Book review: Book on Las Vegas civil rights leader captures a man and an era

When you put the book down, you know you’ve been introduced to a man of uncompromising principles and watched him grow to his full potential, despite a myriad of obstacles due to racial discrimination, powerful economic forces and petty party politics.

The book is “The Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” by lifelong Nevada writer John L. Smith, whose Las Vegas Review-Journal columns I edited for two decades.

The biography introduces you to Joe Neal, the first African America to serve in the Nevada state Senate. It traces his rise from impoverished Madison Parish, La., through his three decades in the state Senate until he earned a place in the chamber’s Hall of Fame. 

Practically every page includes the name of some Nevada mover-and-shaker who befriended or exchanged blows with the ever hard-charging Neal — governors, fellow lawmakers, casino executives, fellow civil rights champions, journalists, mobsters, lawmen and family members who rose to make names for themselves in their own right.

It was Nevada state Sen. Cliff Young — a future state Supreme Court justice — who dubbed Neal the Westside Slugger for having ably represented the predominantly black neighborhood near downtown Las Vegas. “You get knocked down, but you always get back up, and you never stop swinging,” Smith quotes Young as saying of Neal.

Smith uses countless such sources as well his own considerable knowledge of the man and the times — both as a journalist and through his parents’ civil rights and union activism — to paint a detailed portrait of the scrappy Neal, who fought for the things in which he believed. 

After the fatal MGM and Hilton hotel fires in the early 1980s, Smith relates that Neal was probably the key leader in pushing legislation to require the state’s hotels and high-rises to retrofit with fire safety equipment that included sprinklers and proper ventilation systems. 

While he is probably best remembered for the civil rights efforts — including backing the Equal Rights Amendment, restoring felons constitutional rights and creating a holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. — he also fought for higher casino industry taxes to support education funding. He led the fight to limit casino development on Lake Tahoe to protect its shores and pristine water. 

Neal also fought against allowing casino owner Steve Wynn to have a sales tax exemption on his millions of dollars worth of fine art, because it cut education funding. He even bucked his own Democratic Party leaders and refused to take a stand against the storage of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. He also fought to end the death penalty in Nevada.

As always, Smith has an ear for the quote that fleshes out the premise of the piece — such as the one from Dina Titus, then a state senator and now a congresswoman, at the Hall of Fame ceremony for Neal, when she called him “the greatest orator in the history of the state. His eloquence derives from his academic knowledge, from his vast experience, and from his compassion for those who are about to be affected by the actions that we are about to take. When Joe stands to speak, a hush falls over the room. Everyone, including legislators, staff, the press, the lobbyists in the back, all stop to listen. He speaks from the heart. He fears nothing. He deftly parries any argument, and he does not hesitate to attack those who he believes turn a blind eye to injustice.”

Smith quotes Neal himself as saying, “You fight for the causes you believe in. You get knocked down, but get back up again. And the fight never ends because you’re fighting for the rights of people.”

The book is thoroughly researched and brings readers through those years when Las Vegas was dubbed the Mississippi of the West, when black Strip entertainers could not stay in the hotels in which they performed, through the mobbed-up days, through rough and tumble politics — including two doomed bids by Neal for the governorship of Nevada. It recounts a remarkable legacy in a remarkably readable manner.

Available in bookstores and various sites online.

 

Editorial: Democratic House bill is a naked power grab

With Democrats firmly ensconced in power in the House of Representatives, the first order of business is, of course, to hold onto that power in perpetuity.

The 600-page H.R. 1, dubiously dubbed “For the People Act,” wrests voting law decisions from the states and shreds the First Amendment right of free speech. It is co-sponsored by all three of Nevada’s Democratic representatives — Dina Titus, Susie Lee and Steven Horsford.

The bill would require automatic voter registration, online voter registration and registration on Election Day, allow felons to vote, require 15 days of early voting, end the automatic purging of voters from registration lists when they don’t vote or fail to respond to mailed inquiries, dole out a 600 percent government match for certain “small” political donations and make Election Day a holiday — all of which erode the integrity of the ballot.

H.R. 1 also seeks to curb the free speech protections for corporations, unions and other groups upheld by the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC by requiring increased disclosure of donors and online advertisers. 

In what is an embarrassing ignorance of history the bill declares, “The Supreme Court’s misinterpretation of the Constitution to empower monied interests at the expense of the American people in elections has seriously eroded over 100 years of congressional action to promote fairness and protect elections from the toxic influence of money.”

