A Virginian promises to rescue Nevadans from California prosperity
In this election year, two politicians have been running against California. So far, they seem to be the only two who detected California as a threat in Nevada. Nearly everyone else has been talking about issues.
One of the two is Dennis Hof, brothel owner and likely state legislator since his Republican primary win in a rock-ribbed GOP Assembly district. While running his race for the legislature, he also ran a campaign against petition measures that would have put brothel prostitution on the ballot for a vote of approval or disapproval. His ads included some that read, “KEEP CALIFORNIA OUT,” whatever that means.
The other is Adam Laxalt, Republican nominee for governor, whose campaign against California lets him avoid discussing issues like regressive taxation, corporate welfare, or Nevada’s crappy quality of life.
The Laxalt/Hof ticket is counting on the notion that Nevadans are more concerned with California than they are with health care, education or jobs.
Nevada has long had a cozy relationship with California. The Washo tribe stretched across today’s California and Nevada. When Nevada seceded from Utah Territory in 1859, it chose Isaac Roop of California as its provisional governor. When Congress approved statehood for Nevada, contingent on a state constitution being drafted and adopted, two constitutional conventions were held in Carson City, and they followed the California Constitution as a model in writing the Nevada Constitution. Presiding over the second convention was former California governor Neely Johnson.
The overlapping commerce and media between the two states have kept them close. When San Diego was chosen as the site of the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition, Nevada gave money and built a large building in Balboa Park. When Reno was named the site of the 1927 Transcontinental Highway Exposition, California gave money and built the California Building in Idlewild Park. When Nevada had a presidential primary in the 1970s, the first winners of both Republican and Democratic primaries were California governors.
Many Nevadans—including this writer—were born in California, and many of them still have family there. (Seventy-six percent of Nevadans were born elsewhere.) When I was growing up in Reno, my family went back to southern California for regular visits because we had family in Santa Ana. On one of those trips on July 17, 1955, we were at the opening day of Disneyland. The two things I wanted to do were go up into the castle and go inside the rocket. Both turned out to be props with no insides, not unlike the Laxalt/Hof tactic. (I returned in 1988 and finally got to go up inside the castle.)
Nevada’s once dominant gambling industry has always been dependent preponderantly on Californians. Nevada jobs depend on California spending. Californians buy products and produce exported from Nevada. They visit tourist attractions in Nevada, from the Lost City Museum to Great Basin National Park to Pyramid Lake. When California does poorly economically, so does Nevada.
“We are also part of California’s supply chain, so any problem in California can be very disruptive to us,” according to economist Elliott Parker.
When California tribes began opening casinos, it was a body blow to Nevada casinos, which have never recovered, though Nevada gambling is still heavily dependent on California gamblers.
Stereotyping and demonizing places and regions has long been an effective propaganda technique. Edmund Burke may have declared, in defense of the North American Atlantic coastal colonies of England, that “I do not know the method of drawing up an indictment against a whole people,” but we do it all the time. Until Sept. 11, 2001, New York-bashing was a national sport, even in commercial advertising—“This stuff is made in New York City!” Of course, people always target the big and successful, in people and entities, and California certainly fits that description, thus bumper stickers reading “I DON’T CARE HOW THEY DO IT IN CALIFORNIA!” But, in Nevada, it’s usually a joking matter. One of those bumper stickers is on a car in the parking lot of a low-income housing location in Reno. It’s next to a car with a bumper sticker reading, “LONG LIVE MONO LAKE,” an endangered California attraction.
One map of the United States designed by AlphaDesigner defines states by their stereotypes. Nevada: “Retired pop stars.” California: “Fake boobs and oranges.” Another map, at Big Think, names California and Nevada as among the 10 most bigoted states, based on the number of derogatory tweets they produce.
Arkansas was branded as backward after its governor in 1957 suddenly tried to stop a planned peaceful integration of Little Rock schools, which was unfortunate because it was the governor who was backward. The state of Virginia has a considerable history of being hated. It was the second capital of the Confederacy, and it closed some of its schools rather than integrate. So perhaps Virginia’s Adam Laxalt feels justified in applying the same treatment to California.
After John Kennedy was assassinated, anti-Dallas and anti-Texas sentiment swept the nation. Two days after the assassination, the New York Times ran an article, “Dallas Asks Why It Happened; Worry Over ’Image’ Is Voiced.”
This is not a process that is unknown to Nevada. Its current confrontation with the federal government over installation of a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain is a product of an Eastern feeling that the Great Basin is not good for much and is a dandy place to put unpleasant projects. Thus, the in-state bumper stickers reading, “Nevada is not a wasteland.”
It can legitimately be argued that Nevada’s own leaders of the 1950s and later years fostered that reputation by being willing to accept any economic activity, no matter how untried, dirty or doubtful, if it would create jobs—rather like Lincoln County today. The legacy of the nuclear testing period takes a lot of forgetting.
