Love-hate relationship with Washington plays out in Nevada politics

The West has long been torn between attacking and cozying up to the federal government. Now Harry Reid and Sharron Angle have picked sides in that fight.

October 23, 2010|By Mark Z. Barabak and Ashley Powers, Los Angeles Times

There is a canyon of difference between Harry Reid and Sharron Angle, on just about every issue in their rancorous Nevada Senate race.

But beyond those differences, beyond even their standing as Washington insider and "tea party" outsider, there is a more fundamental gap between the two, which speaks to one of the enduring features of life and politics in the West.

One candidate sees government as a helpmate, the other as a hindrance.

One says Nevada, so reliant on Washington, needs his clout. "No one can do more," Sen. Reid declares in his campaign slogan.

The other says Nevada, so resentful of that reliance, would be better left to its own devices. "We, the people, are the solution," says Angle in one of her ads.

Their conflict is a tension between two narratives of the West, between the mythos of the rugged individual and the indispensible, if less celebrated, role that government played in taming and developing this harsh but bountiful land.

The tension is as old as the country itself, requiring a balancing act that "many members of Congress have had to make: between attacking and cozying up to the federal government," said Michael Green, a Las Vegas historian.

That is especially true in a state where Washington controls about 90% of the acreage, meaning its overseers determine what is mined, farmed, grazed and built.

Listen to the candidates at their one debate, as they talked about the recession that has pushed Nevada flat on its back. Reid cited the ways the federal government has sought to help: through tax policies promoting construction in Las Vegas, through energy projects in the desert, and legislation benefiting the gambling industry, which is everything to the tourist-dependent state.

"All these things I've talked about today, my opponent is against those," the Democrat said. "My job is to create jobs. What she's talking about is extreme. We have to do this."

His Republican opponent responded sharply. "Harry Reid, it's not your job to create jobs," Angle said. "It's your job to create policies that create the confidence for the private sector to create those jobs. And they have lost confidence because of things like Obamacare" — a swipe at the healthcare law that Reid helped shepherd to narrow passage.

It is just about impossible for Reid, as the Senate majority leader and a key ally of President Obama, to distance himself from the White House and its policies. So perhaps the best he can hope for is grudging support, like the less-than-ringing endorsement he recently received from the newspaper in Elko.

The Daily Free Press noted that many of its conservative readers would probably be "shocked and dismayed" by its choice. But, the editorial said, only the powerful Reid could ensure that any overhaul of federal mining law would protect local interests and "not [drive] away the very industry that is the lifeblood of northeastern Nevada."

The editorial — headlined, "A selfish reason to vote for Sen. Reid" — crystallized the complex and often fraught relationship between libertarian-leaning Westerners and the federal government. (In many ways, Green said, it's like that of a parent and truculent child.)

In the romantic view, the state was built through self-sufficiency, by plucky pioneers and scrappy miners "picking gold nuggets off the high desert," said Eric Herzik, head of the political science department at the University of Nevada in Reno.

But the reality, he and others note, is much different.

From the discovery of the Comstock Lode, which brought the first rush of gold and silver miners to the state, through the building of the transcontinental railroad and massive public works like Hoover Dam, Nevada has boomed thanks to federal policies aimed at overcoming its hostile environment.

"I don't think any serious historian would deny that the West has been built on government largesse," said Donald Pisani, a retired University of Oklahoma scholar who has written several books on the subject.

Of course, the federal government has not always been so benevolent. Thousands were sickened in the 1950s by radiation emanating from nuclear explosions at the Nevada Test Site. For more than two decades, Washington has tried to convert Yucca Mountain, a barren stretch of desert 90 miles from Las Vegas, into the nation's nuclear waste dump. (Reid helped starve the project of funding and has declared it all but dead.)

But even weighing those costs, historians say, there is no doubt that Nevada has come out considerably ahead in its relationship with Washington.

Consider the state's most vital industry, gambling, which converted Las Vegas from a dusty rail town into a pleasure paradise and which yields most of the revenue in a state with no income, corporate or inheritance taxes. The industry could never have thrived — and Nevada would never have prospered — without powerful patrons in Congress, Reid being just the latest.

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