LAS VEGAS — Twenty-six palm-sized portraits of Nevada’s U.S. senators hang on a wall here. The most recent portrait is not another man in a no-nonsense tie, but a pearl-wearing Latina whose election in 2016 made state history.
As the state’s first female senator and the chamber’s first Hispanic woman, Catherine Cortez Masto replaced former Sen. Harry Reid, a Democrat who in more than 30 years in office became one of the most powerful politicians in state history. He led the Senate majority and endorsed Cortez Masto immediately after she announced her candidacy.
Whether she could fill Reid’s shoes, she says, is a question she has had to answer often.
“When I was on the campaign trail, people would ask me that all the time, and I would say, ‘yeah, not only am I going to fill those shoes, I’m going to do it in heels,’ “ Cortez Masto said in mid-December, sitting in her second-floor office in the nation’s capital, near the Senate rules committee.
Cortez Masto was still moving into the space when she reflected on her first year as a senator. At the time, Congress was finalizing a massive tax reform bill that has since been signed into law by President Donald Trump.
“I joke, the biggest challenge I had when I initially got here was learning my way around because it is a maze,” she said. “It’s like anything. You’re going to learn. I’m a new senator, so you’re learning the rules.”
Michael Green, an associate history professor at UNLV, said Cortez Masto seemed to be adopting Reid’s style of getting her committee work done and focusing on constituents rather than seeking attention.
“It’s safe to say there has never been a more powerful Nevadan in Washington, D.C., than Harry Reid,” Green said. “Senate majority leader for eight years, in the leadership as long as he was, the longest-serving member of Congress from Nevada altogether — he’s a tough act to follow.”
Her first year was spent in a basement office with other new senators, learning the ropes and hunting down chocolate late at night for a sugar boost. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., remembers those late nights.
“The election of 2016 was highly charged. The consequences were history-making in many ways in terms of the impact on a lot of people,” Harris said. “She and I basically came into the Senate with a lot of common priorities, including what we needed to do for Dreamers and our DACA kids.”
Cortez Masto, one of four minority women in the Senate, has hosted a series of diversity roundtables with women in her first year in office.
“Catherine assumed a role of leadership, making sure that people who work in the Senate have that kind of support,” Harris said.
ROOTS BEYOND NEVADA
Nevada’s junior senator says her family’s background, with relatives from Mexico and Italy, influences her policies. Her paternal grandfather came to the U.S. from Mexico. “Through the Rio Grande, as my grandmother tells the story,” Cortez Masto says.
On her mother’s side, Cortez Masto has a great-grandfather from Italy who arrived at Ellis Island. Both of her parents came to Las Vegas as children with their families, later graduating from Las Vegas High School. The couple met after Cortez Masto’s father returned from South Korea, where he served in the Army.
She says her father, Manny Cortez, grew up in a trailer in North Las Vegas and parked cars at the Dunes when he was young. Her mother, Joanna, was a bookkeeper and community volunteer, working with service groups like Beta Sigma Phi.
Manny, who died in 2006, led the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority for 13 years and spent 15 years as a Clark County commissioner. He had a hand in launching the famous “What happens here, stays here” advertising campaign that helped revitalize Las Vegas.
“That appreciation for giving back in the community came from my parents and grandparents, because they were hard workers but they never forgot where they came from,” Cortez Masto said. “You don’t forget that when you succeed, others helped you get there, and so you help others as well.”
DECIDING TO RUN FOR OFFICE
After graduating with a finance degree from UNR and a law degree from Gonzaga, Cortez Masto was chief of staff for Democratic Gov. Bob Miller and eventually became an assistant U.S. attorney in D.C. She returned to Nevada to serve as an assistant Clark County manager, working on issues ranging from domestic violence prevention to drug trafficking.
“I spent a career solving problems in communities,” she said.
Then she decided to run for Nevada attorney general.
“I felt our state was dealing with a number of these issues, and that would give me the platform to solve those problems,” she said.
Cortez Masto served as attorney general from 2007 to 2015. She says this was an interesting time, when her priorities collided with the Great Recession and her focus was pushed in a new direction.
“Identity theft, the methamphetamine problems, senior protection issues, domestic violence. . When I went into 2007, that was my focus, and then the crisis hit and shifted everything,” she said of the economic downturn.
In 2015, Cortez Masto announced she would run to fill Reid’s vacant seat.
“We met when she came to Washington a few years back,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. “So when she decided she was going to get in the Senate race, I was one of her earliest and strongest supporters.”
In November 2016, she was elected in a heavily Hispanic state with 47 percent of the vote compared with Heck’s 44.7 percent.
LESSONS FROM CONGRESS
Cortez Masto took office Jan. 3, 2017, the day before Republicans started an unsuccessful campaign to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
“I got to cast a vote to fight against it,” she said. “To me, that’s what it’s about. You don’t forget that.”
She has sponsored four bills and co-sponsored dozens more, but few have moved past committee in the Republican-controlled Congress.
Cortez Masto also has been advocating for a vote on the DREAM Act, legislation that would provide relief for some young immigrants who will lose deportation protection when the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program ends, and voted against a short-term spending plan that kept the government open through December, citing a lack of a solution for DACA recipients.
“I’m disappointed in the process from the very beginning, whether it’s health care or tax reform,” she said. “There has been a concerted effort by the majority to not only exclude the minority in this discussion, but to fast-track it and exclude the public in this process.”
Cortez Masto said she was fortunate to serve on the six committees she wanted, including the banking committee, where Warren also is a member.
Warren, elected in 2012, said that while she misses Reid and his ability as majority leader to be at the center of negotiations, Cortez Masto is tough and well-prepared.
“I get to watch her in action almost every week,” Warren said. “She worked hard for Nevada homeowners during the financial crisis, and now she brings that same determination to Congress.”