Catherine Cortez Masto made history in more ways than one when she was elected U.S. senator in 2016. She was the first woman to represent Nevada as a senator as well as the only Latina in the Senate, period; hers was also part of a series of victories that placed Nevada firmly in the “blue” electoral column. Born in Las Vegas, Cortez Masto was a civil attorney in our city and spent two years as a criminal prosecutor for the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, D.C., before returning to Nevada to serve two terms as state attorney general. She recently spoke to Vegas Seven about the issues that concern her constituents, the importance of bipartisanship and our state’s “beautifully diverse” future. [Comments have been edited for length and clarity.]
As the Chinese proverb says, may you live—and become senator—in interesting times.
It’s exciting, it’s challenging, it’s stressful. There is a lot happening now. Many of my senior senators have said, “It’s not usually like this.” But I’m here, and there’s a lot at stake. … I’m a fighter, and I’m ready to take on any fight to protect Nevadans.
People and the politicians who represent them face a lot of issues, but health care, immigration and jobs top the list …
At the end of the day, my biggest concern is [this is] a state where we’ve agreed to facilitate … health care exchanges and expanded Medicaid so that now [almost] 400,000 Nevadans, including children and women, have health care that they’ve never had before. The president is taking that away from them, as well as [more than] 20 million Americans across the country. That’s not how this should start. It should be: We keep what works and fix what doesn’t. This is a big fight: For me, it’s continuing to tell the story of Nevadans who are going to be impacted if this Affordable Care Act is repealed.
I’ll be the first to say we have a broken immigration system. The solution to that is passing comprehensive immigration reform. The solution is not issuing executive orders that engage in mass deportations or engage in travel bans. The first bill that I introduced was to rescind President Trump’s executive order engaging in that mass deportation. That is not the solution. I hear from Nevadans all the time on this issue—and it’s not just the hardworking families that are going to be torn apart and are living in fear right now, but it’s the business community. I’ve had business owners bring their concerns to me about how this mass deportation is going to affect their business and the men and women that they work with and have become friends with.
If we really want to go down the path of growing the economy, which we should, because it creates jobs and that ought to be our major focus, then we should be passing comprehensive immigration reform. The studies have shown that if we had just passed the bipartisan version that passed out of the Senate [in 2013], it would have reduced our deficit, it would have added [about $700 billion] to our gross domestic product, and it would have given similar support to our economy in Nevada. So there are benefits to going down this path if we do it the right way.
I’m hopeful that we will continue down the path of fighting for working families. They are struggling, and it’s time we focused and put the efforts into helping them succeed, whether it’s getting them the tax breaks instead of the big corporations or giving them a livable wage or fighting for their health care or an education system that works for their kids. I am concerned that we have an administration now [that is] saying they want to do that, but instead are exploiting the very people they want to help.
The new federal resistance to state-passed marijuana laws is a symptom of a larger problem …
In this particular issue, I do support states’ rights to make this decision. I will continue [to do this] as a United States senator, as I have the ability to weigh in. I will support [those] states, particularly Nevada. We’ve made the decision as a state, and it should be respected. There is hypocrisy where, in one breath, you have some folks here in D.C. saying, “We’ve got to support states’ rights and give them these opportunities.” But when politically it goes against what they support, then it’s just the opposite.
While some legislators have been less than enthusiastic about constituent engagement lately, Cortez Masto finds it essential …
I had the opportunity to be home for a week’s recess, so I spent it traveling around the state. I met with immigrants, I met with undocumented families and DREAMers [Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors], I met with the business community, the small business community, chambers both north and south—they’re all supportive of passing comprehensive immigration reform.
I’ve always said I’m going to be the voice for the people of Nevada, so it’s important for me to not only get around the state, but for my staff as well. The staff in Nevada and the staff here in Washington, D.C., need to have that connection and be on the phone regularly with constituents who call in or email or send letters. They need to be interacting with them and being my eyes and ears out there in Nevada as well.
Bipartisanship is not dead, at least not in Nevada …
Obviously [on] Yucca Mountain, we’re allies both here on the congressional delegation as well as back in Nevada. It’s a conversation I’ve had with the governor; we will continue to fight against storing nuclear waste on Yucca Mountain. And the Affordable Care Act—Governor Sandoval is the one who made the Silver State Health Insurance Exchange and expanded Medicaid. Neither one of us wants to see any of those people who now have insurance for the first time lose [it]. Part of it is finding that common ground with colleagues, whether they’re Rs or Ds, and working to find solutions to issues that our constituents are dealing with. I will always reach across the aisle to talk with my colleagues, introduce myself and see if there are issues where we can find common ground to work together.
That’s Nevada traditionally and that’s how I’ve always operated. It’s about putting the best interests of the people in the state ahead of your own political interests. There are many in Nevada that get it and operate in that manner.
Looking ahead for the Silver State …
I can tell you Nevada has become beautifully diverse. I don’t think that’s going to change, [and it] will have an impact on what it looks like in the next election cycle and thereafter. People don’t realize that, aside from the large and growing Latino population and our strong and vibrant African-American population, we have the fastest-growing Asian and Pacific Islander population in the country. Those demographics are going to have a reflection on what Nevada looks like in the future.