Interview With Sheila Leslie: Assemblywoman for District 27

Reno and Its Discontents recently scored an email interview with Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie who represents District 27 inWashoe County. Leslie has been a member of the Nevada State Legislation since 1999 and is the Asisstant Majority Whip. For her campaign site and bio click here. Over the past 25 years, Leslie has worked to improve the lives of children and families through her work in the non-profit sector, the legislature, and in her current job as the Specialty Courts Coordinator for the 2nd Judicial District Court, running the criminal, family, and juvenile drug courts and the state’s first mental health court.

MTM: How did you become Assistant Majority Whip so quickly—after your first term right? That’s quite an achievement.

I was asked to serve on the Leadership Team in that capacity in my second term by Speaker Richard Perkins and have continued to serve in Leadership during the last three sessions. I enjoy working for our caucus, which I believe is the most cohesive and united caucus in the Legislature. We have a very healthy debate on controversial issues within our caucus as we reach consensus on bills where we take a caucus position, but then we are known to stand united as we work to further our shared goals and values. I have had the opportunity to serve under outstanding Leadership through Speakers Dini and Perkins, and now am very much looking forward to serving in Leadership under the first woman in Nevada to attain the top Leadership position in the Assembly, speaker-to-be Barbara Buckley.

MTM: How does it feel to be an Assemblywoman in a state that is ranked near the bottom in so many categories as far as the resources allocated by the state? Medicare, citizens without health care insurance, education? Tell us about what you are doing in the legislature to remedy the situation.

It is very frustrating at times to always see Nevada ranked so poorly in national surveys. Even more frustrating is the typical Nevada response: “We’re really not that bad – it’s the survey that’s bad.” As I’ve pointed out many times to the media, all the surveys can’t be wrong! We have a joke in our caucus when we tell each other, “Thank God for Mississippi!” meaning otherwise we’d be even lower in many rankings. But we’re 51st in the nation in some things, like per capita Medicaid spending, so even Mississippi can’t save us there. I think Nevadans pride themselves on being a low-tax, self-reliant state and for producing “tough” residents who don’t want or need government to help them….although the same people who promote that attitude sometimes contact me privately asking for help for a family member or constituent who needs services that we just don’t have here. Sometimes I encounter people who have stayed through a difficult hearing on an issue like autism, in the restroom after the hearing, crying. I ask them what’s wrong and they tell me, it’s just too sad, they feel awful for those kids who are losing their one opportunity to gain brain development up to age 3 because they’re stuck on a waiting list and won’t get to the top of the list until it’s too late. The suicide stories from family members are probably the hardest for me to bear. Or the abused children who can’t get mental health care. But I digress. What am I doing about it? I’ve learned to be a tenacious, broken record on certain subjects, like mental health care, and to work 24/7 to make sure my colleagues understand that we have to do better in Nevada. I talk to them before the hearing, during the hearing, after the hearing, in the lunch room, on the floor of the Assembly, in the restroom. I try and use the approach that seems most likely to work with each legislator: rational appeal, save money appeal (pay now or pay more later), emotional appeal, and I’m not too proud to beg and plead if it’s necessary. I’ve had some success in recent years in convincing my colleagues to put substantially more resources into mental health, wrap-around services, child welfare, drug courts, Triage Centers, and other human services where we are woefully deficient. Mostly, I never give up – you lose some battles, but I’m in it to win the war.

MTM: Tell us about how your background in the local non-profit sector (Executive Director, Children’s Cabinet, Tahoe Human Services, Executive Director, etc.) prepared you for your work in the legislature. How does that background inform the issues you focus on and your political approach?

People often think I must be a social worker since I work in human services and have made that my top priority in the Legislature, but actually my academic training is in Literature, specifically Spanish Language and Literature. (M.A. UNR, 1979). I got into the human services field after serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic in a Center for Malnourished Children near the Haitian border. I literally had babies die in my arms for lack of food and clean water. That experience profoundly changed my world view – living in poverty for a period of time is very different than traveling through a poor country as a tourist. I feel a deep obligation to further the cause of social justice and that’s really what motivates my political activity. People who know me well know I’m really an introvert and there is much about politics that is painful and difficult for me on a personal level – but I learned first hand about the power of the media to further the cause when I was with the Children’s Cabinet, and I have learned to overcome my personal reluctance to be in the public eye. I also learned how to lose when I worked in the non-profit sector, so I don’t fall apart when I lose a vote at the Legislature – I have the ‘keep your eye on the prize’ philosophy.

