Plenty of challengers lining up despite long odds in attempt to unseat Sandoval as Nevada governor

CARSON CITY — Gov. Brian Sandoval is popular with voters, and most political observers expect him to have an easy time winning re-election in November. But a passel of Republican opponents are trying to do the unthinkable and beat him in the June 10 primary.

Another collection of Democratic candidates are vying to win the primary to take Sandoval on ahead of the Nov. 4 general election. Also on the fall ballot will be Independent American Party candidate David VanDerBeek of Pahrump.

However, Sandoval, who points to his job creation, education funding and reform efforts as major achievements in his first term, has taken flak from GOP conservatives for extending a $650 million tax package in the current budget. He also signed three measures allowing local governments to raise taxes, including an increase in the gasoline tax in Clark County, which was approved.

Sandoval announced his intention early in 2012 to extend the tax package into the 2013-15 budget to avoid further cuts in funding to public education and other programs. He has not decided whether the package of taxes now set to sunset on July 30, 2015, will also have to be continued in the next budget if he is re-elected.

There also are GOP concerns about his push to implement a health insurance exchange in Nevada as part of the Affordable Care Act. The state’s health exchange has been plagued with problems since starting Oct. 1.

But Sandoval has been quick to seize good economic news.

“Our state continues to make positive economic progress, and, most importantly, more Nevadans are working again,” Sandoval said when the April jobless numbers came out earlier this month showing a big decline to 8 percent unemployment.

“We are experiencing broad-based growth across nearly all industries, and we have added jobs for nine straight months,” he said. “While the news from month to month continues to be positive, there are still too many Nevadans out of work. My focus will remain on growing jobs in our state until every Nevadan that wants a job has one.”

Some Democratic candidates say they are in the race to ensure Sandoval has to answer for his decisions in his first term in office.

Others say that despite his efforts, Nevada’s economic conditions and its public education system have not improved adequately and that a leadership change is necessary.

Although Democrats have a statewide advantage of about 64,000 active voters, no Democratic candidate is considered to have the funding and support necessary to seriously derail Sandoval’s run for a second term.

GOP CHALLENGERS

There are eight Democrats and four Republicans, besides Sandoval, on the primary ballot.

Henderson resident Eddie Hamilton, who has run for public office before, calls himself the “grass-roots and traditional Republican, constitutional conservative” candidate for governor.

Hamilton, a former auto company executive, said he has two proposals to help Nevada’s economy: creation of a two-cylinder mini-car assembly plant in Northern Nevada that would create thousands of high-paying jobs, and a plan to allow 18- to 21-year-olds into dance clubs.

The clubs are huge businesses in Nevada and lowering the admission age could attract millions of new visitors, he said. The Legislature would have to decide whether younger patrons would be able to gamble or drink alcohol, he said.

His proposals would bring in millions of dollars in new tax revenue to help fund public education and other programs without raising taxes, Hamilton said.

He also supports getting public lands in Nevada returned to the state for economic development.

Sparks resident William Tarbell said he filed to run against Sandoval because the governor has not outlined a vision for Nevada’s future.

There are also concerns that Sandoval has not lived up to his conservative principles, he said.

Tarbell said one focus as governor would be to help Nevada win control of the public lands now managed by the federal government.

“The situation with Cliven Bundy has made it obvious that there is an increasing capriciousness about the way in which federal policy is first formed and then implemented,” he said.

Federal policies have interfered with the ability of people and communities to thrive, Tarbell said.

“I’ve seen whole communities depressed due to federal policies,” he said.

Tarbell said he would also work as governor to overcome the “balkanization” of Nevada, where north is pitted against south and rural regions and special interests work at cross purposes.

The key to improving Nevada’s public education system is social change, he said. It requires a new attitude by everyone, including students, to place a higher value on education.

“We need a change in the environment, not just a change in the amount of money we spend,” Tarbell said.

Thomas Tighe of Las Vegas said Sandoval’s decision to carry the expiring tax package into the current budget prompted his gubernatorial run.

The taxes should be retired as promised, he said, and if revenue falls short, it’s time to look for cuts.

If the taxes are continued again the revenue will be spent on new programs that aren’t absolutely necessary, Tighe said.

Fixing Nevada’s education system requires relaxing the rigid rules in place to let teachers and administrators try innovative ways to interest students in learning, he said.

“Kids are not being challenged,” Tighe said. “Young teachers today love to teach. We need to let them try different ideas.”

DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATES

Las Vegas resident Charles Chang’s plans for governor are not likely to win over many supporters in Northern or rural Nevada since his campaign slogan is “Vegas First.”

Chang said he would focus on getting high-speed rail built between Las Vegas and Los Angeles in six years, and do it without cost to taxpayers.

Getting to build the first train of its kind in the United States is incentive enough for the winning international company to incur most of the multibillion-dollar construction costs, he said.

A modest investment by the state would be recouped with increased tax revenues because visitors from Southern California would spend more time in Las Vegas and less in gridlocked freeway traffic, Chang said.

