For most of the American electorate, Nov. 6 can’t get here soon enough. The unsolicited marketing phone calls, the junk mail, the attack ads—it’s like the 12th round of a grueling heavyweight boxing match, and we’re up against the ropes, signaling for the trainer to throw in the towel. For political columnist/commentator Jon Ralston, though, this time of year is nirvana. From the tight presidential contest that has thrust Nevada into the national spotlight to the intriguing Danny Tarkanian-Steven Horsford congressional battle to the heated Shelley Berkley-Dean Heller U.S. Senate race, Ralston is like a shark swimming in a chum-filled kiddie pool.
Making things all the more interesting for Ralston this election cycle is the fact he’s out on his own for the first time since he started covering Nevada’s political scene more than a quarter-century ago. After 15 years with the right-leaning Las Vegas Review-Journal and another 12 at the left-leaning Las Vegas Sun, Ralston has been doing his own thing since parting with the Sun on Aug. 31. Despite the challenges of starting up a new business, RalstonReports.com, in the midst of his busiest time of year, Ralston, 53, is his usual fast-talking self—loaded with energy and opinions—when he arrives at a Green Valley coffee shop with a month to go until Election Day.
You left the Sun in August after a falling out, but did you see your departure coming, and were you preparing to go independent anyway?
I was preparing to do it, yes. And I’d wanted to do it for some time actually. Then there was a confluence of things that occurred and gave me the opportunity to do it. Channel 3 has been great, because they kept the show going [Ralston Reports airs on KSNV Channel 3 at 7:30 p.m. Mondays], which is still the most satisfying thing I’ve done in journalism. So this is just a great new challenge. You know, I’ve reinvented myself before. This is just another example of it. It’s easier to reinvent yourself, though, in your 20s and 30s and maybe even your 40s than in your 50s.
You’ve gotten a lot of national exposure in recent years through your television show. Have the national networks ever come courting?
I wouldn’t say that. I have gotten great feedback from the national networks I’ve appeared on. But those jobs just don’t open up. Have I thought about it? Of course. But it would have to be quite the offer for me to leave. I have a great situation here, I’ve built quite the niche here, I just started this new thing, [so] it would be hard to leave. But if David Gregory decides to leave Meet the Press, I’d be open for that! But seriously, a lot of people in Washington have said, “I wouldn’t leave what you’re doing to come do what we do, because there’s so many of us covering politics in Washington.” It’s the classic big fish in a small pond vs. little fish in a big pond argument.
You’ve moderated a good number of debates, right up to Tarkanian-Horsford recently. What advice on moderating would you give to Jim Lehrer?
I thought he was terrible. There are certain things you have to do as a moderator that he did not do. He was essentially a potted plant, and you can’t be that. You might as well have a recorded voice asking questions and a buzzer going off when the time is up. A moderator has to let the candidates engage, but if there are clear falsehoods or spin, a moderator has to jump in. If you’re going to be a moderator, here’s what you need to do: moderate—preside, participate and call B.S. when it’s out there. I have tremendous respect for Jim Lehrer … but when you look at it as a journalist, he didn’t do his job.
What is the single biggest problem our Legislature suffers from?
Myopia, there’s no doubt about it. They meet for four months every other year, there’s always just short-term visions on what they’re going to do, the big issues never really get discussed up there in that crucible—it’s not a deliberative process. The system is set up for them to fail, and they do a very good job of that generally. I’m crazy, too, man. I go up there every session thinking, “This is the year they’re really going to do something big–they’re finally going to think about the problems in the state.” And they don’t do it.
If Dean Heller and Shelley Berkley are sitting side by side in the studio, can you feel the hate?
Yes. Hate may be too strong of a word, but they definitely dislike each other—as much as any hard-fought campaign that I’ve ever covered with this much negativity. Heller is very frustrated that Berkley—who is under investigation by the House ethics committee, and he’s driven that message home—is still in the race. And Berkley is very frustrated that a guy who she sees as a lightweight is still in a race with her. So there is a real natural tension.
Have you ever considered running for office?
I’m asked that once in a while, and I always say, “Why would I give up the power I have to do that?” Anybody who’s covered politics as long as I have who tells you they’ve never thought about it is just a liar. Because generally we in the media are so arrogant that we think we’re smarter than people we cover anyhow, especially in politics—“I can do a better job!” But I can’t see myself doing it. I have friends who say I should do it, but I think I’d be a terrible candidate, absolutely terrible! I have no self-editing mechanism … and I have a long paper trail where they could find a lot of stuff. Plus, I just don’t see taking myself out of what I really love doing—and then being subject to guys like me.
Who in this community who isn’t in politics would make a good politician?
Probably several people, but the person who jumps to mind is Elaine Wynn. Elaine Wynn is so smart, she really cares about issues, she knows the education system here better than anybody, knows what’s right, knows what’s wrong. And she really has that public-service heart—she really wants to do something. Now, if I were a billionaire, would I want to run for office? Probably not. But I think she’d be great.
