Newly elected Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford talks about his historic victory, the changing complexion of Congress and his evolution from faithful party fire-breather to bipartisan negotiator
Newly elected Congressman Steven Horsford is used to being first.
He was the first African-American to ascend to state Senate majority leader. He was the youngest upper house leader in Nevada history. And now he has two more firsts — the inaugural congressman from Nevada’s new 4th District and the first African-American to serve the state in Congress.
I’ve known Horsford for decades, all the way back to when he worked for legendary Nevada lobbyist Lee Smith through his tenure at R&R Partners and his legislative career. He has always been precocious and driven, perhaps the product of a hardscrabble upbringing that included an addict mother and a father who was murdered. Now, at age 39, he will become a member of a populous freshman House class after a drubbing of perennial candidate Danny Tarkanian.
I sat down with him in late November at a North Las Vegas Starbucks in the heart of the urban part of his diverse district, which also includes parts or all of six rural counties. Horsford had just returned from Washington and a week of orientation, during which he met with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders, including House Brahmin John Dingell. He had not yet decided whether he will move his family to Washington, saying that decision would be left to his wife, Sonya. I got the sense the ceding of that decision to his impressive, scholar wife was not a first.
In a chat over coffee, Horsford talked about his latest first, perhaps another (being the only African-African on the House Natural Resources panel), paying attention to rural Nevada, his transformation from partisan fire-breather to bipartisanship advocate, the chance to work with the first African-American president (who called from Air Force One to congratulate him), lingering bitterness toward Karl Rove and Sheldon Adelson and much more.
Jon Ralston: What does it mean to you to be the first African-American congressman from Nevada?
Steven Horsford: What I find as consequential as me being the first in Nevada is the historic first in Congress: This is the first majority-minority House of Representatives ever elected. Fifty-six percent of the people that will be in the 113th Congress are women and people of color. And so to be the first African-American from Nevada, joining the most historic, diverse caucus ever to be elected to the Congress, I think speaks to the diversity of the constituents we serve. This district, Congressional District 4, is now 16 percent African-American, in population about 25 percent Latino, 8 percent Asian. So it’s very diverse, and they elected someone who reflects them and their voice in the United States House of Representatives. I think also — and I had to go back and run this number because someone during orientation was talking about only 12,000 people have ever been elected to Congress — prior to the 113th Congress, only 122 African-Americans had ever been elected to the Congress, to the House of Representatives. There are others who have been elected to the Senate. There are five new African-Americans coming in, so it will go up to 127. That, to me, speaks to the progress that we still have to make — 127 out of 12,000. I’m proud to be in that number, and I’m proud to represent the district that I serve that’s diverse, but there is so much we need to do to make sure our Congress, which is the people’s House, reflects the America that we all serve.
JR: A lot of people know your life story (a hard life), and you ran an ad driving through your old neighborhood. You came from a tough situation. What does it mean to you to come this far?
SH: Obviously, my upbringing has shaped everything about how I approach public service. And, no, I don’t think back in the day that I could have predicted, many people could have predicted — I think you did back in the day, by the way …
JR: Really? Am I that good?
SH: You didn’t say Congress. But you did say he could be a state leader. So you saw it early. My story is not unlike a lot of other people who have overcome great odds to accomplish things when you work hard and set your mind to doing big things. There are people who I have grown up with. They may not be in public service. They may be in the private sector. They may be running nonprofits. But they’re making an impact despite the challenging times or the struggles they experienced growing up. Now for me, it’s humbling because it’s a constant reminder of whom I’m here to serve. It’s the people who are struggling every day, the people who want a job, the people worried about their housing, the parents and grandparents like my grandmother who didn’t know how they were going to have access to health care that keep me grounded in what this is about. Look, I don’t want to get a big head and just talk about what it means for me. It’s about every person in my district who is struggling right now who needs someone to fight for them. And that’s the honor and the privilege and the opportunity that I have.
