In March of this year, Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro, D-Clark County, became the Nevada State Senate's first-ever female majority leader. The Nevada Democratic caucus unanimously elected Cannizzaro — whose full-time job is Chief Deputy District Attorney at the Clark County District Attorney's Office in Las Vegas — to the role after Sen. Kelvin Atkinson resigned amid federal charges accusing him of using campaign funds for personal benefit. Cannizzaro said she quickly came to terms with the weight on her shoulders as a political leader — but overall, she wanted to ensure good policy would continue through her leadership.
“… Knowing you are going to have to make decisions about how to move a legislative session forward is something that I take seriously and not something that I come to with any sort of levity,” Cannizzaro said in an interview this spring with Sierra Nevada Powerful Woman.
Cannizzaro's move to the seat of majority leader came a few months after Nevada residents voted in a female-majority state legislature — which marked the first time ever not just in Nevada, but across the entire U.S.
When looking at this year's composition of the Nevada Legislature, Cannizzaro said she's pleased, thought she does display some regret about how long it took to arrive at this majority, considering that “so many women are doing so many things.”
“We have working moms who serve in all kinds of professions, from scientists to lawyers and doctors and teachers and everyone to every place of business,” she said. “… They're accomplishing all kinds of wonderful things, and yet here we are in 2019, and it's the first time we've been able to elect a majority of women in any legislative building in the country.”
As of the halfway point in the session this spring, Cannizzaro said she was pleased with the legislature's progress at certain bills being passed through various committees, including prescription rebates and making sure they're passed down to the consumer; legislation in the Judiciary Committee ensuring protections for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence; increasing access to contraceptives by allowing pharmacies to prescribe them directly to women; and bolstering tax credits for affordable housing.
For the most part, she said, communication on both sides has been progressing well, which has been aided by a majority of Nevadans engaging with their leaders on issues important to them overall.
WORKING TO HELP STRUGGLING NEVADA
But as the revelation of Atkinson's resignation came and Cannizzaro was elected to majority leader, she would have to be quick to assemble a leadership team in her transition to continue a smooth process in the Senate.
She filled vacancies as needed, including appointing Sen. Julia Ratti, D-Washoe County, to assistant majority leader.
Ratti has championed issues related to affordable housing and healthcare this session, noting the complexities in both areas when it comes to helping Nevadans who struggle to afford monthly payments or for prescription medication.
“We really do have a crisis,” Ratti said of housing. “There is not a silver bullet; we have 13 separate bills, there are different aspects to the affordable housing crisis, and it is all hands on deck.”
From Reno to Las Vegas, and several communities in between, Ratti said she's spent time with developers, people in transit in weekly motels and at community forums addressing the issues and seeking solutions.
“I'm really trying to look at it from all angles and figuring out how do we make a difference,” she said.
Much as she did as a former Sparks City Councilwoman, Ratti said she's spent time with vulnerable populations such as seniors and the homeless and has sought more information on the state's taxation system. She said she hopes bring forth tighter legislation on e-cigarattes and vaping, which currently are not taxed.
“I'm looking at some reforms through the property tax system that would make it fair,” she said.
Ratti said she's observed more conversation this session regarding families and children — and with that, she's had more women coming to her asking how to get involved at the legislative level.
“I look forward with great anticipation when we hit a time where we don't have any more glass ceilings to be broken and we can stop having these conversations…” she said. “There's just really no reason why at this point in time we shouldn't see women in all the most significant roles in society.”
CREATING BIPARTISAN LEGISLATION
With that sentiment in mind, Nevada Assemblywoman Lisa Krasner, R-Washoe County, minority whip, has sought to adhere to Nevada's business-friendly environment. The Truckee Meadows Community College adjunct professor said her time in office consistently reminds her what it means to work for the people.
“The way that I apply that here is by creating bipartisan legislation that is not just Republican and Democrat — but for all the people,” Krasner said. “The legislation I bring is nonpartisan and benefits people in our state.”
She has worked to bring additional funding to the state's Crisis Call Center, along with backing legislation to abolish the statute of limitations for sexual assault in cases where DNA evidence exists, relating to the backlog of rape kits.
She also wants to help teachers receive additional training on how to identify child abuse, and she is concerned about the state's shortage of doctors.
“I've also spoken to women business owners in my district, and they appreciate that I try to keep taxes low,” Krasner said. “Many people in my district and people in Nevada come here because we don't have a state tax, and they want to keep more of their hard-earned money, so they appreciate that we can keep taxes low.
“They think we need to be more efficient.”
