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Leader on the Rise

Barbara Buckley takes it to the top.

Joshua Longobardy

Disgusting because of the bold and virulent abuse of power in government, and frustrated because we were helpless to prevent it. And I'd add tragic, too, for it only takes one recreant in public office to cast doubt in the public's eye over all politicians, and to sever the people's faith in the political process in whole. Here in Southern Nevada we had many; and so for me, by the end of 2006—the "year of corruption," according to a political observer from the Las Vegas Review-Journal—that impotent sense of distrust turned into something more along the lines of hopelessness.

That was my state of mind when I drove to the Clark County Legal Services department, an inglorious building on the decrepit block of Charleston Boulevard and Eighth Street, to meet with Barbara Buckley, a veteran legislator and our state's next speaker of the Assembly. Being that Nevada's is a citizen-legislature that meets every two years, Buckley works here, as executive director of the private non-profit organization, 20 out of every 24 months; and it was here that I parked my car, got out, and begin walking toward the entrance with the resolute step of someone seeking answers.

I had become intrigued with Buckley during last year's election season, when political observers began to remark that she, an incisive woman in the position of Assembly speaker, could wield tremendous power in this state. But it was neither her gender nor her political position—nor even the fact that her record has remained untarnished throughout her career, a remarkable fact made evident in her opponents' silence during election campaigns—that fascinated me. Rather, it was her smile. A sweet, strong, irrefutable smile. On at least two occasions, those political observers had mentioned Buckley's smile when recounting anecdotes of the assemblywoman's political conquests, and it moved me.

Enough to want to meet her, that is. I walked into the Legal Services building and approached the secretary's desk: "Good afternoon, ma'am," I said. "My name is Joshua Longobardy, and I'm here to see Barbara Buckley." A young woman, a runner I think, was standing abreast, and she smiled at me: "Oooh, Buckley, huh? The big leagues!"

The visitors' lobby was, as ever, breathless. Men with earth-stained clothes came and went, and young mothers of every color sat their restless children in the available chairs, or stood rocking their babies. Buckley, a pilgrim to Nevada just like many of us, has been working in this environment—with people—ever since March of 1981, the year she arrived in Las Vegas and took a job as a legal secretary, and some six months before I was born.

I entered her office. It was just after lunch on January 5, exactly one month before the start of the 2007 legislative session. Buckley was sitting at her computer with a good secretary's posture, accompanied in her office only by her interminable work, and if there had been someone—anyone—else in that room she might have gone unnoticed. For Buckley does not stick out. A small woman in a black jacket, blue button-down shirt with a white collar and very professional dress pants, and with natural red hair and corresponding lipstick, she had an appearance consistent with her school teacher's temperament. She chewed gum with the measured pace of a soul at ease, and she disarmed me at once with her informal conversation. I could see that she has preserved the youthful countenance of her freshman-year photo in the 1995 legislative yearbook, though dignified now with an autumnal air.

Looks, of course, mean little. Tyrants and heroes appear similar at first glance. Yet Buckley was impressive in the way she leaned forward whenever I spoke, treating my words like specks of gold dust. In that sea of paperwork, e-mails, cell-phone rings, her secretary's reminders, deadlines looming like invisible executioners, she gave me her undivided attention, and we spent the rest of the afternoon talking like old sentimentalists. Me and her, Barbara Buckley, the woman the Las Vegas Review-Journal four times named the year's best Assembly member, as well as the best legislator in 2006, and the politician whom in 2003 Las Vegas Life lauded the best reason not to lose faith in the legislature. Assembly Speaker Buckley, the most powerful woman this state has ever seen.

"She's a sign of the progress women have made in this state," June Beland, president of the Women's Chamber of Commerce, says of Buckley, the first ever woman to be elected Assembly speaker. "But Nevada is still transitioning between the old school, with its good ol' boys, to the new school."

Dina Titus, a political science instructor at UNLV who teaches a course about women in politics and who sought but failed to become Nevada's first female governor last year, says that Nevada has an encouraging record for electing women to legislature, but that there continues to be a glass ceiling for women trying to attain the top positions.

"It's interesting that in Nevada the glass ceiling is also a non-partisan structure," says Titus. "From Cheryl Lau and Lorraine Hunt to Jan Jones and even Frankie Sue Del Papa (though she ultimately decided not to run for governor), we've seen heads bump against it from both sides of the aisle."

It was former UNLV president Carol Harter who once said that education is the only tool with which a woman would force her way through that barrier.

