Behind Michele Fiore’s gun-toting, straight-talking persona, there’s a method to her madness. And a clue to political success in an era when none of the old rules apply.
Eight days after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Michele Fiore lay in a dentist’s chair getting a checkup for her Invisalign braces. As a dental hygienist cleaned the city councilwoman’s teeth, Republican operative Dave McGowan came in and stood a few feet away. He joked about the joy of seeing Fiore speechless, and then went through their to-do list. The politician and her campaign manager had arranged to meet there because Nevada’s ethics code discourages elected officials from conducting campaign business in their public offices, and because Fiore’s schedule is so tightly packed that she often multitasks.
McGowan spoke in general terms, so I was more or less clueless as to what he was talking about. Until, that is, he grumbled about “this stuff that’s going on in Florida” and the actions of some nameless “he” that was “pissing (McGowan) off.” This was probably a reference to President Trump, who had responded to brewing public discontent over the high rate of American gun violence — voiced, loudly, in the aftermath of Parkland by well-organized students — with not only NRA-approved proposals, such as arming teachers and beefing up campus security, but also some gun-control ideas, such as banning bump stocks and increasing the minimum age for buying certain weapons. I took McGowan to be pro-gun. Fiore is, of course, though she didn’t say anything at the time, her mouth being occupied by dental tools.
That she was willing to let a journalist listen in on such a conversation, in such intimate circumstances, hints at the complexities that emerge from close observation of this oft-caricatured politician. The more one gets to know Fiore, the less surprising it is that such a reputed bully would put herself in so vulnerable a position. Fiore’s six years of public service, as a two-term state assemblywoman and now a member of the Las Vegas City Council, have earned her a rep as a gun-toting, militia-loving barnstormer who believes cancer is a fungus and it’s all right to call people of color “colored.” Yet that image somehow squares with her alter-ego: loyal friend, nurturing mother, woman of the people.
On the way out of the dentist’s office, the hygienist gave her a hug and said, “Keep working for us! I’m so excited you’re on (the City Council). It needed some shaking up!”
Fiore is shorter than she appears on TV. She is meticulously groomed. Even after half an hour in the dentist’s chair, her black dress was unrumpled, her makeup perfect, and there wasn’t a hair out of place in her big blond ’do. Her fingernails were lacquered fiery red, with the ring-finger nail of each hand sporting an extra coat of sparkles.
Walking to her car, she asked me what kind of food I like, and, after the standard brief Q&A about my vegetarianism (Do you eat fish? cheese?), she moved on to other topics. I was surprised when, 20 minutes later, we pulled up to Market Grille Café, a mom-and-pop Greek place that she frequents in her district. As we’d chatted in the car about our past failed marriages and her youthful desire to have 10 children, she was concurrently thinking of the right place to take me for lunch. Inside the cafe, she sat next to me — rather than across from me — and for the first several minutes fretted about whether the menu’s meat-free options would satisfy my needs, slipping seamlessly into the mama persona of her Italian heritage.
Midway through the hummus and pita, I steered the conversation back to guns. She shared with me her belief that mass shootings are caused by psychotropic drugs, or medication for mental-health conditions. I asked her to clarify: She thought people committed mass shootings because they were on psych meds? “I don’t think it,” she said, arching one dark eyebrow for emphasis, “I know it.” She promised to send me information backing up the claim.
Several weeks later, Fiore’s 28-year-old daughter, Sheena Siegel, who is also an executive assistant in Fiore’s consulting business, Politically Off the Wall, sent me several links. One was to a Church of Scientology-founded website, Citizens Commission on Human Rights of Florida, whose self-described mission is “investigating and exposing psychiatric violations of human rights.” Another was a 2014 YouTube video by conspiracy theorist James Corbett titled “Medicated to Death: SSRIs and Mass Killings,” which claimed that five mass shooters, from Kip Kinkel through Ivan Lopez, were on anti-depressants when they carried out their crimes. A second YouTube video featured a psychiatrist discussing her concerns about anti-depressant use for work focus (but said nothing about mass shooters). The only peer-reviewed article, from the journal Psychiatry, surveyed the available literature to determine whether a relationship exists between mental illness and violence, and if so, what its nature is — but again, no specific link between mass shooters and psychotropic drugs.
Two Desert Companion interns and I searched but found no academic research or scientific studies establishing that link either. Fiore’s assertion seemed to be based on, at best, a correlation between mental illness and violent crime and, at worst, a crackpot theory — reinforced either way by the confirmation bias of someone who’s generally against restricting access to guns. The evidence points to a similar conclusion about her belief that cancer can be treated by flushing a patient’s body with a sodium bicarbonate solution, a belief she brought up while we were talking about her support of so-called “right to try” legislation, which allows sick patients to use alternative therapies without running afoul of the law. In each case, she backed up (or undermined, depending on your perspective) a rather mainstream position on a personal right — to carry a gun, or to or see a naturopath when you’re sick — with a fringe idea. This tug-of-war between reason and extremism, with individual freedom at the center of the rope, is a hallmark Fiore trait.