The very first such congressional action mentioned is the Tillman Act of 1907 that prohibited corporations from making contributions in connection with federal elections.

Lest we forget, the sponsor of the legislation was none other than Democratic Sen. Benjamin “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman of South Carolina — the leader of a Ku Klux Klan-style lynch mob known as the “Red Shirts,” a man who declared, “The Negro must remain subordinated or be exterminated” in order to “keep the white race at the top of the heap.”

The sole purpose of Tillman’s bill was to gag northern corporations who hired blacks and tended to favor Republicans.

Also, as Justice Clarence Thomas noted in his dissent in Citizens United, disclosure requirements have spawned a cottage industry that uses donor information to intimidate, retaliate, threaten and boycott individuals and businesses with whom they disagree. 

Thomas wrote, “The disclosure, disclaimer, and reporting requirements in (the law) are also unconstitutional. … Congress may not abridge the ‘right to anonymous speech’ based on the ‘simple interest in providing voters with additional relevant information …’”

The Founders frequently engaged in anonymous speech and protected it with the First Amendment. The Federalist Papers were penned under pseudonyms.

In addition to Nevada’s Democratic House delegates, the state’s two Democratic senators — Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen — have both railed against the free speech funded by what they pejoratively call “unaccountable dark money.”

Nevada Rep. Lee called H.R. 1 “a sweeping package of pro-democracy, and anti-corruption reforms that will put electoral power back in the hands of the American people. H.R. 1 will curb the influence of big money in politics, make it easier, not harder for Americans to practice their fundamental right to vote, and ensure that politicians actually serve the public — not special interest groups.” Special interest groups like the Democratic Party?

While the House is likely to pass this legislative and constitutional abomination, its chances in the Republican-controlled Senate are slim. 

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky rightly stated in an op-ed in The Washington Post, “They’re trying to clothe this power grab with cliches about ‘restoring democracy’ and doing it ‘For the People,’ but their proposal is simply a naked attempt to change the rules of American politics to benefit one party. It should be called the Democrat Politician Protection Act.” 

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

Newspaper column: Nevada still has a role to play in nuclear deterrence

After learning this past week that the Department of Energy had secretly shipped a thousand pounds of weapons-grade plutonium to the Nevada National Security Site in Nye County before the state had filed a federal lawsuit in November seeking to block such shipments, Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak and the state’s entire Democratic delegation to D.C. flew into paroxysms of apoplexy, accusing the Trump administration of deception and dealing unfairly with the state.

Sisolak put out a statement declaring, “I am beyond outraged by this completely unacceptable deception from the U.S. Department of Energy. The Department led the State of Nevada to believe that they were engaging in good-faith negotiations with us regarding a potential shipment of weapons-grade plutonium, only to reveal that those negotiations were a sham all along. They lied to the State of Nevada, misled a federal court, and jeopardized the safety of Nevada’s families and environment.”

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto was similarly indignant, charging that the Energy Department had “negotiated in bad faith, hiding the timing of their shipment and refused to share crucial information with Members of Congress who had the security clearance to know.”

Rep. Dina Titus said, “Time and again, we have seen Trump Administration officials treat Nevada as the dumping ground for the nation’s nuclear waste.”

Sen. Jacky Rosen called the shipment “deceitful and unethical” and said “the lack of transparency from the Department of Energy is absolutely unacceptable.”

Rep. Susie Lee decried, “Nevada officials were deceived by sham ‘negotiations’ while the safety of millions was jeopardized, as was the environment and economy of dozens of states. Nevada is not the nation’s nuclear dumping ground. Period.”

Rep. Steven Horsford, whose district includes what most Nevadans still call the Test Site, also bemoaned, “Our state is not a dumping ground for the nation’s hazardous waste, and we have no intention of letting it become one.”

The Energy Department responded with its own statement, saying it was inaccurate to state that the Nevada delegation was not informed and the agency made efforts to ensure members of Congress and state officials representing the states involved were notified as early as August 2018.

The agency also said, “It is also inaccurate to characterize this material as ‘waste’. This material is essential for maintenance of the U.S. weapons stockpile, and is handled with the highest standards for safety and security. NNSA routinely ships this type of material between its sites as part of our national security missions and has done so safely and securely for decades.”

Of course the shipment was secret. No one wants to give potential terrorists an itinerary. As for deceiving the court, the shipment had already been sent when the state’s suit was filed and the court was told this past week when the information was declassified.

