WASHINGTON — There have been a lot of firsts for Catherine Cortez Masto. She is the first woman to serve as U.S. senator from Nevada and the first Latina in the Senate.
And her path to that powerful position was made possible by hard work in the legal ranks, from Las Vegas to Carson City.
But along the way she witnessed one of the most horrific events in Washington history — one that altered everyday life in America.
Just blocks from where she lives in Washington, D.C., Cortez Masto was working in September 2001, as a federal prosecutor for the U.S. attorney’s office when terrorists struck the Pentagon across the Potomac River and the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York.
“I’ll never forget it,” Cortez Masto, 52, recalled in an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “I was in court at the time — it was the first time I’ve been in court when they shut the courtroom down.”
Cortez Masto was working in the Judiciary Square area, a stone’s throw from the Senate. Her husband was working in the city as a U.S. Secret Service agent.
She was in the middle of a sentencing when the judge picked up the phone, then ordered evacuation.
“It was mass chaos,” she said. “Everyone was trying to leave Superior Court … everybody was trying to get out of the city at the same time. It was terrible.”
Sixteen years later, Cortez Masto, who was born in Las Vegas, is back in the nation’s capital as a lawmaker overseeing national security interests.
She is engaged in a wide range of issues before the Senate, which will vote on confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice, repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act and immigration measures, as well as dealing with Nevada-specific problems and proposals.
Cortez Masto was elected last year with just 47 percent of the vote in a swing state — one that saw Democrats also win three of four congressional seats and majorities in the state Senate and Assembly.
For her part, she has voted with Republicans on some Cabinet nominees by President Donald Trump. But she also is a pointedly vocal critic of the president and sides with Democrats on immigration and most other issues.
“The nice thing for Masto is that, after a grueling race, she doesn’t have to run for reelection for another half a decade. Who knows what the world will look like then? So she can probably vote her conscience from time to time,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst for the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Kondik said Cortez Masto probably liked some of the Cabinet nominees she voted for, like Ryan Zinke for the Interior Department and Rick Perry for the Energy Department.
“But a scan of her record suggests that she has shied away from backing the controversial Trump appointees. So on the important votes, she seems to be sticking with the middle or left wing of the Democratic Party.”
Some of Cortez Masto’s views are shaped by heritage and life experience. She is the granddaughter of a Mexican immigrant who came to Nevada from Chihuahua.
Cortez Masto took direct aim at Trump’s immigration policies with her first bill. Her legislation would rescind an executive order to step up interior enforcement and deportations of undocumented immigrants.
“This executive order is doing nothing other than tearing families apart and sowing fear in communities of people who are hardworking, who came to this country for no other reason than to have an opportunity to succeed,” Cortez Masto said. “Similar to what my grandfathers came here for.”
However, she admits that she has yet to get a Republican to support her bill, and without bipartisan support, the legislation faces steep hurdles in a Senate where the GOP holds a 52-48 majority.
Back in Nevada, Cortez Masto was criticized for filing the bill by state Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson.
In a statement, Roberson said the bill she filed “handcuffs law enforcement and puts our security at risk. I look forward to watching this bill fail.”
Cortez Masto remains undaunted. She has 25 Democratic sponsors, and she’s talking with Republican colleagues who may cross the aisle and support it.
“We need to bring our voices forward,” Cortez Masto said of the immigration reform debate.
On other issues before the Senate, Cortez Masto is concerned about GOP plans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.
Nevada, under a Republican governor, expanded Medicaid coverage. That provided coverage for an additional 300,000 people in the state.
Because of the ACA, Cortez Masto said, rural Nevadans have access for the first time because of spending for hospitals and clinics in underserved areas.
“My biggest concern is that we are going to take insurance away from those Nevadans,” Cortez Masto said. “It is not only taking away insurance for individuals. It is increasing the cost of health care for people across this country.”
A former state attorney general, Cortez Masto has a legal background that has guided her political career. She is currently reading up on rulings by federal appeals Judge Neil Gorsuch, nominated by Trump to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Gorsuch, a fellow westerner, is from Colorado. But Cortez Masto said she is “more interested in his opinions” than his origins.
She plans to meet with Gorsuch and ask him about the 1973 landmark Supreme Court decision that gave women the right to have an abortion.
“My biggest concern with him is the fact that Donald Trump wanted someone who was going to roll back Roe v. Wade. That’s a big concern of mine, and that’s a conversation I want to have with (Gorsuch) in private,” Cortez Masto said.
On state matters, Cortez Masto has joined U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., on a bill that would give Nevada more say over efforts to create a permanent nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain.
And she’s working with Gov. Brian Sandoval, Heller and the congressional delegation on local projects that could be included in Trump’s plan to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure improvements.
And she’s well aware of college basketball standings as March Madness approaches.
Cortez Masto received a law degree at Gonzaga University, where the Bulldog men’s and women’s teams have earned automatic berths to the NCAA tournament.
And the Wolf Pack men’s team from the University of Nevada, where she earned an undergraduate degree, is ranked first in the Mountain West Conference.
“They are doing great. They really are,” she said.
Contact Gary Martin at 202-662-7390 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @garymartindc on Twitter.
Catherine Cortez Masto’s career highlights:
1986: Graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno
1990: Graduated from Gonzaga University School of Law
1995-98: Southern director for former Nevada Gov. Bob Miller
1998-99: Chief of staff for Gov. Miller
2000-2001: Prosecutor for the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, D.C.
2002-05: Assistant Clark County manager
2007-2015: Attorney general of Nevada
2016: Executive vice chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education
2017-present: U.S. senator from Nevada
SOURCE: Review-Journal research