RJ: Rising tide of women lawmakers makes Nevada a national leader

Feb 9, 2017
In The News

CARSON CITY — Women made impressive gains in capturing public offices in Nevada this year, and now represent 40 percent of the 63-member state Legislature heading into the 2017 session.

That ties Nevada with Colorado and Vermont as the states with the highest percentage of women legislators, according to Emerge Nevada, which encourages and trains Democratic women to run for office.

There are 17 women in the 42-member state Assembly and, with the recent appointment of Yvanna Cancela to the Senate, eight in the 21-member upper legislative chamber.

The total of 25 women is up from 21 in the 2015 session and 18 in the 2013 session.

Women also will soon make up 50 percent of Nevada’s six-member congressional delegation, following the historic election of Catherine Cortez Masto to the U.S. Senate and the victory by Jacky Rosen in the 3rd Congressional District in Las Vegas. They will join returning incumbent Dina Titus in Washington, D.C.


Barbara Buckley, a Democrat who served as Nevada’s first woman speaker of the Assembly from 2007 to 2011 before retiring from the Legislature, said the demographic shift in both capitols is overdue.

“Catherine Cortez Masto is our first women U.S. senator,” she said. “What year is it again?”

Titus, D-Las Vegas, said having more women in office will change both the political process and policy for the better.

“Women are more likely to compromise,” she said. “They are not as combative. On policy they will put an emphasis on women’s health, education, the Pink Tax — things men don’t get around to making priorities.”

The Pink Tax refers to the practice of charging women extra for certain products or services such as dry cleaning.

They may agree on some issues, but the party lineup suggests the woman lawmakers won’t always vote as a bloc.

Thirteen women in the Assembly are Democrats and four are Republicans. In the Senate, five women are Democrats, two are Republicans and one — Sen. Patricia Farley of Las Vegas — is an independent caucusing with Democrats.

Women will hold positions of power as well.

Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson, D-Reno, was recently named majority leader. Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas, is chairwoman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, D-Henderson, is chairwoman of the equally potent Senate Finance Committee.

Buckley called the gains “wonderful progress.”


“Public policy gets better when we have additional perspectives, whether they be work experience or life experience,” Buckley said.

Benitez-Thompson, the incoming Assembly majority leader, said the gains made by women in public office are a byproduct of voters supporting good lawmakers.

“These are phenomenal people,” she said of the women who will serve in the Legislature next year. “They are smart people who are ready to make good public policy.”

But diversity itself is important, she said.

“It doesn’t serve the public well if we only have one kind of profession or one kind of person in the Legislature,” she said, adding that she brings her background as a social worker and a mom to policy debates.

It wasn’t so long ago that the Legislature was much less varied, she said.

When elected in 2010, Benitez-Thompson said she was one of the first four Latinas in the Assembly. The same year Assemblywoman Dina Neal because the first African-American woman elected to the Assembly, she said.

Titus, who started her political career in 1988 when she was elected to the Nevada state Senate, said part of the reason for the surge in women candidates and officeholders is the work of groups like EMILY’s List, which supports pro-choice Democratic women running for Congress and state offices, and Emerge Nevada, the state affiliate of Emerge America.

Nevada’s frontier mentality also has provided more opportunities for women to run, she said, citing the late Barbara Vucanovich, a Reno Republican who in 1982 became the first woman from Nevada to be elected to Congress.

“Things are not so institutionalized or so traditional that women can’t break in,” said Titus, who has represented the 1st Congressional District in Las Vegas since 2013. “It’s more fluid and wide open.”


EMILY’s List announced in August its “Focus 2020” program, highlighting Nevada as a top target. The group endorsed six Democratic women in state legislative races this year. All of them won.

By electing more Democratic women to legislative and gubernatorial offices, EMILY’s List is seeking to influence redistricting — the redrawing of political boundaries — in 2021, after the next 10-year U.S. census in 2020.

“Our Nevada women have already demonstrated that they will be powerful voices in the fight against Republicans’ backwards and regressive policies that hurt women in Nevada, and around the country,” Jess O’Connell, executive director of EMILY’s List, said in a statement. “Nevada is leading the way in making sure our legislatures look more like the people – and the country – they represent.”

While five Republican women who served in the Assembly will not return for the 2017 session, four GOP women, including two newcomers, will serve in the chamber.

One of the new faces is Lisa Krasner of Reno.

“I will bring a unique perspective to politics not just because I am a woman, but because I’m also a mom,” she said, adding that she plans to focus on issues dealing with women and children. One of her requested bills would extend the statute of limitations for child victims of sexual abuse.

Krasner, a member of the Assembly Education Committee, also said she will be willing to reach across the aisle.

“I want to work together with all the women in the Legislature, Republicans and Democrats as well,” she said.

Buckley, the trailblazing former Assembly leader, said the presence of the women legislators is bringing Nevada closer to the day she looked forward to during her time in office.

“When I was speaker I longed for the day when there will be no more firsts, when no one will think it odd for women to occupy any elected office,” she said.

The graphic in an previous version of this story incorrectly identified the party affiliation of Assemblywoman Melissa Woodbury. She is a Republican representing District 23 in southern Clark County.