How the accidental Republican became an infamous party firebrand, learned how to lose and joined the City Council to become ... a team player?
Late one night during Nevada Legislature’s second special session of 2003, Gov. Kenny Guinn ran into his bête noire, Assemblyman Bob Beers, outside Glen Eagles, a capital watering hole and restaurant. They had each imbibed something a bit stronger than water, and the governor, with his bodyguard/driver nearby, was itching for a fight. He refused to shake the ever-jovial Beers’ outstretched hand, drawing a reaction of faux shock from the man who almost singlehandedly held up the administration’s budget by blocking the largest tax increase in Nevada history.
“Come on, Governor,” Beers said. “You were my Pop Warner football coach. You signed my high school diploma.”
Guinn retorted: “I never should have done that.” Then, he quickly added, “Okay, Beers, you’re such a math whiz, what’s 11 times 11?”
Beers, a CPA, responded with alacrity: “One hundred and twenty-one. Okay, governor, I have one for you: What’s 11.3 percent of a $3.75 billion budget?” That was the amount Beers had said the budget should be cut.
Guinn was apoplectic — but also saw the humor in the situation. He looked at his bodyguard, then back at Beers, and facetiously ordered, “Shoot him.”
The man, the caricature
That vignette is emblematic of one of Nevada’s more colorful and contradictory figures, a man who almost quit politics after that harrowing session, lost two subsequent campaigns for office (and almost quit again), but now is thriving as a Las Vegas city councilman. The indefatigable Beers possesses that most indispensable quality for an elected official, a sense of humor. But his wit can be piercing, even nasty, as so many — especially email correspondents — have discovered through the years. Perhaps no single political figure outside of Sharron Angle has been so caricatured by the media and reviled by his political foes as has Beers, the putative leader of the so-called Mean Fifteen, during that unforgettable 2003 legislative session when he emerged as a Tea Partier before tea partying was cool. But his story isn’t so simple. The principled, math-minded budget hawk of today has come a long way — from being completely apolitical to running for multiple offices, from seeking the state’s highest post to being in the right place at the right time to win a council seat, from being a Democrat with a subscription to Mother Jones (!) to a Republican known for taking a red pen to budgets.
“He is very conservative,” Mayor Carolyn Goodman tells me. “His poor wife. She must watch him put down every penny and make sure it’s secure.” Goodman says that with a laugh, displaying a real affection and respect for him. Indeed, she says predictions that Beers would be a constant thorn in her side have not proved true, that he is part of a collegial atmosphere at City Hall. Beers says it too.
Beers the team player? Not so fast. One gets the sense that the serpentine path Beers has taken is not yet at its endpoint. The councilman, who turns 54 this month, all but ruled out being on a statewide ballot in 2014 during a lengthy, wide-ranging interview in August. As content, even ecstatic, as Beers seems to be in his relatively new elected job, something tells me the man who once was convinced he could become governor even though he never had a chance has not yet given up the dream of a less parochial office.
The learning addict
Beers came to Nevada when he was 11, from Livermore, Calif., where he was born. The family settled into a home at Decatur and Oakey, which, back in the early ’70s, was the western edge of Las Vegas. At Cashman Middle School, he was “a proud member of the Comanchero band,” playing trombone. (Today, he retains his affinity for music, strumming a banjo to relax.) But he was also intensely curious.
“I was terribly interested in current events, and my mom recalled that I was always the one that wanted to get the newspaper off of the driveway and so, while I wasn’t interested in politics per se, and I wasn’t particularly ideological, I was very curious about the world, and I’ve probably been a learning addict all of my life,” he says.
His parents, who would later become fixtures at political events and who were big supporters of his campaigns, were not political at all. His father worked in the military defense industry, but Beers’ roots were Democratic.
