CARSON CITY — U.S. Sen. Harry Reid wanted his call to outlaw legal brothels from Nevada’s rural landscape to prompt an "adult conversation" among lawmakers about the state’s notorious sex trade.
But what the Nevada Democrat got was an outcry of opposition from brothel owners and prostitutes looking to protect their livelihood and tepid responses from the legislators he asked to do the legal dirty work of running bordellos out of the state.
The gallery in the Assembly chambers went silent Tuesday when Reid paused for applause after he told lawmakers from both houses that "the time has come for us to outlaw prostitution."
Lawmakers from both major parties shied away from his suggestion that they could improve Nevada’s beleaguered economy by driving brothels out of the state and inviting other businesses in.
"Nevada needs to be known as the first place for innovation and investment, not as the last place where prostitution is still legal," said the Senate majority leader and Nevada’s most powerful politician.
Afterward, Democratic leaders of both houses said brothels aren’t on the top of their lists of legislative priorities. Rural Republicans dismissed the remarks altogether.
Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, who attended the speech, said the brothel industry is "not something I would support," but he added he thinks the decision to keep prostitution legal should remain at the local level.
Under state law, "houses of prostitution" are illegal in counties with more than 400,000 residents, a category that incudes Clark County. Rural counties are left to decide for themselves whether to license, tax and regulate brothels, which 10 counties have decided to do.
Washoe County, which includes Reno, doesn’t allow brothels.
While legislators weren’t eager to spring into action to ban rural bordellos, brothel owners and prostitutes were quick to denounce the senator’s remarks.
They accused Reid of seeking to undermine the rights of women to make their own employment decisions and sought to remind reporters, lawmakers and anyone in the Legislative Building who would listen that tax revenue from brothels is critical to the viability of rural county governments.
"This is a civil rights issue," said Dennis Hof, owner of the Moonlite BunnyRanch in Lyon County and several other brothels. "These women have a right to work. He should be proud of us. We have a clean industry."
Suzette Colette Cole, who works as a madam at the BunnyRanch, said Reid’s remarks "cut like a knife."
"What are all those girls going to do?" she asked. "Go out on the streets like in Las Vegas? Is that what he wants them to do?"
Prostitute Felicia Fox accused Reid of hypocrisy because he wants to put legal prostitutes out of work, while calling in the same speech for reviving Nevada’s economy.
"It is so hypocritical," she said. "Mr. Reid, wake up. Don’t take our jobs away."
"It is a good-paying job," said 20-year-old prostitute Jeyla Conrad. "I like what I do. I am a third-generation legal prostitute."
George Flint, longtime lobbyist for the Nevada Brothel Owners Association, estimates the state’s 24 licensed brothels employ 1,000 prostitutes, though only about 250 of them are working at any one time.
The rural operations also provide 500 jobs for support personnel, including bartenders, cooks, maids and managers, he said.
Reid’s comments were a hot topic for days before the speech, with brothel owners and prostitutes responding to a post on the Reno Gazette-Journal website Sunday night that reported he planned to criticize the industry.
The leak gave owners time to rally supporters and make a splash at the speech by inviting a bevy of working prostitutes into the Assembly chamber for Tuesday’s event.
But the advance attention didn’t dissuade Reid, who grew up in Searchlight and reported in his autobiography that the town had more brothels than churches and his mother did laundry for the bordellos.
Reid said he was moved to speak on the issue because a businessman, whom he didn’t identify, told him his company shelved plans to move to rural Storey County because of the presence of legal brothels.
"I’m doing this because I believe it is important for the image of our state to bring businesses here," Reid said afterward. "Having legalized prostitution stops businesses from coming here."
Former state Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno, who as a young district attorney in the 1950s made headlines for burning down a brothel and during his legislative career introduced a bill to push bordellos more than 50 miles from nearby cities, agreed with Reid.
"It does discourage and dissuade some legitimate companies from settling here," Raggio said.
The longtime Northern Nevada lawmaker said that in recent years a ski manufacturer decided not to build a facility in Sparks because of legal brothels in neighboring counties.
But Raggio wasn’t surprised that Reid’s call to action didn’t generate much enthusiasm.
Raggio said he and many other legislators who have opposed the industry met similar apathy.
"I understand you are looked upon as a moralist if you suggest this," Raggio said.
Like many state lawmakers, Reid’s Nevada colleagues in Congress didn’t jump behind his call to outlaw rural prostitution.
Reps. Dean Heller and Joe Heck, both R-Nev., didn’t comment on the issue. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said the decision to outlaw prostitution should remain with the counties.
Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., was the only member who responded at length.
"If these counties want to tolerate it, tax it, regulate it and license it, I don’t see it as my job to tell them what to do when it comes to legal prostitution," said Berkley, who is from Las Vegas but is considering a statewide run for the Senate seat held by Ensign. "As Nevadans, we are no strangers to criticism about what goes on in our state, and this issue is no exception."
Among state lawmakers strongly supporting Reid was Sen. John Lee, D-North Las Vegas.
"I see it as just a blight," Lee said of the industry. "It brings no value."
Eventually, however, even Reid grew weary discussing the topic with reporters, who spent more than half of an 11-minute news conference asking about his brothel stance, even though the vast majority of the speech covered education, renewable energy, the economy, bank bailouts and term limits for elected officials.
"Let me just say this. I appreciate all these questions about probably 7 or 8 percent of my speech," Reid said. "I’m glad that your interests have been piqued by prostitution, but it seems to me you guys should all get a new life and talk about something important."
Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault, Review-Journal Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel and Review-Journal writers Henry Brean and Laura Myers contributed to this report. Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3861.