The Parkland shooting came up again when I interviewed Tick Segerblom, whose time as a state senator overlapped with Fiore’s as a state assemblywoman. I asked him to categorize Fiore. Is she a Barbara Vucanovich? A Sharron Angle? Something else? Segerblom offered his personal experience with Fiore flouting the Republican caucus to support two of his pet bills (legalizing medical marijuana and reforming sentences for sex offenders) as evidence that she’s someone who stands by her convictions and keeps her word, even if it’s unpopular to do so. She is, he said, “a political player,” not a litmus-test voter à la Angle.
But wait. What about her obsession with guns? Segerblom said that would be a problem if she were running for a federal office, but in her current position, which has little to do with gun laws, it doesn’t matter. He also noted that Fiore had kept a low profile following the mass shootings that had happened since her election to the City Council in June 2017.
She talked about this when I met her at her high-ceilinged, sunny Centennial Hills home for a sit-down interview. Two days earlier, hundreds of local students had walked out of classrooms to mark the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting and to protest elected officials’ inaction on gun control. Sitting at a project-strewn dining room table in flip-flops, jeans and a “Vegas Strong” sweatshirt, Fiore told me how surprised CSN students had been when she spoke to them earlier in the week and voiced support for the protest movement:
They need to exercise that (their right to free speech). Whether we agree with their agenda or we don’t, we want them to know it’s okay to protest. It’s okay. And it enables them and it makes them like, “I can do this.” And they have a cause. Whether the cause is against what I believe or not, it’s just exciting to see the youth, our next leaders in life, participating and getting fired up about an issue.
She went on to say that she had told a Channel 13 reporter the same thing in a 30-minute-long interview. She had also shared with that reporter her theory about psychotropic drugs causing mass shootings and her preference for arming teachers and security guards over restricting gun rights. When the reporter asked Fiore to elaborate on this point, she said, “You don’t bring a knife to a gun fight. You don’t bring a body to a gunfight. You bring a gun to a gunfight,” and that was the soundbite that aired. The editing irritated Fiore; she told me the anecdote to illustrate how the news media excerpts her most inflammatory comments without providing context or including her other ideas. This, she says, is why she’s seen as a gun nut.
Yet Fiore herself has thrown a lot of fuel on that fire. Consider her 2015 Christmas card, which featured a glossy family photo of her, her mother, her two daughters, and their husbands, all smiling, dressed in jeans and matching red T-shirts … and holding semi-automatic rifles. In the photo, Fiore’s children also hold three of her grandchildren; a fourth, Jake (age 5 at the time), stands on his own, toting a Walther P22. She followed up the Christmas card with a 2016 Second Amendment calendar, a wall hanging featuring pinup-style portraits of Fiore with a different weapon each month, from a Mossberg 590 for January — self-defense awareness month — to a SCAR (special operations combat AR) Heavy for June — campus safety month.
And sometimes full interviews, not selective excerpts, include Fiore’s most controversial statements. For instance, there was her 2016 sit-down with political journalist Steve Sebelius, in which she said that she would shoot a law-enforcement officer to save herself, drawing an angry response from the state trade association for public safety officers:
Once you point your firearm at me, I’m sorry, then it becomes self-defense. Whether you’re a stranger, a bad guy, or an officer, and you point your gun at me, and you’re gonna shoot me, and I have to decide whether it’s my life or your life, I choose my life.
So, you can be forgiven for thinking of Fiore as a female Yosemite Sam. She wears a necklace with a Smith & Wesson 8-shot revolver pendant. On the bar in her City Hall office is a 3-foot-tall glass tequila bottle shaped like a machine gun. In her free time, she’s developing a perfume that she plans to sell in gun-shaped vials, and designing a dress-boot line with pockets for stowing gun magazines.
“I love high heels and carrying guns,” she told me. Her laugh rang with the What can I say? of her native Brooklyn dialect.
So, in addition to the Michele who says she’d shoot a cop in self-defense, there’s another Michele, who’s having fun at her critics’ expense. And then there’s the mama bear, that Michele who first had a gun put in her hands at 9 years old by her own single mom, and who says she’d do anything for her kids.
“We had a meeting one night with a donor and friend,” recalls Victoria Seaman, Fiore’s friend and fellow politician, “and we were supposed to meet at Paymon’s. She called and said, ‘The meeting is moved to my daughter’s house; I have to take care of her kids.’ … Michele’s family comes first.”
Of the Channel 13 interview, Fiore also said, “The reporter asked, ‘Well, you have five grandkids. Would you be okay if your grandchildren’s teacher had a gun?’ And I told them I’d pay top dollar if I could get my kids in a totally secured environment. Are you kidding?” Fiore’s love of guns is an expression of her maternal instinct, not a contradiction to it.
