Nevada’s first lady finds passion in family, work

CARSON CITY ­– In a big white house on an American elm-lined street about a mile from the Capitol, 16-year-old James and 15-year-old Maddy are expected to keep their rooms clean, do their laundry and get good grades.

Either Dad Brian or Mom Kathleen must read every night for 20 minutes with younger sister Marisa, 7. All the family members regularly walk or play with their four dogs, two cats, two guinea pigs and turtle. Sometimes they can catch a show on the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon. When the shows are too scary, Marisa crawls into bed with her parents.

These are the Sandovals, Nevada’s first family. When they aren’t attending James’ basketball or baseball games or hauling the kids back and forth to dance classes, Dad works as governor and Mom serves as the family and youth inter­vention coordinator for the Children’s Cabinet in Reno.

“We want our kids to have as normal a lifestyle as possible,” said Kathleen Sandoval, who married her college sweetheart in 1990. “I think it is nice to have a family in the (Governor’s) Mansion that can relate to other families. I need to work. We have a mortgage to pay (on their home in Reno). We balance a checkbook. We budget what we spend at Christmas. We are like any family.”

Sandoval, 46, is the only first lady in Nevada history to hold a full-time job when her husband serves as governor, according to state Archivist Jeff Kintop. Her predecessor, Dawn Gibbons, had owned a wedding chapel and other businesses, but she sold them before Jim Gibbons became governor in 2007. Not since the Millers in the 1990s has the state’s first family included school-age children.

U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics show 71.3 percent of women with school-age children work. That compares with 40 percent in 1975.


Kathleen Sandoval calls her job “my passion” and considers it normal and necessary for women today, including political spouses, to keep working. Never has anyone stopped her in a store or on the street to ask if she is Nevada’s first lady. She likes being able to walk around in public like anybody else.

“I don’t have to worry how I look if I go out wearing a baseball cap and sweats. I am glad they don’t recognize me.”

Usually in private she calls her husband “Edward,” his middle name, and he calls her affectionate nicknames. She is “Kat” to friends, never Kathy to anybody.

What she won’t discuss publicly is the extent of security given members of the family. There is enough for them to feel safe. Besides wanting their children to live as normal lives as possible, they have taken reasonable steps to insure their safety.

Following her separation from then-Gov. Gibbons, Dawn Gibbons said she took jobs on talk radio and at Goodwill Industries and tried to continue to perform duties of the first lady through his term.

“There is no rule on what is right or wrong,” Dawn Gibbons said. “Kathleen should do what she wants. Family is the most important job. If we fail our kids, we have really failed.”

Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, said Dawn Gibbons took heat for even working part time at her radio job while her husband was governor. Her pioneering made it easier for Kathleen Sandoval to be a working first lady.

“You don’t have to just be an appendage to your husband anymore,” Herzik said. “Working women are far more common today than they ever have been.”

He said it’s good for the governor that his wife works in social service programs that historically have been championed by Democrats.

“If he gets too righteously conservative and gets a lukewarm reception from his wife, then he may think twice. If you can’t convince the person who knows you best, then who can you convince?”

Gov. Sandoval said he is proud of his wife and her work with children. He said she has worked throughout their 21-year marriage and he has never received any criticism about Nevada having a working first lady.

He noted that one recent night she did not come home until 10:30 p.m. because of job requirements. While she worked late, Sandoval took their teenage daughter to a movie.

He tries to spend special time with each of their children. The governor has attended all of his son’s 22 basketball games and will be master of ceremonies soon at his youngest daughter’s dance recital. The couple work together to meet the needs of their children, he added.


In her job, Kathleen Sandoval sees the underside of Nevada that most people learn about in crime reports. She regularly visits children and their families in gang-infested neighborhoods in Reno.

She works with children who have been abused, who are runaways, delinquent, substance abusers. She also works with their families. The Children’s Cabinet operates a drop-in center and tries to find them jobs and help in other areas.

Just recently, Kathleen Sandoval said the brother of one of her young staff members was killed in a gang shooting. She quickly went to the home and helped the family set up the funeral, pack their belongings and move into a new home.

“We go to schools, we go to homes, we work with kids on the street,” said Sandoval, who has been with the Children’s Cabinet for 11 years. “We interact with the kids on a daily basis. They come from all walks of life. It is rewarding when you see the difference you make in people’s lives, people who you didn’t think you would turn around.”

As the youth intervention coordinator, Sandoval earns about $83,000 a year. Children’s Cabinet is a nonprofit charitable organization with annual revenues of about $17 million, all from grants and donations. A small share comes from the state.


Sandoval grew up in Reno, the daughter of a petroleum engineer. She said she was a tomboy who used to go chukkar hunting with her dad. She has three stepsisters or half-sisters, one who works with her at the Children’s Cabinet and another who lives in Las Vegas.

She met Sandoval when both were pursuing undergraduate degrees at the University of Nevada, Reno. They had a few dates before he went off to law school at Ohio State and she sought her master’s degree in speech pathology at California State University, Long Beach.

Then Brian Sandoval showed up at her college graduation and “stayed a month and the rest is history,” said Kathleen with another laugh.

It was because of her influence, she added, that her husband decided to give up a lifetime $170,000-a-year job as a federal judge, to make a run for governor in 2010.

“He was happy as a judge, but I know it would be one of those things he would look back at and say ‘Should I have done that?’ ”

Sandoval said she isn’t a strict Republican, but a voter who casts her ballot for the best candidate. Their goal is for the governor to serve two full four-year terms and then decide what is next. She normally does not read political blogs, but has heard the talk from Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney who said her husband might make a good Cabinet member.


In their private lives, Sunday afternoons and evenings are set aside for family matters. In the summer, they rented a cottage for a week at Lake Tahoe. They recently took James to a basketball camp at Palm Springs, Calif., and then spent a couple of days at Disneyland.

James, a sophomore, is the 5-foot-11 point guard on the Bishop Manogue High School team in Reno. Maddy is a cheerleader at the school and wants to go out for the track team this spring. Mom and Dad attend every game. The governor even keeps a score book to track every shot made by his son and his teammates.

On her own last summer, Kathleen Sandoval took her son and six of his friends to a basketball camp in Las Vegas.

“The most round trips (between Carson City and her job and the children’s school in Reno) I have made is four in one day,” she said. “I would be doing this whether my husband was governor or not. Children are our priority.”

While she is a Lutheran, the children are being raised in her husband’s Catholic faith. They decided to send the older children to Manogue, a Catholic school with hefty tuition, since it was where Sandoval attended and their children’s longtime friends attend the school.

Marissa attends a public elementary school in Reno.

Since her job is in Reno, Kathleen Sandoval said it is easier for her to respond to any emergencies involving her children with them in local schools. Marissa has an asthma problem and sometimes needs her help.

One perk of being first lady is that people tend to listen to her suggestions. For years, she has been a promoter of “Denim Day,” when people wear jeans and talk about the problem of the sexual assaults on women and girls.

“Now that I am first lady, we have Denim Days,” said Sandoval, again laughing. “State employees and school kids and teachers across the state are wearing denim. It was kind of nice.”

There is another perk of the job that both Sandovals and their children are pleased to have.

It has to do with having four dogs who leave their business on the Governor’s Mansion lawn. Cleaning up is the job of the prison trustees.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at or 775-687-3901.

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