Meet the governor’s new point man
Perhaps Mike Hillerby should have been on stage with Siegfried and Roy.
The stage would have combined his passion for the arts and entertainment with his professional experience – spent largely in the lion’s den as a legislative lobbyist.
Hillerby, 39, took over as Gov. Kenny Guinn’s chief of staff when Marybel Batjer left on short notice two weeks ago to join Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s staff.
He spent the last two years as deputy chief of staff and Guinn’s representative in the Legislature. He receives almost universally high marks from lawmakers in that role.
But before that, he was director of the Department of Cultural Affairs, the state agency that spans the cultural scene from arts to historic preservation, museums and history.
That was the sort of job he envisioned while at the University of Nevada, Reno, majoring in business administration and management with a strong minor in music.
“I tried to mix the two, business and the arts, into what became arts administration,” he said.
But his interest in the arts goes beyond being a spectator. Hillerby has performed more than 24 roles as a bass-baritone with the Nevada Opera Company – a pleasure he has been forced to sacrifice to the demands of his job.
Before that, he was the city of Reno’s first arts and culture manager working on the annual Art Town Summer Arts Festival. And he speaks proudly of the efforts he and others made to save and restore McKinley Park School along the Truckee River.
“That’s the avocation,” he said.
The other side of the coin has always been politics and lobbying. Just out of college, Hillerby began while working for a firm that managed nonprofit groups in the Reno area.
“They were looking for some representation in Carson City so I recommended my dad to them,” he said.
His father, Fred Hillerby, a respected lobbyist with nearly 30 years’ experience in the Nevada Legislature, took the contract, but put Mike to work alongside him.
By 1990, Hillerby was working full time with his dad, representing a variety of interests including health-care providers and insurance companies. His knowledge of those complex issues would later prove valuable to Guinn in dealing with the medical malpractice crisis and other health issues.
Over nearly a decade as a “blue badge” – a paid, professional lobbyist – Hillerby said he learned how to work with state agencies, interest groups and the Legislature.
“We didn’t have the clients who were major campaign contributors so what you’re left with is hard work,” he said. “I learned from my dad, at the end of the day, they’ve got to be able to trust you. They’ve got to know you’re one of the people who will give them accurate information.”
Because that’s one of the primary reasons Guinn hired him, he expects to be back in the Legislature next session. But he says he intends to apply the same lessons to his dealings with the agencies he now oversees.
“My job is to try be a problem solver and try to remember this isn’t my office. “It’s the public’s office.”
“We make a lot of day-to-day, mundane decisions but they’re important to real people. They have an impact.”
As for his style: “very low key.”
“You can’t know everything about every issue so you try to have good people, give them the tools they need, and then get out of the way,” he said.
He said it’s Guinn – a very hands-on governor – who makes the ultimate decisions.
“Our job is finding that balance between anecdotes and trends. When do those anecdotes start to tell you there’s something going on out there? Finding which of these problems are real and growing and indicative of something that needs to be addressed.
“We put together the facts and the numbers so (Guinn) can get a sense of what it means,” he said.