On the steps outside Fiore’s office, on March 24, several progressive organizations staged a rally against gun violence. It was the first national, organized manifestation of the movement sparked by the Parkland kids a month earlier. As one Las Vegas student after another took the stage and vowed to vote out public officials who do nothing to protect them, I imagined Fiore looking out her seventh floor window at the plaza below, filled with citizens chanting, “Enough is enough!” But she wasn’t there. She was in Washington, D.C., where, incidentally, she went four times during the two months I reported this story.
It made me wonder if the day was coming when Tick Segerblom and Fiore’s other liberal “friends” would be forced to oppose her, when she’d leave the municipal realm, where her Second Amendment views can be overlooked, for the federal realm, where she would have power to shape gun laws. I wondered what was next for the mama bear with questionable backup for some of her beliefs and considerable populist appeal among her constituents.
Michele Fiore was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, by a lesbian mom who now heads Democrats for Fiore, a casual group of senior-citizen women. At 16, Michele fronted a rock band, Times Square, in New York, but left the music scene after she had her first daughter at 19. This experience was the basis for her self-made 2006 feature film, Siren, about a middle-aged empty-nester who gets guff from her family and friends when she hits the road in pursuit of her lifelong dream to sing in a band. Fiore has been married twice, but at 47 is, as she says, “single on purpose.”
Fiore’s reverence for tradition manifests itself as girliness. She redecorated her City Hall office in powder pink and pearlescent white, and has an affinity for glitter, satin, and designer accessories. She had the original paintings from the city’s modern art collection removed from the waiting area outside her office and replaced with large black-and-white celebrity photo prints from what she calls “classic Vegas” (the Rat Pack era). She has a personal stylist come to her home twice a month to blow out her hair, which she’s been having cut every five weeks by the same woman for 20 years. She calls her granddaughters “grand-princesses.” She’s against allowing girls into the Boy Scouts, which, nevertheless, started last month.
As for her politics, Fiore describes herself as independent/Libertarian, but doesn’t belong to the Libertarian Party because, she says, “it’s just not formidable in the state of Nevada.” Her libertarianism is reflected in her signature issues, which have to do with personal freedoms; besides the right to bear arms and try alternative medicine, she believes people should be able to marry whomever they want, and to smoke marijuana or get an abortion if they want (although she’s against these last two personally). This may help to explain her success in Nevada, which is ranked ninth in the nation for gun ownership, is one of 10 states to legalize recreational pot, and leans pro-choice. According to the Secretary of State’s most recent data, 27 percent of voters identified themselves as neither Democrat nor Republican, but “independent,” “Libertarian,” or “nonpartisan.”
Prior to the City Council, which is officially nonpartisan, she ran and served as a Republican (another 33 percent of Nevada voters), and her campaign promises align with bread-and-butter conservative issues: reducing crime, lowering taxes, eliminating laws that hamper private-sector growth, holding government accountable for taxpayer dollars, that kind of thing. These are the ideals that motivated Fiore to get into politics to begin with, as she tells it. In 2010, inspired by the passage of a tiered modified business tax law that negatively affected her home-healthcare company, she planned to run for state office. But party leaders talked her into making an ill-fated bid for Democrat Shelley Berkeley’s seat in Congress. Two years later, she went with her original plan, winning Nevada Assembly District 4.
“I only went for Assembly because I just didn’t know what the heck my own party was doing,” she says. “Like, why are they making more regulations, and why are they making it harder for business? So I went up (to Carson City) thinking, I don’t care if I get reelected or not, but I’m going to talk to these politicians about what us nonpoliticians think they’re doing wrong.”
The thing that Fiore herself seems to most want people to know about her is: She works hard. Twice, she described herself as a “workaholic,” and after shadowing her for 10 hours on a February day that she described as typical, I had to tap out. Her official duties would continue for another three hours.
That day started at 7 a.m. with the YMCA’s annual fundraising breakfast. Fiore — credited with keeping the Centennial Hills Community Center operating contract with the Y after her predecessor, Steve Ross, had proposed giving it to the city — shared a table with a smattering of business, nonprofit, and union executives, as well as Richard McArthur, a Republican who both preceded and succeeded her in the state Assembly. Before taking her seat, Fiore mingled with attendees. North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee asked her what it was like to be the prettiest woman there, and, upon learning I’m a journalist, informed me that Fiore is “hot,” as in, her political career is on fire. She complimented him on his State of the City address. An evidently nervous constituent, Paul Harbauer, approached Fiore to pitch his idea for a motocross facility in her ward, No. 6. After hearing him out, she called over her assistant to set up a meeting with Harbauer. She explained that she and Clark County Commissioners from adjacent precincts have been hatching a plan for a sports complex, and that Harbauer’s idea might fit into it. He walked away with a look of gratitude and wonder.
