Learning politics

2014 election results bring volunteers to Legislature

Madeleine Poore, left, met with Assemblymember Jill Dickman, who represents her in the Nevada Legislature.

Madeleine Poore, left, met with Assemblymember Jill Dickman, who represents her in the Nevada Legislature.


Five blocks from the Nevada Legislature Sunday morning, conversations animated the room with the energy of many new people to the political process. The largest group ever to attend Grassroots Lobby Days, these 193 Nevadans from across the state gathered to learn how to make their voices heard by direct participation in democracy.

“I am so excited,” Lynn Scombardi said. “I am so brand new at this.” The University of Nevada, Las Vegas master’s degree student in social work joined about 15 others from her school to learn how to convince their lawmakers to help young people at risk of sexual trafficking and suicide.

Across the crowded room, Madeleine Poore sat on the floor with classmates from the Reno campus. A group from VOX—Voices for Planned Parenthood for students—advocates for reproductive rights, comprehensive sex education, and protection of sexual assault victims. They were attending, Poore said, “to effect real change by going in and talking to [our] elected officials.”

A big issue for Poore is the “campus carry” bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Michelle Fiore, which would allow guns on campus to help defend against sexual assault. “We know that guns won’t make us safer,” Poore said. “Nevada is the eighth highest state for women being killed by firearms. And 73 percent of sexual assaults happen by someone you know. … It’s really sad to see these politicians jumping on the issue of sexual assault, yet not supporting things like sex education, which would prevent sexual assault. If we were teaching people what consent looked like … sexual assault would definitely be decreased.”


Since 1991, the nonpartisan Nevada Women’s Lobby has sponsored Grassroots Lobby Days, a workshop early in the legislative session, to teach citizens how to talk to their representatives about how they want them to vote. Each year the conference draws attendees who meet other concerned Nevadans and learn simple yet effective methods to make their voices heard in the state’s political process.

The presenters at the workshop include members of Nevada Women’s Lobby; professional lobbyists for groups including the ACLU, Washoe Legal Services, and AARP; and legislators from both sides of the political aisle. Nevada Women’s Lobby serves as a voice for women and families in the Legislature. Their people teach from their experience of years in the legislative process. The first day included a workshop called Lobbying 101. Breakout sessions were held to discuss pending legislation that affects workers, women, children, and immigrants, and panel discussions of the dos and don’ts of effective lobbying.

Far from all work and no play, Grassroots Lobby Days helps new friendships forge, builds confidence in political neophytes, and lends itself to comic relief. Planned Parenthood lobbyist Elisa Cafferata shared the most preposterous thing she had heard in her years as a lobbyist. When questioning her reasons for comprehensive sex education in the classroom, the male legislator she was talking with asked her, “I’ve never put on a condom, but how hard can it be?”

At that, boisterous laughter relieved the tone of much of the day spent discussing the current legislature. Although the Nevada Women’s Lobby invites both Republican and Democratic politicians to speak at Grassroots Lobby Days, this year only Democratic legislators attended. State Sen. Kelvin Atkinson called the 2015 Nevada Legislature “Washington, D.C.-style politics.” With many Grassroots Lobbyists advocating for progressive ideals such as protecting unions, keeping reasonable restrictions on the use of guns, and defending the Nevada constitutional amendment requiring a minimum wage that continues to rise with the cost of living, the sweep of conservative lawmakers in this past election had many at the conference worried about the future of the state’s protection of the most vulnerable.

“You’re not going to railroad us,” Democrat Atkinson said. “You’re not going to run over us. We will do better as a party, and this won’t happen again.”

Nevada Women’s Lobby co-chair Annette Magnus believes that the Legislature’s new majority conservatism brought out this largest turnout in the 24-year history of Grassroots Lobby Days. “Our backs are up against the wall in a serious way, and we have to fight for the things we believe in, and I’m so glad to see so many people here willing to do that.”


Just how well did that fight go for the grassroots lobbyists? On the second day of the conference, they walked the halls of the legislature. They visited their representatives, sat in on committee hearings and legislative sessions, and continued to build relationships with their fellow attendees. Both UNLV’s Scombardi and UNR’s Poore met with their elected representatives to promote their passions.

With Scombardi’s assemblymember, Democrat Richard Carillo, she discussed her support of bills that would place more social workers in schools, would treat exploited sex workers as victims and not criminals, and would raise the age from 8 to 10 years old when juveniles can be convicted of some offenses. They discovered they agreed on issues, and Scombardi found a legislative ally with whom she plans to collaborate.

Scombardi said she used the tools she learned from Grassroots Lobby Days to accomplish this.

“I had no idea about this process at all, not even a little bit,” she said. “I never would have known what to do, getting here on my own—would have been lost.”

Poore’s experience, however, wasn’t as obviously successful. Setting up appointments with both of her elected representatives to oppose the campus carry bill, the UNR senior was able to meet with Sen. Don Gustavson’s staffer and directly with Washoe Assemblymember Jill Dickman. Both Republican legislators support the bill, so Poore voiced her opposition to it.

Coming out of her meeting with Dickman, Poore seemed subdued yet resolute. “We just disagree on the issue,” Poore said. She recounted Dickman’s stance that women would feel safer with guns to protect themselves. “Yeah, maybe they would feel safer,” Poore said, “but I think the reality comes down to is—are you actually safer? … The chances [are] that gun is then used against her.”

Poore embodied what she had learned from Grassroots Lobby Days: “Just because we might not be able to win on a bill, doesn’t mean … that we aren’t the smartest in our strategy, the smartest in our reason, and the most well organized. Always be the voice of reason.” These words from Reno Democratic Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson applied to Poore’s actions. “This session is definitely about a fight.”