Perhaps that is why Buckley has made it this far. Not only that she became the first in her family to graduate from college when she earned her bachelor's degree in criminal justice from UNLV, and then went on to graduate summa cum laude from law school at the University of Arizona in 1989, but also that according to nearly everyone who knows Buckley, she is an insatiable learner, the foremost sign of someone climbing life's mountains with a student's state of mind. Even when she was giving birth to her son, Buckley says, she was interviewing the nurses attending her, asking about their jobs, their ideas, their lives.

Ray Hagar, a political observer from the Reno Gazette-Journal up north who considers Buckley "the most intelligent legislator today," says that her story of rising to the top from nothing, clichéd but nevertheless remarkable, has a very plausible chance of taking her beyond the Assembly.

Hagar says: "Because of her wits, she has a very viable chance of becoming governor one day."

Now, that, of course, is great; but shattering through a proverbial glass ceiling does little to enhance the lives of the people struggling and anguishing in Nevada today. It does not abate meth addiction, nor does it give remedy to the countless sick senior citizens who presently cannot afford treatment, and it in all certainty does not deliver our youth from the educational throes in which they are stifled. And besides, Erin Kenny and Mary Kincaid-Chauncey proved that women are just as prone to abusing their power as their male counterparts are.

Growing up, I had become disillusioned with politics, above all because there never seemed to be any transformation of the lip-service gushed during campaign trails into practical help for real people. And so I used the journalist's credentials to get closer to the politicians, to learn more about the process here in Nevada, and I discovered that they both are so inexpedient, and sometimes so corrupt, that significant changes in one's environment occur like the grass grows: without notice.

"And so, in large part, I'm still unsatisfied," I said to Buckley on the afternoon of January 5th. She listened. And when I was done she spoke of her power, and what she could do with it.

Barbara Buckley's authority derives first and foremost from the position to which she has been elected by her caucus.

As Speaker, Buckley leads a party that holds a near two-thirds majority in the Assembly, 27 to 15. She has the governor's personal number on-hand, ready to be dialed at any time of the day or night. Of greater importance, she sets the agenda for her party—to be highlighted this year by all-day kindergarten, raising teacher salaries, and accelerating Nevada's lead in alternative energy research—establishes jurisdiction over bills, and, above all, appoints committee leaders, who act as gatekeepers over the bills within their jurisdiction.

"A good example of her already putting her power to use," says Hagar, "is that she's installed Sheila Leslie, one of her greatest allies, as vice chair of the Ways and Means Committee, which is the most powerful in the Assembly."

When I asked Buckley about the power inherent in her position, I was taken aback by her natural reaction to the subject: she approached it with humility, as if it were a wild animal. "It's a tremendous honor to be elected by your peers, to be in this position," she said. "I've given it a lot of thought, and I've reconciled with myself that I'm just gonna be me. That I'm just gonna keep on doing what I've been trying to do all these years. That I can't change who I am."

And that's also where her power derives: from who she is.

In 2005, a year charged by party politics according to several legislators who participated in that choleric session, Buckley put up an inexhaustible fight for a bill to make cheap prescriptions drugs sold in Canada accessible to those in dire need of them here in Nevada. The bill was held hostage, the feds opposed it, the Nevada Attorney General's office tried to revoke it; yet, Buckley was relentless. In turn, she came home to a hero's welcome from the people that year.

"There are times, when she feels adamant about an issue, she'll dig in her heels, and it's almost like she is willing to die for it," says Dr. Garn Mabey, a Republican and the Assembly's minority floor leader.

Larry Spitler, a retired Assemblyman and associate director for Nevada's chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons, who has watched Buckley from the start, makes no reservations about it: "She's the best negotiator I've ever seen.

"She keeps her eye on the problem," he says. "Because she understands how to use the process to bring about change. She obtains great insight into a social problem ... lays it out in a logical manner ... plans the solution ... and stays patient. Active, but patient."

Buckley is slow to talk about herself, but when I told her about my frustrations with the viscosity of the process, which appears to me to stem from political quagmire, she said: "I think, if I'm good at anything, it's cutting through the fat on an issue."

Her smile, slow and unconquerable, spread like wings, and I felt an impulse to believe her. It was a mere smile, but I cannot remember, even to this day, having ever been so swayed by a politician.

But I also understood that Buckley is just one of the 42 lawmakers who constitute the Assembly and the 63 who make up the entire legislative branch. If it were just Buckley, Frances Deane and Kathy Augustine in a meeting, she'd be the minority.

