Barbara Buckley gambled on Las Vegas in the early 1980s and eventually won big. With a whopping $800 to her name, she left her hometown of Philadelphia and moved here despite having just one acquaintance in Southern Nevada. She took a job as a maid at the old MGM Grand and went on to become the first woman to serve as speaker of the Nevada Assembly.
After putting herself though college at UNLV and law school at the University of Arizona, she became executive director of the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, where she’s been assisting the poor since 1989. Looking to make an even bigger difference, Buckley ran for the state Assembly in 1994 and won, the first of eight electoral victories. She rose to speaker in 2007, serving in that capacity until 2009, when term limits forced her to give up her seat, but not before spearheading legislation that led to the foreclosure mediation program and full-day kindergarten for children from at-risk schools.
Once thought to be a candidate for governor, Buckley instead bowed out of political life, turning her focus back to the Legal Aid Center, which on a recent day was filled with women with young children in tow, disabled people fighting to get Social Security benefits and seniors seeking help. Upstairs, the former top state politician sat in her office dressed in mint green, exhibiting a relaxed attitude rarely seen during her public life.
What was it like working as a maid in Las Vegas?
I made good wages, but it was the hardest job I ever had in my life. I left right before the [deadly 1980 MGM Grand] fire. My son and I often drive by bus stops, and I will see somebody waiting in a maid’s uniform, and I say to my son, “You know, that is the hardest job in town.” I think it has given me an appreciation, out in the public, of people in the community working hard every single day.
How did you get into politics?
In 1993, I was asked to go to the Nevada Legislature to lobby because a landlord in Las Vegas we were suing for illegal evictions went to the Legislature to try to reduce the eviction time in Nevada from five days to two days. It meant somebody could be evicted before they even got eviction notices. I went up to explain how evictions really worked and how this landlord, who was proposing this, was really harming tenants. It passed by one vote. And it showed me, very vividly, how one person can really make a difference. … I was devastated when it passed. … So that inspired me to run, because the rest of the story was that when I came back to the office, my boss said, “Well why don’t you try to get the governor [Bob Miller] to veto it?” And I said, “Well, that’s not going to happen.” And he said, “Well, why would you care so much and not try?” I called a number of community leaders and Catholic Charities and everyone I could think of to get the governor to veto it, and he did. In the next [Assembly election], I really knew no one in politics, but I knocked on thousands of doors, and I won.
Do you see yourself getting back into politics?
Who knows? Maybe when my [12-year-old] son is a little older. But I really enjoyed my years of service; it was a great honor. But I really enjoy not being in the Legislature. Politics is a little nasty these days, and I am really enjoying being a private citizen. Having only one demanding full-time job feels pretty good.
Why did you decide to stay at the Legal Aid Center instead of using your political clout to do something else?
Because I love what I do here. I love working here today as much as when I started in 1989. We represent abused children and, soon, I hope we will reach our goal of representing every abused child in the county. Every time you can make a difference for a kid by helping them get adopted quicker or helping a child see their brother or sister when it means everything to them or helping women who suffered domestic violence reclaim their lives or helping people recover their life savings, it makes me glad to be a lawyer and working here.
Was there significance to being the first female speaker of the Assembly?
You know, I did not anticipate how many people would stop me in the halls and say, “May I take a picture with you with my daughter?” That was significant. I had been in the Legislature for a long time, but when you take the final step of becoming the speaker, more people notice. So, it was significant, but I didn’t feel different.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment in the Legislature?
I liked the opportunity to train the next generation of lawmakers. I am so proud of the quality of some lawmakers who are following in my footsteps. There’s a long list: [Assembly Speaker} John Oceguera, Debbie Smith, Marilyn Kirkpatrick, Mo Denis—all the folks I worked with over the years. Also, the bills I passed I was very proud of. But, like my children [laughs], I don’t know that I can choose between them.
One of those bills was the foreclosure mediation legislation. Why is it so important to Nevada homeowners?
Over the years, many of the ideas I had for legislation really came from my legal practice. It really gave me a bird’s-eye view of what was happening in the community. So my foreclosure mediation program was really a result of seeing people walk in the door and say, “Why is my lender doing this? Why won’t they talk to me? They will lose money if they take possession of another foreclosed home. Why can’t we work something out?” So I made a decision to work on the problem, and I am proud of the program. And I hope Congress will pass some better loan-modification programs, because mediation is only as good as the loan-modification programs. If you owe $300,000 on a home that’s now worth $100,000, getting a 2 percent interest-rate reduction does not make it economically feasible to stay in your home.