A Conversation with Governor Sandoval

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Territorial Enterprise editor Elizabeth Thompson recently sat down with Governor Sandoval to talk about his love of history, his life growing up, and the people and events that influenced him most on the road to the Governor’s mansion. This is an edited transcript.

Thompson: It’s been written many times that you’re a history buff. When did you first become interested?

Gov. Sandoval: I’ve loved history as long as I can remember. Even in fourth, fifth grade I’d do reports on presidents. I loved to learn about the Revolutionary War and particularly American history, but I loved world history as well.

Thompson: Was there a fictional book that played into that interest?  Sometimes, with kids, that’s how it happens. Do you remember a book that particularly sparked your imagination?

Gov. Sandoval: No, not a book. I’ve always loved Abraham Lincoln, and I’ve always been fascinated by the Civil War – and as I said, also with the Revolutionary War, as well as World War II. I was fascinated with those events and how they changed the course of history, as well as interested in the presidents who were in office during those times, how they acted and reacted, along with the generals. And you know, back in those days you used encyclopedias…

Thompson: Right, paper encyclopedias…

Gov. Sandoval: Yes, and we had a set, and I would write all my reports from the Encyclopedias. I would put the paper on the window for the light and trace a General and color it. I still have them at home, some of my reports. And now that’s evolved. Kathleen and I love to go antiquing. Before we had kids, whenever we’d travel, we’d go to antique shops because we both shared that interest. But to answer your original question, it’s been forever that I’ve loved these things.

Thompson: So you were just born with this love?

Gov. Sandoval: Yes. I can’t point to one person or one teacher who really brought me onto this. It’s just something that has been in me, as I said, for as long as I can remember.

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Thompson: Did your family travel a lot when you were growing up?

Gov. Sandoval: No. I mean we went around close by, but I mean, well, I guess we traveled a little because I had family in Salt Lake and so we would always drive I-80 to get to there. And in those days the freeways didn’t bypass the towns, so you would see the Two Stiffs Selling Gas sign in a Lovelock and we would also stop at Winnemucca and the same with Battle Mountain. There was a deli there. And then we would stop in Elko sometimes because it was halfway, and then Wells, and went over and then you go to the salt flats. So we traveled that road quite a bit when I was a kid.

Cat (photographer): What were you riding in? The old family station wagon?

Gov. Sandoval: (laughs) No, it was a 1963 van from the telephone company that my dad bought for a few hundred bucks.

And then, too, you know when I was in high school, I played at Manogue and we were in the AA and so in our league was Lawry and Winnemucca, Elko, White Pine… So, anyway, I got to know the state really well because Hawthorne was in our league, Douglass was in our league, Yerington was in our league. We’d always play Elko the first night and then we’d spend the night in Wells and then the next morning we’d drive to Ely and then we’d drive all night to get back. And then, too, we played Elko when I was playing football. Back then, we’d spend the night at the other team’s kids’ houses. And the same thing when we played Boulder City for basketball; we would spend the night at the team’s houses with their families.

Thompson: So after high school, college. Did you put yourself through or take out loans?

Gov. Sandoval: Well, my parents helped, but I took out a lot of loans and paid them off. I mean, that’s why I needed to get a good job. I worked throughout college. I worked at St. Mary’s Hospital in Reno as a tray boy. I worked at UPS unloading trucks. I worked at the Washoe County Law Library, in the good old days when you replaced the updated pages in books.  And then the summer between my senior year in college and first year of law school, I worked as a tour bus greeter at the El Dorado. When I got out of law school, I had to pay loans back; that was part of working. I paid it all off early, too.

Thompson: You’re proud of that?

Gov. Sandoval: Yes.

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Photo by Sholeh Moll

Thompson: I noted when I was reading up in preparation for our conversation that some of your short biographies say you did a double major, English and Economics as an undergrad. Is that right?

Gov. Sandoval: No. English was my major, and UNR – they have never fixed this, and they also have me as a foreign affairs major and I didn’t study foreign affairs; I don’t know where they got that – but I was an English major and an Econ minor.