Having learned that I'd gone through college to become a teacher, Democrat Bernie Anderson, himself a high school teacher of U.S. government and history before he decided to embody his curriculum as an Assemblyman in 1991, explained Buckley's transmittable power to me, in essence, like this:

Buckley has high expectations of government, to do what it says it will do, and so she holds not only herself but also her peers to high, uncompromising expectations. She empowers those under her, defers responsibilities, distributes respect instead of demanding it. In turn, she has the committee leaders and her caucus, if not the entire Assembly, scared to death of disappointing her. Not afraid of her, but afraid to let her down. That was the way Gandhi did it. The same way the greatest basketball coach of all time, John Wooden, did it. And that's the way she has gained the word and fidelity of her entire team, the golden keys to unlocking practical power in the legislative process.

As exemplified in the 2005 session, when a powerful lobbyist pushing a bill that would open up more communities to casinos tried to bulldoze the piece of legislation through at the very end of the session, without a floor debate. The lobbyist approached Buckley, smug, and said the necessary 22 votes to see the bill through had been secured, and that, whether she liked it or not, it would come to pass. Buckley released that indomitable smile of hers and said it would not. For Barbara had checked her hole cards, and she knew that she had the loyalty of that bill's gatekeeper in her hand. The bill suffocated.
"If we let things get through without a hearing," Buckley said after I asked her to verify the legend, "we'll never restore faith in government."

Even without position, Buckley learned to use the process as a means to get things done, I'm told. She was no more than a concerned citizen, like many of us, in 1993, when she watched the legislature pass a bill on apartment eviction notices that would hurt people who were already hurting—the people for whom she had been advocating. She rallied as much support as she could, and appealed to the governor to overturn the law she believed, with all her heart, was unjust. It worked.

"That's when I realized that one person in Nevada, with ideas and principles, can get things done, using this process," Buckley said.
And that's also when she won over the confidence of retiring Assemblyman Larry Spitler, who would help her win Las Vegas' District 8 seat in the Assembly the following year. And if winning freshman legislator of the year in 1995 didn't gain her any tangible power, then it for sure brought her confidence. Above all in her ability to manifest her ideals through patience, through craftiness and flexibility, and through listening.
"It didn't take long for Buckley to learn how to play the card game," says Anderson. "And how to play her cards to get results."

Such a fast learner was Buckley, in fact, that in 1997 Assembly Speaker Joe Dini, a Democrat, appointed her assistant majority leader, in just her second term.

In the 1999 legislative session she negotiated with the most powerful person in the state, Governor Kenny Guinn, to have the state's tobacco settlement money split between Guinn's millennium scholarship fund and a variety of accountable health care reforms, such as the successful Senior Rx program. And in 2001, after Richard Perkins took over for Dini as speaker, he demonstrated the great faith he stocked in Buckley's character by consecrating her Nevada's first ever female majority floor leader.
"Prior to that, she had handled all her responsibilities without stumbling, and really, with great effectiveness," says Perkins.

Of course, it didn't halt there. Political experts started using terms like "cunning," "brilliant," "tough" and "determined" when describing Buckley, and in 2003 longtime political beat writer Erin Neff wrote that the "principled theme in Nevada's legislature is: ‘Don't mess with Buckley.'" For after the senate, which presented a Republican majority just as it does now, had passed down a bill on medical malpractice that put Buckley's Democrats between a rock and a hard place, Buckley sent back an amended version of the bill along with the support of both parties in her house, including Dr. Garn Mabey.

"You know, she's smart, articulate, understanding," Mabey says with a sigh, much like that of the great Muhammad Ali's opponents when reporters questioned them before the fight. "And she listens well. She knows what she's doing."
I couldn't pass up the opportunity to ask the Assembly Speaker whom she thought of as her enemies. For they are no doubt incumbent upon this type of power, as jealousy and vindictiveness and partisan antipathy seem to be part of the American DNA, and no one doubts that Buckley has enemies, both personal and ideological. Journalist Molly Ball, of the Review-Journal, pointed out in a profile of Buckley last December that former Senator Sandra Tiffany and ex-Attorney General George Chanos both have a sharp distaste for the way Buckley employs her power. Tiffany says she is partisan, anti-business and uncompromising. Chanos has accused Buckley of chicanery and bad lawyering. (To which Assemblyman Anderson says: "Card-players never blame themselves for losing; they always call the person on the other side of the table a cheat. And there's been a lot of people who've lost to Barbara." The three Republican leaders who know Buckley best, Guinn, Mabey and Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, all commend Buckley for her unfailing fairness.) Some political observers called Buckley a "wild-eyed liberal" back in 1995, and still think she is too liberal to pastor much economic success.

But here's what I learned—and this was true for leaders like Michael Jordan and frontrunners like Steve Prefontaine: If Buckley is aware of her rivals (she struggled to name them), she is too busy looking at the prize at stake to be concerned with them.

