A week after the Nevada Legislature closed—on time and with budget that had both sides sighing, It could’ve been worse—first-term state Sen. Michael Roberson is still trying to reacclimate to his day job as a business attorney with Kolesar & Leatham. He’s fiddling with the handle of a camel-colored leather chair in an expansive conference room in the Tivoli Village offices. The firm had moved while Roberson was holed up in Carson City.
What did the Republican senator from Henderson learn at the capitol? He sips a diet 7UP and opens with, “I learned that I’m glad I ran and glad I won. Because there’s a lot in Carson City that’s distasteful, and a lot of that has to do with who’s in charge.”
Like Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor he cites as a role model, Roberson doesn’t mince words.
On compromising: “For too long I’ve seen Republicans be the ones to compromise because they’re afraid of being castigated as somehow not for education, or not for social services, or not for the poor or the needy simply because we think we need to be smart about how we spend our money and how we create an environment for the private sector to thrive. I’m willing to compromise, but I’m not going to be the only one at the table.”
On education: “You don’t just throw more money at a broken system. I want Nevada teachers to be the highest paid in the country, but I also want some accountability.” And, “Look at the bureaucracy in the [Clark County School District]. I want reform.”
On public employee unions: “There are two classes of people: public sector folks and everybody else. Collective bargaining is taking money in taxes from one group of people and giving it to another.” He tempers his words on public employees by noting that state workers, most of whom don’t have collective bargaining rights, are not the problem; it comes back to city, county and teacher’s unions, which drive up budgets and push compensation beyond market prices, especially for the bureaucrats at the top.
Roberson had some strong words, too, on the Senate floor. Before he went to Carson City, a couple former senators advised him to listen and learn. “I tried that for about a week,” he says.
He still has the drawl that comes from growing up in Galena, in the southeast corner of Kansas. He was raised by a single mom—“a Jimmy Carter fan, for God knows why”—who worked blue-collar jobs, became a Republican after her oldest son did, and graduated college after he did as well. The town shriveled when mining closed up, taking its profits and leaving an environmental mess.
That might account for the volleys he launched at Nevada’s mining industry during the Legislature. He surprised colleagues when he hammered industry lobbyists on tax issues during committee testimony and when he voted for a ballot measure on the special protections granted to the industry by the Nevada Constitution. He also voted to remove the industry’s eminent domain rights, one of the handful of bills that got strong support from both parties.
But, sticking to the no-tax pledge he signed long before his election—and long before the numbers came in on state revenues, his critics note—he ultimately voted no to stripping the industry of some of its deductions.
“I believe in fixing that inequity, but I also said I’m not going to raise taxes on [mining] unless we lower them somewhere else, like on car registrations,” he says. Without that, he says, it’s just growing government.
Roberson got his undergraduate and law degrees at the University of Kansas before entering politics, working first on the Senate campaign of Republican Sam Brownback in his home state. In Washington, D.C., he worked for U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who earned the nickname “The Hammer” for his strong party politics.
In 2000, a month after a vacation with buddies at Luxor, he moved to Las Vegas. “I had just turned 30 but felt like I was 40; I wanted to do something different.” So, for the first nine years as a Nevadan, he stayed out of politics.
The spark to get back into the political game came from Roberson’s wife, Liberty Leavitt-Roberson, a teacher at the school district’s Advanced Technology Academy and a fifth-generation Nevadan with a long list of relatives prominent in the political and legal communities.
“My wife was the one who said, ‘You know, you watch Fox News every night, and you met that guy [Dave Williams, a fellow Kansas graduate and then vice chairman of the county party]. … Why don’t you call him and get involved?’”
Just months after volunteering with the county Republican Party, Roberson was running for office. He unseated Democrat Joyce Woodhouse, a longtime Nevadan and retired school administrator, in a contentious and close election for District 5. Now, he says, the unions will target him in two years, should he run again.
In this past session, two bills Roberson proposed—one to exempt life insurance and annuities from attachment by creditors and another on retail trusts and community banks—were signed into law. On his biggest issue, collective bargaining, two of his bills were heard in committee. “This was a small victory in itself,” he says. “I was able to start the conversation, knowing full well that we have a long road ahead of us to actually enact real reform.” Roberson is ambitious and committed, but his political future might depend on his ability to leave the brash statements aside, says a colleague from across the aisle.
“I think Michael came in very partisan, and I don’t think he really gets that it’s never all-or-nothing. Legislation doesn’t work that way,” says Mike Schneider, a Democratic senator who just served his final session due to term limits. “He would blurt out very deep, hard opinions, particularly about labor unions, and he painted people with broad strokes. Being an angry person, that can work well for you in the short run—may even work well in elections when people in the electorate are angry—but you can’t be angry and lead.” Sen. Mike McGinness, the Republican minority leader, sees Roberson’s sharp edge as passion. Citing the freshman senator’s tenacity, McGinness recently chose Roberson to chair the caucus’s campaign committee. The position had clearly been on Roberson’s mind during the interview a week prior to the announcement. He noted several times the importance of flipping the Senate majority.
While sometimes referring to the Democratic majority in the Legislature as arrogant and uncompromising, Roberson also says he developed good relationships with a number of those colleagues. He cites examples of working with Democrats on their legislation to increase penalties for animal cruelty, to address “puppy mill” breeding and to protect consumers from mortgage fraud.
He had particular praise for those chairing the committees he served on—Schneider, Valerie Wiener and Mark Manendo. Others, such as Assemblyman Kelvin Atkinson, he clashed with. “Well, let’s just say I don’t know him so well.”
Did he learn anything from listening to the other side? From Schneider, a 20-year legislative veteran? “Hopefully, he learned a few things from me,” Roberson says. After a long pause he adds, “But, sure, of course you learn things from hearing another’s perspective.”