Candidates Try to Beat the Odds in Nevada
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 26, 1998; Page A03
LAS VEGASHere in the nation's gambling capital, a diverse group of underdogs is trying to beat the odds and wrest Nevada's governorship from the designated choice of the dominant casino industry.
That choice is Kenny Guinn, a personable retired banker and educator with a campaign war chest of $3.5 million, much of it coming from donors with ties to "gaming," as gambling is called in Nevada. Guinn, a moderate Republican, announced his candidacy two years ago and was soon dubbed "The Anointed One" by local political analyst John Ralston, a label that has stuck.
"There is really only one party in Nevada, and it's not the Democrats or Republicans but the 'Gaming Party,' " said state Sen. Joe Neal (D) of Las Vegas, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.
Although Guinn remains the favorite to succeed Gov. Robert J. Miller (D), who is barred from seeking a third term, he has run into a primary buzz saw in the candidacy of Aaron Russo, a wealthy California film producer and passionate populist who describes Guinn as the puppet of a "corrupt" system.
Russo has waged a strong campaign for the Sept. 1 primary on such touchstone issues as repealing the car tax and preventing Nevada from becoming a national dumping ground for nuclear waste. In June, he trailed Guinn by 41 percentage points in a poll commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal. By mid-August, the newspaper's poll had Russo down 7 points, and the Guinn camp responded with negative television commercials that sought to demonize Russo as unstable.
Meanwhile, Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones became the clear leader in a crowded Democratic field, with Neal a distant second. Jones would be Nevada's first female chief executive, Neal the state's first African American governor.
Jones, 49, jumped into the governor's race May 18, five months after being diagnosed with breast cancer. This month, after completing radiation and chemotherapy treatments, she met reporters with her doctor, who said the cancer was "in complete remission." She has used herself as an example of the need for early detection of cancer.
Review-Journal polls show Jones far ahead of Neal, 63, a veteran legislator who leads a growing bipartisan coalition critical of gaming influence. Neal has proposed a 2 percent hike in the top gaming tax of 6 1/4 percent to bring state taxes on casinos in line with New Jersey, which taxes its Atlantic City casinos at 8 percent of the gross.
Neal fought unsuccessfully in the legislature against $15 million in state tax breaks on $300 million of artworks that Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn plans to display in his new Bellagio casino, which is due to open in October. Cheered on by Neal, the Nevada Tax Commission last week turned down Wynn's plea to charge the public for viewing the works by Renoir, Monet, Matisse and Picasso.
Another sort of anti-gambling note has been sounded by Jones, who is close to Wynn and did not oppose the art tax break. But the mayor has sought, so far without success, to limit slot and video poker machines in convenience stores and neighborhood markets.
A majority of Nevadans support gaming, the economic engine of a boom that has made Las Vegas the nation's fastest-growing city and doubled the state's population in less than two decades.
"But there is a quiet undercurrent of concern about the influence of the casino industry," said Michael Bowers, a political science professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. "What has brought this concern to the fore is the belief that the casinos are using Nevada as a bank by taking profits made here to other states where they are opening casinos and being taxed at much higher rates."
Although he opposes tax increases on gaming, Russo has tapped deeply into this reservoir of concern. He talks of how casino moguls have created centers of economic power that influence the state's political decisions. "Casinos are fine, but they shouldn't run the system," he said in an interview.
Russo, 55, who has lived in Las Vegas for only two years, spent most of his career in the entertainment business. He managed Bette Midler and produced such films as "The Rose," "Trading Places" and "Wise Guys." He said he became disillusioned with the political system and has not voted since casting a ballot for President Ronald Reagan in 1984.
But in 1994, impressed with Ross Perot's success in "shaking up the system," Russo founded the libertarian-minded Constitution Party. He also made an hour-long video, "Aaron Russo's Mad as Hell," attacking alleged government abuses, the "war on drugs" and especially the Internal Revenue Service, saying that IRS means "It Really Sucks."
The video, in which he has long hair and wears an earring, has come back to haunt Russo in the campaign. The Guinn team has used a clip of the video in commercials that portray Russo as a crackpot demagogue who is "embarrassing to Nevada" and would be "dangerous as governor."
Russo acknowledges he has been hurt by the ads, which were devised by Sig Rogich, a onetime adviser to former presidents Reagan and George Bush. Last weekend, he responded with commercials of his own in which he described Guinn as a "complete fraud" and concluded: "I am deeply dangerous for the political machine help me kick them out."
Guinn, 62, has tried to stay above the fray and stress his experience, which includes nine years as superintendent of Clark County (Las Vegas) schools and subsequent director of a local bank and gas company. In 1994 he won plaudits for taking over as president of UNLV after a scandal and putting the university on a sound fiscal footing.
But Guinn is short on specifics. In an interview, he declined to spell out his positions on taxes or fiscal issues and said his decisions would be based on a "businessman's analysis" of the budget once he was elected.
Rogich predicts that Guinn will turn back Russo and go on to defeat Jones in November. He said the Russo challenge may have proved useful to Guinn, who lacked experience in the rough-and-tumble of Nevada politics. But nonpartisan observers Ralston and Bowers said Russo has rocked the establishment and made Guinn's "anointment" problematic because his commercials have driven up his negatives and made him vulnerable against Jones.
"Russo's campaign is a dream come true for Jan Jones," said Ralston. "She generates excitement, and she's sitting back running positive commercials about education while the Republicans beat each other's brains out. Russo has given her a chance."
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