Throughout the day, I was frequently told how accessible Fiore is, how involved in the community. During a morning meeting to review a construction project in her district, former Nevada Governor and U.S. Senator Richard Bryan, a Democrat, told me that “she’s always so easy to get an appointment with.” At an afternoon informational session on human trafficking, presented by an FBI agent and a federal judge, Fiore pointed out that she was the only elected official to show up, though all were invited.
She’s also proud of the activities that she organizes in her ward. Beyond the city’s standard slate of coffees with the mayor and movies in the park, Fiore uses money she raises, either through her Future for Nevadans PAC or campaign funds, to produce her own events. Twice a month, she spends the afternoon at her Centennial Hills YMCA satellite office for Mondays with Michele, an open house where constituents can talk to her about anything they like. Once a month, she invites several thousand randomly selected Ward 6 residents (regardless of political party, she says) to her house for a pasta dinner; usually, around a hundred people show up. In March she also produced an ice cream social for seniors, with an educational presentation on Nevada’s guardianship laws, and a family Easter egg hunt. In April, there was a spring fair with a focus on child foster care and adoption. According to what other City Council members posted online and sent out in their newsletters, only Stavros Anthony is as active in his community as Fiore is in hers. The others do less outreach.
At the first Monday with Michele that I went to, she told me, “Like twice a week, I will call people who I will call ‘in the political game’ — lobbyists, people that write checks — and I’ll say, ‘Hey, I’m doing these events, and I need some sponsors. Can you write me, you know, a $500 check or a $1,000 check or a $5,000 check?’ I’m not shy about asking people for money, because I’m going to treat my folks fabulous. And we do.”
“She solicits input from her constituents,” says C.T. Wang, who’s lived in Ward 6 for more than 20 years and has attended several of Fiore’s events. “What I love about her is, she gives me a straight answer. She doesn’t try to be political or equivocate; she just says what she thinks.”
A seasoned political observer might chalk this up to Fiore’s having to prove her mettle in municipal politics. “I thought it was interesting for her to go to City Council, where the issues are very different (from the state Legislature),” UNLV History Professor Michael Green, a seasoned political observer, says. In order to function, he adds, the small governing body has to work in close quarters and find middle ground, but it also has a more satisfying policy metabolism: “They’re not simply legislating and then having to wait until the next biennium to find out what’s going on,” Green says. “You can do something and actually see the results. If you’re a good retail politician, it can be a lot more fun that way.”
Retail politics is also a form of incumbent campaigning. While bomb-throwers grab Carson City headlines, local representatives succeed when they get potholes filled. In the time I spent at Mondays with Michele, constituents complained about Republic Services’ weekly trash pick-up reduction, a Wahoo Fish Tacos (with gaming and a bar) opening too close to a preschool, a lingering construction project at Farm and Durango, and feuding in-laws making fake code-enforcement calls.
Fiore invited people to come in, have something to eat, join her in the ring of overstuffed armchairs and sofas she had set up for this purpose. She listened to every story, asked questions, took notes, and offered solutions and referrals. She remembered people’s first names.
“As the mom of Ward 6, I have to look at what’s good for all my kids,” she told one visitor.
Fiore’s current den mother persona is a far cry from that of her time in the state Assembly, where she fell more into the bomb-thrower column. With Democrats holding majorities in both the Assembly and Senate, Republicans had their work cut out for them in the 2013 Legislature, Fiore’s first. But that didn’t prevent her from making a name for herself, recalls Andrew Doughman, who covered that session for the Las Vegas Sun.
“In some ways, Fiore was with the caucus, and in other ways, she was a bit of a maverick,” Doughman says. “As I recall, she was pretty outspoken about same-sex marriage, in favor of it, whereas virtually all her colleagues on the Republican side opposed it. She was also fairly outspoken about medical marijuana, and without her vote, it wouldn’t have passed. … But the big bill she was pushing was the campus-carry bill.” It would have allowed students with concealed weapons permits to carry guns on Nevada’s college and university campuses.
That bill didn’t pass, but Fiore championed it again in the 2015 session, when Republicans controlled both state houses, and much of the political drama that Fiore became known for took place. She was elected majority leader and head of the taxation committee — only to have both positions quickly snatched away. She was stripped of her tax committee chair after news reports that her home-healthcare businesses had $1 million in tax liens filed against it. A February New York Times story about her campus-carry bill quoted her as saying, “If these young, hot little girls on campus have a firearm, I wonder how many men will want to assault them. The sexual assaults that are occurring would go down once these sexual predators get a bullet in their head.” During an April floor debate on her proposal to increase local control over federal lands, Fiore barked at Republican colleague Chris Edwards, “Could you just sit your ass down and be quiet.” (She later apologized.) And in May, she stormed out of a session, slamming the door behind her, after Assembly Speaker John Hambrick denied her request for a roll-call vote on the campus-carry bill. (It later died in a senate committee.)
