Public power, private man

Harvey Whittemore, Nevada’s most powerful casino lobbyist, gave up something to get to the top

Photo By David Robert

It was May 20, 1983. The battle over how casino workers’ tips would be treated under the law had come down to the Nevada Senate. Clark County Sen. William Hernstadt, knowing he was facing defeat at the hands of the casinos, named the adversary who had beaten him.

“When Harvey Whittemore speaks,” Hernstadt told his fellow senators, “the Nevada Senate listens.”

Casino lobbyist Whittemore was leaning against a column at the back of the Senate hall, and a wave of anger swept through him. I encountered Whittemore afterward and was taken aback at his rage. Hernstadt’s comment, it seemed to me, was a great advertisement for Whittemore’s lobbying skills. He should put it on his business card. “Why are you so upset?” I asked. Whittemore gave an answer that didn’t really answer anything. Over the years, I asked him about the incident a couple more times, but I never got a real answer.

Whittemore, one of Nevada’s most powerful men, doesn’t live in Clark County, where most of the state’s money, power and people are found. He lives in Washoe County, where he graduated from junior high school, high school and college. Roots may be important to a man whose early years were spent on the move.

Born in Carson City on Aug. 17, 1956, when his family lived at Lake Tahoe, Whittemore spent his childhood in places like Yerington, Las Vegas and Tempe, Ariz. They were way stations for his father, a school counseling and testing specialist.

Whittemore was not a problem child. He describes himself as respectful of authority—he didn’t cause problems and was religious in a religious family; his grandfather was a minister in Carson City.

Finally, when Whittemore was in the seventh grade, his father moved to Sparks and stayed. His family probably expected Whittemore to be a chemist or physician.

“I was taking more science than anything else … loved chemistry,” he says.

He won awards, one from Bausch & Lomb. But a couple of things changed him. One was love—when he met the woman who would become his wife, she was the daughter of a doctor who didn’t particularly relish the thought of being the wife of a doctor.

Another was a football injury he suffered. Extended convalescence at home made him more of a reader, and it widened his horizons.

He went to the University of Nevada in Reno, then to Arizona State University’s law school. Back in Reno, he put a growing interest in politics into Lt. Gov. Robert Rose’s 1978 campaign for governor. He was also planning to run for office himself, but in ‘78 he made two contacts that diverted him into a very different future.

One was Grant Sawyer. The former Nevada governor had formed the state’s most influential law firm, Lionel, Sawyer & Collins. Sawyer remained a legendary figure in state politics, a powerful speaker and Democratic Party leader.

The other was Dick Campbell of Lionel, Sawyer, who met Whittemore at a Rose fundraiser. Campbell said, “Harvey, we just started the Reno office. …Why don’t you come in for an interview?”

After Rose’s defeat, Whittemore joined Lionel, Sawyer. In December 1978, he got a fateful assignment directly from Sawyer.

“Grant Sawyer introduced me as an expert in a field of law that I hadn’t even heard of.”

The field was lobbying.

Before the era of cell phones, the Nevada Lagislature’s hallways were lined with dozens of phone booths, and Whittemore—phoning clients—was one of the heaviest users.

Photo By Dennis Myers

“Grant, I don’t know anything about it,” Whittemore says he told Sawyer.

“I know you don’t,” Sawyer responded. “But you can be an expert in anything that I tell you you can be [an expert] in.”

Whittemore laughed. “Grant, you have so much faith in me.”

“Harvey, you’ve got to have faith in yourself. I see a lot of stuff in you that you don’t see in you.”

This was heady stuff. Nevada’s most distinguished Democrat was telling Whittemore he could handle a sensitive, top-level task.

The first assignment was to amend the law governing opticians.

“Grant Sawyer asked me to work on a case that involved trying to expand the circumstances under which people could acquire eyeglasses. He wanted to open up the prescription eyeglasses market.”

After that experience, other people reinforced Sawyer’s belief that Whittemore had a knack for persuasion. And Whittemore believes he brought something to lobbying in Nevada that others had not—doing homework and understanding the client’s field, whether eyeglasses or soft drinks or blackjack.

