Gov. Gibbons ends term bruised and battered | NevadaAppeal.com
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Gov. Gibbons ends term bruised and battered

SANDRA CHEREB
Associated Press

Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons closes the latest chapter in his 20-year political career after a rough-and-tumble term that left him politically bruised and physically battered – the latter courtesy of a feisty horse.

His wild ride as Nevada’s chief executive officially ends Jan. 3, when Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval takes control of a state severely crippled by the crush of the Great Recession.

Gibbons, 66, is still recovering after being thrown from a horse at a ranch north of Reno on Sept. 21 and breaking his pelvis in two places.

Out of view for more than two months, he returned to public duties in early December when he strode into the Western Governor’s Conference in Las Vegas, unaided by crutches to the surprise of staff. But the lame duck governor has mostly kept a low profile in his final months, not even attending the unveiling of his official portrait when it was hung in the Capitol on Dec. 17.

Gibbons stumbled into the governor’s mansion four years ago, dogged but unfazed by allegations of sexual assault and rumors of corruption. Throughout, he stood firm against a growing number of detractors, unapologetic and seemingly unaware that his refusal to seek compromise would result in his embarrassing rejection by his own party.

“I don’t think it’s the kind of ending he would have hoped for, but at the same time his is one of the more remarkable runs of public service in this state,” said Robert Uithoven, who served as Gibbons’ chief of state in Congress.

Gibbons’ tenure as Nevada’s chief executive began mysteriously on New Year’s Eve 2006, when he assembled a small group of family and friends and took the oath of office minutes after midnight – a move criticized as a political ploy to thwart a key appointment by his predecessor. Gibbons defended the gathering as a matter of security but never explained the perceived threat.

The secret ceremony was a first in Nevada and set the tone for the next four years.

Other firsts would follow, few of them flattering, though the former combat pilot heralded some as a badge of honor, such as his record 48 vetoes during the 2009 Legislature, which included the first budget bill to be nixed by a Nevada governor, then quickly overridden by lawmakers.

The feverish rejection pace landed the $16 veto stamp in a museum.

In contrast to the tough talking maverick who assumed command of the state in the dead of night, Gibbons’ departure has been a slow fade as the state’s Republican echelon and longtime advisers steadily abandoned him and his personal life crumbled.

Before he even took office a Las Vegas cocktail waitress accused him of sexually assaulting her in a parking garage in the final days of the campaign. No criminal charges were filed, but Chrissy Mazzeo’s civil lawsuit in federal court lingers.

Shortly afterward, Dennis Montgomery, a software designer, alleged Gibbons accepted cash and a Caribbean cruise from a Reno-based defense contractor in return for government contracts while Gibbons was in Congress. A two-year Justice Department investigation followed before he was cleared and Montgomery’s credibility was scrutinized.

Midway through his term, Gibbons filed for divorce from Nevada’s first lady, his wife of 23 years. The nasty court filings, made public at Dawn Gibbons’ insistence and over his objections, revealed a bitterness punctuated by allegations of infidelity.

The governor’s image was further tarnished when he was seen traveling with the estranged wife of a Reno doctor – a woman he had exchanged more than 800 text messages with while using his state phone during a month’s time in 2007. The governor also was seen consoling a former Playboy model at a Reno rodeo. He described both women as just friends.

In July 2010, Gibbons became the first sitting Nevada governor to divorce.

Personal upheavals aside, Uithoven said the last four years undermine Gibbons’ political career that saw him successfully push two constitutional amendments. One required tax increases to be approved by two-thirds majorities in the Assembly and state Senate. The other constitutional amendment made lawmakers fund K-12 education first before other state programs.

Not all the turmoil was of his own making. When Nevada’s once thriving economy sagged, sputtered and crashed, Gibbons stuck to his conservative core with relentless bashing against taxes and the federal government.

Nevada now leads the nation in joblessness, foreclosures and bankruptcies, economic maladies Gibbons is quick to blame on the liberal policies of the Democratic leadership in Washington, D.C., with federal health care reform at the top his list of things despised.

Guy Rocha, a Nevada historian and former state archivist, called Gibbons a “one trick pony,” who may be remembered as an “ideologue who generally stuck by his guns and didn’t do much to address the problem.”

Dan Burns, the governor’s communications director and fierce supporter, made no apologies for his bosses’ unwillingness to flinch.

“He always stands up for what he believes in,” Burns said. “That has probably played a part in his demise.”

By the end of 2009, it was obvious Gibbons’ political backing had dried up when he raised just a fraction in campaign contributions compared with Sandoval’s millions. Gibbons was trounced in the GOP primary by a two-to-one margin.

The loss was another first for Gibbons, who became the only incumbent governor in state history to lose his party’s nominating election.

Gibbons, who’s never fancied the news media, declined repeated interview requests from The Associated Press to talk about his career and plans for the future. Records show he purchased a house in Reno in September – on a street ironically named Sky Horse Trail.