I do think I bring a different perspective to the Legislature, and one that is very much needed, to balance out the “minimal taxes/minimal services” perspective that is entrenched deeply in Nevada. Yes, we need to teach people how to fish, not just give them a fish. But more importantly, we need to make sure they have a place at the pond so they can do their own fishing. I see myself as a vocal advocate at the Legislature to make sure that everyone has a place at the pond.

MTM: The Pew Research Center recently published a report on a national poll they did in which the respondents ranked health care and education at the top of their list of concerns. That leads us to the TASC Initiative—can you tell us what you think of that proposal in terms of how it might effect improvements many citizens want to see in education and health care?

I am very much against TASC because it ties the hands of the Legislature and will make it nearly impossible for us to react to an emergency or to adequately address areas where the need outstrips the artificial TASC formula. Not to mention that TASC is unnecessary. Nevada has never been an overly generous state in terms of spending on education or human services – and why would we want to strangle ourselves and remove the important decision-making, consensus-building process from the Legislature? If you look at the Colorado experience, you can see how quickly their TASC-like measure destroyed their higher education system. Why would we want to repeat their mistake? TASC is being sponsored and promoted by those who want to starve government. Most of the state budget funds education, human services, and public safety and that’s where the TASC cuts will come from. Businesses are going to abandon us quickly when that happens, and tourists will be right behind them. TASC is a disaster waiting to happen and I hope the voters take the time to understand these issues before they cast their ballots.

MTM: There has been a lot of discussion lately about Western Democrats and the appeal they may have at the federal level of politics. What qualities do you think make Western Democrats different than other democrats? What do you think politicians at the federal level can learn from Western Democrats like yourself?

I think Western Democrats tend to be more libertarian in their outlook which can come across as “liberal” on some social issues (choice, equal rights). We think government should stay out of our personal lives, and definitely out of our bedrooms. We don’t like a meddling government and we believe in our right to do as we please as long as we’re not hurting someone else. I think that message is showing some appeal beyond the western region and could attract more voters in the mid-west and even the South. We believe strongly in freedom of speech and freedom of religion — but we don’t think religion should be mixed in with our politics. We do think you should speak your mind – and we believe that we have an obligation to speak up against injustice. And we have a great ability to sniff out a phony; integrity is very important to us. I would sum up our general philosophy as “be honest, speak up, and let the chips fall where they may.”

MTM: Nationally, Democratic and independent voters are eager to see the control of Congress switch parties even though many Democrats still report being dissatisfied with their party. How do you think that eagerness is going to play out in the Nevada Congressional races? The state legislature?

I think people are getting very fed up with the Bush administration, the scandals, the war, the lies, and there is going to be a great deal of apathy expressed in this election. I wish that apathy could be turned into activism but I’m not seeing an overwhelming amount of that.
I think overall this will be a good year for the Democrats in Nevada, and we will win the close races. I think overall we’ve recruited better candidates this year also. Democrats are becoming more proud of what they stand for and more vocal about their values. But I also know, from experience, that many voters cast their vote on party lines when they don’t have a personal reason to be committed to a candidate. It’s incumbant upon our Democratic ticket to be very active and engage the voters this election season if we are going to be able to overcome some of the huge voter registration gaps in some Northern Nevada districts.

MTM: After the YearlyKos convention in Las Vegas, the role of blogs in politics and culture has become a hot topic nationwide, and we’ve noticed you are advertising on The Las Vegas Gleaner. What do you think about the role Nevada blogs are playing in this year’s elections?

I love the blogs! I read both conservative and liberal blogs as I have time. I especially enjoy the Gleaner because I admire the way Hugh writes – he makes me laugh almost every day and his commentary is provocative and thoughtful. For those of us who follow politics, the blogs keep us informed and offer different points of view to consider. I’m not sure the average voter has much contact with the blogs though, so I’m not sure how many votes they will influence, but I know younger people are more apt to get their news from blogs and The Daily Show (which I also love) than our local newspaper which ignores Las Vegas, runs AP stories days after other papers have them (and cuts the stories so they don’t make sense half the time!), and allocates far too much space to local ‘feel good’ news. Have you seen their latest feature? “What I Did This Weekend”? Please. They have some EXCELLENT reporters – let them do their jobs instead of rewriting the Reno rodeo or the candy dance for the 50th time. But back to the blogs….I can’t wait to write one when I retire from politics!

