Time to vote

It’s the mid-term elections, but with competing questions, contentious candidates and a confused constituency, what’s a voter to do?

Photo By David Robert

It’s that time again, time to get out your pencils and mark up your sample ballots. Early voting is about to start. Maybe you’ve seen some commercials, but all you can tell from those things is who’s the better liar or who received more special-interest money. Here’s a look at some selected races.

Religious right vs. religious left
From his recent bill draft request to teach intelligent design as an elective in public schools to his emerging unscathed from Nevada Ethics Commission investigations into conflicts of interest and abuses of power, Nevada Sen. Maurice Washington, R-Sparks, is a conservative’s conservative. He’s pro-death penalty—even for Nevada juveniles—and anti-abortion.

As a pastor, Washington preaches the importance of personal responsibility at Center of Hope Christian Fellowship, where he once attempted to run one of Nevada’s first state-funded charter schools, the Nevada Leadership Academy. The NLA, founded through legislation that Washington supported, was housed in and paid rent to Washington’s church. Problems plagued the school. Washington let workers’ injury insurance lapse more than once and, after an investigation, pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges.

In 2002, Washington wrote a $150,000 check from the school to his church to secure a loan from Wells Fargo. When called to account, Washington returned the money. Wells Fargo did not press charges for fraud. The school declared bankruptcy in 2003, and its charter was revoked.

Washington said political opponents used the school to try to discredit him.

“I was a lightning rod,” he explained in a recent interview at a coffee shop in Sparks. “I didn’t get on the board until late—when they asked me to help.”

Sen. Maurice Washington says when he first ran, “The odds were against me. I was an unproven commodity running against a 12-year incumbent.”

Photo By David Robert

The same goes for the halfway houses for parolees that Washington ran while being on the Senate Judiciary Committee and voting on prison reform. Not his fault that the houses were ordered to close.

In Las Vegas Review-Journal polls taken in 2001 and 2003, Washington was ranked as the worst senator in Nevada. He rose to third worst in 2005.

Washington attributes his success to divine providence.

“When I first ran, the odds were against me,” he said. “I was an unproven commodity running against a 12-year incumbent. I was a Republican and a black Republican at that. … Over my career, I’ve proved to be a worthy leader, attentive to people’s needs and true to my convictions.”

The challenger
Running against Washington is John Emerson, a life-long Democrat and retired minister who’s preached from Ely to Carson City. As a civil rights activist in the 1960s, Emerson marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I met with Emerson and his wife Janice, a former Carson City Democratic Women’s Club chair, at their home in Sparks. Parked in the driveway were vehicles decorated with fish symbols and bumper stickers like: “I’m a Christian and a Democrat.” Inside, a highlighted and pinpointed map of Sparks districts was affixed to the wall.

Emerson’s been walking the streets, talking to Sparks residents about affordable health care, education and the rising cost of energy. Education and health-care reform take money. Do Democrats want to raise taxes and kill small businesses as a result?

Emerson said that, with an anticipated budget surplus in 2007, he doesn’t foresee any need to raise taxes in the upcoming legislative session.

Nevadans support investing in communities, kids and health care, Emerson said.

“We can put the [budget] surplus to work on things that have been on hold—like deferred maintenance of public schools,” he said. “We need to look at liability issues and the physical environment [of schools]. Is it conducive to learning?”

John Emerson is not optimistic: “A lack of affordable housing is a crisis in this state.”

Photo By David Robert

Emerson’s political activism in Nevada dates back to the 1960s when he helped Republican Gov. Paul Laxalt deal with problems brewing in the Nevada prison system by hiring a full-time chaplain.

After spending decades at the Nevada Legislature as an unpaid lobbyist for various non-profit social justice entities including the Religious Alliance in Nevada (RAIN), Emerson decided to challenge Washington for the District 2 seat.

“I’m just fed up with partisan bickering and grandstanding and those ideologues who dig their heels in,” Emerson said. “Politics is the art of compromise. The challenge is to find a compromise without making anyone feel like a loser, and that takes a lot of work.”

Washington believes that the American Dream can be achieved through hard work—sort of.

What would he tell a Sparks father of three who works 80 hours a week to pay the bills—and dreams of buying a house?

“I’d tell him don’t lose hold of your dreams,” Washington said. “Don’t give up.”

Will that man ever own a house?

“Sure,” Washington said. “There are enough programs that can help. … It’s still about personal responsibility. You have to apply for help, seek it. Don’t sit back and wait for it to come to you.”

Emerson is less optimistic.

“A lack of affordable housing is a crisis in this state,” Emerson said. “Senior adults are being displaced from trailer parks as land is developed into expensive new housing. … Schoolteachers aren’t making enough to buy a home in the district where they teach.”

