Putting out fires, at home and in Carson City

John Oceguera was on his way to be interviewed when he saw a motorcyclist down in the road and stopped to help. Somehow, it seemed appropriate.

When he isn’t busy as assistant fire chief of North Las Vegas and chasing around a baby son, Oceguera is the presumptive Assembly Speaker. The Democratic majority is 28-14, and unless lightning strikes in several places at the same time, with Speaker Barbara Buckley term-limited, the current majority leader will assume the gavel and switch from helping save motorcyclists to helping save the state.

“I have a deep sense of responsibility,” he says. “I’m a fourth-generation Nevadan, my son is a fifth-generation Nevadan, and a lot of people are relying on me and other legislators to make good decisions.”

Not that the decisions will be easy. Reports peg the pending shortfall at $3 billion, though that may overstate the case. What is on Oceguera’s docket?

First, unsurprisingly, try to hold the Democrats’ two-thirds majority, and not just out of partisanship. It takes two-thirds to raise taxes or continue the fees due to expire in 2011.

Holding a Democratic majority shouldn’t be hard. But between incumbents in closely divided districts and open seats thanks to term limits, a two-thirds majority could be tougher. So, Oceguera and his caucus have organized to help incumbents, carefully vetted new candidates and taken the “unusual” step of endorsing some candidates in the primary to make the Democratic field as strong as possible.

Another related issue involves the effects of term limits. The Assembly will include at least a dozen new members who face what Oceguera calls “a huge learning curve.” Needing new bodies, both Democrats and Republicans worked to find and encourage good candidates. “It says a lot about our community and our state that so many are still willing to run for office, despite ill will toward elected officials,” Oceguera says, and he’s right: Most who run for office honestly want to serve and to serve honestly.

Beyond the campaign, the legislative session looms for Oceguera and his colleagues. He sees three main themes awaiting them. “First is the budget. The second thing that will take up a lot of our attention is redistricting. Third is preparing folks for the future”—the new legislators who will be picking up for Oceguera, with term limits forcing him to leave the Assembly after this session. And, although he didn’t say it this way, he’s also preparing Nevadans for the state’s future, which clearly needs to be different than the past and present.

All of which means tempering partisanship. Legislators once worked well together. On weekends they stayed in Carson City, or half a dozen might pile into one car to head south, and several hours on the road in close quarters forced them to get along. A few years ago, a speaker watched the opposing party’s leader walk by and muttered that the two of them no longer could have a civil conversation. Some of the rivalries are intraparty, too: both Oceguera and state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford are telegenic young Democrats with a future beyond the Legislature.

Oceguera says they can all get along. “Sometimes even though the same party controls both chambers, there isn’t a good relationship. Horsford and I are friends personally and professionally and try to make sure there’s good communication. We’ve been working not only on the political side of things, but the policy side. I just don’t think we have a lot of time for party bickering or intraparty bickering.”

He has hopes for the Republicans, too. “I think I have a good relationship with the other side and I’d like to regain some of the ground we’ve lost. We have moved more in the direction of Washington, D.C. Also, I have a relationship with Northern Nevada, so I think I can bridge that gap between North and South, Republican and Democrat,” and he feels he has a good relationship with Pete Goicoechea, the Assembly GOP leader, who may be in trouble with his caucus for daring to say Nevada might need new revenue.

Ideally, Oceguera and his colleagues will bridge those gaps—for his sake, his 9-month-old son’s sake and Nevada’s sake.