Jason Frierson’s first question when he came to Nevada in 1988 was how long he would stay after being offered a football scholarship at the University of Nevada, Reno.
“My only question was, ‘Is this a five-year scholarship?’ ” Frierson recalled in a recent interview in the Legislative Building. “They said yes and I said, ‘where do I sign up?’”
The 46-year-old Frierson, who grew up in a tough neighborhood in Compton, California, has come a long way since that day.
Nearly 30 years later, the Assemblyman from District 8 in Las Vegas has made Nevada his home.
And on Monday, he will make history by becoming the first African-American speaker of the state Assembly.
Frierson, who is married with two children, ages 2 and 4, said leaving his family to serve in the session is difficult. He returns home every chance he gets, and the family enjoys just spending time together, he said.
While he looks back at his initiation to Nevada, Frierson is focused on the future. Now he has a chance to give back to his adopted state as the leader of the 42-member Assembly in the 2017 session.
Nevada has been good to me,” Frierson said. “I have always said we are one Nevada, and that will always be the case.”
His political career could have been cut short back in 2014, when he lost re-election by 40 votes in what became a GOP juggernaut in Nevada. But Frierson said he wanted to return to the Assembly because he had more to offer, and he did so in the 2016 election.
Democrats picked up 10 seats in 2016, bringing their number to 27 and retaking the majority.
FORMER SPEAKER OFFERS PRAISE
Former Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley said Frierson will be a terrific speaker.
”He is smart and dedicated and truly passionate about improving our state,” she said. “He is also a great communicator and respected by both parties. I felt honored when he chose to run in my Assembly seat after I retired, and as the first woman speaker in the state’s history, I will be equally proud when he is sworn in as the state’s first African-American speaker.”
Frierson enjoyed his football experiences, including helping win the NCAA Division 1-AA national championship over Boise State in 1990, but the running back injured his knee and he focused on his academic career, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in health science.
ON TO LAW SCHOOL
After a suggestion from former UNR President Joe Crowley, Frierson moved to Las Vegas to attend the charter class of the new Boyd Law School at UNLV, graduating in 2001. He clerked for former Nevada Supreme Court Justice Myron Leavitt and later became a deputy attorney general before working as a chief deputy public defender. Frierson is now in private practice.
So as Frierson ascends to the top ranking position in the Assembly, he comes to the job with knowledge of and links to both ends of the state.
“I learned from some real statesmen who cared about this institution and this gives me an opportunity to bring back those values,” Frierson said of his impending appointment. “I was Bill Raggio’s bank teller in college. I got to watch him and learn who he was. Politics aside, he was a statesman.”
The late Bill Raggio of Reno served as majority leader of the state Senate for decades and was known for his political acumen and love of the state and its institutions.
ON THE AGENDA
Frierson said there are a number of policy issues he wants to address in the 120-day session. At the top of his list is bringing back integrity to the Legislature and its processes.
He said there were problems in the 2015 session, when Republicans took control of the Assembly for the first time in 30 years.
“I don’t think it has as much to do with specific people as it does when you have a large number of new people who don’t know the value of productive structure and process,” he said. “There is no reason to ever repeat that, and violate protocol, respect for the institution and respect for each other.”
On the policy side, Frierson said legislative efforts will reflect the Democrat’s core priorities.
“Equal pay, getting people back to work, removing barriers to work, improving government transparency and efficiencies, these are all things that we’ve always fought for,” he said. “Protecting both women and members of the LBGTQ community and minority communities from harmful practices and policies.”
Frierson, who has known Gov. Brian Sandoval since 2003 when Sandoval was attorney general, said much of the state of the state address reflects shared values that Democrats endorse.
“But we have to get into the weeds of it and see how his budget reflects our core values.” he said. “There may be areas of higher priority for us.”
After the budget cuts and struggles for many of the past eight years, Nevada is in a better place than it has been in a long time, Frierson said.
The Legislature is expected to take up a variety of issues, including potential tweaks to the state property tax sought by some local governments and the controversial Education Savings Accounts, he said.
Despite a statement from state Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, that a property tax discussion is a nonstarter, Frierson said the system needs to reviewed.
Frierson is also open to a discussion of the GOP-supported Education Savings Accounts. Sandoval has proposed spending $60 million on the program to give parents up to $5,100 to send their children to private school, including religious schools.
But the pre-session rhetoric isn’t helping, Frierson said.
“So I think once we are able to sit down we may discover some common ground,” Frierson said. “We haven’t been able to do that because folks draw a line in the sand before the session starts.
“Choice is a broad term. There are a lot of things that comprise choice and true choice for everybody.”
NOT DEFINED BY OFFICE
Frierson said he “got the bug” to get into politics because of the ability to make a positive difference. Buckley and others recruited him to run for his first term in 2010.
Frierson won a second term in 2012, and he stayed involved during the 2015 session when he was not in elective office. While he has a lot yet to accomplish, Frierson said he won’t have any trouble walking away when the time comes.
“We have a citizens’ Legislature and anybody who is defined by this is in it for the wrong reasons,” he said. “You do as much good as you can do and leave it better than you found it. And whenever it is over you sail off and continue your life in whatever path that takes you.”
Contact Sean Whaley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-461-3820. Follow @seanw801 on Twitter.