Lobbyists’ Prominence Built into Nevada’s System From the Start

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

The right amount of seasoning brings a recipe to life, but too much can overwhelm a dish. The same metaphor can be applied to the influence lobbyists have in Carson City: They undoubtedly bring experience to what is increasingly becoming an inexperienced Legislature, and because they know their subject, they’re able to impart knowledge to harried lawmakers. However, during the 2015 session, there are eight registered lobbyists for each legislator. And that number doesn’t include others who influence—and sometimes command—some lawmakers. You have to wonder about the beef when all you can taste is the salt.

Unfortunately, lobbyists are both numerous and necessary in part because we have a citizen Legislature, meeting for four months every two years because that’s what Nevadans wanted in the 19th century. (Back then, Nevadans didn’t want women to vote, either, so we have made progress in some areas.) We seem to prefer that under-informed citizens obtain information from professional legislative staffers, and then do as they’re told by the people who underwrote and/or managed their campaigns.

This kind of thing often is blamed on Citizens United and the prostituted view of the First Amendment that it embodies. Au contraire. It has been a problem in Nevada from the very beginning:

• Soon after statehood, the Bank of California and its Virginia City manager, William Sharon, became the most important mine operators in Nevada. They owned the Virginia & Truckee railroad, whose manager, Henry Yerington, also lobbied the Legislature. Yerington once described Washoe County’s elected officials as “all friendly to us (and God knows they ought to be), and so we have Washoe in the hollow of our hand for many a year to come if desirable.” For much of the 19th century, legislators did what mining and railroad interests demanded. After all, they were citizen lawmakers who had to work for a living. Who do you think were the biggest employers in Nevada?

• Early in the 20th century, John Mueller began representing George Wingfield, who owned most of Nevada’s mines and banks, at the Legislature. He continued as a lobbyist after Wingfield went under. Mueller even became a close ally of Wingfield’s onetime mortal enemy, Pat McCarran, who succeeded Wingfield as the state’s dominant political boss. Mueller used to sit at the desk of the state Senate leader, as one observer put it, “giving him the benefit of his views and advice.”

• Representatives of the gaming industry descended on Carson City in 1957 to demand legislation designed to gut the recently created Gaming Control Board’s investigative and enforcement powers. These lobbyists literally sat beside lawmakers as the bill was introduced. Governor Charles Russell vetoed the bill, and gaming fell one vote shy of the two-thirds majority needed to override Russell.

• In the 1970s and 1980s, Jim Joyce was the master of the lobby game as it was supposed to be played—knowledgeable, persuasive, nonthreatening. But he and some of his colleagues presented a problem by implication: They represented not only companies seeking favorable legislation, but also candidates seeking office. How easy was it to tell the political consultant who got you elected, “No”?

• More recently, one of Carson City’s most influential lobbyists was Harvey Whittemore. To understand how he ran the place, consider a scene back in 1998, when a group from Leadership Reno/Sparks toured the Legislature, and one person asked, “Why is there a glass barrier separating the representatives from the walkways and audience?” The guide replied, “That is the ‘Whittemore Wall.’ It was installed to prevent Harvey Whittemore from taking over the legislative process by force of his voice and person.” Then the guide added, “It didn’t work.” Whittemore knew his stuff, but some lawmakers detected a change in how lobbyists functioned: persuasion increasingly gave way to orders and threats.

Maybe money and partisanship contributed to that. So might have the constitutional amendment limiting sessions to 120 days, further reducing lawmakers’ opportunity for study and reflection, and thus increasing the influence of lobbyists. A big backer of this effort, the late state Senator Bill Raggio, later said, “When you start expanding into people’s other lives—and we all have other lives—then it becomes difficult for a citizen-type Legislature to exist. … You’re going to be full-time legislators.”

Full-time legislators might lead to part-time lobbyists and a real government for Nevada. No wonder so many people oppose it.

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.