Bipartisan coalitions used to be possible, and worked well

With Republicans acting like the gang that can’t shoot straight as they approach taking charge of the Nevada Assembly, there has been some talk of Assembly Democrats luring a few of the more reasonable GOP votes to join with all the Democrats to create a bipartisan coalition to run the Assembly.

When Michelle Fiore, the new Assembly Republican floor leader, heard about it, she sent an email message to her colleagues that read in part, “I cannot emphasize enough how damaging that action would be to this entire state.”

Why? Where is it carved in stone that the only way of organizing the public’s legislatures is through two private organizations? If they can be organized according to other criteria — issues, policies, ability to work together — why not?

In 1980, when Fiore was 10 years old, a Democratic assembly member from Clark County named Harley Harmon put together the votes in the Democratic caucus to get himself elected speaker in 1981. The prospect dismayed his fellow Democrats because of his coziness with lobbyists, particularly Charles Bell. Those lobbyist connections had aided Harmon in gathering votes, which portended a legislative session in which lobbyists — always too influential in Nevada — would enjoy a level of control not seen in many years.

Robert Barengo, a Democratic assembly member from Washoe County, collected the votes of a minority of Democrats plus all the Republicans to undo the lobbyist coup.

The Republicans were surprisingly reasonable, as I recall — they sought a few committee vice chairs here and there — because they were just as interested in reducing the lobbyist influence as the Democratic reformers.

And far from the entire state being “damaged,” Barengo led a legislative session that worked well. A particular achievement of his was refusing to allow the last-minute rush that allows lobbyists to have undue influence. Barengo made sure the legislators kept normal hours and stayed rested, which other legislative leaders have claimed is impossible to do in the closing days of legislatures. (Nor, by the way, was Barengo’s the only successful coalition in Nevada history.)

Harmon’s majority collapsed even before the lawmakers went into session, giving Barengo a Democratic majority. He no longer needed the Republicans, but he still honored his agreement with them. Politics was like that back then. Sometimes party loyalty asked too much.

Today is another matter. When this idea of a 2015 bipartisan coalition was first broached to me by another journalist last month, I told him that the whole dynamic of politics is different now.

Barengo had all the Republicans and a minority of Democrats. This time, it would have to be all the Democrats and a minority of Republicans. In the 30 years-plus since Barengo did it, politics have become a lot more polarized. The less partisan the public has become, the more partisan legislatures and Congress have become, with party discipline rigidly maintained.

Today, Republicans who have lunch with Democrats are suspect. In choices between conservative dogma and the public good, dogma wins every time.

Breaking away from voting to organize the house on party lines would be unlikely in the extreme. Republicans don’t have the incentive, for one thing. Maintaining purity on issues is a lot more important to them than governing.

In the 2003 session, in a battle over a Republican governor’s tax package, minority Republicans in the Assembly blocked action through the regular session and two special sessions until finally they yielded to the Democratic/Republican majority. That was at the end of a fierce struggle, not the beginning of a session. And it was 11 years less polarized than today.

Dennis Myers is a veteran Nevada journalist.

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