Nevada’s economy can still flourish, he said, but lawmakers ought to ensure “sustainable growth at a slower pace, not this huge 20 percent growth that we can’t keep up with in terms of affordable housing, infrastructure and schools.”

Washington also sees investment as a key to maintaining a high living standard. Financing change is more problematic, given his reticence for taxes.

Perhaps developers who increase the strain on schools and roads could be required to pay more toward infrastructure costs? For Washington, that’s not an option.

“Developers pay enough—a fair share,” said Washington, whose list of campaign contributors reads like a Who’s Who of Nevada building industries. “Though some will say, ‘How much is enough?’ “

—Deidre Pike


Lazy 8 heats up Sparks mayor’s race
Mayoral candidate Gene Newhall hasn’t received any campaign contributions. Money for his campaign for Sparks mayor is coming out of his own pocket.

That doesn’t deter Newhall, 47, from running against incumbent Mayor Geno Martini, who took office after the death of Sparks Mayor Tony Armstrong in January 2005. Newhall is driven by a simple democratic impulse—to give people a choice.

It’s a classic case of a little-known, underfunded, unhappy citizen taking on city hall.

“I don’t think anyone should run unopposed,” he said. “That just gives them a free ride.”

Newhall has a few beefs with the city of Sparks. He’s furious over the decision to allow construction of the Lazy 8 casino on the Pyramid Highway. “The City Council stabbed the residents of Sparks in the back,” he said in an interview at his Sparks home. “I have no ties to the Nugget, no ties to anybody. I just think people ought to build downtown, where we need it.”

Newhall is a full-time driver for Calvada Foods and works an additional 20 hours a week at Wal-Mart. His wife, Betty, works at the Sands Regency Casino, and his 76-year-old father, Glenn, lives with them.

The Newhall home is small and tidy—loaded with Betty’s Elvis memorabilia. On one wall a portrait of Jesus hangs next to a smaller photograph of the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Newhall is increasingly concerned about the struggles of the working class.

“It’s getting harder to make ends meet,” he said. “Every time I turn around, they’re raising taxes and raising prices.”

He pays a “ludicrous” flat rate of $80 a month for water and forecasts a time when only “millionaires will be able to turn a hose on and get running water.”

The same goes for health care, prescription drugs, gas, food and electricity.

“You and me and everybody else, we have to give up something to pay for something else,” he said.

Incumbent Sparks Mayor Geno Martini was appointed to the seat upon Tony Armstrong’s death. This is his first campaign for the position.

Photo By David Robert

The incumbent
A large portrait of former mayor Tony Armstrong hangs in Mayor Martini’s office, along with panoramic photos of downtown Sparks: A sepia-toned view of the railroad yards juxtaposed with a current color shot.

This year marks Martini’s first mayoral election, though he won elections to the Sparks City Council in 2001 and 2004.

Martini said Sparks faces a dramatic shortage of police officers and fire fighters. A city the size of Sparks typically has about 1.8 officers per 1,000 residents. Sparks only has 1.3 officers per 1,000. Also, Spanish Springs needs an additional fire station.

All of this can be funded, Martini said, through a .25 percent increase in sales tax. This will allow the city to add 36 officers. And the increase, Martini said, puts the burden where it belongs—on tourists who pay 60 percent of the city’s sales taxes. “Tourists cause our traffic problems,” Martini said. “It’s right that they should pay for some of this.”

As for the Lazy 8 casino, he doesn’t think the Council betrayed Sparks residents by voting to settle a lawsuit threatened by the casino’s developers.

“We went through the public process,” he said. “Time after time, during long meetings, we listened to everyone who wanted to speak. In the end, the 1994 Council had a contract.”

Whether the 1994 Council did the right thing in allowing a casino to be built in Spanish Springs isn’t the question, Martini said.

“Our attorney told us it was a contract. … We had to sit back and realize, if we lost, what would it cost the city of Sparks? Why put the citizens of Sparks at risk for $100 million or more?”

However, there have been some subsequent misgivings—the council voted last week to ask the state attorney general to scrutinize the legal advice it received from the Sparks city attorney on the matter.

—Deidre Pike


Preparing students for the workforce
Lezlie Porter, 58, feels that in her 11-year tenure as a school board member, her greatest accomplishment has been the parent complaint form. “So frequently, parents would never have any documentation or paper trail for parents with a problem,” Porter explained. “Now, complaints are resolved and taken up the chain of command.”

Larry Wilson, 60, brings his 30 years of teaching experience to his campaign for the District F school board seat.

“I think that every student, when they graduate from high school, should have a salable skill,” Wilson said. “If we are sending kids out into the world without a marketable skill, then we are doing a disservice to everybody.”

Porter agrees that “all children are not geared for college” when they finish high school. “We have talked about vocational school, which hasn’t materialized.”

