LAS VEGAS — Democratic Assemblywoman Peggy Pierce, a veteran lawmaker described as the “staunch liberal conscience” of the Nevada Legislature, died Thursday after a battle with cancer. She was 59.
A tireless advocate for higher taxes on the state’s mining industry and big businesses, Pierce died about 4:15 a.m. Thursday under hospice care, according to her longtime boyfriend Jon Sasser. She was fighting her third bout of breast cancer in the past 10 years, and her condition had rapidly declined in the past week, he said.
Because there is no legislative session scheduled between now and the next general election in November 2014, her seat will likely remain vacant for the next 13 months, according to Rick Combs, director of the Legislative Counsel Bureau.
Pierce was born in Milton, Mass., in 1954, the seventh of eight children and the daughter of an Episcopal priest active in the civil rights movement. She lived in San Francisco before venturing to Nevada 25 years ago with dreams of becoming a professional singer.
“Reality hit her when she got here. She realized she didn’t have the personality for it,” said her older sister, Catherine Moyer. “As outspoken as she was, she was really quite a private person.”
She took food service and hotel jobs in Las Vegas and ascended the ranks of the union. She was elected to the Assembly in 2002 and represented a western Las Vegas district south of Summerlin while holding a job at United Labor Agency of Nevada.
A relentless proponent of workers’ rights, the environment and more taxes on the mining industry, Pierce was “a champion of the people who don’t otherwise have a voice,” Sasser said.
“She was incensed about Nevada’s tax structure that soaked the working class and soaked the poor,” said Bob Fulkerson, executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, a group that counted Pierce as an ally.
Those who worked with her said she forged ahead for liberal causes at times when her colleagues held back to chart a more centrist course or wait for the green light from the business community.
She was one of two lawmakers who broke ranks with Democratic leadership before a special session in 2010, saying the state should raise taxes even in the depths of the recession. In 2011, she pushed for steep tax hikes on cigarettes and alcohol and fought to remove 60 percent of the deductions a mining company can claim. And in 2013, when business lobbyists opposed a tax plan that aimed to raise money for education, she didn’t mince words.
“You guys haven’t liked anything in the quarter of a century I’ve lived in this state,” she said in March, adding that should the margins tax become law in January 2015, “you’ll have nobody to blame but yourselves because all you ever say is no.”
It was a typically feisty response from Pierce, whose fans nicknamed her “honey badger” this year.
“That was Peggy’s legacy — the fact that she would stand up to the most powerful interests in the state,” Fulkerson said. “It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be really hard without her.”
Rep. Steven Horsford, a fellow Democrat who served with Pierce in the Legislature before being elected to Congress, said she was respected on both sides of the aisle as a hard worker who cared about the people behind the issues.
“She was a huge fighter and overcame a lot of struggles with her health,” Horsford said. “While she ultimately succumbed to that, I’ll remember her coming to the floor having just had chemotherapy because she knew how important it was to represent her constituents.”
Republicans alike praised her, including Gov. Brian Sandoval.
“A longtime advocate for the people of Nevada, I admired Peggy’s tenacity and commitment to those she represented and she will be missed,” he said in a statement.
Pierce is survived by her mother, seven siblings and numerous nieces and nephews. Funeral plans are pending, Moyer said.