CARSON CITY - First, let's get this out of the way: This is not Barbara Buckley's political obituary. The Las Vegas resident, first elected to the Assembly in 1994 and who was its speaker at the end of her run, is not done by anyone's estimate.
But it was an end, however, when she cleaned out her office on a Saturday before this month's election, having spent all the time she was allowed in office before term limits forced her out.
She reviewed the framed newspaper plaudits she earned and photos of bill signings on her walls. She tagged documents on unfinished policy fights for her legislative heirs, tossed her remaining business cards in the recycling bin.
She leaves having gained respect for her political savvy from both allies and foes, although she's made plenty of the latter in her career.
There are critics on the left who say she could have, should have, done more to overhaul the state's tax structure as a liberal leader, perhaps the most progressive speaker in state history and in the foreseeable future.
Her list of progressive accom
¶plishments began before she was elected. She fought a law that would have allowed landlords to evict tenants late on rent without virtually any warning. It passed the Legislature anyway. As a lawyer with the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada (where she's now executive director) she called contacts in the community to lobby then-Gov. Bob Miller to veto the bill. He did, and it inspired her to run for office.
From there, she fought to pass a patient bill of rights, one of the first in the nation; passed a used-car lemon law; created the consumer health assistance office to fight insurance companies; integrated Clark County's and the state's child welfare systems; passed legislation allowing people to buy prescriptions from Canada; passed a plan to cover prescriptions for those with disabilities; regulated payday loans; gave assistance to foster children until they were 21; expanded full-day kindergarten to more schools; gave homeowners the right to mediation with their mortgage holder before foreclosure.
Republican opponents, lobbyists and even some Democrats say she was a ruthless leader, set in her ways, even vindictive. Lobbyists, who would only speak anonymously, say she threatened them and future bills or clients if they opposed some of her legislation. The most public example of her wrath on a lawmaker is in 2007, when freshman Assemblyman Ty Cobb, R-Reno, broke protocol and voted against her being named speaker. Not one of his bills that session got a hearing.
Early in her career, big-time lobbyists thought they could comfort themselves with the thought that Buckley was too liberal to get to the top.
But she did, taking unprecedented control of her Assembly Democratic caucus and championing progressive legislation.
But if she was on a legislative roll during her career, it came to a crashing halt at the end. Since 2007, when the state's economy began to break down, governing has been a triage of cutting and trying to minimize damage. Her final act as a legislator was to work out a budget compromise with Republicans that saw education cut another 6.9 percent in a February special session.
It was like Buckley came to a party only to find it over, the Champagne all gone and her left to clean up the mess.
This is typical of how Buckley operated: In 2007, she pushed a bill that would regulate short-term lenders such as payday loan companies. Her Assembly wouldn't be a problem but she anticipated tough sledding in the Senate, which was controlled by Republicans, and then dealing with the new Republican governor, Jim Gibbons.
In the Assembly, she enlisted the help of military officers, who testified that servicemen in Nevada were being forced to pay exorbitant fees and interest rates.
The bill passed the Assembly, of course. Then it got to a Senate committee. The payday loan industry pitched an amendment to water down the bill, and it appeared the amendment was gaining traction.
Buckley recalled not just attending that committee hearing, but sitting in the front row with an officer from Fallon Naval Air Station, a subtle reminder that this was a priority.
According to lobbyists familiar with the deal, she threatened to kill a slew of legislation if her bill didn't pass untouched. (Buckley said she does not recall that portion of events.)
The Senate committee backed down and passed her bill as it was.
Still, the industry didn't give up. It hired Gibbons' former chief of staff to lobby the governor to veto the bill. Buckley responded by getting the U.S. secretary of the Navy to call Gibbons, a former fighter pilot, and ask him to allow the bill to become law. He did.
Buckley had more than an uneasy relationship with many business lobbyists (although some labor lobbyists were top advisers). She changed the rules so lobbyists could not enter the room where legislative staff was drafting bills and tried to limit lobbyists' role in the process. Her efforts ran counter to the traditional Legislature politicking, where lobbyists had become ingrained in the lawmaking process, almost as adjunct staff members.
Although she went to them for campaign contributions, as every politician does, take, for example, her answer to when she set her sights on being speaker.
"The Legislature's pace is so fast, I don't know if there ever was a session when I said, ÔI'd like to be speaker someday.' I was too busy working on bills or issues, outwitting the lobbyists who are being paid to defeat the legislation."
There is an axiom held dear by Nevada moderates from both parties: If you make no one happy, you did something right.
In that light, the 2009 legislative session was a success for Buckley. In unprecedented fashion, the Legislature rejected a governor's budget, overrode his veto and passed tax increases totaling $1 billion. Buckley played a key role in developing the shape of the tax package and in "closing the deal" at the end of the session - getting it passed.
"Governing in a recession is extremely difficult," she said. "We worked extremely hard last session to minimize the cuts, to work in a bipartisan way to rewrite the budget submitted by the governor."
Getting the votes necessary to override a governor's veto "is so difficult to do, I'm still amazed we were able to accomplish it."
The financial crisis did not end in 2009. In February, the Legislature was called back to Carson City to hunt either for more money or more cuts.
Except for a few of the Legislature's most liberal members, no one, including Buckley, wanted to raise taxes again, especially so close to another election, so soon after drawing from that well a year earlier.
So politicians walked gingerly. The Legislature and Gibbons, this time working together, raised some fees on industries that were resigned to it. They raided local government accounts. They cut budgets by another 6.9 percent, including the K-12 education budget that had always been a priority for Buckley. She went along with it, helped fashion the final solution. She won't admit to any regrets, but Democrats close to Buckley said it was difficult for her to leave on that note.
"It was personally excruciating to her to do that," said Sheila Leslie, a former assemblywoman and a top Buckley lieutenant who will return in 2011 as a state senator. "For Speaker Buckley, cutting education for her was truly the last resort."
Still, her reputation among most liberals is as a hero.
The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, an umbrella organization that represents liberal interest groups, gave her its inaugural Trailblazer Award this year.
"We pretty much created the award for her," Executive Director Bob Fulkerson said. "She has it all - the intelligence and the compassion and the strategic mind to be able to accomplish great things for ordinary people."
But she has been accused of putting her political interests ahead of the state's.
When she said she opposed a corporate income tax in 2009 because there was not enough support for it, she was criticized for prematurely taking it off the table. She said the votes simply weren't there.
"In the endgame (of finishing the budget), where the arguments take place, she was a strong advocate for what she wanted, particularly in the area of K-12 and many of the health and human services issues," he said. "She was usually pretty persuasive. But in the end, she understood that compromise was necessary."
It was assumed by many in 2009 that Buckley would seek the Democratic nomination for governor.
She didn't, citing family reasons. Her son Aiden, who was a frequent presence during sessions in Carson City, is 11. And she said she is at peace with her decision.
She still has $580,000 in campaign contributions in the bank, after giving out $110,000 in contributions this cycle, she said. At 49, she can look toward an open attorney general seat in four years or challenging Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval. She can ponder a seat in Washington, D.C., as she continues to head the Legal Aid Center and its campaign for a new headquarters.
And she'll remain active along the political sidelines, promising that on issues such as consumer protection, child welfare and school funding, she would not be silent during the 2011 Legislature.
"I'll come up and testify on causes I care about," she said. Fading away quietly wouldn't fit her plans.
"Is it tough to leave in the middle of a crisis?" she said. "Of course."
email@example.com / 775-687-4597
Source: Las Vegas Sun