After losing her Senate bid, a reflective Shelley Berkley speaks her mind on dirty campaigns, a distinguished career in Congress — and her future in politics
Shelley Berkley came within a percentage point of becoming Nevada’s junior senator, a fact that she has spent the past two months digesting. She was defeated by Sen. Dean Heller after a brutal campaign in which Heller and a Sheldon Adelson-funded SuperPAC attacked her relentlessly for an Ethics Committee probe into her conduct surrounding the federal rescue of Las Vegas’ only kidney transplant clinic.
During the 2012 campaign, the normally ebullient, outspoken New York native was muzzled by handlers. Now, as evidenced by this sit-down interview in the living room of the townhouse near Capitol Hill that was suddenly for sale, she’s been liberated to speak her mind once more.
And does she ever.
Steve Friess: So, this is a bummer, huh?
Shelley Berkley: I am heartbroken but I have absolutely no regrets. I loved every minute of it. I gave it my all and it would have been much more difficult for me if I hadn’t run and spent the rest of my life thinking I would’ve, should’ve, could’ve.
SF: Are you prepared for what it will feel like for you in January?
SB: Oh sure. You have to know going into these races that you could lose. I loved being a congresswoman and I loved public service. It is a part of my life, it is not my life. I’m going home to my life. I feel really good about that in a really sad sort of way.
SB: Look, I’m the granddaughter of immigrants who came to this country who couldn’t speak English. They had no money, they had no skills. What they had was a dream that their children and their children’s children would have a better life in the United States. I’m my grandparents’ American dream. If they hadn’t gotten out of Europe when they did, they would’ve died in the Holocaust. I have always thought of public service as my way of giving something back to this country for taking my family in and giving us a chance to survive, which we did, and thrive, which we have. I think I have paid my family’s debt to this country. I’ve earned my rest right now.
SF: Now, I’ve known you since before you were in Congress and you were always the most accessible public figure I’d ever dealt with. So I was baffled during the campaign at how hard it was to reach you.
SB: Yes. I enjoy my interaction with the press. You’re usually dealing with very smart people. When we started our Senate campaign and the big guns came in, they were astonished and appalled at the lack of filter and the accessibility that the press had to me. They thought that was not in my best interest and there needed to be some responsible behavior on my part when it comes to interacting with the press. I understood what they were saying and I agreed to it, but it was very, very difficult to me because I just have a natural inclination to be very open.
SF: Coming on the heels of the ethics issue, the perception was that you were avoiding certain questions that you did answer here and there.
SB: It was just a decision on the part of the campaign strategists that we needed to control the flow of communication with the press.
SF: Do you think that was a good decision in retrospect?
SB: I couldn’t tell you if it was good or bad. I lost by a point. Maybe that proves the strategy was right because we came so close, or maybe it proved that it was a big mistake and I would’ve won by 10 points. But I think once the ethics complaint by the Republican party was filed, they started using it to beat me up, I started appreciating the need to not be as open and candid and frankly — as many times as we explained these issues to our members of the press — they were still reporting it wrong. After a while, I just stopped trying. Even at the very final days of the campaign, I was still reading articles that my husband had a financial interest in the kidney transplant program. How do you have a financial interest in a county program? I mean, he had a contract with UMC to deliver kidney care to the hospital. It didn’t matter if the kidney transplant program expanded, which it has, or closed. Larry’s contract remained the same. That was something we never quite were able to communicate with the press, and after a while it became the mantra and that became the question — Should she have intervened? Of course I should have intervened. I saved the program.
SF: Can you name three things you’re most proud of accomplishing in Congress?
SB: First and foremost is the new V.A. hospital. It’s just a remarkable facility. I moved heaven and earth for that. That’s probably my proudest accomplishment and will remain so for generations to come, because it’s going to be servicing the veterans of our state forever. The second thing is my constituent services. When somebody called with a problem, they knew they were going to be taken care of. We never turned anyone away. If we couldn’t help, we made sure they knew who it was at the county or state level who could help them with their issue.
SF: Is there a third?
SB: Well, one of the things that’s not complete is I worked very hard to make sure that Nevadans were able to deduct their sales tax from their federal income tax. There’s only seven states that don’t have a state income tax, so you can’t deduct that. But what we do have is a sales tax. What I was working on now was making that deduction permanent. We never quite got there. We kept renewing it every couple of years, but I think this year and if I had been in the Senate, I think I could have made that permanent.
SF: Do you feel like in this long-running grudge match between you and Sheldon Adelson that he has now won?
SB: Let me say this. I am very comfortable with where I am and what I do. There are two issues that nobody is better than me that he professes to care about. One of them is gaming and one of them is Israel. So who’s the loser in this election? I’m going to be fine.
SF: You think Sheldon’s not going to be fine?
SB: I wouldn’t trade places with him, not for all his money.
SF: You’ve said the deciding factor in the election was all the money spent against you by SuperPACs. But the president survived them. Several Democratic incumbents survived them. I think you were the only one who lost who was really targeted that way.
SB: Yes, I was. Look, the Republicans had a brilliant strategy. They couldn’t beat me on the issues. They knew it. That’s why they filed the ethics complaint against me. And then they spent a year or more banging me over the head with the fact that there’s an ethics complaint filed against me. Yeah, they filed it! At the end of early voting, we were up 1.5 points. And that last weekend I think turned it around. I didn’t realize how virulent and how constant those attacks were on me. Monday night, after a whole day of campaigning, I turned on the TV and was flipping channels. And that’s when I came to realize how constant and ugly they were. I said to myself, “If I didn’t know me, I wouldn’t vote for me either.” If there had been no ethics complaint, I would have won that election. If it was Sheldon’s money and Karl Rove’s strategy that did it, that’s just the way it is.
