The most unpopular guy in the room (but we like him)
State Senator Bob Coffin has made a career out of taking positions others won’t
Thu, Jun 3, 2010 (midnight)
Photo: Jacob Kepler
“I’m not going to do your job for you,” Bob Coffin chides. I suppose the information I requested could have been obtained online, but it seemed the appropriate question at the time: “Got any enemies?”
After all, we are talking about Bob Coffin here, a guy who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, a guy who is more than willing to be blunt. A guy whose penchant for such behavior got him all but sent to stand in a corner by his fellow Democrats during this year’s special legislative session to deal with a crushing budget crisis. His big sin? Suggesting the state raise taxes instead of all but decimating education. That was him, in the 2009 regular session, pushing for a brothel tax. (It died, of course; most politicians won’t even talk about it). So yeah, I was curious about who he might have pissed off over the years.
But here’s the thing: His reluctance to share information doesn’t stem from wanting to make a reporter’s job difficult. On the contrary; I can tell Bob has no problems with me personally. Several times during our interview he stops to ask about my family, my background. Sometimes the conversation goes so far afield that we forget why we’re there in the first place.
No, it’s that he doesn’t attach much value to the past. You can kinda see why. He was in the minority for 20 of his 24 years as a Nevada state senator. He has always seen things a little differently than fellow Democrats, and it hasn’t always gone over well. Pundits say he’s one of the smarter lawmakers in Carson City, but also one of the more long-winded, and in the same breath note he’s never been in leadership—the very definition of a lone wolf.
Victories? Bob would prefer to not talk about that, either. “You can look all that up, too,” he says, not impatiently, but with the indifference of a man who prefers to look ahead rather than behind. He may be 67, but Bob Coffin does not consider his career anywhere near over. Indeed, he’s considering a run for Las Vegas City Council next year. He’d love to continue representing his state in the senate, but term limits prevent that.
When I first meet Bob, it’s at Dona Maria’s Tamales, in Downtown, which I don’t mind, since I get the opportunity to buy a huge bag of the city’s best tamales.
“You should really order a mix,” Bob advises. I’ve requested only chicken, but Bob talks me out of it. His best recommendation is the sweet tamale, a sort of “dessert tamale” with raisins. As I prepare to pay, he talks to the owner. (“Good morning, Bob!” “Papa, hello!”) I learn quickly that if you’re Downtown with Bob, listen to his advice; go where he suggests; talk to whom he recommends.
Coffin knows this area. He rode his Schwinn through these neighborhoods as a kid, delivering the paper. He gets a bit emotional as he talks about his family moving from Anaheim to Las Vegas when he was 9, a move that was for his benefit. “I had very bad asthma. It was an incredible thing my parents did for me.” But the conversation about family is, again, a brief one—Bob’s father died in 1968, his mother in 1988. Of his three siblings, only one is still with us. His older sister died at age 10, and his brother passed away in 1982. He sees his sister “every couple of weeks,” but that’s all Bob has to say on the subject.
His Catholic upbringing was relatively ordinary, he thinks. He played most of the requisite sports in school—basketball, baseball and golf, the latter being the sport he excelled in. “I wasn’t the best, but I was one of the best,” he says. He worked at the Review-Journal as a sports stringer, a job he held all through high school. In addition to enlisting in the Army reserves and serving six months of active duty, Bob attended a Catholic seminary in Oregon to study for the priesthood. He sums up that experience succinctly: “I could have taken a vow of poverty and obedience, but not chastity. I decided it wasn’t for me.”
By this time, he was a huge follower of President Kennedy, a Catholic who had risen to the highest position in the land. He became involved in Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress in 1963. The memories of Kennedy’s assassination that year influence Bob to this day: “You have to fight things out in this term, not the next one.” After marrying his first wife in 1968, he enrolled at Nevada Southern (later UNLV), graduating with a degree in business accounting in 1969.
His career path was wide open, and Bob considered sales. But a man named Angelo Manzi had other plans. An “institution in Las Vegas” at that time, Manzi, who worked for New York Life, ran into Bob in an elevator and struck up a brief conversation. “He said to me, ‘What are you doing, Robbie? Sales? Want to come work for New York Life?’ It floored me. Turns out I was the only man he had ever sponsored to get a job there.” Bob sells life insurance to this day.
