1 in 7 lawmakers initially appointed, not elected, to majority female Legislature

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Clark County Government Center. Carol M. Highsmith photo, Wikimedia Commons

Nevada voters seem partial to keeping a tight rein on the selection of public officials. They’ve rejected proposals to appoint judges and proved their disdain for the power of incumbency by imposing term limits on elected leaders.

Yet when the 2019 session of the Nevada Legislature convenes in February, five of the new members will have been sent to Carson City not by voters, but by seven individuals – the members of the Clark County Commission (and in one instance the Clark commissioners in conjunction with the Nye County Commission). In all, nine of the 63 lawmakers set to serve this session were initially appointed to their seats. 

Adding insult to injury, the Commissioners, who are constitutionally charged with filling the vacancies, apparently feel an obligation to shirk their responsibility by increasingly deferring to the recommendations of the legislative caucuses – the handful of state legislators who will end up working with the newly-minted lawmakers.

Nevada’s appointment process gave women a majority for the first time in an American state legislature. But it also gives the partisan caucuses lopsided influence in choosing lawmakers.

“The public should be making the decision, not the political process we’ve had the last few weeks,” complained Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who openly stated at her final commission meeting that her preferred candidates to fill two Assembly seats were not the applicants recommended by the legislative caucus – in this case, the Assembly Democrats. Despite her reservations, Giunchigliani deferred to the caucus.

“I one hundred percent agree,” chimed in Commissioner Lawrence Weekly. “This is really disheartening, this process, because some amazing people come to the microphone.”

“I think this is the fifth (appointment) we’ve done in two weeks. There’s gotta be a better system,” bemoaned Governor-elect Steve Sisolak at his final meeting as a Clark County Commissioner. “It’s unfortunate but this is the system we’re dealing with.”

But it’s really not.

Despite the constitutional mandate that County Commissioners fill vacancies, through the years legislative caucuses have exerted more influence and commissioners have deferred.

“Years ago we didn’t take the caucus’s recommendation,” said Giunchigliani.

“I think caucus involvement is rather recent,” Clark County Commissioner-elect Tick Segerblom, who will have his State Senate seat filled by an appointee, said in an email to the Current. “The commission doesn’t have to follow the caucus recommendation, but at least they know what a potential applicant needs by way of background and skills.”

“The legislative caucus influence seems a little stronger now than in the past,” Commissioner Susan Brager told the Current.

Clark County Commissioner Marilyn Kirkpatrick traces the emergence of the legislative caucus recommendation to 2013.

“April Mastroluca had to resign and we had to replace Steven Brooks,” says Kirkpatrick, who served as Speaker of the Assembly that year.  Brooks suffered a mental breakdown and was replaced in April 2013 by Tyrone Thompson.

“We asked the county to go with our recommendation.  We told them this is someone who can fill the spot at this stage,” says Kirkpatrick, who says she endorsed accepting the caucus recommendation this time around, too.

“The caucus has to work with them.  There’s no housing up there.  It’s really tight.  And the caucus assured us they talked about it as a group,” Kirkpatrick says.

Why not stick to the appointment process as dictated by the Nevada Constitution, rather than succumb to pressure from lawmakers?

Governor-elect Sisolak would not say.

“Governor-elect Sisolak is always appreciative of the work that goes into an appointment process,” said transition team Deputy Director Christina Amestoy. “He believes strongly that any appointment process should be transparent and give all applicants the chance to make their qualifications and interest in the position heard. He thinks all recent appointees will serve the state of Nevada well in the upcoming legislative session.”

“We used to try to pick someone who wasn’t going to run,” said Giunchigliani, concerned about the appearance of incumbency appointed officials use to gain advantage in future campaigns.

But Kirkpatrick says the practice of finding a placeholder fizzled for lack of contenders.
“When Tyrone (Thompson) came in during the middle of the session in 2013, we couldn’t necessarily find someone else to run for the seat so soon, so we didn’t go that way,” she says.

