Nevada legislative primaries part of anticipated big shake-up

Thirty-four primary election contests for the Nevada Legislature will figure in what could be one of the biggest shake-ups in Assembly and Senate representation in recent memory.

The legislative tax battle in 2003 already prompted nine incumbents to run for other offices or step out of politics. The Sept. 7 primary could produce more changes, and the Nov. 2 general election will complete the makeover in the Senate, now controlled 13-8 by Republicans, and in the Assembly, dominated 23-19 by Democrats.

Of the nine incumbent lawmakers who decided against re-election bids, only one of them is trying to stay in the Legislature - Assemblyman Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, who is seeking a state Senate seat.

Besides Beers, those opting not to seek another term in the Assembly include Democrats Tom Collins, David Goldwater and Vonne Chowning; and Republicans Walter Andonov, David Brown, Dawn Gibbons and Josh Griffin. All are from southern Nevada except Gibbons, who's from Reno. Sen. Joe Neal, D-North Las Vegas, also isn't seeking re-election.

Of the legislators who aren't seeking re-election, only Beers, Andonov and Brown did not vote for a record $833 million tax plan last year.

In all, 14 of the 32 Republicans in the Assembly and Senate backed the tax increase, which originated from a proposal from GOP Gov. Kenny Guinn. All 31 Democratic legislators voted for the increase.

The elements at work this election year are reminiscent of reaction to the 1989 Legislature's controversial 300 percent pension increase. The pension plan was quickly repealed because of public antipathy but not before it inflicted heavy political damage.

In the elections that followed, nearly half the contested Assembly and Senate seats went to newcomers, and the pension controversy was cited as a reason for many of the incumbents not being returned to Carson City.

Republicans say they expect voters to put them in control of both the Assembly and Senate this year - for the first time since 1929. But Democrats insist there's no way that will occur.

GOP lawmakers say they'll benefit from voter anger over the tax increases.

But Democrats note that most Republicans said before a final vote on taxes that they would have supported an increase of more than $700 million - so the peril is shared.

If GOP incumbents who voted for higher taxes are indeed imperiled, veteran state Sen. Ray Rawson, R-Las Vegas, could be in trouble. He's facing a strong primary challenge from Beers, one of the leaders of an anti-tax group in the Assembly.

The tax issue also is the main issue in Las Vegas Democrat Peggy Pierce's Assembly re-election bid. She faces two primary challengers, Lou Kalagian and Tonie Sison, who have questioned the record tax package.

Sen. Ann O'Connell, R-Las Vegas, also faces a tough primary challenge, but not because of the $833 million tax package. While her primary foe, Joe Heck, has portrayed her as a tax-and-spend lawmaker, she abstained from the vote to approve the package.

O'Connell contends Heck's campaign is being financed by the gambling industry because of her refusal to back a gross-receipts tax on businesses in 2003.

Besides taxes, controversy over government workers also holding legislative seats might affect some legislative races.

Lawmakers who wear two hats and face a primary opponent include Assemblyman Jason Geddes, R-Reno, a University of Nevada, Reno employee. Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani, D-Las Vegas, also has a primary but recently quit her Community College of Southern Nevada job. In any case, her primary opponent, Democrat Lewis Whitten, doesn't expect to win.

Another issue could affect Assemblyman Chad Christensen's re-election bid. The Las Vegas Republican was fined $4,500 for campaign finance reporting violations. However, his primary foe, Rudy Durso, isn't criticizing Christensen for that.

Six former Assembly members are attempting comebacks. They include Democrat Doug Bache of Las Vegas, who's challenging incumbent fellow Democrat Bob McCleary in the primary; Republican Lou Toomin of Las Vegas, who hopes to win his primary and challenge Democratic incumbent Kathy McClain in the general election; and Kathy Martin, who's in a primary fight for the seat being vacated by Assemblyman Brown. Martin served three Assembly terms, as Kathy Von Tobel, from 1997 to 2001.

Also, former Assemblyman John Lee is in a five-way Democratic primary for the state Senate seat now held by Democrat-turned-Republican Ray Shaffer of Las Vegas.

Shaffer has no GOP primary foe. But in the general election it could be interesting because his wife, Sharon, is among the Democrats in the primary. Just to make it more interesting - or confusing - there's a primary foe with a similar name, Democrat Mike Schaefer.


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