COVID dominates Clark County Commission races

Clark County Commission
A Clark County Commission meeting on Oct. 6, 2020. (Photo: Clark County)

The candidates vying for seats on the Board of Clark County Commissioners do so at a pivotal time. 

The tourism and gambling industries, decimated by COVID-induced government-ordered closures in March, have regained a fraction of their previous market.  Casino resorts reopened under 50 percent occupancy ceilings in June.  Conventions have been cancelled into next year and the prospect of a sustained downturn is real.

A seat on the Clark County Commission, which has the Las Vegas Strip and some 1 million residents in its jurisdiction, is arguably one of the most powerful positions in the state. All seven current commissioners are Democrats. Four terms are up this year.

Here’s a look at the races.   

District A

Commissioner Michael Naft is seeking election to the seat he was appointed to when Steve Sisolak ascended to governor, leaving a vacancy on the commission.

Naft wasted no time on fundraising.  He amassed a treasure chest of just under $1 million last year and just under $476,000 this year.  He had $430,000 on hand as of October 15.   

“I’m not taking anything for granted,” he said in an interview.  

Naft is being challenged by Michael Thomas, a former North Las Vegas police officer who was terminated in 1999.  He previously ran unsuccessfully for County Commission and Clark County School Board. He’s raised $3,000 and had $1,200 on hand as of October 15.  

Naft’s weekend gatherings with constituents have turned into curbside opportunities to provide COVID care and resources.  Thomas complains they are campaign events using county resources.  

“I don’t think you can separate an economic recovery from health and wellness recovery,” he says. “I think it’s a false narrative that those are separate issues. We have to get the positivity rate down to retain and recruit the business” Southern Nevada has enjoyed in the past.

“The (casino) industry has done a good job of expressing to the governor the safety protocols they’ve put in place,” he says.

In May, the World Health Organization (WHO) advised governments that positivity rates should remain at 5 percent or lower for at least two weeks before reopening.  Nevada’s seven-day moving positivity rate hovered at 5 percent when casinos opened in early June and increased thereafter.  It has not retreated to that level.

Casinos, eager to reopen to a public that is not equally eager to travel, have lowered room rates to attract visitors.

“You can’t ignore we’re a more affordable option right now than we have been at other times,” Naft says of the current clientele.  “We have less controlled spaces.  Instead of going to a nightclub, you’re seeing tourists walking with an open container.  With the lack of business travelers, we’re seeing a different customer.”

“It’s hard to be the Entertainment Capital of the World,” says Naft’s opponent of Las Vegas in the Age of COVID. “People don’t come to Las Vegas to wear a mask and sit by the pool.”

Thomas unsuccessfully challenged then-Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak in 2016.  He takes exception with Gov. Sisolak’s handling of COVID-19, claiming erroneously that “99.9 percent of the people who have it survive.”

The COVID death rate in Nevada is currently two percent, or 20 times the rate cited by Thomas.

“First it was to flatten the curve,” Thomas says of Sisolak’s long-expired stay at home orders. “First we had phases, then the phases went out the window.  Let people make a decision. They don’t want to go outside and they don’t want to send their kids to school, they don’t have to.”

Thomas had no suggestions for how to protect vulnerable family members who may risk exposure from their loved ones who work.

“Well, what are we waiting for? Are we waiting for a vaccine?” he asks.

While Thomas criticizes Sisolak and county officials for adjusting their plans to fight COVID-19, he defends President Trump’s actions.

He says he’s unaware of Trump tweeting liberation messages in mid-April, contradicting his own administration’s call a day earlier for a phased and measured reopening.

“Yes, there needs to be a coordinated response — from the governors.  Trump’s basically using the information he gets from the experts,” Thomas says. “We were told not to wear a mask. We were told to wear a mask.  We were told don’t touch the surfaces.  We don’t have the information to make these decisions.

“The federal government did the best they could with the available information.”

Thomas says public officials “aren’t doing an appropriate job” ensuring public safety.

“We just had the anniversary of the October 1 shooting.  We only have one level one trauma center. Other for profit hospitals have applied,” he says.

Private hospitals have applied, but only for lower-level trauma designations.  No hospital has applied for a Level One trauma center.

Thomas also says he’s concerned about “the current commissioner (Naft) talking about taking money from law enforcement for social reform.  He says protesters’ voices need to be heard. I think there are bad actors in law enforcement but I would fight any effort to defund the police.”

Naft favors a review of police funding.  He says violent crime is down overall in Clark County, if not on the Strip.

“It is our economic lifeline and any type of increase in crime, violent or otherwise, has to be taken seriously,” he says.

Naft remains a proponent of the high speed train to Victorville, which he says is “going to be so impactful when we need it dramatically.”

In addition to the jobs construction of the project will generate, Naft says the project is an economic necessity to the health of the tourism industry.

“I don’t know how long we can go with eight or nine hour commutes for tourists,” he says. Additionally, the project is expected to remove upwards of three million vehicles from Interstate 15 during the course of a year, he says.    

On the government economic front, Naft says he’s waiting to see “how many businesses file for re-evaluation of property taxes, which are based on revenue.”

He praised the county’s 11 employee unions for working with management. 

“They are very clear-eyed about the economic challenges that are coming.  They knew that making early concessions would stop future bleeding.  They earned a lot of good faith with county management.” 

District C

Term-limited Las Vegas City Councilman Stavros Anthony, a Republican, faces former Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller, a Democrat.