Thompson: Okay.

Gov. Sandoval: And then I was one class away from having an Accounting minor as well.

Thompson: Oh…?

Gov. Sandoval: Yeah.

Thompson: Well, I guess that won’t surprise anyone too much.

Gov. Sandoval: I didn’t want to take, what was it…?  There was this incredibly hard accounting class that was just a killer class that I needed to finish that minor.

Thompson: And you were avoiding it?

Gov. Sandoval: Yes.

Thompson: That’s funny. I avoided plenty of accounting classes myself. So did you know then that those majors were your setup for law school or…

Gov. Sandoval: Well, and backing up, I thought for a minute you were going to ask whether I have any regrets. And I wish I’d been a history major. I mean, I would have gotten the same thing out of it in terms of writing and reading, which were the skills that I really acquired as an English major.

Thompson: Right. So what was your intent when you chose the undergraduate path you took, English with a minor in Econ, did you know then that you were headed to law school?

Gov. Sandoval: Well, I hoped to be. Part of the background on that is that my mom was a legal secretary, and so as a little boy I would have to get a ride to the federal building after school. She worked as–I think they called it a stenographer at the time, but it was as a secretary to the U.S. Attorney and she didn’t get off work until 5:30. I would get out of school at 3:00, and I had the choice of either waiting at school until 5:30 and be the last kid or get a ride over there and sit in her office.

So I often went to her office and got exposed to the law. And then, my first – well, actually, my first paying job, I raised sheep as a kid to make money – but after that, my first paying job was as a busboy at the cafeteria at the Federal Building between my 8th grade and 9th grade year. I would see all the judges come through, and I would see the U.S. Attorneys come through, and the public defenders and private bar that would come through, and every now and then I’d get a chance to go and sit in the back row of the courtroom and watch court. So, yes, it was always in the back of my mind, but it honestly didn’t really seem attainable because there were no professionals in my family.

So when I got to college, I thought, well, what do lawyers need to do? And I talked to a few lawyers, and they said you have to be able to verbally express yourself and also be able to express yourself in writing. The best lawyers are the best writers. So that’s why I was an English major, hoping that I’d get to go to law school someday.

Thompson: Why law at Ohio State?

Gov. Sandoval: My brother went to veterinary school there, and there was an economic reason, too. My dream school was University of Utah, though. That’s where I wanted to go to school.

Thompson: Why?

Gov. Sandoval: When I was a little, little boy, we lived in Salt Lake City. We had some cousins there, and I loved Salt Lake. I had wanted to go to University of Utah, but we couldn’t afford it, so I went to UNR. And I thought, well, maybe someday I can go to Utah for law school, and so I applied there and also to maybe a dozen other law schools. I applied to Ohio State, frankly, because it was a Top 25 law school, and the application fee was only $10, so there was literally nothing to lose. And, as I said, my brother was there and he was in his third or fourth year of veterinary school.

Thompson: OK, and then…

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Gov. Sandoval: And so I hadn’t yet heard from them, but I had gotten into Hastings. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Hastings?

Thompson: Yes; my best friend went there.

Gov. Sandoval: Fabulous, fabulous school.

Thompson: She’s still paying for it.

Gov. Sandoval: Yeah, exactly. Well, so, I thought, this is it:  Hastings; San Francisco; a great law school. The tuition was really expensive. And to have even a studio or one-bedroom flat was $1,500 a month, and I would have had to take huge loans… but that was where I was going to go, because I thought, I’ve got to go to the best law school I can and I’ll figure it out later. And then I got into Ohio State. I graduated from UNR, went on a graduation trip, came back, and there was the letter from Ohio State in my mailbox. And even the out-of-state tuition was a third of Hastings. Same great reputation, and I shared a two-bedroom townhouse; my share of the rent was $200. So I got to go to a great law school that was affordable. And I love sports, so it was the combination of the two, and so I went there sight-unseen. I mean, I had never stepped foot in Columbus, Ohio, and had a great experience, but that’s how I ended up there.

