Lombardo at an event in April. (Photo by Ronda Churchill))
Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, elected twice to nonpartisan office, is toeing a line drawn by the far right in his bid to win a crowded Republican primary for governor. From his support for a Florida-style “Don’t Say Gay” measure to his about-face on deporting non-violent undocumented immigrants, Lombardo is in large part casting his lot with the party’s more recent hard-right policies to stay apace of more than a dozen primary opponents.
Should he succeed, can Lombardo make his way back toward the center, where much of the general electorate resides?
A recent Suffolk University poll has Lombardo beating Sisolak by 39% to 37% and North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, a Democrat until recently, also beating Sisolak 40% to 37%.
“I’m not worried about Lee,” Lombardo told the Current.
Lombardo confirms he met early in the campaign process with one of the Republican party’s more likely candidates for governor, former Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison. The two agreed Lombardo would run and Hutchison would sit it out. Hutchison did not respond to requests for comment.
“Yes, that is true. But that isn’t the reason why I decided or when I decided to run,” Lombardo says. It was Sisolak continually “moving the goalposts” during COVID, he says, that was the deciding factor to enter the race, though he acknowledges the path of the pandemic was unknown.
Lombardo says he’s the only Republican who can defeat Sisolak, a Democrat with whom he shares a long relationship. Lombardo contributed to Sisolak’s campaign in 2018 and served on his gubernatorial transition team.
In the aftermath of the shooting massacre on the Las Vegas Strip, Sisolak and Lombardo routinely appeared together, with Lombardo quickly adopting Sisolak’s branding of the disaster as “1 October.”
Since becoming a candidate for governor, he has not only divorced himself from his bromance with Sisolak, but eschewed his penchant for nonpartisanship by embracing the extremist policies of Republican governors such as Florida’s Ron DeSantis, including the ‘Parental Rights in Education’ bill passed in Florida, known to critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
The bill prohibits “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels or in a specified manner.”
Detractors say the legislation further stigmatizes gay students and engenders shame among young children of gay parents. Supporters of the new Florida law suggest discussion of same-sex relationships in the classroom “grooms” impressionable children.
“If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children,” DeSantis’ press secretary tweeted last month.
“As governor, I will veto any bill that forces any ideology on our children,” Lombardo said. “I don’t believe in that. It’s bad policy and it’s political gamesmanship.”
Lombardo also opposes the teaching of critical race theory, an academic concept in higher education, particularly law schools, that explores how racism can become embedded in economic and social systems through laws, regulations and institutional practices.
“No matter how you couch it, it’s just teaching kids to be ashamed of themselves and their country,” he told the Reno Gazette-Journal in November.
Where does he draw the line? Should the Holocaust not be taught in German schools?
He suggests the “existing education or curriculum that we, you and I, even generations before us had” was sufficient “for learning our history.”
Lombardo acknowledges CRT appears nowhere in Nevada’s K-12 curriculum.
“But it’s been a discussion to do it,” he says. “I don’t want to have to discuss it. I don’t want it to be a point of reference. I don’t want it to be put into a bill that is thrown across the desk of the Legislature or the Department of Education.”
He’s also done an about face on Metro’s announcement in 2019 that a court ruling ended Metro’s practice of helping Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deport non-violent undocumented immigrants.
“While the ruling can be seen as a setback, I am determined that through cooperation with our federal partners the goal of removing the worst of the worst can still be accomplished,” he said at the time.
Last year, Lombardo tweeted that Metro found a work-around after the court ruling prohibited Metro from making arrests based on immigration status.
Few issues resonate more with conservative voters than gun rights. Lombardo, unlike his primary opponents, supports background checks.
“Joe believes that background checks should be efficient, inexpensive, and serve the singular purpose of keeping weapons out of the hands of criminals and those struggling with mental illness – not as a vehicle for gun control advocates to restrict our Second Amendment rights,” says his website.
In 2015, Lombardo, along with then-Gov. Brian Sandoval and then-Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins (who is challenging Sisolak in the Democratic primary for governor) eliminated Clark County’s handgun registry.
But unlike his opponent, Joey Gilbert, Lombardo does not support “constitutional carry” – the permission to carry a concealed weapon without a permit.
Could that position hurt him in the primary with Second Amendment absolutists?
“I don’t know. I think voters are more savvy than that,” he says. “I don’t support it because I support the training aspects of gun ownership. There’s nothing more to it than that.”
Lombardo was sheriff in 2017 when Las Vegas suffered the largest mass shooting in U.S. history, in which 60 people were killed by streams of bullets fired by a gunman perched in a hotel suite.
