Steve Ross and the Politics of Recall

Las Vegas City Councilman Steve Ross won his second term in 2009 but faces an election a year early—for the wrong reasons.

The Jan. 31 election is a recall—the second try after the first one lacked enough signatures. Byron Goynes, a city planning commissioner and onetime assembly candidate whose father spent eons on the North Las Vegas City Council, is on the ballot as his challenger.

Why recall Ross? He seems inoffensive. He even created a youth council to promote interest in
municipal issues. But his opponents cite three reasons. One, they say he reneged on a vow not to accept a pay raise. The other two bring us to the problem with this recall.

They cite his council vote to build a new City Hall when he doubled as secretary-treasurer of
the Southern Nevada Building Trades Council, whose members could be expected to benefit from a new construction project. The Nevada Ethics Commission said Ross didn’t willfully violate any ethics laws, so it was OK. It wasn’t. Those two jobs created a conflict of interest and he should have had to make a choice.

However much that mess motivates the recall, that isn’t the main reason it’s happening. Joe Scala wanted to sell classic cars at Courtesy Auto Group. Ross voted against the waiver that would have allowed it but, the pro-recall site says, he backed a similar waiver for a campaign contributor. Scala gave $10,000 to the recall effort.

Early 20th-century progressives spread the recall to 38 states to enable citizens to remove the corrupt, inattentive, or incapable. Sometimes it works. Another city council member, Janet Moncrief, lost her post in 2005 after demonstrating she shouldn’t hold the office. But too often, it’s blatantly political (North Las Vegas police pushed the recall of a council majority in 1976 when the members wouldn’t back a pay hike; Jerry Tarkanian’s supporters tried to oust two regents for daring to support UNLV president Bob Maxson instead of putting basketball first).

Or it’s financial. Before he funded a PAC for my fellow historian Newt Gingrich, Venetian and
Palazzo chieftain Sheldon Adelson underwrote efforts to recall then-County Commissioner Yvonne Atkinson Gates for, he said, strong-arming him. Even if she did, Adelson’s record suggests her political views and union connections had a lot more to do with it.

Scala appears to have acted in that tradition. That’s his right. That also explains why our cynicism about the political process extends even to attempts to improve the political process.

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