Right away, you get that Kate Marshall is smart—which, regardless of your party—comes as a relief in this political climate. She sits down at the breakfast table in Rumor Boutique Resort and orders tea, then dives straight into dissecting the debt-ceiling debacle.
“One of the reasons I’m running for Congress is that [lawmakers] lurch from crisis to crisis. They go from the financial crisis to the health-care crisis to the deficit crisis to debt-ceiling crisis—and they never seem to come to any solutions that move them forward,” she says.
Given the complicated nature of the issues behind all the lurching, I ask her if she considers it part of her job as state treasurer and candidate for U.S. Congress to educate a largely disengaged public on relevant financial concepts.
“Not to educate people, but to have an exchange with people,” she says. “There’s this concept of ‘financial literacy,’ as if people are financially illiterate. That’s incorrect. They are not. It’s more like financial fitness, like going to the gym every day. But people know very well that this country got overextended.” At 52, she is petite, well-dressed and assertive. Her tone shifts from patient to fervid and back again numerous times. Her confidence in the electorate extends to her congressional campaign—she’s entered a race in which the odds are stacked against her.
As a Northern Nevadan, Marshall may not have the name recognition here she needs to win the Sept. 13 special election for the 2nd Congressional District seat vacated by Dean Heller (the district is largely in the North, but stretches into parts of Clark County). More specifically, some say, she doesn’t have the Democrats she needs to get elected in the district—Republicans have a 30,000-voter advantage, giving opponent Mark Amodei the early advantage. Republican Heller carried the district with 63 percent of the vote in 2010 and vacated the seat to take scandal-ridden John Ensign’s position in the Senate. But when I point out the imbalance of registered voters to Marshall, she gives me a sudden grin and says, “I always lose the polls, except the one on Election Day.”
When Marshall entered the race, Secretary of State Ross Miller had opened the ballot to all qualified candidates—and Marshall was hoping the Republicans would split their votes, giving her better odds. But a Carson City District Court and the Nevada Supreme Court ruled the political parties should select a single candidate. However, Marshall’s campaign has since noted that the initial judge’s ruling could be questionable because he did not disclose a prior business relationship with Amodei. No official challenge to the ruling has yet been brought.
Marshall was elected state treasurer in 2006 and again in 2010, when Dems were being voted out left and right. That year, Republicans thought she was vulnerable and ran former state Controller Steve Martin. The challenge made the victory that much sweeter for Marshall. “People felt there was a decision to be made because of this financial crisis. They wanted to weigh in on who would chart the course with a steady hand, and I’m actually very honored they picked me.” Marshall brings financial chops to the congressional race at a time when it couldn’t be more pertinent. After getting her law degree from the University of California, Berkeley, she went to work for the U.S. Department of Justice prosecuting white-collar criminals. Soon after, then-Nevada Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa recruited her to start an antitrust unit in Nevada, where she assembled a team of financial and legal specialists to break down price fixes and unfair mergers.
As treasurer, Marshall took heat for exposing $50 million of Nevada’s money to loss in 2009—money that was invested with Lehman Brothers as the nation’s economy bottomed out. Ultimately, the state lost about $25 million on that investment. But her campaign counters by saying that her overall investment gains for the state exceeded the previous treasurer’s—noting that in her first fiscal year in office, she grew the Nevada portfolio by nearly 50 percent, increasing investment earnings by $119 million. “Lehman defrauded this country,” Marshall says. “That has been shown. They falsified their accounts, and they presented false information to the shareholders of this country, $600 billion of which was public institutions, that is to say, taxpayer dollars.”
Moreover, her campaign touts her work in the Unclaimed Property Division, where she streamlined the process and tripled the amount of property returned to rightful owners in her first term—some $21 million in 2010. But Amodei casts her as a reckless investor who somehow contributed to Nevadans’ job losses and foreclosed homes during the recession.
Amodei’s campaign started when he launched commercials depicting the Chinese rising to greater power than the United States by virtue of borrowing so much of America’s money. The ads made national news for their scare-tactic, xenophobic nature—Chinese military marching while a Chinese commentator says, “As their debt grew, our fortune grew, and that is how our great empire rose again.” But national criticism didn’t stop the aggressive tone of Amodei’s campaign—he has posted an unflattering video of Marshall giggling, saying things like, “I’m in charge of your money, and you have less of it now than you did” at the beginning of a speech.
“I think [Amodei’s China ads] show a lack of understanding of financial concepts,” Marshall says. “They show a kind of reckless, knee-jerk reaction, and it shows he’s willing to be a part of the quagmire and not part of the solution.”
Marshall, whose maiden name is Soltero, has a storied Latin heritage. Her great-grandfather fought for Pancho Villa in the Mexican revolution of 1910. They had land in Chihuahua, but were run off in the course of war and moved to El Paso, Texas. Ultimately they fled from El Paso as the United States tried to rout out Villa supporters, and they landed in Santa Monica, Calif.
“The experience of people who come from immigrant families is unique, and uniquely American. That is the way we are as a people in this country: We have a foot in one culture and another foot here,” she says. “It’s part of what makes this country so great. … I am a Latina, and I am an American, and I am the same as you.”
Her childhood was not privileged—the family struggled for money.
“You’re in an apartment, and the phone is turned off and the electricity doesn’t work and your father’s out of work, and it’s time to move, and so you do. And you just go through this process a few times, until you go to work,” she recalls.
To attend a private high school, she went to work in the school’s library. From there she held a slew of workaday jobs to make it through college. “I worked at a doughnut shop—Donuts-n-Things. I worked at the gym, I worked at a men’s clothing store, I worked at the university library, I worked in a sandwich shop.”
After graduating, she joined the Peace Corps, which took her to east Africa. When she returned and began searching for her first professional job, she already had a keen sense of financial negotiations.
“Everybody kept offering $850 or $900 a month, and I had a college education. So finally I went to this one law firm and they said, ‘We’ll give you $950 a month.’ I said, ‘I’ll tell you what. Make it a thousand and you got yourself a deal.’ They said, ‘There’s a lot of people in that waiting room. Why should we hire you?’ I was just so frustrated. I said, ‘Because I can read and write, and I’ll work three times as hard as anybody in that waiting room.’ They came back and said, ‘We’ll offer you $1,050.’” Something similar is happening in her congressional race. She’s proving to be a good fundraiser, with the help of Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. When Emily’s List, a prestigious national women’s group, endorsed her in late July, they cited her ability to raise money—her war chest was already double that of Amodei.
Marshall says she would not have voted for the bank bailout—the TARP bill—that Congress passed in late 2008 at the end of the Bush presidency and in the wake of the Lehman Brothers’ collapse.
“I would’ve voted for some of the things. I would’ve voted for more transparency, more accountability, more tethers. One of the things that really bothered me about the bank bailout was the giving of money without the requirement of certain things to happen in response. You don’t give a bank money without saying, ‘And then you don’t get that money unless you do X and you must prove X to me.’”
The bailout, she says, “was poorly written and poorly executed. Lots of things fell through the holes. So much could’ve been done to make that work. That wasn’t done. And why? Because the bill didn’t have people with financial expertise [working on it] who could have easily said, ‘If you’re going to give the bank money, this is how you structure that.’”
What does that say about her potential colleagues in Congress?
She sits back and shrugs. “Somebody didn’t have [the necessary] expertise. Far be it from me to throw stones, but I’m just telling you that you don’t do that with banks. … That’s why it failed—not the concept, the execution. The devil is always in the details.”