Thompson: I couldn’t help but think – as you were talking and as has sometimes been written about you – the word “pragmatist” applies. Ohio State was a pragmatic decision, right there at the beginning of it all.

Gov. Sandoval: Yes, it was. I mean, in a way, Hastings would have been easier. San Francisco was nearby and it was familiar, and all of that, but again, my family just got by financially, and me putting myself through college with my sheep-tending money and a little help from my parents and working my way through school. So it was pragmatic, yes, but I got a great education and everything came out really well.

Thompson: Another word that’s often been used to describe you is optimistic.

Gov. Sandoval: Yes.

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Thompson: Where does that come from?  Were you also born an optimist? Or do you credit anyone in your life with helping you see the brighter side?

Gov. Sandoval: Well, I think that’s my nature, first, along with my parents ingraining in me if you work hard enough, you can achieve things. I’ve also had the blessing of having some incredible professional mentors in my life, the first of which was Paul Laxalt when I was in college. Our family didn’t know Paul Laxalt. I thought I would just apply to be an intern – this this was back in 1984 when it was the reelect and all of that, with Ronald Regan and the President’s best friend, et cetera. He told me later the reason he chose me was because I raised sheep and that was his family’s background, too, and that really unlocked a couple of things for me because I got to have this incredible experience in Washington, including indulging my love of history. And learned something on Capitol Hill.

You know, during my whole internship I probably saw the Senator only six times – talked to him, I mean – but I got to observe him, and he’s another person who’s an optimist and who treated everybody with dignity and respect, never said a negative word about anyone. A trued statesman, in every sense of the word, and for me, that really made an impression. Then the other two mentors are Bill Raggio and Kenny Guinn – Senator Raggio, when I was in the Legislature, and Governor Guinn when I was the Attorney General. With all of them, I think the case can be made that they were optimists, and so as I said, this is something from the very beginning that was reinforced by my parents, and that was then reinforced by some of my mentors.

Thompson: I was thinking as I was reading different versions of your biography that it could said you’ve had a pretty smooth path since coming out of college, starting with an easy win for an open Assembly seat in ’94.

Gov. Sandoval: I got a good result, but it’s because of the work that I put into it. I don’t know how much you know about that story, but I wasn’t looking to run. Kathleen and I just happened to buy our first house in Jim Gibbons’ Assembly District and that was when he had announced that he was running for Governor. I was practicing law. This was in 1993. A friend of mine was involved with the Republican Party. He said, “We’re interviewing Assembly candidates tonight. Why don’t you come with me?”  And so there they were, interviewing them. And I’m sitting in a chair watching this, thinking to myself, “I could do this. I know as much as these people do.”  And so I decided that I was interested, and then went to the party, and there was an individual – and she would probably corroborate this – Heidi Smith. You know Heidi?

Thompson: Yes.

Gov. Sandoval: Well, she was the chosen candidate in that district, and they discouraged me from running. I sat down with Kathleen. We decided to run. And I thought the only way I can win is to knock on doors. I knocked on– I mean… I lost count. It was over 15,000 houses.

Thompson: You personally knocked?

Gov. Sandoval: Personally, me only. Our campaign was just Kathleen and me and so I would knock on doors. I went and I got information on all the precincts. I prioritized them by what the turnout was in the last election in the primary. I knocked on every door twice. I would knock on the door, and if somebody was at home I’d say, “Hi, my name is Brian Sandoval. I’m a candidate for the Nevada Assembly. I’m walking your neighborhood today. Here is some information on my campaign. If you have any questions I’m glad to answer them right now. If you don’t, my phone number is right here. Please feel free to call.” I said it 15,000 times.

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Photo by Sholeh Moll

If they were home and wanted to engage, I would engage with them. If not, I would write a handwritten note on my walk cards that said “Sorry I missed you, Brian” and I’d look at the yard and if there were some nice flowers, I’d say, “Nice flowers.”  If there was a dog that was barking at me, I would write, “Loved your dog.” I would write notes for every door I knocked on, and then that night, I would go home, and I had stacks of postcards, and I would write a handwritten postcard to every house that I had been to that day. And if we had talked about something, I’d mention that. Drop off time at the post office was 11:30, and I’d take those postcards and run to the post office, so that the next day every house that I’d visited had a postcard.

