Retiring legislator showed courage, conviction in working to make life better for vulnerable Nevadans

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Yasmina Chavez

Congressman David Parks, serving his last term in the Nevada legislature, talks about his political legacy with the Las Vegas Sun at Las Vegas Sun offices, Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. Parks is Nevada’s first openly LGBT legislator.

Sun, Jan 12, 2020 (2 a.m.)

Nevada Sen. David Parks had three measures he wanted to see passed during his first legislative session as a Nevada lawmaker in 1997: a non-discrimination bill for LGBTQ residents seeking employment; state funding for HIV/AIDS programs; and the decriminalization of hypodermic needles and a needle exchange.

“The response I got was, ‘David, for a freshman legislator, those aren’t bills that you’re going to get high marks for, so you may want to rethink asking for that legislation,’” he says.

All three laws were personal for the Democrat from Las Vegas, who was the state’s first openly gay lawmaker and a leader in advocating for causes important to that community. It took a few sessions, but with Parks’ persistence and leadership, all three became law. Funding for HIV/AIDS programs was included in the 1997 biennium budget, legislation barring LGBTQ nondiscrimination passed in 1999 and laws decriminalizing hypodermic needles were passed in 2013.

Parks, 76, will be done serving the state next fall, having termed out after two decades as both a state senator and assemblyman. Parks had a permanent impact on the Legislature, especially through his work on LGBTQ rights and equality, which will be one of his lasting legacies.

“I have to pat David on the back and thank him for his courage, for being a gay man who came out publicly long before many people did, and especially people in government, because for so long it was considered [something] we don’t talk about,” says state Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, D-Henderson, Parks’ closest friend at the statehouse. “David just stuck true to his character and what he believed in.”

Take the process of passing the employment nondiscrimination bill, which he says got caught up in the evolving politics around LGBTQ community issues of the time. “I took [the bill] to my leadership and asked them to review it. They looked it over and they were very much in support, with one exception,” Parks says. “They were apprehensive about inclusion of transgender individuals … and so they asked me to remove it.”

He did so in order to get the bill passed to bring protections for gay residents, then continued to work for the trans community until it received similar protection in 2011.

‘One session’

Parks’ jump into politics wasn’t by design. He worked in budgeting for both the City of Las Vegas and Clark County over the years, frequently traveling to Carson City for lawmaking sessions and often wondering why the elected officials would put themselves through the lawmaking process.

“Whenever I went to Carson City, I would get in the rental car to drive back to [the] Reno airport, and as I was driving out of town, I would go, ‘How could anybody do that? Why would anybody want to do that?’” he says.

But the Democratic leaders in the state thought he would make an excellent candidate—and given his longevity, it seems they were correct. Parks was approached by retiring Assemblyman Larry Spitler to run for his seat in 1996 and got quite a bit of “arm-twisting” from then-state Sen. Dina Titus and then-Speaker of the Nevada Assembly Richard Perkins.

Sitting on the couch watching 60 Minutes on a Sunday 23 years ago, his phone rang. It was Gov. Bob Miller was on the other end urging him to run.

“I knew that there would be certain challenges running for office,” he says. “But I said ‘OK, well, I’ll do it.’ ” I told everyone, ‘All right, I’ll run, and if I’m elected, I’ll serve one session. But in the meantime, find somebody to replace me.’ ”

Standing against bullying

When asked about his proudest accomplishments, Parks has a long list from which to choose, given the amount of time he has served in the statehouse. Among them, he says, are anti-bullying measures he brought up over the years, beginning in 2001. The goal was to create a safe and respectful learning environment in Nevada schools.

Parks says the issue was not one he had gone through personally, but he had been alerted to it by friends. “I kept hearing all kinds of stories from friends of mine who were schoolteachers about how bad the situation was and about how teachers wanted to do something but the administration—the principals and the school staff—wouldn’t support them,” he says.

He’s also especially proud of finding a funding source for the Smith Center, the performing arts center in Downtown Las Vegas constructed through a public-private partnership. “In 2003, I had a bill that would increase rental car tax by 2%, and that would go toward the payment of the long-term debt to build the Smith Center,” he says. “So the Smith Center was able to move forward in a more expeditious timeline, and build the performing arts center.”

Woodhouse, as chair, and Parks, the vice chair, worked together on the Senate Finance Committee. Woodhouse says Parks has a wealth of government knowledge from his days working in local government. “He was my right-hand man on budget matters,” she says. “I could always count on him, particularly for his expertise in the area of the budget.”

Going forward with confidence

Parks is the kind of man who should remain a source of knowledge if needed, regardless of whether or not he is in Carson City, according to Woodhouse.

“David is the kind of guy [who], if somebody has a question next session and he’s not there, or in ’23 and he’s not there, they can call him and he will answer, and he will help,” she says. “But we will miss him, the Legislature will miss him and the state of Nevada will miss him as such a steadfast and strong legislator.”

Parks says he’s unsure what’s next for him after five decades in government, both as a staffer and as an elected official. “I have some friends and colleagues who keep trying to twist my arm or tell me I ought to run for this or run for something else.” Parks celebrated his 76th birthday in December, and is using the milestone as a chance to reassess his schedule. “Maybe it’s time just to hang it up.”

He’s not worried about the status of the Legislature going forward, however. The newest lawmakers leave him no cause for concern, he says. “Joyce and I are kind of like the old guard—we’re headed out and there’s a lot of new people coming in,” he said. “With the new legislators, I think there’s some really bright individuals that have recently been elected, and I hope that continues.”

This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.

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