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Progressives’ challenge of Democratic senator may have gone awry


AP Photo/Cathleen Allison

Nevada Senate Democrats Allison Copening and John Lee talk on the Senate floor late Monday night, June 6, 2011, at the Legislature in Carson City.

Fri, May 18, 2012 (2 a.m.)

An effort by progressives to challenge a conservative Democrat standing for re-election in the state Senate may have backfired.

Instead of reminding centrist Democrats that left-of-center groups — environmentalists, gay rights activists, labor unions — need to be respected, the liberal effort to oust state Sen. John Lee has simply reinforced that the party’s establishment, led by Sen. Harry Reid, still wields the biggest political stick in the state.

The party spat was triggered when a new coalition of progressive activists sent mailers attacking Lee, of North Las Vegas, with the hopes of boosting the candidacy of his primary challenger, Pat Spearman.

But while the coalition, Nevada Priorities Political Action Committee, has pulled from the ranks of abortion rights activists, gay and lesbian activists, and environmentalists, the group conspicuously lacks the biggest names in Democratic politics.

Click to enlarge photo

The Rev. Pat Spearman is seen inside her church, Resurrection Faith Community Ministries, in North Las Vegas Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011.

Powerhouses such as the teachers union, the SEIU and the state’s largest union, the AFL-CIO, have all chosen not to make an endorsement in the race.

The decision by those groups not to endorse an incumbent Democrat may be noteworthy, but it isn’t exactly what those leading the charge against Lee had hoped for.

For liberals, ousting Lee was a prime chance to influence policy in Carson City. The state Legislature has cut budgets and made concessions to Republicans for four years now, despite Democrats holding the majority in both houses.

Lee was their chance to use a lever that conservatives have mastered: Challenge an incumbent in a primary and remind elected officials that the base can’t be taken for granted.

“We think this is the right thing to do, to stand up for Democratic values in a Democratic primary,” said Erin Neff, executive director of ProgressNow Nevada Action.

Members of the coalition, including the Nevada Advocates for Planned Parenthood, Sierra Club, Nevada Conservation League and Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada Action Network, “get it,” Neff said.

“They’re putting their name out there in a very difficult way,” she said. “It’s not easy to stand up to your own party.”

Lee, a conservative Democrat, has been progressives’ enemy in Carson City. He often votes against Democratic majorities on key issues for liberals such as domestic partnerships, minimum wage and environmental issues. His tendency to go rogue often required special attention from Democratic leadership to keep him in the fold.

Lee’s original plan this year was to abandon his Senate seat in favor of running for Congress. He was expected to challenge a darling of the Democratic establishment, Sen. Steve Horsford, in the 4th Congressional District.

But Lee’s decision to drop out of the congressional race seems to have earned him the protection of the Democratic establishment against the liberal activists intent on driving him from office.

Assemblyman Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas, who had announced he was running for Lee’s Senate seat, decided to move rather than challenge Lee. Other candidates whom progressives tried to recruit to run against Lee also backed out, before Spearman filed on the last day.

And then the liberal coalition’s potential partners dropped out.

“I would love the coalition to be very large, with major support,” Neff said. “There are reasons other members can’t be part of this. I respect that. I understand those processes.”

To be sure, in a low turnout state Senate primary, Lee is not a shoo-in to win despite the power of incumbency.

That means support from the party and Reid, who Lee lists as a supporter on his website, is key.

“John is very thankful and grateful for the support of the Democratic Party and Democratic constituents,” said Ryann Juden, Lee’s campaign adviser. “He’s happy and thankful to have their support.”

He said the party’s support has “absolutely” helped.

“In the traditional way a party helps a campaign,” he said. The party has helped provide volunteers and “resources necessary to get out and connect with voters.”

The Democratic Party declined to comment for this story.

Click to enlarge photo

Senate Marjority Leader Steven Horsford rallies community members while speaking during the 2012 Democratic Caucus Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012, at Cheyenne High School.

The winner of the primary is almost certain to win the seat. No Republican filed in the heavily Democratic seat, and the Democratic victor will face a minor party candidate in November’s election.

Juden said Lee decided not to run for Congress against Horsford to help the party.

“He knew how important it was, with this election, in making sure President Obama gets re-elected,” said Juden. “We couldn’t have resources go into a contested primary for Congress. It was not in the party’s best interest to have a costly primary.”

Danny Thompson, head of the AFL-CIO, said his group couldn’t reach a consensus on whom to endorse.

“Too many people had problems with his voting record,” Thompson said of Lee. “And this is on key issues. You’re not going to get somebody every time. But when someone abandons you on key issues, it’s certainly reflective.”

