Yes, Governor Sandoval, We Can Do Better

Overrating our public officials, underrating ourselves

Illustration by Thomas Speak

Illustration by Thomas Speak

Pauline Maier, who died recently after a distinguished career of writing about the founding fathers, once called Thomas Jefferson “the most overrated man in American history.” Coverage and non-coverage of Brian Sandoval suggest Nevada’s governor could give the Sage of Monticello a run for his money. He gets or takes credit for blocking tax hikes, improving public schools and protecting gun rights—credit which is debatable, perhaps even ridiculous. By overrating him, we underrate ourselves.

Sandoval shouldn’t be blamed for all of Nevada’s problems, but he has contributed to them. He didn’t buy bus tickets for mental patients, but he could have tried to restore funding cuts. He has trumpeted declines in unemployment, but the state still lags behind the country, and if he wants credit for current successes, he also bears responsibility for current failures.

The state just increased funding for English-language learners, but in every imaginable educational category, from dropouts to reading levels, our rank remains rank. Sandoval has talked reform, but done little to make it happen. One of his solutions was to seek more power over the state board of education, and he just replaced a superintendent he ignored with Dale Erquiaga, his close friend and former top adviser. Erquiaga’s one-step-removed background in education (working in CCSD government affairs and public policy and planning isn’t exactly classroom experience) and his real-world work as a political and advertising consultant may make him an outstanding superintendent, but his appointment inevitably raises questions about Nevada’s real state bird, the Crony.

It’s easy enough to criticize the Legislature for its failures in these areas. Does the Legislature deserve criticism? Yes. But we also can thank term limits, meeting too rarely and too briefly, and the required two-thirds approval of any tax hike, none of which is the current body’s fault. We can criticize Southern Nevadans for not voting by county, but that’s an old problem, too.

The next question is tougher: Could Sandoval have done more to get the Legislature to act? If he’s as all-powerful as he seems to be, yes: he could have induced some Republicans to support changes that would have gone toward solving these problems. And that’s the point: He couldn’t, which means he’s overrated, or he wouldn’t, which also means he’s overrated.

Anjeanette Damon, the Las Vegas Sun’s fine political editor, recently laid out five reasons why Sandoval will be re-elected. Her fifth reason may be the most important: “Personal ambition (or lack thereof) trumps party pressure.” The key is in that parenthetical—Sandoval is beatable, but nobody feels like trying. A campaign is a hard slog, and the winner gets to deal with all of those problems.

So, perhaps the real issue isn’t that Sandoval is so successful that he’s unbeatable. Maybe it’s that there is a peculiar social fatalism in the hearts of Nevadans: Things are the way they are, and if they’re not getting worse, what more can we ask? Too many of us are willing to overrate our state’s virtues—and to underrate our own ability to fix its vices.