We also put up signs. I’d ask people to put signs on their lawns, and we had so many signs they called my district “Sandovaland.” This was all from me knocking on doors personally asking if people would do this, put up a sign. And then, finally – you know how you always see balloons on candidate signs now?  Well, I think I was the first one to do that. We were talking going into Election Day, and I said, “God, there’s so many signs out there. It’s too bad we couldn’t float our signs above everybody else’s so that you could see them.” And that’s when the idea came to put balloons on the signs. It’s one of those things I’ll always remember.

Kathleen and I – and we had a young man who helped us, who was a college student, a campaign volunteer – we literally had hundreds of blown up balloons in our garage, all set to go with the strings. The night before the election, we put them in our cars, and from 10:00 p.m. on, we drove all over the district and tied balloons to every single one of our signs. The last one we did about 7:30 in the morning, just before the polls opened. The sun was coming up. We did that all night long, just Kathleen and I, and we got it done. So it’s a long winded answer to your question about how it may have looked easy. And I think that was a 70/30 race.

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Photo by Sholeh Moll

Thompson: So, then, you became the youngest-ever Gaming Commission Chair in ’98. And next was Attorney General – and that was not a close race, either, was it?

Gov. Sandoval: It wasn’t close for a reason. We worked. Granted, I was Chairman of the Gaming Commission and had two terms in the Assembly, but nobody knew me in Southern Nevada. Nobody had any idea who I was. So I stayed in this little apartment that had a card table and a folding chair and a beanbag and a TV and a mattress on the floor.

Thompson: In Vegas?

Gov. Sandoval: Yes, in Las Vegas.

Thompson: Where was it?

Gov. Sandoval: It was over by the Orleans. It was not a great part of town. I had to spend a lot of time down there, away from Kathleen, away from my family, to work for that. I debated John Hunt. A lot. I think we counted, 16 times during that race.

Thompson: 16?

Gov. Sandoval: Yes. We debated on the radio. We debated at UNLV Law School. We debated in front of service clubs. We debated on Alan Stock’s show. We could repeat each other’s lines, and we’d kind of laugh at each other. But I felt I needed to do that to get my name out there. John had grown up in Las Vegas; he was a successful lawyer there. Again, I always get this label as the supposed establishment person, but nobody knew who I was. And John raised a lot of money. So it was work, and we had a good outcome there. It was not handed to me.

Thompson: Would you say the same thing about the primary against Gibbons?

Gov. Sandoval: Absolutely. I mean first you’ve got to remember, backing up, so at that point I’m a Federal Judge. I have no money, no campaign infrastructure, nothing. I haven’t been on a ballot since 2002. No incumbent Governor in the history of Nevada has ever lost in a primary. And in the general, it’s Rory Reid, who is the Chairman of the Clark County Commission and has a $3 million or $4 million lead in fundraising. So I’m at ground zero, as a Federal Judge.

Thompson: I seem to recall that you won every county in that General.

Gov. Sandoval: Yes. It was heartening, but it was also a product of the fact that I spent time in every county. I went to barbecues and events and every parade. I went to, you know, I’ve lost count. There’s a pushpin map in that hallway that has a pin for every Nevada town or city that I’ve been to, and there are over 100. So again, it may have looked easy, but I worked hard.

Thompson: Fair enough.

Sandoval6So, getting back to your love of history, since being Governor, is there something new that you learned about Nevada’s history that particularly excited you or inspired you?

Gov. Sandoval: I don’t know, I mean, you never know it all. I mean, just sitting in this room, look at all the pieces in here. Look at this desk. This was Governor Sparks’s desk in 1904 or ’05, and there’s a photograph of him standing in front of it. Think of the history behind that. And you look at that desk over there. That desk was made for Paul Laxalt.

