The patriarch, the legend—still recuperating from a heart attack suffered seven months ago—sits in his recliner, a blanket draped over his lap. His famously droopy eyes are fixed on the television. So, too, are the eyes of several guests. It’s not a highlight reel of the legend’s basketball coaching career that they’re focused on, but rather a one-on-one battle between vice-presidential candidates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan.
Truth be told, Jerry Tarkanian might as well be invisible tonight. Of the dozens of people gathered in his family room and kitchen, few actually approach him. That’s because while some might be here because of the UNLV basketball icon, they’re all here for his son, a former Rebels point guard turned attorney turned small-business owner turned political candidate.
This $150-per-person fundraiser Danny Tarkanian is hosting at his parents’ home of 37 years has attracted supporters of all kinds: young and old; black and white; friends, family, former teammates and complete strangers. The one thing they have in common: They want to see Tarkanian—the Republican locked in a heated race with state Sen. Steven Horsford for the newly created U.S. Congressional seat—win his first election after three previous failed attempts at political office.
As many in attendance strain to hear the vice-presidential debate, I turn to the wife of the legend, the mother of the candidate, the Las Vegas councilwoman for Ward 1, the lifelong Democrat.
“Did you ever think you’d see so many Republicans in your house?” I ask Lois Tarkanian.
The numbers painted on the curbs in the Rancho Estates cul-de-sac have faded over time, and because the homes are set back so far from the street, it’s difficult to pinpoint the addresses. It is not, however, difficult to pick out the Tarkanian house, thanks to the faux orange-and-white basketball that doubles as a mailbox. I’ve come here early on a bright Monday morning—three days before the fundraiser, less than a month before Election Day—for a joint interview with Danny and Lois Tarkanian. I’ve come not to probe about Jerry and his health. Or the family’s much-publicized failed real estate venture, which resulted in a $17 million judgment that reportedly could lead to Danny and other family members filing bankruptcy. I’m not even all that interested in Danny’s contentious campaign against Horsford.
Instead, I’ve come to learn about the relationship between a mother and her eldest son—between a Democrat who grew up poor and whose social views were shaped by post-Depression FDR policies, and a Republican who was reared by said Democrat, then went off to college and discovered Ronald Reagan.
I’m curious: How did this ideological divide come to pass? How great is the divide? And how does it all play against the dynamic within Las Vegas’ first family, the coach’s shadow forever looming?
I pull up a chair at the head of the kitchen table. Ironically, Danny sits to my left, Lois to my right. The lively hourlong conversation begins with a simple question:
How much were politics discussed at this very dinner table?
Lois: Issues were discussed; I wouldn’t say politics were discussed. Should taxes be raised? Are we funding the health department enough? Should we get rid of the Department of Education?
Danny: Or was Georgetown’s front line too tall?
Lois: Yeah. Could we ever beat Georgetown? That came up. … It was like any family: You don’t always agree, and sometimes when you disagree, if you believe passionately, you might, uh, get upset at times. [Laughs.]
Danny: I can’t think of any real specific examples, though.
Lois: Oh yeaaahhh. There might be things I vote on with the [City] Council, and he might question my vote—why I did this, why I did that.
Danny: Like the beautification of those off-ramps and how wonderful those look, [thanks to] our taxpayer dollars.
Lois: Yeah, that’s one.
Danny: They’ve got to be the most beautiful off-ramps in the whole country, and someone paid for them.
Lois: Federal money paid for those—that’s NDOT [a Nevada Department of Transportation project].
Danny: Oh, I’m sorry, federal money—like federal money means it’s not taxpayer dollars.
So, where should taxpayer dollars go?
Lois: I believe money should go into social issues. ... I’ve been in those social-problem areas all my life, and so I know the needs, and I just feel there are some needs we have to [support].
Danny: And that’s an accurate statement: You do the needs, and no more … And [most conservatives] would say the same thing: You need to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves. But it’s when that money is being wasted for programs that aren’t being useful …
Lois: That is true. I totally agree. Government is a large bureaucracy, and we waste too much money—Republicans and Democrats. When it comes to certain issues, the Democrats don’t want to cut. Then there are [programs] that Republicans don’t want to cut. … This is why I always have voted for the person. I have voted at times for Republicans.
What was your reaction when you first learned Danny was a Republican?