What does anyone think the test site is used for in the first place? Since the Cold War it literally has been ground zero for nuclear tests and development of our nuclear deterrence. It is remote and secure.

Speaking of deterrence, the ruckus over the plutonium shipment came mere days before Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the U.S. is pulling out of a nuclear arms control pact with Russia because of its ongoing and flagrant violations.

“When an agreement is so brazenly disregarded and our security is so openly threatened, we must respond,” Pompeo said. “Russia has jeopardized the United States’ security interests and we can no longer be restricted by the treaty while Russia shamelessly violates it.”

This means the U.S. will need to catch up with its potential adversaries, Russia and China, both of which have deployed long-range, nuclear-tipped missiles. That means maintaining and, yes, even adding to our nuclear arsenal.

The very reason the plutonium was shipped to Nevada was because a federal court had ordered it removed from the Savannah River facility in South Carolina because the government had failed to build a facility to convert the plutonium into nuclear reactor fuel. It is being stored here until it can be shipped to Los Alamos, N.M., where it can be processed for weapons with which to defend our country.

That is the role the test site has fulfilled for decades and needs to continue to do, despite the histrionics from Democratic politicians.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Newspaper column: Ending net neutrality speeded up Internet

It has been a year since the Federal Communication Commission repealed net neutrality rules created by Obama’s FCC in 2015. Yet, the Internet miraculously survives. In fact, it is running 36 percent faster now that the meddlesome feds have been removed from the equation and the free market has been allowed to compete and innovate.

Net neutrality resurrected 1930s-style Ma Bell regulations to prohibit Internet service providers from charging anyone different rates, even the bandwidth gluttons such as Netflix and Google.

Back in May the Senate even passed a resolution seeking to bring back net neutrality. Though the effort fortunately stalled, Nevada’s Democratic delegation to D.C. was all for putting the Internet under the heavy hand of the central planners.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto took to the Senate floor in support of the resolution, saying, “Net neutrality has leveled the playing field for every American consumer, allowing everyone to access and enjoy an open Internet. … We can’t afford to repeal net neutrality. (FCC) Chairman (Ajit) Pai’s misguided decision to repeal net neutrality protections threatens to change the Internet as we know it. It threatens our small businesses, access to online education, job growth and innovation by giving those who can afford to pay more the ability to set their own rules.”

Rep. Dina Titus declared, “I agree with the vast majority of Americans who want the internet to promote innovation, access to information, and a competitive economy. All of that is at risk without strong net neutrality protections.”

Getty Image via WSJ

Then-Rep., now-Sen. Jacky Rosen stated, “This administration’s reckless decision to repeal net neutrality gives internet service providers the ability to stack the deck against Nevada’s hardworking families and small businesses who could be forced to pay more to connect to an internet with slower speeds. This resolution would reverse the FCC’s misguided ruling, which places large corporate profits ahead of people, and restore access to a free and open internet for Nevadans.”

Sen. Dean Heller at the time reasonably argued for the free market approach. “I do not want the federal government to determine content. …” Heller said. “I also don’t want the federal government to tax the Internet. I believe the Internet is the last bastion of freedom in America, frankly both good and bad, but it’s freedom. … Access to free and open internet service providers is especially important for Nevadans living in rural communities.”

Heller was right. Rosen was wrong.

According to Speedtest, fixed broadband speeds in the United States are rapidly increasing. Data for 2018 revealed a 36 percent increase in mean download speed and a 22 percent increase in upload speed. This meant the U.S. ranked seventh in the world for download speed and Nevada ranked seventh in the nation.

Back when the net neutrality rules were jettisoned many in the news media predicted doom and gloom. CNN declared it was “the end of the internet as we know it.”

But The Wall Street Journal correctly stated at the time that net neutrality created uncertainty about what the FCC would allow and thus throttled investment in new technology, because it prohibited paid prioritization — under which bandwidth hogs, such as video streaming companies, could have opted out of heavy traffic and switched to a toll road — which could increase profits to pay for innovation and greater speed.

The newspaper predicted both content providers and consumers would benefit from increased investment in faster wireless and fiber technology in the free market.

The invisible hand of the free market has again proven itself superior to the heavy hand of the central planners.

As economist Milton Friedman once said: “When government — in pursuit of good intentions tries to rearrange the economy, legislate morality, or help special interests, the cost come in inefficiency, lack of motivation, and loss of freedom. Government should be a referee, not an active player.”