Which of course would be a problem if her goals were selfish or so far removed from the good of the people that their attainment would detract from our state rather than enhance it. But no one accuses Buckley of either.
"She's not at all self-aggrandizing; just look at the modest life she lives," says the man who helped put her through UNLV, Richard Myers, his old man's voice trembling with sentimentality. "It's a reflection of the people she cares for, the people she represents at Legal Services."

Buckley told me that through her work, and by means of door-to-door campaigning—"you know, just listening to people"—she's gotten a good grasp of both her constituency's and the state's problems. Moreover, she said, she trusts her instincts, the quality by which doctors save lives, editors produce great magazines, quarterbacks lead their teams to victories and artists speak to a universal audience.

Buckley said: "Early on I learned a lot from a woman named Kim Morgan, a bill-drafter with the Legislative Counsel Bureau, who had tons of experience. She taught me not to be a referee between lobbyists, but rather, to study the issue on your own and trust your instinct. Which was good advice, because I think I have good sense."
"And people say you're impervious, too—toward those lobbyist and special interest groups," I said, by then having lost track of time. "Do you think that's a common quality amongst your peers in legislature? A rare quality? One that you'd like to see more of ..."
"Yes, that," she said. "One that I think we'd all like to see more of."

"The term power, in politics, comes with bad connotations," I said to Buckley, trying to explain my weariness. In our state's judiciary, the LA Times exposed this year, multiple judges had betrayed their oath of integrity, accepting unscrupulous campaign donations and practicing partiality from their high benches. On the federal level, the examples are endless, with names like Abramoff and Foley and Bush assailing the public's confidence in government, in the probity and competence registered in high places.

Buckley explained to me that in her view, power was yet another tool—though a big, effective tool—to changing things for her people, and to change them with more expediency and less bureaucratic entanglement.
Whereas her predecessors Dini and Perkins were more occupied with advancing the party during their reign, says Hagar, Buckley is still driven by her ideals, even after a dozen years in politics. That—ideals—I can identify with.

She said she harvested those ideals, like anyone else, through a succession of life's teachers: during her upbringing in Philadelphia, her ephemeral yet pivotal career as a maid at the old MGM Grand, her time under Richard Myers' tutelage at his law firm, her progression through UNLV and law school, her ongoing tenure at Clark County Legal Services, as well as through her associations with people like Spitler, Dini and Perkins, the latter of whom says this of his protégé: "She listens, she absorbs, and she adopts."
Myers says her ideals have persisted constant through the time he has known her, and he knows this because the threads of their regular conversations over the past quarter-century wind back to the same "noteworthy causes, the same noteworthy people."

Toward the end of my chat with Buckley, I found myself swept away in the winds of her stewardship. I then noted that if this woman is not the exact type of leader our country's forefathers had in mind when they created the system, she is the greatest magician I've ever seen in this city of illusions.

"Barbara's in politics for all the right reasons," says Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, a Democrat. "It sounds trite, I know, but if you saw all the politicians I've seen in my eight years in office ..."

I believe that what Nevada needs now, above all in our southern region of the state, is action from principle, not just the perception but the performance of right, actual changes in our reality and relations. And, after getting to know Barbara Buckley, my hand does not tremble a bit when I write that, of all the politicians in public office today, she gives us as much reason as any to restore hope in the system. And that, Assemblyman Joe Hardy, the revered doctor from Boulder City, told me, is the most important thing any politician can do right now.

I spoke to several people close to Buckley, and they all had difficulty trying to place her spot on the political spectrum. Ray Hagar put it best when he said, after thinking it over for a minute:
"She's open-minded."
It was one of the many affinities I felt with her as I sat in the Assemblywoman's Eighth Street offices, and along with this other, it won over my confidence:
I've reconciled with myself that I make a much better writer than I do a journalist for the reason that I don't know much about parties or politics—only people: individuals like me striving and anguishing to make it in this truculent world—and I came out of Buckley's office convinced that her priorities are with people too.

"You see it with Nancy Pelosi [who this year became the first woman speaker of the House of Representatives], with Hillary Clinton [who could become the first woman President]," says Richard Myers. "I don't think being a woman is something that's going to stop Barbara from becoming governor."
Attaining the governor's office will be the ultimate test for women breaking through in Nevada, Beland says, and she thinks they have a lot of momentum right now.
"Being women—mothers and grandmothers—there's so much we've learned that we can contribute to a position like that," she says.

Before leaving Buckley, I had asked, "So, after this legislative session is over, will you be thinking about a run for governor in the next four, eight, 12 years?" because the question had become hot and urgent ever since she converted me into one of her myriad believers.

That smile of hers, mighty and unequivocal, emerged, and it was all I needed to go home satisfied.

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