‘Mo’ Denis ready to lead legislative Democrats

CARSON CITY — He doesn’t smoke or drink or swear. He was an Eagle Scout and the state PTA president. His priority is being a good father for his five children and a good husband for Susan, his wife of 28 years.

And at a time when the ethics and credibility of politicians seem to be waning, this man is a politician who espouses principles, a politician rising quickly in clout in Nevada.

State Sen. Moises "Mo" Denis, D-Las Vegas, is the shoo-in to become the Democratic leader and probable majority leader of the state Senate during the next legislative session in 2013.

Holding the most powerful Senate position will give him influence over every issue the Legislature tackles. If Democrats retain the majority, then Denis will name committee members and chairmen, determine what bills live and die, joust with the governor and manage the platform of his party.

Denis also would become the first person of Hispanic heritage to lead a political party in the state Senate. He represents state Senate District 2, the area east of Las Vegas Boulevard that runs from Charleston Boulevard in the south to Nellis Air Force Base in the north.

District 2 is the only Senate district with a majority Hispanic population.

"If I can help, I am willing to step up and be a leader," said Denis, a legislator since 2004 best known for his work on public education reform at this year’s session.

GOP WILL CHALLENGE DENIS

With state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford running next year for Congress, Denis, 50, is destined to replace him as party leader.

But Denis won’t find it any easier than Horsford did in dealing with Republicans if he tries to push tax increases or what they consider liberal legislation.

State Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, already warns that Denis will face the wrath of Republicans in 2013 if he tries to increase the size of state government.

As the likely Republican leader, Roberson will become Denis’ chief nemesis.

He noted Denis last spring backed the extension of $620 million in taxes that would have expired and pushed into law a bill over Republican opposition that sets standards for "musical therapists." But Roberson conceded Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval supported Denis’ positions, too.

"Mo is a nice guy who may turn out as the perfect minority leader," Roberson said. "He may be mild-mannered, but he votes lock step with Senator Horsford."

Denis cannot be baited into criticizing Republicans.

"At the Nevada Legislature, we need to work together," Denis said. "I always try to have good thoughts about people. People say I am too nice. But life is too short. We can focus on the negative, but why not focus on the positive?"

Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, wonders if Denis’ talk about harmony with Republicans will end once legislators return to Carson City. Politicians always talk about working together, but forget that talk once they bear down on issues, Herzik said.

"People have to back off their ideology and start engaging with the other side," he said. "Horsford was a passionate defender of what he believed in and could match the Republicans’ ‘My way or the highway’ attitude.’ "

Whether Denis can stand up to the task or both parties will accept compromise is yet to be determined, Herzik said.

Denis already is behaving like the Democrats’ leader. He is fundraising chairman for the upper house’s Democrats and is in charge of recruiting candidates for Senate seats next year.

While the next Legislature is 15 months away, Denis expects improving education, creating jobs and reforming the tax structure will remain key issues.

He isn’t saying yet whether the Democrats’ agenda will include bills to increase taxes.

DEMOCRAT ALL THE WAY

Born in New York to Cuban immigrant parents, Denis has a nationally known politician cousin, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Rubio, who attended elementary school in Las Vegas, is being eyed as a Republican vice presidential candidate, although he has said he won’t be a candidate.

Nonetheless, Denis won’t have any problem voting for the Democratic ticket headed by President Barack Obama.

"President Obama has been responsive," Denis said. "I have spoken with him several times, including at the White House. He chose health care as his first big issue. Politically that may not have been a smart move, but health care is a very important issue."

Denis is a staunch Democrat.

"For me, I always fight for the little guy," he said. "I am a person who is inclusive, and I think the Democratic Party is inclusive. But there are good things about both parties."

Family was the reason Denis got involved in civic life in the first place.

When his youngest daughter entered school, he joined the school PTA, which then was attracting about 10 parents to meetings. He eventually became president, changed the meeting time to the evenings and recruited more members.

"I always have been one that said I can’t complain about stuff unless I am willing to do something about it. They said parents don’t want to be involved. That wasn’t true. Some of these parents are working one or two jobs. There were cultural and language barriers. You have to go out and ask them. Sometimes that’s all it takes."

DENIS ON HISPANIC ISSUES

Proud of his heritage, Denis does not want people to support him or any politician because they are Hispanic.

"Just because you are Hispanic doesn’t mean you are going to be the best person for the job," he said.

During the 2011 session, Denis opposed moves to pass anti-immigration laws. Immigration is an issue that must be resolved at the federal level, not at the state level, he said.

He noted that Russell Pearce, the Arizona state senator who authored that state’s anti-immigration law, was recalled by voters on Tuesday.

No one complained about un­documented residents before the recession began, because they were needed to fill jobs that otherwise would have gone unfilled, Denis said.

"They contributed more to our economy than they took. They come here to make life better for their families."

He pointed out that Alabama farmers could not find enough American workers this fall willing to do jobs after the state cracked down on undocumented workers.

While there are not a lot of strictly Hispanic issues, Denis said "just having someone who understands the Hispanic community" in a leadership position is important to Hispanic people.

As the Hispanic caucus leader last spring, Denis was outspoken in his opposition to the Republican redistricting plan to create majority Hispanic districts.

He saw the GOP’s real motive as a move to dilute the voting strength of Hispanics who generally vote Democrat.

All eight Hispanic legislators are Democrats.

"The Republican Party’s record on Hispanic issues borders between ambivalent and atrocious, so their sudden interest in taking up the mantle of minority voting rights must be examined," Denis said at the time. "Quite frankly, you don’t let the fox guard the henhouse."

As the state Senate Education chairman, Denis pushed into law reforms that make it easier to fire underperforming teachers, while at the same time giving them an opportunity to improve. Improving education is a key issue for Hispanics, he said.

However, he adamantly opposed Gov. Brian Sandoval’s plan to extend vouchers to parents who want to send their children to private schools. Denis said vouchers will benefit only a minority of students and destroy public education.

FAMILY AND ROOTS

Denis and his wife are parents of five children, ages 9 to 26. Susan Denis grew up only a few blocks from his boyhood home in Las Vegas. Like him, she attended Rancho High School.

But they never met until they both took rides from a mutual friend back and forth from Las Vegas to Brigham Young University in Utah one semester.

A Mormon since elementary school, Denis was a music major at BYU and served a two-year mission in Uruguay. He has been a bishop for his local ward and now serves as the second councilor to the presidency of his stake, a group of six to 12 Mormon wards or congregations.

After the Denises married and had their first child, Mo Denis "got on with the business of life." He quit college six credits short of graduation and moved back to Las Vegas for work.

Two decades later, in 2004, after prodding from his children and taking some classes at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Denis received his degree from BYU.

Not to be outdone, his wife went back to school when their youngest child entered kindergarten. She eventually earned a teaching degree from Nevada State College in Henderson and now teaches at the elementary school six houses from their home.

Denis is a computer network technician for the Public Utilities Commission.

He taught himself computers in the mid-1980s, largely by joining a computer club and reading every book he could find about computers. He took the PUC job in 1993.

Once the operator of a music store and a piano salesman, Denis still loves music and occasionally sings and dances in summer musical theater productions. Three of his children even joined him in a recent production of "Seussical."

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

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