SF: I know you’ve discussed the details of the controversy about the nephrology center and all that business, but a couple things: You said it was the Republicans filing a complaint following what you said was an inaccurate front-page article in The New York Times, but it was a bipartisan House committee that decided not to end that probe.
SB: The reason it went forward was because I sent a letter to the Ethics Committee asking them to move forward to clear my name.
SF: Wouldn’t it have been easier for them to clear it before the election got going?
SB: Well, we understood that they would. I was hoping the letter would kickstart the process and they would completely exonerate me. We were hoping it would happen before the election, I am hoping it will happen before time runs out. (At press time, it was unclear whether that occurred.)
SF: Speaking of Israel, you were in Congress since 1999. Has the situation gotten any better?
SB: It’s gotten much worse. You cannot sit down and negotiate when the people you are negotiating with do not recognize your right to exist as a Jewish state. So I could never figure out how, unless the rest of the Arab world recognized Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, you could negotiate because what are we negotiating for? The right to exist for 10 more years? Twenty? Fifty more years? I’m afraid that Israel is more isolated than they had been in decades, and that worries me a great deal.
SF: Two years ago, I overheard you saying President Obama had “blown it with the Jews.” You also told me you just didn’t feel he has it in his kishkas (Yiddish for “guts”). Does he have it in his kishkas now?
SB: He may not have it in his kishkas, but I have to tell you. I disagreed with this settlement policy. I disagreed with his statements on the ’67 borders. But if we take what he has done in total, he supported and we have paid for Iron Dome, the missile defense system that pretty well protected Israel in this past month. That came from Obama. When the Palestinians went to the United Nations the first time and asked for a unilateral declaration of statehood, there was one country in the Security Council that stood with Israel. That would not have happened without the full support of the president of the United States. When the UN issued the Goldstone Report, which condemned Israel for using disproportionate force during the first Gaza War, they did everything they could at the UN to lessen the impact of that very one-sided, very unfair report. He was a full partner in that. And again, this latest stunt by the Palestinians at the UN. Eight countries out of 193 voted for Israel. It was United States that stood in staunch defense of Israel. For my money, that makes him a very, very strong president for Israel.
SF: What were some of the things that happened as a congresswoman that you never would have imagined would happen to you?
SB: If my mother was alive and she were soothing me after my loss, this is what she would have said. (High-pitched voice) “Shelley, do you realize what you have lived through and served during, how remarkable this is?” I came in during the Clinton impeachment. There was 9/11. There was the anthrax scare. There was the Iraq War. There was the Afghan War.
SF: Gosh, did anything good happen?
SB: (Laughs) It was the change of the millennium. I was on the cutting edge of American foreign policy when it comes to Israel. I chaired the Trans-Atlantic Dialogue which gave me tremendous access to the European leadership. I chaired the Taiwan Caucus in a delicate time in the relationship between China and Taiwan. I chaired the Kazakh Caucus. I became very familiar with Central Asia. How would I have ever done that? And then Cyprus and Greece. Those were the areas I had the most impact.
There were major forces at work here in Washington, throughout the United States and internationally. And I played a role in all the monumental things that were taking place. I was serving at the perfect time. It was a thrill, it still is. That’s a good way to lose.
SF: How do you think Reps. Horsford and Titus will do?
SB: I’m leaving the state in very good hands. They’re going to be fine. Dina has been here before, she’s a veteran, she’ll do great. Steven is not a novice when it comes to public service.
SF: What’s your impression of how Gov. Sandoval has done?
SB: Um, I like Brian. We’ve never had a harsh word between us. I think he’s, um, (long pause) is a very nice person.
SF: Are you thinking of running against him ...
SF: ... because that’s what you told me about Dean before you ran.
SB: No, no, no, no, no. (Laughs) No, I’m not interested in that position.
SF: Do you expect Sen. Reid to run again in 2016?
SB: I would hope so, yes, unless there is an impairment that would keep him from representing the people of Nevada, he should continue. The longer he stays, the more clout he has. I can’t imagine the state without his steady hand and I don’t think the folks back home fully appreciate what he’s done for the people who call Nevada home. I’ve seen it up close and personal, and it’s astonishing.
SF: During the campaign, Jon Ralston claimed that Sen. Reid didn’t help you as much as he should have and he didn’t want you to run for Senate.
SB: Jon misread that completely. I can’t imagine what more Sen. Reid could have done. I would not have done this without Harry’s not only agreeing to it but wholeheartedly supporting me. I never quite understood why Jon kept pushing that. Remember, early on there was a good-faith belief that whoever won Nevada would control the Senate. Once I decided to run, Harry never wavered, never blinked, never took a step back until the last vote was counted and I conceded.
SF: Regarding what you might do next, what about getting an ambassadorship or something like that?
SB: Luckily I’m in a position where I don’t have to get a job to pay the rent next month. That gives me the ability to take a step back. Whatever I do in the future, it has to be personally fulfilling to me, something I care about and that I believe I could add value to. I’m not looking for a title, I’m not interested in fluff. I’m not interested in an honorary title or a nonsense position.
SF: What will the odds be that you’ll be on a ballot someday again?
SB: I would give that a 50-50.
SB: Look, this did not poison me to public service. There isn’t anything I covet, there isn’t any office I aspire to right now, there isn’t anything I’m thinking about. But if you ask me if it’s outside the realm of possibility, the answer is no.
Steve Friess is a technology reporter for POLITICO Pro in Washington, D.C.