Lois: I’ve always tried to instill within all my kids independent thinking. So my reaction was not negative really at all. I disagreed, but I’m from an educational background. I think it’s good to disagree and throw out ideas and discuss them. So I really wasn’t upset. I wondered how he got to be Republican! But who am I to go against Ronald Reagan?
Danny: It was always instilled in me that you should work hard, you should take risks, you should be innovative—that America gives you an equal opportunity across the board. Not equal results, but equal opportunity. And if you work harder and you do a better job, you should be rewarded better. This redistribution of wealth is the exact opposite of what’s made our country so great. I think my mom will tell you—well, of course she will; she’s my mother—but most will tell you I’ve got a strong work ethic, that when I get involved in something I try to outwork anybody that I’m competing against.
Clearly that’s one trait you got from your mother. What about some others?
Danny: Her competitiveness, the stand-up-for-what-you-believe-in. That’s from her much more than [from] my dad. My dad has great people skills; my mother will tell it more like it is and stand by that. And I do that, and that gets you in trouble a little bit, particularly politically.
Lois: But that’s courage, which we lack so much in candidates. It’s all a little game they’re playing. And just the fact [Danny has] run this many times shows courage—you’re sticking your head out there, and you’re trying to do something you believe in.
Danny: Everywhere I go when I campaign, people ask me, “Are you going to go back to D.C. and fall within that trap where you give into what the special-interest groups and your party want you to do?” Too often that’s what happens. But because of the way she raised me, that’s not my characteristic, nor will it be my actions when I get back there.
Lois: I don’t think it’s good if you always agree when you’re in Congress. But, the thing is, you work together to come to the win-win agreement—you don’t get everything, but you get what you feel is important, and the other side, also.
Danny: It’s so sad to watch what has happened to our politicians, because they’re no longer public servants. Have anybody go back and look at the career of [former] Sen. [Paul] Laxalt or Sen. [Richard] Bryan and find when they were belittling or criticizing their opponent publicly—you didn’t see that, because they were statesmen. They worked for the betterment of their community and the people they represented. It’s unfortunate we’re not there now.
Lois: And look how [well] a strong Democrat like Bryan worked with a strong Republican like Laxalt—they worked together! … People, when they say to me, “You’re a politician,” I say, “Really? I hope I’m a public servant. That’s what I started out to be, that’s what I want to be.” And there’s a big difference.
What kind of kid was Danny growing up?
Lois: A very good kid. He studied, he was disciplined, he was very kind. He had all those kind parts to him that my ideal Democrat has. I remember when he won some shoes at a basketball tournament, and I asked him when he came home, “What kind of shoes were they?” And he didn’t have the shoes; he’d already given them away to somebody on his team who didn’t have shoes. And he did things like that his entire life.
The cynic would say that’s not the Republican way, to give away a pair of shoes …
Danny: Sure it is. Sure it is. It’s absolutely the Republican way. You know why? Because I gave them away. The government didn’t take them from me and give them away. And that’s the difference. Mitt Romney gave away 17 percent of his income. The government didn’t take it from him. People like it when they have the decision to give something away. They don’t like it when it’s taken from them by rules or force or regulations.
Lois: Was that in taxes, the 17 [percent]?
Danny: No, he paid 14 in taxes and [gave] 17 to charities.
Lois: Seventeen to charities? Well, that is very good.
Danny: The misnomer is that Democrats care about poor people and Republicans don’t. The difference is Democrats feel you should do it through government intervention—and what some would call force—while Republicans feel you should do it through your individual choice and free will.
Lois: I don’t agree all the time with the giving away—especially when we don’t have the oversight. I was aghast that we gave monies to stimulate the economy and then didn’t check and see how they were being spent. I don’t object to stimulating business, but too often we don’t have the checks and balances we should have.
Danny: She’s a fiscal conservative in a lot of ways. She’s a Kennedy Democrat. She said that was what got her involved in politics—she walked door to door for him in 1960. And Kennedy, in my opinion, in today’s political ideology, would be a Republican. He cut taxes, his economic philosophy at least was on the Republican side.
Lois: Well, but his social side was more Democratic.
Danny: Was he? Was he pro-choice, as a Catholic growing up?
Lois: I wasn’t thinking of the pro-choice. I was thinking of the Education Department and stuff like that.
Danny: He didn’t have anything to do with the Education Department.
