Could a year go by in Southern Nevada without its share of political scandal, celebrity newsmakers and public health scares?
Maybe, but not this year.
U.S. Sen. John Ensign’s infidelities. Michael Jackson’s death and subsequent investigation. The swine flu panic.
They all made headlines in 2009, and they all made the top 10 news stories of the year, as voted on by the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s staff.
So did the sudden death of Danny Gans, the end — possibly — of Yucca Mountain, and others.
Just missing the top 10 list were the region’s continuing water woes, cash-strapped University Medical Center paying $20 million for dialysis for illegal immigrants, and the state’s new domestic partners law.
But enough about what didn’t make the list and on to the story of the year: the sour economy. It appeared in these pages in some form or another almost every day, making it the top story by a wide margin. And at the rate things are going, there’s a good chance it’ll make the list next year.
1. HARD TIMES
Look around your neighborhood. There are “For Sale” signs on your block, not because people want to move but because they have to. As a state, Nevada was the worst in the nation for foreclosures in 2009.
More families than ever are at local charities for the first time, getting food and looking for shelter assistance. Others are just living day-to-day on unemployment benefits.
The state’s unemployment rate hovered at 13 percent this year, second worst in the country. And even when there was a slight downtick in that statistic, it wasn’t because more people were employed, but because the labor pool was shrinking. People just gave up looking for work, or they were getting out of Dodge.
Local municipalities faced hard choices in the face of declining revenues: Obtain wage concessions from employees or lay off workers.
Headlines for the gaming sector were the same each month: Revenue is down.
Construction industry jobs disappeared by the thousands.
The one bright spot was CityCenter, the $8.5 billion project that opened this month with 12,000 new jobs.
But some see that as a gamble as well.
“The party’s over,” said Mary Riddel, associate professor at UNLV and interim director of the Center for Business and Economic Research.
John Ensign’s dalliances with a former campaign staffer overshadowed just about everything anyone else in the state’s delegation did on Capitol Hill.
In June the once-rising Republican star admitted to an affair with Cindy Hampton. And when it looked like the news couldn’t get worse for Ensign, it did.
After news of the affair broke, Doug Hampton, her husband and a former high-level employee in Ensign’s Senate office, went on local television and interviewed with the New York Times and “Nightline” to detail allegations that Ensign helped him land lobbying work with companies seeking to influence the senator.
Hampton also revealed a $96,000 payment from Ensign’s parents, which Ensign’s attorney characterized as a gift. Hampton says it was severance to leave the office, and critics characterized it as hush money.
Ensign has denied any unethical or illegal behavior.
Still, the sordid saga led to an investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee, talk of potential prosecution for violating lobbying restrictions and a blow to Ensign’s political career from which he may never recover.
3. TRAGIC YEAR FOR POLICE
The Metropolitan Police Department had lost four officers in the line of duty in the past 20 years. Then it lost four in six months, by far the deadliest stretch in the history of Southern Nevada law enforcement.
The deaths began May 7 when officer James Manor’s patrol car, traveling 109 mph with no lights or sirens on Flamingo Road, hit a pickup that turned left in front of it. Manor, 28, was not wearing a seat belt.
Five months later, officer Milburn Beitel, 30, died when his speeding patrol car swerved to avoid another car and crashed. Beitel was not wearing a seat belt.
Sheriff Doug Gillespie said both officers were driving too fast, and he ordered a review of department driving policies and increased training.
A month after Beitel’s death, officer Trevor Nettleton, 30, was killed in a shootout with two teens in the garage of his North Las Vegas home.
Two days later, corrections officer Daniel Leach died when his police van struck a tractor-trailer and crashed on U.S. Highway 95 near Searchlight. He was wearing a seat belt and driving between 67 and 73 mph in the 65 mph zone. Gillespie called Leach’s death an accident.
4. KING OF POP
Rumors about a Strip comeback for Michael Jackson had been circulating for years, but it wasn’t until his death that the entertainment icon made headlines again in Las Vegas.
Jackson died June 25 in Los Angeles, but his deathbed doctor lived and worked in Las Vegas, which brought investigators and media hordes to the desert in search of answers.
