Farewell, Peggy Pierce, Nevada’s fiercest liberal lawmaker

I’ll not soon forget the last editorial board meeting I attended with Assemblywoman Peggy Pierce, D-Las Vegas.

Pierce hadn’t shown up to seek the Review-Journal’s endorsement. She’d come to the conference room that day to lecture me and then-Review-Journal editorial writer Vin Suprynowicz about how wrong the newspaper was about everything.

It was one of the most sublime half-hours I’ve spent with any candidate for office in all the years I’ve covered Nevada politics. And I couldn’t help thinking about it when I learned Thursday morning that Pierce had died after a long battle with cancer. She was 59.

In fact, Pierce had fought three recurrences of the disease, starting back when her political career began in 2003. She showed up on the Assembly floor without the wig she’d used to cover a head balded by chemotherapy. “I finally said, ‘I don’t care what I look like,’” Pierce said at the time.

And she didn’t. She also didn’t care about the usual things that matter in politics: Being liked by as many voters as possible to advance to higher office, which Pierce never did. Being accepted by her fellow lawmakers to rise to committee chairmanships, which she never did. And she sure as hell didn’t care about cozying up to monied donors to fund her six successful bids for office.

“I think it’s clear to everybody that we need to raise taxes,” Pierce declared to the Review-Journal in 2002, while seeking office for the first time. And she never changed her tune over the course of her career. In her last two sessions, she carried legislation calling for a business tax (among others), ideas that were essentially ignored by her colleagues. “I don’t have any idea how this is going to end,” Pierce said in 2011 about her tax plans.

But of course she did. It would end as it always does, with the Legislature cobbling together some ridiculous half-measure in order to get through the next two years, as social problems in the Silver State fester. It was enough to frustrate even the most die-hard, committed liberal, but Pierce kept going, convinced of her own rightness.

Ironically, she got into politics after a dream of being in show business faded. Pierce lamented that self-promotion was not her thing in a 2003 Review-Journal profile, saying “you need incredible drive.” Pierce had that, in spades. And anybody who went up against her knew it.

She told bankers in 2007 that their predictions of financial doom over a new 2003 tax had not come to fruition. “I am still shopping here. I can still find stores and banks,” she said. In 2013, she lectured a Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce lobbyist who opposed The Education Initiative: “You have not liked anything in all the terms that I’ve been here,” she said. “You guys have not liked anything in the quarter of a century that I have lived in this state. … And Jan. 1, 2015, this becomes law and you will have nobody to blame but yourselves, because all you ever say is no.”

She won’t be around to find out if her prediction was right, or if Nevada ever adopts her long-sought business tax idea. In fact, if any criticism could be leveled at Pierce, it’s that her ironclad commitment to her causes (including seniors, the environment and organized labor) left her with too many classic sound bites and too few legislative victories.

Still, she was the bane of this newspaper’s editorial page writers, who variously described her as “the kind of politician Nevada’s small businesses use to frighten their children,” someone who “never met a tax she didn’t like,” and — my personal favorite — a combination of “Che Guevara, Lisbeth Salander (the protagonist in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) and a teenager with a shopping addiction.”

The labels didn’t faze her. She didn’t shrink from confronting her critics, either. It’s that Peggy Pierce whom I will miss. Nevada is poorer for her passing.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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