Lois: Well, then I better shut my mouth.
Where did Jerry fall on the political spectrum—were his views more aligned with his wife or his son?
Danny: My dad was never political. He was always apolitical until, I don’t know when it was, maybe two years ago—maybe it was the U.S. Senate race—he finally started watching what was going on.
Lois: Because of you he’s a registered Republican. During his career he was so into the basketball and all that other business. You know that whole coaching thing is a lot heavier than people think, time-wise. But then he started getting interested because of Danny.
Prior to that, was he a registered Democrat because of you?
Danny: I’ll bet he was!
Lois: Well, let’s just say that he asked me to [cast his] vote for him. That’s what he did: He’d say, “Who should I vote for, Lois?” And I certainly made sure the candidates I thought were best got his vote.
Danny: The rest of the family [Danny’s younger brother and two older sisters] is all Republicans right now. I don’t know if they changed, but they are now.
Lois: I think at one point they were [Democrats], but because of Danny, they’re Republican now.
What’s it like for a mother to watch her son get attacked, be it in the political or basketball arena?
Lois: It’s hard. It was hard watching him play basketball. I never really enjoyed it, because I was so nervous all the time. So no, I don’t like [the attacks] at all. And every election it seems it’s gotten worse. So how do I feel? Not happy, and upset at times. There were a couple of people I’ve wanted to call up [during this election] and say, “What in the world are you talking about? You’ve been here in our house!” But then I realized it was all political.
Danny: The point is, that’s part of politics. You don’t like it, but it’s something you’ve got to live with. I have a very inherent advantage in growing up most of my life with people saying negative things about my family. So it doesn’t affect me like it does other people. It affects you more when it’s not you [being attacked] but someone [close to you]. When my mom ran [for City Council], I can’t remember the guy’s name, but he did the “10 Scariest Things About Lois Tarkanian” on Halloween night. It was vicious.
Lois: It was a brilliant PR move. [Laughs.] But it was vicious. And it was untrue.
Danny: All of them are untrue. But if you’re going to get into it, you’ve got to put up with that. It’s easier to take when it’s about yourself than when it’s about someone you care about.
Lois: That’s right.
Danny, were there any obstacles you had to overcome before jumping into the political fray?
Danny: Let me tell you my biggest problem: I was scared to death to talk in front of people—absolutely scared to death. In fact, the first time I had to speak in court, all I had to do was say, “Hello, my name is Danny Tarkanian; I’m appearing on behalf of the debtors,” and I was sweating, I was so nervous, I stumbled the words out. And early in my career I decided against running for office because of that—this was in the early 1990s. But I just said, “If this is what you want to do, you better practice and get better at it and overcome those fears.”
Lois: He wasn’t comfortable at all, and when he ran his first race, he wasn’t comfortable. That’s one good thing about running more than one race—you learn.
How does a mother handle the three previous political defeats?
Lois: It’s hard, it’s really hard. You see he has his whole heart into it. And he works so hard—God, he works hard. …
Danny: There’s nothing embarrassing about losing a campaign. It’s embarrassing if you perform or handle yourself [poorly]. And you can talk to people who watched those races, and I haven’t had anyone tell me, “You know, you just didn’t try hard enough. You didn’t articulate those issues well enough.” Listen, I ran in some tough races. I made a choice to run in some tough races.
Lois: And that’s when we disagreed. I told him not to run in some of those races.
Danny: But if you lose a race, if you did everything you should’ve done and could’ve done—it’s just like playing a sporting event: You walk away, you hold your head high. As my dad would say, if you go into the game mentally, emotionally and physically prepared to play, and you leave it all on the floor, you never leave with your head down, even if you lose.
Still, was there any hesitation to run for a fourth time?
Danny: No. The only [thing that would] stop my pursuit of my dreams would be my ability to succeed.
At the same time, a candidate who continues to run for office but doesn’t win may lose credibility on the fundraising front. Does that make this campaign a must-win for you?
Danny: I know full well that this is my last shot. I have to win this race—have to win it. There’s a sense of realism in how this whole thing works.
How does that make you feel when you hear your son say that?
Lois: Makes me feel like I should go out walking door to door in North Las Vegas for him. … This is a public-service family. I’m proud of my family. To me, Danny’s not just someone trying to run, run, run. You have that in your heart, you want to help—that’s the way we’ve always been.