When Members of the Same Party Face Off

Sandoval-Laxalt skirmish brings to mind other examples of infighting between same-party Nevada politicians

Illustration By Cierra Pedro

Illustration By Cierra Pedro

Democrats and connoisseurs of the theater of political absurdity have enjoyed the recent tiff (if you could call it that) between Gov. Brian Sandoval and the attorney general for whom he so cheerfully campaigned. The gist of the spat: Adam Laxalt decided to join a lawsuit with other state attorneys general challenging President Barack Obama’s executive order halting the deportation of some illegal immigrants—except that Laxalt didn’t clear the move with Sandoval beforehand.

Let’s set aside that Laxalt may well owe Sandoval his election; that Laxalt had claimed he wouldn’t sandbag Sandoval in this way; that Sandoval was once this state’s attorney general and a federal judge who may know something about this subject; and that the national GOP has tapped Sandoval to join Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico as part of a national outreach effort to the Hispanic community (a community that might have an opinion or two on the issue of deportation).

Instead, let’s consider history.

When they wrote the state constitution, Nevada’s founding fathers anticipated a limited state government with a weak governor. While the president of the United States runs on a ticket with his handpicked No. 2 and then chooses his secretary of state, financial advisers and, yes, attorney general, Nevada’s governor isn’t afforded these luxuries; rather, the electorate tackles this chore. That’s led to politicians from opposing parties working, as you might expect, toward opposing ends in the same office. Oddly, it’s also led to politicians from the same parties working toward opposing ends.

Consider: In 1982, Democrat Richard Bryan was elected governor, with Washoe County businessman Bob Cashell, a fellow Democrat, as Bryan’s lieutenant. But they clashed on the issues, and Bryan didn’t trust Cashell to back his administration. After just a few months in office, Cashell switched parties. He was expected to challenge Bryan’s reelection in 1986 but didn’t; instead, that year Bryan defeated Patty Cafferata, then the state treasurer … and now Laxalt’s spokeswoman.

Other governors have had—or have been rumored to have—spiky relationships with fellow party members in their administrations. In 1974, Mike O’Callaghan easily won reelection. His new lieutenant governor was Washoe County District Attorney Bob Rose. Rumbling spread through Nevada that the two Democrats weren’t that close—perhaps understandably, since Rose’s predecessor was Harry Reid, who had been O’Callaghan’s close friend and former student. O’Callaghan and Rose couldn’t have matched that level of trust.

Another likely reason they weren’t particularly tight was that Rose was closer politically to Grant Sawyer, the former governor, than he was to O’Callaghan. While Sawyer and O’Callaghan weren’t enemies, they did jockey against each other a bit. And Sawyer was familiar with this sort of problem. When he was elected governor in 1958, his attorney general was Roger D. Foley—both Democrats, both liberal-minded, close in age and obviously ambitious. They respected each other but disagreed on some issues related to civil rights—Sawyer wanted to do a lot, but Foley felt Sawyer should do even more.

Foley resigned in 1962 to become a federal judge. That year, the winner of the attorney general’s race was Harvey Dickerson, who had lost his bid for governor in the 1958 Democratic primary to—you guessed it—Sawyer. When Sawyer tried to force casino operators to desegregate and warned that “we would be looking very closely at their operations”—an implicit threat—Dickerson said his boss lacked the power to do that. But Sawyer later said that “by then I was already doing it, and I continued to do it until we had a law that took care of the situation.”

Then again, Dickerson didn’t annoy Sawyer as much as his lieutenant governor did. When Sawyer would leave the state, his No. 2 would convene meetings and make appointments to office. Eventually, Sawyer sued, and the Nevada Supreme Court ruled the lieutenant governor’s powers were limited to emergencies when the governor couldn’t be reached.

In this case, the two were bound to disagree on some things, since Sawyer was a Democrat and his lieutenant governor was a Republican. You may have heard of him: Paul Laxalt. You see, he has this grandson …

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.