“I’m a very avid hunter, I was in the military myself, and there’s no need to have a high-capacity magazine for any practical reason,” Lombardo told the Las Vegas Sun in Dec. 2017, two months after the Las Vegas strip massacre.
He has since changed his mind. His campaign website says he would “not sign any law restricting manufacturer limits on firearm magazines. To do otherwise would be a violation of the United States Constitution.”
He also supports so-called ‘ghost guns’ – weapons made by individuals rather than licensed manufacturers. Ghost guns are not traceable by law enforcement because they have no serial numbers. The Justice Department announced last week it will attempt to regulate the weapons.
“Left-wing politicians are working hard to take away our right to create our own guns,” Lombardo’s website says. The position puts him at odds with law enforcement leaders throughout the U.S.
“Ghost guns are weapons increasingly used by criminals and terrorists both nationally and internationally,” says a recent article in Police Chief magazine. The ATF’s National Tracing Center reports law enforcement recovered 10,000 ghost guns in 2019.
The Special Agent in Charge of the ATF Los Angeles Field Division reported in January 2021 that 41 percent of the division’s cases involve ghost guns, and a May 2019 statewide analysis in California found that 30 percent of all guns recovered in connection with a crime in the state did not have serial numbers.
In 2021, Nevada lawmakers passed a measure prohibiting guns without serial numbers. LVMPD testified neutral on the bill. The law was ruled unconstitutionally vague by a Lyon County judge in December 2021.
In his State of Metro speech this year, Lombardo complained of legislative “malaise” toward crime since Sisolak took office, and referred to the Legislature as “a threat.”
But progressive Democrats complain that criminal justice reforms have been killed or diluted by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro and former Speaker Jason Frierson, both Democrats. They say Sisolak, who declared death penalty reforms dead during the 2021 session, is a backstop for the caucus’s anemic reforms.
Lombardo gives the Democratic leaders no credit for stifling reforms. He says it’s all “political theater.”
“Steve Sisolak did not veto any of that programming that came across his desk, and there was no acquiescing by (Speaker Pro Tem) Steve Yeager on AB 236,” Lombardo said of the seminal reform measure. “It was by the nature of Jason Frierson, and through communication he removed a couple items. But they were more in the cops ability to do their job versus the softening in criminal sentencing and reclassification.”
Lombardo’s website says he’ll keep Nevada “Safe from Antifa. Safe from Anarchy. Safe from Socialism.”
“This is what radical anti-police riots look like in other cities. But Sheriff Joe Lombardo said not in his backyard,” says a TV ad from Better Nevada PAC, a political action committee that got $200,000 from Hutchison’s Stronger Nevada PAC, of the 2020 protests following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
“While other cities were burned, blockaded, even shut down… our community was civil and safe thanks to Joe,” says the ad. “Streets were opened, the neighborhoods were safe, and businesses were not destroyed.”
Photos of looting and burning businesses in Metro’s own after-incident report on the protests contradict the assertions in the ad, which makes no mention of Officer Shay Mikalonis, who was paralyzed when he was shot near Circus Circus by an individual unrelated to the ongoing protest, or the fatal shooting the same night of protester Jorge Gomez at the hands of police.
“As an agency that had an officer shot and critically injured and experienced a fatal officer‐involved shooting, it is important to be introspective,” the report says.
“Good luck defunding the police with Sheriff Joe Lombardo as our next Governor,” the Better Nevada PAC ad concludes.
Lombardo has been atop the fence when it comes to defunding the police.
“As Governor, I’ll fight any efforts to defund the police,” he proclaimed in a tweet from January.
But Lombardo is actually a proponent of defunding the police, a loaded phrase intended to describe the process of shifting patrol resources to mental health and crisis professionals, who have training police lack.
Lombardo says as a conservative and lifelong Republican, he looks up to Ronald Reagan. But he says Reagan, “to the detriment of this country” engaged in “the culling of mental health services.”
Yeah, people don't get the nuance. They don't listen to the complete narrative, which is usually the case.
– Joe Lombardo
Lombardo says officers are often asked “to solve all these social problems by virtue of people dialing 911. We have to show up because we’re duty bound to show up but we’re not given the resources to address the issue and we can’t walk away. That’s the tragedy behind it. Our incarceration system is the largest mental health system in the state.”
“So if they want to defund to develop teams per se, or a social worker – that type of profession – to address those types of calls, I’m in full support because we’re not the answer,” he says.
Has he backed off his previously stated opposition to defunding the police?
