It was shortly after Thanksgiving, and Shelley Berkley was feeling the spirit of the season.
She had just left a local Sears store, where her husband and two sons posed for their annual family holiday photo. From there, it was over to the cemetery to honor the memory of the Democratic congresswoman’s mother.
In the wake of the bruising November election, in which she narrowly lost the U.S. Senate race to Republican Dean Heller, Berkley barely broke stride before returning to the real world that begins at the edge of the great American political arena.
Lately, she’s even had time to catch the latest James Bond movie at the Suncoast with her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner.
Moving through the sea of slot machines, she was stopped time and again by locals who sought to bolster her spirits with a handshake or hug. Some talked politics, but others just wanted to curse the final tally. Berkley says she appreciated the outpouring of affection, and she’d be lying if she said the recent campaign hadn’t briefly staggered her, but she hadn’t lost a limb or a loved one. She’d lost only an election.
The truth is the sun keeps rising, life is good, and it continues after the campaign carnival has moved on.
At a post-election youth forum, she found herself surrounded by local teenagers who sought her opinion on their own roles in shaping the state of our union. Berkley was anything but bitter.
“I told them that I think that public service is the most noble calling,” she says. “The campaign did not sour me even though it was a very difficult campaign, and a very ugly one at the end.”
At the end, a multimillion-dollar blitz of negative television advertising funded in substantial part by Berkley’s former boss, Las Vegas Sands Corp. CEO Sheldon Adelson, appears to have turned off enough voters to make a difference for Heller. Ironically, the billionaire who espouses great love for Israel went all out to defeat arguably that nation’s most indefatigable supporter in Congress. With the impending retirement of champion of Israel Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Berkley planned to take her dedication to the Senate.
“It wasn’t just a career move or political timing that motivated me,” she says. “One of the things that compelled me to take this step is Lieberman’s decision not to run for re-election. I didn’t think there was anyone that would be as focused and, I guess, as passionate about Israel as I would be.”
Some longtime political observers believe Berkley would be a wise choice to represent the United States on issues related to Israel, the Middle East, Greece, Taiwan, Kazakhstan, and our European allies. Her work in Congress has given her experience with representatives of all those nations.
She also knows a thing or two about the national challenges of the gaming industry. Berkley is the proud casino restaurant waiter’s daughter who ran cocktails and keno tickets to help put herself through the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She went on to earn a law degree, and served as a state legislator and university regent before winning Nevada’s 1st Congressional District seat in 1999.
At 61, Berkley remains the local girl who made good politically.
Even most of her staunchest political critics acknowledge her relentless energy and focus on issues important to most Nevadans. That’s why few who know her believed the House Ethics Committee’s investigation of her actions on behalf of a University Medical Center kidney transplant program associated with her husband was going to prove she was motivated by self-interest. But unanswered questions about Berkley’s disclosure provided ideal advertising fodder in an election year. (Another irony: A Berkley stump speech rarely went long without mentioning “Dr. Larry.” She may be the only proud Jewish wife ever accused of not bragging enough about her husband the doctor.)
Campaign controversies aside, Berkley says, “I will always believe in public service. It’s what I’ve dedicated my life to, and it’s been a very fulfilling life.”
And that life goes on long after the noise of November has faded into memory.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.