November 25, 2019 - 12:01 am
ELY — In January, on the advice of friends who included his seventh-grade English teacher and Cub Scout den mother, Nathan Robertson made up his mind:
He would run for mayor of Ely, a mining community of 4,000, in this year’s June elections. He even had his campaign slogan, “More Planning. Fewer Potholes.”
Still, close friends cautioned him, “Have you really thought about this?”
The concern wasn’t just possible age bias, that at age 35 he’d be one of the youngest mayors ever elected in conservative White Pine County, which had voted for Donald Trump in 2016 by a whopping 72 percent.
There was something else.
He was gay.
Robertson’s roots date back five generations in this rural town founded as a stagecoach station along the old Pony Express route. His Mormon ancestors worked in the local mines and on nearby ranches. His father and grandfather have served as the town’s optometrists.
Robertson has his own personal stake here. And he tired of the many older residents being elected to public office merely because they were available who brought personal agendas and political axes.
Robertson, an engineer at a local paving company who also runs his own laundromat, had returned to Ely after attending college and Mormon missionary work, and he wanted to bring the voice of a new generation to residents in the state’s eastern reaches.
Robertson won by a wide margin — 527 votes to 235 — more than doubling the count of opponent Ed Spear.
With his victory in June, Robertson became Nevada’s second gay mayor. The first was Daniel Corona, who is mayor of the tiny town of West Wendover, just 120 miles northeast of Ely, along the Utah border.
At age 28, Corona is also a fifth-generation resident who returned to rural Nevada after several years away.
Some suggest rural Nevada’s gay mayors could represent a sign of change in the cultural attitudes of small-town America, where a generation ago gay men and women fled to cosmopolitan Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco, just to be themselves. Nevada, for example, also became the nation’s first state to elect a female-majority Legislature. Nevadans also elected a Democratic governor and Democrats also took a majority in both the Senate and Assembly.
For both Robertson and Corona, their deep local roots may have played a role in their neighbors’ acceptance and support.
“These rural communities can be accepting of a local boy or girl made good,” said Gregory Hinton, a historian and curator of “Out West,” a national museum program series inspired by his own upbringing in small-town Cody, Wyoming.
“They’ve seen them grow up as children and know their sexual preferences don’t necessarily define them, that it’s just one of their characteristics,” said Hinton, who is gay.
Corona agrees. You can come home again, even if you’re gay in rural America. “It depends on your family,” he said.
During his candidacy, Robertson never mentioned he was gay. “It’s not like people didn’t know,” he said over a bowl of soup at a local restaurant. “But I think it counts for something if people around here know you, know your family. I’m a private person and I did not want to defend my personal life in public.”
‘A lot of whispering’
While few Ely residents publicly brought up the issue of Robertson’s sexual identity, it would be mentioned in private conversions.
“There was definitely a lot of whispering,” said Andy Bath, a school friend who co-owns a pharmacy in town. “For some people, it was a red flag. If anything, it was more with the LDS church. … And it looks like the majority of those people did not vote for him.”
Robertson’s lifestyle has cost him a voice in his chosen faith. When he moved in with partner Shadrach Michaels, a local schoolteacher-turned newspaper reporter, Robertson was ex-communicated, no longer allowed to take an active role in church life. But he still attends weekly services.
John Chachas said Robertson attended grade school with his daughters. Over the years, he’s become paternal to the new mayor.
“I love that kid,” he said, his voice breaking.
Chachas, an insurance agent and former councilman, knows the political slant that pervades his hometown, but said Robertson’s election marked a turning point for Ely. “He sent a message,” Chachas said.
For his part, Spear said he doesn’t care about Robertson’s personal life: “I’ve known his family forever and I think we need to vote on people’s merits, not their sexual orientation.”
An incident earlier this year also showed Ely’s changes in other ways.
Earlier this year, a city councilman questioned whether council candidate and mother Michelle Beecher, who was seeking an appointment to a vacant council seat, could fulfill her public duties while raising a family, according to The Ely Times.
Beecher didn’t get that position, but she has since been appointed to fill another council seat. She said she also hopes new blood will bring change. “I hope it says that Ely is forward-thinking and that people can see past those things they may not like about a candidate.”
‘He’s a good man’
In West Wendover, a town of 5,000 residents about 120 miles northeast of Ely, Corona became Nevada’s first openly LGBTQ mayor in 2016.
“This shouldn’t matter, but it does,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
Neither he nor his opponent, then-incumbent Mayor Emily Carter, mentioned his orientation during the campaign. “It never occurred to me,” she said.“It’s sad that it’s even an issue in some places.”
Corona says his critics have singled him out in other ways, such as snickering over the fact that he still lives with his mother and often rides with her to work when she reports to her job at the adjacent police department.
Gary Corona, a captain in the West Wendover Fire Department, insists most people don’t judge his son harshly: “Our family has been in this town long enough that people know him. He’s a person and he’s a good man. That’s all that matters.”
Corona has received a few vulgar emails, but he takes them in stride. “If the only thing you can criticize is my sexuality,” he said, “then I must be doing a good job.”
In Ely, Nathan Robertson also confronts misunderstanding and criticism.
When his partner took a job teaching middle school, parents told him they didn’t want their children in his classroom because he was gay. Months into his job, Robertson said he “doesn’t lose any sleep” over people who won’t approach him with issues they might have with his sexuality. Instead, he focuses on his mayoral duties, walking the town in his baseball cap, jeans and flannel shirt, working on his cars, driving the old beater he bought in Salt Lake City for $500.
Michaels is proud of his partner.
“Nathan wants to be the best mayor he can be,” he said. “We warned him people here were going to insist on giving this gay guy a run for his money. But he threw caution to the wind and did it anyway because he loves this town.”
John M. Glionna is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer. He may be reached at email@example.com.