Thoughts on Nevada’s female majority Legislature: an interview with Sheila Leslie

by Brian Bahouth

Members of the Nevada State Legislature combined, Senate and Assembly, a total of 63 lawmakers per session - image - Nevada Capital News.

Carson City – Nevada recently became the first state in the nation to elect a female majority Legislature.  The Women’s March and anti-Trump sentiment certainly mobilized female candidates like never before, but since the late 1990s Nevada has been a leader in the percentage of female lawmakers elected to the state Assembly and Senate.  Sheila Leslie was first elected to the Assembly in 1998, a pivotal time in the history of gender dynamics in the Nevada Legislature.

Leslie served for 10 special and seven regular sessions from 1999 to 2012 – five terms in the Assembly and one in the Senate.  She was a noted chair of the Assembly Health and Human Services committee and also served as Assembly Majority Whip, 2007-2009 and Senate Assistant Majority Whip, 2011.  For some perspective on Nevada’s female majority Legislature, we spoke with Sheila Leslie by phone.

“My first reaction was happiness of course, but my second reaction was why did it take so long,” Sheila Leslie said when asked for her initial reaction to the news of a female majority Legislature.  “Back in 1999 I think we led the nation or close to leading the nation in the number of, the percentage of women in our Legislature, and at that time it felt like we would get to this point much more quickly, but in the intervening years, the numbers of women have waxed and waned, but I think with the Women’s March and the election of Donald Trump, I think a lot of women felt the need to step forward, and here we are today in 2018 finally representing the majority as we do in the general population.”

When Leslie was elected to the Assembly in 1999, the ratio of male to female lawmakers in both the Senate and Assembly combined was 23 women and 40 men, or 36.5 percent female, which was well above the national average in 1999 of 22.4 percent and one of the highest percentages of female lawmakers in the nation, and larger numbers of women were winning elective office in legislatures across the nation at that time.  Las Vegas Democrat Barbara Buckley would became the first female Speaker of the Nevada State Assembly in 2001, but in 1999, a pair of Nevada political legends controlled the Assembly and Senate.

Graph courtesy of Center for American Women and Politics, Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University.

Yerington Democrat Joe Dini was Speaker of the Assembly in 1999.  Dini served for eighteen regular sessions from 1967 to 2001 and thereby became the longest serving member of the Nevada Assembly in history.  At the same time, Reno Republican Bill Raggio was Senate Majority Leader.  Raggio was first elected to the Senate in 1972 and served until 2005 making him the longest serving member of the Nevada State Senate in history.  We asked Sheila Leslie if she ever felt that women were in the room but not at the table.

“I felt intimidated, as many women did by the Raggio days when he would pound the table and storm out of the room and … it’s just not the female style,” Leslie said.  “Women tend to be more collaborative.  They don’t see compromise as a bad thing.   They see it as the goal.  We should be compromising to move things forward.”

Of the 40 people to serve more than 20 years in the Nevada State Legislature, two are women, and the total number of lawmakers for 2019 session does indeed add up to be a female majority, but for Leslie, it’s not necessarily about the numbers but a legacy of leadership and who is in charge in 2019.

“I think leadership will be different though I have to point out that leadership in both houses still remains male.  We have had women leaders in the Assembly as you know with Barbara Buckley and Marilyn Kirkpatrick, but we’ve never had a female majority leader in the Senate, so even though women right now are the majority, they are not leading either house.  I think that will come with time when there are more leadership opportunities presented.”

So what will women bring to the tone, conduct and leadership of the 2019 Legislature?

“I think that there will be a lot more effect at the next level down.  The committee chairmanships, the committee membership.  What women will bring is a willingness to discuss issues that affect their families, that affect the average working person.  They’ll bring up topics that just wouldn’t get brought up before.”

Graph – Nevada Capital News

Leslie was chair of the Assembly Health and Human Services committee for the 2005 and 2007 sessions and was a noted advocate for working families, low-income citizens and children.  She said she became chair of the committee because men didn’t want the job.

