BY MIKE ZIGLER & JARRET KEENE
PHOTOS BY FREDWEINBERG
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Earlier this year, the liberal media had a real blast ripping into the friendship between then-acting-Nevada GOP chairman Paul Willis and Nye County brothel owner Maynard “Joe” Richards. Richards, under federal indictment for wire fraud in connection with an alleged bribery of a commissioner, threatened to obscure the fact that, once again, Nevada Democrats had their lunch eaten by Republicans with Sen. John Ensign and Rep. Jon Porter both returning to Congress, and Jim Gibbons handily defeating Dina “All-day Kindergarten” Titus in a gubernatorial race that Gibbons nearly threw away by “helping” a woman in a Las Vegas parking garage. The fact that union-backed Democrats couldn’t break the GOP’s grip on Nevada made no impression on liberal newspaper columnists. As Liberty Watch columnist Chuck Muth put it, the media smelled blood — especially in light of Willis curiously writing a letter to the Pahrump Valley Times defending Richards.
Things got weirder when, after word on a Republican plan for a January caucus in Nevada spread, Willis called the plan “a gimmick and a scheme and sham” in the pages of the Review-Journal, then, ostensibly on the very same day, turned around and told the Reno Gazette-Journal that the caucus “would be positive for Nevada.” (It wasn’t lost on political insiders that Willis had been appointed in the wake of Paul Adams’ own rocky stint as chairman.)
It was time for, as CityLife editor Steve Sebelius described it, “adult supervision.” Eventually, that supervision arrived in the form of Sue Lowden. On April 24, having been nominated by Gibbons, she was unanimously elected Nevada GOP chairwoman by the state central committee.
Longtime Nevadans will have no problem recalling Lowden. But for recent transplants, here’s the short version. Miss New Jersey 1973 and second runner-up in the Miss America pageant, Lowden has what many beauty queens distinctly lack: brains. After touring with Bob Hope and the USO in places like Vietnam and earning a Master’s degree from Farleigh Dickinson University, she went on to spend 10 years as a reporter and anchorwoman for KLAS-TV Channel 8. She and her husband Paul for a time owned the Sahara hotel-casino, and over the years, Lowden has been consistently recognized for her work with the Muscular Dystrophy Association. From 1992 to 1996, she served as a Nevada State Senator, and continues to serve as Executive Vice President of Archon Corporation, a gaming company.
The moment Lowden was named chairwoman, the media-fueled perception of the state GOP as a party in disarray began to dwindle.
“She’s a very professional person and brought some of the stature back to the party,” says Republican political consultant Pete Ernaut.
Sure, there have been a few odd stories in the news since her appointment, like the guy who broke into the party’s state headquarters on Sahara and Durango and stole portraits of President Bush and Dick Cheney, presumably out of disgust with the behavior of these big-government neoconservatives.
Still, Lowden has clearly had a galvanizing effect on party loyalists. The effect is not just evident in the newspaper coverage, but also in the way Republicans are eager to meet and greet their party’s presidential candidates. Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani have each appeared in Nevada three times, and coffers are now filling up. Local candidates are beginning to take shape, and the GOP’s overall mood of despair is lifting. Locally, the reason for the upswing is at least partly due to Lowden.
Of course, to solely credit Lowden with a resurgent Nevada GOP is a bit much. But it’s evident, from the newspaper coverage alone, that she’s a brought an enhanced level of savvy to a position that too often served as a punch line.
“I’m going to be completely candid with you,” Lowden revealed to Liberty Watch during a recent sit-down interview at party headquarters, “and people will have different opinions on this, but I do not think that the party was in disarray before I got here.”
According to Lowden, the previous controversy was simply a case of inter-party politics, which happens all the time. The controversy arrived after a vital election in which Gibbons was elected, Porter and Ensign were sent back to the Hill, and Dean Heller was elected. As far as she’s concerned, that’s the bottom line.
“I think that the group of party loyalists did a fabulous and phenomenal job,” she says of last November’s elections. “Now, if they had some inner squabbling during that time and subsequent to that, then it so doesn’t matter in the big scheme of things.”
Lowden didn’t see herself commandeering a rudderless ship. She maintains that Democrats might see it as being more problematic, but she doesn’t. In any case, why was Lowden looked upon as the obvious successor — and championed so aggressively by Republicans?
“I think because I’ve been through difficult times before,” she says, “having been in office during the Clinton years when I won despite a Democratic sweep, when Nevada went for Clinton and was a blue state at the time. I somehow emerged from that as a state senator.”
Perceived as an enemy by the unions, Lowden battled her way through two campaigns, refusing to kowtow to the pressure of special-interest groups. She consistently voted to the right on every issue, and with the senate at that time being 11-10 in the Republicans’ favor (and the first time our state senate had ever been Republican), Lowden’s was the swing vote on every controversial issue, including the right-to-work statehood and workers’ comp reform.