“(My father) was, in fact, more of an environmentalist, charter member of the Sierra Club, drawn by their efforts to stop the construction of the Bridge Canyon Dam, which would have created a larger Lake Powell out of the Grand Canyon,” Beers recalls. His great-grandfather on his mother’s side was the chairman of the King County (Wash.) Democratic Party during the FDR years. (Beers still has a picture of Roosevelt signed to his great-grandfather.) After graduating from Clark High School in 1977, he did a brief stint in the Navy before returning to Las Vegas and doing odd jobs. “The hardest was delivering mattresses in the summer in Las Vegas,” Beers says. “The easiest was delivering singing telegrams for Western Union, actually.” One day, at the corner of Vegas and Decatur, the crooner-for-hire pulled up at a stop sign and began chatting up the woman in the adjacent vehicle.
“Her dad was my scoutmaster,” he said. “So I struck up an acquaintance there and then turned out that she, who had been a year behind me in school, had done her first year at the University of Iowa and had decided that that was just too far away and it was cold, too, and so she was in the process of transferring to UNR,” he says. “So I went home and told my parents I thought I was ready to go back to school and I thought journalism was my career and University of Nevada-Reno was a great journalism school and that’s where I should go.”
His father asked, “What’s her name?” The answer was Sarah, the woman who would become his wife of more than three decades.
Making the news
He won a scholarship, and soon went from spinning Top 40 tunes at a Reno radio station to taking the helm as news director. During the 1982 political season, Beers covered both political conventions, including the Democratic brawl between supporters of Sen. Howard Cannon and Rep. Jim Santini. That election would turn out to be one of the more seminal races in Nevada history, as Santini weakened the veteran Sen. Cannon, who lost in the general election to an unknown Republican named Chic Hecht. Beers followed Sarah down to Las Vegas the following year, having registered as a Democrat and faithfully devouring Mother Jones, the liberal magazine. At KMJJ, he produced an award-winning series on the future of Las Vegas, covering everything from the future development of Summerlin to the costs of growth. His own future was taking shape as well.
“Sarah decided that she wanted to have children instead of cats, and a house instead of an apartment and since I hadn’t got a degree ... that seemed to be the best way to proceed,” he recalls. He enrolled at UNLV and graduated with a degree in accounting. In 1989, Beers went out on his own as a computer expert. On the side, he volunteered to do some campaign bookkeeping for a friend, Scott Scherer.
Scherer, who would later be appointed as a gaming regulator, asked Beers for a favor: Would he be his campaign treasurer in Scherer’s run for state assembly? “And I said sure. So I guess that was where politics really started for me. Scott went on to win a tough primary against a six-term incumbent.”
Something else happened that year that would change Beers’ life. Because he didn’t want to embarrass his friend, who was running as a Republican, he switched parties. Beers was still hardly ideological, so it mattered little to him. But it soon began to. The state GOP, always needing someone to volunteer to keep the books, tapped him as its treasurer. Beers was treasurer of the party for a couple of years, volunteering on campaigns, including for an assemblywoman from his own district who served two terms. Burned out from the Carson City commute, she called Beers on New Year’s Eve 1998, telling him to run. “I honestly can’t remember if I was curt or merely hung up on her,” Beers says.
But the calls kept coming from Republican party players who wanted to recruit Beers, who had a reputation as sharp, dependable and good with numbers. A few months later, Assembly GOP caucus boss Lynn Hettrick told Beers that he had reservations about the GOP candidate in the contest, Dennis Silvers. “And so I got civic-guilted into running,” Beers says. But while he had no “big philosophical grounding” as he filed for office, he says, “(I) started to have some personal experiences with government, not all of them pleasant.” One searing experience that surely guided his path down Tea Party Lane: a Kafkaesque episode with a city inspector who scrutinized the remodeling of Beers’ expanding accounting firm office. The inspector told them to tear out stairs and install an accessibility ramp — only to return for a final inspection and then order them to tear out the ramp to re-install stairs.
The campaign against Silvers was a rough-and-tumble primary, one in which Beers first publicly displayed a stubbornness and indomitability that would become his hallmarks. He crushed Silvers by a 2-to-1 margin, but he was hauled before the state Ethics Commission because of a flier that the panel said implied Silvers was an arsonist.
