When Thomas Jefferson arrived in Paris as U.S. minister in 1784, the French foreign minister said, “It is you who replace Dr. Franklin?” Jefferson replied, “No one can replace him, Sir; I am only his successor.”
Not that Harry Reid and Catherine Cortez Masto are in that league. With Reid’s retirement as Senate Democratic leader, Cortez Masto can’t be expected to replace him. What will be worth watching is how she succeeds him, and what role she plays in her party and in the Senate.
As a junior senator in the minority party, she won’t have Reid’s power. Her committee assignments give her the chance to watch out for Nevada interests. They include Energy and Natural Resources (hello, Yucca Mountain); Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs (which state led the nation in the dubious category of home foreclosures during the recession?); and the Special Committee on Aging (senior citizens vote, they’re growing in number in Nevada, and they may be nervous about what Republicans plan for Social Security and Medicare).
Senate newcomers traditionally are supposed to be “workhorses” instead of “show horses.” They do the difficult work that senior senators have the right to avoid. Cortez Masto has a strong administrative background as a former assistant county manager and as Governor Bob Miller’s chief of staff. She should have no trouble adapting to Capitol Hill folkways.
It will be worth watching how Cortez Masto succeeds Reid, and what role she plays in her party and in the senate.
More crucially, she has a distinction: the first Latina U.S. senator. As a woman, she may become part of an informal group of women senators who have worked together on issues, regardless of party. She becomes one of four Hispanics in the Senate. Two of the others are Republicans (Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz). The other, Robert Menendez, was indicted on corruption charges and comes from New Jersey—not exactly a Hispanic stronghold.
But Nevada is, and, since it went Democratic while Republicans took over the White House and retained control of Congress, Cortez Masto could play an even bigger role than just being the first Latina senator. Don’t forget Donald Trump’s references to Mexican rapists, “bad hombres” and a wall. And while national Democratic leaders are conscious that their party fared poorly in the Rust Belt, the West Coast and the Mountain West went Democratic or are trending that way, and Hispanics played a significant part in that change.
Cortez Masto might be part of important outreach efforts to women and Hispanics. Democrats could take advantage of that opportunity—and so could she.
Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.