“People came along and said, ‘You know, you’ve got a talent of doing this.’ I said, ‘You know, I’m bringing a little bit of expertise and passion, and I prepare well,’ which I think was different at the time. I don’t think that the legislative advocates understood the level of sophistication you could bring to making arguments. So that was fun being on the cutting edge of that.” (The term lobbyist does not cross Whittemore’s lips.)

Whittemore also made common cause with Nevada’s best-known lobbyist, Jim Joyce. Whittemore says he thinks they worked well together because he was Mr. Outside and Joyce was Mr. Inside: “For literally years, Jim Joyce never testified [before legislative committees] … because he could do it a different way. … Jim would continue to work and do what he was doing behind the scenes, and he would push me out front a little bit as the person that was capable of making the presentations in public, both because of training as well as because I liked it.” (Joyce died in 1993.)

But while Whittemore didn’t mind being out in front, he did not realize he was slowly becoming known. As legislatures came and went and he honed his lobbying skills, his name gained recognition.

Whittemore also seems to have had little realization of how brutal many lawmakers found his lobbying. In that 1983 speech, Hernstadt described it: “Many of us have received substantial contributions from one industry. Some people twenty thousand, some people fifty thousand, some a hundred thousand, some 150 thousand. And, as they say in the TV ads, when E.F. Hutton speaks, the public listens. Well, when Harvey Whittemore speaks, the Senate listens. I don’t mean there is any impropriety. What I mean is that, how do you say no to somebody that has put that much pressure on you? One of my colleagues here has had his arm twisted to the point of breaking.”

Whittemore’s casino clients benefited his other, smaller clients. It’s a factor that has seldom been recognized, that Whittemore gets his power from the casinos, and his other, non-casino clients then get to use that power.

Teresa Maloney encountered the problem in 1995. She and her husband owned a 7-Eleven store south of Reno, and she became involved in a national franchisee organization in legislative struggles with parent corporations—the Southland Corporation, in the case of 7-Elevens, and other corporations from Roto-Rooter to Burger King. Maloney found herself facing Harvey Whittemore, representing Southland.

Had Whittemore represented only Southland, Maloney would have had an easier time of it. But he also represented the Nevada Resort Association and various casinos. Lawmakers who crossed Whittemore on franchise issues risked offending the most powerful casino lobbyist in the state, who advised his clients on how they should parcel out campaign contributions at election time. Thus, Maloney found herself defeated not by Southland but by the casinos’ power, which Southland rented by hiring Whittemore.

Given the power of Whittemore’s parceling out of campaign money, it is tempting to believe that’s all he has going for him. That would be a mistake, though money is certainly the principal component of his influence. There is also Whittemore’s mastery of his subjects. When he goes before a legislative committee, he is prepared, not something that can always be said of other lobbyists—or lawmakers.

And he has political savvy. When he deals with state legislators, he can understand their political problems. But this also means that lawmakers know darned well that he understands he’s putting them in jeopardy when he gets them to do something politically risky.

At the community center in the Spanish Springs Valley last fall, Whittemore gave a sales pitch for his mall/casino there.

Photo By David Robert

Whittemore is skilled in legislative strategy and tactics. On one occasion he included, in a proposed liability shield for casinos, language to overturn naval aviator Paula Coughlin’s lawsuit judgment against the Las Vegas Hilton in the Tailhook scandal. The language probably couldn’t have withstood a court challenge, but it forced Coughlin to come to Nevada to fight it, diverted the attention of journalists from the more important provisions of the measure, and gave Whittemore something to trade away in negotiations.

This savvy does have one blind spot—himself. This shows up again and again.

Occasionally Whittemore’s sense of taste or of the fitness of things fails him—and, again, it often involves himself. The best-known instance of this was his trying to get enacted a measure that personally benefited him, involving a Lake Tahoe pier, but it’s not the only one. At one Legislature, as he defeated legislation supported by a group of parents of victims of drunken drivers, he offered them money for their organization, a gesture many parents found offensive.

It sometimes surprises people to learn Whittemore is a Democrat, but in this day of a Democratic Party oriented more to corporate power than to working people, it shouldn’t.