Ben Botkin, who wrote about Fiore while covering politics for the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2015-16, says, “Fiore is the sort of character who might be underestimated by her opponents, because of the things she gets press for — the (Second Amendment) calendar, storming out of the Assembly … but beneath that, there’s a deeper political savvy that goes unnoticed and doesn’t get as much attention. That’s probably what helped propel her through the assembly and now City Council.”
Her bravado might be overcompensation for institutional sexism. “Women politicians — not just in Nevada — are always held to a different standard, unfairly,” Green says. “There is something to be said for the idea that a woman politician may have had to be a bit more provocative, because the boys playing in the sandbox weren’t going to let her in that easily. That may have been something she intuitively grasped or was told, or just knew, and acted on.”
Flouting established norms for acceptable behavior comes straight out of the populist playbook favored by Tea Party Republicans like Ted Cruz, whose 2016 presidential campaign Fiore helped to lead in Nevada. Whereas freshman legislators traditionally kept their mouths shut and heads down until they’d learned the ropes, she came out guns blazing, so to speak. “People who are fed up with the status quo are willing to take a chance on someone who’s willing to ruffle feathers and take on the establishment,” Botkin says. People like Fiore’s dental assistant, who said she was happy to see her candidate join a city council that “needed some shaking up.”
Sticking to her guns also lends Fiore an air of authenticity. Political consultant Ronni Council, who worked mainly on Democratic campaigns before taking Fiore on as a client in 2012, says: “People portray Michele as a politician out to get attention, and it’s the exact opposite. She’s not saying things to get press. I agree that she sometimes speaks off the cuff and says things that other people disagree with. It’s not always great, but she’s not doing it to get attention; she’s just saying what she really thinks. So she’ll never take it back.”
This is one of several traits that separate Fiore from President Donald Trump. She’s often been compared to him, most notably in a 2016 Politico profile. That piece focused on Fiore’s and Trump’s common willingness to flirt with fringe groups (anti-public lands militias in Fiore’s case, white supremacists in Trump’s) as a means of burnishing their populist cred. That similarity exists — more on that below — along with others; both are brash New Yorkers who got their start in the private sector, and both have run businesses that got into trouble with the IRS. But there are differences too. A notable one is that, unlike Trump — who is for DACA one week and against it the next, isn’t going to cut Medicaid pre-election, then cuts it by 25 percent in office — Fiore sticks to her positions.
“I think young people did think she was kind of out there, especially about guns,” Doughman says. “But she came out with one opinion and has been consistent with it. Some people thought she was just kooky, but there’s a method to her madness, a libertarian outspokenness. She has these ideas with a libertarian bent, and she just says them repeatedly, and for some reason they resonate. She keeps getting elected, so it’s working.”
Fiore herself alludes to this when talking about her friend Victoria Seaman’s 2014 run for Nevada Assembly. “Her (Seaman’s) enemies will use pictures of her and I with guns against her, right?” Fiore says. “Yeah, okay, great. You know, it helps her, I guess, because she got elected when they were using it.” (Seaman was subsequently defeated in a state senate race, and dropped out of a Congressional race when Danny Tarkanian entered it in April.) She keeps a framed copy of the photo in question in her office. In it, she and Seaman, dressed in matching designer jeans and black tops and holding semi-automatic rifles, tilt their heads toward one another affectionately.
“You can get a lot of attention by making provocative statements, but then what happens when the rubber hits the road?” Green asks. “What happens is, if you then don’t vote it, then you’re automatically going to be considered nothing but a big mouth who makes a lot of noise but doesn’t follow through. Love her or hate her, Fiore follows through. She believes what she believes.”
Fiore’s modus operandi has made her transition to municipal politics rough at times, despite her knack for retail politics. Consider her successful drive, last fall, to repeal an anti-puppy mill ordinance that the City Council had passed two years earlier. Fiore’s rationale — that people who want to buy and sell specific breeds of dog shouldn’t be prevented from doing so, as long as they’re not breaking any existing abuse, cruelty, or neglect laws — fulfilled her campaign promises to “eliminate laws that hinder economic growth and job creation” and “limit the damaging effects of state regulations upon the private sector,” because the ordinance would have caused two pet
shops, including one in her district, to close. But animal rights advocates, who spent years working on the legislation meant to curb demand from inhumane breeding operations outside the city’s purview, were blindsided by what they saw as the heartless handiwork of Cruella de Vil. Dozens of them protested the repeal at the November City Council meeting where it passed in a 4-3 vote.
On the other hand, yard-to-table hipsters found their savior in Fiore in March, when she tweaked an existing law and made it possible to keep backyard chickens in Las Vegas under certain circumstances. Whether constituents embrace Fiore’s commitment to safeguarding personal freedoms may depend less on their political affiliation than on how the freedoms in question operate in their day-to-day lives. Some people will undoubtedly be for backyard chickens and against puppy mills, just as others will be for gun rights and against same-sex marriage.
