Nevada state Senate has first black leader
November 15, 2008
Democratic state Sen. Steven Horsford was a university student interning for a semester at the Nevada Legislature 15 years ago. Now, thanks to Nov. 4 election results, he’s the first black in state history to become Senate majority leader.
Horsford, 35, says it’s about leadership rather than race. But he’s one of only 15 blacks to win legislative seats, starting with then-Assemblyman Woodrow Wilson in 1966, and only the fourth to serve as a senator since the Nevada Legislature first convened in 1864.
Today he holds the most influential job in the Senate.
It’s inevitable that parallels will be drawn to Barack Obama’s presidential victory, although the prospect of Horsford becoming majority leader wasn’t in the spotlight during much of his campaign to win a second four-year state Senate term.
Horsford’s re-election in a heavily Democratic, North Las Vegas-based district was expected. What was surprising were the defeats of two Republican incumbents in other Senate districts in southern Nevada that gave Democrats a 12-9 voting edge ” their first majority since 1991.
Only six months earlier, Horsford had become Senate minority leader and started working on what was viewed then as a long-odds effort to strip Senate Republicans of their bare 11-10 majority. On Nov. 4, the effort paid off, and he quickly won the support of other Senate Democrats to become majority leader. In his role, Horsford determines committee chairmanships, sets Senate priorities and will lead negotiations with the Assembly and with Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons on major issues such as tax plans or other proposals aimed at curbing the state’s growing revenue shortfall.
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Horsford describes his rise to political power to “being in the right place at the right time.” He adds that his stint as a student intern in 1993 got him interested in politics, but the idea of one day being the Senate leader “never entered my mind.”
Horsford was raised in southern Nevada and has a degree in political science from the University of Nevada, Reno. He has been active in state Democratic Party circles since the early 1990s. He and his wife, Sonya, a UNLV professor, have three young children.
Horsford is president of Nevada Partners, a nonprofit that provides education and job-training services; and chief operating officer of the Culinary Training Academy which prepares workers for jobs in the southern Nevada hospitality industry.
“I’m proud of my ethnicity, my race, but I’m more proud that I’m a product of Nevada and that I’ve had an opportunity to come back and serve,” Horsford said in an interview.
“I’m proud that barriers have been torn down, but that has been a work in progress over decades. In the end it’s more important that I’m viewed as a leader for all Nevadans, for all of the issues we deal with.”
Not so fast, says state Archivist Guy Rocha, who notes that Horsford has achieved a milestone in the Nevada Senate by becoming the first black “to be running the show, not just attending the show. That’s powerful socially and culturally and powerful politically.”
“Sen. Horsford in many ways has done on a smaller scale in Nevada what Barack Obama has done nationally,” Rocha said. “He’s part of a new generation of African-American leaders who can thank their brothers and sisters who came before them.”
Those predecessors for Horsford include Joe Neal, the first black elected to the Nevada Senate. Neal’s first session was in 1973 ” the year Horsford was born.
Neal recalls dealing with Senate leaders “who wanted me to sit in the back row and not be heard, but I didn’t. They came to accept the fact that I was going to be heard.”
Neal, 73, came to Nevada in 1954. He recalls segregationist policies that kept blacks from staying at big hotel-casinos. Rocha says that when Neal first won his Senate seat Nevada was still trying to “shed itself of its ‘Mississippi of the West’ appellation.”
Horsford says Neal, whose Senate seat he now holds, is a mentor whose counsel he welcomes. He adds he realizes “what he had to endure in order to be where he was as a member of the Senate.”
Neal actually had a chance, albeit a small one, of becoming majority leader. He was minority leader in 1989, but lost that in a power struggle with then-Sen. Jack Vergiels. In the 1990 elections, Democrats got control of the Senate and Vergiels became majority leader.
Neal says Horsford “has his work cut out for him because there’s not too much money in the budget.” But he adds that Horsford’s political future is bright if he succeeds in his role as Senate leader to help the state out of its current economic crisis.
Horsford says he will work cooperatively with Senate Republicans, led by veteran Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno, and with state Assembly leaders on solutions to the crisis which has led to deep cuts in state agency budgets ” which may be followed by still more reductions.
“Governing now is about working together, getting things done and being cooperative,” Horsford said.