For Nevada GOP, One Spectacle Too Many

Dawn Gibbons was at then-U.S. Rep. Jim Gibbons's side at a 2006 news conference in which he addressed allegations that he assaulted a waitress.
Dawn Gibbons was at then-U.S. Rep. Jim Gibbons's side at a 2006 news conference in which he addressed allegations that he assaulted a waitress. (By John Locher -- Las Vegas Review-journal Via Associated Press)
By Steve Friess
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 6, 2008

LAS VEGAS, May 5 -- In this state known for quickie divorces, the slow, increasingly acrimonious dissolution of the governor's marriage is becoming a public spectacle nearly as absorbing a show on the Strip but far more politically significant.

Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons, a first-term Republican already under pressure because of his handling of the state's budget crisis, filed Friday for divorce from Dawn Gibbons, his wife of 22 years.

On Monday, the governor won a court ruling to have the proceedings sealed under a state law that allows either party in a divorce to do so.

Were that all, it might be a blip. But the governor is also seeking a legal ruling -- which would certainly become public -- to force his wife to move out of the governor's mansion, where she, and not he, has been living since they officially separated last month.

"Today, on behalf of our client Governor Jim Gibbons, our firm filed various legal documents pertaining to the dissolution of his marriage and requesting a court ruling concerning the living arrangements of Governor and Mrs. Gibbons," the governor's attorney, Gary Silverman, said in a statement.

Silverman indicated that the governor would not comment, and Dawn Gibbons, who did not return calls for comment, was believed to have spent the weekend in California with the couple's 20-year-old son, Jimmy, who is a sophomore at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y.

Sealing the case may keep journalists out of the courtroom, but there is no gag order on the first lady, whose attorney, Cal Dunlap, told the Associated Press she wants the case open to the public. Just days before the governor filed for divorce, in fact, Dawn Gibbons complained bitterly to a Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist that her husband won't speak to her and that she doesn't know why he's divorcing her. She added: "I can hardly make it through the day."

The sordid spectacle alarms Nevada Republicans fearful that the governor, whose election rested largely on his appeal to rural, socially conservative voters, could damage his 2010 reelection bid should the couple's marital woes continue to play out as publicly and dramatically as they have thus far.

"It is a political problem for him anytime you have this type of situation, because within the Republican Party, some are going to take the first lady's side and some going to take the governor's side," said Chuck Muth, a GOP political strategist. "It's already a terrible distraction."

The matter comes on the heels of a rocky 17 months in office during which the governor has been the subject of a still-unresolved FBI public corruption investigation and at a time when his administration is struggling to cope with a $914 million tax revenue shortfall. Top gaming company executives, including staunch Republicans such as MGM Mirage chief executive Terry Lanni, have called on him to reconsider his no-new-taxes pledge and to alter the state's taxing structure so it doesn't rely so heavily on gambling, hotel and sales taxes.

A divorce would end the marriage of Nevada's most politically ambitious duo, who served in various elected offices. Indeed, Dawn Gibbons is credited with helping to save her husband's 2006 gubernatorial bid when she stood by him amid accusations he had sexually propositioned and assaulted a cocktail waitress in a parking garage outside a Las Vegas restaurant after an evening of drinking with the waitress and other women. Surveillance video in the garage did not show either person in the garage and no charges were filed, but Jim Gibbons never denied having been out drinking with the women.

"That story had legs primarily because you had him at a tableful of women and they're all drinking and all talking dirty in a very public place," said Review-Journal political columnist Erin Neff. "He was elected anyway in no small part because of her standing by her man. I think she thinks he owes her one."

The governor moved into the couple's Reno home last month, leaving Dawn Gibbons in the official Carson City residence in a move reminiscent of when New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani left his then-wife Donna Hanover in Gracie Mansion during his second term in office.

Yet Gibbons's decision to move out also raised legal questions because an 1866 state law states that he must "keep his office and reside at the seat of government" and a 1907 law that states he must live in the official residence provided him by the state.

Political rivals say they find the matter unseemly. State Sen. Dina Titus, who lost the governor's race to Gibbons in 2006, wondered whether it's "a distraction from the governor's ability to make decisions."

"It doesn't look good when you have a soap opera taking place in the governor's mansion, and that's supposed be a respected place visited by tours of schoolchildren and all that," Titus said.

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