Staff change signals new beginning for Gibbons

If anyone is proclaiming the beginning of a new era for Gov. Jim Gibbons, it is not his new chief of staff, Josh Hicks.

“I hope we just have a good, smooth-functioning office and staff,” he said in a recent interview. “One thing we want to do is get the message out of what we’ve been doing and continue to do in government.”

But a lot of hopes are pinned on Hicks, who replaces Chief of Staff Mike Dayton in what is widely seen as a long-overdue housecleaning for a troubled administration.

Although few think the governor with the 21 percent positive rating can achieve a total political makeover, there’s cautious optimism among the lobbyists, political consultants, activists and legislators of both parties who watch state government that an office renowned for infighting, insularity and intractability may be getting a fresh start.

“The governor is damaged politically, but I think he sent a signal that he’s willing to change how his administration governs,” Republican political consultant Ryan Erwin said. “He finally made some changes. It clearly marks a potential turnaround.”

Erwin and others praised Hicks, a 35-year-old lawyer and Reno native who was elevated from the position of chief counsel to Gibbons, as smart, honest and trustworthy, qualities they said have often been missing from the Capitol.

“If he handles himself the way I think he will, he will earn the respect of Democrats and Republicans alike; and once you’ve got respect, you can work with someone,” he said. “That’s what’s been missing from this administration. There’s been a trust problem. If something can’t get done, Josh follows up and says it can’t get done. That’s remarkable.”

Conservative activist Chuck Muth, in a recent essay titled “The Resurrection of Jim Gibbons,” noted that those who think Gibbons can’t possibly do any worse “underestimate this administration’s uncanny ability to shoot itself in the foot and cause additional damage at the drop of a hat. That being said, Gibbons has recently laid the foundation for a comeback.”

The changes to Gibbons’ staff were announced late last month during the one-day special legislative session, in a news release that portrayed them as normal turnover. Dayton is leaving for the private sector, although Hicks said he will continue to closely advise the administration.

Also leaving Gibbons’ staff is Dianne Cornwall, whose title evolved from deputy chief of staff to “chief operating officer,” a linguistic invention, Cornwall’s critics say, that reflected the corrosive rivalry between Cornwall and Dayton and uncertainty about who was really in charge.

Dayton and Cornwall had been in their posts since Gibbons took office in January 2007. Although Democrats tend to see Gibbons as a disaster, his ideological allies have believed since nearly the beginning that he could do better with better people.

Cornwall has not left state government; she will head the Department of Business and Industry, while the former head of that department, Mendy Elliott, will serve under Hicks as deputy chief of staff.

Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, is no fan of Gibbons but said she hopes there will be more dialogue with Hicks. “It can only get better,” she said.

Before becoming Gibbons’ chief counsel, Hicks worked in the attorney general’s office for five years as a lawyer for the Taxation Department, Tax Commission and secretary of state.

“He lacks experience with the legislative process,” Leslie said. “He showed up an hour before the special session was going to begin and wanted to negotiate. I put that down to not understanding the way we do business. But I have hope. The biggest difference is he seems to have a desire to interact with us.”

Some observers, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they work with the administration, saw a lack of resolve in the fact that the move constituted a promotion rather than a sidelining for Cornwall, and noted that bad blood persists between Elliott and many legislators based on her work as a banking lobbyist during the calamitous 2003 legislative session.

Doubts are also widespread that Gibbons is committed to an uphill battle to improve his political standing, especially considering some of his actions while his divorce is pending.

Just last week, Gibbons made the gossip columns by attending an Ultimate Fighting Championship event and hanging out at the swanky Tao nightclub in Las Vegas. During the special legislative session, photographs were published of the governor attending a Reno rodeo with a woman he described as a friend.

His closest advisers are frustrated with Gibbons’ extracurricular activities, which clash with the message of a state government that is biting the bullet to get through tough times. Plummeting state revenues mean budget cuts that have been called the most severe since the Great Depression.

Hicks acknowledged there had been “distractions,” but said, “The whole story about the governing hasn’t been getting out there. That’s something that would help the perception of this administration.”

Hicks and other members of the staff argue that Gibbons has displayed leadership by sticking to his promise not to raise taxes.

“Every governor has had revenue problems. We’re having the most significant,” Hicks said. “It’s been a huge challenge. You wouldn’t see a lot of governors who would continue, strongly, without wavering. A lot of other people would have called a special session to raise taxes; you didn’t see that with Governor Gibbons.”

Gibbons spokesman Ben Kieckhefer, promoted from press secretary to communications director in the shake-up, pointed to Gibbons’ plan to fund transportation priorities at the end of the 2007 legislative session, his promotion of public-private transportation partnerships, his push for renewable energy development that recently entered a second phase, and his plan to ask the 2009 Legislature for a tighter cap on state spending.

All, he said, were successful examples of innovative thinking.

Hicks noted that legislators could have taken a different course in the special session, but did not. (Many lawmakers, however, complained that Gibbons’ plan for the session was largely an appropriation of a bipartisan agreement worked out without his input.)

“At the end of the day, lawmakers went along with the plan to reduce spending,” Hicks said. “They didn’t like it, of course not. The governor doesn’t like to have to reduce spending. But the Legislature followed the governor’s lead.”

Hicks was a high school classmate of Gibbons’ 2006 campaign manager, Robert Uithoven, who started a political consulting firm after being passed over for the chief of staff position after the 2006 election. After a long freeze-out, Gibbons reached out to Uithoven for counsel in May.

Uithoven described himself as one of a handful of advisers to Gibbons these days.

“I’ve given my opinion on different things I thought could be done to begin getting people refocused,” he said.

“It’s just an opinion, and ultimately he has to make the decision. Ultimately he’s judged on his performance. Voters don’t want to hear the chief executive of the state blame other people or blame his staff.

“That being said, I think he has to look at all the factors that affect what he does as governor, and working with the people closest to you is a big part of that. Staff changes never guarantee you’re going to turn things around, but sometimes if you don’t make them, you’re not going to be able to turn things around.”

Reno-based Republican consultant and lobbyist Pete Ernaut was chief of staff to former Gov. Kenny Guinn and is a distant cousin of Hicks, who he said has a tremendous challenge and a tremendous opportunity ahead.

“People are much more willing to forgive mistakes or overlook weaknesses as long as you put a great effort to communicate above everything else,” Ernaut said. “If there’s been one problem, it’s been an inability to communicate with legislators and other people who have been through this before. I’m very hopeful that with the new staff, especially with Josh Hicks, there will be a renewed effort to build consensus around ideas rather than creating conflicts.”

Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball or 702-387-2919.

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