Why Do Our Elected Officials Push the Envelope? Because We Let Them

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

We are all quick to blame elected officials when they do stupid things. At some point or another, we’ve all asked ourselves: What are these idiots thinking? Throw out, for a minute, the verdicts they render or policies they decide, and consider three recent Nevada cases in which public officials appeared to abuse the simple trust we placed in them on Election Day:

  • Nevada’s Judicial Discipline spent 76 percent of last fiscal year’s budget on one case: four-term Family Court Judge Steve Jones, who was suspended this year over his romance with a prosecutor and indicted in 2012 over an investment scheme. Meanwhile, Jones received his $200,000 annual salary for all but three months.
  • Las Vegas Constable John Bonaventura has faced every allegation imaginable: covering up his staff’s quest for porn; requiring said staff to contribute to his campaigns; making secret recordings, part of an effort to counter the Clark County Commission’s decision to eliminate his job. Now is a good time to mention Bonaventura won election despite a checkered political past.
  • Washoe County school board members, in an apparent Open Meeting Law violation, decided last month to oust Superintendent Pedro Martinez, a former Clark County school administrator, claiming he misled the board about his credentials. Martinez accused the board of lying and said he’d get a lawyer. Then the board learned that, per his contract, Martinez couldn’t be fired without a meeting. Obviously, somebody here screwed up somewhere. But let’s not forget that the trustees chose Martinez … and voters chose the trustees.

So what is it about Nevada’s climate that gives some—some, not all—public servants the hubris to commit gaffe after gaffe without fear of repercussions? Three theories:

1. The Shrinking Press. While many fine reporters lurk at both ends of the state, the fact is the daily print media have shrunk in space and staff size. Granted, many reporters lacked the time or resources or encouragement to dig deep enough to expose scandals, but a few did. And some still do. But reporters assigned to a beat now often find themselves stretched thin with other assignments and thus are less able to get a handle on Nevada’s key players. Or they simply don’t stay on the beat long enough to learn them. True, political reporters tend to be more dogged, but with all reporters, coziness sometimes ensues.

2. Smalltownitis. Nevada is one of America’s most urbanized states, with well over 90 percent of its population in the Las Vegas and Reno areas. But its biggest cities still are small towns, physically and mentally. It used to be possible to find the Las Vegas power elite in perhaps five restaurants during the lunch hour; today, that number may be up to 10. Also, two mega corporations own most of the Strip, and a few mining companies predominate in Northern Nevada. When politicos and businesspeople are that chummy, or think they are, it’s easier for them to think that their friends will protect them. Or that everybody does it. Or that nobody will find out.

3. Twitter Twits. One night a couple of years ago, legendary Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully said, “The Twitter read … or do you say twit?” Well, he knows better now, but 86-year-old gods don’t necessarily have to know about tweets. Many politicians don’t know about social media, either, choosing to delegate such responsibilities to their staff. Thus, they don’t realize that social media in some ways compensates for the lack of daily, in-depth local press coverage.

Consider the aforementioned Washoe school board controversy: It was all over Twitterverse within minutes. If politicians are doing something they shouldn’t, someone with a smartphone can catch them in new and embarrassing ways that can be as damaging as an old-fashioned exposé. Are most of our politicians tech-savvy enough to know this?

Mark Twain once said a “lie can travel halfway around the globe while truth is putting on its shoes.” If only Twain had lived to see the Internet.

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.