JR: I remember you told me at that dinner (an Anti-Defamation League dinner on Oct. 18) when all the polls showed you were losing and there was a lot of talk like, “Oh my God, he’s going to lose this race.” And you said to me, “Nothing’s ever come easy for me. Why should this?” Is that really how you feel about yourself?
SH: Yeah. I’ve worked hard. You know, despite great challenges, I never gave up. I believe in when you work hard and you stay focused you can accomplish things. I didn’t expect this to be easy. I knew that we would need a strong ground game and we had to build a broad coalition and appeal to all the voters of Congressional District 4 in order to be elected to this new district because it’s very diverse. It’s seven counties. The historic West Las Vegas is only a part of the district. It’s growing Latino and Asian and working white families who wanted to make sure whoever they elected was going to fight for them and be their voice.
JR: But shouldn’t it have been easy? A 13 percent Democratic edge? Didn’t you essentially ignore the rural counties and concentrate on the center of the district?
SH: Look, the Democratic registration advantage was a clear advantage. But my opponent’s near-universal name recognition and the fact that these anonymous billionaires that weren’t so anonymous in the end were willing to pour over $3.2 million, not talking about my opponent and why he was better, but straight-out lying and misrepresenting my positions and record speaks to why this ended up being close, according to the polls. Now, I’m proud that we stayed focused on what was happening on the ground with the help of labor, with the help of grass-roots volunteers, activists who were focused on getting people registered, making sure everyone who was eligible to vote turned out to vote and actually having historic turnout. We had, in some areas, higher turnout in 2012 than in 2008. So we elected a president and made history. But we made history as well by sending him, in my case, a representative in District 4 who is going to work with him and that’s what the people of District 4 decided.
JR: What do you say to the rurals, who might say this guy is just going to represent the urban folks?
SH: I say my job is to represent everyone, regardless of whether they are Democrats, Republicans or independents, regardless of whether they live in a small, rural town in central Nevada or in the urban parts of Clark County. I’m here to represent everybody. And it’s what I did in the state Senate. When I was working on the state budget and they were working on proposals to cut state conservation camps, I was a voice to say, “No, this is something they need in those small counties.” When the governor tried to sweep money from three school districts in White Pine County, the $3 million they needed to repair the roof at White Pine Middle School, which I visited, it became crystal clear to me why it was needed. And, remember, I didn’t know what the district lines were going to be. That was before I ever decided to run for Congress. So it was doing what I believe we need to do as elected officials. Once the campaigns are over, we need to govern. And we need to do that in a bipartisan way. It’s not about partisanship; it’s about getting things done that need to get done. I’m going to work to represent everybody.
JR: How often were you out there during the campaign?
SH: We traveled throughout every part of the district many times. My family and I, for example, went out to the White Pine County fair, went to the air races, spent several days in Ely getting to know voters there, talking about ideas. I spoke at the high school graduation for White Pine High School. More than 1,000 people turned out for the graduation — 90 graduates from that class. People afterwards talked to me about the same things I care about for my kids, which is being able to go off to college, becoming a success, hopefully coming back to the community so they can work, find a job or open a business. We were out to Yerington several times — Mayor Dini and Speaker Dini have been great friends of mine, great supporters. We were there for the Nevada Copper Mine, for which I have already been on record that I support that project and am actually working with Congressman Amodei and did, again, before I was ever elected to that position, talk about how this would create close to 2,000 jobs for a county in Lyon that desperately needs employment. I’m looking to help everybody. This district has three military bases: Hawthorne Army Depot, we have Creech and Nellis Air Force base. We have several tribal communities. I have gone to meet the tribal leaders on their land to talk about the partnership between the federal government and their tribal governments. Again, those are unique opportunities because of the diversity of this district. I respect that diversity and look forward to working with leaders from throughout the district as I take my position in this new seat.
JR: The opposition’s ads presented a slightly different view of your record than you presented. They essentially portrayed you as corrupt, not being fit for office. Did that surprise you? What was your reaction?