What few Nevadans—certainly not the newer ones—realize is that the state’s reputation as a wasteland preceded the atomic testing era. Historians believe that it was so well established by the 1840s that it is one of the reasons for the Donner Party disaster. Today, it seems illogical that the unfortunate party did not turn back to the Truckee Meadows to winter over, but the Great Basin was so well known as a hell hole that turning back was seen as a dreadful fate. Getting through the basin and not looking back was the aim—“Hurry along as fast as you can” is the way survivor Virginia Reed described it.
Nevada made it easier for politicians from other states to exploit that reputation. After all, a state that not only tolerates but invites atomic testing, prostitution and mob activity can’t be all that choosy.
This stereotype is set so deep that it is not something that can be easily or quickly overcome—as Nevada leaders like former Governor and U.S. Senator Richard Bryan hoped—by attracting respectable corporations like Citibank or building a few supposedly family-oriented megaresorts.
In the Aug. 9 edition of this newspaper, columnist Sheila Leslie wrote, “Workers have a lot to admire in California’s minimum wage, now set at $10.50 an hour and due to gradually rise to $15 by 2023. California’s leaders are visionary, not only acknowledging climate change but actively working on strategies to combat it. … The ’trash California’ campaign focuses on the perceived threat of liberal politics that embrace LGBTQ+ communities and sanctuary cities. What goes unsaid are the things the GOP is really worried might spread—immigrant workers insisting on their rights, growing demands for a share in the state’s prosperity by people of color who are now the majority population in California, fewer and fewer Republicans.”
Reader Stephen Bloyd of Carson City wrote, “California prosperity? Are you kidding? They can’t even clean up the streets of San Francisco of human excrement and used hypodermic needles. Has Ms. Leslie been to central California lately? Tents in people’s yards. Back alleys used as toilets. The countryside of orange trees and grape vines are littered with plastic bags and human waste. Food trucks routinely dump their waste products on back roads. It looks a lot like Mexico (not known for their environmental concern). It has been a long time since I have read an article so disconnected with reality.”
Bloyd has the anecdotes, but Leslie has the facts. By all reliable measures, California is booming, and Nevada is benefiting from its adjacency.
From January 2013 to December 2016, the number of jobs in California rose by 8 percent compared to the national figure of 6.
Fortune magazine: “It has 12 percent of the U.S. population, but has contributed 16 percent of total job growth between 2012 and 2017. California’s gross domestic product also went up by $127 billion from 2016 to 2017.”
Last year alone, California’s gross domestic product grew 3 percent. And, incidentally, while that was happening, Donald Trump was pulling the United States out of the Paris climate accord. Many state governments, including California, decided to ignore him and continue compliance with the treaty. Under a state measure enacted in 2006 imposing targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, California hit that target four years early, in 2016, while creating jobs faster than the rest of the nation. The California Chamber of Commerce had called the targets a job killer. Meanwhile, Donald Trump tries to drive California emissions back up by taking authority away from state governments and reserving it to the feds, like a good conservative.
California—once the world’s eighth largest economy—is so prosperous and powerful that it’s now the world’s sixth largest economy. It’s the only state the International Monetary Fund ranks with countries.
Fortunately, we have the Laxalt/Hof ticket to protect us from this California type of prosperity. It’s also true that reckless, dangerous and polluting businesses are better off in Nevada, because state regulation—opposed by Laxalt—is so slight they are less likely to be caught, much less penalized. Laxalt and Hof will no doubt preserve our Nevada values that way.
One size fits all
Laxalt got his notion of Nevada politics from his grandfather, who left Nevada in 1975 and never returned to live here and thus never knew the political terrain of a rapidly changing state where things like environmentalism and a large Latino population are now major factors. When, toward the end of Paul Laxalt’s U.S. senatorship, the issue of Yucca Mountain was emerging, he said Nevada had no right to reject such undertakings and that by fighting off nuclear projects, the state was risking becoming known as a “peacenik” state.
Nor is Adam Laxalt, who spent 80 percent of his life on the East Coast, well attuned to Nevadan sensibilities. For instance, when he tried to pressure casino regulator A.G. Burnett to intercede in a civil action on behalf of casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, it was a serious breach of long standing practice in Nevada. While politicians may get too cozy with casino execs—Laxalt’s grandfather as governor accepted freebies like plane travel from the casinos—they were expected to not let anything taint regulators themselves or the casino regulatory process. Even by Nevada standards, Laxalt’s approach to Burnett was shocking.
That raises questions about his feel for Nevada. Since his arrival in the state, many of Laxalt’s public statements have had a boilerplate sound to them, as though they were standard pitches that could have been made in any state or any conservative conference, much the way former Nevada Governor Jim Gibbons lifted a conservative pitch from Alabama’s state auditor and read it as his own speech in Elko. Nevada conservatism is not like that in some other states. It tends to be more libertarian. Laxalt’s pronouncements often sound a little off-key rather than tailored to Nevadans, even its rightists.
