Ever Get the Feeling We’ve Been Here Before?

Theory: Politicians exist mainly to help historians justify themselves.

Exhibit A: Sen. Harry Reid filleted Byron Georgiou, who’s challenging Reid’s candidate, Rep. Shelley Berkley, for the Democratic Senate nomination. In 2009, Reid appointed him to the commission that investigated the economic collapse, but that doesn’t mean he wants Georgiou seeking office—or that office.

Reid’s critics—and some of his friends—see another example of his interference in Democratic Party affairs. This presumes that a party’s senior senator is or should be hands-off. That’s an incorrect assumption, today and in the past, in Nevada and elsewhere. To cite an example, in Kentucky, Republican Mitch McConnell did his best to force one colleague into retirement and elect his choice to replace him. (He failed. Now we are blessed with Rand Paul.)

In Nevada, Reid is continuing a senatorial tradition dating back to statehood. In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, Pat McCarran gave fellow Democrats fits, immersing himself at every level of political activity. During Grant Sawyer’s two terms as governor (1959-67), he and Sens. Alan Bible and Howard Cannon maneuvered for control of the Democratic Party. In 1986, Republican Paul Laxalt irked rural Republicans by pushing against Rep. Barbara Vucanovich when she wanted to seek the Senate seat he was vacating; he didn’t think she could beat Reid.

Granted, our representatives back East sometimes are less aware of what goes on at home than they should be, and they and the party sometimes pay for it (Reid and others have backed some losers). But Reid’s interference also made Nevada one of the first presidential caucus states and helped revitalize the state Democratic Party. Either way, this kerfuffle is nothing new.

Exhibit B: Mark Amodei opened his Congressional District 2 campaign by declaring war on China. Well, sort of. His first ad fretted about the debt limit and included images of Chinese troops in Washington, D.C. He shrewdly tied himself to the debt-limit debate, which Republicans care about more than the jobs they promised to create, and he appealed to his right-wing base by invoking foreign “enemies.” Might this even subtly suggest that a “foreigner” already took over the capital?

Amodei’s mostly rural district never has elected a Democrat, or a Republican within a mile of being moderate—Vucanovich for seven terms, Jim Gibbons for five, Dean Heller for three. But Heller was more moderate as secretary of state and, before that, as a legislator. Then Heller ran into a tough primary with Sharron Angle, tilted further right and now is in danger of falling over. In other words, he followed precisely the same ideological trajectory as Amodei now seems to be following. Nor are Republicans alone: After starting his career as a New Deal liberal, Walter Baring—the most popular politician in the history of rural Nevada—spent 10 terms in Congress worrying about fluoridated drinking water and accusing civil rights advocates of being communists. So the Amodei drift is nothing new.

Exhibit C: North Las Vegas police and fire unions posted signs saying, among other things, “Due to recent police layoffs, we can no longer guarantee your safety!” Upset about cuts, they strained every nerve against one of the cutters, Councilman Richard Cherchio. They backed his opponent, Wade Wagner, who won by one vote, until a questionable ballot popped up, prompting a do-over.

For North Las Vegas public-sector unions to be this blunt in their politics is reminiscent of 1976, when the police led the recall of three of the five council members who voted against pay hikes and to lay off police. They also were closely allied with Mary Kincaid-Chauncey, a longtime North Las Vegas councilwoman, later one of four county commissioners imprisoned for taking money from a strip club owner in the G-Sting scandal in the early 2000s.

Unions can and should advocate their causes, openly. But for the North Las Vegas police and firefighters to immerse themselves in City Council politics is, once again, nothing new.

Conclusion: Faulkner was right. The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.

Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada.

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