With news cameras rolling, Los Angeles police and federal drug agents teamed up to search Dr. Conrad Murray’s Red Rock Country Club home and cardiology office. They also searched a Las Vegas pharmacy where Murray, 56, purchased propofol, an anesthetic that killed Jackson.
Murray reportedly is back working at his Houston office while the criminal investigation continues.
5. REID’S YEAR
U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, a Democrat, who spent much of 2008 sparring with President George W. Bush, spent 2009 shepherding through the Senate the most comprehensive piece of health legislation since the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.
As Senate majority leader, Reid was the point man who helped President Barack Obama deliver on his promise to deliver reform legislation early in his presidency.
The role put Reid in the spotlight as the man who would take the credit — or the blame — for the legislation that divided Nevadans.
Reid also in 2009 was key in delivering a near death sentence to an unpopular proposal to store high-level radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain (more on that later).
Reid ends the year looking ahead to his re-election bid in 2010. He has a massive war chest, but challengers hoping to unseat him are encouraged by his flat poll numbers.
6. DANNY GANS DIES
Impressionist Danny Gans had been a fixture on Las Vegas marquees for more than a decade when his wife found him unconscious and not breathing in their bed in the early morning hours of May 1.
Despite the efforts of his wife and paramedics to revive him, the 52-year-old never regained consciousness.
Entertainers and fans mourned Gans, who had just begun a run at Encore after eight years at The Mirage, while medical examiners tried to determine what killed the star.
Five weeks later, the coroner’s office blamed the accidental death on a combination of heart and blood diseases along with a powerful prescription painkiller used to treat chronic pain, hydromorphone. Gans had battled a painful chronic shoulder injury that required surgery five months earlier.
7. SWINE FLU
Few had heard of the swine flu before this year, but after runs on hand sanitizer, thousands of shots and a few dozen related deaths, H1N1 is now etched in the minds of Southern Nevadans.
The first cases of H1N1 emerged in May, including four at Marion Earl Elementary School. That news prompted hundreds of parents to keep their kids home for several days. The first swine flu-related death in the county came in June, a tourist from New York. The number of Clark County residents who have had swine flu and died now stands at 35. Most had other underlying medical conditions.
The Southern Nevada Health District got its first doses of the injectable vaccine in October, and thousands of people waited hours at a time to get it at free clinics, even if they weren’t among groups deemed by health authorities to be high-risk.
The vaccine now has been distributed to pharmacies, doctors offices and other medical facilities. Recent figures show the number of H1N1 cases is declining.
8. RECORD TAXES AND VETOES
In the midst of the worst recession in generations, the Democratic-dominated Legislature approved a record-setting $1 billion in tax increases, raising the sales tax and nearly doubling the payroll tax.
Not to be outdone, Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons set his own record amid constant squabbling with legislators, vetoing 48 bills.
Legislators overrode 25 of those vetoes, thanks to support from at least two state Senate Republicans for each one.
Despite the record tax increases, state coffers were stretched thin as the year drew to a close, and Gibbons was considering calling a special legislative session to deal with dwindling revenues.
9. DOWN FOR THE COUNT
It didn’t take long for President Barack Obama, with support from Nevada’s congressional delegation, to slash funding for the Yucca Mountain Project to an all-time low and announce no funding by 2011.
The proposed national nuclear waste repository 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, which state officials have fought for more than two decades, was dealt another blow when Obama’s energy secretary announced that the site was no longer an option for storing 77,000 tons of spent fuel from around the country.
Still, the Department of Energy continues its pursuit of a license to build the repository — even if it’s going through the motions — and lawyers for Nevada continue their fight against it.
10. ANYONE BUT JIM
Heading toward a re-election bid next year, Gov. Jim Gibbons can take no comfort in his poll numbers.
Recent polls commissioned by the Review-Journal show Gibbons trailing former U.S. District Judge Brian Sandoval 2-to-1 in a Republican primary. Clark County Commission Chairman Rory Reid, a Democrat, lags 11 points behind Oscar Goodman, who has not announced whether he intends to seek the governor’s office but has changed his voter registration status from Democrat to independent.
Gibbons has dismissed the polls, saying in time his stand against taxes will resonate with voters.
Review-Journal writers Warren Bates, Keith Rogers, Benjamin Spillman and Ed Vogel contributed to this report. Contact reporter Brian Haynes at email@example.com or 702-383-0281.