Three decades before he was elected North Las Vegas mayor, John Lee worked as a plumber.
Not long before that, he was a ditch digger.
“It’s the only job I know where you start at the top and work your way down,” Lee, 57, joked last month.
Politics and ditch digging haven’t proved all that different for Lee, who celebrated a 17-point primary victory over incumbent Mayor Shari Buck less than a year after losing his District 1 state Senate seat.
Lee, who served one term in the state Assembly before moving to the state Senate in 2004, said a handful of possible mayoral candidates had to talk him into taking a run at Buck.
Now only weeks from taking office July 1, he’s glad they did.
“Voters saw a fresh new person after years of seeing the mayor mired in controversy,” Lee said as primary returns poured in. “I think we’ve come through it mentally, and we’re all looking for a little spring cleaning.”
Lee’s first-place primary finish counts as something of a homecoming victory for the Rancho High School graduate, who hosted plenty of friends for an April 2 primary night party at his North Las Vegas home.
Nephi Oliva, one of those in attendance and one of a handful of backers who helped encourage Lee’s entry in the race, said he spent years “quietly poking holes” under Buck.
But Oliva, who butted heads with Buck over the expansion of his pigeon control business, said his support for the mayor-elect went beyond any personal or business vendetta.
“I’m not one to trade one dictator for another,” the owner of North Las Vegas-based Nevada Pigeon Control said. “I think true leaders are rarely clamoring to be chosen, but with Shari, it was always more about her personal legacy than the city of North Las Vegas.
“I woke up this morning proud again of our city. That’s why (Lee) was, and remains, our best hope.”
Former Ward 4 City Councilman Richard Cherchio, a longtime Lee backer, framed his support for the new mayor in more political terms.
“He’s extremely community-minded,” Cherchio said of Lee. “He knows the state side and the city side, but he’s very regionally oriented, so he doesn’t look at the city as separate from the rest of the valley.”
Another one of the handful who first egge on Lee’s entry into the race, Cherchio mulled his own bid for the office before settling on Lee as “the right man for the job.”
Less than a year after losing his council seat to Buck endorsee and dentist Wade Wagner by one vote, Cherchio joined Lee’s primary night party.
Asked why he hadn’t predicted Lee’s outright primary victory, Cherchio said he was being cautious.
“But we were always pretty confident,” he said.
Lee managed to pick up endorsements from former Buck-backers at the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce and the North Las Vegas Police Supervisors Union.
His post-primary speech credited those groups and a campaign that — with the help of Cherchio, Oliva and $50,000 of Lee’s own money — was able to emphasize the Democratic candidate’s statewide connections without playing into Buck’s attacks on his regional bona fides.
“I enlisted a lot of different people who shared my vision, a different vision for North Las Vegas,” Lee told supporters gathered in his dining room. “Every single one of you deserves a thank you.”
Now it’s down to policy for Lee, who’s likely to face a multimillion dollar deficit in his first month on the job.
Never one to shy away from his former primary opponent’s fiscal stewardship, Lee has called the city’s current business approach “listless” and suggested a three-pronged plan for economic development set to begin with a bottom-up review of city finances.
Lee hopes a thorough scouring of city finances will help find the cash necessary to keep city libraries and recreation centers running and possibly see a thaw on union pay freezes.
But he’s not making any promises until he has cracked open the books.
“They’re hiding, they’re manipulating, and there’s something going on that is being kept from the public and kept from the state,” he said of city officials. “So I can’t give you an accurate description of what’s happening until I’m in that seat.”
Lee also remains on the fence over a recently proposed effort to salvage underwater North Las Vegas mortgages through the city’s use of eminent domain.
The proposal, presented by San Francisco-based Mortgage Resolution Partners at a March City Council meeting, would allow the city to seize a bad home loan in much the same way it condemns a blighted property.
Lee, who expressed doubts over the plan as recently as last month, now finds himself sticking to the sidelines.
“That’s a brand new issue I’ve just barely heard about,” he said. “I will say it’s a big idea, and big ideas need to be discussed, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be acted on.”
Contact Centennial and North Las Vegas View reporter James DeHaven at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3839.