State Assembly District 22 is a red-leaning district. Kristee Watson, 36, wants to turn it blue, by defeating Republican opponent Melissa Hardy Nov. 6. The seat is currently held by Republican Keith Pickard, who is running for state senate, and whose yard signs line the street near Watson’s phone bank location.
The phone bank is intimate, resembling a family sitting around a table more than a campaign boiler room — Watson’s sister sits by her side serving as her campaign manager. One volunteer has rolled up tissue paper stuffed in her nose because of a cold.
“What happened to you?” another volunteer says, alarmed at the sight.
These races are not glamorous. The funding doesn’t go into the millions. As much as media has hyped the possibility of Nevada becoming the first female-majority state legislature in U.S. history, these races receive little attention from major party figures.
“Everybody focuses on the big, big congressional races, the big senate races, but unfortunately are not paying attention to the smaller races, which can also be historic,” said Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who’s been described as a “rising star” in the Democratic party. Like Cory Booker, Joe Biden, Eric Holder, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and other Democrats who have parachuted into Nevada this campaign season, Gabbard is also considering a presidential run in 2020.
Gabbard attained some national notoriety in 2016 when she resigned from the Democratic National Committee, saying she could not stay neutral and was supporting Sanders in the Democratic presidential nomination fight.
On a four-state tour to boost and support local races and up-and-coming female leaders, Gabbard stopped by Nevada and spent part of her time at a phone bank event for Watson.
“We are seeing how these local races have been ignored by Democratic leadership for far too long and that those investments in making sure that voters turnout and support local candidates are not being made,” Gabbard said. “When those investments are not made, we are seeing how destructive a lot of the local policies have been across the country.”
It is undeniable that national Democratic leadership has dropped the ball when it comes to state-level races. When Barack Obama took office in 2009, Democrats controlled 59 percent of state legislatures. Now it’s down to 28 percent. There are currently 33 Republican governors and only 16 Democrats, with one independent. At the state level, the contemporary Democratic Party has not been this weak since the end of the Progressive Era a century ago.
Nevada is one state where Democrats currently control both houses of the legislature. But Republicans hold a roughly 3,000 vote advantage in AD22, where Watson is running.
Watson wants to increase education funding. And in perhaps the most stark difference between her and Hardy, her opponent, Watson does support charter or private schools but wants to more accountability. Hardy is an advocate for funding school vouchers, or as supporters call them, Education Savings Accounts.
She also supports a gradual rise in the minimum wage, implementation of background checks for weapons sales, increases in early education funding, and paid maternity leave.
“Women are the center of our families, and when women are doing better families are doing better, which ultimately means Nevada will do better,” Watson said.
She is endorsed by Everytown for Gun Safety and major unions including Culinary, AFL-CIO, Clark County Education Association and the Nevada State Education Association
For the last three years Watson has been a stay-at-home mom. She’s also been a foster parent, has small business experience, and a background in finance and a stockbrokers license. She praises the state’s relatively light business taxes and lack of income tax as something that makes Nevada business-friendly, and reasons her family decided to plant roots in the state.
Six months ago, Watson didn’t think she would ever run for office. One of her volunteers for Wednesday’s phone bank, Teresa Crawford, who describes herself as “well known in activist circles,” finally convinced Watson to run as a first-time candidate.
“I have had the most incredible support from other women already in the legislature, nothing but positivity and encouragement from people who have already been elected,” Watson said.
Assemblywoman Ellen Spiegel was available whenever she needed help and guidance as a first time candidate, going as far as visiting Watson in her home and talking for several hours getting to know each other when she first expressed interest in running. Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen gave her prompt advice on how to win a competitive race in a competitive district.
“As you rise you bring other women with you,” Watson said.
While she believes the Legislature should reflect the state’s population in order to meet the needs and find solutions for all Nevadans, she also believes women bring a different work ethic and vision to government.
“I think women are good at being collaborative and being willing to listen as much as we share,” Watson said.
Her campaign is a microcosm of her outlook; she works collaboratively with Julie Pazina who is running Pickard for the state senate seat. Padez flyers sit on the kitchen counter along with phone bank bingo cards — a space “Libratarians” and one for “Please do not call again” — to make things “more fun” Watson says. Watson and Padez met each other after they both filed for office and quickly formed a team.
“Right away we started talking about what we could do together,” Watson said. “We had several candidate house parties together, we’ve been phone banking every week since the middle of August together, we often knock on doors together, and our teams of volunteers work together because we have a similar vision for Nevada and we genuinely like each other so it’s an easy partnership.”
The volunteers for her campaign run either considerably young— 24, 22, 18 etc or over 55; mostly female. The Nevada State Democratic Party says they’ve gained a considerable advantage over Republicans among the key millennial voting bloc, increasing their lead by over 27,000 voters aged 18-34 since the last midterm election.
But still, Gabbard says the Democratic party has failed to create a pipeline of young leaders to sustain the party.
“When people talk about these blue waves and this and that I’m weary of those kinds of words and rhetoric,” Gabbard said. “It doesn’t pay enough attention to what is happening locally, on the ground within each of our communities, how different we are in a lot of ways but we still have a lot in common threads and concerns. Health care and education, high cost of living affordable housing, all these worries are common to us the people, but it takes having a good strong leader who is in touch with the community he or she is looking to represent. That’s what makes the difference. There is no magic trick that’s going to make this happen.”
Watson agrees, but is enthusiastic about Nevada’s future, and she rattles off a list of young first time female candidates: Shea Backus in Assembly District 37, Selena Torres in Assembly District 3, and Jennie Sherwood Assembly District 2.
“I think that there is this overall feeling that sometimes people talk about it, like when women rise, there will be less room for other women. And these are women who believe the exact opposite is true,” Watson said.
This article has been corrected to reflect that while Watson does support state charter schools she would like more transparency.