In July 2017, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke to a law enforcement audience in Las Vegas. In the course of the speech, Sessions told some horrific crime stories about California, then said, “Removing criminals like these from our streets makes Nevada safer. It would make Los Angeles and San Francisco safer—if they would do it.” A Los Angeles Times reporter covered the speech and his story was headlined, “Jeff Sessions has a message for Nevada: Don’t be California.” Attending that meeting was Adam Laxalt, who also introduced Sessions.
Ten months later, in Fernley, Laxalt, as a candidate for governor, mentioned issues like transgender bathrooms, sanctuary cities and the Second Amendment. And he said, “Do you think it should be a crime in a restaurant to give you a straw when you’re trying to have a drink? How about cancer warnings on your coffee? … These are things we’re seeing in our neighbor California. These are the things I’m willing to fight against so Nevada does not become like California.”
How to demonize California without stumbling over its fabulous success? By singling out oddball incidents that sound trivial in the glare of politics, Laxalt is able to portray the nation’s largest state as freaky and not have to deal with the real booming California. Of course, that also means that a candidate for governor is talking to audiences about trivia instead of substantive matters that concern them. He asks those audiences, “Does anyone want to turn into California?” instead of “Does anyone want to be as prosperous as California?”
It’s fortunate for Sessions that he mentioned anecdotes, however horrific, because the two states have similar crime rates. In most of seven types of crime tracked, the states are near each other’s rates. California has higher murder and larceny/theft rates and Nevada has higher rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and car theft rates. By staying away from statistics and facts and—you know, reality—Sessions was able to pit people (in two states!) against one another, which often seems to be the single most important policy goal of the Trump administration.
And it was fortunate for Laxalt that he used anecdotes, too, because he was talking about things decided by school boards (bathrooms), city councils or town boards (sanctuary cities), and the federal government (the Second Amendment)—while running for governor. No doubt it’s easier to debate those things than explain how he will repeal the commerce tax without cutting school funding, or whether as governor he will leave gambling regulators alone.
That, of course, is the whole point. As long as he can talk about California, he won’t have to say what he wants to do about real Nevada issues or show a depth of knowledge about his new state. For instance, if he succeeds in repealing the commerce tax without cutting school money—which he has promised to do—what is he going to cut? Transportation regulation? Environmental protection? Law enforcement? Casino regulation?
Naw, better to talk about plastic straws.
But why California? Why not go after Arizona, with its foibles and political loons? Why not Colorado or one of the Dakotas, or Massachusetts, or a state with a poor quality of life? What’s he got against California? Paul Laxalt once noted that Nevada is treated like an “outlaw state.” Why does Adam Laxalt want to similarly abuse California?
Sociologist James Richardson said of Laxalt, “He’s just playing on people’s fears and concerns. … There’s such a thing as ’the Other,’ the fearful other. They’re different from you and me. That’s his whole game. The animosity toward German immigrants in the period before World War II, Italian immigrants who were working hard and trying to find their place—it’s similar to what is happening to immigrants now. If you can stoke fear, that’s a winning combination.”
He said this technique even works on large, successful targets, like Californians.
“In Fernley, they don’t believe life is better in California,” Richardson said. “People like Laxalt are telling them about that, reinforcing what they already believe.”
Laxalt and Hof have not been terribly specific about what it is about California that bothers them. Yosemite? The Beach Boys? Raisins?
The state’s prosperity certainly doesn’t bother Laxalt. Reporter Cy Ryan reported Laxalt has raised “more than $67,000 [for his campaign for governor] from 28 firms or individuals in the neighboring state.”
Perhaps it is the California culture. In that case, the Laxalt/Hof ticket might force the Burning Man festival, born in California, out of Nevada the way some of their ideological predecessors drove the Gay Rodeo out of Nevada. It’s not like Western Nevada needs the millions Burning Man brings. The cultural taint perhaps should leave—even though economic development executive Mike Kazmierski has told the Reno Gazette Journal, “It gives us exposure to an incredibly successful part of the business community, nationally and internationally, as they come through the Reno-Sparks community on the way to the desert. It shows them what we have in our region, and we have found that many people coming through here for Burning Man mention us as a place for business.”
Or perhaps it is the quality of life. What do Laxalt and Hof want to preserve in Nevada life and what do they want to block us from doing like California?
Would it be Nevada’s rankings for teen pregnancy, suicide by senior citizens, suicide generally, pollution, tobacco use, tobacco-related death, alcohol- and drug-related death, firearms death, homicide against women, rate of working people in poverty, toxic releases, dropout rate (at both high-school and college levels), infectious disease, infant mortality, health care costs, all of which are higher than in California?
Or might it be Nevada’s rankings for prenatal care, voter turnout, children’s health, health generally, health insurance coverage, child immunizations, reading skills, all of which are lower than in California?
If there is one thing that makes today’s Nevada distinctive and infamous, it is national rankings, so much so that we have our own local cliché—Nevada is high in everything you want to be low in, and low in everything you want to be high in.
Can we truly count on the Laxalt/Hof ticket to preserve Nevada’s standing in these fields and prevent us from emulating California?