Wilson would like to implement an interest inventory test to allow students more flexibility with electives and offer credits from practical sciences that give them a sense of accomplishment, as well as of options for their future.

Porter reflects upon her three terms.

“I have been instrumental in reforming summer school, particularly at the middle school level,” Porter said. “Now, we have a uniform summer school curriculum. However, we face a challenge for additional creative principals working in year-round schools. If a principal of a year round school identifies additional needs, the students are placed in programs designed to address their needs.”

Time outs
Rising student disciplinary infractions are another important issue addressed by the candidates.

“Middle school increases in disciplinary problems are met with a 20 minute period to deal with violence, drug abuse, bullying, substance abuse and interpersonal conflict,” Porter explained.

Sparks mayoral candidate Gene Newhall is furious over the decision to allow construction of the Lazy 8 casino on the Pyramid Highway. “The City Council stabbed the residents of Sparks in the back.”

Photo By David Robert

“There is disengagement between students and the educational system that has long term effects on society,” Wilson acknowledges from his experience in the classroom. “We need to offer a required class in family living [to teach students] how to take care of one another, maintain relationships and balance a check book. We must offer practical life skills that are not offered anywhere else to produce productive citizens.”

The candidates disagree about the federally mandated No Child Left Behind Program.

"[It] requires that we deal with everybody,” Porter said. “UNR can really help on all levels of diversity in the classroom. We need greater cooperation with the university to train teachers in differentiated instruction, tailoring [teachers] from top to bottom.”

“The No Child Left Behind Program is so flawed that it needs to be greatly altered or eliminated,” Wilson said. “Teachers are not able to teach to their best ability in this program. When the legislatures are not teachers, they may not know what to do in the education field. They are not funding education, and they take a great deal away from the entire system. Children need cultural experiences to compliment their education, but teachers are no longer able to plan extra field trips or art projects.”

Both candidates want to see greater parental involvement.

“Our district was in the lead in the state, which is now part of state law to implement a parental involvement program that includes parent involvement coordinators, a committee comprised of parents and community members, as well as businesses that allow for parental involvement and give their employees time off to volunteer at our schools,” Porter explained.

“I feel that we need and should count on parental support, but it just doesn’t happen in the classroom,” Wilson said. “If the assistance doesn’t come from parents then we need to have other viable options to support our children.”

—Molly Hofmann


Operations and education
Galen Mitchell, 73, is completing a four-year term as a trustee for school board District C. Barbara Clark, 54, is a former Nevada PTA president who is challenging him in the Nov. 7 election.

The two candidates have different views of issues facing a trustee for the North Valleys.

“We need to run the district like a business,” said Mitchell, who brings his previous experience as a retired state of Nevada fraud investigator to his candidacy.

“I am the only trustee that zeros in on the operation side of the school district,” Mitchell said. “In my opinion, you need a diverse board that gives you a well-rounded overview of the district. Everybody is focusing on the education in regards to student scores. However, this is the end product.”

Clark’s focus is on the end product. “One of the things that I hear most in the community is [the need for] producing a skilled and educated work force,” she said. Clark said that she will focus on the testing and accountability measures to lower graduation drop-out rates and seek additional math and science programs to prepare students for the world beyond high school.

In this campaign, Mitchell is focusing on his record. He says he has been a central figure in funding two internal auditor positions for more accountability; replacing 100 used buses with new buses and drafting a replacement policy for future bus purchases; implementing a highly audited business management system that would “provide extreme financial savings” and make the district eligible for federal grants; reducing computer replacement costs by allowing more bids for contracts; and working toward an official real estate advisory committee to monitor land transactions.

Clark plans to work toward providing children with improved parental involvement that will require additional time, money and recourses. She cites 30 years of research indicating that parent involvement equates to academic success.

“We need effective two-way communication, as well as bringing the community in, to strengthen more academic success for all children,” Clark said. “We need to constantly be doing this work, as a parent is a child’s first advocate and teacher. We need to find ways to meet parents’ schedules [in order] to be involved with their children.”

What sets the trustee candidates for District C apart?

“I will continue to be a watchdog for the citizens,” Mitchell said. “Some of the financial reports indicate that my opponent is financed by South Meadows developers. Could it be that I have been successful in showing that the North Valleys are most in need of new schools? In the past three years, I’ve been successful in construction oversight for two middle schools, two elementary schools and additions for two high schools at a total cost of $100 million. I have roamed the construction sites over the past two years, and all of them have come in on time and under budget. That is a tremendous accomplishment as far as I’m concerned.”