And you look at that overstuffed chair there in the corner, that chair was one of Governor Sparks’s chairs. The great story behind that was that Bob Faiss, who recently passed away and who was the Chief of Staff to Grant Sawyer, he was in this office a while ago before he passed away and said, “You know who sat in that chair don’t you?” and I said “No,” and he said, “Senator John F. Kennedy.”  Grant Sawyer was the first Governor to endorse JFK for President and JFK came out here to thank him. And Bob told me the story of JFK sitting in that chair, smoking like a chimney and then having an impromptu press conference in that corner, in that chair.

Thompson: What else?

Gov. Sandoval: Well, that big ship’s wheel on the wall. When I got here, that wall was completely blank, and I thought, boy, it would be nice to have a nice Nevada landscape or something like that up there. We couldn’t find one, so I talked to the museum, and they said, “Well, you can go into storage and see if there’s anything in there,” and I said, “Great.” So I go to this little storage area about three miles south of town, off a dirt road, and in there it’s like Indiana Jones at the end of the movie, the first movie, where there are rows of stuff just on shelves. And leaning against a wall with a blanket draped over it, with no special protection, is that ship’s wheel. I asked, they said, “That’s the original ship’s wheel from the U.S.S. Nevada.”

So I knew that the U.S.S. Nevada was the only ship to get underway at Pearl Harbor, the only ship to be at the invasion of Normandy and also in Okinawa and Iwo Jima. It was the ship that after World War II was so obsolete they dropped a nuclear device on it, and it still didn’t stink. Seriously. It was the subject of a story in a Nevada magazine. You should get it. It tells the entire story. But in any event, the ship was radioactive, so they had to sink it. And for me, this was an incredibly significant piece of Nevada history, so I asked if I could have it for display. That thing weighs over 300 pounds, and they had to attach it to an original beam.

Next to it is a photo of the ship on the open water. The watercolor there was from the museum as well. That is a picture of it being repaired. After it was damaged at Pearl Harbor, they repaired it and towed it, in time to be at Normandy and also to go to the Pacific theater and be at Okinawa and Iwo Jima. So I guess the essence, what it captures for me, is that like Nevada, the ship was “battle born”, a sort of reaffirmation of our state being battle-born in the war.

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Photo by Sholeh Moll

Thompson: Nice symbolism.

Gov. Sandoval: So, yes, in terms of history, have I learned more since being in office?  Absolutely. As an example, part of the Discover Your Nevada initiative is that we went out to Fort Churchill. I had never been out there, and to see the original buildings of Nevada soldiers that had been posted out there in 1863 and 1862 before Nevada even became a state, it was remarkable. How remote it was at the time, and what those men did.

Thompson: Since you mentioned a historical place in Nevada and since we’re resurrecting the Territorial Enterprise, I’m curious:  When was the first time you went to Virginia City?

Gov. Sandoval: I think I was seven years old. As a little kid, that was one of my favorite places to go because it was a western town and we could run up and down on the wooden planks. As I became older, I became more appreciative of the Comstock lode and the mining history there. Every now and then, I’ll take my youngest and we’ll go to church at St. Mary’s. It’s something special down there.

You know, I went to Manogue High School, and Patrick Manogue, who was a priest there and went on to become a Bishop, his original vestments are in that little museum downstairs there. The other part of that little museum that I like is in the basement. They have what I know to be one of only two surviving original flags for the State of Nevada.

Thompson: Have you been the museum, the Mark Twain/Territorial Enterprise Museum downstairs across from the saloon?

Gov. Sandoval: It’s been a long time, so not recently but I’ve been there.

Thompson: Before we wrap up, I want to ask you how you’ve liked living in another historic building, the governor’s mansion. Do you have any good stories?

Gov. Sandoval: It’s a privilege to be there. A funny anecdote… One day, I was downstairs running on the treadmill, and I didn’t know a group was coming through on a tour. I don’t know whether you’ve been upstairs in the mansion, but you can’t get to the living quarters without going by the main stairwell. And so, I’m in shorts and sweaty and all of that, and there’s a huge group downstairs, and I am a little modest in terms of what I was doing, so I hid. It was pretty funny because I had to wait 45 minutes because there was one group of kids that came through and then there was another group right away, so I couldn’t get back.

