Gov. Steve Sisolak and Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo during a debate on Oct. 2, 2022. (Photos courtesy of David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)
At what is likely to be the only gubernatorial debate, Republican Joe Lombardo on Sunday stumbled to clarify his seemingly in-conflict positions on abortion rights, saying they are not at risk in Nevada but expressing support for certain restrictions that do not currently exist.
The outgoing Clark County sheriff, who is challenging first-term Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, stood by his previous statement that he would govern through “a pro-life lens.” He said explicitly that he would approve of mandatory wait times and parental notification when a minor seeks an abortion, with exceptions for cases involving rape and incest. But he said he is not against emergency contraceptives, would not support mandatory ultrasounds, and is against prosecuting women who seek abortions or medical providers who perform them.
Sisolak accused Lombardo of changing positions based on poll results. Democrats stand to benefit this November from voters inspired to vote by the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
Regarding his previous expression of support for a proposed 13-week federal ban on abortions, Lombardo said his position had changed, but he offered little insight into why: “I thought about it more and evaluated. Not my political position or my campaign. I just thought about it more.”
Sisolak called his own support of abortion “unequivocal.”
It was one of the fireier segments during what should be described as — to use a phrase lobbied at one another by both candidates on stage — political theater.
The debate, which will air at 6:30 p.m. on Monday on KSNV and KRNV but was taped the previous day as a part of a Nevada Independent event, covered a range of additional topics, including housing, the health and economic crisis caused by the pandemic, and raising taxes.
The personal is political?
At times, the debate felt personal, with the candidates referencing specific conversations they may (or may not) have had with each other and with resort company CEOs about their mudslinging campaign ads and covid protocols, respectively.
When debate moderator Jon Ralston mentioned that the Vegas Chamber endorsed Sisolak, Lombardo responded by saying his political team knew of “numerous people as part of the board that were endorsing me and in my camp” but that they were “overwhelmed by the particular powers that are in the governor’s pocket.”
“It’s no secret that the governor is vindictive,” continued Lombardo when pressed to explain. “If you don’t come on board, he’s going to make your life tough.”
Sisolak chided him for not providing any concrete examples of him being vindictive, before quipping, “I’m not going to come forward with the nicknames they gave you at Metro.”
Lombardo attempted to paint Sisolak as being bad for business, pointing to his timeline for reopening businesses, which Lombardo believes should have been accelerated. Sisolak stressed that he was communicative and cooperative with industry leaders from day one of the pandemic.
Sisolak attacked Lombardo for his handling of Metro officers who died of covid but were not deemed to have died “in the line of duty.” Two such widows, who sat in the front row of the debate audience, have claimed a presidential executive order permits the designation, which comes with additional benefits for the surviving family and honors at the deceased’s funeral. Lombardo’s camp has said giving the designation would have constituted fraud.
At Sunday’s debate, Lombardo referred to a recent memorial for one of those deceased Metro officers as “political theater.”
“It was political theater in order to get kudos,” he added.
Sisolak responded: “You’re telling these women that are here and their children that it was political theater that they had a memorial service for their deceased husband and father.”
Lombardo responded that Sisolak’s attendance at the memorial was “political theater,” not the memorial itself.
Jenn Closi, one of the widows who attended the event, told members of the press afterward that she did not view the June memorial for her husband Phil as political theater. She said she saw Sisolak’s face “and the tears in his eyes.”
Both candidates agreed that, by certain measures, crime rates appear to be increasing in Clark County, but they disagreed on which of them deserves the blame.
Sisolak, who once called Lombardo “the best sheriff in the United States of America,” painted his opponent as a law enforcement leader whose record was commendable until his political ambitions changed his priorities.
“He changed when he suddenly saw political opportunity,” said Sisolak.
Meanwhile, Lombardo pointed to state legislation, specifically an assembly bill that made changes to the thresholds for narcotics and larceny charges, among a litany of other criminal justice reforms. Metro first opposed the bill but moved to neutral on the final version that was passed with bipartisan support and signed by the governor.
“We were neutral because we finally got to somewhere that we could live with, knowing it was still bad legislation,” he said.
One topic that didn’t arise: Porfirio Duarte-Herrera, the convicted murderer whose recent escape from the Southern Desert Correctional Center went undetected by the Nevada Department of Corrections for several days. Sisolak asked for, and received, the resignation of department head Charlie Daniels on Friday. (Meanwhile, Duarte-Herrera is back in custody after being apprehended Wednesday while trying to board a shuttle to Tijuana.)
Next on the campaign trail
Sunday’s was the only scheduled debate between Sisolak and Lombardo.
Lombardo this week will attend a rally with former President Donald Trump in Minden. The former president has already endorsed Lombardo in the race.
On Sunday, Lombardo expressed tempered support for Trump, declining to call him “a great president” but saying “I think he was a sound president” who was “beneficial to the country and supported the country and moved the country forward.” Lombardo also attempted to distance himself from election denialism, saying he does not believe the 2020 election was rigged.
“You’ve got to look at the totality of the person and their ideas and their leadership and support them in that aspect,” he said. “You’re never going to have the perfect candidate.”
The Nevada Independent on Sunday released a statewide poll showing the Sisolak-Lombardo race in a toss up — 45% to 42%, with the Republican leading but within the poll’s margin of error. The results echo previous polling showing the two in a highly competitive race that will likely come down to voter turnout.
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