Beers maintains to this day that he implied no such thing. The ad read, in part: “By November 1996, Alias Smith and Jones was over $20,000 in debt, had 13 late rent notices, before the third arson fire destroyed it, killing 66 pets at a nearby clinic. The fire is still under investigation.”
The ethics commission slapped him with a $5,000 fine, but Beers fired back, revealing a glimpse of the smashmouth, occasionally hyperbolic politician we would come to know: “This commission is a terrible embarrassment to the people who wrote the law and to the people who appointed the commissioners,” he told the Sun. Beers was not done. He sued, but a federal judge threw out the court action. Beers went on with his legislative career. The self-described “learning addict” consumed all he could during his first couple of sessions, which brought him into 2003 with a foundation to become a leader.
The mouth rises
And he did lead the charge — against a seemingly preordained tax increase proposed by Gov. Kenny Guinn, the popular community figure who had just been re-elected. Beers was not going to follow the shepherd, however. Guinn had proposed a gross receipts tax in his State of the State address, and Beers thought it would be a disaster. Even today, Beers continues to think what he thought at the time: that he was unfairly lampooned by the media, which took Guinn’s side. He clearly remains sensitive to it a decade later. Here is our initial exchange about it:
The “extreme conservative” label was laid on by the media, yourself included, in the 2003 session. That’s where it all began, right?
Beers: Because I said, “Bullshit, Kenny, this isn’t just what we need to keep up. This is a 33 percent increase.” And it’s not that extreme by the way, because it’s 100 percent correct and Kenny was 100 percent wrong and that is mathematically determinable, all right?
So you went against the sitting Republican governor.
Beers: And the media, more importantly.
It began before the session did. Beers, as a member of the Ways and Means Committee, was in Carson City before the Legislature was gaveled in. He saw the budget, began calculating and didn’t like how it added up. A few days later, the 2003 Legislature, perhaps the most unforgettable in history, began.
“It was probably the second day of the session,” Beers says. “Kenny came over to our caucus because we had been having internal discussions that, gosh, if you do the math, this is like a one-third increase in the state spending and taxation and so Lynn (Hettrick) says, ‘Well, let’s get the governor over here,’ and we got the governor over here and the governor came in and said, ‘Oh no, no, you’re wrong. This is just what we need to keep up. Good deal, huh?’ and left. So I bought nevadabudget.com that afternoon.”
For the rest of the session and the two specials that followed, Beers used that new website — and his proficiency with computers — to constantly question the administration’s numbers. He was far from a senior party member, but he became the de facto leader of the not-so-loyal opposition, a caucus of 15 assembly votes, the exact number needed to prevent a tax increase from passing. And with that, the relatively unknown assemblyman, only in his third term, became famous. Or, as he puts it, “Out of that came a loss of anonymity.” The obstreperous, quippy assemblyman was a magnet for the media, and he willingly obliged.
Some, if not most, of the Democrats were shocked. Assemblyman David Goldwater, who had worked closely with Beers in 2001 in a failed attempt to shift DMV fees into the education fund, was stunned by what he saw developing. Where was the Bob he thought he knew?
“(In 2001), Bob was thoughtful, asked the right questions, and took the brave leap to get out in front on a very controversial issue. ... Bob was an excellent partner, even through some difficult times. That is why, in 2003, I was optimistic Bob would be a reasonable voice with Gov. Guinn in support of a broad-based business tax. I was wrong.”
Goldwater saw what many came to realize, which was that Beers was in the right place at the right time. The GOP assemblyman was not even in leadership, but his facility with numbers and his ability — and willingness — to articulate the opposition to Guinn provided him an opportunity. When the first vote was taken, Beers was not sure how many of his colleagues he had. Turned out he had 14 others. Thus, the Mean Fifteen, as critics called them (or The Fearless Fifteen, as they called themselves), was born.