“No, I wouldn’t describe it that way. Yeah, people don’t get the nuance. They don’t listen to the complete narrative, which is usually the case,” he says. “But what I know is when officers respond, they quite often don’t have the resources to solve the problem.”
He says he told officials from the City of Las Vegas and Clark County he’ll give “a portion of my budget because a significant portion of my budget is utilized for responding to those calls. If there’s a better way of doing it, yes, I’ll take that onus out of my cops’ hands to give it to the professionals.”
“We’ve done it with some federal money in the city. We’ve expanded on that with some general fund money in the county, but it’s small and insignificant, and they still count it as a test. So we haven’t made much progress over the last few years,” he says.
No new taxes
Lombardo has warned in a tweet of a “dangerous push for a state income tax” and vowed he’d veto it as governor. He did not say who is behind it.
In 2015, Lombardo persuaded Clark County commissioners to approve an increase in the sales tax to pay for more police. Sisolak, who had repeatedly voted against the measure under Lombardo’s predecessor, Doug Gillespie, voted in favor of the increase.
The hike added 0.05% to Clark County’s sales tax rate, and was projected to raise about $15 million a year for Metro.
Lombardo doesn’t buy economic assessments that Nevada’s sales tax-reliant economy is regressive, meaning it consumes a disproportionate share of income from low-earning families.
Lombardo argues the sales tax is not regressive because “it separates consumables from prescription medicine.” But he opposes a draft proposal from the legislatively created commission on school funding to broaden the sales tax base by imposing sales tax on services that are more frequently accessed by the affluent.
He’s unsure about whether Nevada’s property tax, currently based on assessed value, should instead be assessed on market value.
“I think that’s the question I need to ask the Realtor Association because there’s arguments on both sides,” he says.
“My position is no new tax,” he says. “I support tax reform, as long as it’s revenue neutral,”
He says he’s not sure whether schools need more money, but he has no qualms about vouchers redirecting public money to private schools.
“It’s a reallocation. It’s not an additional cost,” he says of the program, which subsidizes private school tuition.
He agrees with critics who contend the charter school admission system, which appears to offer equal opportunity via lottery, is in reality skewed to accommodate students whose parents can provide transportation. “It’s flawed,” he says, adding he wants to look at privatizing transportation for all schools if it will save money.
Instead of new taxes, education and other programs can be sustained, he says, by “building the economy.”
The landlords and what they went through with the COVID and the failure or inability of individuals to pay rent was a long term detriment to those business owners. I personally believe a lot of consideration wasn't given to those folks during that crisis.
– Joe Lombardo
In a recent interview, Lombardo said he’s not opposed to rent control. He has since changed his tune.
“I wouldn’t say I’m not opposed to it. I’d say I don’t know the nuances and negative consequences associated with those types of decisions in the long term versus the short term to provide an educated answer,” he explained, adding economic decisions such as what to do about the cost of housing can be based “off short term issues” such as the outlook for inflation and interest rates.
“So there’s a lot of information that needs to be evaluated before you make a blanket statement on rent control,” he says. “To be frank with you, the landlords and what they went through with the COVID and the failure or inability of individuals to pay rent was a long term detriment to those business owners. I personally believe a lot of consideration wasn’t given to those folks during that crisis.”
The Current reported in December of last year that more than 10% of Clark County renters had received emergency assistance.
Looking forward, Lombardo agrees higher wages “are part of the discussion. But I think the expansion of the economy is more an answer”, adding “no wages are going to keep up” with the cost of housing.
Despite Nevada’s sustainability challenges, such as climate and water, Lombardo is a proponent of more development to address the housing shortage.
“The only time I would consider stifling building is when your natural resources, in particular, something like water would suffer as a result of that,” he says. “I believe we are in a crisis when it comes to that, but I don’t believe we’re at a crisis point to where we would punish development.”
Should he stay or should he go now?
Lombardo rejects the notion that as the holder of a nonpartisan office, he should step aside while campaigning in a polarizing election. His decisions, he says, are not “made on partisanship” but rather “the letter of the law.”
“I’m fully engaged in exactly what’s going on in the law enforcement space,” he says, pointing to his call for an increase in Metro’s budget as evidence that he’s acting independently of the best interests of his campaign. “If I was way more concerned with running for governor, I wouldn’t even put that on the radar for people to question.”
He insists he’s capable of juggling his full time job as sheriff with the equally, if not more intense demands of campaigning for the state’s top spot.
“My primary goal is to fight crime and create a safe environment within Clark County,” he says. “My secondary goal is running for governor.”
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