It took rural lawmaker Jim Wheeler less than two weeks to be transformed from an obscure, cowboy-hatted backbencher with no definable record of legislative accomplishment into the best known lawmaker in the entire state, a guy who’s been on the receiving end of more national TV coverage than any Nevadan save for Harry Reid.
Wheeler’s antics are putting to the ultimate test that old chestnut about any publicity being good publicity. For those of you who’ve been vacationing in a cave for the past several days, Wheeler made a few statements to a group of his fellow Republicans that have been widely and vigorously condemned, statements which put his party and our state in a most unflattering light.
The conservative cowpoke from Minden told a friendly audience that he would reluctantly vote for slavery if his constituents wanted him to do it. He then made some incredibly disparaging remarks about Las Vegas and expressed support for splitting Nevada into two states so that his part of the state didn’t have to be lumped together with Clark County. In light of the collective outrage generated by Wheeler’s idiotic and indefensible remarks about slavery, you might think his political career is over.
I beg to differ.
It’s just a gut feeling, but I would say that Assemblyman Wheeler has pretty much guaranteed himself of re-election. If not for term limits, he could probably run and win forever, not because of the reprehensible slavery comments (it’s hard to believe that anyone, even rural conservatives, would go along with that) but because of what he said about Las Vegas. Wheeler thinks Clark County should be its own state, that Las Vegas lawmakers are out to tax rural mines and siphon off the money, that Las Vegas doesn’t “play by the rules.” His contempt for Southern Nevada and Southern Nevadans is hardly unique. As someone who travels through rural Nevada often, I can say for an absolute fact that Wheeler’s distrust of all things Las Vegas is all too common.
Those of us who live at this end of the state don’t really think about the age-old North-South rivalry very often. It pops up every few years when someone down here realizes that Clark County taxpayers pay for an inordinate percentage of services in the state while our own schools, college campuses, and road projects get short-changed in comparison. Southern lawmakers will bitch and moan about the funding disparity, but they’ve never been able to stay united in fixing the unfair distribution of state dough.
For decades, northern and rural lawmakers have counted on this lack of unity because it means their public programs get more while their residents pay less.
There are many reasons the rurals don’t like Las Vegas, some of them exaggerated, some of them legitimate, but make no mistake, the divisions are very real. Wheeler was merely saying what many if not most of his constituents believe, and his statements about Las Vegas resonate far more loudly with rural voters than do the lines about slavery. As if to demonstrate the point, Lyon County Republicans issued a ridiculous proclamation of support for Wheeler, a statement which characterized the criticism of Wheeler as “unethical” and unconstitutional, implying that evil forces cooked this up in order to manipulate the Legislature. Laughable, except for that fact that his hometown GOP gave its full support to the embattled Mr. Wheeler.
Since then, other horrified Republicans have tried to distance themselves from Wheeler. Assembly Republicans condemned his statements. The Las Vegas Review-Journal and LV Chamber of Commerce both called for Wheeler’s resignation. I don’t think they realize that condemnation by a Las Vegas newspaper and the LV Chamber is the equivalent of a $1 million in pro-Wheeler TV time.
If Las Vegas hates Wheeler, that’s all his constituents need to know.
I would remind Nevadans that Wheeler’s views about how unfair it would be for Nevada to tax the lucrative mining industry are not exactly unique. Back in March while the Legislature was in session, Assembly Minority Whip Tom Grady of Yerington chided those who wanted to tax the gold industry “to fund urban schools by taxing a rural industry.” Grady thinks it is unfair to focus taxes on an industry based at one end of the state in order to fund public services at the other end. Las Vegas Assemblywoman Michelle Fiore also chimed in, agreeing it would be unfair to impose a tax that targets a specific industry.
I’m sure the casinos of the Las Vegas Strip would be happy to go along with this philosophy. Gaming taxes collected from Strip properties have kept the lights on in rural schools all over the state, and for decades. If Mr. Wheeler was to get his way and break the state into two, he would quickly discover the folly of his prejudicial nonsense because the hated casinos of Las Vegas have paid to keep the furnace on in his hometown and have educated generations of rural school kids.
Wheeler’s comments about slavery are preposterous and reprehensible. But anyone who thinks he is in trouble with his constituents doesn’t know much about rural Nevadans and how they feel about their neighbors in Clark County.
Names and Faces:
King of the late night airwaves Art Bell, whose ballyhooed return to radio six weeks ago was reported in everything from Time magazine to CityLife, has changed his mind. Bell’s radio show was once carried on 550 or so AM stations (Coast to Coast AM) but he retired a few years ago, returned briefly, then retired again.
In this latest incarnation, he appeared four nights each week on Sirius XM satellite radio, but things didn’t work out. Bell posted a message on his website this week which said he was quitting the show, mostly because of recurring technical problems with the satellite feed. Those Bell fans who already paid for a year’s subscription to satellite radio are crushed, and some are posting pretty angry notes online. One said the explanation about technical problems is about as believable as the government’s response to the Roswell UFO crash. Ouch!
JFK conspiracy buffs—don’t miss this Thursday’s program at the Mob Museum—a panel of assassination experts, each with different theories about what happened 50 years ago, will discuss this Thursday night.
An online survey looking for the all-time favorite TV sheriff shows our own Ralph Lamb beating the hell out of Andy of Mayberry, by an almost 2-to-1 margin.
GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8.