She said this year marks an important session for the legislature when it comes to working to improve life for Nevadans, and she invites anyone to contact her office to provide input or sit in on legislative sessions.
“If more people created bipartisan legislation that helped people in our state rather than focus on partisan politics, it would be better for our state,” she said. “I think the people of Nevada want their legislators to get to work, and I think the people of Nevada don't want partisan politics where it's the Republicans fighting against the Democrats.”
REPRESENTING NEVADA'S RURAL COMMUNITIES
Assemblywoman Robin Titus, R-District 38 — representing Churchill and Lyon counties — remains the only doctor within a 30-mile radius in Smith Valley, and she relies on her physician assistant to keep things in order while she's in Carson City working on legislation and policy.
It's a balancing act, but an important one to maintain while she represents her rural constituents from Lyon County in the state capitol.
“It's worth it,” she said. “I got into politics because of all the mandates on healthcare of the Affordable Care Act, which was neither affordable nor gave care. And I just felt as doctors, as a physician and a provider, you keep your head down and do the right thing; we're caregivers and we're compassionate and we don't do politics.”
But Titus said it was important to get into “the trenches” and be the voice of experience — someone who has provided authorization and understands prescribing medication to patients who might not be able to afford what they need — to help determine better policy.
This session, she said, she's sponsoring a physician assistant bill that would broaden the scope of authority and extend their services where applicable.
Titus said she still considers it a privilege to be a part of the Legislature and to be working on behalf of Nevadans and to ensure the right conversations happen between Democrats and Republicans. She serves on the Ways and Means Committee, which she said is important because it allows her to ask the appropriate questions as needed.
“As the only hunter on the committee — I buy licenses and tags, and I care how much sportsman dollars are spent — I'm probably the only one to ask those questions, although I know (Sen.) Ira Hansen was a trapper,” she said. “I bring something unique.”
Titus said she considers it a privilege to come in and work even if nobody can come to an agreement on certain issues all the time.
She recalled having former Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval sign her first bill as a freshman Assemblywoman and the historical and personal significance of the inkwell and pen that had been passed down from her great-grandfather.
“It was a water bill,” she said. “It was exciting. We practiced signing with the pen, and he had collected signatures, and I was so excited. Those are the things I'll remember. It's a historical legacy.”
BUILDING CONNECTIONS IN NEVADA
Assemblywoman Theresa Benitez- Thompson, D-Washoe, is a political veteran in Nevada. Nowadays, she looks back and reflects on the support she had even before she began as a freshman legislator when she was elected in 2010.
With Sen. Bernice Mathews and former Attorney General Frankie Sue del Papa during her early college years generally remaining very accessible, there always was something very personable with the way even state officials would interact with young people like her.
“Here I am, a high school student at this rally, and (del Papa) said hi to me, and the next time she saw me, she remembered my name,” Benitez- Thompson said. “I think that's what's special about Nevada. We have these connections.
Now, she's in her fifth regular session and in her second as majority floor leader, and she has priorities for families firmly at the top of her list.
Her grandfather, a retired veteran who served as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy, and grandmother, who is retired in North Las Vegas, taught her family the value of education, she said, and they lived near churches and parks.
Benitez-Thompson said she wants that for every family.
“I think we've been very conscious talking about making sure families are in a good place and that they feel economic security, and that doesn't mean having to work 80 hours and working five jobs and never having to see your family,” she said. “We talk about worker protections and quality of life.”
She recalled having difficult conversations about community planning during the heart of the recession and viewing houses with foreclosure signs and brown yards.
Now, she's sponsoring a bill that revises provisions concerning affordable housing. It also creates a special committee on private activity bonds to ensure funding passed from the federal government to local governments is spent for responsible housing development.
LOOKING AT THE FUTURE — AVOIDING AN ANOMALY?
While these politicians are optimistic about the progress made this session and have welcomed a stronger female presence overall, all generally agree they hope Nevada isn't the only state to embrace putting women on equal footing in their leadership.
They also hope it doesn't become an aberration in its own history.
“You know the saying, ‘Be careful what you wish for, you might get it?' We got it, and I'm so happy,” Benitez-Thompson said. “I think this is a change in the way we see women in leaders in all kinds of fields, including the political one. … There's an acknowledgement that we make better policy when we have more diverse representation, and that certainly means having women at the table.
“It's wonderful and historic and it's making for a really great legislative session, but honestly, I wish it had happened sooner. That said, it also didn't happen overnight. … I think women like me saw women in these leadership roles and said, ‘We can do that, too.'”
Jessica Garcia is a reporter for the Nevada Appeal newspaper in Carson City.