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A good political rule – don’t assume

Back in the 1970s there was a report that U.S. Rep. David Towell, who served one term as a Republican U.S. House member from Nevada, sent out a questionnaire on current issues and got one surprising result.

In those days, the state had only one U.S. House member, so such a mailing went to every Nevada household.

When the responses went back to Towell, they were pretty much what might be expected of Nevadans – except for the answer on gun control. Towell’s office was jolted to find that Nevadans had voted in favor of it. So much of Nevada politics rests on assumptions about the state’s electorate, and that conventional wisdom often turns out to be wrong.

All through the 1970s and 1980s, state legislators assumed that the state’s voters mostly opposed abortion. They enacted various anti­-abortion measures on that assumption. Finally in 1990, women’s rights leaders had enough.

By then, to comply with federal court decisions, Nevada lawmakers had enacted a Roe-­style abortion law.

So the women leaders circulated a referendum petition to put that law on the ballot for a vote of approval or disapproval by Nevadans. Nevadans voted in favor of abortion in a landslide, 71.3 to 27.2 percent.

When Towell ran for re-election after one term, he was defeated by Democrat James Santini, who like so many politicians before him, geared his career toward the small counties. The convention wisdom was that they were the “real” Nevada. During a House career from 1975 to 1983, Democrat Santini fashioned himself as “Mr. Minerals,” cultivating the mining industry and its workers.

The problem was that Nevada was becoming one of the nation’s most urban states, with most of the population in Washoe and Clark counties. What sold in Elko County was less palatable in Reno and Las Vegas, where mining was considered hostile to the environment because of its opposition to reclamation of the land and other factors.

When Santini ran for the U.S. Senate in 1982, he didn’t come close to winning the nomination among his pro-­environment fellow Democrats and lost the party primary.

When, four years later, he switched parties and ran as a Republican, he didn’t fare any better in a general election against a Democrat who ran as an environmentalist.

Now it’s 2015 and gun control is an issue in this state. The way the assumptions are running can be seen in a recent Las Vegas Sun headline: “Why would gun control advocates see Nevada as a source of hope?” The story began, “As a gun-­loving state…”

At the Nevada Legislature, on the assumption that guns are popular, Republicans are trying to enact measures to allow guns on school and college property. Two years ago, Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed a measure to make background checks more effective.

On the other side, Democratic Sen. Debbie Smith — currently recuperating from surgery for a brain tumor — has a bill to prevent Nevadans convicted of domestic violence from legally owning guns. Even such a minor curb on guns cannot gain support from Republicans.

But gun control advocates are going around the politicians and the assumptions and taking the issue straight to the voters in a 2016 ballot initiative to expand background checks on gun sales in the Nevada. The way Nevada’s initiative law works, the Nevada Legislature gets the first chance to enact it, which would make it unnecessary to put it on the ballot. The lawmakers also have the option of writing their own version of the ballot measure, a safeguard against badly drafted initiatives.

That alternative version would then go on the ballot alongside the petition version. Republicans have responded by simply ignoring the initiative altogether.

According to the 2010 census, Nevada is now 94.2 percent urban, a gain of 13.3 percent since Towell represented Nevada. Many of those voters associate guns with urban crime, or with incidents like the Sparks High School boy who killed a teacher in 2013.

Like last year’s Republican campaigns in Nevada, resources from out of state are expected to arrive to support the ballot measure in next year’s campaign. It will be another test of the state’s long-time political assumptions.

Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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