MTM: Last week, Annjeanette Damon from the Reno Gazette Journal reported that she asked Dina Titus about her relationship with the Democratic caucus, and her reply was not exactly a model of diplomacy:

“I don’t have any hard feelings against them killing my property tax bill or giving my sex offender bill such a hard time or rolling my water bill into someone else’s so I wouldn’t get credit for it. So if I don’t have hard feelings, I don’t see how they could. Both sides have put it behind us and have got to move on.”

The Gleaner said it best: “sigh.”

MTM: I’ve been reading lots of comments in the blogosphere about Jim Gibson’s opposition to some key Democratic platform items like protecting access to abortions and opposing the Federal Marriage Amendment. Can you speak about how important you think it is for Democratic candidates to adhere to the Democratic platform?

Democrats have a big tent, and I know there are anti-choice and anti-gay Democrats in the party. As a Democrat, I don’t personally feel obligated to sign on to every word in the Democratic platform. At the same time, I think it is important that Democrats share the basic values of individual freedom, social justice, and equal rights. I think many of us look for shared values when we choose which Democratic candidates to support – I know I do.

MTM: I’m really interested in how you feel being a woman in the state legislature might be different than being a man? How does it hurt you? How does it help?

I am also very interested in this topic and have, in fact, started the process of researching our recent history in preparation for perhaps writing a book on the role of Women in the NV Legislature during the past 20 years or so. It’s a fascinating topic as we have had so many strong, progressive women from both parties – and I’ve had the opportunity to know many of them: Jean Ford, Jan Evans, Nancy Gomes, Sue Wagner and in more recent years, to serve with women like Chris Guinchiliani and Barbara Buckley. These women have contributed so much to the Legislative process and have certainly left their mark, individually and collectively. I’ve been reading Sue’s oral history with great interest and I can see how some of the challenges she faced have disappeared for those of us serving now…while other challenges persist to this day. I was standing with Barbara Buckley recently, looking at all the pictures in the Legislative foyer of Speakers of the Assembly – white men, all of them – and thinking, with great pride, of what it’s going to feel like to see her picture on that wall. It was a wonderful feeling and I’m sure every woman in the building will share in that joy when Barbara breaks the glass ceiling in the Legislative building.

MTM: Is there anything specific you want to communicate to our readers?

I would like your readers to consider what they are doing personally to further their chosen political path – by supporting candidates, supporting a political party or caucus, perhaps even considering running for office themselves. The cliche is “Democracy is not a spectator sport” but there’s a lot of truth in there. I never intended to run for office, but I stepped up when no one else in my District would do it (Democrat). I will be term-limited out in 4 years and I want to make sure there are people who are willing to take my place (actually, there are 3 or 4 people in my District who have already indicated an interest!) My point is we need your readers to get more politically involved at all levels: school board, city councils, county commission, neighborhood boards, progressive groups and coalitions. Instead of complaining about everything that’s wrong, be proactive and do something about it yourself. Take your place at the pond.

Well said. Let’s get to work Discontents!

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[...] Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie (D-Reno), just did an interview with local blog Reno and Its Discontents. Some incredibly important issues (many of which will come up in the next legislative session) were discussed–Nevada’s low rankings on health care and education indicators, the TASC initiative and the role of women in politics being a few. Sheila has done some amazing things in the Nevada Assembly and will continue to do so in her upcoming years of service. [...]

[...] This is for all you California readers out there. That crazy Tahoe loving Sven conducted an email interview with Rob Haswell who is running for the CA Assembly in the 4th district. Its a three-part interview so continue to visit his site for the scoop. And yes, the minx takes full credit for the email interview trend on state and local blogs [...]


Excellent work, Minkoff. As a certified RINO™ I am glad to live in Sheila’s district. And now that the ante is raised, I need to get crackin’ on my own interviews.

I had the pleasure of working for Assemblywoman Leslie in the 2005 session. She is one of the few people in that building that really understands the needs of Nevada, not just her constituents. I am proud of her work and I, too, look forward to Assemblywoman Buckley becoming the first female Speaker of the Nevada Assembly. I think it’s about time we put a woman in that role. I know that they both will make us all proud to be Nevadans.

I thought of something to add here. Sheila, if you read this, why wait to get the blog? Start one now and give us insight on the legislative process. Also, talk smack about fellow legislators. I’d love that, and I’m sure there’s plenty to talk.

I was impressed by Sheila Leslie when I saw her on this year’s televised debates. She strikes me as an intelligent, sensible and well-informed legislator. If only people wouldn’t act like there’s something inherently different about FEMALE legislators. We’re all individuals, and it’s absurd to say that “it’s time we put a woman in that role.” Women do not come with a built-in set of opinions or skills that are different from men’s. Vote based on competence, not on gender.

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