Itching to get started in politics, a green Bob ran unsuccessfully for his first seat in 1972, in District 13, a crushing defeat made even more devastating by the sacrifices he made. “I didn’t live there, so I slept on the floor of my sister’s trailer, away from my family. I thought I knew it all, and lost by 22 votes.” He didn’t just lose the election, he also eventually lost his wife. “She wasn’t keen on the idea. I just wasn’t very smart about things then.” They divorced in 1975.
Still, he was hooked, and it wouldn’t be long before he started winning elections.
As we drive past Bob’s house on Fifth Place in the Jon S. Park neighborhood, it’s hard to believe we’re just a few blocks from the urbanness. Indeed, he’s measured it—just 162 feet away from the Boulevard. It’s a pristine street, straight out of some corny ’50s TV show, with manicured lawns, chimneys and daffodils. There’s a pool in the back, and the garage is air-conditioned. That garage came in handy when Bob relocated his used and rare-book business there in 1996 after folding his business in Maryland Square. (The garage-based business closed in 2003, but Bob still has a sizable collection of books, maps and blueprints.) He bought this house in 1987, but he’s lived in this neighborhood far longer. His first Las Vegas home is just a few blocks down the road.
Nothing seems to make Bob happier than to be a travel guide for this area, which he knows as well as anyone. He points to homes and tells you when they were built, and in some cases who built them. He waves frequently, even when we’re blocks from his current home.
“Those shakes really helped to keep my house cool!” Bob yells out to a guy replacing his roof. Turns out the man is Gary Romero, one of Bob’s buddies at Jon S. Park school, about a block down the street. You get the feeling there are very few people here Bob doesn’t know. As we reach his childhood home at the corner of Bracken and 11th, Bob points to where an elm tree used to be. “I used to climb that to get a better look at the atomic testing if it wasn’t on TV.”
Then we’re in the Huntridge neighborhood, on our way to Bob’s second Las Vegas home. He points to a parking lot for Bishop Gorman High School on our left and remembers how it used to be a Catholic Church, St. Anne’s, where he was an altar boy. (His eyes brighten as he recalls seeing Bing Crosby get married there.) His second home is tough to see, as walls have been erected around it, and a business has been attached at one end. “Just a mess,” he says. Then he points to another parking lot at the corner of Maryland and Oakey, describing the convent that used to be there. He even loves the seedier aspects of the area—it’s all part and parcel of an area he never tires of, an area he wants to see resuscitated at any cost.
The highlight of our trip is Maryland Park, called "Circle Park" by many, which the city closed three years ago because of the mounting homeless problem there. It’s a gorgeous stretch of grass, trees and walkways nestled between the lanes of Maryland Parkway, where Bob remembers playing baseball and golf as a kid. “My buddies and I would go down there during the summer months, tell stories and eat pomegranates until we got sick.”
As we circle it, entering the parking lot on the westbound side, Bob shakes his head, calling the park’s closure a “travesty.” He stops at the public restrooms and points to a mural of a yellow house with two children running from it to a treehouse. “My daughter, Anna, drew the poster for that when she was 6,” Bob says. It’s now partly covered by a “Park Closed” sign.
Should Bob run for Las Vegas City Council, and should he win, he knows exactly what his first order of business will be—reopening this park.
Bob calls it a “great thing” that he lost in 1972, “because I was kind of cocky, and that made me realize I didn’t know it all.” He worked as a political consultant in the ’70s, but became “badly burned out” while working for Lt. Gov. Bob Rose’s gubernatorial campaign against eventual victor Robert List in 1978. He returned to writing, penning a golf column for the R-J starting in 1979. He also met then-R-J reporter Mary Hausch around this time; they were married in 1986. “I thought I was done with politics,” he says.
The Rose campaign did produce one positive, however. He met Dina Titus, who served as the UNLV advisor for the Young Democrats, an organization Bob was helping at the time. When Titus first ran for the Legislature in 1988, Bob paid her filing fee. Titus won, and Bob has paid her filing fees ever since. “I’m her good-luck charm,” Bob says with a slight smile.
Titus, too, smiles when told this. “He’s brought me good luck so far, and I’m superstitious.” She acknowledges Bob has never had an easy road given his unpopular stances, but “Bob has never been afraid to be a maverick, even if it’s not popular in Carson City.”
In 1981 Bob got the chance to, as he puts it, “get even with List,” who was running against Richard Bryan for governor. He worked on Bryan’s successful campaign, despite spending more than a month in a hospital following a devastating car accident. Bob broke his back and was paralyzed for a time, but following Bryan’s victory, he was fully involved in politics once again.