Lynn Warne, president of the Nevada State Education Association, said her group couldn’t endorse formally because of the timeline — neither candidate got the endorsement in earlier rounds, and the next meeting of the group’s board isn’t until after the primary.

“It was just pretty split,” Warne said. “We were concerned about positions he has taken in the past. ... However, on the other side, he never served a position on the education committees or finance, where, say, he did something outrageously contrary to our position.”

And that could be an uncomfortable message for the base to send to elected Democrats — it takes something “outrageously contrary” for them to oppose you.

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Discussion: 19 comments so far…

  1. The thing we dont need is more progressive/communists in carson city or washington. Shame on us if horseford is sent to washington.

  2. Clyde - take a Chill Pill and get off the Criminally Corrupt News Corp FOX News. Progressives fight for the Everyday Working Middle Class American. Conservatives fight to Protect Billionaires from Paying their Fair Share of Taxes
    and dividing the country with Wedge Issues so they can remain in office.

  3. BS

  4. Progressives have been working very hard to build the Parasite class with disdain for working Americans, they would rather destroy the country and make it more like Cuba than America.
    Their self hate is way too obvious, their idea of fair is to steal from working family's and give to the wasteful government to squander.

  5. As the Chairman of the Clark County Democratic Party, I have to say that the county party was not contacted for comment on this article.
    I do feel it necessary to correct Mr. Juden's remarks as The Clark County Democratic Party is prohibited from endorsing in a Democratic Primary with more than one Democrat in the race. Therefore, until the voters have decided on June 12, the County Party is not supporting Mr. Lee's candidacy as Mr. Juden has implied.
    After the voters of SD1 have spoken, the County Party will fully support the Democratic candidate who they selected.

  6. Progressives are about PROGRESS! Anyone who doesn't know the difference between Communists and Socialists probably needs to review Political Science 101, or go get their G.E.D. first - LOL!

    No one is for waste, fraud or abuse of programs - except the Conservatives who love socialism for themselves and their Corporations! Let's stick to facts and reality - GEESHE!

    The main problem in Nevada is that the state is nearly a Monarchy where the Governor has too much power and the State Legislature is little more than a side-show every other year, sadly!

    Go back and take an objective look at how much real work the State Legislature actually accomplishes - they couldn't even get through doing the political redistricting from the 2010 Census! But, hey, they now have another DECADE to talk about it, think it over, talk about it some more - and waste the time of the citizenry!

    This is why so many call them "The Carson City Clowns" - It's just sad, Sad, SAD!

  7. John Lee aka The Republicans best friend with a "D" next to his name, is an anti-equality, anti-citizen of Nevada, typical arrogant old school pol. I have heard him say that once elected, "I make the decisions." No, Mr. Lee, WE THE PEOPLE make the decisions. YOUR job is to go to Carson City and do OUR will. Even if he wins, it's the last gasp of the ossified wing of our Democratic Party.

  8. This article leaves an impression that somehow the effort to oust Lee has failed. Nice try.

    Patricia Spearman, candidate for Senate District 1, was mentioned TWO times in this article.

    Her opponent was mentioned 16 times! Who are you trying to kid with this article?

    District 1 is a progressive district. We need a representative that votes for the interests of constituents in District 1.

    Patricia Spearman is the Progressive candidate - the right candidate for District 1.

  9. Any victory by more sensible party members in defeating unions like SEIU and the far left is one to be celebrated. That the most extreme of the party call themselves 'the base' tells us all we need to know.

  10. Harry is a true progresive and his relationship with Lee is not the issue. The progressives of the party are the traditional pary base; the party that brought you Social Security, Medicare and all those other programs that Republicans want to privitize and kill. Progressives are only extreme when looked through the lens of the Tea Party; like looking in the wrong end of a telescope. As for Senator Lee, welcome to the party of inclusion, even though you are more Republican than not. That's what primaries are for.

  11. The minimum wage ? - what a back stabber

  12. I give a lot of credit to the leaders of the Democratic party for remaining NEUTRAL in this situation.

    John Lee hired Ryann Juden as his campaign manager. Juden has headed up an anti-Reid organization with Danny Tarkanian. He has written very aggressive anti- Berkley and anti-Obama articles. When it was revealed that this was John Lee's choice for a campaign manager - it was shocking. John Lee hired a GOP operative?

    It is at the very least a serious question of John Lee's personal judgement that this is his choice. When asked on television - John Lee frankly said it wasn't a problem.

