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New Nevada lawmakers bring youth, diversity to legislature

Associated Press

CARSON CITY, Nev. — It’s out with the old and in with the young and highly educated at the 2003 Nevada Legislature.

The 17 freshmen in the 63-member Legislature, including a Wharton business school graduate and some former lobbyists, start their first session as state lawmakers Feb. 3.

With the newcomers added in, the Legislature will have seven blacks — a record — and seven women in the state Senate — another record.

The two new black assemblymen, Democrats William Horne and Kelvin Atkinson, said race is irrelevant as far as they’re concerned.

“I can’t go up there with a black agenda, I have to go up there with an agenda to get things done for District 17,” said Atkinson, 33, of North Las Vegas.

Republicans control the Senate 13-8 and Democrats hold a 23-19 majority in the Assembly.

The top leadership posts are controlled by two returning veterans. Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, has served 30 years, while Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, D-Henderson, has been around since 1993.

But veterans didn’t tie up all the leadership slots in the Assembly. Second-term Assemblyman John Oceguera, D-North Las Vegas, will be assistant majority leader, while freshman Assemblyman Josh Griffin, R-Henderson, will be assistant minority leader.

The new faces around Carson City — including six members 35 or younger — add enthusiasm that will help the Legislature, said Assemblyman Tom Collins, D-North Las Vegas.

“It takes some younger folks to have the energy to outlast the lobbyists,” said Collins, who as an electrical contractor and former rodeo rider represents the Assembly’s blue-collar set.

The average age of the 17 incoming legislators is 43, compared with 57 for those who left.

“Luckily, there’s also enough senior folks there to show them the ropes,” Collins said. There are 21 legislators with a decade or more of experience.

Newly elected Assemblyman Walter Andonov, R-Henderson, thinks his past academic experience will help him get up to speed quickly in a session likely to be complicated by lengthy tax debates.

“But I know it’s still going to be a steep learning curve,” said the 34-year-old graduate of West Point, Oxford University and Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

The freshman class boasts a total of 21 bachelor or postgraduate degrees, compared with 13 for lawmakers who left after last session.

Election successes of business executives or consultants — there are 26 this session — result from the state’s population shift to southern Nevada, said UNLV government and politics professor Michael Bowers.

“Overall, there are more educated, professional candidates,” Bowers said. “And less ranchers.”

About two-thirds of the legislators are from the Las Vegas area, reflecting the state’s gradual population shift.

In the nation’s fastest-growing state, 48 legislators were born outside Nevada, also on par with the state’s population. About 20 percent of Nevadans are native to the state.

“We’re a pretty open-minded bunch of people,” said Griffin, 31, among a number of new legislators who visited Carson City before the session to get adjusted.

On a recent afternoon inside the legislative building, Griffin, a former lobbyist for various business interests, greeted fellow newcomer Assembly member Valerie Weber with a “Hey Vee-Web.”

Weber, R-Las Vegas, had just met her secretary and was on her way to the building’s gift shop.

“It’s like freshman orientation in college,” said Griffin, toting a newly state-issued IBM ThinkPad laptop computer inside a shoulder bag. “We’re getting computers, looking for dorms, meeting people, finding the town watering hole.”

Griffin then headed into an overcast Carson City afternoon to search for housing to share with fellow freshmen Assemblyman Chad Christensen and new state Sen. Warren Hardy. Hardy and Christensen also are southern Nevada Republicans.

Christensen, 33, said he was getting reacquainted with the area. “I used to race motorcycles over near Virginia City,” he said.

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On the Net: Nevada Legislature Web site: http://www.leg.state.nv.us/