John L. Smith on crowded Ward 6 race, a Nye County scandal and Ruth Gillis
Last week, State of Nevada contributor and commentator John L. Smith detailed the ongoing fight between just two candidates running for the ward six Las Vegas City Council seat. But they aren't the only ones running. Seven people are vying for the seat that has been vacated by Michele Fiore, and she's trying to get back into state politics by running for Nevada treasurer.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
JOE SCHOENMANN: The reaction to our conversation last week was pretty swift. Other candidates have their share of advocates, and these are the names of those candidates, Luke Anderson, Nancy Brune, Paul Casey, David Dillie and Matt Passalacqua. Is that surprising that there are so many advocates for so many different candidates when a U.S. Senate seat is taking most of the focus?
JOHN L. SMITH: Something that it really speaks to the dedication of those folks who get out there on the stump and politic door-to-door. You know, most of the candidates that you mentioned are really not contenders clearly, Ray Spencer, Lou DeSalvio, and especially Nancy Brune, those are the top three people. However, it's Nevada and it's the U.S. and you can throw your hat in the ring and take a shot. And so, you have to give those folks some credit for at least getting out there and getting in the arena.
SCHOENMANN: In most political races these days, the candidate who raises the most money has the best chance to win and out of the seven city council hopefuls, as you mentioned her name, Nancy Brune raised the most money during the first quarter of this year. So, who is Nancy Brune?
SMITH: It's so interesting, in a political world in Nevada where almost anyone can play if they've got a bank role. Nancy Brune might be the most overqualified candidate in the race, her bona fide ease, more attuned to someone running for Congress or the U.S. Senate. You know, she has multiple degrees from Harvard in public policy. She has a degree from Yale and the same thing. And you've got this person with an academic background, and then you apply what she has done in the real world at the Guinn Center as the executive director, trying to drive Nevada forward in terms of its approach to public policy, how it does its job and how government can do its job better. I mean, it's a pretty impressive thing. Now, of course, in my own defense, I covered the fight. However, you know, Nancy Brune’s advocates were very quick to call it to my attention that I left out their favorite candidate.
SCHOENMANN: And what about the other candidates I mentioned, Luke Anderson, Paul Casey, David Dillie and Matt Passalacqua?
SMITH: They have varying skills. One as a children's book author, the other works in radiation which if you know, city politics, maybe radiation would be a good thing to work to work with. So, they have skill sets, but the two front-running men have constituencies. DeSalvio was a big official with the local laborer’s union, very politically active. Ray Spencer is a longtime Metro officer and now homicide officer, and they're very politically active. So, you have kind of a different level taking place here. However, like I say, you know, anyone can throw their hat in the ring, and they usually do.
SCHOENMANN: And I just want to mention that Ray Spencer, a lieutenant, is retiring from Metro this week. So, John, in your estimation, is this really coming down to a three person race?
SMITH: Well, you know, I'm almost hesitant to say that, but yes, of course it is. You know, these are the folks who have funds raised. These are the folks who have a group that can go door to door that can work the grassroots that can get out to vote, and they do bring their own skill sets, some more impressive than others in terms of public policy. So it should be a very interesting race, so I can't wait to see it.
SCHOENMANN: Let's shift focus and again, it's back to Nye County. The sheriff's office there on Friday released officer body cam audio and video of a March 28 domestic disturbance incident, and normally these sorts of things, they don't get a lot of attention, but this one involved County Commissioner Leo Blundo and his wife Melissa, and it was ugly. A lot of foul language, talk of thousands of dollars of missing cash. And we have a full video recording from the Nye County Sheriff's.
A warning to parents of young children: When you watch the video, there is some offensive language used.
John, what else is on that video?
SMITH: Well, you know, it really adds the sound and the sight to what the police reports hit on originally, we've reported it before, you know, this is a domestic incident. There were no charges pressed. But it shows a really foul-mouthed public servant. It shows a guy waving around a bank roll of his own, accusing his wife of extortion, you know, getting into a semiprivate conversation with a deputy about finding cocaine at his small cafe restaurant that he has in Pahrump and going on to some detail about, you know, the number of grams that were there. It just showed somebody who, this is my opinion, he has really lost his way. I mean, he's an elected official, he's a public servant. And I know, Nye County is easy to kind of snark on because of some of the follies that take place there. But you know, the folks who are out there paying taxes, you know, they deserve better than that. They deserve better than a, you know, a scandal every few weeks and a pie in the face to the constituency. So, and I think that's what really emerges here. And he went on and on. And there were a number of incidents within that call out by the deputies, all recorded and finally, of course, made public. And we'll see what happens next week.