“2003 was the first legislative session that really tested the supermajority requirement in the Nevada Legislature,” Goldwater says. “In prior sessions under similar circumstances (a Republican governor, gaming, mining and others supporting a fix to Nevada’s tax structure), Beers and the anti-tax crowd likely would have been patted gently on the head during the session and the proposal would have passed. But because it now required a super-majority, Beers became the spokesman for the ardent anti-tax crowd. He was the pre-Tea Party.” Never mind that the Guinn proposal exempted most small companies. “Yet somehow, under Bob’s leadership, he successfully framed the issue as harmful to small business,” says Goldwater. “He was the perfect messenger.”
Well, maybe not perfect. Beers made his job tougher by brooking little criticism, often firing off vitriolic emails at night. One that became public was an exchange with Betty Pardo, the longtime League of Women Voters activist, who activated the Beers missive-launcher with one email inquiring about his stance. Beers’ response was not Newtonian. It was nuclear. The most incendiary part: “The voter database indicates you have lived here for seven years. Based on where you live, I am going to assume you have never worked in the gaming industry. It would surprise you. It provides some of the best jobs in America for people who do not value education.
“Here, such people can own a home, and they flock here from all over the country to get such a job and home. For the most part, however, the many children they sire grow up not valuing education either. These youngsters are prone to dropping out of school, reproducing illegitimate children, often while little more than children themselves, abusing drugs and alcohol more frequently, and even killing themselves more often than people who do value education.
“Their failure to value education is a direct legacy from their parents, and there is little government can do to stop it, at any level of spending.”
Once it became public, the reaction was deafening, amplified by those who wanted to see him marginalized. Beers oscillated between defiance and contrition. Today, he calls it “an educational experience. I was set up and it was an educational experience and I have a much stronger self-editing mechanism today.”
Kind of. He is still known to fire off a tart email, including one this year in which he warned a city critic about insinuating he had a conflict of interest on a vote. As reported by CityLife’s Launce Rake, it began, “As several of your emails of last week contain some slander, I wanted to offer you gentle correction. This will serve to demark the point after which you had knowledge of your lies, should you repeat them. …”
‘I was done’
2003 turned out, however, to be very frustrating for Beers. Eventually, in the second special session, shortly after that late-night encounter between Beers and the governor, one of the Mean 15 bolted. John Marvel’s defection allowed a tax increase, albeit not the original one proposed by Guinn, to pass. So in the session’s aftermath, Beers quit. He was done. Or was he? After entreaties from the right, Beers soon was coaxed out of his “retirement” to run against GOP Sen. Ray Rawson, who had voted for the tax increase. Beers, ever the superb retail campaigner, won easily against the coroner’s dentist. And he liked being in the majority.
“It was like, how is your experience at midnight different from your experience at noon?” he said. Beers learned from legislative master Bill Raggio, the Senate GOP leader — and he might have been seen as his natural successor. But out of ego or hubris, in 2006 he decided to run for governor at mid-term, an impossibly quixotic bid against an anointed Jim Gibbons, the conservative congressman. Beers insists, “(I) believed I was going to win … by meeting every voter.” This naïveté is shocking. Beers was a great at the door in a legislative district, but this was a media campaign. Gibbons had all the money and destroyed him.
But the worst was yet to come for Beers, who was wiped off the legislative map the following cycle by a cipher of a candidate, Alison Copening, who hid most of the race but was bolstered by a massive Democratic Party spending campaign — helped along by Sen. Harry Reid — that swept Beers and his colleague, Joe Heck, out of the state Senate as the Democrats took control.
“I think was the first time we had ever seen an outside national interest come in with a million-dollar check to influence the state legislative or a couple of state legislative races,” Beers says. His morale wasn’t helped by his post-race defamation lawsuit against the Democratic Party over a campaign mailer. “I was done.” He slid back into the private sector, began making money, receded into the background.
He’s running for what?