Another objective would be to move the state capital to Las Vegas where the bulk of the population lives, he said.

Chang’s plan to improve public education involves implementing a moral education program in the schools to help students become more responsible.

“I believe in teaching our kids to become good people, good citizens,” he said. “There is too much temptation now.”

Such a program would improve graduation rates and result in far less tax money being spent on law enforcement and corrections, Chang said.

Frederick Conquest, a Las Vegan who ran in the Democratic governor primary against Rory Reid in 2010, winning two rural counties, said he would work for real change as opposed to party leaders who talk change but accomplish nothing.

“Nothing seems to be getting done to solve any of our problems in Nevada,” he said.

Conquest said he would replace officials who have been complacent, bringing in new people to run agencies, including the public school system.

Sandoval is a “smiling robot” who doesn’t want to make any waves, he said.

“If I was governor it would be get in line for change or get out,” Conquest said.

He also questioned whether elected officials really understand what Nevada needs to right itself economically.

Lawmakers are spending a pittance on workforce development, amounting to just a few dollars per person, Conquest said.

“There are 300,000 people in Nevada who need their skills upgraded to participate in the job market,” he said.

Stephen Frye said flatly: “Governor Sandoval is the worst governor in the nation.”

Nevada has the worst education system, poor funding for medical needs and mental health, and the fewest doctors and nurses in the nation, he said.

Frye, a psychiatrist who taught at the University of Nevada medical school, said he would improve the state in all these areas.

One key is to focus more attention on gifted students so they don’t get bored and drop out, he said. Every fourth high school in Nevada should be focused on this population, Frye said. While efforts must also continue with students who are struggling, the top achieving pupils are the state’s future, he said.

The way to pay for all that needs to be done is to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, which would bring in millions of dollars in new revenue to support education, mental health and other programs that need more financial support, he said.

Robert Goodman of Las Vegas, who ran Nevada’s economic development program under the late Gov. Mike O’Callaghan, said he entered the race to spark debate and competition.

Goodman, who spends a lot of time in China, said Nevada must work to attract wealthy investors to create businesses and live in the state.

Public education could be improved by relying on local nonprofit groups to work with parents and students who face language-difference difficulties, he said. Goodman also questioned why schools need so many administrators.

Addressing the revenue debate, Goodman said he would work to create consensus among Nevada’s industries on the level of taxation needed to properly fund state government.

“We need to negotiate a new tax system where everybody pays,” he said.

Chris Hyepock said he’d focus on early childhood education as governor. Kindergarten is not mandatory in Nevada and many programs are not all-day. Too many kids reaching the fourth grade cannot read proficiently, the Las Vegas resident said.

“We need to get back to the basics and build a foundation for children to prosper, not teach them to pass a test,” Hyepock said.

Nevada also needs better governance so businesses feel comfortable coming here, he said.

“We’re not good on transparency,” Hyepock said. “Utah and Texas are getting businesses to relocate because they do a better job.”

Rather than rely on charts and graphs, Hyepock said he would rely on successful Nevada business owners to explain to potential new companies why the state is a great place to invest.

Hyepock said he reluctantly supports the proposed business margins tax because it is the only solution now on the table to properly fund education.

His first action as governor would be to get the Equal Rights Amendment approved in Nevada to help close pay inequities between men and women, he said.

John Rutledge of Carson City said he, too, decided to run to ensure Sandoval did not have a free ride to a second term.

Although Sandoval has done a “pretty good job,” the public needs to hear the discussion on the issues they want and are entitled to, he said.

Rutledge said he opposes the margins tax to fund education because “it is horrible public policy to tax businesses on gross receipts.”

The measure would discourage entrepreneurs from moving to Nevada just when the state needs to do the opposite, he said.

Rutledge said more creativity is needed to find revenue for public education, such as getting businesses to sponsor schools in exchange for publicity. A business could donate computers and fund arts classes in exchange for naming rights, he said.

Nevada offers a great quality of life and more needs to be done to sell its attractions to businesses looking to move, Rutledge said. And the effort must be consortium-based, not just from the governor’s office, he said.

“It is economic war,” Rutledge said. “We need to protect our own and build our state. We need to make people feel welcome.”

Abdul Shabazz of Las Vegas said he wants to build on Sandoval’s successes and would focus on improving public education through technology.

“Kids want to work with the digital model,” he said. “Most high school classes could be taken online.”

The margins tax is a bad idea and political leaders should be working with business to support education through other means, such as aligning curriculum to mesh with job market needs, Shabazz said.

Nevada’s existing education system is not helping efforts to diversify the economy, he said. Las Vegas, with its vast gaming industry, could become a center for mathematical education, Shabazz said.

“I want to give students a bright future,” he said. “I want to change Las Vegas from the city of sin to the center of mathematics. I know we can do that.”

Republican Gary Marinch and Democrat Allen Rheinhart, both of Las Vegas, did not respond to interview requests.

Contact Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley at swhaley@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3900. Find him on Twitter: @seanw801.

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