SH: I’ve made some missteps along the way, and I’ve always taken responsibility for those actions and worked to correct them. What I’ve learned along the way is don’t make the same mistake again. So I recognize the fact that there were some of those missteps that they would use against us. But look, there were also straight-up lies and misrepresentations. The Millennium Scholarships, which was the basis of the Crossroads buy (Karl Rove’s group used information from a conservative think tank, the Nevada Policy Research Institute, in a spot). In fact, people like Hugh (Jackson) and Elizabeth Crum (of KSNV Channel 3’s “The Agenda”) and even, ultimately, Jim Rogers (the TV station mogul who initially excoriated Horsford almost daily on Twitter but then came to support him), all reviewed it and said it was a straight-up lie. … Look, I’ve been a champion for fighting for education, for protecting education funding, so when you start saying I somehow affected college students’ ability to stay in the Millennium Scholarship when I’ve worked across party lines with Governor Guinn, Dema Guinn, Ben Kieckhefer to preserve the life of the Millennium Scholarship, yeah, I take objection to that. It’s a complete misrepresentation. It’s unfortunate that our politics in this country now with Citizens United allow these anonymous billionaires to literally come in and buy a seat. These weren’t local businesspeople concerned about the future of Congressional District 4. They were not concerned really about me or my opponent. They’re concerned really about keeping their stronghold in Washington so they can keep getting their special deals. And they see my record in the Legislature of challenging the status quo, of closing corporate tax loopholes, of fighting for the middle class. And they know I’m going to do the same thing in Washington, and they tried to stop us from getting there. But because of the people, the people in this district seeing through those ads and coming out in historic ways, we actually ended up winning by eight, which I felt we had the potential all along to win by that much, but clearly no public poll showed us ahead.
JR: You were one of the earlier supporters of Barack Obama. Tell me what it means to you now that he is re-elected to go to Washington to help him with his agenda?
SH: It is (here he hesitates, and he has been emotional before about Obama) very exciting. It is … words can’t even describe it at some level. One of the reasons I decided to run for Congress, is that I, like so many people, am very frustrated with the gridlock and there is an unwillingness among certain factions in Congress to work with the president. I’m looking forward to working with him. I support the president’s approach in fighting for the middle class and getting things done and getting people back to work. I have ideas and plans for how we can do that, working across the aisle to get it done. The president called me the other day from Air Force One. He said, “Congratulations. I’m glad you’re here. I’m proud of you and I’m looking forward to serving with you.” You know, that’s the president of the United States. And regardless of what people say about him or certain positions, the voters of this country have decisively given him four more years to move our country forward, and I’m looking forward to working with him to do that.
JR: What are these ideas and plans you refer to?
SH: One of the things that I am very interested in is, obviously, jobs and getting people to work. Specifically, we have this Interstate 11 project from Las Vegas to Phoenix. This is something that Governor Sandoval and I, along with the vision group we put together, identified as a major project to diversify the economy, get people back to work and help businesses, particularly contractors, get business. When I look at our unemployment rate, we still have … 150,000 people who are unemployed. Sixty (thousand) to 70,000 of them are in the construction sector, engineering and architecture. Unless we address that segment, our unemployment rate will remain higher than it should for longer than it should. So that project, to me, is one that we should fast-track and move. It’s going to be one of my top priorities. I’m hopeful that with the committee requests that I’ve submitted that I’ll be in position to help on the jobs issue because it’s what I’ve done all my life. It’s where my focus is and I know how desperately we need to address that for the people of this district.
JR: What committees did you ask for?
SH: I put in requests for Transportation and Infrastructure and, actually Natural Resources.
JR: You do care about the rurals!
SH: The outlying part of my district, I’ve got counties where more than 90 percent of their county is controlled by the federal government. Most projects, whether it’s renewable energy or just industrial development projects, can’t be built without coordination with BLM, Forest, Wildlife and so that is an important area for me. Those are the top two committees I submitted. We’ll see what leadership decides. I would be the only African-American in Congress serving on the Natural Resources Committee.
JR: You mentioned the partisan gridlock. Let’s face it: You were a fire-breathing partisan when you were up there last session. You had Republicans lamenting you wouldn’t talk to them. Why should we believe you’re going to be anything different in Washington?