On one occasion in 1992, Whittemore spoke for Bill Clinton at a Washoe County Democratic Convention. On the speaking schedule, he followed a fiery, young, casually dressed representative of Jerry Brown, Clinton’s principal opponent. The contrast was striking—when Whittemore, the corporate lobbyist, rose to speak, he suggested a Thomas Nast cartoon of a political boss with dollar signs all over his body. It’s a simile that Whittemore hates.

"[P]eople look at me and think they know me because of the settings they find me in, and they don’t know my background. … This notion that somehow because I’m wearing a three-piece suit, that somehow I’m this corporate attorney that’s conservative, that represents the bad guys, when in reality my political philosophy is probably even more liberal than my kids'. … If you want to get in and understand who I am, you have to sit down and talk with me about issues.”

That he is a Democrat seems to mean little in lobbying terms. When he crafted and lobbied a liability shield for casinos, it put victims of lax casino security—such as the family of the child molested and murdered in a casino bathroom or the rape victim in a casino parking garage—in a terrible legal position. His success at holding down casino taxes put terrific pressure on lawmakers to raise taxes elsewhere, such as a sales-tax increase that especially burdens workers.

When Whittemore demands that people know his background before judging him, it suggests that his background explains something. He didn’t grow up in great comfort, nor in poverty. He remembers that one of the family’s houses had a bare concrete floor with cracks in it. That’s as close as he gets to relating his background to his lobbying activities. What is lacking in his demeanor and conversation is any awareness that his lobbying makes life harder for the working poor, as his critics charge.

He responds to such accusations by pointing to his own treatment of his employees at his golf club, Red Hawk: “I don’t think that’s fair. … I don’t think that people can understand my commitment to people unless they’re here [at the club]. We’re getting to the point where I feel that I’m tooting my horn, and I hate that. … But you need to understand. … I’ve instituted at my expense a program to teach our employees English as a second language, so that we can help them and their families pursue their dreams here. We do those things other people don’t do. It’s not because I’m better than other people. It’s because I feel a sense of obligation that we need to use the resources that God has given us in ways that further His purpose. We are stewards.”

But Whittemore’s workers, like most employees, work under the threat of a state fire-at-will law that he helped craft and enact. Shielding other employers from legal requirements that would protect workers, even while doing well by his own workers, is not what many of his critics would describe as God’s work.

More than once over the years, while watching or talking with Whittemore, I’ve been reminded of something David Halberstam wrote about Ted Sorensen, speechwriter to President John Kennedy: “Following the assassination he did not plunge himself into the social issues with which the administration had been so concerned, but rather became just one more wealthy lawyer.” As a result, Sorensen’s political acumen faltered—and he ended up representing General Motors against Ralph Nader.

Were Whittemore more in touch with the pain the working poor experience in Nevada every day of their lives, he might have a better understanding of the impact of his lobbying on them. His relationship with his employees is such that the child of one of his managers feels free to push his office door open and climb into his lap. His relationship with Nevada working families in the abstract is something else, notwithstanding his charitable contributions.

At the same time, many blame Whittemore more than he should be blamed. While it’s true that he leads lawmakers into doing things they should not do, either for their own good or the public’s, in the end he’s just a go-between. It’s the lawmakers who are the state’s protection against Whittemore and other lobbyists. Blaming him for succeeding for his clients is like blaming the Fall not on Adam, Eve or God, but on the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

Though it isn’t yet generally known, Whittemore is less likely in the future to be as much of a factor at the Legislature. He has cut back his lobbying, he estimates, to less than half what he once did, and he is now choosing carefully: “I’ve got relationships with certain people that I’m going to protect, and other than that it is absolutely a wonderful point in my life to simply say no, and I’ve said no more than I ever had.” His body language says he’s happier with that freedom and won’t miss the lobbying.

Most of Whittemore’s advocacy has been on behalf of others, but increasingly as he builds golf courses, casinos and housing developments (some of them in Clark County), he is lobbying for himself, and not necessarily at the Legislature. On Sept. 8 last year, he faced a hostile Spanish Springs community meeting to make the case for his proposed mall/casino there. While news coverage of the meeting focused on the attacks on him, in fact the reaction in the hall was more nuanced. A sort of group-think took over in the hall, so those Whittemore won over didn’t feel free to speak up, but they were there.