“Our state was almost bankrupt,” she recalls. “If we had been a private company, we would have had to declare bankruptcy. We had to make very tough decisions — business decisions — that were hard for everyone to swallow. We were 11-10 that whole time, and I think people remember that. They remember me as someone who didn’t crack under that kind of pressure.”
As her first move as chairwoman, Lowden confirmed the new, sooner date of the state caucus to Jan. 19.
Although it hasn’t had quite the dynamic effect Republicans had hoped for, the presidential candidates are, in fact, coming to Nevada more than ever before.
Republican political consultant Pete Ernaut identified two benefits of the sooner date.
“Jan. 19 is on a three-day weekend. This will get press to turn out.” he notes. “Plus, we will compete with South Carolina and have good chance of playing second fiddle.”
Lowden says being chairwoman is a good fit for her life, and she has the time to do it. She’s a friend of Jim Gibbons, having served with him in the Nevada legislature, where she also served with Dawn Gibbons. As she herself points out, it’s always nice to be friendly with the current governor and the first lady.
Lowden is on good terms too, with all of Nevada’s prior governors, Kenny Guinn among them. And, although she and her husband have not been particularly active as far as party politics go, they certainly have been active in contributions over the last 10 years. Those who have run for office know who she is, and she has met many people who have run and been elected (or not).
“It just seems with some business sense that I may have picked up along the way, and possibly with the contacts that I’m able to bring to fundraising not just in Southern Nevada but throughout the state — for all these reasons — I was looked at as a good choice.”
Bottom line: Lowden doesn’t serve any special-interest groups. She seems to honestly believe that the GOP is a big-tent party. She welcomes the Libertarian side of the party; she welcomes the mainstream conservative side, and the social conservatives. She welcomes the country-club types and the businessmen — they’re all fine with her.
“And I welcome all minorities,” she insists. “We are going to work harder on establishing a broader-based coalition, because there’s no reason for Republicans — given what we believe in — to serve just one group.”
Lowden says she has no agenda other than her commitment to the party principles. She believes that Nevada must remain red in ’08. We are a swing state, after all, and we have elected every president since Nixon, and that goes for both parties.
“Nevada only recently became a red state,” she reminds us. “During that whole Paul Laxalt period, we were blue. So this is a new evolution for us to be the dominant party in a historically blue state. I believe passionately that we’re at a time when it’s critical to have a Republican president. I believe in a strong defense. I believe in less government even though that’s not what we have right this minute. I believe in lowering taxes, cutting where you can, looking at the budget and cutting out the waste — all those core principles.”
Lowden also believes in the Second Amendment. A Las Vegas woman, she knows that to defend yourself, you need a weapon.
In any case, her focus is to strengthen Republican numbers in the state assembly, knowing that in 2010 Nevada will re-evaluate its districts for the 2011 legislative session, in accordance with the census. Unless Republicans are stronger than the 15 we have now, she says, they’re not going to be heard. Without a strong presence, assembly districts will remain gerrymandered the way they are now.
There are Republican assemblymen in booming, growing areas where there are 70,000 people. By the time 2011 rolls along, those districts could have 100,000 voters. Meanwhile, Barbara Buckley’s district of 10,000 isn’t going to change much in the next five years.
“This is not necessarily a Republican/Democrat issue,” says Lowden. “This is a one voter/one vote issue. We want our fair share of these assembly districts to be restructured so that every voter has a voice. Southern Nevada has had unbelievable population growth, the highest in the country for years, and it’s unfortunate that it has taken 10 years to redistrict.”
Imagine, she says, trying to run an assembly campaign in which you send out mailers to 100,000 constituents as opposed to being a candidate in an urban area where you only send out mailers to 10,000. And then there’s walking door to door! Sure, Lowden wants to deliver a red state and ensure a Republican president, but she’s not forgetting we have assemblymen, senate seats and a legislature that are critical to the average Nevadan.
Typically, the chairman’s focus is working on pushing national candidates. To a certain extent, the state party becomes the RNC, and a voting member of the RNC.
“I think sometimes, because we are a Western state and such a booming state, that we can get lost in that. You always have to remember that at the core it’s about the assembly and the senate, too. An equal amount of time has to be spent making sure they’re all elected.”
It’s Lowden’s committed and omnipresent approach that has Ernaut confident the Republican party is in safe hands.
“She’s somebody who has worked very hard and all of that will lead us to success,” Ernaut says. “It seems like she’s everywhere. She has bounds of energy and as Andy Warhol said, 80 percent of life is showing up. There’s no question she shows up. Frankly, she is undervalued.”
Bios and more on the 10 candidates vying for the Republican nomination
HOW NEVADA'S REPUBLICAN CAUCUS WORKS
Fatal error: Call to undefined function phpinclude() in /home/liberty/public_html/volume03/issue07/coverstory.php on line 1