Be forewarned, when Democrats take control of the House, expect another ill-advised attempt to resurrect net neutrality, despite empirical evidence to the contrary.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Travel ban about national security, not religious bias

Many of the news articles and opinion pieces penned about the Supreme Court ruling upholding President Trump’s so-called travel ban totally ignored a key word that was at the core of the 5-4 ruling — the verb “to vet,” which appears 32 times in the syllabus, opinion, concurrences and dissents.

The travel ban was not about banning Muslims from entry, but was about restricting travel and immigration from nations that fail to or, due to unrest, cannot adequately document whether individuals from their jurisdictions might pose a threat to public safety.

In the court opinion Chief Justice John Roberts explains:

The Proclamation is expressly premised on legitimate purposes: preventing entry of nationals who cannot be adequately vetted and inducing other nations to improve their practices. The text says nothing about religion. Plaintiffs and the dissent nonetheless emphasize that five of the seven nations currently included in the Proclamation have Muslim-majority populations. Yet that fact alone does not support an inference of religious hostility, given that the policy covers just 8% of the world’s Muslim population and is limited to countries that were previously designated by Congress or prior administrations as posing national security risks.

But the plaintiffs harped on Trump’s campaign stump rhetoric, claiming it was a window into an ulterior motive of religious animus that they claimed was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. For example, Trump once called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”

In his concurrence Justice Clarence Thomas observed:

Further, the Establishment Clause does not create an individual right to be free from all laws that a “reasonable observer” views as religious or antireligious. … The plaintiffs cannot raise any other First Amendment claim, since the alleged religious discrimination in this case was directed at aliens abroad. … And, even on its own terms, the plaintiffs’ proffered evidence of anti-Muslim discrimination is unpersuasive.

Roberts pointed out the crux of the rationale for the travel ban was adequately backed up, “The Proclamation (as its title indicates) sought to improve vetting procedures by identifying ongoing deficiencies in the information needed to assess whether nationals of particular countries present “public safety threats.” … To further that purpose, the Proclamation placed entry restrictions on the nationals of eight foreign states whose systems for managing and sharing information about their nationals the President deemed inadequate.”

Thomas also took the opportunity to thump the lower court judges for engaging in issuing “universal” dictates that no law or constitution grants them the power to do.

The travel ban is and was about national security not religious bias.

Of course, the decision also revealed to Nevada voters where certain candidates stand on this matter. Television station KRNV in Reno quoted both senatorial candidates.

Republican Dean Heller’s office issued a statement saying, “Sen. Heller believes that the Supreme Court got this right. The policy reviewed was significantly narrowed in scope compared to the initial version of the travel ban, and the court’s ruling affirmed its legality based on legitimate national security interests.”

His Democratic opponent, Rep. Jacky Rosen of Las Vegas, said, “Denying individuals entry to the U.S. based solely on religion or nationality is wrong and out of touch with our American values. This travel ban won’t help keep us safe, and I will continue to stand up against this Administration’s ignorant and xenophobic policies.”

Nevada’s other Democratic representatives in Washington joined the chorus in opposing anything any Republican ever does no matter what.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto declared, “This decision flies in the face of our nation’s founding principle of religious freedom. President Trump’s Muslim Ban is in direct opposition to American principles and sends yet another prejudiced message to Muslim-Americans, refugees and immigrants.”

Lame-duck Rep. Ruben Kihuen complained, “Today the Supreme Court upheld President Trump’s racist and discriminatory Muslim Ban which further erodes our leadership position in the world and is just another example of the Trump Administration tearing families apart. The United States is made stronger every day through our diversity.”

Rep. Dina Titus sweepingly declared, “Today’s decision upholds a misguided xenophobic ban that does nothing to make us safer. Banning the people of an entire religion from immigrating to the U.S. is a betrayal of our nation’s founding principles of religious freedom and tolerance.”

We assume she missed the part about the ban affecting only 8 percent of Muslims or that people can seek case-by-case waivers.

Protests in front of Supreme Court. (Getty images)

Editorial: Still time to negotiate on Yucca Mountain

Tunnel inside Yucca Mountain (Energy Department pix)

The U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly, 340-72, this past week to restart the licensing process to make Yucca Mountain in Nye County the nation’s permanent repository of nuclear waste. H.R. 3053, the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act, also ups the ante, increasing the storage cap from 70 metric tons of highly radioactive material to 110,000 metric tons — a 57 percent increase.

