Incumbents attract big money in County Commission races

County Commission races this year were fueled by casino and construction money that went almost exclusively to incumbents, an analysis of campaign contributions shows.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal examined every donation to commission candidates for 2012 through Oct. 12, more than 820 monetary and in-kind contributions in all. They reveal that many of the movers and shakers of Las Vegas give – and give big – to in­cumbents even though there is little chance they will lose their re-election bids.

Several top donors have a clear interest in courting favor with commissioners. Take golf course developer and high-stakes gambler Bill Walters, for example.

Walters last year needed commission approval to redevelop his Bali Hai course on county land next to McCarran International Airport as a business park.

Although he was given a favorable deal to begin with, and he didn’t pay rent for a decade, Walters convinced commissioners that the county could make more money if they approved his proposal.

Five commissioners voted for the deal, and within months he began giving them money, records show.

Walters, through five different companies, gave incumbent Larry Brown $25,000 on Sept. 13.

That was the third-largest donation by a person or organization to any single commission candidate this year, after MGM Resorts International’s $30,000 each to Brown and Commissioner Steve Sisolak.

Walters also gave Commissioner Tom Collins $5,000.

That kind of money was enough to make Walters the eighth-largest single donor to County Commission candidates this year. And that doesn’t even count the $20,000 Walters gave Sisolak’s campaign on Dec. 29, 2011.

The only incumbent who didn’t get Walters’ money in either 2011 or 2012 is Lawrence Weekly, one of the five who backed his golf course redevelopment.

Walters, reached last week, said he doesn’t call his contributions "donations," instead viewing them as "investments" in good candidates. And this year’s investments were not greater than in past years, he said.

"The bottom line is, if you own a business in Las Vegas, if you have employees in Las Vegas … the most important people in the world to you are the people who run local government," Walters said. "If you don’t have good local elected officials, it’s very difficult to run a business. It’s very difficult to have the confidence to make investments."

He had high praise for Brown and Sisolak, who he said were good checks on reckless government spending.

"I’m investing in competent leadership to run local government," Walters said. "And anybody who looks at it any different doesn’t know what they’re doing."

INCUMBENTS RAISE $1.6 MILLION

There’s little chance the four commissioners running for re-election this year will be threatened by their opponents on Tuesday. They have history – and money – on their side.

Over the past 24 years, only five commission races have been decided by 5 percentage points or fewer, and the average margin of victory for an incumbent is more than 32 percentage points.

On top of that, voters haven’t elected a Republican to the board since 2004, and that trend looks likely to continue this year.

The incumbents have raised more than $1.6 million collectively. That’s more than six times what their Republican challengers have received.

Almost all of the money for challengers is limited to one race, and it comes from Craig O. Lake’s pocketbook. He has poured more than $200,000 of his own money into his race against Brown.

The disparity, particularly in the race between Collins and challenger Ruth Johnson, shows the difficulty of overcoming an incumbent in a local race, University of Nevada, Las Vegas political science professor David Damore said.

"He’s facing a legitimate opponent, a former School Board member, and she can’t raise a nickel," he said.

Collins, who has received a slew of negative press this year, raised $261,000, which is far less than he collected in his two previous elections to the board. But it’s more than enough to outspend Johnson, who raised just $17,000.

Of the top 15 donors in all races, who gave more than $500,000 collectively, none gave to challengers.

MGM BIGGEST CONTRIBUTOR

Perhaps not surprisingly, four of the top seven donors were casino companies, with MGM Resorts International and its hotel-casinos giving $100,000. MGM is by far the biggest contributor.

Harrah’s, Boyd Gaming, Michael Gaughan and his South Point, Station Casinos, and Stockbridge Real Estate and SBE Entertainment, which own the Sahara, all gave $20,000 or more.

Casinos and gaming companies also are the largest donor by industry, followed closely by the construction industry, which includes architects and developers.

The County Commission touches nearly all aspects of business, and that’s reflected in the donors. Many have contracts with the airport, for example, or are subject to commission oversight, such as liquor stores, nightclubs and strip clubs.

Giving to commissioners could just be a part of the cost of doing business, Damore said.

"They want access," he said. "They want their phone calls returned."

Then there are those who have a more immediate interest before the board.

It might have been surprising to see Nevada Heart and Vascular among the top donors. The company and 16 of its doctors gave nearly $43,000, all to incumbents.

The company has an interest in University Medical Center, which is governed by commissioners.

Two years ago, the company signed a contract valued at $450,000 with the hospital to provide patient care.

Commissioners approved it un­animously.

That contract expires in eight months.

Contact reporter Lawrence Mower at lmower@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0440.

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