For nearly two decades, Nevada Democrats have witnessed major changes that culminated in a “trifecta” of state government power, a supermajority of Congressional seats, and a new state party leadership team who got elected earlier this month. The party has experienced significant evolution in the past two decades, but this evolutionary process hasn’t always been a positive experience for everyone.
So what on earth happened to Nevada Democrats? More specifically, how did one harassment scandal not only open up one of Nevada’s Congressional seats, but also made Nevada an early epicenter for the #MeToo movement?
WARNING: Today, we’re discussing issues involving domestic and sexual violence. Reader discretion is advised.
Now, do you understand the freakout over that Steven Horsford news from last May?
In May 2020, Nevada Democrats were horrified to see Rep. Steven Horsford (D-North Las Vegas) make national headlines for all the wrong reasons. More specifically, Horsford admitted to an extramarital sexual relationship with Gabriela Linder after Linder spoke with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and on her own Mistress for Congress podcast, and that set off a torrent of speculation on what Horsford did and didn’t do with Linder (and whether any of those activities involved U.S. tax dollars).
While the Nevada Current’s Dana Gentry found evidence last July of Horsford compensating Linder through his private company, no evidence has surfaced of Horsford diverting any governmental assets to Linder, or of Horsford engaging in any other conduct that could be labeled as illegal or in violation of Congressional ethical standards. Eventually the entire story faded from local and national headlines, and Horsford won reelection last November.
As we’ve become accustomed to saying, this did not “come out of nowhere”. For many Nevada Democrats, the wounds of former Rep. Ruben Kihuen’s (D-Las Vegas) sexual harassment scandal were still so raw that the mere revelation of Horsford’s consensual extramarital relationship with Linder caused a fresh round of heartburn. Today, we’re taking a closer look at the stunning rise and astonishing fall of Ruben Kihuen’s political career to better understand why the party continues to experience major changes here and now.
Let’s pop back to Part 1 for a moment. There’s an important story we need to pick up and revisit.
Back in Part 1 of this series, we noted how Ruben Kihuen tried to run for Congress in the First Congressional District (NV-01) in 2012, just for Rep. Dina Titus (D-Las Vegas) to scare him out of that race with her rock-solid fundraising and grassroots support. While that helped Titus cement her reputation as a legitimate Nevada Democratic “power player” who could provide serious counterweight to the budding “Reid Machine”, this NV-01 stumble only proved to be a temporary setback for Kihuen.
Following Horsford’s loss to Cresent Hardy (R-Bunkerville) in 2014, Nevada Democrats had to regroup and reevaluate their plans to win back the Fourth Congressional District (NV-04) in 2016. Former Assembly Member Lucy Flores (D-Las Vegas), a one-time “rising star” who suffered alongside other Nevada Democrats’ in their epic 2014 crash-and-burn with her landslide loss in the Lieutenant Governor race, saw the potential for a comeback in the NV-04 Democratic Primary. At the same time, philanthropist and public education advocate Susie Lee (D-Las Vegas) saw an opportunity to take her advocacy from the boardroom to the House floor. It’s not like Democrats suffered some terrible dearth of talent in NV-04 in 2016.
So why did “The Reid Machine” push so hard for Ruben Kihuen? For starters, he had his own history dating back to the earliest days of that “machine”, when he was a Nevada State Democratic Party (NSDP) organizer. He also had a history with the Culinary Union, thanks to his mother being a long-time Culinary Union member and hotel worker. He was also an ambitious young Latino politician who appeared quite telegenic, so that further boosted Kihuen’s appeal as a “rising star” whom they could guide into political superstardom.
Remember Ruben Kihuen? We previously noted the start of his rise. Now, we need to assess why he fell.
In 2016, “The Reid Machine” appeared to have won this political fight with Kihuen ascending into Congress and Flores leaving the Nevada Democratic political scene for good. But as the kids like to say, hindsight is always 2020. And in this case, that more accurate hindsight began to reveal itself in 2017.
