raising the sales tax to fund more cops. He said the $140 million sitting in a fund for that purpose could add 250 officers rather than the proposed 101 called for under Gillespie’s latest sales tax proposal.

“Steve had it right on the money,” Collins said. “He’s trying to say to the sheriff, ‘We’ve given you money in the past. Why didn’t you hire?’ ”

But if Sisolak does run for governor, he is not likely to get support from either the firefighters union or the police union. Collins said the cops endorsed Sandoval in 2010 and the union has a policy of endorsing incumbents unless they do something egregious.

“Steve Sisolak has been a friend to the PPA. He has lived up to his commitments to us,” Collins said. “But we have an incumbent rule, so my gut feeling is we’ll endorse Sandoval again.”

Ryan Beaman, president of the Clark County firefighters union, said the group is keeping “an open mind.” But he noted that the governor has supported firefighters.

“Governor Sandoval has a solid record with the issues that matter most to us,” Beaman said in an email.

COMMISSION CHAIRMANSHIP

In July 2013, Sisolak was elected chairman by his peers, but the vote was split 4-2, with Chris Giunchigliani absent. Commissioners Tom Collins and Lawrence Weekly voted against him. Commissioners Mary Beth Scow, Susan Brager and Larry Brown sided with Sisolak. Brown became vice chairman on a similar 4-2 vote.

Commissioners, as the divided vote demonstrates, often clash over policy; but even Sisolak’s detractors say he has a strong work ethic. Some staffers call him “super commissioner” because he puts in so much time on the job. In April, he and Brown voted against giving commissioners a 10 percent pay raise, which will increase salaries from $72,488 to $80,008.

Sisolak can afford to pass up on the raise. He is independently wealthy, thanks to a $21.4 million judgment he won against Clark County in 2007. His share was $15 million; his attorney got the rest.

The settlement ended a six-year fight between Sisolak and McCarran International Airport over property rights and airspace regarding 10 acres he bought on Las Vegas Boulevard South in the early 1980s.

It was zoned for casinos, hotels or apartments, but the County Commission said he couldn’t build anything more than 35 feet high so close to the runways. Later it was amended to 66 feet, but the height limit still devalued the property.

Despite his wealth, Sisolak said he still feels for the middle class and poorer people who live in Clark County, particularly seniors on a fixed income who can’t afford to pay more in taxes.

He told a story about visiting a senior center and being asked the cost of a pound of apples. He didn’t know, partly because one of his two daughters does the shopping.

“It almost brought me to tears,” Sisolak said of the conversation with seniors who told him they have trouble making ends meet during months that have 31 days.

Sisolak said small-business owners who are barely making it can’t afford more taxes, either. That’s why he doesn’t like a proposed margin tax plan the teachers union is pushing via a ballot initiative this year. He said a fairer business tax would hit only gross profits, not apply to every business based on overall revenue as the proposed margin tax would.

Sisolak said Nevada needs tax reform and should examine taxing some nonessential services, such as manicures and pedicures, to broaden the tax base in a state with a growing service economy.

As for spending on education, he favors performance-based budgeting throughout government to get the best bang for the buck.

On another issue, Sandoval has taken a lot of heat because of the state’s poor mental health system, including busing the mentally ill out of state without always planning for services on the other end.

Sisolak said both the governor and the Legislature share the blame, since some $80 million has been cut from state mental health spending since 2007.

“I think mental health has been terribly handled by both the governor and the Legislature,” Sisolak said, noting that 30 percent of Clark County’s jail inmates are now mentally ill. “They don’t belong in jails. It’s a revolving door.”

What gives him the most pleasure, he said, is clearing away red tape so small businesses can start up or expand and hire employees.

“You get to help them fulfill their dreams,” Sisolak said.

POLITICAL BAGGAGE

Sisolak’s political prospects may have been hurt by his high-profile clashes, both professional and personal, that have gained him glaring headlines and much criticism, providing fodder for any opponent.

“My life has been played on the front pages of the paper for the last five or six years,” Sisolak said. “I bleed, but I’ve got thick skin. Politics is a dark business.”

In October, for example, Sisolak accused Sheriff Gillespie of colluding with an arbitrator and the police union to broker a contract that resulted in $6.9 million in raises for cops. An angry Gillespie held a news conference the next day, disputing Sisolak’s contention.

In the end, Gillespie said the arbitration process could have been more transparent. Sisolak said he was concerned the last, best contract offers were made verbally without a record. The initial arbitrator’s award also didn’t include his reasoning, a legal requirement.

Sisolak said he regretted going public first before talking more with Gillespie.

“I should have reached out harder,” said the commissioner, who is known for shooting from the hip.

But Sisolak’s most headline-grabbing episode in early 2012 involved his former girlfriend, Kathleen Vermillion, a former Henderson councilwoman and advocate for the homeless.

At one point, Sisolak accused Vermillion of a shakedown, trying to get him to pay $3.9 million to drop allegations of inappropriate behavior with her teenage daughter. One of her attorneys predicted the breakup could end Sisolak’s political career.

After months of tawdry back-and-forth accusations, Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson refused to charge Vermillion with criminal extortion, and the whole thing went away.

Vermillion, who now lives in California, said she has remarried and is getting on with her life.

Sisolak, too, has moved on. He and a new girlfriend went to Disneyland over the Christmas holiday, he said.

A Roman Catholic, Sisolak said he stays grounded by attending Mass nearly every day. He also enjoys passing out Christmas gifts, or giving a sick teenager a boost as he did around the holidays.

Divorced, he is close to his two daughters, both in their 20s, and to his 87-year-old mother.

“She’s my strength. She’s my rock,” he said of his mother.

If Sisolak does run for governor — and U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., has been encouraging him to take the plunge — he would have plenty of money. He has at least $500,000 in his campaign kitty from previous campaigns, and says he would donate money to himself, too.

“How can I ask people to support me, if I don’t give to myself?” Sisolak asked.

Sisolak has been talking to Rory Reid, the Democrat who lost to Sandoval 53.4 percent to 41.6 percent in 2010.

“He’s not afraid of anything,” Reid said of Sisolak, whom he served with on the County Commission for two years. “Unlike anybody in public life, he’s willing to say what he thinks and confront those who disagree with him.”

Reid, a son of Sen. Reid, stopped short of publicly offering any advice.

“I think I’m probably the last person in the world to think authoritatively about how to run against Sandoval,” Reid said. “I”m so far out of politics, I can’t even see it in my rearview mirror.”

Contact reporter Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Follow her on Twitter @lmyerslvrj.

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