    This democrat has a serious problem with Ryann Juden who probably wrote and submitted this article to this paper or at least the press release it was based on. Ryann Juden is anti-democrat. John Lee is barely a democrat. And I have issues with both of them. And obviously I have really large issues with John Lee voting against public education regularly because he is easily elected in a strongly democratic area. People in Senate District One deserve a strong democratic leader - not someone who is really a Republican running as a Democrat. I state that frankly based on John Lee's voting record and Ryann Juden's former employment and article writing.

    I wish the Democratic Party leaders could come out publically in this instance to endorse - but frankly, I think it's a strong assumption for either John Lee or Ryann Juden to assume they would be the ones endorsed.

  13. This entire article is just a hit piece for John Lee.

    Almost no one supports John Lee because he doesn't stand for anything a real Democrat stands for. He is the perfect example of a politician that will spin vagueness to get elected but his voting record shows he's a Republican.

    Most of the democratic party is actively working to unseat him because he is obviously a Republican that registered Democrat so he wouldn't have any real competition. The rest of the party is hoping he gets unseated but are staying silent because their political positions require that they stay silent.

    On a side note: it's nice to see that the whack job Tea Partiers, like Clyde Perkins, finally started spamming delusional garbage. Since we have no subsidized public mental health care it's nice to see they're using the LVSUN as their therapy for paranoia.

  14. GEESHE! Giving credit to a political party for trying to take the easy way out and do nothing is absurd - how much credit do they really deserve for failing to have the back-bone to endorse?

    Frankly, after 40 years of political activism (and over 10 in NevaDUH) - I'm done wasting my time, talent and money on dysfunctional people and groups that are self-serving of only the elite and wealthy!

    It's NOT that we have people suffering and dying - it's that we have so many people suffering unnecessarily and dying prematurely - and nearly no one in leadership willing to take any degree of responsibility!

    I'll remain registered as a Democrat after seeing the Republicans forsake our Veterans - but, I'm going to be a VERY INDEPENDENT Democrat and I've got no problem telling these D.I.N.O.'s (Democrats In Name Only) what I feel, think and believe to their faces - HYPOCRITES!

  15. OR, it may NOT have gone awry! My name is Sandy Eddy. I AM a Democrat and a Progressive or Liberal, if you want. I have a question after reading this article and the comments. Is there some unwritten rule that I don't know about that requires people, in order to disagree, to be mean, hateful, ugly, and uninformed?!? I SUPPORT PAT SPEARMAN FOR THE NV SENATE IN DISTRICT 1. Being Democrat AND Progressive does not mean that anyone encourages another person to not work or take care of themselves. It does, however, encourage this country to take care of its citizens, and yes, even its Immigrants while they are here. It does mean that we typically have a heart and care about people MUCH MORE than we care about who has more money. Pat Spearman is one of the hardest working people I know. Not only is she a Veteran of 29 years in the military, leaving service as a Lt. Col., but she is constantly aspiring to better the lives of others in her Ministry, in her actions, in her efforts. She, like I, believes in EQUALITY for ALL PEOPLE. She cares that our state needs to recover from this economic mess we've been in for years. She supports educating our children AND our grown-ups. She herself has been working at her Doctorate degree--not because she has to, because she feels it will make her a better person to serve others. So, to all of you hateful people, you don't have to choose Pat. This IS America, you know, where we have elections, where people run AGAINST each other to better serve their constituents. I have nothing against Mr. Lee. He is TOO CONSERVATIVE to serve me. He has a set of values that impose on me as a woman. It imposes on the rights of many of my LGBTQ friends, and a large community. In a conversation with him, I clearly stated that he has a right to his religious values, BUT HE cannot save MY soul. That is up to me. Laws in this country should be for all people. You don't HAVE to have an abortion because it's not against the law. The option should be there for those who choose it. Providing birth control is not an option that others should take away from women. Not allowing a large segment of our society to call their unions "MARRIAGE," because of what YOU believe is UN-AMERICAN. It does NOT effect YOUR marriage. Mind your own business. Mind your own values, your own soul. I am not being mean-spirited, which may be all you understand, reading your comments. I am simply stating my feelings. THIS IS AMERICA. THIS IS A DEMOCRACY. Why are you mad because an incumbent who does not serve the needs of many, many people, has an opponent in a Primary Election? I keep seeing reference to Harry Reid. For who he is, he has allowed himself to be about as Progressive as an old, white, Mormon person who grew up in Searchlight, NV, for God's sake. We fight for him because of that. I HOPE HE IS NOT troubled by an opponent, another good Democrat, is running a fair race in Nevada. I would be SO disappointed if he is.