CARSON CITY — Wes Duncan was never supposed to win his first run for office.
He left the Air Force in August 2011, but the tug of service that led him into the armed forces lingered even though Duncan’s only foray into politics had been running for class president in grade school.
Duncan, a Republican with a sterling resume, wanted to run for the Nevada Assembly in 2012, but the district he lived in was held by five term-Democratic Assemblyman Marcus Conklin, who was slated to be the chamber’s next speaker.
“I had political consultants in this state flat out tell me ‘You cannot win this race. There will be too much money against you. You’re a great candidate, we like your story. But there’s absolutely no way you can win this race,’” Duncan recalled in an interview with Review-Journal.
But Duncan trusted that voters felt the same desire for new voices in Carson City that he did. And voters proved him right. Conklin became the first legislative leader to lose an election in 20 years.
Now, that same desire to serve and gut feeling are driving Duncan in the race to become the next Nevada attorney general.
Duncan, 37, has run a campaign about creating a “safer Nevada.” For him, that starts with addressing the state’s mental health issues.
He wants to work with law enforcement to reform how the criminal justice system handles those dealing with mental health problems because jails and prisons have become “the primary place for mental health treatment.” The attorney general’s office could have a big role in changing that, Duncan said.
Specifically, he said he wants the attorney general’s office to work towards identifying more federal grants in the mental health arena to fund more programs like training more police officers on how to handle people dealing with mental health crises.
Dedicated to serve
Duncan said the desire to serve by leading was instilled in him from an early age while growing up in what he called the “a one stoplight town” of Sonora, Calif., which in 2010 had a population of 4,804.
His dad worked for UPS for 42 years, and both his parents were active members in the church, he said.
“My parents were always very generous with people around them. They were always looking for opportunities to help others,” Duncan said.
His parents weren’t political, but the politics bug bit Duncan thanks to his junior high government teacher Russ Lindgren. That class, Duncan said, “really piqued my interest in politics and the degree of influence it can have on people’s lives.”
Duncan went on to earn a degree in political science from the University of California, Berkeley, before jumping in his 1994 Honda Accord to drive across the country and pursue his law degree from Ohio State University.
After law school, Duncan joined the Air Force, where he was stationed at Nellis Air Force Base. He was deployed to Iraq, where he served as a judge advocate with the Iraqi court system to assist in prosecuting al-Qaida and other extremist groups in Baghdad.
By the fall of 2011, Duncan’s active duty time in the military was over and his sights turned towards the Nevada Legislature.
“I just felt a tug to give back. And I felt like after the service that I had given to the country, I wanted to see if I could be of service to at the state Legislature,” Duncan said.
Former Assemblyman Pat Hickey remembers Duncan’s 2012 race well. While consultants didn’t see challenging Conklin as a viable option, Hickey, then the chamber’s Republican leader, saw something in the young lawyer.
“I saw an ability to come across in a retail, kind of one-on-one, way as an authentic, young, fresh individual,” Hickey said.
As the campaign unfolded, he saw that Duncan put the work needed to in, taking to heart Hickey’s motto of “If you walk, you win. If you don’t, you won’t.”
“By the time the election came around, it didn’t surprise me. I saw that voters knew him, and they liked him,” Hickey said.
Duncan served one term before being tapped by Adam Laxalt to serve as first deputy of the attorney general’s office.
And now he is in the middle of “pivot-point” election for Nevada that it is “critical in determining which direction we go.”
“There’s issues that are facing the state that I think we need to have compassionate leadership to really solve big problems now so that our state can be reactive and ready to grow and meet the next chapter of our state,” Duncan said.
Education: Columbia College (California)
University of California, Berkeley, B.A. in political science
Ohio State University, J.D.
Family: Wife Jennifer, three children