This ideological conundrum evokes Bob Beers. He made a transition similar to Fiore’s, from state government firebrand to city government team player, a transition that Jon Ralston described in the October 2013 issue of Desert Companion. Since that story’s publication, however, Beers lost his run for City Council reelection to political newcomer Steve Seroka. Observers blamed Beers’ loss on his position on a golf course development adjacent to the Queensridge community, a position that had been as true to his convictions and as unwavering as Fiore’s on the puppy mill ordinance. The Beers-Fiore comparison raises the question: How long can an uncompromising politician survive at the local level? Or perhaps, like Trump, Fiore is destined for a bigger stage.
“With Carolyn Goodman running for re-election, I’m her biggest cheerleader, and her number one endorser. So I would like to help get her re-elected,” she told me. “Once we get through that hurdle, then I’ll reassess where I am: Am I staying on the council? Am I going to look at the mayorship after the mayor does her 12 years? Yeah. But, you know, it’s like a chess game. I can’t tell you where I’m going to look at next because I just don’t know if we’re making strides in the city. Like, I spent a lot of time and money going back and forth to D.C. working on BLM issues with our federal delegation. And now I’m on two very important boards, so I’m going to D.C. again next Friday for Workforce Connections …” (A digression into Workforce Connections ensued.)
In other words, a run for higher office is not off the table, which raises another comparison of Fiore to a famous former politician: Sarah Palin. During the time we talked at her home, Fiore took a call from U.S. Senator Dean Heller, showed me phone pictures of herself with U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, and said she’d attended an Israeli American Council gala at “Sheldon’s” house the night before, adding, “That’s high level stuff.” Fiore says her team has big plans for her. But for now, she insists, she loves her job on the City Council, and she’s focusing on getting like-minded candidates elected in the 2018 midterms.
To that end, in mid-January, Fiore hosted one of her pasta dinners for Heller (unlike those she does in her capacity as city councilwoman, this one was organized through her PAC). Around 200 people showed up at her house to eat penne ala vodka, make donations, and ask the senator questions. They filed through the buffet set up on her kitchen island and sat around tables chitchatting, as Republican notables from Michael McDonald to Michael Roberson roamed the party anxiously. Fiore, meanwhile, played roving hostess, pointing people to more seating and desserts, bouncing toddlers while commiserating with parents about local education’s shortcomings, and carrying cases of water from her storage shed to refill coolers in the kitchen.
Embracing Fiore for a photo op in her living room at the end of the evening, Heller thanked her for everything she’s doing for Nevadans, and for him.
In one of Siren’s pivotal scenes, the main character, Storm Fagan (played by Fiore), stands in her bra and underwear in front of a full-length mirror, poking at rolls of fat around her waist and shaking her head in disgust. In the preceding scenes, Storm had suffered a series of rejections at band auditions and agent meetings, where she was told she was too old, too plain, or otherwise not right for the part. In subsequent scenes, Storm takes up running, loses weight, transforms her stringy brown hair into a blond pouf, and puts together her own band, auditioning musicians in a room decorated with a Rosie the Riveter poster. Feminists may be tempted to see this interlude as a woman bucking the patriarchy and seizing her inherent power, but Fiore doesn’t exactly embrace feminism. In one conversation we had the day I shadowed her, we debated the merits of #MeToo. She told me that she thought that the famous actresses who championed the movement were making fools of themselves.
Michele: So I’ll tell you, as a female, one thing I can say about myself and some other females that I know is, when you piss us off, we get a little frustrated. Frustration with a female will motivate you. Like, if I’m frustrated, I get motivated, period. Now, you anger me, now I’m driven, right? So, um, and that’s how I got involved with the world of politics.
Heidi: So, I’m going to bring that back to something that you said when I saw you at Mondays with Michele a few weeks ago.
Heidi: It was that Monday right after the women’s march on Sunday.
Heidi: And I think you said something like these women are making fools of themselves with the #MeToo movement and the march?
Michele: Yes, yes.
Heidi: So how is that different, because I think what they’re expressing is anger like the anger that you’re talking about.
Heidi: So how does that make them foolish?
Michele: When someone attacks you. You need to fix it now.
Michele: Do you understand? Like you need to fix that right now. Don’t wait 30 years. Okay. Don’t sleep with some jack-off named Weinstein, get a few Emmys, and then go “Oh, by the way …”
Heidi: So that’s the #MeToo movement?
Heidi: So you don’t feel that, I mean — their argument is that they felt they couldn’t do anything about it, they were powerless.
Michele: Really? They were powerless? After one Emmy after another? I mean they’re still powerless? At what point did they feel powerful?
Heidi: What about the women who reported it and then nothing happened?
Michele: Shame on the authorities. Shame on the authorities.
Heidi: But you would support them.
Michele: Oh, without a doubt. Without — let me tell you something, my kids, my daughters, they knew. (She tells me about how she taught her daughters to tell her everything that happens to them, and how she would pay back anyone who harmed them.)
Heidi: So what I’m hearing is, it’s not that you don’t believe these women. It’s just that you think that they waited too long to do something about it?
