Can Joe Neal become the Mike O'Callaghan of '98?


Can State Sen. Joe Neal (D-North Las Vegas) become the first African-American governor west of the Mississippi? In the state known until recently as Mississippi West?


Here's how.

DIMINISHING RETURNS. First-time candidate Kenny Guinn's swollen bank account has achieved perpetual motion - generating endless negative publicity about the gambling-industrial complex renewing its lease on the governor's office.

The Las Vegas Republican's underlings even called his $2.5 million war chest evidence of "grassroots" support, knowing full well that more than three-quarters came in chunks of $5,000 or more. A whopping $300,000 came from Circus Circus alone.

During the 1997 legislature, gamblers succeeded in upping taxes on everyone but themselves. Neal wants to return the favor by increasing levies on big casinos while eliminating the per-employee tax. It's paid by all businesses but is especially despised by small enterprises as a job-killer.

DIMINISHED CAPACITY. Before 1996, candidates never suffered because of overabundant money. That's completely changed. The Center for Voting and Democracy studied 1996 congressional races having no incumbent. The presidential vote, not money, proved decisive. Where Clinton fared poorly, outspent Republicans often won. Where he did well, so did underfunded Democrats. The president carried Nevada in 1992 and 1996.

DIMINUTIVE RERUNS. Guinn has recently shown the weaknesses inherent in an untested, greenhouse candidate. "I don't think people should elect a governor on issues," he recently said. "They should elect a governor on leadership."

Reminds me of the line Mel Brooks attributed to Errol Flynn: "I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star!"

Last week, Guinn told a small group in Gardnerville that "I'm trying to do everything opposite of what a true politician would do."

Not so. He's doing exactly what Chic Hecht did. Guinn's forays into northern Nevada have been confined to preaching to small choirs of the faithful.

In 1982, the diminutive Hecht's handlers decided to let their TV commercials do the talking. The candidate was kept under wraps and sent with chaperones to the rural counties.

Bob Brown, who commanded my maiden voyage in Nevada follytix, once told me how he managed Hecht to a legislative upset in 1966. Brown knew Hecht was unimpressive but photographed well. He remanufactured Hecht as James Bond, planting exaggerated cold war spy stories in pliable Vegas papers and producing TV spots with the camera lens shooting up from the ground.

In 1984, the Almanac of American Politics called Hecht "probably the least prepossessing member of the senate. He is short, speaks with a squeaky voice and a lisp, and is anything but a brilliant phrasemaker."

Hecht's most brilliant phrase came on Reno's KOLO TV-8 when he called the proposed nuclear waste repository a "nuclear suppository."

GLOWING REVIEWS. The man Hecht defeated, four-term former Sen. Howard Cannon (D-Nev.), last year said he could have stopped the proposed nuclear waste site had he retained office. Cannon now views as inevitable the siting of the dump at Yucca Mountain.

Only Rep. Harry Reid (D-Las Vegas) opposed the dumpsite when the new congress was seated in 1983. Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.) ordered his GOP minions to adopt a "wait and see" position on nuclear waste. New Sen. Hecht and freshman Rep. Barbara Vucanovich obeyed. Washington interpreted this as split public opinion and tagged us as the only state open to nuclear supposition.

Like Hecht and Dan Quayle, Mr. Guinn's handlers keep him muzzled on a short leash. A skeptical public is increasingly reluctant to accept as qualifications only name, rank and serial number - especially if the serial number is printed on mountains of small, unmarked bills.

THE GREAT EQUALIZER. Sen. Neal will need money to make his case and make the contrast but can succeed on far less than Guinn. The bank account backlash now acts as an equalizer enabling Neal to practice political jujitsu, using Guinn's weight to defeat him.

NEAL CAN RAISE MONEY NATIONWIDE because of what he has accomplished, what he can achieve and who he has become: a 26-year senator with a chance to become the second African-American governor since Reconstruction. (Douglas Wilder, D-Va., became the first in 1990.)

HISTORY REPEATS. In summer of 1970, GOP Lt. Gov. Ed Fike was considered a gubernatorial shoo-in. Sig Rogich, a young TV ad salesman from Reno's KTVN TV-2, became Fike's press secretary. Rogich, another Bob Brown protegé, today manages Guinn's campaign. Place pictures of Guinn and Fike side-by-side and you will swear they were separated at birth.

In 1970, Mr. Rogich's client lost to an unknown given no chance, an ex-Marine and federal government employee named Mike O'Callaghan.

LET'S GET IT ON. Rare personalities like former Gov. O'Callaghan and Washoe District Judge Mills Lane have evolved into very popular leaders because of their off-the-cuff outspokenness. Neal enjoys a similar tell-it-like-it-is reputation.

No one can guarantee a repeat of history. I guarantee that Sen. Joe Neal will run the most interesting campaign in Nevada this year.

I'll certainly work to make it happen.

Be well. Raise hell.


© Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a member of CWA Local 9413. He is a Reno-based syndicated columnist, a 29-year Nevadan, and editor of U-News.
Barbwire by Barbano has appeared in the Sparks Tribune since 1988 and parts of this column were originally published 1/11/98.

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