Gov. Jim Gibbons tests Nevadans' tolerance

Published Caption: Chad Lundquist/Nevada Appeal

Published Caption: Chad Lundquist/Nevada Appeal

LAS VEGAS " Things were already bad for Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons. His approval ratings were down, he was tagged as one of the nation's most vulnerable governors and fellow Republicans were lining up to challenge him in a primary more than a year away.

And that was before his divorce filing compared the popular first lady to an "enraged ferret" trapped in a phone booth.

Such unbecoming tidbits in recently unsealed divorce papers opened yet another wound for Nevada's badly battered first-term governor. Since being elected in 2006, Gibbons has been accused of sexual assault, sending love notes on a state phone, improperly firing a state employee and now, in court documents filed by his wife, Dawn Gibbons, a history of infidelity.

He also was investigated by the Justice Department, which cleared him of corruption charges. An ethics commission probed his real estate dealings, though it, too, found no evidence of wrongdoing.

While some of the allegations have been dropped and others are pending in court, all have played out before the voting public in quick succession. It's a cascade of trouble that has left political observers stunned and many voters turned off. Though he won 48 percent of the vote in 2006, the governor's approval rating has dipped to around 25 percent.

And yet, he plans to run again.

"I faced people with real bullets shooting at me," the 64-year-old former fighter pilot and five-term congressman recently told critics.

In running for re-election, observers say Gibbons will test conventional political wisdom in a famously unconventional state. In a state with no income tax, no ban on prostitution and no-fault divorce, many Libertarian-leaning voters have dismissed public officials' personal foibles as, well, personal.

Gibbons is set to find out if times have changed.

"There is a certain culture of Nevadans who feel really quite the opposite of how most other states feel," said Fred Lokken, a political science professor at Truckee-Meadows Community College. "Where I grew up in Wisconsin, if your neighbor had a trashy-looking house, it was your business. Around here it's, 'Yeah, well, they have a right to be that way.' There is a value system in Nevada that would say these are private issues and really don't matter."

Former state archivist Guy Rocha cites the re-election of Key Pittman to the U.S. Senate in 1940. Pittman handily won the election despite his public alcoholism. A newspaper had reported his incontinence on the stump. The Democrat died five days after Election Day.

"Nevadans have tolerated behavior in their politicians that voters in many other states would find unacceptable," Rocha said.

But that legacy doesn't silence headlines like the ones Gibbons faced earlier this month, when a judge unsealed most of the Gibbonses' court papers in what has become a very nasty " and public " divorce.

The first lady, a former state assemblywoman, accused the governor of carrying on two affairs " one with a Reno doctor's wife and another with a former Playboy magazine model. The filing noted that Gibbons sent more than 860 text messages to the doctor's wife, some into the middle of the night, over several weeks. When the texts on the state-issued phone were first revealed, Gibbons said he was seeking advice on policy and reimbursed the state for the cost.

In divorce papers, Dawn Gibbons' attorney called the explanation "laughable."

The governor and the woman have denied the affair.

Gibbons countered that he wanted his wife of 22 years out of the governor's mansion because she was aggressive.

"It was once said in another context that being in close quarters with such a volatile person was like being locked in a phone booth with an enraged ferret," the court documents said.

The governor is locked in two other legal tangles. One lawsuit filed by a state employee alleges that she was improperly fired because Gibbons thinks she leaked word of his text messaging.

The other stems from a criminal probe in 2006 when then-Congressman Gibbons was accused of sexually assaulting a Las Vegas cocktail waitress. The district attorney found there was not enough evidence to press charges, but the woman, Chrissy Mazzeo, has filed a civil lawsuit.

Gibbons denies both allegations, but civil suits like the divorce proceedings seem destined to linger.

Holding on to the state's highest office will undoubtedly be a challenge for the GOP. Nevada handed Democrat Barack Obama a 12-point victory over Westerner John McCain. Democrats far outnumber Republicans on voter rolls and control both houses in the Legislature. But Gibbons' first test will be with Republicans primary voters. It's a group that tends to be more conservative and more rural than the general election electorate. The issue that resonates loudest with many of these voters is taxes " keeping them low and scorning any new ones.

Perhaps, to his benefit it's an issue playing out in the state Legislature this spring. The state budget is coming up $3 billion short by some estimates. A tax package looms.

Gibbons campaign adviser Robert Olmer said the governor "will put red ink to any tax increase, he will veto it."

"After the legislative session Gov. Gibbons will come out very strong because he's held to his promises," Olmer said.

And that may be the biggest reason the governor can't be counted out, said Robert Uithoven, Gibbons' campaign manager in 2006.

"If Gibbons vetoes a tax package " even though it will be overridden " I think right out of the gate he's worth 20 (percent) to 30 percent of the Republican primary vote," he said. "You cannot say with 100 percent certainty that Gibbons has no chance of winning the 2010 primary."

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