As I admitted back in April 2019, “When I first met Ruben Kihuen in 2010, he appeared so charming and so charismatic. […] For the next half-decade, I’d hear the same thing about Kihuen in political insider circles: ‘Oh, he’s such a ladies’ man! Women are just falling for him left and right! He’s just so cute and charming!’ And yes, back then, I foolishly accepted that spin on Kihuen.”
During my own conversations with Kihuen, especially during his time in the Nevada Legislature, I was impressed by what seemed to be his excellence in smoothly navigating through any and all challenges along his path. What I didn’t realize at the time was that Kihuen wasn’t just “smoothly navigating through challenges”. He was refusing to take no as an answer from women who clearly told him they didn’t want any kind of romantic and/or sexual relationship with him.
Why did we fall for Ruben Kihuen’s great con?
I remember where I was when BuzzFeed posted the first story documenting Kihuen’s pattern of sexual harassment. It felt like the earth suddenly stood still, and that the world would then fall apart upon resuming movement. Why didn’t I notice any of these warning signs sooner, and were so many in “The Reid Machine” so blindsided by Kihuen?
As we’ve previously discussed in these pages, serial abusers don’t always look and behave like the stereotypical image of “that guy in the white tank top who hits his wife while grabbing another six-pack of beer”. Sometimes, they dress very well as “white-collar professionals”. Sometimes, they seem to “check all the boxes”. Sometimes, they even brand themselves as “feminist allies” and become beloved figures within the Democratic Party.
That was largely the case with Ruben Kihuen and his meteoric success among Nevada Democrats until BuzzFeed, The Nevada Independent, and other news outlets began to report on Kihuen’s pattern of abuse in December 2017. As long as “he cleaned up well”, as long as he spoke eloquently enough, as long as he “voted the right way” on legislation, and as long as had free reign to intimidate his victims into vows of silence, he could get away with it. It took the courage of those women who came forward to break that “Ruben’s a good guy” facade, and it really says something about America that it’s far too easy for “alleged good guys” like Kihuen to get away with it.
The deep cuts of that op-ed in The Cut
After Ruben Kihuen ascended into Congress, Susie Lee agreed to switch gears and run in the Third Congressional District (NV-03), where she won in 2018. As for Kihuen, he agreed to retire from Congress in 2018, and Rep. Steven Horsford defeated former Rep. Cresent Hardy to keep NV-04 in Democratic hands. Meanwhile, Lucy Flores just left Nevada and the whole NSDP scene behind. However, 2016 wouldn’t be the last time we’d catch certain Nevada Democrats complaining about Lucy Flores.
Almost exactly two years ago, The Cut (a New York Magazine online publication) published Lucy Flores’ op-ed where she detailed a disturbing incident in November 2014 when then Vice President Joe Biden awkwardly smelled her hair and kissed the back of her head. Upon the release of that op-ed, certain high-profile “power player” Nevada Democrats were fast to mock Lucy Flores as a “sore loser”, re-air “dirty laundry” from her past campaigns, and talk to other reporters and pundits about how “desperate” Flores appeared by simply sharing a story that was later corroborated by other women who had similar experiences with Biden.
Though Biden and his presidential campaign eventually seemed to “get the memo”, as became evident in May 2020 when they allowed the facts to speak for themselves on the unfounded allegations surrounding ex-staffer Tara Reade, this complicated #MeToo story really showed the awful dynamics of not just Nevada Democrats’ traditional modus operandi, but also the general rot and internalized misogyny of American politics and society in general.
After all, while Lucy Flores was under attack for merely detailing what happened that one time she met Joe Biden, Ruben Kihuen was pursuing a potential comeback by way of an open seat on the Las Vegas City Council. While some prominent Nevada Democrats, such as then Assembly Member Heidi Swank (D-Las Vegas), joined with local progressive activists to condemn Kihuen’s brazen attempt to rebrand serial harassment as “harmless flirting”, it seemed like others in the party were more concerned with what ex-Nevadan Lucy Flores had to say about Joe Biden.
Here we go again: Why are these “She’s crazy!” smear campaigns still happening?
If this suddenly feels a little too déjà vu, I don’t blame you. Just as we’ve previously covered regarding Rep. Dina Titus and former Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, and just as what’s happened to other prominent progressive Democratic women further in the past, Lucy Flores got the “She’s crazy!” treatment.