“I’ll never forget  once in Ways and Means where we spent an hour and a half to two hours discussing which type of school bus to buy, and yet when I would bring human services issues forward and people would cry at the witness table, some of the male legislators would pass the box of Kleenex as a joke or get up and leave the room because they didn’t want to talk about issues that affected people and made them cry.  Women aren’t afraid of those issues, so I think you’re going to see a big difference in the topics that are brought up and the bills that are discussed.”

The way decisions are made and priorities are set within each caucus varies with leadership.  Leslie recalled the difference in style when Las Vegas Democrat Barbara Buckley replaced Joe Dini as Speaker of the Assembly in 2001.

“She was a much more collaborative person.  She really listened to every voice in the caucus and sincerely wanted to know what issues were of interest to them, and I think that once women are the top leaders you might see more change in that matter.  Not to say the current leaders aren’t sensitive to women’s’ issues.”

Leslie was quick to add that though women may not be in charge in 2019, more women in the caucuses means more women’s thinking and priorities in the mix.

“Even though the top spots are filled by men, the fact that the caucuses have so many women means they will be listening more to women.  It’s not just that we have one seat at the table, it’s that we have the majority of seats at the table.  Politics does reflect that.  Politics does respond to that kind of a presence, and that is why this is so important.”

Is gender thicker than politics?

“I wish I could say yes to that,” Leslie said when asked if female lawmakers might come together on issues regardless of their party’s position.   “My experience has been that politics is thicker than gender.  A lot of Republican Women don’t line up and I guess that’s why they’re Republicans.  They have different views, not that one couldn’t cross over on this issue or that issue, but they always try and have a women’s caucus, and what we found out that the underlying political differences between the parties pretty much prevents women from voting as a block, except in rare cases.

“There have been a couple of cases that I remember where women toed the line.  One had to do with contraceptives, access to contraceptives.  That was one issue where enough women, not all women, but enough women made it clear that they wanted to protect that access and that’s what happened, so once in a while you see that, but not as a general rule.”

We asked Leslie about the female lawmakers who stand out in her memory.

“You have to go back to some trail-blazers like Bernice Matthews who was the first African American to ever be elected to the State Senate.  Even further back than that, Nancy Gomes and Mary Gojack … Jan Evans from Sparks did so much great work around domestic violence when the men in the Legislature didn’t want to talk about domestic violence, and Jan got the first money for domestic violence shelters.  I think she really became a touchstone for a lot of women.  She inspired Debbie Smith to run.  She inspire me to run.  She was a very important trailblazer.  Vivian Freeman on the environment, and of course Debbie Smith on education.  Frankie Sue … let’s not forget Frankie Sue (Del Papa).  She wan’t in the Legislature but she blazed the way when she became the first Attorney General.  The first female Secretary of State.  Of course Barbara Buckley … Sue Wagner, to throw in a Republican there.  She was very inspiring in her views.”

Which female lawmakers stand out for Leslie going into the 2019 Legislature?

“Teresa Benitez-Thompson is the majority leader in the Assembly, which is a wonderful leadership position.  I’ve been impressed with Nicole Cannizzaro of Las Vegas and of course Julia Ratti just doing a fabulous job as our senator here in Washoe County, so there is no shortage of female talent.  There never has been, but what’s different now is with our numbers.  There’ll be more and more demand to let women lead, and think those opportunities are a wonderful thing for Nevada and for women.”

2019 and beyond?

“As women become more comfortable in the majority, I think it will give them more confidence,” Leslie said.  “I think it’s slowly been changing, but we don’t have to be grateful for a seat at the table anymore.  We are representing our constituents, and I think it will give people more confidence and more strength going forward, so even though we celebrate today, I think the real effect will be felt 10 years from now when there are more women in leadership positions and more women setting the agenda.”

For more from Sheila Leslie, hear the embedded audio interview above …