Now that you’ve plunged into a new era as a media entrepreneur, how does the nature of your job change?
I need even more sleep than I did before, because I’m getting less of it. But it feels good to be independent, it really does. Even though I’ve always thought of myself as autonomous, you’re still aligned with one of the major media organizations. I’m not anymore, and I like that. On the other hand, not having the comfort of them handling all the stuff that had been handled for me in the past from the business side—mdash;iptions, starting up a new website (RalstonReports.com), getting the bugs out of the website, making sure subscribers are able to use the website—bsite—ot of time. Yeah, it’s a brave new world. I feel good about it, but I’m just overwhelmed.
What’s your view of the city’s mainstream papers now that you’re looking at them from the outside?
First of all, they’re both woefully understaffed—nderstaffed—f the economy. Listen, the R-J lost tremendous amount of credibility with what they did with (U.S. Sen. Harry) Reid in the 2010 election. They really embarrassed themselves, and they’re seeking to get back credibility; they have different management now, but they just gutted some longtime editors— longtime editors— of mine— editors— of mine— toward journalistic prosperity, maybe financial prosperity. And what they’re doing with politics, I still think it’s just so narrowly focused. I don’t know how they get their credibility back.
The Sun’s a different story. The Sun won a Pulitzer a few years ago and really seemed to have a commitment to great journalism. But the economy has hit them very, very hard, too. You have all kinds of financial pressures that they’re trying to deal with by turning into a different kind of organization. Two things, though: They still have the best political reporters in the state in Anjeanette Damon and David Schwartz and Cy Ryan, who is still up there in Carson City and probably is in his mid-70s or close to 80. I’m just not sure that’s the focus of the paper anymore. It looks like they’re looking more to get more hits on their Internet site through entertainment stories. And it seems like they’re going away from where they were before for financial reasons. That’s going to be difficult to come back from. I hope they continue to give Schwartz and Damon the latitude to do the kind of good work that they’re doing, but I’m concerned about it.
What do both papers need to do better to serve this community? If you had the keys to the publisher’s offices, what would be your approach?
If I were king for a day or longer? Difficult to say. It’s a resource question more than anything else, and what do you do with limited resources? I still believe we are in a profession where we are supposed to say, “What is it we’re supposed to do with this noble duty we’ve been given to help people understand the world around them?” Listen, I’m in the most arcane world of all— the most arcane world of all—le don’t know what’s going on, don’t care what’s going on or hate what’s going on. I give the Sun credit because they do these line-of-attack features where they try to expose [political] ads— they try to expose (political) ads— that. But there’s no real quote-unquote “investigative journalism” going on (at either newspaper), so I would devote some resources—spaper], so I would devote some resources—stand the financial pressures, so I guess I’d have to know what pot of money I have in front of me and what I’m allowed to do with it.
Where does your interest in politics come from?
I originally thought I was going to be a sportswriter—I was a huge sports fan when I was a kid, and I was the assistant sports editor of the Cornell (N.Y.) Daily Sun. I fell in love with news when I got a master’s at the University of Michigan, and then I came here as a night cop reporter, and I didn’t have much interest in politics—my dad is super politically aware, but it never really passed on to the kids that much, including me. But then I got the Clark County government beat—you want to learn about politics, cover Clark County! Then I was thrown into the political beat in 1986 a month before the primary, and there was so much stuff going on—it was Harry Reid’s first race for the U.S. Senate, there was a great Congressional primary between Jim Bilbray and Helen Foley, and I just fell in love with the excitement and the fact you could actually come between these politicians and the public and try to say what’s true and what’s not. And I was hooked—it’s true what they say about catching the bug. And I’ve had it ever since.
When did you know you were good at what you do?
That’s a tough question. I guess I got enough feedback from people in both the media and politics that I was doing a good job and there was the recognition from both my peers and from others that what I was doing was good. But it took awhile. Still, I write columns, I write blog posts, I do TV shows, and I’m my own harshest critic. Do I think I’ve reached a level of excellence that I’m generally happy with what I do? Yeah. But I’m never satisfied—ever. And that’s what keeps you going.
What separates a national pundit from a good local one? Is it luck? Location?
Great question. There’s a little bit of both. Certainly there are some national pundits who are tremendously smart, talented and work hard. But there are others who just look good on TV or can spin a phrase. I think you need to get to know the universe as well as you can, and I think I know Nevada. I’ve worked very hard getting to know Nevada—I’ve spent a lot of hours getting to know the right people in the political world here, people who have educated me, so I’ve learned a lot. You can do that on the national level, too. You’ve just got to work really, really hard. I think it’s harder maybe on the national scene to break through and really be good, because there are so many people who are not good—there’s so much demand for pundits on all the shows that exist. People can go on and sound good for a two-minute segment; there are a tremendous number of those, but very few who really know what they’re talking about.
Which race this year has the most at stake for Nevadans?