In 1982, Bob got a call from Helen Foley, an assemblywoman in his district, who informed him she would be stepping down to run for state senator, and suggested he run for her assembly seat. Despite pain that made it difficult to move, he didn’t hesitate, and won his first elected office. When she ran for Congress in 1986, Bob won her state senate seat.
Bryan, who now works as an attorney for Lionel Sawyer & Collins, says he’s not surprised at the reaction Bob tends to get from fellow politicians. “He’s an independent. He doesn’t just roll with the tide. Some people love him for that, some find it irritating, but to Bob’s credit, he sticks to his guns and says things that aren’t always politically correct. You really have to admire him for being outspoken in all those things he believes in.”
Back to that question about enemies. It seems fair to wager than any politician has a few, and Bob Coffin, with his stubborn stances on unpopular issues, certainly would, right? Not so fast.
Republican State Sen. Randolph Townsend, who, like Coffin, will be a victim of term limits this year, sat with him on the Senate Committee on Commerce and Labor for several years and on the Senate Committee for Taxation for 20 years. The two have battled, predictably, over taxes, and Townsend went so far as to call some of them “knock-down, drag-out fights.” But he still considers Bob a friend.
“I always respected his passion, and how well-informed he always was,” Townsend says, adding he feels Bob has never sought to bring attention to himself, often to his detriment. For example, he admires Bob for exposing the vulnerability of the gasoline pipeline that brings fuel to Southern Nevada, and fighting unsuccessfully to get a second pipeline built through private investment. “He didn’t get accolades for efforts like that, things that aren’t popular but are important.”
Republican State Sen. Bill Raggio has known Coffin for more than 20 years. He agrees that Coffin “had moments when he was maybe a little too strong and probably didn’t help his cause, but that was mostly with his own party.
“He was not always highly popular, but he was an advocate for the underprivileged. And over the years he was helpful in bringing people together, more than pulling them apart.”
Ask any politician about going against the party tide, and most will tell you it’s not an easy thing. But Bob feels as if he never really had a choice. He got a first-hand look at injustice when he went with a delegation to Central America in 1985, around the height of the Contra-Sandinista conflict. He became fascinated with the struggles of those who would not leave after the Sandinistas took over in Nicaragua. “These people stayed to fight.” He would travel there multiple times during that decade as an unpaid advisor for pro-democracy groups. “I’ve seen bloody circumstances where the underdog may not be winning, but he’s right.”
He took that fighting spirit back to Nevada, and in 1989 he had his “defining moment”: When the Democrats were seeking to quadruple their pensions, Bob opposed it vigorously and “perhaps a little too loudly,” he says, “but I saw people fighting for their livelihoods, and here we were, being greedy, when we all had the chance to do the right thing.” All his bills to stop it were killed early, and he was the only dissenting voice when it was passed. Three months later a special session was held to overturn the vote, and a vindicated Bob soon made the decision to become an independent. “Democrats not standing up for those in need ... it is careerism. Sometimes you’ve got to go against leadership.”
Bob’s biggest fight has been for tax reform. He spent 26 years on the Senate Committee on Taxation trying to change the structure. “In 1979, our government went from property tax and gaming to sales, making schools dependent on sales tax. In 1983, I began an effort to change that. I made the last push at this latest legislative session. For us to sit back and not try to raise money to keep it flourishing is a serious failure.”
Bob has faith Nevada will eventually turn things around, hoping he’s at least left some kind of a fighting legacy others will want to carry on. “Our government is laid down on the Judeo-Christian ethic. Our politicians have to ask themselves, ‘Do I take care of you or myself?’ I may have been shut down [for my beliefs], but I was honest with the public. They will accept that honesty.”
In the final hours of this year’s special Legislative session to deal with a budget crisis of epic proportions, there was mounting pressure to get the job done. Everyone was tired. Everyone was stressed. Everyone was frustrated. But even after all the wrangling was over and everyone just wanted to go home, there was Bob, talking for 24 minutes and taking his fellow members to task for not raising taxes thanks to “lack of nerve.” He was blunt with the media on the result of that performance: “I’m not part of the group anymore.”
But get this: Bob regrets that he’ll never sit with this group of men and women again. Frustrating as it’s been, it’s a fight he’s been happy to wage.
“My favorite quote is from Winston Churchill: ‘Never, never, never quit!’ I even had that put on my golf balls.”