Gibbons’ armor survives several big political bullets, tough opponent | NevadaAppeal.com

Gibbons’ armor survives several big political bullets, tough opponent

By John L. Smith

You’ve heard of the “Teflon Don.” Meet the “Kevlar candidate.” His name is Jim Gibbons, and he’s your next governor, and somewhere just beneath his conservative suit is a suit of pockmarked body armor.

Never in memory has a candidate for high office been hit with so much political shrapnel and not only managed to survive, but somehow prevail.

Gibbons overcame an extremely spirited campaign from state Sen. Dina Titus and a fusillade of damaging news stories in the final three weeks to win by a respectable margin.

That sound you hear in the background is Gibbons’ campaign designer, Sig Rogich, breathing a sigh of relief.

If Gibbons had lost, surely Rogich knew he would be blamed for the defeat because it was the political adviser who escorted the candidate into the bar at McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant on the rainy night of Oct. 13, setting the stage for an infamous and strange meeting with cocktail waitress Chrissy Mazzeo.

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Mazzeo later alleged Gibbons tried to assault her in the parking area near the restaurant, setting off a firestorm that appeared to threaten the congressman’s gubernatorial candidacy at a time he enjoyed what his own insiders confidently called a “sizable lead.” (It was as high as 11 points, according to one well-placed source.)

Although election watchers expected Gibbons’ race against Titus to tighten in the final days of the campaign, few could have predicted how it would wind up within the margin of error on Election Day.

I mean, it isn’t every campaign that a candidate is accused of sexual battery, employing an illegal alien for a nanny, carving out a multimillion-dollar deal for a software-making defense contractor pal and then going on a posh sea cruise mostly at his major benefactor’s expense.

Not and still come out ahead when the last ballot is counted, that is.

Gibbons survived the Mazzeo mess and being the butt of a Jay Leno joke on national television.

Oh yeah, and then there was that little front-page article in the Wall Street Journal about his cozy ties to software magnate Warren Trepp.

Lesser candidates would have been laughed out of Nevada.

Gibbons, a 61-year-old former military and civilian jet pilot and 10-year congressman, clearly has a knack for survival.

I wouldn’t underestimate him if he were dropped into the middle of one of those reality television shows. He would have his fellow cast members voted off the island before they knew what hit them.

And I know what some diehard Democrats are thinking: “Gibbons wouldn’t have been able to withstand all those hits if Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson had been his opponent.” Don’t be so sure.

For whatever her faults might be, Titus was no pushover, and Gibson failed to show he had the stomach for a tough race – just the kind Gibbons would have given him.

Titus is a UNLV political science professor and experienced minority-party legislator with a world of knowledge of the issues and a real passion for the daily grind of the campaign. She ran an excellent race. And if she fell short, it probably had more to do with her Georgia accent and Gibbons’ effective 11th-hour attack ads than anything she did wrong.

No, Gibbons is tougher than he looks.

But now begins the real work. And he’ll go forth without being able to expect a warm welcome from departing Gov. Kenny Guinn, who dislikes him so much that he forgot to endorse his fellow Republican Party member.

Guinn also added all-day kindergarten, a Titus platform plank, to his final budget in a clear challenge to Gibbons.

In due course, Gibbons will have to show an ability to play well with others, something he has not always been good at, in order to see his agenda succeed in the Legislature. Politicians who tried to work with him at the Legislature have told me his collegiality usually ended with the first disagreement.

Maybe he’s improved in the past decade-plus, but he didn’t exactly show superior networking skills as a member of Congress.

He has only begun celebrating, but he would be doing himself and his fellow Nevadans a favor if he remembered to govern from the middle and made an effort to listen to people – even those who differ with him philosophically.

There’s no guarantee Jim Gibbons’ amazing political Kevlar will last forever.

• John L. Smith’s column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal’s Opinion page. E-mail him at smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.