Michele: Especially after they’ve come to power. How powerful is it for Angelina Jolie or for Ashley Judd to make a movie to become a superstar and say, “You know what Harvey, what you did was wrong”? Do you understand, right now? Right now. But no, they wait until it’s popular? That makes it really unpopular with me.
Heidi: What about all of the women who don’t have power like the ...
Michele: They need to tell right now.
Heidi: ... like the thousands or millions of women who, you know, did the #MeToo on Twitter basically saying, this happened to me, this happened to me, and this happened to me. Like these are not famous people, right?
Michele: Let me tell you something, where there’s a will there’s a way, and you find your inner strength as a woman, you know? I guess growing up in Brooklyn, my family saw it differently.
Heidi: But the girls weren’t asking for it.
Michele: I understand, so what I’m saying is, if these girls — they have to fight back, period. You have to fight back, Heidi. If someone touched you inappropriate, even to this day I mean, I don’t know how old you are, but if you remember someone touching you when you were eight or nine, right? And if that man is still alive, you need to go pay him a visit and touch him back quite hard. Do you understand?
So, setting aside the feminist interpretation of Siren, the message of the striking underwear scene seems to be that Storm’s success in her desired field relies on her ability to pull off a certain look. Zooming out, one could argue that the movie itself accomplishes that for Fiore, allowing her to reinvent herself as a movie writer, director, and star. With full control of the script, she reclaims the story of her abandoned music career and turns it into a feel-good cliché.
“Siren is about living your dreams at 47, 50,” Fiore says. “It’s about continuing on and not letting the naysayers get in your way. You just do it a different way. You just, you know, you write your own story, and you draw your own map.”
One person who’s spent a lot of time thinking about Fiore believes this is key to her psyche. Journalist John Sepulvado says, “More than anything, she understands narrative. She made a movie about herself. She came to Nevada from the East Coast, and she’s reimagined herself as a modern-day Annie Oakley type of figure who rides high and clears brush and kicks butt.”
Sepulvado’s assessment is based on his years covering the Bundy family — from their 2014 standoff with the BLM in Mesquite to their 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside Burns, Oregon — first with Nevada Public Radio (where he and I were colleagues) and then with Oregon Public Broadcasting (he’s now at KQED in San Francisco). Fiore played a part in both Bundy crises, and her close relationship with the family has shaped her attitude toward public lands, which can be seen in her Assembly bills to transfer jurisdiction of some federal land to the state of Nevada, and her belief that, as she wrote in her January newsletter, there is “BLM land that really should be designated to our great city.”
Fiore’s involvement in the 2014 standoff was mainly one of moral support. Her best-known moment may be an interview she gave to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, which liberals may remember for her implication that immigrants crossing the border are terrorists. As Fiore saw it, however, she schooled Hayes on government overreach by pointing out that the BLM could have imposed liens on Bundy’s cows as punishment for his unpaid grazing fees, rather than showing up with guns to confiscate his property.
Wearing a jean jacket, a breeze blowing her hair, and standing in front of a field where Bundy supporters were having a celebratory picnic, Fiore said, “Chris, do you want them coming to your house pointing guns at your wife and children? Is that okay with you? Because it’s definitely not okay with me. It’s not okay with Americans across the United States.” (Bundy opponents counter that the BLM was armed because officers felt threatened by the dozens of militia members who camped out at the Bundy ranch, looking for a fight.)
Today, Fiore says that she went out to Mesquite because Bundy supporters repeatedly begged her to do so. She went expecting to shine a flashlight under the bed, so to speak, and reassure them that there was no government bogeyman hiding there. But what she saw once she got to the ranch, she says, changed her mind:
We had a tacced-up BLM pointing guns at American folks on horses. That’s the image why people came. People are not going to come because you have a lien on your property. People are not going to come because you’re not paying your bills. People are not coming for that. People came because the federal government was slaughtering cattle and pointing guns at Americans. That’s the only reason why people from across America went to Bunkerville, period. And unfortunately saying that out loud is not popular, Heidi. It’s not popular.
This narrative of citizen victimization by government resurfaced at Malheur. After a month at the bird sanctuary in the bitter cold, the occupation began to unravel. Law enforcement officials arrested four of the main organizers, including Cliven’s sons Ammon and Ryan Bundy, while they were driving to a community meeting, and one of them, Robert “LeVoy” Finicum, was killed in the confrontation. Four holdouts remained at the sanctuary for two more weeks, their nerves fraying. One man, David Fry, was suicidal. Based on the Bundy family’s relationship with Fiore, they asked that she come to Oregon and negotiate their surrender, which she did. They didn’t trust anyone else.
Fiore was later characterized as a knight in shining armor who swept in and cleaned up the mess. The Washington Post’s article “Getting to Hallelujah: The frantic final hours of the Oregon refuge occupation,” described her as the hero who kept anyone else from dying. The New York Times called her the “calm peacemaker in the final hours of an occupation that had captivated the nation.”
