A politician’s life is necessarily a dance between praise and criticism, between the handshakes that build consensus and make nice PR and the stinging words that establish differences—and also make nice PR. And so it goes for Steven Horsford, the first African-American to hold the post of State Senate majority leader.
Last week he was at a United Way press conference, jetting in for a brief appearance to read a few scripted remarks about improving access among workers to the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, the nation’s biggest worker-support problem. He wore a gray suit with a blue shirt and a mustard-colored striped tie. Most of his time was spent patiently answering reporters’ questions afterward and posing for photos with the other speakers, including First Lady Dawn Gibbons.
But moments later he had plenty of sharp words for the first lady’s husband—Gov. Jim Gibbons—the man whose proposal to close Nevada’s $2.3 billion budget deficit by dramatically slashing funding for higher education and asking state workers to take a pay cut has been met with much criticism by legislators and by the press. Gibbons’ tough proposals allowed him to define himself both as a man of principle—sticking zealously to a pledge not to raise taxes—and as a man of action, unafraid to make the tough, bold choices. To that end he has chastised Democrats for not turning up to give him input as his staff crafted the budget, despite his invitation.
When asked about this, Horsford strongly disagreed. “At no time did the governor reach out to us or invite us to be part of the process to develop the budget that he presented in his State of the State address. Nor did he reach out to any of the impacted constituent groups that he took money from. He didn’t reach out to local government before he proposed a shift—a taking—of local-government revenues. He didn’t reach out to the gaming industry, to ask about ways in which to raise revenue that wouldn’t affect their ability to protect jobs.”
A moment later Horsford said it wasn’t about “playing the blame game” but about who had the best vision to move the state forward. “In my opinion the governor’s plan makes Nevada mediocre at best, and dead last at worst. And that’s not acceptable.”
Last week Horsford and assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley held a press conference indicating that legislators were ready to begin work on their own plan. There were no real details, only a timetable. Gibbons dismissed the announcement as nothing more than a “plan to have a plan.” Horsford, while posing for pictures for this story, returns the favor. “Because the governor failed to do his job to present a budget that we could work from, we are now going to have to true up the budget; there are revenue projections he put in his budget that are wrong.”
Horsford claims that the governor “didn’t even know some of the parts that were in his own budget that were presented.” He points to Gibbons’ claim in his budget that room-tax revenue would amount to $292 million; Democrats put it at $150 million at best. Horsford—in attempting to make the case that the plan to have a plan is still a plan—says the Legislature will correct “budget mistakes” by March 30, with votes along the way concerning the proposed 6 percent teacher pay cut and whether to reform the state’s employee pension plan, as well as what to do about the state prison system.
“That will tell us, in combination with the federal stimulus plan, whether there’s an additional budget shortfall,” he says. “And if there is one, we have told our revenue committee to be prepared to have hearings from business leaders, community leaders, local governments on revenue solutions that could work to balance our budget. We will do that by April 17.”
Horsford takes command of the senate at a crucial moment. The state, he notes, hasn’t seen such low growth since the late ’60s, and its unemployment rate, 9.1 percent, is the worst in 26 years. “You can get overwhelmed by all the things we’re not doing right.” But beneath the rhetoric is a glimpse of a young man who, in four short years, has made the smooth transition from community leader to one of the most powerful men in the state. He can deliver the tough talk, though one senses no malice behind it. But (perhaps not unlike Gibbons) Horsford is a man who is eager to be more statesman than politician.
“I don’t think the governor is being honest in his approach with the Nevada people that his approach will be good for the state. And because of that we’re having to do the job he has failed to do. We’re going to govern where he has failed to govern, even though he calls himself the governor.”
Of course, for the moment, the governor has a point—we have yet to see what Horsford and his colleagues in the Democratic-controlled State Assembly can do.
Horsford and his wife, Sonya, attended the Democratic National Convention in Denver last summer, where Barack Obama electrified a crowd of 80,000 at Invesco Field. The couple were so inspired that they booked a hotel in D.C. for the inauguration, even though the contest was far from certain at that point. They might have wound up watching John McCain become the nation’s 44th president.
As it turned out, watching Obama “was kind of a culmination of two years of hope and belief that he would get there. I said I wouldn’t believe until I saw him be sworn in, and even then it didn’t fully hit me until he had his first press conference.” The highlight for Horsford was watching Obama greet Congressman John Lewis, who delivered a speech during the March on Washington in 1963 (the same rally in which Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech).
Horsford first met Obama in 2004, after Obama had won the Democratic primary for U.S. senator in Illinois. Obama was in Nevada stumping for John Kerry, and Horsford hosted a meet and greet. As he began to research Obama, he discovered plenty to admire. “It was more that there was a common bond around our philosophical approach in the role government should play in the lives of people that really connected me to him.” Also, Obama was a family man and a Christian, which resonated with Horsford, who has three kids and is a man of faith.