Interviewing people individually afterward made it clear that Whittemore had opened some minds. For instance, one of them, Ken Minor, said, “This isn’t what I thought it was. I thought we were going to have a Peppermill out here.” One person after another responded that way. It was a reminder of the persuasive powers Whittemore possesses and uses at the Legislature. And the attacks on him during the meeting were a reminder of attacks on him at the Legislature, such as Hernstadt’s speech.

I wanted an answer to my question about Hernstadt. I asked Whittemore about it again in an interview for this article. I had to ask a second time and a third. Each time, he diverted the conversation to other things; he became more animated, even agitated.

In the closing days of the 1999 legislative session, Whittemore conferred with Sen. William Raggio and Assemblymember Chris Giunchigliani (back to camera). The closing days of the legislatures are when lobbyists’ powers are at their height because lawmakers suspend public notice requirements of legislative actions.

Photo By Dennis Myers

I kept at him, and his voice rose. Whittemore’s a big guy, but I’ve never seen him use his size to intimidate in lobbying situations. Here, his size just seemed to emphasize his discomfort with the question—he wasn’t squirming, just getting up, moving around, sitting back down. I wanted to give it up, let him off the hook, but it seemed to me that there was something interesting or telling about his anger at Hernstadt.

Then, suddenly, the level of Whittemore’s voice dropped very low, and he said, kind of sadly, “It was the first time that I realized how others perceived my ability to influence things.”

There was a long pause. Then:

“I was young. I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, is that what I really want?’ “

Another pause, then:

“That’s why.”

It seems incredible that he believed it was possible for him to function as lobbyist for the state’s most powerful industry and not become a target himself. But it was so—and it goes further. He does not even understand now—or concede—that he is a public figure. When I referred to him as such, it was like he’d been jabbed with something painful—"Why am I a public figure? Why am I a public figure? Why?"—and the italics were in his tone of voice.

He even describes how reporters could cover him without mentioning him: “They should simply say, ‘A lawyer from the industry made the following arguments.’ Why do they have to describe that it’s Harvey Whittemore? Why? There’s no reason. It doesn’t add to the story.”

Once again his political acumen showed a blind spot involving himself. Because his power is unaccountable—he can’t be voted out of office—scrutiny of his activities is even more necessary than those of public officials (not that journalism in the state does much to police the activities of Whittemore and other lobbyists).

It’s hard not to wonder how he would have acted if—as he he had once planned—run for office.

There are other what-ifs about that scenario, too. I asked him how he would have felt if he had become a state legislator and faced the pressure tactics of a Harvey Whittemore. He says he would have told such a lobbyist, “Harvey, give me the other side and explain why what you’re proposing is good for the state of Nevada.

“I would have been collegial. I would have been cooperative. I would have reached resolution as a legislator. I know how that process works. I’d be a very good one. It wouldn’t just be ‘my way.'”

And suppose that collegiality failed and as a legislator he ended up adversaries with that lobbyist—would he have demonized the lobbyist as some lawmakers have done to him?

“No, that’s not part of my personality. I get mad for exactly 10 seconds, and then I’m over it.”

It is possible that his discomfort with being a public figure is simply that he doesn’t like the way he is portrayed. He does say, “The public perception of who I am is totally different than who I am.”

In the early 1980s, Whittemore was much lower on the public’s radar screen. It was Joyce and others like Richard Bunker who had been the wheeler dealers in the public eye. The Hernstadt speech apparently made Whittemore realize that he was next, with costs to his own sense of self and wounds inflicted on members of his family who watched as he was targeted.

There isn’t likely to be any meeting of minds on the issue of Harvey Whittemore. One side believes life in Nevada is worse because of him, the other believes it is better—and Whittemore himself doesn’t concede that he is an “issue” of public debate at all.

Suddenly realizing on that day in 1983 that continuing as a lobbyist would make him a lightning rod didn’t change his career course, but it did make him aware that there would be a cost. He kept moving into the bull’s-eye, even as in his own mind he fought against being there. It made him a very rich and powerful man, and he gives no indication that he would not make the same decision again.