Is appointment a path to a lengthy stay in the Legislature? Usually.

After Thompson’s appointment in 2013 he has since been elected and re-elected twice.

Assemblywoman Lesley E. Cohen was appointed in December 2012 to fill a vacancy. She lost her seat in 2014 and was subsequently elected in 2016.

With three vacant seats filled this year, five of the Assembly’s 42 members – 12 percent – were initially appointed to their seats.

The ratio is higher in the Senate, where  just under 20 percent – four of the 21 members who will serve in 2019 – were initially appointed to their positions.

Chris Brooks was first elected to the Assembly in 2016.  He was appointed earlier this month by the Clark County Commission to fill the Senate seat vacated by Segerblom. Brooks is married to Michelle White, a former Democratic caucus staffer who is leading Sisolak’s transition team.

Yvanna Cancela was originally appointed to the State Senate in December of 2016 and first elected this year.

Julia Ratti was appointed to the State Senate in September of 2016 and won election that same year.

Dallas Harris, an attorney with the Public Utilities Commission, will fill the vacancy created by former Senator Aaron Ford’s ascension to Attorney General.

Half of the United States fill vacancies in a similar manner as Nevada, via appointment – be it by governor, county commission or special vacancy panels often controlled by political parties and special interests.  The other half of the states hold special elections, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“We certainly have had more than usual in the last year, but in general, I remember election cycle after election cycle without any vacancy,” says former lawmaker Barbara Buckley, the first woman to serve as Speaker of the Assembly.

Buckley says timing sometimes renders special elections impossible.

“So, is it the best way? The system is not ideal, but there are not many practical options,” she says.

“I don’t know of a better way given how soon the session begins and the fact that it only lasts 4 months,” says Segerblom. “I think term-limits is making appointments much more frequent and perhaps worth reconsidering.”

In 1996, voters limited elected officials to serving 12 years in the same office.

Segerblom created a vacancy in the state Senate in November when he won his race for County Commission during his third and final term in the upper house.

Giunchigliani suggests enforcing candidate residency requirements to ensure applicants are familiar with the constituents and areas they hope to represent.

Brager, who is in the last days of her final term, says the Legislature should make the appointments directly and cut out the middlemen – the commissioners.  The proposal would require a constitutional amendment.

“Meeting with all those people is uncomfortable. Here they are with good intentions and the decision is already made by the caucus and you’re thinking ‘they don’t have a chance,’” said Brager. “I’m not a good rubber stamper.”

Kirkpatrick thinks elected officials who opt to run for another position mid-term should resign their seat to do so and “go all in.”

“I don’t know why you wouldn’t.  You have to make a choice,” she says, noting that candidates use the prospect of being in office either way as leverage to raise money. “Why would you do both?  Hedge your bet so you always have a place to go?”

Does the fact the appointment process put women in the majority in the Nevada Legislature dim the achievement?

Not at all, according to former Speaker Buckley.

“When I became Speaker, do you know what surprised me the most? It was not the workload; it was the large number of mothers and fathers who asked me to take a picture with their daughter or son. They brought their son to Carson City so that they could tell their child that women should be able to rise to the highest position in a legislative body. It touched me more than I can express,” says Buckley. “Mothers, fathers, young women, and young men around the country will be inspired by Nevada’s progress. They will question even more why equality has not been achieved in Washington or in their own state. And rather than be disappointed because we were slightly short in the electoral process, I am inspired that everyone in Nevada recognized this historic opportunity and collaborated to make it a reality.”

Dana Gentry
Reporter | Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Gentry began her career in broadcasting as an intern at Channel 8, KLAS-TV. She later became a reporter at Channel 8, working with Las Vegas TV news legends Bob Stoldal and the late Ned Day. Gentry left her reporting job in 1985 to focus on motherhood. She returned to TV news in 2001 to launch "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" and the weekly business programs In Business Las Vegas and Vegas Inc, which she co-anchored with Jeff Gillan. Dana is the mother of four adult children, three cats, three dogs and a cockatoo.

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