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STEVE SEBELIUS: Farewell and Godspeed, Dan Hart

It’s been days, but I’m still in shock about the text I got Tuesday.

“Dan Hart died of a heart attack last night,” read the short missive.

Hart, 66, was well-known in political circles. He came to town 30 years ago to help Jan Jones Blackhurst become the first female mayor of Las Vegas and worked on dozens of campaigns since.

Dan was a good source for journalists, always ready with a pithy quote or an insight about campaigns. He’d worked enough of them himself to know what he was talking about, from city council all the way up to statewide campaigns for governor and attorney general. Over the years, I’d interviewed him scores of times about everything from education and tax policy to politics.

But Dan was more than just an operative and a source. He was also a friend. Over the years, he and I haunted many of Las Vegas best steakhouses, trading prime political gossip over prime beef and quality Scotch.

It was those times I thought about after I got that text, and how I’d never get the chance to catch up with Hart about the most recent election, or the upcoming governor’s contest, or the current session of the Legislature. I’m going to miss those dinners very much.

One of things to know about Dan was his temperament: He was even-keeled and didn’t get upset or angry even when the inevitable turns of fate in politics went against him. He was a forceful and powerful advocate for his client, but he didn’t let things get to him.

In 2014, he was representing the Nevada State Education Association’s efforts to qualify a business margins tax known as The Education Initiative. The state’s business community was, understandably, fighting it with everything it could muster.

A study of the tax’s benefits was revised, lessening the estimated job creation estimates. A coalition of unions came out against the measure. But Dan was calm amidst the storm, realizing that in politics, there are no permanent friends, and no permanent enemies.

The Education Initiative failed by an overwhelming margin, 79 percent to 21 percent. Dan said at a panel I moderated before the election that it was “unlikely” we’d see the Legislature ever passing a business tax if the union’s proposal failed. “It just doesn’t happen, and that’s why we are where we are now,” Dan said.

But he was wrong. The very next session, a Republican-controlled Legislature under a Republican governor passed the commerce tax, the first business revenue tax in Nevada history. And I’ve got to believe that at least a small part of the motivation for the commerce tax was the fear that groups such as the NSEA would keep trying and might eventually pass a business levy more onerous than the commerce tax. In that sense, Dan’s hard work in 2014 paid off.

Dan represented Democrats almost exclusively, but they ranged from progressives such as Jones Blackhurst to moderates such as then-Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson, who mounted a campaign for governor in 2006 with the backing of the party’s establishment.

But Dan went against the establishment, too. In 2013, he worked behind the scenes to help then-Clark County Commissioner Larry Brown get hired as the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. The problem? Incumbent GM Pat Mulroy, one of the most powerful people in Southern Nevada, had already picked a replacement. But that didn’t stop Dan. If he thought he was right, he’d fight with everything he had.

Jones Blackhurst, in fact, acknowledged his skill: “I never would have become mayor if it hadn’t been for Dan,” she said. “Dan was a brilliant mind. And he was an outsider.”

Dan was smart. He once told me about an idea he had for an education tax initiative, one that would expire within seven years if student test scores and graduation rates didn’t improve. It was the kind of idea that would anger both sides, but one that offered accountability.

Jones Blackhurst recalled that Dan told her once that in the chaotic world of politics, you’ve ultimately got to decide to listen to the advice of just one person. “He was the one person,” she said.

Dan was that one person for a lot of people, me included. It’s still hard to believe I won’t get to listen to him again, at least not in this life. But I will remember him and lift a glass to the memories.

Contact Steve Sebelius at SSebelius@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0253. Follow @SteveSebelius on Twitter.

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