But Sepulvado says these portrayals miss an important part of the picture: Fiore’s involvement in the Malheur occupation from the beginning. He wrote a story for Oregon Public Broadcasting two months after the crisis ended detailing the role played by a group of state lawmakers called the Coalition of Western States, or COWS. Within a week after the occupation started, COWS members, including Fiore, had a 90-minute meeting with local law enforcement and the FBI. COWS offered to negotiate on the occupiers’ behalf, but law enforcement declined and, instead, asked COWS to stay out of the conflict lest they embolden the occupiers. COWS went to the refuge to show their support for the occupiers anyway.
In a recording of the COWS-FBI meeting, Fiore can be heard saying, “The BLM has become a bureaucratic agency of, basically, terrorism, and they have taken land from your citizens. So at what point do we band together as elected officials and say, ‘Enough is enough’ to the BLM? So, can we divert this conversation? At what point are we actually going to do something for our citizens?”
In his story, Sepulvado suggests what he believes to be COWS’ true motivation: “Fiore worked with FBI agents to help end the standoff without bloodshed. Part of that motivation was for Ammon Bundy, who she described as family. But Fiore also knew that a bloody end could hurt the political advancement of COWS and the coalition’s efforts to take what had once been fringe ideas into the mainstream of the Republican party.”
Fiore told me her affiliation with the Bundys has only hurt her. “I have saved in a box my campaign literature where people were mailing out literature saying, ‘Assemblywoman supports welfare rancher,’ you know? I mean, they used that against me in every way, they used it hard in this (City Council) race, very hard.”
Nevertheless, Fiore won that race. She also won reelection to the Nevada Assembly, seven months after the Mesquite standoff, with 62 percent of the vote. She says she has no regrets and that she didn’t do it for any personal gain, but, rather, to protect the rights of “your Average Joe Blow American, period.”
Her involvement with the Bundys reveals a key piece of Fiore’s political strategy, which, as the Politico profile notes, she has in common with Trump: media savvy.
“It’s different now, at all levels,” UNLV’s Michael Green says. “It’s not just the nature of (public) office that has changed, but also, between 24/7 news and the internet, there’s a lot of time to fill. Fiore had a good sense of how fill it.”
Both the R-J’s Ben Botkin and the Sun’s Andrew Doughman recall that, unlike other state representatives, who would ditch reporters by ducking into bathrooms or closed offices, Fiore, when she was in the Nevada Assembly, always had an open door, even after they’d written negative stories about her. She stressed to me several times that she welcomes conversation with anyone, from the press or public, whether they agree with her or not.
But she has also learned how to leverage reporters’ craving for access. She’s known to avoid Jon Ralston, whom she feels has been unfair to her, and she told me that, after the post-Parkland-shooting interview with the reporter who excerpted her knife-to-a-gunfight comment, she would no longer meet with Channel 13. At the same time, she was extraordinarily accommodating for this story, which I told her at the outset was envisioned as a lengthy feature.
And, as Siren demonstrates, she’s not afraid to shock her audience, if that’s what it takes to make the desired impact. The countless examples of her stunning quotes in the press are certainly due at least as much to her own calculation (and the strength of her convictions) as they are to her being, as she described it to me, unfairly edited.
“Sometimes it’s one particular issue on politics, where there’s no room to compromise. It just matters deeply to them,” Green says. “Some of it may be for show, and I’m not saying she did this, but Andrew Jackson, whose name has come up a little more often recently, would occasionally throw a tantrum at Congress when they weren’t doing exactly what he wanted, and they’d say, ‘Oh, we better calm him down and do it.’ He knew what he was doing. There was a reason for what he did. It may be Fiore having an entertainment-oriented background, but there are some things she does for show. The problem is, when you do that, can you be taken seriously? When you want to be taken seriously? That may be the struggle she’s having now. And winning.”
When she was speaking at CSN in March, Fiore said, a student asked her what she would do if she ran for re-election and lost. She says she told him, “Well, if you’ve been listening, I have a great life. I have two great kids that have given me five beautiful grandkids. I want 10. I have dogs. I have companies. I do stuff. So, if I didn’t have to do this job, I’d fill it with another one. If I weren’t reelected, I wouldn’t let any grass grow under my feet.”
But for today, her political future looks bright. It’s no wonder she’s currently investing most of her political energy in the 2018 midterms, since they may go a long way toward deciding her own fate. Will outsider mavericks, such as gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt, replace more moderate conservatives like Governor Brian Sandoval? Will Fiore’s “150-percent” support of Trump remain intact if the people he endorses lose? In 2019 and beyond, in a state whose electorate gets bluer and more urban with each election cycle, will a populist candidate with cow-country appeal still be relevant?
If not, Michele Fiore will undoubtedly write a new role for herself.
Jacob Lasky and Jakub Cernoch contributed reporting to this story.