Chris Giunchigliani is 10 minutes late for our interview, and she’s not about to waste time apologizing. “I took one more phone call,” she says, striding into the Clark County Government Center’s nearly empty cafeteria, and she leaves it at that. It’s early on a Monday morning; Giunchigliani’s hair is up high and perfect, her business suit sensible and crisp. She’s currently a Clark County commissioner, and she’s hoping to be elected the next mayor of Las Vegas on June 7, so her plate’s a little full—and if that means running late to an interview, so be it.
Giunchigliani, 56, is a teacher by profession and training. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education, the latter from UNLV, and worked as a special education teacher in Clark County from 1979-83 and again from 1991-2003. Her political career spans 16 years in the Nevada State Assembly, and one full term in on the Clark County Commission. She has a reputation as a hardworking campaigner with a killer ground game, and easily won re-election to a second term on the county commission in 2010; in fact, she’s never lost an election. She squeaked her way into this one by just 15 votes, but you’d never know it by her take-no-prisoners confidence.
If her opponent, Carolyn Goodman, is the candidate of establishment Las Vegas, then Giunchigliani is the candidate of progressive Las Vegas. In this purportedly nonpartisan race, she’s touted her status as a lifelong Democrat and an unwavering union supporter, even in the face of the media’s intense scrutiny of firefighters abusing sick leave. During the primary debates, she dared breach the possibility of increasing taxes if that’s what it takes to pull the city out of its malaise, which sounds bold until you consider that the city has no authority to set tax rates. Her larger message was, and is, that the currently fashionable stance of slashing budgets while refusing to even consider raising revenue is counterproductive, even at the city level. Giunchigliani recently spoke with Vegas Seven about her urban vision, her campaign and the legacy of Mayor Oscar Goodman.
On the reign of Oscar:
My biggest fear is we get a little uptick and everybody says, “Oh everything is fine again—we’ll just go back to the way it was.” What worked was fun, but it was not realistic and it did nothing. When the times were good we didn’t take any of that money and plow it into infrastructure, plow it into programs where communities could survive, build sidewalks so we have interconnectivity. I’ll take you out in parts of the town on the north and west side that have never been touched. And shame on us. And then I don’t want the newer areas to fall into degradation, too, so you have to have a plan on how do you distribute your money in a responsible way so you don’t let the roads become the garbage that they are on the other side of town. That has got to be part of the mayor’s mission, and it hasn’t been. It was great to go travel to London or bring showgirls and all that. It was right for that personality and that time. But the next level should have been drilling down. … I don’t think Oscar lured any businesses here that I am aware of in 12 years. Tell me whom he lured here? There was a private developer that brought World Market. It was a private developer that brought the [Las Vegas Premium Outlets]. I worked with a nonprofit group that brought the performing arts center here. Eight little stores downtown—Don’t Tell Mama, The Beat, Maharaja Hookah Café came into being mostly because of the suspension of the liquor license [fee], if you really talk to folks.
On downtown redevelopment:
We really haven’t focused on it, [Carolyn Goodman] will even tell you that. She said it in her debates; she said there has been no plan for 12 years. Well you know what, we have jewels. We have the university. We have the small-business center located there. We don’t use them. We have the Urban Land Institute. We have the school of architecture. You bring them together with businesses and say, “Let’s look at the whole core,” because then you have things that are interconnected, and that is how you revitalize a downtown. I contacted Chicago, my hometown. I’ve been researching Denver and Seattle. They didn’t just do it with one little restaurant, one little Resnicks grocery store or whatever. … I will immediately ask the City Council to not only suspend their liquor origination fee, but to get rid of it and put it into a reasonable fee. The county charges $350, while [the city is] charging $65,000 to $70,000, which is ridiculous. They found once they waived that or suspended it, eight businesses opened up. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out we had a barrier there.
On a red-light district:
You would have to change state law, and that’s not going to work. See, people don’t realize the history of that. It was Floyd Lamb, actually—Sen. Lamb, whose family owned a brothel, an old LDS family. I think it was the fastest bill passed in the history of the state of Nevada that banned any brothels in Washoe County and Clark County because I think his was in Nye County and it would have conflicted with it. And we have other things we can do. We could really have a true entertainment district and a theater district, which we don’t have. We have a lot of nonprofit theater folks here. Why not take some of those empty buildings and get them refurbished and use redevelopment money
On a more livable downtown:
You won’t get people to live downtown until you have a pedestrian-friendly area. So we are working on a complete streets program through the [Regional Transportation Commission]. We need to identify pedestrian areas. The city has only focused its redevelopment on one block. If you go to First Friday, you will see there are no curbs, there are no sidewalks in some areas; nothing is connected.
On a medical school in Las Vegas:
I pushed since 1990 on that, but I think we actually have an opportunity now. I have some colleagues on the County Commission who are very supportive. We have new regents who are very supportive. Reno can keep what it has got. I am talking about having an actual physical location, including the dean, here. We could do it at Symphony Park. We could do it on the land right in front of [the Clark County Government Center], which is county-owned land. You have the taxpayer dollars. The university actually has $20 million to $30 million in a capital fund for that. That gives us the synergy of putting it together. If we can do that, we have a location, we have visibility. We can go to the Cleveland Clinic, we can go to the Mayo Clinic, we can say “join us in this venture as we truly become a teaching hospital.” … [University Medical Center] is the second-largest funder for the school of medicine. [The county is] working on an agenda item that says either you locate here, or we are going to find our own and build our own and we are going to keep our money here. We can do that within this year. So either they get on board or we are going to do our own thing.
On the city budget:
I am a firm believer in consolidation or shared services [with the county]. I am actually the one who put the bill in in 1993 for [former Las Vegas mayor] Jan Jones when we tried to consolidate the local governments at that time. I am going to propose to the county, and I think I will do the same thing for the city, that we establish an opportunity for employees and management to say, “You know what? I think we can have a cost savings here.”
On her decision to run:
People have said [being a county commissioner] is the most powerful job. You know what? It was only powerful because people were able to give away things to developers. I don’t do business that way. I have always believed that power is about the betterment of the community. I want to build a community a neighborhood at a time, and that is why I am in this.
On her chances of winning:
In eight weeks I came from behind. I had no name recognition on the west side of town—zero. I had never run on the west side of town. I beat out two incumbents [Clark County Commissioner Larry Brown and Las Vegas Councilman Steve Ross] that have represented the areas from six years to 12 years, so can I win this? Absolutely. Carolyn’s numbers have started to decline. There was big buzz from the name. But people are not stupid; voters are much more in tune than people give them credit for. … The voter absolutely wants someone with experience and, with no disrespect, Carolyn has no experience. You want to attack me for being a politician? That means I know how to get things done. Otherwise I would not have been rehired by voters. If you want to run on Oscar’s credits, show me what’s been done for the greater good, not just for one or two developers.