“Economic devastation is causing way more havoc than COVID is,” says Anthony. “(Southern Nevadans) can’t get jobs. They can’t get their unemployment checks. They’re leaving.” 

Anthony, who advocates fully reopening businesses, blames Sisolak for closing the state’s economy.  He holds blameless the federal leadership of President Donald Trump and praises the government’s response. 

“When New York needed ventilators, he (Trump) got them.  When they needed PPE, he got it.  And he’s getting vaccines,” Anthony said.  

He says he’s unaware of the president sabotaging his own reopening standards in April.  

“It’s the governors who handle the virus, not the president. The governors shut down the casinos,” Anthony said, “When you put limits on the size of conventions, they aren’t going to come back.”  

“We’re also finding out that 99.5 percent of the people have a bad flu and recover from it,” Anthony said. “We’re also testing a lot of people.  So if you test a lot, that number is going to go up.”  

The fatality rate for COVID-19 in Nevada is 2 percent.  That’s four times the rate cited by Anthony.  

“Healthy adults and healthy young adults are not dying from COVID,” he said.

Anthony described an increase in “suicides, drug overdoses, and alcoholism” resulting from the isolation and job losses associated with COVID, but was unable to provide local evidence.  

Anthony says he’s unaware of the state’s positivity rate, which is twice the threshold recommended by the World Health Organization.

A former captain with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, Anthony says he’s opposed to defunding police.  

“All over the country, city councils are slashing budgets just because they hate the police,” he says.  “If police departments are doing something that other agencies are doing better, that’s not defunding the police. That’s redirecting budgets. I don’t support defunding police because it’s been used in the context of taking money from their budgets.”

A goal of defunding — addressing the needs of the mentally ill and homeless in a more compassionate way than incarceration — is not a problem in Las Vegas, Anthony says.  

“Nobody is getting arrested for being homeless. They’re being arrested for committing a crime,” he says.    

Anthony was one of five Las Vegas City Council members who voted to prohibit sleeping on the sidewalk.   

“We just spent millions of dollars on the Courtyard,” he says of the city’s referral center-turned-overflow shelter.  “We can take you there from the sidewalk.” 

Anthony says he’s at a loss to explain price increases in the robust Southern Nevada real estate market against the backdrop of widespread unemployment and economic uncertainty. 

“I’m not a housing expert,” he says. “Apparently when there’s a shortage in housing, prices go up.”  

Anthony says he’s given no thought to increasing the supply of low-income or affordable housing via inclusionary zoning requirements for developers.  

“I’m not a fan of forcing developers to build something they don’t want,” he said.  

Anthony has raised a little more than $348,850 this year.  He reports just under $168,000 on hand as of October 15.

Miller, a former prosecutor, has been in private practice for much of the time since his defeat by Adam Laxalt for attorney general in 2014. He did not respond to requests for an interview. 

He was criticized by Laxalt in 2014 for accepting lucrative perks while in office, such as tickets to entertainment and sporting events.  

“He’s been out of the public eye for the last 10 years,” Anthony said, exaggerating his opponent’s absence from politics by four years.

Miller has raised $222,000 and had just under $123,000 left as of October 15. 

District D

Nevada State Assemblyman and Democratic Party Chair William McCurdy is vying against former Las Vegas Fire Chief David Washington for the Clark County Commission seat that includes west Las Vegas. Commissioner Lawrence Weekly, who currently holds the seat, is term-limited.  

McCurdy has been an advocate for criminal justice reform and increasing the minimum wage during his two terms in the Assembly.  He also helped pass legislation to address food deserts in underserved neighborhoods.  

McCurdy is a former organizer for Service Employees International Union 1107, which represents some 9,000 Clark County employees.  

“I plan to be someone who is an advocate for the workers first,” he says. 

Incomes in McCurdy’s Assembly district lag the rest of Southern Nevada, an economic reality that could be worsened by COVID-19.

“We’ve never experienced anything of this magnitude,” he said. “The last thing we need is to have an influx of folks who are self-sufficient becoming economically insufficient.” The state eviction moratorium ends Oct. 15. Although an order from the federal CDC halts most evictions until Dec. 31. McCurdy warns Clark County will “have a lot of folks who are going to lose their homes.”   

“Our success or failure is going to be tied to the support we get from Washington, D.C.,” he says. 

McCurdy says decisions on reopening the economy must be made by the experts and the science. 

“I think the governor is working with the information that’s being provided to him,” McCurdy says. “He’s done the best job he can.  We are all getting OJT (on-the-job training) on the spread of the virus.  We all have to manage our expectations and how quickly we can get back to business as usual. I don’t see how we can get back to business in some time without a vaccine.” 

“According to the science, we still haven’t hit the second wave.  What does that look like for our economy, for our first responders?” McCurdy asks rhetorically.  

“My focus is going to be creating more jobs, identifying more affordable housing and addressing the economic situation we are in because of COVID,” McCurdy says, “if I’m lucky enough to win.”   

McCurdy has raised $308,531 and had $142,833 on hand as of October 15.  

Washington’s website says he managed an annual budget of $100 million as fire chief for the City of Las Vegas.  He did not respond to requests for an interview.  

Washington has raised just under $24,695 this year.  He had $5,575 on hand as of October 15.

District B

Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick is running for reelection in District B. She is being challenged by Republican Kevin Williams and Independent American Warren Markowitz.

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 has four adult children, a grandson, three dogs, three cats and a cockatoo named Casper.