SH: Let me first, though, challenge the premise. I worked with those who were willing to work with me to get an alternative done. I was very clear from the beginning that I was not going to cut education more than was reasonable and necessary. And I didn’t. I said I would work with anybody to come up with an alternative. And I did. Those certain Republicans who said I wouldn’t talk to them? Those were certain Republicans who said I wouldn’t talk to them. I didn’t talk to them because they weren’t part of offering any solution to the budget. You know, if you want to be a Tea Party ideologue and don’t want to govern, I have no time for that. The people have no time for that. But I did work with people like Sen. Joe Hardy to get legislation passed that he needed — the toll road project, legislation with the Regional Transportation Commission and other bills because he was someone who was willing to work and understood that it’s compromise. That you have to work across party lines, and you’re not always going to get what you want and I’m not always going to get what I want, but working together we can accomplish our job. … Had the Supreme Court not stepped in, you’re right, we probably would have gone in to special session, several of them, because I was not going to approve a budget that decimated funding for education. But the moment the governor came forward and said, “All right, my budget isn’t going to work. It’s not constitutional. I’m willing to negotiate on revenues,” I was in his office that same day, working together to get it done, and in 10 days, we passed a budget and got done and avoided a special session. In 2009, I worked with the late Bill Raggio, Randolph Townsend and others to override Gov. Gibbons’ vetoing the budget. We were able to override that budget, the first time in history that has ever been done. If you look at my history, I am willing to work in a bipartisan manner to get the job done. But what I am not willing to do is to compromise my principles to sell my constituents short or to cut in ways that hurt our future.
JR: You have used that rhetoric before — Tea Party ideologues, Tea Party extremists. Aren’t some of them truly just concerned about the fiscal cliff?
JR: You really don’t think so?
SH: No. Because I would ask them: Do any of your companies get any funding from any public contracts? And if so, why are those contracts okay? And if so, do they support increased funding for defense beyond what even the military is asking for? There’s hypocrisy for some of these individuals where they want to grow government that benefits themselves or their special interests. Are they against corporate subsidies for big banks or big oil companies? Those cost taxpayers billions of dollars. But they’re willing to protect those things, so it’s a hypocrisy that I have an objection to, not a willingness to be fair and to work in an approach that reaches an agreement that is fair for everybody.
JR: Where do you think the room might be on fiscal issues and on immigration? Where’s the room to move on those issues?
SH: In our Democratic caucus for the 113th Congress, it’s the largest freshman class that’s been elected. Fifty of the freshmen account for 25 percent of the Democratic caucus in the House. We’re a bloc. What I’ve found during the first week of orientation, talking to freshmen on both sides of the aisle, we’ve heard the message loud and clear from voters: Stop playing politics. Stop with the partisanship. Go and get the job done. Work together to solve the challenges we face. I heard that from Democrats in this freshman class and I heard it from Republicans. So that gives me hope that the dynamic will be different, that there will be willingness. Specifically on the fiscal cliff, that’s something that the current Congress in the lame duck will have to address before the end of the year. Whether they will or not, I’m sure there will be issues that we will have to take on in the 113th Congress because it’s the long-term effects of those decisions that will have to be managed. I do believe that we can get to an agreement on immigration, comprehensive immigration reform. I’m looking forward to that because that is something that a lot of people in my district care about.
JR: What does that agreement look like?
SH: It has a pathway to citizenship. It has a provision around protecting and enhancing our border security. It has provisions around some rules, whether it’s going to work, learning English, if you’re young enough and under 30, going to college or serving in the military. But it has the necessary components that allow for all individuals to have a pathway to citizenship that is the right thing to do. I’ve said this on panels and I believe this: This is our civil rights issue. This is the human rights issue of our time. This is not an issue the Latino community should fight alone. This is an issue that affects all of us and the future of our great country.
Political columnist Jon Ralston hosts “Ralston Reports” 7:30 p.m. weekdays on KSNV Channel 3 and blogs