Beneath Partisan Politics, Personal Relationships Hold Sway At Legislature

CARSON CITY – On Assemblyman Harvey Munford’s desk lies his teacher’s edition of an American government textbook.

The former high school history and government teacher said he brought it as a guidebook to the legislative process. But he has not used it much.

“It wasn’t applicable to a whole lot of things,” he said.

Munford, a Democrat from Las Vegas, describes himself as “disillusioned” with the Legislature.

He sits in his office, shunted aside from most of the budget battles and without much to do except cast his vote for others’ bills; most of his bills are dead.

Munford was a teacher of government processes, but not a student of the personal politics that are so important at the Legislature.

A social undercurrent has developed as the session has progressed, intimately shaping the fates of bills and the budget. It is part of the milieu that makes every session unique, and those who do not play well with others lose.

“In a small state like Nevada, it’s all about relationships,” said former Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, who is now a lobbyist.

And Munford is not popular.

He has served four terms, but he said he feels slighted that other colleagues have jumped ahead of him and secured leadership appointments to committees.

Munford said he has not found many people to work with. Before the session, he requested from legislative staff a bill that would ban texting while driving. He said a constituent had asked him to sponsor such a bill.

But his bill did not carry much weight. Instead, a bill from Democratic leadership became the vehicle for the proposal to ban texting while driving.

“The leadership seems to carry all the leverage,” he said. “You have to be a foot soldier for them or they’ll cut you out.”

Munford does not always vote with his party. He reluctantly attends caucus meetings, listens and leaves. He has contemplated ceasing to attend altogether.

“I should have pulled a Joe Lieberman on them and went independent,” he said, referring to the Connecticut senator who relinquished his title as a Democrat.

Munford said he likes to sponsor social policy bills. In doing so he naturally avoids the imbroglios that can develop when lots of money is at stake, but he cannot avoid the social shifts and politicking behind his bills.

“This is about regular people and emotions,” said Jim Waddams, a powerful lobbyist for a number of Nevada industries.

Legislators must be savvy enough to develop relationships and participate in the give-and-take compromising that sometimes determines the fate of bills.

Munford characterizes it differently. He calls the hushed chatter in offices and hallways a symptom of legislators’ “hidden agendas.”

“You can see where they jockey around with these bills,” he said. “They cut deals.”

Sitting in his office with Motown music softly playing in the background, the former basketball coach and high school teacher said he certainly understands how relationships matter between people.

“If you’re going to learn one thing, it’s about relationships and personalities,” Munford said of the Legislature.

The problem is, he said, he has not found many people to work with in the Legislature.

“I never wanted to identify myself as a politician,” he said. “I wanted to be a statesman whose goal was to work for the state.”

His independent attitude has relegated him to the sidelines, a man whose vote matters as much as the other 62 legislators but whose influence pales in comparison to some of his colleagues.

“I think part of the problem is he is more interested in trying to develop policy and not so much in simply cultivating relationships,” Waddams said.

Assemblyman Mark Sherwood echoes Munford’s complaints.

Sherwood, a neophyte Republican legislator from Henderson, sat in his office earlier this week and peppered his chat about the legislative process with negatives, at various times calling it “disappointing,” “frustrating,” “disheartening,” and “disturbing.”

Sherwood’s frustrations have sometimes transformed into anger. He has called a committee meeting a “farce” and once referred to a Democratic colleague by her first name, a breach of decorum in the Assembly chambers.

He has also consistently argued that Republican bills have received short shrift from the Democratic majority in the Assembly, earning him a reputation as a caustic outsider unafraid to hurl political firebombs.

Many of the bills Sherwood sponsored are dead.

“They try and destroy you,” he said. “When somebody comes up here who doesn’t conform to the politics as usual, they will try to destroy you.”

Over the course of the session, his views of the Legislature have evolved and soured.

“It becomes group think and all the sudden we’re done,” he said. “We don’t ask the questions.”

He went on to praise lobbyists as the “best politicians in this building” because they must know their issues, build consensus and work across the aisle in order to achieve the aims of their clients.

Sherwood called himself “naive” for not expecting the legislators to unjustly kill bills, steal bills, tack on last-minute amendments and sometimes push legislation for questionable reasons.

“That’s troubling,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting that. … The cronyism is disheartening.”

But not everyone is so bitter.

“In many ways this is one big family and the analogy you can draw is these are sibling rivalries you would find in any family,” Perkins said.

As the end of the legislative session nears, fatigue and stress scratch at the veneer of rationality. Passions run high and tempers flare.

The legislative process is a war of attrition. It wears down the corps of lobbyists, legislators, staff and press. The climate in the building inevitably sours. People miss their families and feelings get hurt. Everyone aches for the days to have two or three more hours, if only to catch up on sleep.

Like journalists, legislators turn to the colleagues and lobbyists they trust for information.

Waddams, the lobbyist, said the legislative process is essentially about information; some people have it and others do not. The ones who do are empowered to make decisions and close deals.

Legislators inevitably make deals, the most important of which will be the final budget deal.

“This is about regular people and emotions and pushing and pulling,” he said. “What is done is never perfect but generally, it works.”

  • BKD

    Great analysis.  Disheartening reality.  … and these people write the laws we all must obey.   Is this what the founders intended?  I think not.   Now we’ve got the powers that be becoming more and more corrupt with every session.  I didn’t originally support term-limits but now I’m thinking they’re a good thing!  Get rid of  that “good ‘ol boy” mentality, maybe things will improve!  Oh but wait, there’s no “term-limits” for Lobbyists (and so many former legislators become lobbyists), will they become the “new power brokers”?  Hhhhmmm, there otta be a law…

  • Nvconstituent

    People like Waddams should have nothing to do with the political process.  He represents just about every corporate interest in Nevada and has zero knowledge about the particular bills he tries to push or kill (as someone who has seen inside the process). Allowing lobbyists to run the show is irresponsible and, in the long and short runs, detrimental to the people.

  • Jimbo

    Waddams knows nothing about regular people. But GOD is not regular. And Mr. Waddams knows how God has punished his newborn grandson who is paying for the sins of his gramps.