I don’t think necessarily it’s the presidential race or even the U.S. Senate race. The offices that affect Nevadans the most are the legislative races, really. They set the policies that really affect the state, and they affect what the governor can or can’t do. So who controls the state Senate—and there are five races there this year—probably will affect Nevadans the most.
What’s the No. 1 thing we need to know before we go to the ballot box this year?
They need to know something about everything they’re about to cast their vote on. One of the most depressing things about politics is you see tremendous participation at the top of the ticket with the presidential (race), then you’ll see a slight drop-off in the Senate (races)—by the time it gets down to judicial races, you’ll have tens of thousands of people not even voting. I personally don’t think judges should run for office, but if you’re going to go into the ballot box, know about these races. And you can (easily) get the information—the websites of both newspapers, we do interviews on TV. I know it sounds like a cliché, but get informed.
Did you ever think you’d see the day when Nevada would be this important in a presidential race?
I didn’t. And I never even thought about it until a few cycles ago when we got the early caucus and suddenly there was all this attention—all these national media people started calling me saying, “What’s going on out there?” We’re a tiny state with very few electoral votes. But as we’ve developed into this swing-state battleground, it’s been an amazing amount of attention here. But when I started covering politics here, did I imagine this? No, absolutely not.
Will it last?
I think it will last. Because of the way the electoral map is, we’re always going to be in the battleground—unless something happens in terms of registration that affect the demographics of the state, (but) that usually takes awhile. So I think we’re going to be the proverbial purple state for a while.
Obviously it would take a statewide ballot measure to happen, but shouldn’t the Legislature meet more than once every other year?
It would be good for my business! But yeah. And it’s not just that it should be every other year, (the current sessions) should be longer. There shouldn’t be this arbitrary 120-day time limit. Not even the most genius economist in the world can budget 26 months in advance. So they should at least be meeting every (odd) year, even in a short budget session—let’s take a look at where we are, do we have to make adjustments to the budget?
Why doesn’t the Clark County delegation in the Legislature vote with some sort of solidarity—if not unanimity—for urban interests?
Age-old question. There are a lot of reasons for it. Some of them are partisan, others are generational. The generational alliances are fraying or ebbing because that generation is being pushed out because of term limits or other reasons. You’ve had very powerful Northerners being able to control [the Legislature] for many, many years, whether it’s Bill Raggio or Joe Dini. I’m not saying they were not good leaders, but when push came to shove on important things, they were looking out more for Northern and rural Nevada than they were Southern Nevada.
If Clark County voted together, as you know, they could do whatever they wanted. And it’s been more and more true with every reapportionment, because we get more clout up there. Now that we’re getting more Southern Nevadans in power—and there will be a Southern Nevadan in charge, I’d guess, of both houses next session—it may start happening more often. But, again, the partisan divide up there is starting to look a lot like what’s going on in Washington, where partisan alliances are more important than regional alliances. And that’s no good for Clark County.
What does Danny Tarkanian have to do to win this congressional race?
He needs to pray that the Democratic base doesn’t get out in that district. He needs to pray that Steven Horsford doesn’t get that well-known in that district—it’s a 12- or 13-point Democratic district now, but Tarkanian is winning just because of name recognition; Horsford hasn’t been able to do enough to get himself known—he’s got some baggage. It would also be good for Danny not to talk as much, because he tends to get himself in trouble once he starts talking too much. But if he can get enough money and enough help from the national Republicans—which he’s getting now—to drive up Horsford’s negatives, he has a shot to win.
If he wins, will he be considered a rising star?
Everyone who wins in a district they shouldn’t win in is considered a rising star. But sometimes the star goes supernova really quickly. So I don’t think he’ll be talked about that much, no.
What about Horsford—what does he need to do?
He needs to get his name identity up, needs turnout. He needs all these registration figures that have been going the Democratic way to translate into actual voters during early voting and on actual Election Day. And I think (Horsford) would be considered a rising star, because a young African-American—first African-American leader and youngest leader of the state Senate—wins a Congressional seat … especially if Obama wins, because he was an early supporter of Obama. But again, I know a lot of rising stars who are on the ash heap of Nevada and national political history.
You say you’d be a terrible candidate—would you be a terrible elected official?
I hope not. But the problem isn’t the people who get into politics. Most people I’ve met in 25 years in politics are good people—some are smarter than others, some work harder than others. But the system itself really does not lend itself to accomplishments, even if you’re very talented. It takes a special kind of person not to get frustrated and give up. There have been very talented people who have gotten in and then gotten out, because it’s just not worth it.
If you were to place a wager, who will our two presidential candidates be in 2016?
Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio—my guess is as good as anybody else’s guess! I think Hillary would like to give it another shot. And the Republican Party, to survive, has to appeal to Hispanics. Marco Rubio (U.S. Senator from Florida) is a tremendous talent. It’s still unclear whether he can appeal to Hispanics just because he’s Hispanic. But if he figures out a way, he’s going to be tough to stop.