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Governor: I'm No RINO, I'm A Realist

Gov. Brian Sandoval at the announcement of a deal to bring Faraday Future to North Las Vegas.
Associated Press

Gov. Brian Sandoval at the announcement of a deal to bring Faraday Future to North Las Vegas.

The election is more than a year away, but candidates are already campaigning for governor.

And all of them will be compared to Governor Brian Sandoval, who will be termed out of office next year. And when he leaves office, many will still wonder: "Who was Governor Sandoval, really?"

He came into office on the pledge of no new taxes--then raised taxes to help schools. Conservatives hammered him for it.

Others say he’s been one of the best governors Nevada has ever had, guiding the state through a devastating economy.

Longtime political analyst Steve Sebelius sat down with the governor recently. His story appears in the September issue of Nevada Public Radio’s Desert Companion magazine.


Why will a lot of people think that Sandoval was the “right man with the right temperament?”

He came into office on the heels of Jim Gibbons, who was widely regarded as one of the worst governors in Nevada at least in the modern era.

He had a lot of repairs to make. He had to make repairs with the Legislature and he had to navigate out of the aftermath of the recession. The recession ended before he was sworn in but there were still financial problems that the state had. There was a large deficit, unemployment was huge. The state’s economic development efforts were, at the time compared to where they are now, almost non-existent.

He had a lot of challenges to confront.

But I think he handled each individual thing with this kind of temperament. This kind of steady temperament. He was on the job. He loves to do the job. It’s obvious when you talk to him that he loves to do the job of governor of Nevada.

He handled each thing in turn and I think as the governor said, the state is in a better place now than it was when he took over. And that’s the highest praise you can get if you’re an elected official.

It was a surprising choice for Sandoval to run for governor because at the time he was a U.S. District Judge. That’s a high-paying and lifetime appointment. He talked to you about how he made the decision:

Sandoval: “It was the most difficult professional decision I have ever had to make. I was doing well as a federal judge but at the same time, the state was in the worst economic situation that it had ever been in its history. We all know. We led the country in unemployment, foreclosures, bankruptcies, uninsured, graduation rate. It was a very personal decision and frankly, I wasn’t going to do it. I was going to stay on the bench. And after a conversation with my wife, we decided to go to dinner and she said to me, ‘Brian if you don’t do this, you’ll be driving to the courthouse every day for the rest of your life thinking you could have made a difference.’”  

Sandoval ran on a platform of ‘no new taxes,’ but then he raised taxes?

Sandoval ran as a ‘no new taxes’ candidate and almost immediately in his first legislative session had to not raise but extend the package of taxes that were supposed to have expired. The reason he did that he was dealt a very bad hand.

They had made cuts. The budget was set and towards the end of legislative session – I think there were a couple weeks to go – the Nevada Supreme court ruled that one of the things that they had done to balance the budget, which was to essentially take money out of a pot of money from a local agency called the Clean Water Coalition, they ruled that was unconstitutional. He couldn’t take that money. So, all of the sudden, they had a $60 million hole in the budget.

One of the people I talked to before I went to interview the governor said, ‘he didn’t have to extend those taxes. He could have continued to cut. He absolutely did not have to do that.’ But when he was confronted with that decision and he looked at what he would have to cut it definitely would have fallen on education. He said 'no, I’m not going to do that.'

He went back on that promise and did extend that package of taxes.

It was a tough decision to make and it was not a decision his predecessor would have made. His predecessor would have cuts. Brian Sandoval didn’t do that. And when it came down to the needs of the real people of the state versus a philosophical construct that he ran for office on he choose the real people and he’s done that consistently during his tenure as governor.

He talked to you about the difficulty of making that tax decision:

Sandoval: I knew it was the right decision for our state… when I gave my State of the State Address I talked about the generations to come and what kind of state that they’re going to inherit and what we can do now to make this a better one. As I said, I thought about it more and more it became clear to me that there was no other alternative in what I felt was the best interest of Nevada.

Sandoval also told you that the scope of the job and the needs of the state superseded any of his campaign promises. Here is what he said about that:

Sandoval: There is a difference between campaigning and the ideology that you’ve discussed and governing. When you sit in my chair, you come to appreciate very quickly the needs of the state and how people are counting on you who aren’t just members of the Republican Party. There are kids and senior citizens and veterans and moms and dads and all of it that are relying on a strong education system, a strong economy, to have resources when they exit the military or all of us probably know somebody who is in a time of need who need health care, who are struggling you have to balance all of those things.

I still believe in light of everything we’ve talked about that I’m conservative at heart. 

It seems like he’s running as a moderate candidate, especially in these times where there is no ground for compromise between Republicans and Democrats, he said he’s not just working for Republicans here:

Several times in this interview he said, ‘the needs of the state come first,’ and ‘I had my choice whether to raise taxes or not I probably would not have done that but if I had a choice between raising taxes and seeing people suffer, seeing schools suffer, seeing some other problems occur I will go with raising taxes because the needs of the state come first.’