SCHOENMANN: But there was no arrest. There's still none weeks later, what's going on.
SMITH: Yeah, it's interesting to the kind of place that it holds because there were no arrests made at the scene. And also because the Nye County District Attorney represents the county commission. And so he had to disqualify himself, the case was kicked up to the Attorney General's office who decided to kick it back down to very diminutive Esmeralda County, which has essentially 1,000 residents, and is right next to Nye County. We'll see where it goes from there. But certainly, eyes will be on it, whether there should be criminal charges filed is up to others who make those decisions.
But I think what's emerged from this document that's made public is you've got a guy who's really off the rails. In the end, that's dangerous on a lot of levels because he does influence taxpayer money and funding from the COVID relief packages and all of that stuff. He's not just a vote, he's an influence. And so, I think that people will be more on the lookout now going forward.
SCHOENMANN: And during the pandemic, John, you also talked on this program about Leo Blundo and his wife and their stance on masking. And they got a lot of attention from that.
SMITH: Leo and Melissa Blundo led the No Mask Nevada push where folks protested having to wear a mask, calling it a violation of constitutional rights and the road to ruin, and they got some traction with that. He's known as a super loyal follower of former President Donald Trump and has welcome revisions to how the county counts its ballots, if you know now, it's very conservative. They've never had a problem, at least in recent years with the machines that they've used for counting. But that hasn't stopped them from promoting essentially the big lie, in pretending that those voting machines are so easy to hack, as if counting ballots by hand can't be manipulated like a deck of cards. So it's an interesting time for him. And he's really hit with a lot of constituents out there because he's shown a real dedication to that cause but now this is different. And you know, some other things have emerged, perhaps his friends will remain in his corner. But I think people have to be double checking to see if they really want to support it.
SCHOENMANN: Well, sometimes people in those supportive areas see something like this file ethics complaints. Is that happening here?
SMITH: Not sure that it's happened yet. However, he's drawn ethics complaints before and so he's no stranger to that. And I imagined that after this emerges, someone will have to at least in the spirit of ethics question whether he's appropriate on a county commission in Nye County or any other.
SCHOENMANN: On a lighter note, longtime Las Vegas singer and former show girl Ruth Gillis turned 90 over the weekend, and you were there to help her celebrate, but for those who aren't familiar with her career, where did she dance and sing in Las Vegas?
SMITH: Now, Ruthie is a classic. She is a girl out of Chicago, who came West to be a star. She studied opera as a teenager, and she wound up in Vegas. And of course, in that era, which I'm talking about the early 1950s, she became a showgirl. She was one of the first show girls at the Sands. And she was among the very first show girls that when the Riviera opened and so you have that start, but she didn't want to dance with feathers. She wanted to sing and tell jokes and entertain and so she got a chance, and she knew some fellows, who all I can say is Murder Inc., was part of their background.
The guys at the Sands and the Riv were pretty colorful in those days. And they gave her an opportunity to sing in the lounge where she encountered people like Ella Fitzgerald singing in the lounge and across the street over to see Pearl Bailey perform. And she had a quite a career as a singer. And then she did some other stuff. You know, one of my favorite stories about Ruth is when Ella Fitzgerald wanted to see Pearl Bailey perform. But at that time, you couldn't go through the front door if you're a person of color in a Las Vegas casino. And so Ruth, out of friendship and perhaps naivete, went arm in arm with Ella Fitzgerald to the Flamingo and when they watched Pearl Bailey in the front row, that was helping to break a color line which has since thankfully, vanished, at least on the surface. You’ve got a real history there as well as a showgirl and a singer on your hands.
SCHOENMANN: You were part of the celebration. What did you do?
SMITH: Well, you know, I've been friends with her a long time. I've written about her, I get a kick out of her. I included her in a 2014 collection of interviews called Fabulous Vegas Voices in which included Ralph Lamb and some other folks that the listeners will know. Ruth is rich, there's a kick, you know, she had a career as a bit player in Hollywood, you know, in a couple of dozen movies. You'll see her, not a star, but you know, delivering a line or being part of the beautiful background of some of these Dean Martin movies and all of that. So yeah, she's had quite a run.
John L. Smith, contributor, State of Nevada