All four of Nevada’s representatives voted nay, even Northern Nevada Congressman Mark Amodei, a Republican who in the past has held out for negotiations that might provide some benefits for Nevada.

Amodei issued a press release explaining that he voted against the bill after the House Rules Committee rejected an amendment he had proposed.

“Since I was elected to Congress, I have always said I do not believe Yucca Mountain should be a simple dumping site for our nation’s nuclear waste,” Amodei said. “Additionally, I have always been cognizant that policy makers should not consider Yucca Mountain to be a ‘dead’ issue, meaning Nevada’s congressional delegation should use this opportunity to dictate the terms of the repository under the best conditions for our state. That’s exactly what I chose to do this week by offering an amendment to H.R. 3053 that would have given Nevada a seat at the table to expand upon the mission of the repository.”

His amendment would have directed that the state’s higher eduction system would head up nuclear research and development, designated proper routes for transportation, cleaned up contaminated facilities in Nevada and required the Department of Energy to locate reprocessing facilities at Yucca Mountain instead of just burying the waste. He said reprocessing could create thousands of jobs and recycle spent fuel for further energy production.

Nevada’s Democratic representatives were all in over-my-dead-body mode.

“I have fought the misguided and dangerous Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump project for my entire career and I’m not giving up,” said Rep. Dina Titus. “This legislation is fundamentally flawed and going nowhere in the Senate.”

Rep. Jacky Rosen, who is running for Republican Sen. Dean Heller’s seat in the upper chamber, called permanent storage of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain a “reckless and ill-conceived plan that could put communities across the country in danger, jeopardize our military testing and training, waste billions more in taxpayer dollars, and harm Nevada’s tourism industry.”Though 119 Democrats voted for the bill and only 67 against, Rosen blamed the Republican-controlled Congress.

Lame duck Rep. Ruben Kihuen lamented, “I am disappointed that Congress has once again chosen to ignore the will of Nevadans and residents of Nevada’s Fourth Congressional District. 30 years have passed since Nevada was unfairly targeted by the ‘Screw Nevada’ bill and this new bill is nothing more than lipstick on a pig.”

Perhaps, Nevadans are not as knee-jerk opposed as some would have us believe.

Earlier this year, in an op-ed penned for the Reno newspaper, Dan Schinhofen, vice chairman of the Nye County Commission, noted that a poll taken by that newspaper showed 29.3 percent of respondents believed the project, if it included reprocessing, would be good for the economy, while 17.7 percent said Yucca Mountain would be OK if the state cuts a good deal, and 6.4 percent said Nevada should do it for national security — 53.4 percent open to discussion, as opposed to 43.4 percent who said the state should just fight the project.

Schinhofen wrote, “It is time to stop the unfounded fearmongering just to delay this multigenerational, multibillion-dollar project. Many, if not most, Nevadans want to have an honest discussion about Yucca Mountain, and the state’s politicians and opinion writers should start to listen.”

In a recent online article, retired Air Force Col. Bob Frank, chairman and co-founder of Nevadans CAN (Citizen Action Network), noted that recent breakthroughs in technology make it possible to safely and efficiently recycle spent nuclear fuel.

“The advanced reactors no longer require huge volumes of circulating external water to cool them,” Frank writes. “They can be independently installed anywhere in remote or populated areas where power is needed. They can produce uninterruptible power for 24/7/365 at varying levels for up to 30 years without needing more recycled fuel.”

He argues that Nevada has been an international pioneer in nuclear technology and could continue to lead the nation. Explore the possibilities instead of throwing a futile tantrum.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

 

Grounds for impeaching Trump enough for Titus

There were 58 Democrats who voted to move forward with debate on articles of impeachment of President Trump on the grounds that he is an uncouth oaf. Nevada Rep. Dina Titus was one of them.

Although Texas Rep. Al Green’s House Resolution for impeachment contains no text, Politico has linked to what it calls the articles of impeachment, nothing more than a recitation of Trump’s faux pas.

“Donald John Trump, by causing such harm to the society of the United States is unfit to be president and warrants impeachment, trial and removal from office,” Politico quoted Green as saying on the House floor.

Among the agregious deeds listed by Green are Trump’s attempt to block immigration from certain majority Muslim nations, banning transgender persons from military service, denigrating football players for kneeling during the national anthem and calling a Florida representative wacky.

Titus thought these worthy of debating whether to remove the president from office. All other Nevada representatives voted against moving forward.

Get serious.