It may sound hokey but that really is who the governor is after eight years, I think the true Brian Sandoval is the one we saw govern. The Brian Sandoval who ran for office in 2010 was a first-time candidate was getting advice: ‘look, you can’t let the incumbent attack you on the right say you’re going to raise taxes’

You asked him what it meant to be a Republican in the age of President Donald Trump:

Sandoval: I think you said it before, It’s someone who is pragmatic. Somebody who does their homework. Somebody who is a solutions person. Somebody who cares deeply about people. I have been to every corner of this state. I’ve been from Wendover to Sparks from Owyhee to Henderson. We have a little pin map. I’ve been to over 100 different communities. For me, it’s looking people in the eye and learning what their problems are, what their challenges are and then coming back here. This office is a gift. It is an incredible privilege and opportunity to be able to solve and help people.

You also asked him about being called a RINO, which means Republican in name only:

Sandoval: I hear all that. I’m not deaf to that. I’m not blind to that. When you’re in politics long enough, you come to understand and appreciate and know there is going to be a difference of opinion even within your own party. At the end the end of the day, I have to do what is in the best interest of the state. I think – at least up until now I don’t want to jinx anything – the state is better. We’ve improved economically. We’ve improved education. The state is in a much better position than it was six and half years ago. There are members of my party who frankly don’t agree with my methods. My challenge to them is the ones who want to cut the taxes then they have to be honest about what they’re going to cut. We’re going to cut K through 12 education. Those types of things. I understand the criticism. I appreciate the criticism. I respect the criticism, but I have to do what I think is in the best interest of the state.

Gov. Sandoval also vetoed 93 bills. Did explain why he vetoed so many bills?

Yeah, he did and by the way, that is a record. It’s may not be surpassed anytime soon. I would note that over his four years, the vetoes went up when the Democrats were control of the legislature and they when down when the Republicans were in control. During that year, 2015, when the Republicans were control of the Legislature there were only seven vetoes and this past session there were more than 40 as Democrats tried to pass bills some of which would have rolled back some of the things the governor got passed in 2015 with respect to education and other programs like that.   

My question to him was: was this a failure of leadership. Did you not signal ahead of time what you would have done because the governor is famous for taking the position, ‘I’m not going to say whether I would veto this bill or that bill until I see it on my desk in its final form.’

I think he didn’t do as much as he could have to indicate to the Legislature what was his preference to do that.

What is his leadership style? How was he able to get a Republican Legislature to pass new taxes?

In the 2015 session, I think he sold his Republican colleagues on a big package of education reforms. They were going to do Zoom schools, Victory schools. They were going to have all-day kindergarten. They were going to expand that to the whole state. They were going to have a program Read by 3, so that everybody who graduates at third grade can read at grade level. All of those things together. But he also convinced them, ‘we can’t just say we’re going to do this we have to figure out a way to pay for it.’

There were members of the Legislature who voted for all of the education reforms but didn’t vote for the taxes to pay for them. And there was a handful who said, ‘I don’t feel right about that so I’m going to vote no on everything.’

Did the governor give you a hint of what he’s going to do when his term is over?

No, I don’t think he knows yet. There are rumors out there that he and Dean Heller are going to switch. Dean Heller is going to come back to Nevada and run for governor and that Governor Sandoval is going to put his name on the ballot and run for U.S. Senate. I do not think that is going to happen. Dean Heller had an opportunity to run for governor and he decided to run for re-election rather than run for governor. So, I don’t think that’s going to happen.

You also asked him what the perfect job would be:

Sandoval: It would be a job where I feel like I’m helping people and making a difference. I’ve been blessed with a job where I can do that on a daily basis as a governor and as a federal judge as well, as far as making a constitutional decision and important legal decisions. That is going to be hard to beat. But wherever it is, I just have to feel I’m making people’s lives better.

Do you think he is one of the best governor s the state has had?

I do. I’ve been in the state since 1993. So, when I got here Bob Miller was governor. And I’ve seen Kenny Guinn, Jim Gibbons but I’ve also known previous governors like Dick Bryan and Mike O’Callaghan and folks like that some of the absolute giants of the past. I think that Governor Sandoval will be remembered as one of the best.

Not just his popularity, which is very high now, he has, I think, double what President Trump’s national approval rating is. Brian Sandoval has double that in the state of Nevada. But beyond just the particulars of the polls now, I think long term the contributions that he made to the state. The way he was able to take a state that had been ravaged by the recession and put it on a better track forward in terms of economic development, in terms of education and things like that, I think he’ll be remembered as one of the best governors the state has had.


This story originally ran in September 2017. 

Steve Sebelius, political analyst

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.