It’s also been neat living there because we have deer that are running around. And we had a bear not long ago that was on the camera. The bear came up to the front steps and then went away.

Thompson: Fast forwarding now to your State of the State speech, and the days since, I want to ask you what you thought about the L.A. Times writing that it appeared you had launched a “frontal assault” against the Tea Party. Is that how you see it?

Gov. Sandoval: Not even close. I hope that what the takeaway was from the State of the State was a recognition that our economy is changing, that we are growing again, that the state is attracting these great technology companies, these companies that are on the ground floor of these new battery innovations and aviation innovations. And Nevada’s future lies there, in part. So my speech was about – and I am committing my second term to – the children of this state. I’m absolutely determined that we provide them with a quality education. So that was the heart and soul of my State of the State, improving the delivery of K-12 education, as well as higher ed. in in Nevada.

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Photo by Sholeh Moll

Thompson: So, since your State of the State and since your budget came out, one question my friends who own businesses have asked me is this:  When you were considering revenue options and working out this “hybrid model,” as you’ve called it, did you look at taxing profits versus taxing a percentage of revenues or margins?

Gov. Sandoval: Well, that’s a corporate income tax you’re describing. You’d have to build your own IRS for Nevada. So of course we thought about it, but I don’t think we want a corporate income tax in this state.

Thompson: In your eyes, from a policy standpoint and an effect-on-the- economy standpoint – setting aside the onerous duty of setting up an IRS on a state level – do you think a corporate income tax would be so much worse than where you landed, on a business license fee?

Gov. Sandoval: Well, you might have some constitutional issues with a corporate tax, as well, because in Nevada an income tax is unconstitutional. So those are actually two pretty big hurdles.

Thompson: You think that constitutional provision applies to companies and not just individuals?

Gov. Sandoval: It could; the argument could be made.

Thompson: Did you seek legal counsel on that question?

Gov. Sandoval: No. I’ve got some pretty smart folks who are part of my staff, one of whom is the former head of the Department of Taxation.

Thompson: Yes.

Gov. Sandoval: I guess the answer is, in a way, I did seek legal counsel, which was my own counsel. There really aren’t a lot of alternatives here. There is the service tax. There is doubling the MBT. There is what Governor Guinn proposed in 2003. There is what John Oceguera and Steven Horsford proposed in 2011. There is what you had in that ballot question in 2014. And there is what I’ve proposed. I’ve thought about all these things and as I’ve said, nothing is going to be perfect, but I think this is the broadest, the fairest, and the simplest.

Thompson:         Thank you. I really enjoyed the conversation, Governor.

Gov. Sandoval: You’re very welcome.

Editor’s Note:

After our conversation, Governor Sandoval showed me some of his favorite collectibles. Among them were:  a signed invitation to Senator Laxalt’s 1967 inaugural ball (Sandoval admitted that he paid $7.00 for it at an antique shop and asked Laxalt to sign it later), a 1985 letter from Laxalt after Sandoval completed his internship in Washington D.C., and a collection of the autographs of nearly every Nevada Governor to date. The Governor also said that over the years he has read every State of the State speech he could get his hands on. He recommended reading them, as well as a variety of books including Grant Sawyer’s biography, Hang Tough; The Governor’s Mansion by Paul Laxalt; and Laxalt’s biography.

Photos by Cat Allison unless otherwise denoted.

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3 Comments

  1. Pingback: #NVLeg Live Thread: Day 40 - Let's Talk Nevada

  2. PEARL ALVAREZ said:

    I think the Governor should think a little more about his state employees.NOTHING is being done for them. Cutting their pay 4%, furloughs don’t help pay bills. We hear he has spent millions, billions for this and that but nothing for them.WHEN IS HE GOING TO DO SOMETHING????????????????????????????????????

  3. Sara Weber said:

    Great interview. His comments on the Tea Party were most interesting. Probably the Tea Party members would have a conflicting opinion with what he said. I have always thought him to be a genuine, brilliant, and down-to-earth family oriented individual, and very savvy politician.

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