In early 2012, though, the gravitational pull took hold again. City Councilman Steve Wolfson had been appointed to be district attorney, and there was a vacancy on the council. A random phone call from a fan of his legislative career made him consider running in the special election to replace Wolfson on the City Council.
“And I thought about it for awhile, talked to Sarah. She said, ‘How many nights away from home?’ I said, ‘I don’t think any. If there’s any, I’ll take you with me.’ She said, ‘All right, I’m fine with it.’”
Beers did what he does best, competing in a small political subdivision with a small voter universe. He won a multi-way race and became a councilman in March 2012. One person who supported him: David Goldwater.
“It should be noted that in older, traditional Nevada fashion, we took a sharp-tongued, adversarial relationship tone with each other in the legislative building,” Goldwater recalls. “But my friend, Bob Beers, was always there with a smile, a joke, and a glass of an adult beverage after a tough day. When he announced his candidacy for City Council, I wrote him a personal check as soon as I could.”
Privately, many City Hall insiders were fretful, remembering 2003 and thinking Beers was the one guy who might destabilize the Goodman II era; Mayor Carolyn Goodman was less than one year into her term after succeeding Oscar. “I was worried when he was running,” confides one city insider.
But Goodman and others have been pleasantly surprised — as has Beers. “He’s a bunch of laughs,” the mayor says. “He has a very dry sense of humor. He’s very energetic, really interested in detail.”
“He has been a real pleasure to work with. He asks really good questions,” City Manager Betsy Fretwell says. “Sometimes he asks really hard questions.”
Most surprising is how much he truly loves his job and gushes about his colleagues, elected and otherwise. “It’s great fun,” he says. Still, Beers brings contentious issues to the fore, including some he doesn’t win, such as his attempt to change how the city funds public art, which drew an outpouring of criticism from the arts community — a different constituency than those he dealt with on the state level.
“I’ve been through my first year’s learning curve and I know a lot more than I knew a year ago,” he says. “I know probably half of what I’m going to know a year from now, but even with what I’ve learned in that first year, I think I’ve been able to come into this office and be pretty effective at giving taxpayers a better bang for their buck, which really is what the City Council position comes down to, I think.”
Most of all, Beers seems satisfied, which is saying something. So much so that he has given up — at least for now — his flirtation with running for lieutenant governor next year.
“I think there was a call to duty about the lieutenant governor’s office this time around, based on the now often-written about supposition that Gov. Sandoval won’t complete his next term, and one could argue the future of this state is at stake there,” Beers says. “But save that call of duty, the other constitutional offices don’t seem to me that they’d be more interesting than what I’m doing now. ... and I’m having an awful lot of fun.
“Any of those constitutional offices involve spending nights in somebody else’s bed, which I’m not particularly anxious to do, so I think I’m here.”
He thinks. The Las Vegas City Council seems an odd terminus for a man who once was content doing other people’s books but slowly nurtured an appetite for poring over government balance sheets. Beers scoffs at any suggestion that he has stepped down from the heights of Carson City and his erstwhile desire to be governor. He seems credible when he says he loves what he is doing and — as one of seven council members instead of 42 assembly members — he can have a much greater impact than he ever did in the capital. He knows this and, he revels in it.
Considering how unpredictable Bob Beers’ career in Nevada politics has been, and because he is relatively young for the game, we probably haven’t seen his last stop. Beers is, as his life illustrates, a restless soul. He may have quit politics twice, and he may have absorbed losing better than most. But he always wanted a way back, and his flirtation with lieutenant governor proves that the wanderlust, the ambition still burns. I am still not persuaded he won’t be on a statewide ballot in 2014, even though he would have a lot of explaining to do, having been at City Hall for the proverbial cup of coffee.
Eventually, though, Beers will do what he always does, whether it’s analyzing the situation after meeting his future wife at that intersection or calculating how much Gov. Guinn wanted to increase the state budget: He will make his move.
Jon Ralston writes about politics at ralstonreports.com. His program “Ralston
Reports” airs 6:30 p.m. weekdays on KSNV Channel 3.