Nevada’s early caucus gave it its most prominent role in a presidential election, and Democratic candidates were all courting Horsford. “It was the first time we were in that early window; there was a lot of pressure to be on the right side of history.”
Obama came to meet Horsford in his office in Carson City in March 2007; he spoke about how he was going to change the electoral map. “I didn’t commit to him that day, but in my mind I said I’m probably going to go this way.” By June of 2007 Horsford was doing his part to get Obama elected. That meant chairing the statewide campaign, serving as surrogate spokesperson, recruiting support from other elected officials, organizing, canvassing voters and fundraising. “He is the same person in the small group as he is in front of millions of people,” a man who had a “very cool nature about himself.”
In this season of historic politics, it’s hard to resist drawing a comparison to Barack Obama. Both men are young, black, relatively new to politics given the weight of the offices they now hold, and both have a strong background in community service. Though no one the Weekly spoke to has said that Horsford is our Obama, the subtext of virtually every bit of praise correlates to the persona of the new commander-in-chief. “He has a fresh perspective,” says Pam Egan, chief financial officer and administrator of Nevada Partners and the Culinary Training Academy, two jobs-training nonprofits that Horsford runs. “He’s not so steeped in the old politics, old way of doing things, that he can’t identify something new. Sometimes you need transformative leadership. I think he’s in a position to provide transformative leadership.”
Horsford’s academic pedigree may not belong to the same league as Obama’s—he has a degree from the University of Nevada, Reno—but what is similar is his growing reputation as a good listener, one who is not overly partisan or rigidly ideological. To some observers this makes him a moderate, or a somewhat conservative Democrat. But as with Obama, there’s a certain pragmatic tone that seems to exist beneath the spin. “We need to ensure every dollar that’s allocated to a state agency is tied to a specific outcome that is measurable around a set of services, and a set of priorities,” he says. “To the degree that certain agencies can’t meet that standard, then we need to have a discussion about whether [we need to fund them].”
Other than Gibbons’ testiness at the Democratic leadership, there’s little criticism of the new majority leader, or even question marks, to be found. Senate Republicans seem supportive; minority leader Bill Raggio has been something of a mentor, and Sen. Randolph Townsend gushes with praise. “I’ve watched him grow and ascend. He’s always been a very friendly, warm, quick study. I’m not sure you can say anybody’s up to what we’re facing, but if anyone is, Steven is. I think he wants to grow into the leadership role. He’s been very communicative to those of us who are in the minority.”
Townsend glowingly portrays the State Senate as a bipartisan brotherhood of cooperation that will match up well with Horsford’s conciliatory style. But Horsford faces an Obama-like question. He’s only had four years in the State Senate. What’s he done?
He’ll tell you he’s been through one crisis already—working with casinos, labor and community groups to help keep people employed after 9/11. And his supporters note his activity in any number of community-betterment projects, be it his support for an afternoon pre-apprenticeship training program or his work bringing the Casey Foundation into Nevada to provide support to foster children.
Egan describes Horsford as a man who gets frustrated when he sees potential not realized. In 2005 he noticed that students being held back in the eighth grade were not graduating from Clark County high schools. So he went to find a group of kids who were struggling to stay in school and see if he could help them. He connected with Robert Henry, now the director of the school district’s adult-education department, who had been doing research on middle-school dropouts. Out of their partnership came a program called Fellows Academy, which identifies at-risk kids and provides them in-school and extracurricular support. So far 120 kids have entered the program—the majority of the first group of kids are set to graduate from high school this June.
Of course, helping to steer a multibillion-dollar budget will prove a much tougher task, and so far, Horsford’s pronouncements on the economy have been cautious. We’re in the bold-yet-hedging-your-bet sera of “all things being on the table,” and so it is that Horsford notes that ideas for raising revenue could range from a more stable business tax to an adjustment in property tax distribution to an increase in the mining tax.
It would be refreshing to hear Democrats commit more boldly to the idea—hell, even just the rhetoric—that raising taxes in some way is a necessity, maybe even a good idea. No one wants to raise taxes, Horsford points out, but he seems to be leaning in that direction. “When you look around the country at stable revenue sources that allow for essential services to be provided in both good and bad times, Nevada’s structure is flawed. It’s over-reliant on highly volatile taxes such as gaming and sales tax. If we’re going to have a system that works in good times and bad times, that revenue structure needs to change.”
Similarly, he’s committed to renewable energy, having created a new committee for energy, infrastructure and transportation to look through the state’s energy issues. “Because we have been a fast-growing state with large sectors in construction, we have a workforce that is ready and willing to help construct those facilities the day they are announced.” But can he lead us through this?
