Dawn Gibbons, the estranged wife of Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons, talks with… (Marilyn Newton / Reno Gazette-Journal )
Reporting from Reno — Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons and his estranged wife reached a divorce settlement Monday, quashing a potentially embarrassing public trial, but the couple's protracted -- and messy -- legal battle may have irreparably damaged his chances for reelection.
The settlement, which resolved 18 months of sparring over alimony and shared property, spared Gibbons four days of testimony about his finances, and possibly his fidelity, in a city once renowned as America's divorce capital.
Though Nevada is a no-fault divorce state, Dawn Gibbons, in a series of court filings, had accused her husband of using her to further his political career and of having at least two affairs, one with a former Playboy model.
In turn, Jim Gibbons unsuccessfully tried to boot her from the governor's mansion in Carson City -- she retreated to an apartment on the grounds -- and in court papers compared living with her to "being locked in a phone booth with an enraged ferret."
"She knows that if she can drag this case (and her headlines) into the next election cycle, she will more greatly damage his career," wrote his attorney, Gary Silverman.
If that was Dawn Gibbons' plan, it likely worked.
"All the stars would have to align in a way I've never seen in politics for him to win," said Eric Herzik, who chairs the University of Nevada, Reno's political science department.
On Monday, in a courthouse near the Truckee River -- where newly single women once tossed their wedding rings -- Gibbons and his wife of 23 years sat as far apart as they could. Dawn Gibbons, 55, nodded to her supporters, while her husband teased a photographer. "Get my good side, would you?" he said before turning around.
Jim Gibbons, a 65-year-old former pilot and lawyer, stood and clasped his hands to answer several basic questions. He flubbed one: his wedding date, which was in June 1986, not July. His wife's attorney corrected him.
After the hearing, the governor donned sunglasses and hauled a cardboard box of court papers to the elevator. "It's over and finished. I'm happy it's finished," he told a scrum of reporters.
The ongoing spectacle has dragged down the governor's approval rating, which has hovered below 20% for months, and likely jeopardized his reelection next year. Experts generally agreed that the settlement merely prevented further political damage, as opposed to repairing it.
Dawn Gibbons, a former assemblywoman and wedding chapel owner, was widely considered the couple's sunnier half, capable of working a room in a way her more reserved husband wasn't. Many of Jim Gibbons' key supporters have migrated to other candidates, namely former federal Judge Brian Sandoval, whom polls show running away with the Republican primary.
Facing a huge state budget gap and high unemployment rate, Gibbons has a possible savior, at least in a low-turnout primary, in the government-wary Republican base. "He delivers the fire-and-brimstone 'no taxes' speech," Herzik said.
Gibbons' campaign advisor, Robert Olmer, did not return a call seeking comment.
Jim and Dawn Gibbons met on a blind date. From 1997, when he was serving in Congress, to 2006, when he was elected governor, they lived apart much of the time. During the gubernatorial campaign, Dawn Gibbons stood by her husband after a Las Vegas cocktail waitress accused him of trying to assault her in a parking garage. (No charges were filed, though the waitress has sued the governor in federal court.)
Once the couple reunited in Carson City, the marriage frayed, court papers indicated. During several weeks in early 2007, Jim Gibbons sent more than 800 text messages to a doctor's wife, whom Dawn Gibbons suspected of being her husband's mistress. The woman has said they're merely close friends.
In May 2008, Jim Gibbons filed for divorce, citing incompatibility. Had the case gone to trial, Cal Dunlap, Dawn Gibbons' attorney, threatened to call the cocktail waitress and both alleged mistresses. And so, after negotiations that stretched into Monday morning, Jim and Dawn Gibbons divvied up the remnants of their marriage.
The governor will pay Dawn Gibbons a quarter of his gross monthly income for five years -- far more than he wanted. He will also pay her $275,000, and she will move out of the apartment. The pair will sell their Reno home and 40 acres in Elko County, where the governor had said he wanted to retire. Each took a Model T from the car collection. He will get the guns, she the art collection.
When Judge Frances Doherty asked Jim Gibbons if he considered the agreement fair, there was a pregnant pause. He smiled tightly and said, "Yes."
Outside the courtroom, his wife hugged her friends -- they offered boxes for her upcoming move -- and addressed reporters.
"I don't want to do anything to dishonor my state, and this agreement reflects that," said Dawn Gibbons, who will keep the governor's last name.