“I have walked the walk, not only talked the talk, for the past 15 years,” Clark explained. “I have been a voice for children and for parents. I know what it is to bring stakeholders in to work on a project. I believe in involving everybody because this only adds to making our school district the best it can be. I have the team building skills, knowledge and experience. I know the process at the state and district levels involving teachers, parents and businesses. I will ask for, listen, then carry the peoples’ voices and concerns into District F decision making.”

—Molly Hofmann


Sorting out the smoke—and mirrors
At Casale’s Halfway Club, owner Inez Stempeck has a sign in the window—"Vote no on 4 & 5.”

But at Sparky’s in Sparks, there is a different view—some of the waiters wear T-shirts reading, “Yes on 5” on the front and “No on 4” on the back.

Ballot questions 4 and 5 are both measures that seek to curb smoking in public places.

Question 5 is a rarity—an initiative petition sponsored by a group that didn’t go to an initiative until after it tried (twice) to get its measure passed by the legislature and failed. Its supporters even got some counties to put straw votes on their ballots in the 2004 election, calling for tougher anti-smoking laws, and voters passed them. Armed with those results, they went to the Nevada Legislature where their measures were strangled at the behest of the casino lobby. So they then circulated petitions to enact the law through the voters.

Restaurant owner Inez Stempeck opposes two ballot measures that regard smoking tobacco in public.

Photo By David Robert

Whereupon casinos, bars and other businesses started circulating their own petition, now called Question 4, for weaker restrictions on smoking. It would ban smoking inside schools (including some day care but not college campuses), theaters, video arcades, government buildings, hospitals, doctor offices and museums. (Some of these are clearly window dressing, since smoking is already banned in many of them either by law or in practice.) It would allow smoking in casinos, bars, strip clubs and brothels, hotels and motels, anywhere there is gambling (including grocery and drug stores) and private buildings.

Question 5 would prohibit smoking in most public places including movie theaters, indoor restaurants, schools including day care and college campuses, bars with food, grocery stores, indoor restaurants, government buildings, malls. It allows smoking in casinos and other businesses with gambling licenses, bars, adult-only restaurants, private buildings, and a number of other locations.

There are a couple of kickers in these measures. In the case of question 4, it also lists “public places” among the places where smoking is prohibited. The term is undefined but is pretty sweeping.

And if Question 5 is approved, the legislature would be prohibited until 2009 from adding any of the places in Question 4—or anything else—to the law.

So what happens if both measures pass? It would be up to the courts to sort out whether and where they contradict each other. Where they do conflict, the measure that had the bigger margin of victory would prevail. (Both measures were winning in a Las Vegas Review-Journal survey, but the casino version had a bigger lead.)

The easiest way to remember which measure is which is that 4 is supported by the casinos and 5 is supported by cancer societies. Or follow Inez Stempeck’s formula and treat them both the same—vote for or against both.

—Dennis Myers


Curbing condemnation
On June 23, 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court jolted many citizens who thought that government condemnation powers could only be used for public works like schools and parks. The court ruled on a 5 to 4 vote that governments can condemn private land not just for public works but also to help other private landowners—even turn the condemned land over to other private landowners. The decision came in the case of Kelo v. City of New London.

A wealthy activist named Howard Rich started financially supporting ballot measures around the United States to adopt state constitutional amendments to void the impact of Kelo. In 2006, Rich’s lobby group Americans for Limited Government has aided groups in 12 states, including Nevada, to get measures on the ballot. The Nevada version, Question 2, is also supported by some Nevada attorneys specializing in condemnation law.

The problem is a substantial one—in 2003 the Institute for Justice issued a report saying that it found more than 10,000 cases in 41 states of non-public works condemnations. In Las Vegas, there was a long and monumental battle over condemning private land owned by a family named Pappas to accommodate a redevelopment project to aid businesses on Fremont Street. In Reno, city officials once showed a willingness to condemn a small casino on behalf of a large one and gambling lobbyist Harvey Whittemore.

Nevada has a relatively permissive condemnation law, allowing entities from monorail firms to sugar beet companies to condemn property.

But Rich’s group did not give the Nevada Legislature an opportunity to amend Nevada condemnation law before it launched its ballot measure. The legislature meets only every other year, and the 2005 session ended 16 days before the Kelo decision was handed down.

Even some critics of non-public works condemnations say the group goes much further in its ballot measures than necessary to remedy Kelo. For one thing, condemned property could be repurchased by its original owners within five years if government fails to make use of it. That provision may be meritorious, but it has nothing to do with Kelo issues. (Some other provisions were removed from the ballot measure by the Nevada Supreme Court because the law requires that a legislative measure deal with a single subject.)

Local governments are up in arms over the measure and have pushed the edge of restrictions on use of public funds for campaigning in order to get their message out.

In the case of Question 2 (though not of all ballot measures), this year’s election will be the first round of voting. If it is approved by voters this year, second round voting on the proposal will take place in 2008.

—Dennis Myers