And it didn’t even stop there. As the Nevada Democratic Caucus campaign trail began to fill up, this talking point repeatedly got dusted off, recycled, and re-deployed against multiple Democratic women. When U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) launched her 2020 presidential campaign, she got hit with the “crazy” label for simply acknowledging the true severity of our sexual violence crisis. As then Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) tried to save her presidential campaign, she was derided as “crazy” for just doing what so many of her male colleagues have regularly done. As Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) struggled to breathe new life into a campaign that was shockingly dying on the vine (of bigoted and hypocritical double standards), she was mocked as “crazy” for daring to campaign on concrete plans… And for daring to fight back.
For all the hype surrounding the “her-storic” nature of the 2020 caucus contest, and for all the humble-bragging about “Nevada making her-story!” because we have the first woman-majority Legislature and a woman-majority Congressional delegation, we once again witnessed the all-too-predictable and pervasive habit of smearing women on the campaign trail with veiled misogynistic talking points. It started with the ferocious smear campaign following Lucy Flores’ op-ed in The Cut, and it capped off with the ridiculous complaints about Elizabeth Warren’s cogent take-down of Michael Bloomberg at the MSNBC/Nevada Independent Democratic Debate.
Actions have consequences. It’s not about “cancel culture”. It’s about accountability.
Before we go, let’s take one more look at what Warren had to say about Bloomberg at that debate on February 19, 2020. Michael Bloomberg had grown an extensive portfolio of sexual harassment and overall workplace misconduct. Warren confronted Bloomberg with his own words, and Bloomberg withered on a stage where he actually had to defend his record instead of just buying more air time for campaign commercials. Even as some pundits lauded Warren’s strong performance, other pundits and party insiders pushed the narrative that she was “too divisive” because she actually did what we typically expect presidential candidates to do at debates.
Meanwhile, what became of Mike Bloomberg after being exposed for creating such a toxic culture of harassment? Though he eventually dropped out of the presidential race, Bloomberg quickly returned to the familiar aura of “billionaire philanthropist” and seemingly left his entire #MeToo rap sheet on that Paris Las Vegas debate stage. Sound familiar yet? Yep, Ruben Kihuen also continues to try to make us forget his rap sheet, though he’s doing so with far fewer resources than Bloomberg (and, for that matter, another serial predator with Nevada ties – Steve Wynn).
Once again, it feels like the more things change, the more they stay the same. If you still haven’t had enough of this déjà vu filled Nevada political history lesson, you’re in luck. In Part 4, we’ll dive deeper into that 2020 Nevada Democratic Caucus that may very well prove to be “the last caucus”.
Oh, and one more thing: Republicans have no justifiable reasons to boast about their own sketchy record.
— 🎥 Mark Helenowski (@markhelenowski) March 26, 2021
Who here remembers Dan Rodimer, the Republican candidate who lost to Rep. Susie Lee last November? He’s running for Congress again… in Texas. And already, he’s trying to pretend that the domestic violence allegations that surfaced last year never actually happened, since he suddenly has a Southern accent and is allegedly as Texan as they come.
It’s just another version of the same “weapon of mass distraction” that Ruben Kihuen and other predators use: Pretend the abuse never happened, and change the subject. Just as former President Donald Trump has regularly done, and just as former casino magnate Steve Wynn is trying to do, Dan Rodimer is on the same mission. What does it say about the Republican Party that one of their former Nevada candidates just runs for Congress in another state, then expects everyone to forget about his entire rap sheet?
If you or someone you know is facing a major life crisis and struggling with thoughts of suicide, help is available. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always there at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). So is the Crisis Text Line, where you can start a conversation with a volunteer counselor by texting “START” to 741741. For LGBTQ+ youth in need of immediate help, the Trevor Project has a 24/7 hotline at 1-866-488-7386 and a text option (text “START” to 678678) available. And if you know anyone who’s currently experiencing domestic and/or sexual violence, the Nevada Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence has a list of resources available across the state. And if you want to do more to help, check out the Nevada Coalition’s action page for ideas on getting more involved.