Understanding the Bizarre

North Las Vegas police arrested Assemblyman Steven Brooks Saturday on charges of threatening Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick. Brooks has been angry at Kirkpatrick for not making him chair of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, and told Steve Sebelius of the Review-Journal that Kirkpatrick used her power to have him arrested. He also obtained protection—allegedly from Kirkpatrick—from the Las Vegas constable’s office, which she wants the legislature to look into reforming.

So, have we ever seen anything like this in Nevada’s history?

No. But there’s a caveat. Is odd behavior by politicians all that rare, and does it matter?

First, how do we define odd? During Nevada’s territorial period, legislator Herman Bien began packing a revolver in response to criticism from a local editor. That Bien also was a rabbi made it even more unusual. Eventually, the criticism stopped and so did Bien carrying a gun, thereby eliminating his chances of becoming the official rabbi of the NRA.

One day in 1914, Senator Key Pittman of Nevada had too much to drink. The Nevada State Journal reported that he walked down Virginia Street and hit the U.S. Marshal, a state senator, a Nevada Supreme Court justice, a deputy sheriff and a Republican leader. Finally, he punched someone who had had enough and Pittman landed on Virginia Street. After this front-page news, Pittman went on to be elected to the Senate five more
times. Nevadans knew he drank too much and became erratic, but didn’t seem to care.

The justice in that story was Pat McCarran. In his later years as a senator, he was dining one night in Reno, wearing dark glasses, when a reporter came up to him. McCarran demanded to see identification, then yelled, “You’re nothing but a goddamn communist that’s been following me across the country,” turned over the table with all of the dishes on it and stomped away.

Politicians are human beings, although too many of us don’t think of them that way. What they do privately really shouldn’t be our business unless it violates the law, or affects or reflects upon their public lives. That former Senator John Ensign was unfaithful to his wife means something in the context of his professions of
devout Christianity and judging others, but nobody really cared much about his private life until it became a public spectacle and led to a variety of legal issues, culminating in his resignation just ahead of the Senate Ethics Committee coming after him.

When he was in Carson City, which is famous for extracurricular activity during and sometimes after legislative sessions, then-Governor Jim Gibbons texted a woman other than Mrs. Gibbons 860 times in one month. Whether he liked to dally mattered less than whether he instead should have been tending to state business—which, in his case, would have been the worse option. Before he was governor, he faced accusations of trying to assault Chrissy Mazzeo—and, as was largely ignored at the time, defended himself by claiming he was merely helping an obviously drunken woman to her car.

Granting that Gibbons espoused a platform that claimed to respect family values and personal responsibility, his personal failings matter less than what they said about his judgment and his commitment to his job. Instead, though, the controversy over Mazzeo may have helped him: it diverted attention from his family reportedly hiring an illegal immigrant as a nanny and housekeeper, which was hurting him politically, to the silly question of whether he was set up.

However the Steven Brooks saga ultimately unfolds, it shows that some personal behavior matters, especially when it spills over into the public or political, or may break the law. He isn’t the first lawmaker to dislike one of his leaders and won’t be the last. That he allegedly threatened Kirkpatrick makes it the public’s business and right to know, the legislature’s duty to act and everybody’s duty to get him the help he needs.