The Gibbons Family Business

Posted May 16, 2003 at 6:28pm

There are, by and large, two types of political marriages.

Some politicians don’t do a thing without consulting their spouses. Others treat their significant others as mere window dressing and essentially lead separate lives.

Rare is the politician who is married to another politician. But that is the case with Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.), whose wife, Dawn, is a Nevada Assemblywoman representing the legislative district he once held.

So as Jim Gibbons ponders whether to challenge Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D) next year, his wife’s opinion naturally takes on a certain weight beyond mere family considerations.

Rep. Gibbons, who is clearly the Republicans’ first choice to take on Reid, is not discussing his political thinking at the moment, spokeswoman Amy Spanbauer said. The 58-year-old Congressman has told Nevada newspapers that he and his wife will discuss the pros and cons of a Senate race when they vacation together in Hawaii in July.

“This is a huge decision for them,” said Joseph Brezny, executive director of the Nevada Republican Party. “I don’t think they’ve had the time to get together to talk about this. She’s been on fast forward and so has he.”

But Dawn Gibbons was willing to talk a little about her husband’s political future — and her own — in a phone conversation with Roll Call last week. And it was hard not to detect a measure of ambivalence on both fronts.

Dawn Gibbons said the prospect of her husband running for Senate is “overwhelming.”

“That’s a big move for us,” she said.

The Assemblywoman said her husband, now in his fourth term in the House, is enjoying his work as he moves up in seniority and gets better committee assignments.

“Jim’s pretty content if he feels he’s making a difference,” she said.

Dawn Gibbons said she worries about the Congressman losing to Reid, because the 2nd district and the state of Nevada profit from his increasing influence on Capitol Hill.

“It would be terrible to lose him,” she said.

What’s more, Dawn Gibbons said, her husband is not overly ambitious.

“I think people get too worked up on going higher and higher,” she said.

Assemblywoman Gibbons mused that a Senator doesn’t earn any more money than a House Member. On the other hand, a Senator only has to run for re-election every six years. But Senate races in Nevada are almost always competitive, while Jim Gibbons has a firm hold on his sprawling House district.

On the family front, two of the couple’s three children are grown and living out of their home, but their youngest son, Jimmy, turns 16 this fall and is still in Reno.

“We’re not home free yet,” Dawn Gibbons said.

So what will Rep. Gibbons do? Unsure, his wife also pointed to the Hawaii vacation as a pivotal time.

National Republican leaders believe Gibbons is slowly making preparations to run. Back home in Nevada, they’re not so sure.

If Gibbons doesn’t make the race, the state GOP could turn to Nevada Secretary of State Dean Heller. Republicans are also high on the state’s young attorney general, Brian Sandoval. But he was just elected in November 2002, and it may be too soon for him to mount a Senate race.

“We’ve got plans B through F,” Brezny said. “We have a list of qualified candidates.”

Sean Sinclair, Reid’s campaign manager, said the three-term Senator is preparing for his re-election campaign without regard to who his challenger might be.

“We’re just focusing on what we need to be doing,” Sinclair said. “Anybody who runs against Senator Reid is going to have his strengths and weaknesses.”

Reid had $2.1 million in his campaign account as of March 31, compared to $444,000 for Gibbons. Reid may not have to meet his fundraising goal of $8 million or $9 million if Gibbons does not make the race, however.

Gibbons and Reid, by all accounts, have remained cordial throughout the House Member’s private deliberations — a necessity in a small Congressional delegation. But some Republicans were dismayed when reports surfaced last week that Nevada’s other Senator, John Ensign (R), was preparing to recommend Reid’s son, former Assistant U.S. Attorney Leif Reid, for a federal judgeship.

“It certainly speaks to the respect the two Senators have for each other,” one Nevada Democrat crowed.

Whether it has any effect on the GOP’s efforts to oust Reid next year remains to be seen, however.

Meanwhile, there has been wild speculation in Nevada and Washington that Dawn Gibbons might try to succeed her husband in Congress if he runs for Senate.

There is precedent for it: When Jim Gibbons was an Assemblyman, he was called to active military duty in the Persian Gulf War of 1991, and Dawn Gibbons, then a 37-year-old mother, was appointed to temporarily take his place in the Legislature. He resumed his post in 1992, ran for governor and lost in 1994, then ran for Congress and won in 1996.

Dawn Gibbons won her husband’s old Assembly seat on her own in 1998. But she quickly diffused rumors that she might run for Congress next year, while her husband is running for Senate.

“That would be incredibly too much,” she said. “Basically, you’d be running two statewide campaigns [because the 2nd district is so big]. I don’t know if I’m that politically ambitious.”

Already there is a line of potential successors to Rep. Gibbons — all Republicans. It includes Heller, the secretary of state, state Controller Kathy Augustine, state Sen. Mike McGinness, and state Sen. Randolph Townsend.

But despite her demurrals, Dawn Gibbons may herself be pursuing higher office next year. State Senate Majority Leader William Raggio (R), who is 76, is expected to retire next year after 32 years in the Legislature, and Gibbons is at the head of the list of possible candidates for his Senate seat.

Assemblywoman Gibbons said she is considering the state Senate race. She is also, at age 48, applying to law school, and may be ready to give up politics altogether. It sounds as if she’s ready for a change. Democrats control the state Assembly in Nevada (Republicans run the Senate), and while she won’t say it, Gibbons may be frustrated operating in the minority.

“I think, quite honestly, it may be time to let someone else have this Assembly seat,” she said.