Horsford grew up in west Las Vegas, the product of a broken home. His father was rarely around and was battling drug addiction. By the time he was in his late teens his mom had also succumbed to drug abuse. Horsford figures he bounced around between 10 and 15 elementary schools and four middle schools. His efforts to stay planted at one high school—Clark—were thwarted by an asbestos problem that sent him to Bonanza for a year. His longest stretch in one place was at the corner of D and Leonard, when he rented his stepfather’s parents’ house, so he could take care of his three younger siblings.
He’d been involved in student government since he was the president of his sixth-grade class (his first political accomplishment was procuring a jukebox for his classmates). He later served in student government at UNR. But the tonic, for him, was to serve. “I wanted to be the voice of a group of people I had a chance to represent.” For him, it wasn’t politics. It was public service. He says he still feels that way.
But it wasn’t politics that made the biggest impression on him. It was the death of his father, Gary Shelton, who was murdered in West Las Vegas when Horsford was 19. Horsford didn’t grow up with his father and didn’t carry his name. The times they spent together were few. “I always wanted that, to be an important part of my father’s life.”
Shelton was working as a cook at a convenience store at the corner of Lake Mead and Englestad. A man came in, was told to leave, then came back with a sawed-off shotgun and opened fire. Shelton took a bullet and died en route to the hospital.
“What hurt most was I wasn’t able to tell him I loved him,” Horsford says. “At that time, it was during a period when my mother was really struggling with addiction. I did not want to lose her the same way I lost my father. It became more urgent for me to try and change things, even though at 19 I had very little ability to do much but help my younger siblings.”
His mom eventually turned her life around—she’s been clean 16 years—and Horsford found the drive for his own life. It was important, he learned, to forgive. “Their addiction was more about an illness, a sickness, it wasn’t something they wanted to do …”
Others might have run from the scene of tragedy. “Instead, he looked at in a different perspective,” says Monica Ford, vice president of training and development at Nevada Partners. “‘This is my community, and I’m gonna clean it up.’” Culinary Training’s facility was built just a block away from where his father was killed. Horsford is even-toned as he discusses the connection. “My father’s not the only person who’s lost his life. There’s a lot of violence throughout the city. That’s why programs like ours are so important.”
After finishing a degree in political science degree from UNR, he went to work as a lobbyist in the mining industry, then joined R&R Partners and worked in governmental affairs and public relations. In 2001 he became director of public affairs.
Shortly after 9/11, he says, some 25,000 Strip workers were laid off; he was “loaned” to an effort between the Culinary Union and the hotels to help get people back to work or to help them access the system to receive unemployment benefits and new training. “I mobilized that effort.”
And he enjoyed it so much he was ready to make a permanent move into the nonprofit sector. He was hired to lead Nevada Partners, and since that organization was at the time reorganizing to ally closely with the Culinary Training Academy, he was chosen to run that organization as well.
Culinary is a labor-management center that trains new workers looking to find jobs on the Strip, as well as providing continuing education. Nevada Partners is a nonprofit, initially funded by Kirk Kerkorian’s Lincy Foundation to provide employment training and education to people who historically face barriers to employment. Nevada Partners sees between 1,500 and 2,000 people a year; at Culinary the figure is between 2,500 and 3,000, but the organization is ramping up to increase its enrollment to between 5,000 and 6,000.
Still, while he’s always been a student of politics, Horsford never planned to run for public office. Only when Joe Neal, the first African-American minority leader, announced he was stepping down did Horsford begin to consider the entreaties from people who suggested he run. “We contemplated it. My wife and I and some family members. … I was advised by other people that I shouldn’t run. It wasn’t something that I was recruited for.” But the chance to serve his community proved irresistible.
The nation is hoping that Obama’s cool, open-minded and practical approach to governing can help drive the economy. Horsford brings much the same outlook to the problems in Nevada. But as Obama is finding out, bipartisanship is harder than it looks. Despite a glowing reception when he met with House Republicans to push his stimulus bill, not a single GOP representative voted for it. Horsford has the respect of his Republican colleagues, but the legislative special sessions that closed the last budget are, observers agree, a breeze compared to what he’s now facing.
“We have tremendous challenges,” he says. “We’re a state that’s grown so fast in the last few decades. Whether it’s been in our schools, in our transportation, in our hospitals. Our infrastructure is weak. There’s not a clear plan or vision for what we want our state to be 10 or 20 years from now.”
The Legislature begins this week; and the education of the youngest Senate majority leader continues. On his way to the first of several meetings, Horsford says the Senate had a great opening day, introducing 110 bills. He and his colleagues have 116 more days to find revenue that has eluded the governor and his staff. For Horsford, it’s a chance to test his mantra on the largest stage yet. “Each one of us wants to be relevant. We want to add, not take. We want to contribute. That’s my hope. That’s my belief. That’s my faith.”